A Little Pride in Joy

by


     They met in June. She was working in the back of the General Store, rinsing out old mason jars to be used for pickling and storing preserves and jams. The sweltering heat of the Georgia sun was unforgiving; dime-sized sweat drops fell from her forehead and raced down her back. Her thin cotton top clung to her body as she finished her task and walked back inside. The General Store had been in Charlotte’s family since the establishment of the small town back in the late 1890s. Her father had handed the reins to Peter when they married and her father had fallen ill. For over twenty years, she and Peter worked side by side, her handling most of the clerical work and manning the front of the store, while Peter took to all of the laborious tasks. Everything in the small town of Joy revolved around the General Store, the nearest city being nearly 100 miles away. Charlotte had grown up around many, if not all, of the residents. Everyone was almost like family.


     The store had had only one owner for nearly two years now. Since the accident. The townspeople had offered to lend Charlotte a hand, alternating days to help cover the workload, but she’d refused. She’d rise before the sun, making her way down the unpaved road from her small cottage to the store, her work boots covered in red dust by the time she arrived. She’d walk around back, stopping to pull daffodils to stick in her front overall pocket, before unlocking the doors and opening the store for customers. She’d fill orders, ring up customers—allowing those who were unable to pay to put it on a tab—, clean and stock produce throughout the day, by herself. And she was fine with that.

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     That day she’d been in the back with the mason jars when she’d heard the bell on the front door ring. Someone had come inside. She’d wiped her hands on her pantsleg, swiped the hair and sweat from her face, and walked inside.

     “Good mornin’,” she’d called out, as she made her way to the counter.

     “Mornin’ ma’m,” he’d answered, respectfully removing his cap and nodding. He couldn’t have been more than twenty years old. Strong jawline, piercing blue eyes, and the stature of a lumberjack. As he stood there with his arms folded across his chest, she could see the ripples of his muscles failing horribly to be concealed by his oversized t-shirt. Her eyes slowly scanned the young man from head to toe, her breath surprisingly caught in her throat. She was unaware of the span of the silence when he spoke again. “My dad sent me down here.”

     “Your dad?” Charlotte still had not recognized who he was.

     “Thomas. Wellford. We stay up the road a ways. By the old saw mill.”

     “Of course, Tom. How is he? Haven’t seen him about in a while.”

     “Dad’s well. Had a coughing fit a few days ago, but Mom’s tending to him. He’d planned on coming down to help out around the store. That’s why I’m here. He wanted me to come and help.”

     Charlotte sighed. “I told him I didn’t need any help. I can manage just fine.”

     “The grass is getting high out back. I can cut it for you if you want.” He looked toward the back door. Charlotte started to protest, but he continued. “Look, I’m home for the summer. My younger brothers are already keeping up things around the house, so I need something to do. It’s no big deal, really.”

     “There’s a mower out in the shed.” Charlotte pointed to the small rick rack shed behind the store. The young man turned to walk out. “Wait! What’s your name?”

     “Aaron, ma’m.” He tipped his hat and smiled.

     In no time, he’d found the mower and had gotten to work mowing the grass. He worked meticulously and efficiently, only stopping momentarily to wipe the sweat from his brow. When Charlotte went out to offer him water a little while later, he’d taken off his shirt and draped it over his head. She stood, holding the cup of water, waiting for him to finish the patch of grass he was tending to. Noticing her, he stopped and walked over. It wasn’t until then she realized how tall he was. He seemed to tower over her, his short dirty blonde hair shimmering in the sunlight. She fought the sudden urge to run her fingers through it, shaking the thought from her head and instead handing him the cup.

     “I thought you might be thirsty. It’s quite hot out here.” She averted her attention to the freshly cut grass rather than meet his gaze. Even though she knew she was at least ten years his senior, she felt oddly shy and self-conscious suddenly.

     “Thank you. I’m almost done here. Is there anything else you need me to do?”

     “I’m working on a new shelf for the preserves. It’s nearly done, but if you want something to do...” Charlotte heard the front bell ring again. “I’ll be back. I have customers.” She hurried inside while Aaron resumed mowing.

