By David Desjardins
When he got his first look at it, Frank wanted to turn right around and let the tax agents keep the dump. The lawyer had warned him. What little he remembered of his father’s stories about Cousin Leon might have prepared him for this ramshackle storefront in Pawtucket surrounded by hulking three-deckers and a Portuguese social club with pale-green vinyl siding, apparently still operating despite its boarded-up windows. Still, those were architectural gems compared to the squat cinder-block structure before him: a tiny neighborhood grocery store that had been his cousin’s sole source of income for thirty years. The large rectangular windows were clouded with grime and old cigarette ads, and a rusted-out piece of pressed tin above the screen door read, “Leons Grocery.” The only other sign in a neon-orange block script, read “Sorry We’re Closed.”
Yeah, no kidding.
Frank closed the rental car door and leaned on its sun-hot roof. Why had he bothered coming? he asked himself. Like he had time for this nonsense. It had been three months since Jenny sent him packing with an ultimatum: Get it together—keep it together—and just maybe, we’ll try it again: you, me, and the twins. His outburst one evening at dinner—in front of the girls, for Christ’s sake—was the last straw, coming right on top of his epic meltdown at Staples over the inventory debacle, his boss calling security to see him out.
What he really should be doing now is filling out more applications, not wasting cash and time in this filthy corner of northern Rhode Island, trying to summon up a mental image of his elderly cousin, never mind a legitimate reason why a virtual stranger would leave him this hole-in-the-wall and a few hundred bucks in the rinky-dink credit union up the street. If he left now, he could probably be back in New Haven in time to check the job center’s updated listings.
Instead, Frank shook the store keys from the lawyer’s manila envelope and finagled one of them into the door’s scratched-up brass cylinder. Inside, a scatter of unopened mail covered the doormat, and dust lined the tops of cans and shelves along the far wall. Frank turned a container of mushroom pieces and stems in his hand to check the expiration date, shook his head, and put it back. The Bunny Bread loaves showed a sickly green through their cellophane wrappers. A switch on the far wall clicked without effect; apparently, the power was cut sometime after they’d hauled off his cousin’s body and never turned back on. He pressed his hand against the glass front of a refrigerator case; it was warm, and he grimaced at the milk and butter containers inside. He felt like a survivor in some dystopic movie.
Toward the back, he spied the gloom of a dark space, tiny, with a heavy sourness guarding it. He stepped gingerly toward a crack of light that betrayed a drawn window shade, which he opened, illuminating a room that saddened him: a 12 x 9 ft. space, enough for a monk or a prisoner. There was a single twin bed, toaster oven, electric kettle, La-Z-Boy recliner, and an AM-FM radio shaped like a small plastic suitcase. Adjoining this room, an even tinier one held a toilet, sink, and shower. A gloss of animal hair coated nearly every surface, and a pair of silver bowls sat on the floor upon a spread-out sports section. One bowl held a trace of water, the other a desiccated lump of something brown. Was this where they found Cousin Leon?
On a shelf near the radio was a framed black-and-white photo of two boys. Frank recognized the younger of them as his father. The older one—Leon, he surmised—gazed off-camera with a smirk as if he’d just been told to stop whatever he was doing right now.
Stepping back into the store, Frank finally noticed the large display case near the door. Its thick beveled glass smudged with what seemed like hundreds of little fingerprints, and he bent low as a jeweler evaluating a pawned necklace. His eyes moved from Necco Wafers to Hershey’s, from Dum-Dums to Candy Buttons to Fireballs. On the bottom shelf, he spotted the Flying Saucers and nudging himself up onto the slate counter next to the case, he snaked his arm around the back to retrieve one. Its papery surface had always reminded him of the Communion Host at St. Rocco’s. He shook the wafer capsule and heard the rattle of what he and his childhood pals had called the “aliens” inside. Hopping back down, he drummed his fingers on the glass and hummed softly to himself. And before letting the screen door slam behind him, he turned to stare at the case for another long minute.
He called the lawyer the next day. Yes, he said, I do want the place; please follow up with the necessary paperwork. Pay the estate tax, pay yourself, whatever. Oh, and send the documents to me at the store. Yeah, you heard right.
Two days later, Frank called to have a dumpster delivered to the store’s driveway and paid two neighborhood kids $20 each to pitch most of the inventory into it. Once the shelves were bare, he gave them twice that to wash them down and repaint them.
