Locks of Gratitude

Christine Telford 

Locks of Gratitude 

          Peter dropped the pick next to the lock and raised his arms up over his head. He clasped his hands together and stretched upward to get some relief. When relief was not immediately forthcoming, he pounded his fist on the table. Walking toward the kitchen table Maria cradled in her hands a bowl filled to the brim of sugar snaps cereal floating on milk. The blow from Peter’s fist on the tabletop caused her to lose her concentration. She jumped.

          Maria shouted. “Hey! What’s the matter with you?” A platoon of sugar snaps and milk cascaded from her bowl onto the floor. She froze mid-step, calmed herself, waited for the bowlful of milk and cereal to settle and when it did, Maria started up again, slowly, toward the kitchen table. With each step her slippered foot landed with a crunch on scattered snaps.

          “Dammit.”

          Leaving the crushed cereal and spilt milk behind on the floor, Maria stood next to Peter at the table cluttered with all manner of locks, his cell phone, and his handheld gaming console. There was no available space for her bowl.

          Peter did not seem to notice Maria standing next to him. Or he noticed, perhaps, but his hubris got the better of him. He might have thought Maria, possibly mesmerized by his intricate finger movements and the chattering click click click of the pick in the lock, was watching him at work. He might have felt a surge of pride as Maria stood next to him. Whichever way, his focus was stiff and relentless. Without so much as a glance in her direction, he continued to work the lock.

          Maria said, “What’s this? Where am I supposed to put my cereal bowl down to eat?”

          Apparently Peter did not hear Maria. With his head curled over his busy hands working the pick and the lock on the kitchen table he maintained a pencil sharp focus.

          Maria grew impatient. She shouted. “Hey!” A few bits of the cereal leapt from the bowl.

          Peter jumped and looked up. All at once he shoved a group of locks aside squeezing out just enough space for Maria and her overflowing bowl of cereal. He slid the stool part of the way out from under the table and gestured for Maria to sit. The most recent addition to the fine lock collection, the one he was trying to pick, he twirled around his finger. “I think I’ve found my match.” He put the lock down and continued his work.

          The table was more of a bar than a table because of its height but more of a table than a bar because of its square shape. Being a woodworker Peter crafted by hand two bar stools when he couldn’t find a proper stool with the height to match the table at the barstool retail store in the strip mall near the apartment. He did a good job with the stools, fashioning them from pine and burning the edges in his single attempt at pyrography. The burnt trim gave the stool a softening effect. These stools were the perfect height for sitting at the table.

          Maria placed her bowl in the space on the table cleared by Peter. She slid the stool the rest of the way out from under the table but remained standing. She said, “Can’t you leave me just enough space for a place setting? What are you going to do when you’ve packed locks into every interstitial in this apartment and there’s no more room on the table to shove your locks aside without pushing them over the edge?”

          He said, “I’ll attach a hinged leaf.”

          She said, “Attach the hinged leaf now then, so I don’t have to shove all your locks off to the side to make room for my bowls and plates every time I sit down to eat.” He said, “I’ve always shoved my locks aside for you. Why isn’t that good enough?”

          For a moment Maria thought Peter might launch into the crippling vortex of … why isn’t anything I do ever good enough for you? But he didn’t.

          Maria said, “Yes you have. Thank you.” Still standing Maria bent over her bowl and scooped up a spoonful of cereal. Letters floated on the top of the milk. When she finished the bite she said, “You should rework the table to be the perfect height for standing while fine dining. Then we could get rid of the stools.” She scooped up another spoonful of mostly milk with a single cereal letter, an ‘A’, floating on top. Whilst chewing she said, “Where did you get that lock?”

          Peter said, “Lawn furniture at the golf course. I’ve moved on. No one puts locks on the bikes in town anymore.”

          “Can you blame them?” Maria swallowed another spoonful of sweet milk. “You should get back into safes.”

          “Safes won’t help me with my ultimate goal. Did you get the tickets?”

          “No. Mathilda told me the airlines were going to be in another price war in a week or so and the prices are going to drop. She said I should wait.”

          “Keep an eye on it.”

          “Of course.”

          Maria scraped out the last spoonful of milk from the bowl, put the bowl and spoon in the sink, rinsed them off, and put them on the drying rack. She said, “At least there’s room next to the sink for the clean dish rack.” With a wet rag rung out nearly dry, Maria wiped up the spilt cereal and milk from the floor.

          Peter muttered, “Your welcome.”

          “I have to go to work. Do you need any shoes today?”

          “Not today. Don’t trip on any cracks.”

