Betty Harris opens the glass-paneled front door, then slides a wedge into place. Through the outer screen, a tincture of leaves burning in the street wafts into the store. The morning breeze rustles her print dress and she sighs in relief that cooler days have arrived. Betty flips a display switch and an orange ‘Open’ sign glows in the Hometown News window.
She takes up a straw broom and begins to sweep the front sidewalk of red and yellow leaves. As they swirl knee high, she imagines gripping the broom like a softball bat, her hands choked up to smash a high bounding roller over a shortstop’s head. When she is about to launch a roundhouse swing, she notices them, John Corey and his dad, the young man clutching a Greyhound ticket, his father a battered tan and brown-striped suitcase. The 7:59 southbound pulls to a stop on the street beside them, and after a few moments, rolls away. Betty can see the younger Cory waving goodbye from the crowded bus.
“Morning, Mrs. Harris,” the father says as he pauses beside his rusting, blue Plymouth. “John’s university classes start Thursday.”
“Best of luck to him,” Betty says as she raises her arm to block the morning sun. Mr. Corey backs out and drives south two hundred paces to the town’s only stoplight. There he turns right and disappears out of sight behind the Savings and Loan.
Directly opposite the Hometown News is the Forest Restaurant. ‘Fine Dining’ is already gleaming in its window as Mr. Forest steps outside to greet Betty. Heading north on Highway 31, an 18-wheeler rolls between them, roaring as it upshifts from the stoplight. To the man across the street, Betty mouths “Hello.”
When Betty’s father ran the Hometown News, he lost the Greyhound ticket franchise to Mr. Forest. She’s thought of bidding against him, but she decides, no. She can guess Forest’s weekly take and it doesn’t amount to much. Why play beggar-thy-neighbor?
A couple farmers park beside the restaurant, and with a winning smile, Mr. Forest ushers them inside for breakfast. As the sun warms Betty’s shoulders, she considers her window display, wonders whether to let Back-To-School specials run another week or if it’s time to dig out Halloween ghosts and goblins.
Her day truly begins about 8:30 with the delivery of subscription newspapers, and Betty spreads them in stacks over the cash register counter. It’s Monday morning so there are a few, a very few, big-city weekend newspapers: Chicago Tribune and New York Times, even a single copy of the Wall Street Journal. Betty lays these aside. There’s no point looking through them. Instead she concentrates on nearby cities, and of course the local village weeklies. With a deep breath, she steadies herself and begins. After a year’s practice, she knows exactly where each paper prints its obituaries. She scans the summary boxes, but to be certain she reads the first line in each memorial beginning with the letter ‘H.’ When she finishes, today is like every other day; hers is a perplexed sadness, mixed with a little relief.
Most customers arrive by nine o’clock to pick up their subscriptions, but there’s a lesser flurry around lunch. There was a time when Dad’s subscribers actually brought in a bit of cash. How long ago was that, four years maybe, back before the outboard motor plant closed, before a hundred families folded their tents and moved away, back when she and her husband Tommy Harris still had a place of their on Maple Street.
At noon Betty stares through her window, over towards Mr. Forest’s restaurant where he does a land office business for an hour or so serving lunch, then the town dries right up. Of course there’s the 1:45 Greyhound heading south, and the 2:30 northbound, but they don’t bring any trade, only a moment’s relief from boredom. Someone might come by hankering for salted nuts or looking for a birthday card, but the Christmas card bonanza is months away. It’s only September, and around 3:30 when school lets out, there’s a troop of high school kids looking for colas and ice cream bars. By 4:30 though you could fire a cannon ball down the sidewalk and not be cited for reckless endangerment.
Betty glances next door as a housewife walks into Schooner’s Causal Clothing. Betty remembers when she could do that, when she could afford a new sweater or a shirt for her husband. She remembers how Tommy used to slide that manila envelope with his pay inside across the table to her, and he’d say . . . No, Betty won’t think about that right now. Besides, Constable Bill Snyder has found a parking spot near Hometown News, just as he’s been doing most every Monday for a year now.
“Hello Mrs. Harris. Nice day, ain’t it?”
“It sure is, Officer Snyder. The usual?” Betty digs into an ice cream freezer for a Bronco Bar while Officer Snyder stands in the doorway watching street traffic. As he peels away the ice cream wrapper, he glances at the wall display, at rows of magazines and beyond them, paperbacks, then lowers his eyes to newspapers, neatly stacked on the lowest shelf.
“Monday’s come again,” Officer Snyder says.
“Yes. It has a way of doing that.”
Long since, they’ve both given up confirming that nothing’s been found, neither in Betty’s newspaper searches nor in Snyder’s queries to nearby county sheriffs.
