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  FICTION - SHORT FICTION

Time and the Ancient Retailer

By Michael Jesse

It's after 7 p.m. and I make my way through the coffeehouse, pouring refills and collecting tabs. We cater to a lot of teenagers and some of them think it's great fun to weasel out of their checks, so I make sure I collect before I go off my shift.

I kick my way through sprawling bluejeaned legs to a table of eyebrow rings, white lipstick and shrill laughter. "Okay pay up girls," I say. "I'm outta here." They flirt and tease a bit, but they pay their tab. I'm maybe five years older than most of these girls, but it feels like much more.

Out on the street its warm and breezy and my hair whips in my face until I tie it back and put my hat on. I walk past all these funky shops that somehow thrive in this crappy neighborhood like dandelions in sidewalk cracks. I've been part owner the Caffeine Buzz for almost five years and this block has done pretty well in that time. There's a bookstore and music store and a placeÎ to buy crystals and meditative stuff, and several bars and restaurants. I know most of the people who run them. We're like an extended family and we help each other out sanding and scraping and painting these old comatose buildings until they breathe again.

Two of the people who have been doing this the longest are Katie and Ted, who run The Cornerstone, an architectural artifacts shop where you can buy terra cotta carvings and bannisters and parts of buildings long ago torn down.0 In the window they have a giant old clock from a bank and a big wooden swan which was part of a downtown carrousel long ago.

Katie and Ted up and got married the other day after living together for like 20 years and tonight they're having a big party to celebrate down at the old Leland Hotel lounge.

The Leland is only a few blocks away, but as I turn the corner it seems like a different place. Our little business renaissance doesn't extend much beyond a couple square blocks and on this stretch of Main Street it's just desolate; weed-grown parking lots and buildings that have been vacant so long it's hard to imagine them any other way. My enthusiasm for going into debt to pour coffee downtown tends to wane whenever I leave my little neighborhood. The rest of downtown is so friggin' depressing I just want to go back to the suburbs where I grew up and work at the damn mall or something.

The Leland used to be a hotel, but the upper floors are all closed, so it's just the old lounge and restaurant and god knows if that'll stay open when the old guy who runs them kicks off. Outside I see Sara and Marc pull up at a parking meter. I wait while they get out. They're friends of Katie and Ted and I've met them at a few parties but they don't work on the block and rarely even come downtown.

"We've been driving around the block for like twenty minutes," Sara shrieks at me, laughing, as we push through the brass revolving door into the old Leland lobby. "Katie just said it was the Leland across from the old Taylor Store and silly me I thought ONE of them would have a sign."

We start through the lounge, headed for the back room where the party is. "Maybe the Leland was too posh to need a sign," I say. "I don't know about Taylor's. It's been closed forever."

Just then, as we pass his table, an elderly man stands up and steps toward us, blocking the narrow path between the tables and the bar. "Twenty-three years," he says pointing a finger at me. "That may seem like forever to young folks like yourselves, but at my age it's a wink of an eye let me assure you."

We all stop and kind of look at him a moment. He's a dapper old character, with a pencil-thin white mustache and a tweedy suit with a sweater vest, like something you'd wear to smoke cigars at the club in an old movie.

"Sounds like you know that place pretty well," Sara says, being polite. "What was it, like, a department store?"

"Oh yes, child," he says, pretending to be astonished that she didn't know. "It was the department store. Why when I was your age people would say 'I'll meet you at The Store' and everyone knew they meant Taylor's. And I should know I suppose — I'm Taylor."

He produces a business card that says "Arthur Taylor. President-emeritus, Taylor Stores Co."

"Interesting," Marc says in a bored tone, meaning it isn't and he'd like to leave now. He sort of rolls his eyes at me but I don't respond because I don't want to be disrespectful.

"So you owned that place?" I say, not really wanting to prolong the conversation.

"Indeed I did. My grandfather founded it in 1915 and kept it going through the Depression and my father followed after and then I took the helm myself in 1962. But I'm the last of the Taylors I'm afraid — worked so hard I didn't get around to having children — and now me and the old girl across the street are waiting for the wrecking ball together."

I don't know what to say to this, Marc clearly doesn't care and Sara makes some kind of motherly cooing noise that only women can do. Behind the old man I can see the leaded glass door leading to the back room.

