After we buried Grandma in the New Hope Community Church cemetery, my sister Delta and I decided to walk the two miles back to the little crossroads settlement of Peace Valley. It was such a fine day, several of our cousins joined us. Most of them we hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, and some we had never met at all.
We picked our way along the edge of the dirt road as we got reacquainted. Approaching the town, I said I’d like to stop at Otis Williams’ store and take care of some old business with Otis. One of my cousins, who had never left Peace Valley, said, “Oh, you haven’t heard: Otis died eight years ago.”
Startled, I asked, “Then who owns the store now?” This was news that might change my whole plan of attack.
“His wife Mildred. You remember Mildred, don’t you?”
“Sure, nice looking lady in her late twenties?”
“Well, no, she’s almost sixty now, but she still runs the store, every day.”
Our cousins walked past the store on the gravel road that ran through the center of town toward Grandma’s house. Delta came into the store with me. I felt like the eight-year-old who had last been here 25 years ago, smelling the oil-laden dust in front of the old upright gasoline dispenser with its glass reservoir. The front porch still creaked on the top step, and the odor of cedar shakes filled my lungs.
It took some seconds for my vision to adjust to the gloom inside, though the kerosene lamps I remembered had been replaced by naked electric light bulbs. An odd little dumpy stranger stepped out from behind the counter to examine me. “You’re a Bosserman, all right,” she chuckled. “With that nose and chin, you couldn’t be anything but. The whole town’s full of them. Which one are you?”
“You probably remember me as Danny Wayne, Cletus and Ada’s oldest boy.”
“Oldest boy?” She looked at me with narrowed eyes. “I didn’t know they had more than one.”
“They divorced and Mom remarried,” I explained. “I finally got a brother when I was twelve.”
“Lord knows you had enough sisters. Do you remember the one who used to come down here when she was three with no clothes on?” She turned to Delta and lifted her chin. “That wasn’t you, was it?”
“Oh, no, that wasn’t me,” said my sister. “That was Anita, the next one down. Mom used to take her home and wear her out, but she’d be right down here the next day.”
“Except for her, you all seemed to be good kids, I remember.” Mildred adjusted some cans of beans and corn on a shelf, facing them toward the front. “Did she turn out all right?”
Delta shot me a look of warning, hoping I wouldn’t go into any details. I didn’t disappoint her. “Oh, yes, in many ways she has more integrity than any of us. She’s really close to Mom and takes good care of her.”
“That’s nice. I always liked your mother. How is she?”
Delta shot me another glance. “Oh, she’s fine,” I said. “Mrs. Williams, there’s something I’ve wanted to speak about with Otis since I was eight, but I just heard he passed away.”
“That’s right. He was fine one day and had a heart attack the next, eight years ago. What did you want to talk about”
I took a deep breath. “Well, here goes. Just before we left for Oregon, I went behind the display case when nobody was looking and stole a package of cigarette papers. I wanted to experiment out in the woods with smoking. It’s been on my conscience ever since.”
She looked kindly on me and beamed. “Well, that was a wrong thing, of course, but it speaks well of your upbringing that you’ve been thinking about it all these years. That’s a long time to let a little thing like a nickel pack of cigarette papers bother you.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you, Mrs. Williams, but I’ve looked forward all this time to making it right.” I reached in my pocket and pulled out a nickel, pressing it warmly into her hand.
Sudden awareness made her eyes narrow and her teeth clamp together before she snapped, “Oh, no you don’t. They may have cost a nickel back then, but they’re thirty-nice cents now, and I won’t settle for anything less.”
Deflated, my noble gesture now transformed into an empty exercise in petty vanity, I grinned and reached in my pocket for two quarters. I told Mildred to keep the change. Delta kept her dignity until she made it outside to the road, then laughed out loud and elbowed me in the ribs.