Betty’s husband, Tommy Harris, has disappeared without a trace.
Her dad used to say the store was a one-man operation and he didn’t need any help. What’s more, Betty and Tommy expected they would give Mom and Dad a grandchild, or two or three, and so Betty took what she thought would be a temporary job in the motor plant’s accounting office, right out of high school, as soon as she and Tommy returned from Niagara Falls. But a baby didn’t come and somehow Dad got old. Eventually he asked Betty to join him, to learn the family business such as it was.
That was right after the factory closed its doors forever. Tommy, Betty and a hundred others were on the gravel path outside the plant gate, carrying signs, when the business manager walked over with the latest announcement. Betty and Tommy had a little savings, but both their jobs were gone.
That winter the town hollowed out. So many families moved away to leave whole streets where every other house was dark at supper time. It was only because he was a local boy, a classmate of a town councilman, that Tommy caught on part time with the Street Department. He filled his days plowing snow, filling potholes or burning leaves in season. Betty worked with Dad at the store, watched Main Street grow quieter, and their Friday evening deposits leaner, at the Savings and Loan. Living hand to mouth when their savings were gone, Betty and Tommy had to give their house back to the bank and they moved in with Mom and Dad, into Betty’s childhood home on Monroe Avenue.
About two years later, Dad collapsed with a stroke in the store’s back office. Debts mounted after three weeks of hospital charges, two months of nursing home care, then funeral expenses. To pay the bills, they took out a new mortgage on the Monroe house, a mortgage that Tommy, Betty and Mom could manage if they were very careful.
But now Tommy has been gone a year, and Betty and her mother are hanging on by their fingernails.
Friday evening, eight o’clock. Betty switches off the neon sign and locks the front door. Street lights have been on for an hour and shine gently on a night Betty Harris finds her wool sweater a comfort. Next door Bob Schooner is locking up too, and when he sees Betty’s receipt bag, he jingles his own as he approaches. With a kindly smile he says, “Might I accompany you to the Savings and Loan?”
“Why, yes, Mr. Schooner. I’d be most grateful.”
He offers his arm, she loops her own through and around, then both stroll to the night deposit vault.
“Halloween’s coming up, Betty. Got your witches and corn stalks ready?”
She sighs, holds open the deposit lid as Schooner slides his money sack into the vault with a solid thunk; her own, much lighter earnings, follow. “Bob, do you think it’s worth the effort this year?”
With open palms extended, Bob Schooner supports her hands between them. “Please, Mrs. Harris, if there is ever anything I can . . . Don’t give up. Tommy’s somewhere close, I know he is. How could he ever leave you?”
“I know,” Bob says with downcast eyes. Then he brightens, “Tomorrow, bag lunch from the Forest? My treat this time.”
“Tomorrow, it is.” Betty waves goodbye then turns west onto Monroe Avenue.
Mom says the maple in the front yard was tall when she was a little girl. Everything’s tall, Betty told her, if you’re small enough, but there’s no denying the red maple is an ancient soul. Where its roots make the sidewalk bulge unevenly, Betty slows to a stop amid curled leaves covering the ground. Inside on her bedroom wall, there’s a color Kodak from thirty-one years ago of Betty as a brown-haired baby, clapping hands with great delight as she sits waist deep in autumn leaves, over by the snowball bush, next to the white and green-painted house.
One night at bedtime, Tommy looked at that picture and said, “Oh, that’d be nice; a little angel playing in the leaves, just like this one.”
It was only a week or so later, they went to Doctor Hansard’s office where both submitted to clinical pokes and prodding. Afterwards Doc put their medical files open side by side on his desk.
Doc looked up at Betty. “You remember when you had the mumps?”
“Sure I do. We were in junior high. Near everyone in our class got them.”
“Well, Tommy did, too.” On his desk, Doc twisted a file so her husband could see. “A bad case, it must have been, Tommy. Says here, I kept you out of school for three weeks.”
“Is that why we can’t make a baby?”
“I expect so. Sometimes mumps leaves a man sterile.”
Before they left Betty stopped to chat with the receptionist. Doc Hansard quietly laid his hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “It’s probably because of mumps, but if you can afford it, there’s another test we should do.”
Betty stoops to pick up the pin cushion and thimble that have rolled from her mother’s lap. Mom is asleep in a padded armchair, a three-bulb, standing lamp blazes above her shoulder. A brides dress for the Lindley wedding spills across her mother’s knees onto the linoleum floor. Its train spreads out almost to the television – an old black and white Dad bought back in the 1950’s. Its sound is turned loud as J.R. on Dallas is rushed to hospital.
