Chris Baker and his brother Ben were both
in their seventies. They were remnants of World War II, Big Bands and The New
Deal. Both men had been married to women they loved, but had lost to cancer and
Parkinson’s Disease. Neither of them wanted to spend the rest of their
years alone, and so had pooled their resources and opened a tiny grocery store in the Princeton suburbs.
Benjamin Baker was seventy-three, a tall,
thin man with a thick shock of mousey brown hair that had never gone gray. He
had a large nose which seemed to fit well in the middle of his long face, and an Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down
when he talked, like a bobber on a fishing line. He wore horn-rimmed glasses
with thick lenses, and hearing aids in both ears. He dressed himself in a plethora
of plaid shirts: flannel in the winter and cotton in the summer, and topped them
with denim coveralls whose side buttons were never buttoned. Ben had a boisterous
sense of humor and a laugh that shook the rafters. He doted on the neighborhood
kids and regaled them with stories of his misspent youth, and in turn the kids followed him around as though they were the
mice and he was the pied piper of Hamlin. He paid them to bring him any old bottles
they could find, saying: “Glass, mind’ya! If you turn up with anything made of plastic, I’ll make a dent in your heads with ‘em!” The kids laughed and began to bring him old glass bottles. He perched them on a shelf in the living room as they accumulated.
Ben knew exactly which kid had brought him which bottle. He didn’t
covet the bottles; he just figured the treasure hunt would keep the kids out of trouble and off the streets, and earn them
a buck or two to blow however they wanted.
In stark contrast, Christopher Baker, seventy-five,
was what used to be called a “dandy”. Chris had a closet full of
gabardine slacks, most of which were gray or beige. They were of an expensive
quality and all of them made pre-war. They were baggy legged in a familiar forties
style, and all had heavy darts at the beltline above each leg. In the same closet
lived dozens of cotton shirts which he took great pride in ironing himself. Most
of them were white, but he also owned some summery light-hued ones; all solid colors.
Chris was very conservative, and his one venture into boldness was the fact that he wore his light blue, pink, mint
green and yellow shirts with no regard for the bold younger generation who scoffed:
“Watch out for guys who wear pastel shirts! Haw haw haw!” He knew what they were implying, but he simply paid them no attention. He was a little too old for that stuff to concern him. Chris’s
hair was sparse and snow white. He had bragged for years that he combed it with
a washcloth. His glasses were trifocal, the frames thin and gold. Some of the
old timers in the close-knit neighborhood told him he looked a little like Charlie Ruggles, and he took that as a compliment.
“Miracle on Thirty Fourth
Street” was one of his favorite movies. He was quiet, observant and intelligent, and his
sense of humor ran mostly to tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes you had to think for a moment before you figured out what the
hell he was talking about. Chris laughed mostly with his eyes. But loudly! He loved being obscure.
Both brothers were recipients of monthly
Social Security checks and pensions, their reward for many years of service at a local corporation which manufactured building
insulation. Ben had been head of the maintenance department, while Chris worked
in the office as payroll head and procurement officer. Both men were vegetarians,
lovers of big band music, and die-hard Yankee fans. They were connoisseurs
of exotic coffees and obscure brands of imported cheeses, and expensive Cuban cigars which they took great pains to hide from
their customers. The brothers had lived their entire lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and had no desire to live anywhere
When Chris lost Katie to cancer in 1995,
he sold his house and moved in with Ben, whose wife Mary Ellen had lost her battle with Parkinson’s three years before. The brothers were both newly retired then, and found that the time on their hands
weighed heavy after busy and active lives with good jobs and solid marriages. Neither
of them had been blessed with children, and so, as time passed, both cast about for a means of keeping themselves busy.
The grocery store was Chris’s idea. He was good at figures, good at organization, and very good at the art of interior
decoration. Ben was a little skeptical at first.
He had a keen eye for layout, was a genius with hammer and nail, and had a gift of gab which drew people to him like
“What-the-hell-all you figure to
sell in this here grocery store of yours?” Was his first question when
the idea initially came up.
“Grocery store of OURS!” Chris was quick to point out. “I thought we’d stock pretty much a lot of staples … you know … bread, milk, eggs,
cold cuts and cheese, ice cream, soda pop, and all like that. Why?”
“Jus’ wondered. And where is this place gonna be located at? You got someplace
already staked out?”
