After all these years, you’re still the one. I had an appointment downtown in the city and since I am averse to traveling on the commuter trains during rush hour I had taken a mid morning train. The meeting was scheduled for late afternoon and not wanting to waste the entire day worrying about its outcome, there were some picayune details that could affect my tax return and hence my income, I resolved to spend a few hours shopping. My daughter’s birthday was coming up and I had no idea what I should give her, I am not up on the latest fad or fashion. Besides, she is of an age where the gift must either be practical or esoteric. I detest practical so I opted for esoteric and that meant searching in the out of the way shops. You know the ones, sort of second hand and Asian import places when one just might find a real bargain or even a hidden antique.
I walked up the boulevard a couple of miles, a good stretch of the leg as they say, to an area where the streets are narrow and the buildings past their prime by several decades. Red brick with soft edges, the decades of erosion, face the store fronts and apartments above them and the mix of inhabitants, both young and old seem to have that sort of worn look to match the neighborhood. The haberdashers, dressmakers, green grocers, and dry goods stores left long ago after the invasion of the A&P and the cut-rate chain stores. Customer loyalty switched by necessity to lower prices, the affect of lower wages and higher rents. Life here is a struggle, survival of the fittest. It was the third shop I entered that was, by chance, a fortuitous adventure. The owners were in the process of liquidating their inventory as best they could before selling the lot to consignment brokers. The doors to the courtyard in the back were open and a small group of people were gathered around a couple seated at one of several tables. Curiosity propelled me into the courtyard to witness this event. Several minutes passed as I stood observing what looking like a celebration of some sort. Perhaps it was a wedding anniversary or the retirement of the couple, I could not tell. A young man of forty something approached me (at my age, most people are younger, believe me) and stared rather hard at me for at least a minute. “I’m sorry if I have intruded upon a private party but the door was open and the joyful noises were so inviting.” I hoped that my apology would be accepted. “I know you. I know who you are!” the young man was quite enthusiastic on this point. “You’re the writer! I bought your book. Look, momma, papa, this is Mr Lynn. The writer.” I was stunned. True, I have published two novels and a few short stories but I am hardly a household name. My sales and income will bear that point out.
I found myself being ushered into the presence of a couple who might have been into their seventies together. A strange thing about age is that the longer a couple remains married the more then tend to look like each other. If it were not for the long hair of the one I would have had difficulty telling the husband from the wife. Well, the dress helped identify her, too. Another son brought a chair for me and placed it beside the couple, obviously I have become a person of importance in their lives. The husband started, “I’m Joseph and this is my wife, Margret, Joe and Maggie to our friends. This is our fiftieth wedding anniversary so we are celebrating, as you can see.” Joe pointed to the man who identified me, “That is John, my oldest son and that’s his wife, the one in the yellow dress. Behind me, ‘come here Joe’, is Joe junior, my second son. Maggie always said the second son should have my name, it gives him an equal position with my first born.” Joe paused for a minute and beamed at Maggie and then looked around at the other guests. “Joe junior’s wife isn’t here at the moment, she went to fetch so more food from the Italian place around the corner, Luigi’s Place. It’s not like the old days when Luigi was alive. It’s all canned sauce and over cooked pasta.” A few of the other guests were giveing assenting nods and sighs.
One by one Joe introduced his guests, neighbors of many years, many decades. Occasionally Maggie would have something to say about them, “Elenore used to babysit John and Joe when I had to see my mother when she was ill. God rest her soul.” Or “David was always handy with the electricity in the building.” I could feel the affection she had for each of her neighbors that were present. My life was shifted back in time to the “old days”, times of which I still retained a few memories however dim today. So I asked, “How did you meet each other?” There was a prolonged silence, a couple of sighs, and then Joe spoke. “We grew up in the same neighborhood in Baltimore. We went to the same schools and the same church. It was June and I already had received my draft notice. Well, one thing led to another and the next thing we knew, we eloped. Maggie had to skip her senior year and I had to find a job.” I worked general labor, you know, not very good pay. Life was hard and her father hated me.” “Joe, you know that wasn’t true, my father just didn’t think you were ready for marriage.” “Maybe your old man was right, I don’t know. All I know is that we had a one room apartment and your were pregnant. I was working for a small factory that only paid minimum wage, what that, a dollar an hour maybe? We either walked or took the bus, couldn’t afford a car. God, how I hated those days.” “Joe! We were happy, you know that. Remember? We’d eat crab at that place two blocks around the corner. It was cheap then, not like today.” “Then the factory went bust and I was out of work again. You were pregnant with Joe Junior then. I didn’t think we were going to make it. I felt so crazy trying to find work and make ends meet. Sometimes I think I should have enlisted, learn a trade and maybe have a nest egg when I got out. You remember how bad it was, Maggie. But my aunt gave us the money for the hospital bill. What was that, about four hundred. That was a lot back then, about eight or nine weeks work before taxes.”
Joe and Maggie told me the story of their lives together. All the hard times and the good times. The sons chimed in with their accounts. It was not your typical Hollywood story with special effects and neatly written scripts and that happy ever after routine. well, perhaps they were having that happy ever after routine now. So I asked,”How did you come to buy this place and how long were did you have it?” Joe continued,”Oh, the big factories like Martin closed down, went down south or where ever. what was left was still heavily union, know what I mean? You had to know a couple of guys in the union to find work. No union card, no work, that simple. A lot of the small places folded up, went out of business. Seems like every two years, when I could get a job, the place I worked for went bust. What year was it, Maggie? About 1982? Yeah, the year Reagan got elected.” “Yes, dear, that was the year. And my uncle John, in this city, died and poor Aunt Betty was left with this shop.” “Oh yeah, I remember now. Yeah, your aunt Betty didn’t know anything about this business and she said for us to come and live with her and run the place. Well, not that we had any other options then. But hey, Maggie has a head for figures so she took to the bookkeeping real quick. And me, I could talk to customers, you know. A little positive talk, a little smooze, and I would have me a sale. Between Maggie and me, we did all right. I ain’t saying we got rich, but the business kept us in body and soul and a little more. And then when Aunt Betty died she left both the business and the building to us. Well, you got to figure, eight apartments can give you a decent income. Now we’re fifty years older and a developer offered us a nice price on this building. this neighborhood is suppose to undergo renovation. So we took the money, gonna go to Florida, maybe. Well maybe not that far, I here North Carolina is a good place, cheap living and railroad access for half a days trip back here. we’ve got grandkids to spoil, you know?”
I was about to leave for my appointment when Joe pulled me aside in front of Maggie. “Babe, you know I was so tempted at times to cut and run on you and the kids. But you know, after all these years you’re still the one I want whispering in my ear.” “I know, dear, I know.”