He sighed as he set the last bottle on the shelf.
Bufferman’s Gin, extra dry, all one needs for a brand new smile.
Reading the label alone did make him smile, no consumption necessary. Grover wiped his brow. That did it for the morning’s work, all forty minutes. He looked around the shop. He sneezed as he caught sight of the sun glaring on the tops of sardine cans near the front of the store. Some colors of dust were in the air. Grover sniffed and rubbed at his damp eyes.
“Needs a sweeping,” he said. “That’ll be a fine project for the afternoon.”
With everything in order, even the aerial dirt, he returned to his armchair behind the checkout stand. It was a well-beaten chair, submissive and supple. Beside it was that hexagonal table that he loved and needed; only enough room for a book spread out to mark place in lieu of a card, and a little ashbowl with a divot to rest one’s pipe in. Hoorah for ingenuity. Hooray for innovation. Grover took his resting instrument from its place and put his feet up on a stool. The tobacco was only half burnt, completely cold after forty minutes of neglect. Nevermind. Grover’s chrome lighter was out of his pocket in a swoop. Tink went the tiny hinge, the wheel was coaxed and the flint was carved, and up came a flame to redeem all things cold and ashen.
Ox would be in later, he mused. Mr. Ox himself. It was Tuesday. Tuesday was an Oxday. But before that, probably some bevy of widows, delighting in liberty. Or a stray kid playing his day of truancy like a fool. Or was it summer vacation? Grover sniffed and shook his head, delighted not to know. He put stem to mouth and drew a crackly stream of cherry smoke.
The store was everything he could ever have hoped for. Four walls, a backroom, windows only in the front. Shelves on the wall and shelves in the center. What was your pleasure? Enter at the front door and exhale some relief at no grating ring of vicious bell. Just the creak of a hinge and the clomp of your own foot stepping onto the wooden earth within. Grover’s Store. Perhaps it was the wrong place for groceries or bread. But if you were in need of sardines, they greet you in the entryway. If you’re low on gin, there’s a rack of tall glass bottles always stocked. Flowers? Fresh ones from Cornella’s garden outside of town: daisies, geraniums, carnations, irises. Buy them quick before Grover lets them fade and must telephone Cornella for another order. Books? Yes, and plenty. The entire left wall bore a hundred old tales: adventures, philosophy, religion, poetry, all especially scented by the insular smoke of Grover’s pipe. At the checkout stand was an icy mass of mechanical complication. The register, perhaps the oldest object in the store, all chrome black and as large as a crate. Each tap of each number made a guttural squawk, and the cash drawer would shoot out like a jack-in-the-box.
Grover sat in his chair. Soon he refilled his pipe. His current book had green covers and red lettering on its binding. The more engrossing the tale, the quicker he puffed. It was a story about an old trapper living in a new metropolis, where everything was noise and headlights from cars, and the hero was currently lost in its jazz district after a night out.
The door of the Store opened at 11:24, and Grover slapped the book downward on his table, rising with a flinch from his chair, pipe still blooming from his lips. It wasn’t Ox. The customer was one Sam Fuller. Nice enough fellow, just a clerk at City Hall, not much for vocalization unless absolutely necessary. Mr. Fuller nodded to Grover and plunged his way among the shelves, searching for something private until purchase, where all secrets were revealed to the storekeep. Grover knew Mr. Fuller to be a deliberate shopper, so there was no point in finding his way back to the chair and advancing the book by two more sentences. Not much happened in two sentences. A useless description, a line of dialogue revealing some bland thought of the lead character. Grover sniffed. “I should have lunch soon,” he thought to himself.
Soon it was that Mr. Fuller arrived at the checkout. A nice bouquet of pansies, and a tin of hard chewable gum. Grover eyed the pale, slick face across from his.
“Good morning, Mr. Fuller,” said Grover.
“Good morning, Mr. Gilpin,” said Sam Fuller, his eyes on the flowers, his free hand on the counter with the exact amount of bills and coins for the whole arrangement.
“That’s settled all right,” said Grover taking the money. “I just restocked the gin. Running dry, I bet?”
“No gin, thank you,” said Fuller.
“As you say,” said Grover.
Fuller was already off and away to the door, bouquet stiffly pressed against his blazer as he retreated.
“Good luck, then!” called Grover as the door shut. He smiled and blew a solo smoke ring.