“Right here, dummy!” Chris’s hand made a sweep of the huge living room in which they were standing. “We don’t really have a need for all this living space. We
got the whole upstairs, fer cryin’ out loud. We could turn this into a
really nice little store for people to come to when they need something quick. We’d
probably need a zoning variance to build a storefront … but this neighborhood has nothing like it right now …
and I don’t think it would be much of a problem. I can make some phone
calls and see what all it would take …”
Ben was silent for a moment, but Chris
could see the little wheels turning and turning inside his brother’s head, instantly liking the idea. Shortly, Ben’s body began turning also, around and around, his gaze scoping out the room’s
contours, tracing electrical outlets, possible locations for refrigeration, water, shelving and counter space. His mind was estimating the costs of lumber, hardware, sheathing, sanitation, electrical installations. When he stopped turning and stood still to look at his brother, his long face was
contemplative. “I guess it could be done.
One thing though …”
Chris cringed. “What’s that?”
“We take out the dining room too. Make it bigger than just the living room. I
want a Johnny stove in the middle. Couple of old captain’s chairs. Pickle barrel. Cheese wheel. Table with a coffee urn on it, an’ some donuts … an’
space for a ‘Spit’n’Whittle’ Club!” His eyes remained
fastened on his brother’s face, but the look had become a glare of challenge.
Chris frowned, but he hesitated for no
more than a moment. “Done! Except
that nobody spits, and nobody whittles!”
“Guess I can live with that.”
The Neighborhood Store was born in the
spring of 1997. The brothers stocked it with dairy products, cold cuts and cheeses, breads and buns, cakes, cookies, pies
and other pastries, catsup and mustard,
a display case of what used to be called “penny candy,” a varied selection of canned goods, lots of soda pop,
and a whole freezer full of exotic ice cream flavors. A shelf that went all the
way around the room a foot or two beneath the ceiling, showed off a collection of ratty old bottles with children’s
names Scotch taped on them, old crocks, and other ancient cooking implements and oddities.
Modern accouterments were mostly hidden beneath old fashioned framing and hardware, lovingly installed by Ben Baker’s
capable hands. The place looked like it had come directly through a time warp
from the early 1900’s. Flying in the face of convention, however, the brothers
refused to carry tobacco products of any kind. For that, they won the favor of
every parent on the block!
The little store was an immediate
success, and a few of the older men who lived close by, quickly took to stopping there to waste time in the captain’s
chairs shooting the breeze, haggling Ben and Chris for coffee and doughnuts or a slice of good cheddar cheese or a big dill
pickle … giving credence to the “Spit ‘n’ Whittle Club” by neither spitting nor whittling. Within a week the store was off and running.
Sometimes in the early evenings when no
customers were about, Chris and Ben Baker took over the chairs by the Johnny stove and relaxed with coffee and conversation
of their own and an occasional cigar (on the sly, of course), as evening turned to night and it was time to put the place
to bed and close up.
Jules parked the Shadow in its usual
space outside the garage. He shut down the little car’s engine, turned
off the radio and the lights and pulled the keys out of the ignition. The sun
had peeked over the horizon as he’d turned off Route 206 and headed out Ridge
Jimmy’s Pacifica, of course, was not in the garage. The
overhead door was open and the space was empty. It had been that way all day
yesterday, and remained so this morning. Jules knew Jimmy had been worried about
Gregg House, and when he’d called from the hospital to let them know he was going to stop by East Side Drive after work,
Jules and Roger both knew he wouldn’t be coming home for awhile.
Jules hoped Roger would still be sleeping
when he went in the house. His lover would be worried if he woke up and found
the place at his side to be empty, and Jules did not wish to cause him worry. He’d
been on a mission, however, and he knew Roger would be excited to hear about it.
Jules knelt at Roger’s side of the
bed and touched his partner’s face tenderly. Roger opened his eyes and
looked up in puzzlement. “I have found the place!” Jules kept his voice low, as though hiding the news from the very air they breathed.
Roger stared up at his lover with ardent
anticipation. He threw back the covers and struggled to sit up. He picked up his crutches and prepared to rise. “You
mean you … ?”
I have been watching, as you asked. I went there while you slept. Jimmy spent the night at Gregg’s place, and I waited until late so he would
have no cause to worry that I have been out at night. We drove past it before
when we were in the car with him, and I thought it might be the ideal location. I
went back to be sure. It is quite small.
There are two brothers, and they are old men. We must not harm them, but
we can do it.”
“Can I get in? With these?” Roger indicated his crutches. He had been
practicing diligently for weeks; doing the hydrotherapy, the physical therapy. He
was very lame, but the improvement in his strength was noticeable.
“Yes,” Jules said. “One small step, and in. It opens off the sidewalk. You need only be careful going across the threshold.
I will hold the door for you … as would anyone for someone disabled … anyone with manners, that is.” Jules smiled. “I think it will
be simple. Two old men will never catch me.
Especially if you keep one of them busy … and remember … you promised me … one and then done.”
