Saturday morning, about eleven o’clock, Mrs. Edna Berthelson was ready to make her little trip. Although it was a weekly affair, consuming four hours of her valuable business time, she made the profitable trip alone, preserving for herself the integrity of her find.
Because that was what it was. A find, a stroke of incredible luck. There was nothing else like it, and she had been in business fifty-three years. More, if the years in her father’s store were counted – but they didn’t really count. That had been for the experience (her father made that clear); no pay was involved. But it gave her the understanding of business, the feel of operating a small country store, dusting pencils and unwrapping flypaper and serving up dried beans and chasing the cat out of the cracker barrel where he liked to sleep.
Now the store was old, and so was she. The big, heavyset, black browed man who was her father had died long ago; her own children and grandchildren had been spawned, had crept out over the world, were everywhere. One by one they had appeared, lived in Walnut Creek, sweated through the dry, sun-baked summers, and then gone on, leaving one by one as they had come. She and the store sagged and settled a little more each year, became a little more frail and stern and grim. A little more themselves.
That morning very early Jackie said: “Grandmaw, where are you going?” Although he knew, of course, where she was going. She was going out in her truck as she always did; this was the Saturday trip. But he liked to ask; he was pleased by the stability of the answer. He liked having it always the same.
To another question there was another unvarying answer, but this one didn’t please him so much. It came in answer to the question.”Can I come along?”
The answer to that was always no.
Edna Berthelson laboriously carried packages and boxes from the back of the store to the
rusty, upright pickup truck. Dust lay over the truck; its red-metal sides were bent and corroded. The motor was already on; it was wheezing and heating up in the midday sun. A few drab chickens pecked in the dust around its wheels. Under the porch of the store a plump white shaggy sheep squatted, its face vapid, indolent, indifferently watching the activity of the day. Cars and trucks rolled along Mount Diablo Boulevard. Along Lafayette Avenue a few shoppers strolled, farmers and their wives, petty businessmen, farmhands, some city women in their gaudy slacks and print shirts, sandals, bandannas. In the front of the store the radio tinnily played popular songs.
“I asked you a question,” Jackie said righteously. “I asked you where you’re going.”
Mrs. Berthelson bent stiffly over to lift the last armload of boxes. Most of the loading had been done the night before by Arnie the Swede, the hulking, white-haired hired man who did the heavy work around the store. “What?” she murmured vaguely, her gray, wrinkled face twisting with concentration. “You know perfectly well where I’m going. “
Jackie trailed plaintively after her, as she reentered the store to look for her order book. “Can I come? Please, can I come along? You never let me come – you never let anybody come. “
“Of course not,” Mrs. Berthelson said sharply. “It’s nobody’s business. “
“But I want to come along,” Jackie explained.
Slyly, the little old woman turned her gray head and peered back at him, a worn, colorless bird taking in a world perfectly understood. “So does everybody else.” Thin lips twitching in a secret smile, Mrs.