After lunch he unlocked the door and opened the store for the afternoon. Sweeping slipped his mind; he spent another hour in his chair moving through the story of his book while he let his stomach slowly sort out its contents. A grumble indicated the bread was accounted for, a whine announced the egg and ham were tended to, and a long series of humming dealt with the soda and apple. Another forty pages turned before the front door opened again. Grover stood to attention, seeing a pink beehive and a stout set of hips marching into the place. Mrs. White, mid-sentence, went all round the shop picking up her preferred items. She didn’t so much as greet Grover as she directed her conversation toward him, explaining she was in a terrible rush, and when she reached the counter and dropped a new nylon bundle of rope, a copy of a news magazine, and a jar of pickles to be rung up, she talked and talked even after he’d told her the total. Mrs. White remained at her station and spoke, her pink beehive nodding as she informed him on the new drugstore opening next month over on the main square, surely some competition he should fear. The salmon daggers on the end of each finger nipped at the counter in a rise-and-fall pattern while she told Grover about all kinds of things: a funny picture she’d seen the night before, her husband’s attempts to plant cucumbers in the backyard, the mayor’s pneumonia coming back after everyone thought all was well. Grover smiled and managed an “Oh?” and a “Mhm” and a “So I’ve heard” every now and then, but they came as the yips of a small dog confronting a barking Doberman in the height of its proclamations. Twenty minutes of this exhausted the monologue at last, and she went out the door with her paper bag, off to resume the terrible rush she was in. Grover clicked his tongue and shook his head, putting the money she’d left in the monstrous register. He leaned an elbow on the counter and looked at the framed poster on the wall behind him. It was an advertisement from ten years before. A woman holding a soda in a glass, with the words YOU’RE THIRSTY until you have a Bunny Cherry soda! beside her. There were a few cases of Bunny Cherry soda somewhere in the store, sitting at the base of some shelf or at the middle of some rack. But Grover liked the color of the painting; he hadn’t chosen it for its salesmanship. The drink in her hand was glistening bright. The happy model’s face was sharp and her lips red as a matchstick. In the glare of the glass frame he saw a bit of himself, the same old face he saw morning and night when he brushed his teeth. The gruff mustache and the little chin growing from it. Grover picked up his pipe and blew a cloud at the reflection, concealing Ms. Bunny in a genie’s entrance.
After chapter 9 had come to a discouraging conclusion, the door opened yet again, and there came Ox, striding right into the store as if he had always belonged there. Wearing his great double-breasted coat, hands in pockets, giant black boots twice as big as any man’s feet. Dressed for the winter, though it was plenty warm outside. Smiling. And blinking his round blue eyes. Big circle glasses covered the top of his face.
“Well, Ox, what do you know?” said Grover. He tapped the bowl of his pipe on the counter as if to call to order a meeting.
“First family of geese headed southbound this morning across the lake,” said Ox walking right up to the counter. He had a jaw that could knock you over and a humble roman nose perched above it. His bald head, perfectly muted in its greenish hue, slight ridges hinting at the scaly nature of his skin.
“Is that right?” said Grover. “Seems early for that. What month is it?”
“September,” said Ox. “Do you have my cigar?”
“A whole box,” said Grover already setting a wooden capsule of leaf and leisure on the countertop. Ox, or Oxx-Orx, as he had first introduced himself, snapped two of his six fingers and grinned.
“Summon your sun and we’ll have a proper conversation going,” said Ox plucking a cigar from the box. Grover laughed and procured his lighter from his pocket, kicking up a flame for the friend. Summon your sun; it must have been a saying from Ox’s planet. Grover couldn’t remember any earthman using it.
“There’s a bear somewheres nearby,” said Ox. “Daniel Hush told me the other day. Brown, not black.”
“Daniel Hush? Heh. Him who told you, it was likely someone’s dog who’d run loose, not a bear. Even likelier it was a dream Daniel’d had after seeing a bear in a nature journal.”
“This is a region where bears sometimes appear,” said Oxx-Orx. “I have read about it. I’ve seen them by my cabin sometimes, black ones.”
“I’ll hold my breath,” said Grover.
Ox smiled and puffed his cigar. This was always a treat, because not only would smoke come out of his mouth and nose—sometimes it snuck out of his small earholes. Some quirk in the way his physiology was rigged. So when Ox smoked, his head became an incense burner; lit candles in an exotic green vessel. It’d been about a year that he’d arrived in Hickory town, though he said he came to earth a few years back. He’d tried out several of the big cities in the northeast and found they weren’t what he was after. So he found Hickory, bought a cabin near the lake, and came to Grover’s stores on Tuesdays and Fridays.
“How’s your research?” asked Grover.
