Winner of the 2006 Mistresses Of Malarkey "Best Gen Series" Award and 'Perfect' Award
By NotTasha... who's got some staying power
Annie Greer moved through the cramped aisles of Emma Chan’s store. Her hand touched the strange and exotic things. She breathed in the rare odors, half-disgusted by them, half-entranced. It smelled of earth, it smelled of rot, it smelled of animals, spice and perfume and far away places.
Here was the wealth of the world – little figures from India, tins of English tea, tiny bottles of French perfume, German wind-up toys, unidentifiable dried bits of roots, vegetables, animals and sea life, spices and herbs from all corners of the globe. Stone figures next to paper fans – things that would last forever, sharing shelf space with ephemeral delights. She lingered, carefully maneuvering her basket through the narrow aisle, exploring. In the front of her shop was all the fresh produce, but the back contained the world.
Mrs. Chan chatted, organizing a drawer, as Annie browsed. Annie, already finished with her daily shopping, was taking a trip around the globe. Mrs. Greer liked this part of her day – enjoyed the time she spent within the cramped store. Her heart beat a little faster as her eyes lit upon the eclectic mix of goods. She felt like a world traveler, an explorer, an adventuress, capable of anything.
She smiled at that thought, picturing herself in traveling togs, traveling by ship to far away places, jostling her way through crowded bazaars, exploring ancient ruins, swinging a machete through a jungle path – unbothered by the snakes that draped just over her head. Oh dear, Annie Greer, what are you thinking? She giggled and covered her mouth.
“You find something funny?” Mrs. Chan asked, as she puttered about behind the counter. Her eyes sparkled, ready to find the humor in Annie’s discovery. “I have many funny things.”
“Oh, Emma,” Mrs. Greer sighed, “I’m just being so silly, thinking about where all of this must have come from. How do you do it? How do you find so many interesting things to sell?”
“Easy,” the older woman said with a warm smile and her lovely accent. “Boston...New York... Baltimore. Everything comes in ships. You go to those places someday. You will see.” She gestured to the stuffed shelves. “Much more. You will see many places.”
Annie’s hand touched a red stone horse from China, knowing that this little store would be the extent of her travels. Next, she spotted a series of folded-paper cranes hanging from the ceiling, created from colorful paper and strung together. They could fly no further than Annie…she was a homebody, a local girl, a timid waif.
Emma, of course, had lived a much more exciting life than Annie could imagine. She’d been born in Pittsburgh, but spent most of her life submerged in the culture of the Chinese people, living almost as if she’d been born in that distant land. Oh, the stories she told about her childhood! Annie could hardly fathom that exotic life. Emma had married young and traveled all over the country, to the Orient and back, with her adventurous husband before settling here, in this harmless little town.
Even young Ezra had traveled more than Annie Greer. The tales the boy related revealed a bewildering list of temporary homes. From east to west, north to south, the boy had already seen much of this expanding country. Already, in his nine short years, he’d seen more than she ever would.
Ezra, she thought lovingly of the boy who shared her house – her pretend son -- her ephemeral child. There was something so dear about him – she just wanted to gather him into her arms and keep him forever. But, she knew that couldn’t happen. She knew that he’d stay only as long as Maude allowed – that the boy’s mother would return someday and take him away. Her expression lengthened at that sad thought. That day would come too early, she realized.
Even now, she couldn’t bear the thought of losing the boy. What would she do when he left? What sort of life would he be thrust into – without her? How would he feel – without her?
As Annie glanced about the chock-a-block store, a thought struck her. She’d get something for Ezra. She smiled as she came up with this plan. Yes, find a small gift for Ezra. Something he could keep, that he might be able to take with him as a memory of her – something that would last.
He asked for nothing and often seemed discomforted to be with her – as if he thought of himself as nothing more than a burden. She’d yet to break him out of the resolution. Maybe a little present would help. Maybe a gift would show him that he was ‘wanted’. And also, he’d seemed unnaturally glum lately. He needed something to brighten him up.
A little bin of marbles caught her eye and she drove her hand into the glass globs, marveling at how good the cool glass felt in her hand. Ezra, the boy that had been left at her door step, liked marbles, didn’t he?
There were few children on their street; mostly old men and women inhabited the stately lane. Of the few children along that route, most were older or younger than the nine-year-old, so Ezra had found few playmates. He seemed content to spend his days in reading – learning the piano -- playing cards with the officers at the police station – or exploring the town. Recently, he had taken up marbles. Some of the older boys had started playing nearby, and Ezra had joined in.
