Tales From the Counter #1: The Treasure Within
At only 9:30a.m., a half an hour before I officially opened the store, a sporty silver 4 x 4 pulled up. Whoever it was sat in the car a few extra minutes and I used the time to continue with the morning’s tasks. I was still turning on lights, setting furniture out front, lighting the candle that would lend luscious scent to the rooms, and choosing a cd to listen to. This morning it would be Oliver Mtukudsu, cheerful and reminding me of seaside villages of the Caribbean, though Zimbabwe of Southern Africa was its true source. I let it’s rhythms decide the pace of my actions, moving energetically and with joy through each. How is it that some people choose to rise above adversity, while others sink under its weight? This man tells the story of a joyous Africa, revealing hope and possibility beyond and informed by despair. What lends certain people that courage? As I carried the last lantern outside to set on the Moroccan mosaic table, two car doors opened and Patrick and his wife, carefully dressed as if heading to a meeting of sorts emerged. He then reached inside the back seat for a large box and carried it with a swift stride into the store, both of them smiling as I held the door.
“Hi!” I said, happy to see these perpetually enthusiastic customers. I didn’t know them beyond a few purchases of tea and small gifts and snippets of polite conversation. But they were always easy to talk to and genuinely appreciated the experience of being at Nectar. In fact, I think he was one of the first people to say something to the effect of, “everything’s so unusual here. When we visit I feel like I’ve traveled the world!” They were both in their sixties at least, but had kept themselves well, their authentic smiles having etched permanent lines of joy into their faces. They clearly loved life, and each other.
“Hi,” they both said.
“Sorry to bother you,” he began humbly. “May I—“ and he motioned to set his cardboard box down on the floor.
“Well, you know how much we enjoy this store, it’s just so beautiful. And remember I had spoken to you before about the desk sets I was making—“
I had plenty to do. Replenish the tea containers, vacuum, check emails, contact the sign company and see if we’ll make our deadline. There was much, much more. Yet I reminded myself it could all wait for this morning’s offerings, not that I wanted or needed to buy anything. It had been unusually slow the last few weeks, and I was already awaiting plenty of new inventory ordered months ago. But here was Patrick, his wife flashing him looks of encouragement as he carefully unwrapped each item and set them on the table before us. A pen, another. A crystal. A glass cup, its end rounded like a cloche. A wooden rectangular platform with jutting pen holders and careful details of trim and subtle design. She helped him assemble it all: the two pens in their perches, the unusual crystal into the hidden throne at the center and soon sealed in the bubble of glass. It was elegant, for a desk set, and in spite of the crystal.
“You could put any treasure you like in here,” his wife said with a trill and a sweep of her hand. “A signed baseball. Oh, any keepsake really…” Her bobbed hair was dyed a sandy brown and swept softly away from her kind face. She wore only a hint of lipstick and sported a fashionable skirt suit. And she looked at her husband often as if rooting him on, pride in her gaze. She keeps him young, I thought, glancing from the girlish energy she still possesses over to his square shoulders, square black glasses, and white hair, parted immaculately and neatly combed into a style that probably hadn’t changed since 1940 yet suited him well.
“I love to stay busy,” he added while her chin bowed, rose and fell and rose again, she his best witness. “Love to tinker and create things,” he added as she beamed. What makes love last, what recipe, what truths, I wondered. Maybe I was projecting. Maybe this was a newish relationship and these two hadn’t grown together for years.
They looked hopeful, and though I knew this would not be an item that was fitting for the exoticism of my store, in the right venue, it could sell well and said so. “It’s obvious that you have an attention to detail. It’s well made and a good idea. And customers often come in looking for Man Presents,” I said giggling. “Men are apparently not that easy to buy for.” I suggested some other local stores they might try that would be more appropriate, and that they should also build a website.
They were thankful for my encouragement and honesty. “People come in often and try to sell me things here,” I said. “This is one of the better made items, definitely. Can I ask what led you to making these?”
They both smiled shyly, knowingly.
“As I said, I’ve always liked making things,” he began. Her hands moved unconsciously towards her heart and she held them there, woven. “Fresh out High School I was accepted into Cooper Union, for painting. But then- “ he paused, perhaps wondering how much he should say, “She got pregnant.” They smiled at each other genuinely, in spite of the sacrifices. Still, there was a fleeting but pained expression subtly pinching at them, as if they couldn’t help but wonder where the other path may have led them. “I wanted to able to provide for my family but on a struggling artist’s wages, there’s just no certainty,” he admitted. He had done the “correct” thing, made the “sensible” choice during an era before narcissism was the rage.
She clearly loved him and his sense of duty; each glance was potent with it as he spoke. “And then a few years later, I tried my hand at art school again, and landed a full scholarship to Cal Arts, you know, the California Institute for the Arts? But then she got pregnant again. We figured an art career was not for me.” He said this laughing, eyes closed, his chin dipped down. These were and are two of the most prestigious art schools in the country, and though I didn’t ask what else Patrick did for a career instead, it was clear that this could not have been an easy choice.
“We have a wonderful family, “ she announced, meaning it. And as if to underline her words, he stepped towards her with his perfect posture, wrapping her in a muscular, loving arm. I tried to envision them younger: he was tall, and his strong jaw, hooded eyes and athletic build surely made him attractive. She was pretty now and must have been even prettier then, full of hope.
“Our children all went to college,” he said, as if he needed me to know that beautiful gifts had come out of the certainty and the sacrifices were not without rewards.
“One just got married and I’m just helping our other daughter plan her wedding now,” she said grinning. “I’ve been busy!” They had taken the safer route yet had built a life of integrity together. I thought about my own parents burdened with a young child as if I was the exclamation point at the end of their youth. And they pushed right through, instead prolonging their indulgences for many, many more years with me in tow. Their marriage quickly failed as did numerous other relationships, and while they managed to explore their creativity and identities and I learned to honor my own, I have also wondered where a steadier path may have led all of us.
“Thank you so much,” they both said genuinely. “We don’t want to take any more of your time…” I hugged one, then the other, and waved as they got into their car. Their energy persisted for the next few minutes in the store, the sweet connection they shared; the lack of apparent drama in their choices. But simple is never simple either, I reminded myself.