Harper had just turned the coffee maker on and set water to boil for tea when the soft sound of the bell jingled above the door. She had found the tarnished brass bell at the local antique mall. It was not high tech, of course, but it reminded her of the bell at the general store in the farm area where she grew up and the ice cream shop in town. It was something that hearkened back to simpler, kinder days. They probably weren’t—simpler, that is—but in her memory they were. The gentleman that entered was browsing the “Last Chance” used bin by the front door. He was tall with salt and cayenne pepper hair tied back in a ponytail. It was not one of those wimpy apologetic ponytails that make excuses for the thin crop on top. He appeared to have more hair on top than even she did.
“Can I help you find something, or are you just hunting for treasure?”
He smiled. “Are you the owner of this fair establishment or the captain of the ship?”
“Both, I guess. At least, I pay the mortgage here.” She slid in behind her candy counter—another antique mall acquisition.
The man eyed the counter with a mix of curiosity and humor. Well, it doesn’t look like you have any jawbreakers or gumballs, so Mark Twain may have to do.”
“I’m afraid nostalgia got the better of me with this piece. I am a sucker for antiquated things that seem hungry for a place to belong, whether they fit in or not. And I confess I paid much more than it was worth. But it may not be a bad idea to outfit the bins here with a few sweets. I will keep that in mind on my next trek to the grocery outlet. But Twain. That I can help you with.”
“Maybe and maybe not. I am looking for one of his lesser known works—at least, it was not known to me until just recently.”
“What is the name?” She edged out from behind the counter and moved toward the T’s in novels.
“It is the story of Joan of Arc. I’m not sure of the exact title.”
“Ah, yes, I am familiar with it. It’s called Joan of Arc.” She smiled. “I know I have none in the new section, but it seems to me I spotted one in the used section a while back. I almost discarded it because the cover had been torn off, and its previous owner had underlined much of the text. I don’t always like to read something in which another reader has felt the liberty to tell me what is important. But I did not have the heart to discard such a wonderful story.” Harper eyed the shelves, finger extended. “I’m not seeing it. Let’s look closer in the bin you were browsing up front. It might be in there.”
Harper led the way just as the front door opened wide. Ava flounced in as she always did, confident and floral, in both color and smell. She was what Harper called a lowercase f friend, if a friend at all. To be honest, she had stuck by her when so many had fallen away, but there were times that Harper wished she had not stuck. She most often caused more pain than pleasure. “Good morning, Ava. What can I help you with?”
“Oh, just popping by. Who’s your friend here? Introduce me.” She winked in a conspiratorial way that made Harper want to excuse herself to go clean toilets.
“I would, but I am afraid I do not know this gentleman’s name. We were barely on speaking terms with Twain.”
“It is nice to meet you. My name is Blaise Breton. And you are?” He reached out his hand obviously unaware of the icicles forming in the room—or maybe that was only Harper’s gift to fully embrace the awkwardness of any moment.
“Ava. Ava-Gardner with a hyphen! My name is actually Ava-Gardner Welter. My mother was such a fan of the starlets that she hyphenated my first and second name so it would forever remind her of the golden age of Hollywood. I most often just go by Ava, but it is just so fun to have a story to tell when you meet a new person. Breaks the ice, don’t you think?” She swung her Lady Clairol brown hair over her shoulder.
“Absolutely. Makes me sad that my parents had not had Pascal as a last name. That would have made for some unique introductions, as well?” The philosopher reference was lost on Ava whose literary diet consisted of romantic fiction, albeit religious romance. She twirled the Blaise person to the overstuffed chairs by the coffee maker and proceeded to educate the gentleman on all things gossip.
Harper turned quietly away and fingered the worn books in the bin, looking for Joan of Arc. The book was not there, so she took her place behind the candy counter and sipped her now cold cup of coffee. Not that cold mattered. She tasted nothing but the irritation welling up in her throat. Ava was her last remaining contact with her old church. It had been a traditional Baptist at one point, but in the 90s had changed its name to “The Gathering Place for the Faithful.” Kind of long for the sign out front. The unfaithful and tarnished must have met somewhere else because the church had pretty much remained unchanged except for the addition of a few guitars and a drum set. Then there were the coffee and donuts—a fellowship must for the relevant church. But the judging was the same as were the immovable doctrines. And though Ava had stuck with her through some hard times, Harper couldn’t help but feel like to Ava she was more a project than a friend. At times, the project was defined by matchmaking, when it was someone Ava was not interested in; other times, it was conversion therapy to create from a melancholy poetic soul a gregarious party animal. Then, depending on where Ava was in her cyclical dieting, the project was to convert her from organic health food to burgers, fries, and Oreo shakes.
After a few moments, the gentleman extricated himself from what oftentimes felt like a swallowing chair and made his way to the front of the store, Ava trailing behind in words and scent. “Did you happen to find that Twain tome?”
“Nice alliteration, but no, I’m sorry. I could order it for you if you like.”
“No, that’s okay. But thanks anyway. You have a very nice shop.”
“Yes, it is a nice shop, Blaise. Old, but nice,” Ava purred. “It keeps her occupied since her husband died. Can I show you around the rest of this quaint downtown section here?” Blaise hesitated briefly, but Ava was pushy enough that to resist her one would almost have to be rude. “He just moved here, Harp,” Ava announced over her shoulder. The duo, Blaise in tow, exited the front door and disappeared from view.