Mondays were typically pretty slow, but this was turning out to be a particularly slow Monday, so slow, in fact, that the bell over the door remained silent till she turned the Closed sign around at noon. Harper often ate in the store, but getting out and breathing some different air sounded like a good idea. She had a few grocery items to pick up anyway, so she headed to the small local market. And besides, it would be good to stretch her legs for a bit. There was a coffee shop inside the store, and she did her shopping then grabbed an anemic looking vegan sandwich and a soy latté.
The market coffee shop did not have the ambiance of a regular one. Maybe it was the sticky, well-used ‘60s pink / orange plastic chairs and tables and its location next to Customer Aisle #1 for 10 items or less that spoiled it. That always bugged her. The “less” bit. The sign should have read 10 items or fewer, but that grammar item was not going to be amended any time soon. It was probably useless, but Harper pulled out her notepad as she munched her tomato and wilted lettuce nothing-sandwich, hoping to jot down a few ideas for her novel project or short story, depending how long her inspiration would last. She had started it before Graham got sick. It wasn’t really one of those bucket list kinds of things. It was just something she had always wondered about—if her love of language could ever form itself into something concrete that would matter. When Graham died, she felt that any story had died with him. It was only recently that the words had begun to percolate again—a little. So, bit by bit, scrap by scrap, she had been collecting thoughts and sketches, but she still felt unsure that she had anything to say.
Noise and light, grinding coffee, rustling bags, and clanging carts did nothing for her concentration. She was easily distracted—always had been. By external noise and the noises in her head. But this. This was too much. She had partially cured her mind-wandering by reading text really fast and using a finger as a guide. But no speed reading or fingering aided in the actual creation of words, especially when a loud coffee shop customer ordering a coffee and lemon bread pushed his salon business to the barista with “Enter a princess; leave a queen!” It was actually a pretty good line. He strongly insisted that he would be refining perfection! Of course, he made Harper no such offer. She wrote the phrase down in her notebook, thinking she might use it sometime. Maybe.
She sipped her latté to the rhythm of musak, no distinguishable words, just a never-ending bass and drumbeat pulsing with the florescent lights. But after only a few minutes, she chucked the half-eaten sandwich, dropped the paper cup in the recycling container, and headed back to the store.
She stored her perishables in the small office fridge then set about rearranging Travel and Tourism. There wasn’t much stock in that section since it was not something that interested her, so she felt that expanding the Cooking section would probably be a better use of space. Around her feet were strewn pastry cookbooks, plant-based eating guides, and vegan books for dummies or idiots or all such nonsense. The food section reflected her distinct bias in healthy eating. Probably why she didn’t make many sales. She barely heard the bell with all her stacking and clattering; but in looking up, she spotted Blaise standing at the candy counter. She extricated herself from the towers she had been building.
“I brought you some jawbreakers, chocolate almonds, and gummy bears for your empty candy thingy,” he smiled, holding out a paper sack.
“Really? You shouldn’t have.”
“Oh, it was the least I could do after stealing your coffee and not purchasing anything.”
“No, I mean, you really shouldn’t have! At least not the chocolate. Gummy bears aren’t vegan (They aren’t even edible!), so they aren’t a temptation; and jawbreakers, well, who even . . . But chocolate! And nuts! Even if it is milk chocolate, I’m afraid I would have no resistance. Thanks, but no thank you. Maybe I should just get some fake plastic candies to put in there if you think the emptiness is so unappealing, Willy Wonka.” She smiled. A real smile. It felt like she hadn’t smiled in such a long time—the kind of smile that fills you up and settles into your bones. Most of her greeting customer smiles stopped at the teeth and jaw.
“Not unappealing, just empty.” He smiled, too. “Actually, I have an ulterior motive for trying to bribe you with treats.”
And there it was in a moment, the tension, the hesitation. Not knowing what was coming next, Harper found herself stiffening from the inside out. Her smile was gone. This was like recurring PTSD for widows to think behind every person was something suspect.
Blaise carried on speaking. Whether he noticed the change, she didn’t know, but he acted as if everything was normal—whatever normal meant these days. “I noticed you have a large room in the back of the store, and I was wondering if it gets used at all?”
Her back relaxed just a bit. “Well, we used to have a book club that met there once a week, but I think the only thing that would ever fill it up now would be a movie night. There doesn’t seem to be as much interest in reading literature any more, let alone discussing it. Why do you ask?” She looked down and made busy with her hands, sorting some invoices that had previously been organized into a neat pile.
“I’ve been looking for a small gathering place in which to start a church.”
He smiled once again. “A church. A small gathering of Christian believers. It would be after store hours, so we would not disturb your customers.”
“How many people are we talking about?”
“Well, that’s just it. I really don’t have a congregation per se. I don’t mean this to sound really weird . . . okay, it just might. But I moved to Shiloh because I felt called to plant a church here. Not a big institutionalized thing, but a small group of believers who can experience genuine community, grow together as friends, and consequently influence their neighbors and friends with the love that Christ has for them. Okay, that was a mouthful, I know.”
“Yeah, that was.” She felt like more of a response was needed, but no words came. She just stood there wondering who this alien was who had come to form a “community.”
“Your friend Ava mentioned that you were a Christian, so I thought maybe you might be open to the possibility. I would pay you rent, of course. And I would clean up after. What do you think? I mean, I don’t need an answer right now, but would you think about it?”
Harper still felt mildly uncomfortable, but Blaise’s forthright manner seemed disarming.
“Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but there are quite a few churches here in town already. With pretty sizable memberships. Where do you plan on getting your crowd from?”
“Again, I know this sounds a bit weird, but I am trusting the Lord to bring the people He knows need what will be offered. I don’t plan on stealing sheep,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling with a kind of mystery, “but I’m just remaining open to invite any and all who cross my path as I feel led. Does any of this make any sense?”
“Kind of, but I have to be honest with you. I will not be parishioner #1. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I am kind of done with church.”
“I understand. Ava hinted that you were close to reprobate status.” Again, the smile. It was hard to tell if he was as transparent as he appeared or just really good at faking.
“I’m sure Ava hinted at much more than that, but enough said. No, I don’t think you do understand, but that’s okay. I will think about your request and what would be a fair price for the rent if I decide to let you plant your thing. But I will have to get back to you. So, in the meantime, you can go about rounding up your unsuspecting flock.”
Blaise searched her face to see if she was joking. She smiled to let him off the hook, but there was a sharpness in her words that surprised even her. But she didn’t want to expose any wounds to a perfect stranger, even one who had brought in chocolate.
“Great!” Blaise headed for the door. “That’s all I ask. Today is Monday, so how about I drop by, say, Friday, to see what you’re thinking. Does that give you enough time?”
“Probably . . . maybe. I will think about it.”
“Then we can discuss it over coffee or maybe even a bite to eat, if that is okay.”
Blaise exited with a “See ya” and left Harper standing alone.