     “Good morning Edna,” Charlotte greeted. Making her way over to the counter, she took a few deep breaths to ease her shaky hands.

     “Mornin’,” the old woman replied, slowly looking at the shelves.

     “What you needing today?”

     “Just some basics. A little flour and sugar. Got any peaches this morning?” Edna selected her items and eased over to the counter.

     “Not today. I’ll have some tomorrow. Gonna go out and pick some a little bit later. I was running some errands yesterday and didn’t get a chance to grab some.”

     “You should get some help round here. I know it hasn’t been easy since Peter’s passing, but you gon’ work yourself ragged Charlotte. I knows you got your pride and all, but I tell you, it’s just not right for a woman like you to be out here working so hard morning in and morning out all the time.”

     “I know, Edna. Thomas’ eldest son came by to help out. He’s out back now.”
“Oh? Aaron? He’s a nice lad. Heard he was back home. He’d gone up north to a university. I can’t recall the name of it. Tom and Martha were so proud of him. They say he wants to be a doctor. We could use one round here. Doc Jenkins is getting’ up there in age these days. I can’t afford to go to the big city doctors. Lord knows they charge an arm and a leg. And I don’t have that kind of money. Harold’s leg has been bothering him again. I think it’s the gout, but he won’t get it checked out. That man don’t ever listen. So stubborn. When they have to chop it off, he’ll wish he’d listened.”

     “Did you want me to set aside some peaches for you tomorrow?” Charlotte knew if she didn’t say something Edna was likely to talk for hours. Usually, she wouldn’t mind the old lady’s rambles, but today was different. There was something, rather someone, else she’d rather focus on.

     “Oh yes, darling. I’ll be back to get them. You have a nice day now,” Edna gathered her stuff and left.

     Charlotte turned her attention to the back of the store. Aaron had finished the grass and had found the shelves Charlotte had been trying to build. The echoes of the rhythmic tapping of the hammer echoed loudly inside the store. The sounds grew louder as she went toward where Aaron was working. She stood watching intently as his arm lifted up and came down hard against the wood repeatedly. Up and down. Up and down. Her heartbeat raced at the sight.

     Surely, the heat was getting to her.

     Perhaps, she thought, he reminded her of Peter. When he was younger. When they’d first fallen in love. She recalled the mirth he’d had in his youth, the vigor, the life. After the accident, she’d vowed to never love another. Peter was her first love. Her only love. Words couldn’t describe the pain she felt when he died. She remembered wanting to just jump in the casket along with him as they had lowered him into the ground. She saw no purpose in living if he wasn’t beside her. She’d turned all of her focus into the store since then. Day in and day out, she worked. She worked to not remember. She worked to forget.

     “It’s finished.” Shaken from her daydream, Charlotte looked around. Aaron was standing next to the completed shelf, hammer dangling from his hand.

     “Oh. Thank you. It looks wonderful.” She looked toward the wooden structure.

     “Anything else? I heard you talking with Ms. Edna about peaches. Need any help with that?”

     “You’re serious about helping, aren’t you?” Charlotte forced a laugh.

     “Yes ma’m. So, where are they?”

     “Where are what?” Charlotte looked confused.

     “The peaches.” Aaron laughed. “Maybe you should get out of the heat.”

     “There are a couple of trees by my house. Down the road. Let me close up and I’ll show you.” Charlotte walked inside the store, hung the “closed for lunch” sign in the window, and returned back outside where Aaron was waiting. “Let’s go.”

     The two walked along the red clay road down to Charlotte’s small cottage in silence. Clouds of red dust circled Aaron’s feet as he kicked the road. Charlotte wondered what thoughts clouded his young mind. What kind of life did he have in the big city? What were his aspirations? Had he ever been in love?