The candy counter’s restoration he kept for himself. He tore up an old T-shirt, misted the surfaces with ammonia, and scoured them till he felt light-headed. He cradled the long, flat cut-glass candy trays in his arms, caressing their sharp angles before scrubbing them clean. He obsessed for hours over the candy display, taking care to vary the label colors of contiguous sweets, as a cartographer does the hues of bordering nations. The black licorice adjoined the tricolor Bazooka Gum, the yellow-and-red Mary Janes flanking the green Mint Julep squares. When he finished, he took a string of Pull-and-Peel for himself, sat on the front steps, and waved at the passing cars, savoring each mouthful. A pony-tailed man in a grey tank top emerged onto the top flight of the social club’s fire escape and lit a cigarette. Frank waved at him too.
He called Jenny that night, feeling he was on a roll. She put the girls on the phone right off, without even a how-are-you. They sounded distracted, and he could hear Scooby-Doo on the TV more clearly than their own one-word replies to his questions. When Jenny got back on the line, he couldn’t help himself.
“Christ, Jen, do they have to constantly watch that crap? The fuck.”
Her silences were always worse than her rebukes. This one was longer than most.
“Frankie, you really want to go there? After everything you—”
Another one. Shorter this time. Frank could hear her deep breath, remembered the marriage counselor prescribing those to both of them.
“Last time you said you were doing better. How long has it been, using the Zoloft?”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should make it four before you call again.”
She hung up.
After another week, Frank had restocked enough of the store to be able to reopen, the front windows washed and stripped of their ancient cigarette decals, the sloping floorboards sanded and lacquered. He kept the sign as it was, although he did hammer out the dents and inserted a painted apostrophe in “Leon’s.”
Business was light the first day, even though he’d rented a sandwich board announcing “Grand Reopening” for the neighborhood boys to take turns lugging around out front. Most customers came and went quickly with their milk or bread or cigarettes, showing little interest in chatting with him. Some looked carefully through the canned goods without buying any. Many of the women came in pairs, speaking a language he did not know. They all counted their change carefully and smiled at him as they left.
He’d set out a pen and a notebook labeled “Suggestions” on a table next to the candy counter, but upon examining it midday, he guessed that many of the customers had mistaken its purpose. The comments included “God bless Mister Leon,” and “He was a good person,” and “Sorry for your loss.”
Late in the afternoon, a woman wearing far too many layers of clothes for the weather pushed open the screen door. Frank guessed her to be about 50. Her makeup was thick, and her hair, frosted and feathery, curled forward to follow her jawline. She looked around the store suspiciously, and her gaze didn’t change any when it fell upon Frank. She was struggling to control a miniature collie that whimpered and tugged frenetically at its leash.
“You the new Mister Leon?” she said.
“I guess you could say that. Name’s Frank.” He held out his hand, but she ignored it.
“Why you?” she said, yanking back sharply on the straining leash. “Why’d he leave you his place?”
“Well, honestly, I can’t say,” he replied, hoisting himself onto a stool he kept near the counter. “He was my cousin—actually, my father’s cousin, so I guess that’s first removed, to be exact. I only met him once, years and years ago. Actually, I was hoping someone here in Pawtucket could tell me. Were you his friend? I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
The woman knit her brows as if he had asked some sort of trick question, and she let the dog tow her toward the back of the store. She stood there, seeming to sniff the air near the back room, and then hung the leash over the refrigerator unit door.
“This is his dog. Goes by the name of Jeff, if that matters. They were going to put him in the pound till I stepped in. Eats like a horse for such a runt, I’ll tell you. Anyway, I’m done with him.”
Frank jumped as if someone had just spilled a drink on him. “Hold on. You can’t leave him here.”
“Yeah? Just watch me.”
The woman took two loaves of bread over to the counter. “Let’s see. Give me a pack of them Salem Lights too.” She pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from her pocket and flattened it against the surface of the counter. “And here, I want this number: five lottery tickets worth.”
When he didn’t move, she sighed. “Listen. . . It’s Frank, right? I’m not taking him back; get that out of your head. And he won’t leave on his own, believe me. So do what you have to do. Just take care of me here, okay? I have places to be.”
Frank stared hard, feeling his face thicken, close to going off on her. Instead, he slow-counted in his head as the doctor said––what he should have done with Jenny. He grabbed a brown paper bag and threw in the items.
