Harvest, by Ellen Birkett Morris

When she turned seventy, Abby Linder removed all the mirrors from her house. It wasn’t enough to cover them. She didn’t want to have to explain herself to visitors. It was better to take them away. Even so, she couldn’t escape her reflection.

She had been on the bus in Lexington. It was a sunny day and the faces of the riders were reflected in the window. She examined each of them. The young mother with tired eyes and pudgy cheeks leaned against the window. The handsome man in overalls had a faraway look in his eyes. The old crone with a face that had grown square with age looked vaguely familiar. She raised her hand to her mouth at exactly the same time Abby did. The woman in the glass shuddered and turned away.

Abby even took down the mirror on the wall of Goodies Candy Store, which she had owned for 40 years. The store was an institution, one of the longest-running businesses in Slocum.

A student from Slocum High School, David Emerson, painted a mural in its place. She told him to use his imagination. In the scene, lollipops hung from trees, the clouds were shaped like marshmallows, and a river of chocolate flowed through town.

David had delicate features and long fingers. While he painted, Abby sat behind the counter sucking on lemon drops and watching him work, imagining his young skin, soft and smooth under his chaste white button down shirt. This made her feel alive.

After a few hours, he asked for a drink. She brought him sweet tea.

“This is good,” he said. He sat in a folding chair and surveyed his work. “Do you like it?” he asked.

In the mural, children bent down by the river lapping up the chocolate like dogs. She didn’t much like it, children behaving like animals, but it was better than seeing herself in the mirror.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “You have a real gift.”

David stayed seated and looked around the room.

“When did you know you wanted to sell candy?” he asked.

“I just kind of stumbled into it,” she said. “I never imagined my life like this.”

What did you think you’d do?” he asked.

“I guess be a mother, raise a family,” said Abby. There had been proposals of course, just never at the right time or from the right man.

They sat silently while he finished his tea.

“I better get home,” David said. “I have homework.”

He set the sweaty, empty glass on the counter and left.

 

 

 

There were a handful of folks in town who’d remember that Abby was once homecoming queen, sitting in a convertible, the top down, a bouquet of roses in her lap. Her hair had been black and silky, her skin firm and flawless.

She’d felt wonderful in the pink satin gown.

That night she lost her virginity in the front seat of the car to a solid boy with short hair whose nickname was “Tank.” His sole virtue was that he’d had the courage to ask her to the dance.

She wasn’t sure why she slept with him. Maybe she was grateful he took her to the dance. As he moved in and out of her he said thanks over and over again with a slight lisp. She would remember him as “Tanks” and was skeptical of overly appreciative lovers after that.

Abby found the roses while cleaning out the car the next day, their delicate petals crushed by the thrashing about. She threw them in the trash.

Back then, Abby used her beauty to get noticed. Everyone watched her when she walked by. She’d practiced her walk alone in her room with the door closed. Abby had no problem getting a job at Deem’s Berry Farm. For years, men stopped to change her flat tire and offered to carry her groceries. Now she was invisible unless she was standing behind the candy counter.

 

 

 

The bell attached to the door of the candy store rang nonstop around 2:30 when the kids from Slocum Elementary came in for penny candy. Adam Lang dumped handfuls of Zotz and Pixie Sticks on the counter.

“That will be 25 cents, sir,” said Abby.

Adam handed her a quarter.

Sheila Bell had a candy necklace, candy cigarettes and an open pack of Now & Laters.

Abby looked at the Now & Laters in mock horror.

“We must have a problem with mice,” she said.

Sheila giggled.

When the children left, Abby locked the door, flipped the sign and went to sit in the storeroom. It was quiet and dark and the tidy rows of boxes comforted her. After fifteen minutes, she went back out front, unlocked the door and flipped the sign. There would be other customers, teenagers buying candy bars full of nuts and nougat, women buying dark chocolate toffee, and Wally from the barbershop stopping in for his usual bag of circus peanuts.

That evening, after a simple supper of tomato soup and a chicken salad sandwich, Abby settled in front of the television with a box of colored pipe cleaners and a pair of scissors. Accompanied by the drone of the television, she twisted the wires into small shapes, a bumble bee, a dachshund, a giraffe, and a lady bug. She added them to a shoebox that was nearly full.

On Sundays, Abby visited Tony Conti in the nursing home. She and Tony had gone to school together and had the same afterschool job picking berries at Deem’s Berry Farm.

They had worked side by side talking as they slipped berries, still warm from the sun, into their mouths. Once, when she was stung by a bee, he removed the stinger and placed her finger in his mouth to suck out the venom. She laughed and pushed him away, but never forgot the way he looked, his lips around her finger, his eyes closed, his long dark lashes beautiful in the sunlight.

When she looked at him now, she still saw the tall boy with the baby face and black curls, who blushed easily, not an old man with a grizzled beard who sometimes forgot his own name, but could still sing the high school anthem.

Sometimes she wished she had a picture of him back then—his sweet young face, those deep brown eyes, but she preferred her memory of the way the sun felt on her face and the warmth of his lips on her finger.

They had never been romantic, but once she had felt him lean forward and smell her hair when he thought she wasn’t looking. She had wanted him too, but he was so open, so sweet, she didn’t want to break his heart.

When she walked into his room, Tony was looking out the window of his small room at a bird feeder where a yellow finch perched.