     They walked behind the cottage to where a row of peach trees stood, creating shadows in the backyard. Aaron spotted a basket near the base of one of the trees, and immediately went over to it. Charlotte admired his dedication. Without any direction, he began filling the basket with the golden treats. She watched as he haphazardly snatched the fruit from the tree and tossed it into the basket, not noticing there were some with bruises.

     “You have to make sure they’re good,” she called out. He stopped and stared down at the basket. Seeing the few bruised ones, he grabbed them and held them up to her.

     “You mean these?” He asked.

     “Yes, those.” Charlotte walked over to where he stood. Aaron reached into his pocket and took out a pocketknife. He cut away the discolored skin of the peach, revealing its soft, pink flesh.

     “Bite,” he whispered. Charlotte looked up at him confused. “Bite,” he said again, holding the peach close to her mouth. She leaned in and took a bite, surprised at the sweetness. Trails of juice slowly slid down the sides of her mouth. With the back of his hands, Aaron gently wiped them. Charlotte felt her body tense as she continued chewing.

     “It’s sweet,” she finally said, looking into his eyes.

     “Sometimes…beneath the scars and bruises…there is something beautiful. You just have to look deeper than the surface.” He put the fruit to his mouth and took a large bite. As he methodically munched on it, he kept his eyes fixated on Charlotte. It seemed as if her heart stopped, her breath caught in her throat.

     “We, we need to hurry so I can get back to the store,” she stammered. Aaron went back to filling the baskets. When they’d filled two baskets, they each picked one up and carried it back to the store. Once there, Aaron helped her sort and store the peaches. They worked systematically and quietly, not saying a word, but the silence spoke a mouthful. Charlotte caught herself smiling as she did when she and Peter had worked alongside each other. She thought she’d seen a smile on his face, for a split second. He stayed at the store until closing, finding small tasks to do to keep busy and help out. Charlotte began to protest, but realized that she didn’t mind the company.

She figured Aaron had done enough ‘helping out’ that day, but was surprised to see him waiting for her the next morning on the porch of the store.

“You’re back.”

“Didn’t have anything else to do today. Knew there was something I could find to do around here.” he stood up and waited for her to open the door. Perhaps she imagined it, but she swore she felt his warm breath on the back of her neck, as he stood behind her, waiting for her to unlock the door. Again, her body tensed. This was strange. No one had had this kind of effect on her. No one. She finally managed to open the door and they walked inside. She took her place behind the counter, as Aaron busied himself in the back of the store.

This was the routine every day for the rest of the summer. Aaron would be waiting for her when she arrived in the morning. Sometimes, he’d meet her halfway and they would walk the road together in silence. She had so many questions to ask him, but never did. Somehow the silence comforted her. One day he surprised her with a remark as they made their way to the store.
“You’re different from what they say.” The comment had come from nowhere. Charlotte looked up at him, but he was staring toward the morning sky.

“From what? Who is ‘they’?” she asked.

“People in town. I hear them talking sometimes. About you.”

“What do they say?” Charlotte questioned. She had no idea people were talking about her.

“Just things. About you being stubborn and how you work too much…since your husband died. People saying you haven’t gotten over what happened even though it’s been years.”

“So how do you think I’m different from what they’ve said?” Charlotte stopped walking. There was irritation in her voice. Aaron slowed his pace and looked back at her. When she didn’t move, he turned and walked back toward her. A knot formed in her throat as she struggled to swallow. That all too familiar tenseness returned as he reached his hand out and cupped the side of her face. She didn’t know if he was going to kiss her, but suddenly she hoped that he did. But he didn’t. He didn’t move. He didn’t answer her question. He only stared at her.

“Bruised peaches,” he finally said, turning and continuing his trek down the road.

The following week Aaron returned to school. There weren’t any formal goodbyes or anything of the kind. Charlotte found a single daffodil lying on the doorstep when she arrived to the store that morning. She picked it up and stuck in her pocket. And smiled. She smiled all day after. By the time winter came around, she had regular help in the store. Instead of spending day in and day out working, she only came in for a few hours. The rest of the time, she spent at home on her front porch, enjoying her canned peach preserves from the summer.

 

 

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