“Just a second,” she interrupted. “I almost forgot. Grab a half-gallon for me, will you? The Hillside Farms there?”
He retrieved the milk and began ringing her up, but as his fingers hovered over the keys, she grabbed his hand.
“Mister Leon and me, we had an understanding. So, you don’t have to fuss with that thing.”
She paused, her hand on the grocery bag, ready to leave but expecting his protest. But he was too rattled to respond, and she strolled out, the door’s string of bells jangling after her.
Finally, he shook himself, ran to the door, and barked after her: “Hey, lady.”
She turned. “It’s Sheila, Hon. Don’t worry. We’ll talk some more.”
The dog’s arrival settled one thing for Frank, at least: the question of where to live. For weeks he’d been renting a room in Attleboro, just over the state line, but they didn’t allow pets, so he bought some bedding and started sleeping in the back with Jeff, who seemed to accept the arrangement.
Business at the store picked up, enough for Frank to send a check each week to Jenny, and his days soon settled into a rhythm: Up at 7, pour himself a coffee, walk Jeff, open the store at 8, close it at 6. Next, walk Jeff over to the Modern Diner, leash him to a parking meter outside, have a burger—or fish and chips if it was a Friday—and watch from a window booth as the passersby petted Jeff. Then walk back, maybe stopping by the Randall Street courts to watch the pickup basketball before returning to the store to write out postcards to the girls as he listened to the Sox on Leon’s radio. He sometimes did little more than watch the traffic and smudge up the crossword page during store hours.
What he liked most were the late afternoons, when school let out, and kids would come in for popsicles or candy. He enjoyed giving them what they wanted and always slipped into each flimsy brown bag more sweets than they paid for. One child, in particular, reminded Frank so much of his girls that he sometimes would have to turn his back and dab his eyes with his apron; that must be the Zoloft, he told himself. The girl’s favorite was Sweethearts, the little heart-shaped lozenges with individualized messages like HUG ME, SAY YES, and BE MINE. Whenever she bought a box, she spread the candies out on the side counter and picked out messages for each of her pals.
One evening in late September, he felt especially restless, and he thought he’d chance another call to Jenny and the twins. This time, he kept his cool. He told the girls about Jeff and the candy counter. When Jenny came on the line, she gave Frank a rundown on how the girls were doing at school, and he tried to make her laugh with descriptions of some of his more eccentric customers.
“And you’re getting my checks okay, right?” he asked, fishing for compliments or a thank-you.
“Yeah. Seems like you must be making a go of it there.”
“Well, I’m the only employee. That helps. And I sleep in the back room, so that’s a savings.” He paused, then figured he’d go for it.
“Hon, you think maybe you could drive up here with the girls some weekend? See the place? There’s a nice diner near here. I could take you all for supper.”
She was quiet.
“I really miss you, Jen. God, you don’t know.”
Even long-distance, he could sense her toppling.
“Okay, we’ll see. Let me call you back later in the week.”
After he hung up, Frank went out front to close the blinds and spotted Sheila walking by across the street. The hem of her dress rode high on her thigh, which seemed a tad scandalous for an older lady. At the corner, she entered the front door of the social club. Still feeling wired from his phone call, he thought, why not? He set the radio to the classical station for Jeff, grabbed his jacket, and crossed the street.
Inside the social club, it was cool and dark, and the air felt close and tasted of vinegar. At the back, Frank could see four young men studying an array of pool balls scattered across the table’s lurid green felt. To his left was the bar, and at its far end, a color TV tuned to a soccer game. A handful of older men surrounded it like travelers checking flight departure times. Sheila sat near them, chatting up one of the men, her silvery hair catching the TV light like an artificial tree.
Frank took a seat at the opposite end of the bar, and the bartender approached him. It was the pony-tailed man he’d seen on the fire escape weeks earlier.
“Sure, let me have a soda water and—” he peered past the guy’s shoulder at a chalkboard menu hanging above the whisky bottles—“Can I get some of those codfish cakes here at the bar?”
“Not a problem.”
Frank sipped his drink and watched the soccer players running in jagged motions across the TV screen. The game had always eluded him, with its constant, chaotic motion, and the patrons’ outbursts of excitement or displeasure, voiced in what he assumed was Portuguese, unsettled him, making him feel the foreigner.
When his codfish cakes arrived, he moved down the bar and sat next to Sheila.