          Maria slipped out of her slippers into her flip-flops and took to the undappled sidewalk headed toward the shoe store five blocks away where she worked. The sun was bright and the day hot. She walked past the stump of another lopped off tree and breathed in the fresh scent of the flowering an-gel trumpets.

          The trees lining the boulevard planted before the town council considered the long term effects of growth on their eventual size, had erupted through the concrete creating their own cracks to give themselves room to grow. Why would a tree care about sidewalk cracks? The trees had nothing to do with the details of the decisions made years ago to space out concrete blocks for tree growth. Their roots would grow where they needed to grow, however. The trees had become great disrupters of the concrete sidewalk and occupied many discussions at the town council meetings until finally, a decision was made. The town council decided to stop the trees from growing by lopping off their tops below the limb line. To ameliorate the effect of the new stump aesthetic they nailed planters to each stump top and hired the town florist to fill the planters with something that looked good. The florist chose a variety of angel trumpets surrounded by petunias for each planter. In the florist’s contract was added, after the town council realized as an afterthought that someone had to be responsible for watering and otherwise trimming the angel trumpets and petunias to keep them looking good, a 2,000 gallon watering truck and training for three part time employees on how to drive, operate, and refill the watering truck, how to maintain each stump planter, and how to trim the angel trumpets and petunias to keep them looking good.

          Thus, an ordinary walk along a bumpy shady sidewalk was replaced with an ordinary walk along a bumpy sunny sidewalk full of colors and scents and all kinds of invisible costly infrastructure that was required to keep the pleasantries in place and looking good. Under her breath Maria said, “Kudos to you all.”

          She inserted her key into the shoe store door lock, turned it, pulled the store door open and locked the door behind her. The store would not be open for another fifteen minutes and she didn’t want any customers sneaking in. She walked the walk of shoes in shoe boxes to the back office to punch in.

          “Hi, Maria.”

          “Oh. Hi Evelyn. I thought you weren’t coming in this morning.”

          “I wasn’t going to but when I left yesterday I noticed the shoes in aisle three needed a serious dusting.”

          “So you want me to dust off the shoes in aisle three?”

          “No no. I’m getting rid of them and replacing them with purses and clutches.”

          “Oh. Those will sell.”

          “I’m hoping. You just need to open, as usual. I’ll worry about replacing the dusty shoes in aisle three.”

          Maria punched in, put on her work apron, and prepared the register for the day. When the store clock ticked on the hour she unlocked the front door and clicked on the neon “OPEN” sign.

          Standing behind the register wondering what to do to keep busy, Maria remembered about the shoe requests of the week past. She wanted to tell the owner Evelyn before she forgot again. Standing at the end of aisle three Maria waited for an opportunity to speak.

          Bent over and busily stacking shoe boxes, the owner Evelyn, wearing a pair of Birch strops, picked up several boxes and brought them to the back of the store. When she returned for more boxes Maria told her about the shoe requests.

          “Several people came in last week asking about a new tassel shoe that is apparently getting popular. You might want to look into getting the line or one like it.”

          Evelyn said, “Do you have a picture?” Maria said, “Just look it up on-line. Google tassel shoes. You’ll see. Tassel shoes are all the rage.” Evelyn said, “I need to get in on that. Ride the wave.”

          “You shod.”

          “Thank you for the idea.”

          “Don’t thank me yet.”

          “Maybe I’ll replace the dusty shoes in aisle three with tassel shoes instead of clutches and purses.”

          “That’s a good idea.”

          “Do you think so?”

          Maria nodded. “Yes.”

          The shoe store experienced a rush of customers that day around noon. Two people asked for tassel shoes and were disappointed when Maria had to tell them they didn’t have any tassel shoes yet. The customers left with penny loafers. Someone came in looking for lace-up sneakers. Someone else came in looking for flipflops. The rush of customers was short and sweet. Maria and Evelyn spent some time on-line picking out tassel shoes and figuring out how they were going to display the shoes in aisle three.

           Evelyn said, “When I offered the new style flip-flops last year I set up the display as an alcove. What do you think of that idea for the tassel shoes? Maria?”

          Maria had been daydreaming about the trip to Paris. She snapped to when she heard her name. “Yes. You’d have to take down the sock display next to the register. Remember? We used the alcove parts to fashion the sock display.”

          “Right. Okay. You do that and I’ll finish loading up the boxes of dusty shoes into the truck.”

          “What do I do with the socks?”

          “No one buys socks in the summer. Find a box and store the socks in the back. Make sure you label the box clearly so we can remember to sell them in the fall.”

          “Are you taking the dusty shoes to the thrift store?”

          “I haven’t decided. I might take them to the discount stores.”