Ezra had a little tin can that he kept under his bed. One day, the can might brim – the next day it would appear nearly empty – but usually it stayed filled to exactly the same place. Ezra Severt would carry the can from the house, giving his “Auntie” a grin and a ‘goodbye’, to spend a few hours in play with some of the local boys. She had no idea where he’d gained the glass balls that started his collection – but he’d been able to make it grow rather quickly.
She’d watched him as he seriously played the game on the sidewalk: winning, losing, collecting his spoils, giving up his stake. Whether he won or lost, he’d come home with a self-satisfied look on his face and return the can to its hiding place, beside the box of matchsticks that he used as markers when he played poker. Still, he didn’t covet his marbles the way she’d seen other boys. She’d seen boys talking excitedly about their latest acquisitions, clutching their prizes, rolling them in their hands, picking through this bin with trembling hands. Ezra hardly touched his. He seemed to regard them, like his matchsticks, as little more than ‘markers’ and an excuse to gamble.
If she were to purchase some marbles for him – well, they’d go in the can with the others and disappear as Ezra worked to keep the can filled to the exact level at all times. No – not marbles then. There had to be something else he’d enjoy.
She moved down the aisle, her eyes searching for something special – something Ezra might like. There was a brass peacock, a beautiful blue candy dish, a collection of lead army men, a harmonica. She moved past them, not knowing – not knowing what the boy would like.
He had been living with her for two months. She should know what he liked! He liked card games. He enjoyed playing the piano. He liked to read. She glanced to the crowded shelves in Emma’s book section, and didn’t know what to get. The boy was quickly working his way through her library and seemed to want nothing outside of it. There was still plenty at home to peruse so it seemed silly to buy one more. Besides, a book is quickly read, and paper is so easily damaged. She wanted something more permanent.
What then? She moved through the store, searching. Emma, noting a change in Annie’s behavior, asked, “Annie, are you looking for something?”
“Oh, I’m not sure, Emma,” Annie said softly as she stepped along one side of the store, the wall where Mrs. Chan displayed all of her knick-knacks. Certainly, there would be something here the boy would like – but what? Why didn’t she know that boy better? Why couldn’t she figure out what he would like? He was such a secretive boy! Eager to agree with anything she suggested, whether or not he honestly liked it or not. He never seemed to show deference to anything.
I must find something he could keep, she thought. Something small enough to fit in that carpet bag. Her breath caught in her throat at that thought - a packed bag and a sad eyed boy at her doorstep. She returned her attention to finding the perfect gift. There were so many small figures along the shelves and counters, but they were hard and cold things, fragile and sharp things. She wanted to find something that would be soft in his hands, something he could hold when he was lonely – for she had seen that loneliness in his green eyes. She needed to find something that might assuage that lonesomeness, if only for a little while, when he was away from her.
She paused when something glinted at her – a flash of light on the tiniest piece of glass. She looked closer -- something peeping out from a dark corner of a shelf. She moved a jointed nutcracker, a boxed cuckoo clock, and a clever candle-powered windmill to stare into the glass eyes of a small black bear.
She pulled out the little creature. It stood on all fours, its back humped, its head down. It seemed to be a fierce little creature – strong and resilient. Annie settled it on the palm of one hand and turned it with the other. It was a beautiful little animal, tightly sewed and stuffed with sawdust. Little claws had been stitched on its paws to attest to its might. Its ‘fur’ was impressively short and bristled under her fingers. Its little triangle nose was carefully stitched at the end of its muzzle. Its little eyes had an intensity to them, as if the toy was staring down some other creature, but its mouth had a funny crook to it. Perhaps it was a mistake by the person who stitched it – perhaps the one who sewed its mouth had a sense of humor – but the mouth was uneven, as if the little bear was amused by something, smiling at some secret joke.
Annie smiled back.
“You like?” Emma asked as she shuffled out from behind her counter. “You like the bear?”
“I do,” Annie whispered in reply, as if a louder voice might startle the wild beast. “I just wonder if Ezra would like it.”
“Ezra!” Emma beamed at the mention of the boy. “Such a good boy.” She cocked her head, adding. “Naughty sometimes, but not bad.” When Annie gave her a queer look, the Chinese woman explained, “Those Campbell boys came in here one day. They were making mess.” She waved her hands about in demonstration. “Ezra, he come and tell them that their daddy be calling -- calling loud! They go in big hurry. Ezra told me he lied about Mr. Campbell calling.” She smiled. “He naughty, but not bad. He helped me fix things right.” She plucked the animal from Annie’s hand. “It’s a nice bear. I make better.”
