Thursday, June 29, 2017

June 29, 2017--The Woman Who Talks With Cows

Right adjacent to the Mobil station where in its convenience store lobsta rolls are a well-priced $10.99 is the Friendly Book Store of Deer Island, Maine. 
The window to the left of the door is full of children’s books, including the cleverly-titled Train in Maine; and the one on the right has a suite of books unexpecetedly set in and about Africa. There’s Dinesen’s Out of Africa, Michela Wrong’s In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz,  and Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost among others. Not uninteresting, I thought, my prejudices showing, for a small town book shop quite a ways from anything cosmopolitan. 
So to tell the truth, when we pushed through the door in search of the New York Times after having coffee at the Island Café I wasn’t expecting much. And when it came to books was not disappointed.  The shop seemed more set up to be a place where local women would gather to buy yarn for knitting and, if they had the time, could settle into one of the shop’s many overstuffed sofas or side chairs to trade tips and patterns. It’s a cozy place, but this one felt strangely devoid of books.
In fact it took just a moment to take them in since there are just a few bookshelves. There are also a couple of tables on which are stacked what I imagine are the proprietor’s recommendations. Not much unusual about that either.  But neither included an obligatory array of local writers, great or uninspired, except for Richard Russo who lives and works in nearby Camden. Though his recent Bridge of Sighs was not all that prominently featured. Almost hidden from view, it was tucked between O'Neill's Netherland and Alice Hoffman's Third Angel. Just right, I thought, because to me it is far from Russo's best work and not deserving of too much prominence except as a show of Penobscot Bay pride. I took this as a sign of good taste and integrity—not even neighborliness had motivated the owner to offer a false endorsement for something so formulaic.
But though it was quite early, not much past 9:00, for a small place in a still sleepy town there was quite a crowd drifting among the shop's nooks and crannies. Expect for a man of about 45, dressed almost in rural caricature fashion, in full denim shirt and overalls with, yes, a straw hat slung from a string and hanging on the back of his shoulders, all the other customers, if they in fact were that, were women at least in their late seventies.
Yet customers they clearly were because, grasping greeting cards and books, they soon shuffled into a irregular line before an elegant leather-topped writing table behind which was seated the owner, proprietor, and obvious doyen of The Friendly. And from how she was dressed and how she engaged each lady in conversation, I quickly realized that the shop was aptly named.
Jane, we learned later was her name, was radiant. She wore a sumptuous beige silk blouse, buttoned at the neck, with a rakishly knotted man’s red tie.
“Yes, I know your grandson is about to be married,” she smiled broadly at the women leaning on Jane’s table to support herself, “Will it be in Baltimore?  He was such a lovely boy.  I remember how much you loved when he visited during college vacations. He worked for the Millers, didn’t he?  Down at Waterman’s Beach. I recall that. And is he still in law school?  . . .  Nice, nice.  He’ll make such a wonderful lawyer.  Not like so many of the others who are only interested in the money.  Your daughter did such a good job raising him. You must be very proud. And they will so much like that card. I’m sure his wife-to-be comes from a fine family. Just like yours. So hard working.”
And to the woman who moved slowly to the table, clutching a small book to the handle of her walker, Jane, her face all smiles, said, “It has been such a time since you’ve been in. I heard you were in hospital. But I can see you’re doing very well now. Walking more securely. They do such wonderful things these days. Surgeons I mean. Why I bet you won’t need that silly thing too much longer. . . . Yes, yes. I’m not surprised to know you’re back in your garden. Not overdoing it, I hope. But I know, since Averill passed, you’ve done such a good job of taking care of everything. Though don’t I know you, tending to overdo it a bit. Am I right? But there’ll be no need for me to be worrying about you anymore. Though I admit that every time I go by your place I’m so envious of your roses. Aren’t they the most beautiful ones in all of Knox County?  So it’s so good to know you’re back tending to them. And of course you know, if you have any chores for me . . . Aren’t you sweet. And really, it would not be a problem for me. Not at all.”
Next to approach Jane was a woman in a blue housedress that barely cleared her laced-up shoes, bent with the hint of early-stage osteoporosis. Jane gestured for her to sit in the gilded chair next to her table.

“Oh, Henrietta, you shouldn’t have been waiting so long. No one would mind, would they, if you came right up here. Let me take those books from you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them. You do love those page-turners. Why I read that one just last week.  I can’t wait 'til you finish it so we can talk about it.  Just the other day, David Walker was in.  Didn’t we used to call him Skip when he was younger? He was the nicest boy. So sad how he lost his only son. Breaks one’s heart. They were so close. . . . But enough about that. It’s too nice a day for that. 
"How’s your Andy? I haven’t heard much about him lately. Are they still living in Atlanta? . . . Good, good. I’m so glad to know they’re well. . . . And you say he’ll be coming soon for a visit? In August. It must be so hot there. Well, you’ll be sure to bring the darling boy by, won’t you, so I can lay my eyes on him? And remember what the doctor told you. How you should be sure not to forget to take your medicine, and like he said be sure to keep up with your walking. You need to do that too. And yes I know how hard that is now, but still you have to try. We all need more of you.”
And then there was the man in the overalls. He didn’t have anything in his hands. I assumed there was something on Jane’s deck that he had lined up to purchase. But he didn’t pick anything up but rather stood there looking down at Jane, not saying anything, just smiling and smiling. 

“Well, well.  It’s so nice to see you again Herbert.” To him her voice was like music. “All smiles I see. What’ya been up to? Not getting into any trouble, are you? I hear things. Everything. You know that. So you need to behave yourself.  Though young people these days, I know, do need to have some fun their own way. . . .  Sorry, I can't hear what you’re whispering. You do tend to do that, you know. But don’t be shy with me Herbie. I’ve heard it all. . . .
“Oh that, yes my boy Robert and I went back to that farm to have a second look. Over there by Cushing.  And yes, you are remembering correctly. They have three striped cows down there.  I’ve never seen any like that before.  Black all over but with a wide band of white all around their middle.  . . . No, not like zebras, but just like I said—black in the front, white in the middle, and then black again in the rear. Striped. . . . And no I’m not making that up. And no we didn’t take any pictures. But if you don’t believe me you can go take a look for yourself.  It’s right along Pleasant Point Road right where Hathtorne Road breaks off. Toward the old Olson place where Andrew Wyeth painted Chistina’s World.  But to see them you have to be patient. It’s a big pasture and they don’t much like people.  If you stand off at a distance and don’t make too much of a racket, they get used to your being there; and maybe, like the other day with Robert and me, one of them will come up to where you’re standing.
“I don’t know what got into me, I had as I said never seen cows or anything quite like this, though to tell you the truth when we got home I looked up ‘Striped Cows’ on the Internet and, wouldn’t you know it, there were all sorts of pictures of cows just like these.  You could do it too if you wanted.  But as I was about to tell you, when the largest of them nuzzled close to us, I just looked her in the eye, this was before I Googled them, and said, can you believe it, right to her I said, ‘How did you get those stripes?’ All puzzled she looked back at me, eye-to-eye, and said, ‘Why I was born that way.’ Then I said, ‘Did your mother and father have stripes too?’ And she said, sort of indignant, 'Of course they did!  Didn’t your mother and father, like you, also walk on their hind legs?
“I must admit, she had me there. And with that she turned away from me and scampered back across the meadow to rejoin her sisters. It was quite an afternoon.”
And quite a morning. Though Jackie doesn’t carry the Times, I’m sure we’ll find a book or two to buy next time. Or a few greeting cards.

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