          The bell on the door rang. It was a customer that, as usual, Maria did not recognize. He was a young man, about her age, wearing flip-flops, a pair of beach shorts and a fitted short sleeved shirt buttoned once at the waist just above the belt line so that his well-defined chest was on display. His few chest hairs, brown, were the same color as the hair on his head sticking out from a plain baseball cap with no logo—maybe a little darker.

          “If you need some help let me know.”

          The customer said, “Do you have any tassel shoes?”

          Maria cried, “Why is everyone asking for tassel shoes these days? No. I don’t have any tassel shoes yet but we are in the process of choosing. Do you have a suggestion?” Her tone was impetuous and the young man was taken aback.

          He took off the cap from his head. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” He ruffled up the thick curly hair pressed flat from the cap, which sprung out into loose curls about his head. He put the cap back on.

          “You didn’t offend me. I just—we’ve had several requests for tassel shoes recently and I’m puzzled about why.” The youthful customer said, “There’s a new show and everyone is wearing tassel shoes. That’s probably why.”

          Maria said, “Is that why you’re after a pair?”

          He said, “I saw the show and I think they look nifty. I like the slip-on feature. No laces. I’m looking for a simpler version—knockoffs.”

          “Why don’t you try on a pair of penny loafers? I sold two pair earlier today.”

          “Not my style.”

          “You could put dimes in the loafer instead of pennies. Would that be more your style? Or nickels for that matter.”

          He walked over to the counter and wrote his name and number on one of the store business cards at the register. “Call me when you get the tassel shoes. No faux suede.”

          “Your name is Epic?”

          “That’s an R, as in Eric.”

          Maria said, “Oh. I didn’t see the trailer.” His scent was of a lavender rose mix. Maria wanted to follow him out of the store but she held herself back with a reprimand. No. Fool. Stop. Like a mantra she repeated the reprimand to herself and added…Never again. Unless. Maybe.

          Evelyn emerged from her latest trip to the back room. “Who was that?”

          Maria said, “Another guy who wants knock-off tassel shoes.”

          Evelyn shrieked, reaching a pitch of desperation in her tone of voice. “Did you tell him we were in the process of ordering some?”

          Maria said, “I understand your hysterics. He said no faux suede.”

          Evelyn quickly returned to calm. She said, “Good tip. I hate to miss out on a trend.” She looked around the store. “Aisle three is emptied. Did you take care of the socks?”

          Maria said, “Yes. The socks are all packed up for the winter and the sock display shelving is dismantled and ready for rework. Did you notice someone walked off with the Velcro walking shoe that was on the pedestal display in aisle four?”

          Evelyn shook her head. “This shoe business gets more complicated every day. Sometimes I think I should sell out.” She fiddled with the shoe polish display, stacking in neat rows the tin dispensers on the shelf.

          Maria had often wondered how Evelyn stayed afloat to begin with, in her little shoe store space fronting an alley where no one walked except the locals to get to their back alley apartments and whatnot. “What would you do with the shoes?”

          “Same thing I do with them now.”

          In a purposeless gesture Maria picked up one of the wedge sandals from a pair in a shoe box. She felt its heady weight and promptly dropped the shoe back into position in the box and returned the box to the shelf. “Do you like the work?”

          “That’s the reason I love this business. Everyone needs to shoe their feet and everyone has accepted the fact that no shoe fits perfectly. The interaction is quick, effortless, and consistent. If the shoe fits—”

          Maria interrupted, “Until someone wants tassel shoes.”

          Evelyn nodded and repeated under her breath, “Until someone wants tassel shoes.”

          The rest of the day slogged on. Summer was not a busy season for the shoe business unless one was into sandals and trendy flip-flops, not major arenas of Evelyn’s comportment. She was a winter woman and preferred to wade ankle deep. Hiking was her specialty. The recent galumph into tassel shoes was stretching her comfort zone but if that’s what the customer preferred, she would march in the parade.

          When the clock ticked on the six o’clock hour, Maria stopped what she was doing in aisle three and promptly locked the front door. She closed up the register and readied herself to go home.

          Standing at the unlocked front door she hollered, “Goodbye, Evelyn! I’m leaving!”

          Evelyn hollered back, “Could you wait one minute?”

          “Sure. One minute.” She re-locked the store front door.

          When the minute ticked up Maria unlocked the store front door and once again hollered, “I’m out!”

          At the apartment Peter was seated at the kitchen table still picking at the same lock he’d been picking at when Maria left to go to work. Maria sighed and said, “You have met your match.” She then proceeded to make some dinner for herself. The following week was a usual week. With the order for the tassel shoes placed, Maria continued her work on the tassel shoe display transforming aisle three into a tassel shoe alcove.