Oxx-Orx was not finished with his puffing. Five streams of smoke and a ruby in his mouth. The Store was becoming dim between the two of them. Grover bit down on his pipe and scuttled to the front of the shop, leaning into a display alcove, knocking over a prominent bouquet of irises, and cracked two of the tall windows. By the time he returned to the counter, Ox was batting off an end of ash.
“Going good,” said Ox. “I spent most of the morning in the lake. The trout are wild in the earlier morning.”
“Boy, what a knack,” said Grover. “You don’t know how lucky you are to breathe under water like a fish. We had to invent all kinds of apparatuses, and we still have to come up for air at some point.”
“So do I,” said Ox pushing his glasses up to his forehead. The lenses were so large on his green face, it was like two diver’s helmets placed side by side.
“Oh, it’s not even fair to say that,” said Grover blowing a ring.
“At least you aren’t cold year round,” said Ox.
“Go west, then,” said Grover. “Go south. They’ve got deserts and red mountains. Go summon your own sun there.”
“One day, maybe,” said Ox. “There aren’t lakes in your deserts. I’ve got all the subjects I need here. You have a wide world, here, Grover. More diverse in many ways than my home. It’s quite a treat just to see one part of it, and to know so much more waits if one gets the inclination.”
“I guess that’s true.”
“I heard your mayor wants to buy a farm,” said Ox.
“Huh?” said Grover. “What farm?”
“I don’t know,” said Ox. “A farm.”
“Who said that?”
“The fat woman with the pink hair,” said Oxx-Orx. “Every time I see her she demands I stop and listen to her for as long as she pleases. She scratches at the air with her claws when she speaks. She went through four cigarettes before she was satisfied to move. Said the mayor would probably buy a farm this week.”
Grover stood there, giggling in his sawdust way, pipe in mouth and eyes rolling at the account.
“That’s Mrs. Bethany Janet White,” said Grover. “In here, I’m her captive audience. But if I see her on the street like you, I duck into the nearest door, alleyway, or gutter that’ll have me.”
“Oh, she’s not so bad as that, Grover,” said Ox.
“Try living in the same town as her for twenty years,” said Grover. “How have you never talked to her since moving to Hickory?”
“I have,” said Ox. “I just didn’t know her name.”
“Funny that for all her talk, she forgets to introduce herself,” said Grover. “Must think everyone knows it already.”
“Anyway, what’s this about a farm?” asked Ox.
“Ah, well, that’s not so funny news,” said Grover. “But like usual, Mrs. Pinkhair is overstating present matters. Buying the farm is more about dying than buying. The mayor’s sick again, that’s all. Just some silly pneumonia. He’ll knock it.”
Ox nodded his head politely, making sense of the gossip. If he had an eyebrow he would have raised in with quiet condescension, but instead he took up his cigar again.
“And how is your special lady?” asked Ox sending a ghostly torpedo toward the Bunny Cherry poster behind Grover.
“Hm?” Grover said, and turned around, glancing at his guardian angel and her shimmering soda glass. “Oh, she’s holding up. Stands there and looks pretty. Say, I thought up a revision to the perfect night out.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“So,” Grover took another draught from his pipe to ready himself, then sent it away where the other kind of draft snatched and pulled it toward the windows, christening the sardine cans, “we’re talking about the perfect date, here. You know I watch all the young bucks run around this town with their velvety buds, acting like they’ve got ten prongs each and are the strongest thing around. And what do they do? They meet a girl and turn into puppies, and paw at the ground with their sneakers, and ask them to go rollerskating or see a picture, where all you do is sit darkly in a quiet room. And the older young people in this town are worse; they ought to know what they’re about by now. But it’s the same bag of tricks as the schoolboys; roller-rinks and cinemas. And so the girls play along, counting the days in their head till they go off to university, or some new fellow comes to town and can talk about a book or politics or simply advise they take a walk round the park.”
“You’re beginning to sound your age,” said Ox.
“Hm? Oh, if you’d met me when I was a young man I’d sound the same, my complaints might be in clearer voice. But the perfect date, the perfect evening to invite a little lady on. You start by giving her a gift. You’ll give her a gift at the beginning and end of the date. The first gift has to be perishable, of some kind. You don’t want to obligate her to carry around a book or flowers all evening. So, a bon-bon, or nice brass pin.”
Ox smiled and smoked, listening like a student, thinking as a parent, where a child stood before him and explained an imaginary friend.
