Her figure still had substance, however slight. Standing fully erect, she measured four feet nine and a half inches, head to toe. Seated, she melted into a chair or sofa as an understuffed toss pillow might, owing to the pronounced curvature that had come in her neck and upper spine; her shoulders had also collapsed forward with time and no longer served as a buttress to her frame but instead seemed a natural extension of the other soft lines in her aged body. She could stand without assistance if only given the time, and found it vexing when others, strangers, rushed to help her, as if this one simple mechanical task should be executed by the clock. She shuffled more than walked to propel herself forward, but to her way of thinking, neither should there be any especial urgency attached to that rudimentary human exercise.
On this day she had her nose tucked inside a book that had already held sway over her for long hours, as was often the case. Her reading spectacles were poised where she liked them near the end of her nose, affording the perfect focal length for her eyes to adjust to the printed lines of text, but also allowing her to glance over them to see the hands on the clock that ticked away on the mantle, the only thing to break the silence in the room. She did so now and realized it was time to stir herself from this delicious pastime and get moving if she were to be ready to go when her son pulled the car up the drive in a little while.
The car would present its own challenges for her, but she would relent this time and allow a pair of strong arms of her own creation to assist her, lifting her left leg over the threshold and directing it to the front floorboard, easing her small hips haltingly down, down, down into the seat while one massive hand protected her head from bumping the car frame and another supported her by the elbow. She fumbled to find a thing, anything, to grasp ahold of inside the vehicle while she clutched her pocketbook with the other hand, whose misshapen knuckles whitened in the death grip she held on it; the monumental effort this required made her tremble all over, but getting out would be more challenging still. Her son would have offered to hold the pocketbook for her while she climbed into the car but would have been rebuked by his mama. He pitied anybody foolhardy enough to try to snatch that purse, he’d have chided for the thousandth time.
His mama would simply retort, as she always did, that she hoped any fool who managed was happy enough with what they got. Inside it were a halfway spent travel packet of Kleenex; a single Chapstick tube; a compact with a broken mirror; a fresh packet of Certs; and a leatherette billfold that held two single dollar bills, a picture ID, a senior discount card for the grocery, a library card, and an ice cream card from the 31 Flavors with five holes of twelve punched out of it. When the card was finally all punched out, she’d get a free cone, a thing she coveted with the glee of a five-year-old child.
Had you followed behind the shiny late-model sedan, American made and well appointed with every luxury, you’d have observed the impressive stature of the man behind the wheel whose bald head rose above the headrest and turned left to right and back again as he gestured with one hand, pointing out this landmark and that as the car floated down the road. You’d have been hard pressed to see the person riding shotgun, but then would note the wide brim of a straw hat bobbing from side to side in deference to the pointed finger.
From her perch on the stool behind the counter, Lucy could see none of this. The store was quiet on a Tuesday afternoon, and she sat with her sneakered feet hooked through the rungs in the stool, flipping through a wholesale catalog on the glass counter. Underneath it inside the case, the pages of her precious talisman, Randolph Caldecott’s Complete Collection of Pictures and Songs, lay open on “The House That Jack Built” and its quaint illustrations, a daily reminder of her serendipitous discovery in the basement of Bran’s house up on the hill, and the very inspiration for this ambitious undertaking.
Then Charley stirred from her pad behind the counter, in turn nudging Lucy off the stool. Charley trotted over to the door with her tail awag enthusiastically, and then stopped and sat, her head tilted in the familiar manner of a shepherd, and her tail continuing to sweep the floor with anticipation. Beyond the door, Lucy noticed the hat first, and then the small person underneath it, and finally the large, muscular man whose hand led her by the elbow. Before they reached the door, she saw the tiny woman somewhat angrily yank her elbow out of the man’s hand, and so he stepped ahead of her to get the door. Lucy impulsively covered her lips with her fingers and giggled at this spectacle, and then gently slipped her fingers under Charley’s collar to move her out of the way. “This one is a live wire,” she said aloud to Charley, who whined softly by way of reply.
For her part, Cecily would have waved off this moniker had she heard it, and simply insist only the infirm need leading by the elbow.