"Well," I say, "nice to–"

"But let me tell you," he launches in, interrupting, "what you see out that window is not the way Taylor's should be remembered. In my day it was–"

Just then a waitress edges past us and Sara and Marc zip through the opening, Sara calling back "nice to meet you, Mr. Taylor! Gotta go!"

Suddenly desperate to join them I take a step sideways, but the old guy holds me by the elbow with one hand while he wags a finger in my face with the other. "In my day that sagging grey edifice you see before you was brightly lit and well tended and filled every day with loyal customers and eager salespeople — and I was one of those salespeople long before I assumed command. I came up through the ranks you know; worked in every department. I started out sweeping floors and unloading trucks and then I was promoted to shoe salesman. We were like a big family, though I don't doubt that sounds rather corny nowadays. To this day I can picture old Miss Haley who worked at the candy counter, and Maureen and Beatrice our two beauties from the cosmetics department, and Mr. Grady who had a British accent and sold men's suits."

He looks off in the distance and names a half a dozen other old co-workers and I shuffle my feet looking for an opportunity to interrupt him. "And of course I'll never forget my old pal Bennie," he nearly shouts. "We both sold shoes and were fierce competitors, Bennie and myself, always keeping track of who tallied the most each day. I was good at it too. Could guess a person's size almost every time." He looks down at my feet. "I'd say you're a 9 1/2."

"Um, eleven actually."

He laughs and slaps my arm. "Guess I'm a little rusty. But my eyes aren't so good anymore and in those days I could perform that feat rather well. But that's not the important thing. The important thing was that the customers were our friends and our neighbors and we knew their names and what they bought last week and how much they could really afford. Bennie and I wanted to outdo each other, but mind you we never tried to sell people what they couldn't afford. We knew our customers like family. 'Mrs. Gibson, nice to see you. How are the twins? Hello children! Time for new shoes for the school year, hey? Now, Mrs. Gibson we have a wonderful sale going on in boys shoes — just the thing . . ."

And he goes on like that for a bizarrely long time, acting out this long-ago transaction. He's so caught up in it I realize I could probably slip right past him and make my getaway, but it's so weird I'm rooted to the floor until he finally finds some shoes for the twins that poor old Mrs. Gibson can afford.

Just then a waitress comes up and pats Mr. Taylor on the back, "Take it easy, Artie," she says quietly to him. "Remember what we talked about."

Looking at me she says, "Artie loves to talk. Care for a draft?"

She's carrying several on a tray and I take one and hurriedly say, "I was just on my way back to the wedding party. Can you put it on a tab for me?"

"This one's on the house," she says, but then she mouths a couple of words silently, something that I can't make out that she doesn't want Mr. Taylor to hear. He's not looking at her anyway and seems annoyed that she called him "Artie." He keeps his eyes averted as if waiting for an intrusive noise to pass.

As she leaves I make to follow, but he suddenly revives. "And what business are you in, young man?"

"I run a coffeehouse, over on Elm. Actually I'm here for a wedding party. I–"

"Good business that!," he declares. "A nice simple restaurant with a limited menu. We had a small coffee bar at the store for many years. It never made a profit, but it gave the mothers a place to rest so they could get up and shop some more."

I sigh, realizing he's off again. Behind him the door to the back room swings open as a waiter goes through with a tray of beer pitchers on his shoulder and I can hear laughter and conversation from the wedding party. I resolve to escape even if it means being rude.

"And for the children we had a rather elaborate carrousel, with lions and unicorns and a swan on the top. So the children could be kept busy while the mothers rested their feet and had a cup of coffee. The damn thing was costly as hell to keep going and we eventually got rid of it, but not while my father was alive. He was convinced it paid for itself. Keep them in the store, he used to say. Give them a rest and they'll shop some more."

I have my mouth open to say I have to go when something strikes me. "The carrousel," I say. "Did you say there was a swan on top?"

"Hmm? Yes, a swan."

"Mr. Taylor," I say, suddenly excited. "Mr. Taylor I know where that swan is. It's got to be the same one! It's in a shop, right over next to mine. An architectural artifacts shop, right in the window. I'll bet it's the same one!"

But he waves the suggestion aside '. "Could be, could be."

For some reason I'm disappointed. "But wouldn't you want to know if–"

"That damn swan," he says. "I would not be at all surprised if it outlives me. Sit down, son. Let me tell you about that swan." He leads me aside to the little round table by the window where he'd been sitting when we came in. Reluctantly I sit down, trapped now more than ever.