The door opened again. It was no Mrs. White nor Mr. Fuller nor grubby roving child. Ox and Grover stood to attention as they comprehended the visitor. She usually came on Mondays, and Grover had wondered where she’d been the day before, and assumed she was out of town visiting her mother. It was Essie King. Goodness, there she was.
“Hi ya Grover!” she said going straight to the counter like a bee. “Oh, hello there Mr. Oxx-Orx. How’s the book?”
“Good afternoon,” said Ox. “Fine, fine.”
“Ms. King, why are you here on a Tuesday?” asked Grover tapping some ash from his pipe into the bowl he shared with Ox.
“I got all mixed up recently,” said Essie. “Caught a cold on Saturday, slept right through Sunday, thought Monday was Sunday, and you know how it is. But I’m alive again. I was horrified, Grovey, horrified sitting around my little house with the sniffles and an easy fever—”
“Why were you horrified, Ms. King?”
“Well of course I decided to get sick and run out of paints in the same weekend,” said Essie.
“Oh!” said Grover sympathetically. “Well I have plenty in the backroom.” He set his pipe on the counter and shuffled his stiff legs, moving off toward the other end of the store. He didn’t get far. Not past the counter’s end.
“I know where they are,” said Essie. “Be back in a blink.” The storekeep and the alien nodded politely and the young woman was gone. They could hear her rustling around in the backroom, glass clinks and some scraping sound of something being pushed aside.
“What were we talking about?” asked Grover.
“I don’t know if I remember,” said Ox pulling at his cigar again.
Presently she returned with a little cardboard cage of bottles blue, red, yellow, violet, and white. “Ring me up for some carnations too. I haven’t painted them in a while.” She left the bottles on the counter and went her way to the other side of the shop, doing every bit of Grover’s work for him, other than wrestling the absurd cash register. He rang her up, and she returned with a bouquet, looking like she carried a strange cake covered in a blanket of red clusters of frosting. Some of the petals were a little brown on their edges.
“You’re letting them die again, Grovey,” said Essie with a tsk. “That’s all right. One gets tired of sentimental paintings. Something pretty with a little age on it isn’t so bad. We’re all pretty and aging, aren’t we?” She laughed. Grover snickered and Ox smiled kindly.
“Be needing any tobacco today, Ms. King?” Grover asked with a winking smile.
“You know I don’t smoke,” said Essie King sticking out her tongue at him. “I would buy a bottle of gin but I’m still whittling down what I got last month.” She paid and gathered up her things.
“Going already?” asked Grover.
“I’ve got to, Grovey,” said Essie with a frown. “I’ve got all sorts of errands now that I’m alive again. You still owe me a job. I keep telling him, Mr. Oxx-Orx, how Grover’s Store needs a nice bold portraiture of its founder hanging where that silly soda poster is. Right up there. I’ll paint you too, Mr. Oxx-Orx. Do they paint on your planet?”
“They don’t, actually,” said Ox. “I’ll have to take you up on that offer one day.”
“And I never said I’d let you paint me,” said Grover. “You paint flowers all day. What do you need an ugly ragged skeleton for?”
“Oh, you goof,” said Essie. “You’re not a day over thirty-five, Grovey. You guys have a heck of an afternoon!” And she was gone. Gone rumbling, roaring her spirit down the thin mainstreet of Hickory. Her paint-bottles like elixirs of old clay and magic, her bouquet covering them like some forgotten plant nursing from an ancient well, now that it was Essie King who carried them.
“She’s some kind of amusing, that gal,” said Grover.
“Some kind,” said Ox lighting a second cigar, summoning another sun. “You ought to take her on your perfect date, when you’ve achieved the formula.”
“No, no,” said Grover. “Heh. A day over thirty-five. Some life I led in thirty-five years to look this way. I’m an old man, Ox. My date will be for the sport of it, for some lady who needs a nice evening. Ms. King deserves far more than that. Every day she lives is a good one. She wouldn’t be charmed by a calculated romantic formula. And she’s like a little lost niece of mine, reacquainted. I already married the best of the best long ago, and that’s over and done. I’m content to slowly mummify myself with pipe-smoke peddling odds-and-ends.
“Well all right then,” said Ox, puffing.
They talked the rest of the afternoon, before Oxx-Orx finally paid for his box of cigars and the other supplies he’d come for, then left. The Store closed at 6:00. Grover locked it up and walked down the sidewalk toward home, whistling a few songs all jumbled together. He thought about coffee and a magazine. He had to go the longer way, though, because on North St. he saw Mrs. White dragging her Jack Russell on a leash, glancing about for anyone who had ears.