          At the apartment Maria’s interactions with Peter were minimal. Conversation had trickled into a few words or a word here and there based mainly on logistics.

          “Are there any more apples?”

          “Did you buy any?”

          “No.”

          “Oh.”

          Peter had run out of locks to steal and pick from the golf course and had begun driving through neighborhoods collecting locks from delivery coolers outside people’s houses.

          The tassel shoe alcove was enormously successful. Once word got out that the little back alley shoe store had an entire section devoted to tassel shoes, a constant stream of customers came in to shop shoes. The tassel shoe trend saved the shoe store for another year. The owner Evelyn no longer had to worry about the Christmas rush in order to make ends meet. When the discount stores weren’t interested in Evelyn’s collection of dusty shoes, Maria drove around in the shoe truck and offloaded the boxed dusty shoes at the various thrift stores for free. Luckily, they seemed to be more than happy to take on the dusty new but slightly out of style shoes. After several trips Maria had unloaded the entire inventory of shoes from aisle three.

          At about that time, Maria and Peter figured out the situation about locks cluttering the apartment. In a joint decision Peter and Maria decided Peter would, sometime during the following week, transfer all the locks to the coffee table in the bedroom. They talked on Monday. Peter finished transferring the locks on Thursday.

          After work on Friday of that week Maria stood in the arched doorway at the entrance to the kitchen. Peter was sitting on the stool at the far end of the table dining on a plate of eggs on salad greens while attending to the computer. He did not look up to say hello to Maria. Maria took a few moments to collect her thoughts. She placed her new clutch purse on the counter next to the blender. She wasn’t sure how to broach the subject of the locks now taking up all the space on the coffee table in the bedroom, but she’d made up her mind.

          She said, “Hello Peter.”

          With his eyes glued to the computer screen, Peter finished the last bite of eggs on greens. Without looking up he said, “What’s up?”

          Maria said, “I don’t like the locks taking up all the space on the coffee table in the bedroom. I’m going back to school and I’ll need a place to stack my books and things.”

          Peter said, “Why don’t you put your books on the kitchen table? That’s where you’ll be studying.”

          He missed the point.

          Maria decided to go for broke. “I don’t think you understand. I don’t want the locks on the coffee table. I don’t want the locks on the kitchen table. I don’t want the locks taking up space on the counter where the clean dishes dry on the drying rack. I don’t want the locks in a box on the floor in the pantry. I don’t want the locks on the chair in the breezeway.”

          “What do you want me to do with the locks then?”

          “I want you to leave with your locks.”

          “Leave them where?”

          “Not them. You. I want you to leave and take your locks with you.”

          “Where should I go with my locks?”

          “For heaven’s sake, Peter, you are an adult. You can go anywhere you want.”

          “I don’t have any money.”

          Maria thought to herself, That’s what happens when you spend all your time picking locks. She didn’t say anything out loud. To Maria, the solution was obvious. She waited for Peter to understand because it seemed that the only thing he knew how to do, other than craft and trim stools to be the proper height for tables, was relocate.

          “What am I supposed to do?”

          “Are you looking for an idea?” Peter nodded.

          “Get a job. Earn some money. Start with fast food. It will teach you good discipline. Fast food teaches you how to be on time. Work up to your artisan talents from there. I hear they give you free food at the end of the day.”

          Peter laughed. “Leftovers? You’ve got to be kidding.”

          Maria said, “I’m not kidding. If you aren’t out in a week I’m going to change the door locks and dump all your stuff on the sidewalk cracks. If you try to pick the locks I’ll have you arrested.” From the kitchen cabinet above the sink she pulled out a tray of smoothie ingredients and put it on the counter. From the refrigerator she took out a cucumber, three leaves of kale and two celery sticks.

          “Can you make a smoothie for me?” asked Peter.

          “No. When you move out you’ll have to get your own blender. The ingredients cost money and now that the trees have all been lopped off, I don’t see any money growing on them anymore.”

          “I’m guessing you aren’t buying my flight to Paris either then.”

          “You guess correctly.”

          ~

          When Maria came home from work the next day, a Saturday, the locks and all of Peter’s clothes, wood working tools, and his gaming devices including the large flat screen TV were gone. The apartment seemed empty. A single tear made a tiny rivulet from the corner of Maria’s eye to her cheekbone. She wiped it off. On the kitchen table she found a light yellow sticky note. On the light yellow sticky note hand written in bold turquoise marker ink was a brief message:

          ‘You’re Welcome. 
          —Peter’

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