"As I say, we had a very attractive carrousel in the courtyard right over there." He points through the window to what is now a desolate open space next to the store. "In my father's day we kept that carrousel going every hour the store was open. We employed an Austrian mechanic full time just to keep it operational, and he was always sending off for parts overseas. The thing was ridiculously expensive but my father maintained it for the public enjoyment — and I would have done the same had good fortune permitted. But after my father's death, when I had assumed the presidency and had a good hard look at the books I knew my responsibility."

Suddenly he looks at me very intently, but then turns his head and looks just as intently at the empty chair beside me. "Times have changed, gentlemen," he announces "and we cannot afford to run this company in ignorance of that fact." I realize I have become one member of his board of directors from years ago. "Gentlemen, we are in the business of selling merchandise, not carnival rides. Perhaps there was a day when we could afford to subsidize such frivolous ventures, but that day has passed." And he goes on like that for several minutes, explaining to me and my invisible peers how the emergence of suburban shopping centers and discount stores is drastically cutting into our profits.

He concludes his speech with a resounding slap on the little bar table, and several people near us glance around. I stare back at them defensively, like nothing is wrong and what the hell are you looking at?

He looks up and I can tell he is in the present again, though he's still on the same train of thought. "When I shut down the carrousel you'd think I committed a crime the way people in this town reacted. Pictures of that damn swan were in the newspapers and on petitions if you can believe it. But I stood by my decision — offered to sell it to the city if they wanted it so badly. They didn't, of course, not if it meant spending money. People didn't understand that I was trying to save my company. That sort of thing was all right in my father's day. But during my tenure we had to expand to compete. I opened Taylor stores in all of the shopping centers in the metropolitan area. We became a public company, selling stock to raise capital for further expansion. That is how business must be done in the modern era, young man."

"Mr. Taylor," I say hesitantly, "what happened to Taylor's? I mean, aren't all those stores gone?"

"Of course they're not gone," he snaps. "They simply operate under different names. Most are Callahan stores now, and the rest are Porterman's. But they're all still operating — all but this one. It all happened with the merger you see."

"The merger?"

He laughs bitterly. "That's the risk you take by going public my boy. I was a bit too successful. The big chains came sniffing around and a takeover was inevitable. I hated to see the Taylor name disappear, but merging with Callahan's was good for the shareholders and, I submit, for the community as well. Of course, I did quite well financially in the deal and remained on the Callahan board of directors. It was . . . a natural business development. "

"So," I say slowly. "What exactly happened 23 years ago? What happened to that store over there?"

He's quiet for a while and I think he's drifting away again, but then he says, "The board voted to close the downtown store. I argued against it, of course, but I only had one vote. Callahan's was based in Detroit and they didn't much care about our little town. They voted me down — and I resigned from the board the following day and sold every Callahan share I owned, which caused quite a little dip in their stock price I might add."

Outside the sun is setting behind the old store, and the harsh red light shines directly through from one side of the building to the other, with nothing in between to deflect its path.

Mr. Taylor suddenly looks at me. "Your generation doesn't even remember us, do you?"

"Well . . . I mean, sure we do."

He waves it aside. "No, no, I understand," he says. "Times change. The old things pass away for the new." His voice, sounding small and old, trails away and he looks out the window for a long time. I try to think of something to say, but can't. I wonder if I should just go. And then suddenly in a strong voice he announces "that banner needs to be larger."

He turns back to me, frowning. "Young man when I have a Christmas sale I want the whole town to know it. That banner needs to be twice — no three times the size it is now, do you understand? And hang it from the roof so everyone can see it, do you hear me. Well, do you?"

"Yes . . . yes sir, Mr. Taylor," I say. "I'll get on it right away."

He faces the window again and I get the impression I've been dismissed. I stand up, a little reluctantly, and hover a moment before picking up my empty glass.

"Goodnight, Mr. Taylor," I say, but he makes no response so I edge away and head down the aisle to the back room where Katie and Ted's party is going strong. I open the glass door and see all my friends from the shops. Before the door closes I glance back toward the front of the bar and see that Mr. Taylor is no longer sitting by the window but is in the aisle again, his hand gripping a young man by the elbow while with the other he gestures toward the window. And then someone calls my name and I step inside and let the door swing shut behind me.