Annie followed as Emma hurried back to her counter and then disappeared behind it. "Do you think Ezra will like it?” Annie asked. “He’s so grown up. Maybe it’s not a good toy.”
“He’s a little boy,” Emma declared as she pulled a clothing brush from a drawer and brushed the dusty bear. “Little boys like toys.”
“I don’t know,” Annie said, screwing up a frown. “Maybe I should get him a book.”
Emma kept brushing, bringing a shine to the bear’s pelt. “He will like this bear.”
“He’s like a little man,” Annie continued. “Sometimes, it’s as if he’s not a boy at all. I think I should get him something more adult.” She turned to further peruse the shelves.
“Ezra is a boy!” Emma insisted. “It is time that someone treated him like boy.” As she spoke, she dipped into her notions drawer and pulled out a spool of ribbon. “My Lisa, she grew so fast. One day, she was a little girl. Ribbons in her hair. Always playing with her dolly. Next day, a woman.” She cut off a length and quickly tied the ribbon around the bear’s neck, fixing it under its chin like a tie instead of at the back of its head. “A child should be a child. They are only young for so long. Too short a time.” She smiled at the result. The bear had a sophisticated look. “He will like it.”
“I don’t know,” Annie continued, as Emma Chan nestled the little bear into her basket and totaled her purchases.
“He will like it,” Emma reiterated with a wink.
Annie Greer unpacked her purchases for the day, and settled them in their proper places. Only the little black bear had no place to go. She set him on the table, wondering how she’s present it to the grown-up boy who temporarily lived with her. Ezra was often jocular and talkative, finding novelty everywhere. But, just as often, he fell into somber moods. She didn’t know how he’d take the little bear with the jaunty expression. He’d either laugh at it and make the gift a joke, or maybe be annoyed by it -- think it was just a silly child’s toy.
She contemplated putting it away, but before she could move, there was a creak of the door and a voice called out, “Aunt Annie, I’m home.” Ezra walked in through the front door and smiled at her. His eyes had that distant look to them again and he held his hands behind his back as he came toward her. His gaze flashed to the bear on the table, but he lingered for only a moment on it before he approached her.
“Did you enjoy your shopping excursion?” he asked pleasantly.
“Yes, I had a very nice chat with Mrs. Chan,” Annie returned. “And where have you been all day?”
Ezra paused a moment, as if to come up with a story, but seemed to discard that idea as he responded, “I was at the train station.”
“All day?” Annie asked, concern tingeing her voice.
“Yes ma’am. I thought….perhaps there might be an important shipment today.” Realizing that he’d said something odd, Ezra stopped. To change the topic, he stated, “There’s a bear on your table.”
Annie gestured the boy to the table and they sat down side-by-side. The bear looked back at him with its glass eyes. “I bought it for you,” she said timidly and bit her lip. “You can do whatever you want with it. You don’t have to like it if you don’t want to.”
Ezra stared at the sawdust-stuffed animal somberly. He touched it carefully, feeling the short fur. He ran one finger over the top of its tan muzzle, as if carefully patting it. “It’s very nice,” he stated, withdrawing the finger. "What’s it for?”
“It’s for you to play with… if you like,” Annie explained, feeling stupid.
Ezra colored, as if embarrassed and stated, “I meant to say, ‘why did you purchase it?’”
Annie shrugged nervously. “It’s just a little gift. A little gift for you.” She continued in a rush, watching as the boy gently touched the red ribbon. “I saw it at Mrs. Chan’s. It’s silly, I know, but I thought you might like it. I wanted to get something special for you...just for you.”
The boy drew his hands into his lap, cocked his head and gazed back at the widow. “How did you know?” he asked solemnly.
“Know? Know what, Ezra?”
Ezra clenched his hands together in his lap and whispered, “How did you know it was my birthday today?”
Annie sighed, realizing the reason for Ezra’s sullen mood, understanding immediately why the boy had spent the day at the train station, knowing that he had spent hours there, hoping for something to arrive. Oh Maude, she thought, how can you treat him like this? No letter, no gift, no message at all? He waited all day for nothing.
She wrapped one arm around the slim boy and drew him close. She stated softly, “I just wanted to get you something today because you’re very special to me.”
“I am?” the boy asked softly, unsure.
“Yes,” Annie responded, blinking. "Very special."
The child reached one hand out again to scratch the little nose. “Can I keep it?” he asked softly.
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Annie replied, keeping the surprise from her voice.
“Forever?” Ezra asked, tilting his head to meet her eyes.