Her mother starts awake and kicks out at the dress train covering her legs. “Betty, what are you doing home? You shouldn’t leave Dad alone to close on Fridays!”
Betty remembers the wedding isn’t until next weekend. There’s still time to help finish the dress. “It’s Ok, Mom. Bob Schooner will walk Dad to the bank.”
“Really, Betty, always thinking of yourself.” Then, “Turn that thing off.” Orderlies wheel a bleeding J. R. along a hospital corridor to surgery. “I’m going to bed.”
“Good night, Mom.” Betty supports her mother’s arm, pulls the brides dress aside as Mom levers herself upright.
“Betty, where’s that nice Harris boy, used to be round here all the time? Leaves are ankle deep out front.”
“Tommy had to move away.”
“If you don’t give a man what he wants, girl, he’ll leave you. Just like Dad did.”
“Dad didn’t leave us, Mom.”
“Then where is he?”
“He’ll be home in a little while, soon as he closes the store.”
Her mother climbs the wood-railed stairs on her own. By the time she reaches the second storey, she will have forgotten about Tommy and Dad.
Betty collapses in her mother’s deep armchair and reaches up to pull the lamp chain. She sits in darkness until Mom is asleep. When all is quiet, Betty goes up to her own room and changes into a red, scooped-necked dress she likes to wear. In the hallway she listens for her mother’s soft breathing, descends the stairs and slips on her coat. She locks the front door and walks to the Highway 31 Bar and Grill.
The bartender, Jimmy, will be worried if she’s late.
South of the stoplight is a small window with heavy, dark glass inset in an oak frame. Betty pushes through that door, missing Tommy’s arm over her shoulder as he would lean to help open the way. Inside the crowded bar is a mixture of shadows and colors. Its ceiling is midnight black; the juke box beside the dance floor is a riot of red, green and warm yellow.
“Howdy, Mrs. Harris. Your table’s clean.” At the bar Jimmy draws tall glasses of draft. Behind him are two score liquor bottles reflected by a long wall mirror. “I’ll bring your order in a jiffy.”
Betty hangs her coat beside a high-backed booth of padded black vinyl. She swings her purse over against the wall and shows a bit of inner thigh as she glides across the bench. Tommy enjoyed seeing her do that, and so she tries to remember. Maybe he’s in a corner somewhere, watching her.
Jimmy brings two Lites and a half order of nachos. “I haven’t seen him yet,” he whispers. He puts one beer close to her and the other opposite, near where Tommy used to sit, then positions the plate of chips midway on the Formica table. Betty reaches over to sip from Tommy’s glass and crunches a few salsa chips before leaning back. Friday is date night at the Highway 31 ever since the movie theater closed. But Fridays, Jimmy won’t give up Betty and Tommy’s booth for love nor money, and several young couples snigger as she waits alone with two glasses of beer.
Four unaccompanied men are seated on bar stools, but as she knew instantly on arrival, none are Tommy. One is Pete, the town’s high school soccer legend from a decade ago. He lurches onto his feet and staggers close. “Lookin’ good, Betty Harris. Mighty good.”
“How’s Cindy, Pete?”
He bends over to rest his fist on her table and breathes in her face. “Cindy ain’t given me none, Betty. Big as a house, she is.”
“When’s the baby due?”
“Not soon enough for me.”
Betty holds her breath as he rocks nearer. She leans past him to catch Jimmy’s eye, but he’s already on his way from behind the bar.
“Damn fine woman like you,” Pete mutters. “You ain’t gettin’ none either, Betty. I’d make you sing, I swear I would.”
“Hey, what you doing?” yells the striker as Jimmy frog-marches Pete out onto the street.
When the bartender returns, Betty musters a weak smile and wonders why Jimmy puts up with her. This isn’t the first time he’s lost a paying customer because she sits alone.
Conversation resumes in the bar. Someone drops a dime in the juke box and ‘Who Loves You?’ begins to play. The Twenty-Somethings are having her on again. Betty flips through the music selection pages at her booth until she finds ‘Go Your Own Way.’ When it ends young women on the dance floor turn to her and nod.
Tommy’s glass is a third empty. The nachos are almost gone. Betty imagines him opposite her with his wavy black hair and shy smile.
“Payday,” Tommy would say as he plucked an envelope from his shirt pocket and slid it over to Betty.
“How much you want back, dear?”
Tommy would gather up her hand in both of his. “Got all I could ever want, right here.”
He always said the same thing, got all I want, except for that one time, soon after they went to Doc Hansard. “Betty, I’d be awfully glad for us to have a baby.”
“You know I can’t.”
"Honey, I’m the one who can’t. All I want is your baby, and for sure I’d know it was yours, wouldn’t I?”
