Who is That?
Life in a small town is different on many levels. The pace is slower and, I think, more practical. You may have fewer acquaintances, but relationships tend to be deeper. There’s a simple reason for that. Get a town small enough and there isn’t much else to watch except each other.
I was once in a quaint burg whose town clerk had a sign on the wall that said, “We don’t need directionals on our cars here. Everyone knows where you are going.”
For a recent holiday, Bob and I received a lovely set of cordial glasses, beautifully etched and delicate. When we were unloading gifts from the car that night, we demonstrated perfect miscommunication when it came to handling that box.
“Oh, that? No, I didn’t have that.”
Only one of the glasses cracked, but I was heartsick. The next business day I hurried to the store the box had come from and crossed my fingers for a bit of luck. Staring into the display cabinet of a dozen varieties of glasses, I had a sudden mental block about which were the ones we had been given. When the clerk offered to assist me, I lamented that we broke a glass that had been a gift and I couldn’t remember the pattern. Without a word, she opened the case, plucked the exact crystal I needed, and held it out to me. “This one, Mrs. Barnes,” she smiled.
That’s what happens when a store can remember who bought what for whom.
All of this was brought to mind on a chilly spring evening when we were attending to sad duty; calling hours for an elderly friend who had passed. He had lived his entire life in a hamlet of less than a thousand people and it looked like most of them had turned out to say farewell. The line went out the door of the funeral home and a good distance down the sidewalk.
While we waited, everyone chatted. We talked about the weather, how the winter had been, gas prices, and what crops were going in the ground as soon as Mother Nature settled on which season it was going to be.
The conversation suddenly hushed as someone who had been inside made his way past the line and back out to the parking lot. A middle-aged man, sporting a dark beard and mustache, nodded politely to those in line and stepped out into the twilight.
Then it started. In the next ninety-four seconds, the crowd pooled its collective memory.
“Who was that?”
“Anyone recognize him?”
“Is he a Martin? He looked like one of the Martin kids.”
“With a beard? Tsk! Sarah wouldn’t have allowed it!”
“Is he the guy who bought the hardware store?”
“No, that guy is taller. And he’d wear flannel, even to a funeral.”
“I think I saw him at the Post Office on Saturday.”
“You didn’t even go to the Post Office on Saturday. I went. And I didn’t see him!”
“He’s getting on a motorcycle!”
“Well then, see? Clearly, he isn’t a Martin.”
“I have no idea. is is so strange.”
My neck hurt from swiveling in so many directions, trying to keep up with the flow of historical knowledge. The group then settled into quiet, puzzling, as Dr. Seuss would say, “until their puzzlers were sore.”
I took a deep breath and in my best educational tone said, “You know, it is possible that Don, somewhere in the course of his long, productive life, met someone who isn’t from here.”
I was met with a silence out of which a mason could have constructed a fine wall. A thought had not been received with such skepticism since Christopher Columbus had stood in the court of Queen Isabella and said, “Izzy, I am telling you. It’s round as the King’s fat head!”
There is a fine line between small-town familiarity and a level of personal knowledge that begs for a restraining order. As the days of spring warmed the ground and the breeze sighed in relief from the cold, I got a call from our dry cleaner.
“Maggie, we have a dress of yours down here. Been here awhile,” the voice on the phone said.
I was bewildered, almost certain I wasn’t missing anything from my closet, but I swung in on my next drive through town. I was handed a polka-dotted summer frock that I knew on sight was indeed mine. Then I noticed that there was no name on the plastic bag. No receipt or order form—nothing.
“Matt,” I said, accepting my change, “how did you know this dress was mine?”
With nary a trace of apology to his tone, he replied, “Oh, I remember seeing you in it last summer.”
In a larger community, a comment like that would have registered a nine on the creepy scale. In our little intersection of the world, it was perfectly understandable. I remembered the day I wore that dress last summer, too. There wasn’t much else going on.