Annie paused, wondering about the boy. She knew so little about his past, but she figured he rarely had anything that was his-very-own. He arrived with only a carpetbag of clothing. He must have lost so many things, she thought. He has no concept of ‘forever’. Everything in his life has been ‘temporary’. He can’t even count on his mother to be there for him -- forever. She nodded tightly. “You can keep it as long as you like -- forever.”
He continued to pet it – patiently, carefully, solemnly – on its little tan muzzle. “Thank you,” he whispered softly.
Annie Greer held Ezra Severt as he caressed the little animal. As she ran the back of her hand across his cheek, she wondered how to teach the boy about forever.
Ezra Standish, gambler extraordinaire and lawman from Four Corners, ambled happily down the stuffed aisles of the Import shop. He had lost Buck and the others somewhere in the strange town. They were probably at one of the saloons, the restaurant, bathhouse or whorehouse. It didn’t matter to Standish. When Ezra had spotted the sign outside of “Mrs. Lee’s Market”, he couldn’t resist taking a stroll through the bursting store.
He breathed in deeply, smelling those same exotic scents, flooding his mind with recollections of Mrs. Chan’s… remembering the days spent within those walls, helping her unpack the marvels that arrived from around the world, stocking shelves, sweeping, talking. And he remembered Aunt Annie. He smiled, relishing the memories. Aunt Annie, dear Aunt Annie.
Mrs. Lee sat behind the counter looking like Mrs. Chan. She watched the gambler with amused eyes as he regarded the overstuffed shelves – filled with anything and everything. “You look for something special?” Mrs. Lee asked. “You need help find?”
“No, no,” Ezra assured as he moved through the memories, “I am quite content to browse your wares. It’s a little like traveling the world.”
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Lee said, grinning widely. “We have everything, everything you want.”
Ezra moved slowly, taking it all in – finding familiar objects everywhere. The red stone horse, the paper fans – heavy permanent figures side-by-side with things that could not last. All of it drew him back to that happy time in his life.
He came to a sudden halt as something caught his eye. Something glinted, as if the light was caught by a tiny piece of glass. Taking a moment to push aside a tiny Bavarian cottage, a green hinged box and a crystal bowl, he revealed a little black bear with a humped back.
He pulled it out and marveled at the sawdust-stuffed animal. It looked so much like his “Horatio”, the bear he had owned as a child. He turned it over slowly, noting the same careful stitching, the intense glass eyes, the crooked smile that made the bear look like he was contemplating doing something naughty.
Of course, his Horatio’s bristly hair had become threadbare in time, he’d lost one eye, spilled sawdust through split seams that were eternally being re-sewed. His stiff little legs had stopped supporting him, but his quirky little smile always remained – always laughing at some secret thing.
Ezra held the new bear carefully, staring back at its perplexing expression – solemn eyes and a laughing mouth. He’d loved his little bear, had kept it safe and perfect on his bed stand while he’d lived in Aunt Annie’s house. Later, once they'd parted ways, the bear had become mashed down when he slept with it, and its pretty little face had become disfigured, its muzzle bent from his perpetual petting. Horatio’s fur wore away from being clutched tightly on those bad days after he’d left Annie’s care, had become matted and ruined by being held close to his face.
Horatio had been one of the few objects that he’d been able to keep with him as he moved from place to place – a dirty, mangled bear that he was too old for (Maude told him so much). Then one day, when they moved by train from south to north, he discovered the bear was gone. Maude had been indifferent at his distress. “You’re too old for such silly things, darling son,” she had said while she pulled him to his feet. “It really was an awful old thing. Now, be mother’s little man and get ready. I don’t have time for your childish sullenness.”
And he got over it.
But he’d loved that bear. Annie had told him that the bear was his forever – yet he’d only had it for two years before it had been lost. Ezra smiled as he held this new bear. Carefully he ran one finger over its tan muzzle, petting it gently as he had once caressed his Horatio.
Forever, he realized, is a very long time and stuffed toys are ephemeral things – bound to be loved-up by little children – bound to be worn down and eventually left behind.
As he gazed at the little bear, he thought of his Aunt Annie and smiled gratefully at the memory of the gentle woman who’d taken the time to love him. He’d never forget her – the memory of the woman would be with him always – through everything -- forever.
“You like bear?” Mrs. Lee called from behind counter.
“Yes, very much,” Ezra said, still cradling the creature.
“There is child somewhere? A child somewhere who would like?”
“Yes,” Ezra said softly, “Somewhere…” He set the bear down at the front of the shelf where someone might have a better chance of finding it, so that they could eventually love the stuffing out of it. He smiled at the kind old lady, tipped his hat, and went on his way.
THE END - by NotTasha
On to the next Annie Greer Story? Home of the Brave
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