Betty looked at him, grew red and angry as she came to understand what he was saying. That night she walked home by herself. When Tommy finally came to bed, she loved him with all her might and cried herself to sleep in his arms.
In an ash tray below the music selector is a packet of house matches. Highway 31 Bar and Grill is printed on the front. On the reverse is a cartoon barmaid, a brown-haired beauty in a plunging red dress, balancing a tray of foaming glasses. “Free Beer,” the barmaid smiles. “Tomorrow.”
The last evening they were together, Betty remembers Tommy picking up those matches and showing her the joke. “Tommy, you don’t smoke.”
“Street Department boys are always short a light. Anyway, she fills out that top near good as you.” Tommy held up the matches again. “See?”
“Not hardly me,” Betty said as he stuffed the matchbook in his jeans pocket.
“Lord, woman. You don’t never look in a mirror, do you?”
Betty grinned at him. “No more’n I have to.”
“Tell you what. Give me back a sawbuck. I’ll go get us all some fried chicken.”
“And some of that cole slaw, Mom likes?”
“For sure,” he said before walking out. “I’ll see you at home in twenty minutes.”
Betty waited over an hour, then put Mom to bed before going out onto the streets to look for Tommy.
That was a year ago.
It’s half past eleven. The bar is emptying out and Tommy Harris, for more than fifty weeks running, is a no-show. Betty stretches and begins to swing her legs from beneath their table. But then a stranger enters, a woman, a short petite blonde wearing a long coat over blue trousers and sensible, rubber-soled shoes. Two masculine patrons at the bar swivel to ogle her, then turn around to stare in the mirror to watch some more.
The stranger drapes her purse over her left shoulder and digs into a coat pocket, pulls out car keys and a matchbook. She stuffs her keys back where they belong and holds out the matches to show Jimmy. Even from her booth, Betty can see the cartoon waitress with the promise of free beer tomorrow. The blonde speaks softly, so quietly Betty cannot hear. She seems to be describing someone and holds her hand six inches over her forehead.
Jimmy nods and glances at Betty who rises to stand beside her booth. The blonde thanks him and walks towards her with a surprised air. All Betty can do is think how pretty she is. Suddenly it seems obvious why Tommy’s left her.
“My name’s Julie Thompson. I’m a nurse in South Bend. Could I sit down?”
“I’m Betty Harris.”
Nurse Thompson doesn’t even blink at the name. Betty wonders if Julie has come to ask her to set Tommy free.
“Please,” Betty says, motioning to the bench opposite.
The woman turns back to Jimmy and orders a cola. “I have to drive home,” she explains and tosses down her coat.
She must be sleeping with Tommy tonight. Betty is numb, balancing on the edge of fury.
“I’m a nurse at a charity hospice,” Julie Thompson says as Jimmy sets down her drink. He hovers, but Betty glares at him and he drifts away to wipe tables. Julie sips the cola before saying, “Our hospice is something new, most people don’t know what we do.”
Betty shrugs. She can’t imagine what this has to do with Tommy.
“It’s a place where poor folks go . . . to die.”
Instantly Betty knows.
Nurse Thompson takes a photo from her purse and lays it in Betty’s quivering hand. “Do you know who this is? Do you know his name?”
Betty needs only glimpse the picture of a gaunt, disheveled man. “He’s my husband, Tommy Harris.”
“Mrs. Harris, I am so very sorry. He wouldn’t tell us his name or where he was from. All he had was this.” Nurse Thompson lays the matchbook on the table between them. Its corners are worn white.
“Most derelicts – sorry, street people – are heavy smokers, but it looks like Mr. Harris carried this for some time. I thought it might be important to him.”
Betty shudders and cups the matchbook between her palms. “I didn’t know it was.”
“When I saw you just now, I thought how much you look like that barmaid. Well, no matter.”
“Yes, Mrs. Harris, for two weeks. Tomorrow is the first Saturday morning I could sleep in, so I thought to drive here tonight.”
Betty hears nothing after Julie says “two weeks.”
“Why did he die?”
“Such a young man, but it was his prostate. He was living rough. I don’t know how long or why. Police found him passed out in a flop house and took him to First Community Hospital. Cancer had already spread everywhere and the hospital could only send him on to us.”
Julie nods. “A year ago, surgery, chemotherapy, radiation might have saved him. They can work miracles, you know.”
“A year ago?”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Harris, it’s really none of my business, but your husband must have known from the start. He wouldn’t let First Community doctors pile up bills treating him.”
Betty walks from the bar knowing she will never enter that place again. A first quarter moon is setting and she stumbles to a halt outside the white and green-painted house. She kneels and buries her face in leaves to weep. If only she’d had a chance to refuse Tommy’s last gift.