“Hello, Tony.” said Abby.

He turned to face her and a look of recognition crossed his face. A good day.

“I brought you something.” She pulled a small red berry made of pipe cleaner from her bag and placed it in his palm.

“Deem’s,” he said. “Imagine what berry picking would do to us now.”

They sat on his twin bed. The only personal touch in the room was a double wedding ring pattern quilt that Abby had bought secondhand.

“How is Sammy?” he asked. Abby’s dog Sammy had been dead for ten years.

“Fine,” said Abby.

She knew better than to ask after Tony’s ex-wives. Gina had been beautiful and mean. She left Tony when she decided that he’d never make enough money making furniture. Allison had been kinder, but flighty. The rumor was that she left town with Miss Campbell, the school counselor, that they were lovers.

He turned to face her. She reached out and took his hands.

“How are you, Tony?”

“I’m doing all right. I was trying to remember that song we used to sing while we picked.”

“I Wanna Be Loved by You?”

“That’s it.”

“I wanna be loved by you.”
“Just you,” he said.

“Nobody else but you,” she answered.
“I wanna be loved by you—alone. Boo boo bee doo,” they sang together.

“I miss you.” She kissed the top of his head.

“I miss you too,” he echoed, uncertainly.

 

 

 

The years had slipped away, and the person she had been disappeared with them, replaced by an old woman, a woman with wrinkles and bifocals, whose only attention paid was by a man opening up a door or offering a hand up.

For years, Abby had kept company with Charlie Jones, a beekeeper with a farm outside Slocum. They would go out to dinner in Andersonville and come back to her to place to watch television and at a certain point in the night he would lean over and whisper in her ear, inviting her into the bedroom.

Abby bought lingerie for the occasion and would spend the day thinking about the delicate silk panties that she wore under her black A-line skirt, the coffee-colored lace bra under her crew neck sweater.

Charlie died of a heart attack at 45. Now she wore plain cotton panties and slept in a t-shirt her nephew gave her with a picture of Charlie Chaplin on the front. She had never planned to be obsolete.

Abby had her routines, the candy store, her hobbies, a weekly card party on Thursday night, church and visiting Tony on Sunday afternoons.

She walked the six blocks to church for the card party each Thursday. This week she carried a shoebox full of her animals for the church bazaar. She had several blocks to go when she heard the sound of bikes behind her. The boys liked to get up speed and jump off the curbs, momentarily taking flight. One boy whizzed past her on the right. Another on the left. A third was so close that he banged into her arm.

Everything slowed down as she felt herself falling. Her shoebox flew from her hands. She put out her arms to break her fall and ended up sitting on the pavement with bloody palms, her small creations scattered around her.

The boy looked back. It was David Emerson. She raised her hand in greeting and could see him hesitate and then turn away.

“Aren’t you going to help your girlfriend?” one of the boys asked.

David paused, and then rode off.

Abby sat on the pavement, tears of frustration springing to her eyes. She drew the shoe box close and picked up each of her animals, placing them in the box with care. Willing herself not to cry, she got slowly to her feet and continued the journey to church.

When she got there, the ladies cooed over her wounds. Sandy spread salve over her palms.

“When you get old it’s like you’re invisible,” she warned her friends.

“Those kids ought to pay more attention,” said Julie.

“Thank God you didn’t break a bone,” said Jan.

The women brought her cake and coffee. Though Abby wasn’t sure, it seemed as if they let her win at gin rummy. The winner got to take the rest of the cake home, so she didn’t protest.

The next day, Abby was sore and had a bruise on her elbow. She sat at the counter staring at a bin full of brightly colored jelly beans. She heard the bell ring and glanced at the door. David Emerson had come to get paid. He was holding a bouquet of daisies.

“I’m sorry,” he said, holding out the flowers.

“Apology accepted,” she said, exchanging the flowers for his pay envelope.

He looked at Abby and then his mural.

“The perspective is a little off,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes it is.”

 

 

 

That evening she went to see Tony.

When Abby got to Tony’s room, he was staring at himself in the mirror over the vanity with a look of concern.

“Who is that old guy?” he asked.

“It’s you Tony,” said Abby. “Still you.” She stood behind him, their faces reflected in the mirror.

“What is it?” she put her hand on his shoulder.

“I’m trying to remember what it felt like to be young,” he said, tears rolling down his cheeks.

She put her arms around him and turned him until he was facing her.

“I can’t remember a thing about what it felt like,” he said.

She looked at his room. It could have been anywhere, a hotel room or the nondescript bedroom of a grown child, but it was the nursing home where Tony would die alone. She held him closer.

“It feels like this,” said Abby. She took his hand, rough with years of manual labor, spotted with age. She brought it to her lips, slowly kissing every finger and then his palms. She slipped his forefinger into her mouth as he had done for her so many years ago when she got stung.

She realized then that she still felt like that sixteen-year-old no matter how much time had passed. His breathing slowed and he rested his head on her shoulder. She thought of them together in the field, warmed by the sun, their heads bent over a field of slowly ripening berries.

***

ellen-birkett-morris-headshot

Ellen Birkett Morris’ fiction has appeared in Antioch Review, Shenandoah, Notre Dame Review, South Carolina Review, and Upstreet, among other journals. She is the recipient of the 2015 Bevel Summers Prize for flash fiction and a 2013 Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.

 

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