“Yes … I know. I promised, and I’ll keep my promise. It’ll be
easy, love.” Roger smiled with anticipation. “Especially with my legs in the condition they are now. I
never thought being a cripple could be a good thing. But it is. It has enabled me to be pathetic, useless. And I …”
“Roger!” Jules could feel his anger rising. “You are not useless! And you are slowly getting well. You
will never be useless to me. You are my life.” Jules sat down on the bed at his lover’s side and leaned toward the other man’s shoulder. Gently he reached across and took the crutches from Roger’s hands and placed
them back on the floor. “Please don’t say such things to me. It makes me very sad.”
“But … I’ve heard Gregg
say the same things to Jimmy …”
“Such bitter remarks are part of
Gregg’s personality. He does it to gauge people’s reactions and try
to find out what they’re really thinking. Your brother loves him, and he
is used to the sarcasm. He is well aware of the way Gregg hones all his considerable
intellect and wit on him first! Gregg does it to Jimmy with love … if you
listen in the right way. And you know it!”
Jules smiled. He lifted his hand and ran his fingers through Roger’s
soft, long brown hair. He traced Roger’s eyebrow with his thumb and leaned
across to brush the soft lips with his own. “I love you very much, you
Roger frowned for a moment, and then returned
the kiss tenderly. “Yes, I know.
I’m very lucky, and I know it. I love you too.” He knew how fortunate he was to have this man; knew that without him his life would be empty indeed. And yet, even as he spoke, he could feel an angry restlessness deep within himself
that he could not deny, and which he held barely in check.
If he were healthy, Roger Wilson knew the
two of them would both be long gone from this place. They were still here only
because he had to be! He was marking time until the pain of movement began to
lessen further, and he could handle himself without the constant assistance of others.
There was a need which had always lived deep inside him, never curbed for long, and always surging upward with an urgency
he did not know how much longer he could control.
Jules LeBeque was aware of this unrest
within his partner, and it frightened him sometimes. He knew, as well as he knew
the sun would shine, that if Roger did not learn to curb his passion for danger and excitement, they would both go down in
flames … and there would be hell to pay for those who had given their time and effort to help them
Jules had never known anyone as loving
and compassionate as this sweet person at his side, but sometimes he had a strange feeling that there were two Rogers: the other one a bold and daring stranger
that he could never get a handle on. But Jules knew he would remain for the long
haul. Whatever Roger demanded, he would probably do, and damn the consequences.
Love was a selfish dictator that way. It dictated to you. You did not dictate
to it. Jules wished often that his resolve were stronger, his love greater, and
that his sense of disaster would not continue to hold such a black cloud over his head.
Gregg House got himself dressed while Wilson was in the bathroom doing whatever the hell he did in there in
the mornings. He could hear the Norelco razor, and then the Sunbeam hair dryer,
and then some other little buzzy-assed motor that he had no idea what the crap it was.
Listening to all these mini-manufacturing noises, however, took his mind off the pain in his leg when he pulled on
his underwear, socks, jeans, and then leaned down to tie his shoes.
It was a ritual he went through every day
of his working life, and he should be used to it. But he never was. By the time he was presentable, he had little stamina to spare for ironed shirts, buttoned cuffs, meticulously
combed hair and close shaves. He was usually puffing and in pain by the time
he’d finished with the essentials. What was much more important to him
was the fact that he was presenting Princeton-Plainsboro with diagnostic skills of epic proportions. He was not engaging in any kind of beauty contest. He would
leave that kind of shit up to Wilson!
Finally finished dressing, he swallowed
his first Vicodin of the day and pulled his cane away from where it was propped against the night stand. He checked the switch on the heating pad and flipped the power off.
Actually, his leg was not firing too many angry little arrows at him this morning, so the moist heat had actually helped. Small favors!
stepped out of the bathroom looking like a million bucks and then some. House bit his tongue to keep from laughing his ass
off at the man. God, he was gorgeous!
“What the living hell was that third
machine I heard you running in there? You got a freakin’ motor boat in
the bathtub or something?”
frowned, half annoyed. “I was running the steamer … getting some
of the wrinkles out of my slacks. Why? What motor boat? You don’t have a bathtub!”
House moved past him, snickering, and entered
the bathroom that Wilson had just vacated. “Jesus!” He exclaimed. “It stinks like a hog barn in here! What crawled into
you and died? Oh Christ!! Phew!! Rotten eggs smell better than your farts!”
“Shut up, House!” The other man’s voice faded away, heading into the kitchen.
House grinned, put up the seat and took
a leak; held his breath, counted to ten. Twice!
They had coffee on their way to work, bought
by Wilson, of course, at a Dunkin’ Donuts Restaurant
halfway to the hospital.
did not ask how House’s leg felt this morning.
House did not offer any information; just
whistled through his teeth with Bonnie Raitt.
pulled the Pacifica into a handicap spot on the outside parking
lot and Gregg walked, with effort, into the building. Wilson got the information he sought without uttering a word.