She turned—stirring a cocktail straw around her highball, his mother’s old drink of choice—and laughed as she recognized him.
“You’re just like your uncle,” she said, shaking her head and raising the thin plastic to her lips.
“Whatever. Can’t keep away. I have that effect on men.”
This time, it was Frank who laughed.
“No offense, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m like decades younger than you. And happily married.”
“And I’m Jackie Kennedy.” She took the last sip from her highball and motioned to the bartender to bring another. “If you’re so happy, why are you here buying me a drink?”
Frank shook his head, glared at her. He took a deep breath and pushed a five toward the pony-tailed man.
“Believe me. I’m not...whatever it is you’re thinking. Jesus. What I was hoping was, could you tell me something about Leon. What was his story? What was he like?”
“He was a pissy old codger, like most men—like these geniuses, for example.” She gestured toward the soccer enthusiasts.
“Okay, and what was this understanding you said you had with him?”
She glanced sourly at him, disappointed. “Use your imagination, Leon’s Cousin. You’re a big boy.”
Something must have happened on the TV because the men erupted in cheers and high-fives. Sheila glanced at them and seemed to grow somber.
“Okay,” she said, turning back to Frank. “He actually was kind of sweet in some ways, Leon. I’ll give him that much. But what he wanted—really wanted—I wasn’t going to give him. No way. That just wasn’t the life I saw for myself: settling down, herding rug rats around. I mean, look at me: I got a lot going on, and I like it like that, and I wasn’t giving that up for any man—not Leon, not no one.”
She was quiet a minute, then continued.
“But he was stubborn, your cousin. He thought he could change me.”
She laughed again and sipped her drink. “You see where that got him.”
“So, then what?” Frank asked. “You broke it off?”
“No. I told you. He couldn’t keep away. He just stayed stuck—on me, on his big plans. Stupid, right? In the end, the silly bastard just had to settle for something totally different—for all this.” She gestured vaguely before her. “This shitty neighborhood, that dump across the street, scooping up crap from one dog after another. . . Hell, what you got now, Mr. Happily Married and Living the Dream. Is it good enough for you?”
The next day, Frank dragged himself around the store all day, feeling as though he had a hangover even though he hadn’t touched a drop the night before. But he perked up late in the afternoon when Jenny called to say she and the girls would drive up on Saturday to visit for a few hours.
Over the next couple of days, he cleaned the store and the backroom thoroughly, hoping Jenny would see he was getting his act together. It was late Friday when he climbed on a chair to try to dust the top of the armoire and discovered a box full of old letters and photos that he’d overlooked weeks before. Decades of old Christmas cards tied in twine, all from Frank’s parents to Leon. Each card included long paragraphs about himself, his mother crowing about Frank’s report cards, or detailing his sports injuries or other trivia. The box also held a small photo album that seemed to be dedicated solely to Frank: years’ worth of grade-school class pictures, newspaper clippings, even a Polaroid of him in the hospital holding the twins just after they were born. Everything pasted neatly in place on a dozen or so pages, a thin film of cellophane overlaid on each.
The next day, Frank closed the store early so that when Jenny and the girls came, he could give them all his attention. He sat opposite the candy case as the afternoon sun painted long yellowish panels on the floor and dust particles swam in and out of the light. He tried to imagine Cousin Leon parceling out sweets to generations of other people’s children here, all the while lamenting his own empty nest. Was there comfort in that work, Frank wondered? Torment? Exactly what was the inheritance he had received from this stranger?
At two, he heard the car pull up, and his daughters burst noisily into the store. They charged at him like beggars, then just as quickly abandoned him when they spied Jeff tugging at his chain. Jenny hung back at first, savoring the girls’ elation, then stepped forward to touch Frank’s shoulder.
It took 10 minutes, but finally, Frank pried the girls away from the dog with the promise of penny candy. “As much as Mom says is okay,” he stipulated, looking over at Jenny.
He walked around the back of the case and snapped open two paper sacks. At first, the girls seemed overwhelmed at all the choices, so he broke open a box of Sweethearts for starters and palmed one.
“Give this to your mom,” he said.
David Desjardins is a journalist with roots in Rhode Island, having worked at The Boston Globe, The Providence Journal, and other newspapers. His short stories have been published in Ruminate, Roanoke Review, The Worcester Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Arlington, Mass. with his wife.
Art by Adam Hacker