Eating Strawberries With One Hand
by Ron Van Sweringen
Malcolm Purcell would say his life was like eating ripe strawberries with one hand tied behind your back. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get your fill of the juicy sweetness or, in his case, of Loretta Lee, the new cashier at McCrory’s Five and Dime on Elm Street.
When Malcolm first saw her on Saturday morning, he felt his feet were nailed to the floor. He didn’t want to move, ever. He just wanted to look at her, at her blonde hair shimmering golden rainbows, her eyes as blue as the wild bachelor buttons growing in a strip of grass behind Willy Thompson’s Car Repair Center.
Yes, sir, there was no doubt about it: Malcolm Purcell was in love. The only problem was, as Malcolm saw it, she didn’t know he was alive. What chance did a mailman have with a Miss Mississippi look-alike? Not much, he decided, pulling his U.S. Mail cap down, in case she looked his way.
He wasn’t ready to meet her yet. There were plans to be made and things to be done before that fateful moment. For one thing, he needed a haircut, and there was grease under his fingernails from working on his car. Even the scrambled-egg stain from breakfast, on his uniform shirt, now took on major importance. She would think he was a slob. Nope, Malcolm had to drift by unnoticed like a tugboat passing the Statue of Liberty — for the time being.
* * *
Loretta Lee Jones had a secret. She was carrying it with her when she arrived late one Friday night on Greyhound local from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her secret didn’t show yet, but it was only a matter of time. Mother Nature would see to that.
“Screw Mother Nature,” Loretta Lee said to herself as she dressed for her first day at McCrory’s Five and Dime on Saturday morning. “Mother Nature got me into this mess in the first place.”
Loretta’s Aunt Margaret had a friend in Hattiesburg, who had a friend in Sinkville, who knew someone in Middle Town, Mississippi, who ran the McCrory’s Five and Dime. Thus, Loretta Lee made a quiet exit out of town, before her horizons expanded, and took the shortened name of Loretta Lee. At least she’d had time to peroxide her hair.
* * *
Malcolm spent the next two weeks putting his plan into action. First came a visit to Martin’s Emporium Barber Shop. It cost him twice as much as his usual trip to Smith’s Barber Shop, but Loretta Lee was worth it.
Second came the newly instituted mile run every morning before breakfast and the twenty-five push-ups before bed every night. The hardest part was skipping lunch at Mickey’s Diner, but at the end of two weeks, the results were amazing. He was back into his 32-inch waist uniform shorts given up two years ago.
In addition, extra-thick soles on a new pair of work shoes made him an inch taller. Life was definitely improving for Malcolm, and next week was the annual Elks Club Spring Social. All he needed now was to get up enough nerve to ask Loretta Lee.
* * *
He wasn’t bad looking, Loretta Lee thought, when she saw the smiling man staring at her over her cash register. Not that she didn’t get stared at a lot by men, but this one was different. She picked up on it immediately: the shyness in his voice when he asked the price of a nail clipper. Something told her he might be the one she needed to solve her dilemma, and none too soon. She’d had to loosen the belt on her dress that morning.
Malcolm took a deep breath after paying for the nail clipper. This was his chance, and when Loretta Lee handed him the change from his five-dollar bill, he grasped her hand. “I’m Malcolm,” he said after clearing his throat twice. “I was wondering if you might like to... “
“The answer is yes,” Loretta Lee interrupted him in mid-sentence. “Whatever it is,” she repeated, “the answer is yes.”
Birds were singing when Malcolm left McCroy’s Five and Dime. He had never seen a sky that blue or walked into a lamp post that hard in his life before.
“You alright, Malcolm?” It was Gladys Turner, concern written across her face. Gladys was the owner of a small bookstore on First Avenue. Malcolm delivered mail to her three times a week and occasionally shared a cup of hot tea with her on cold winter days.
“Never better,” Malcolm replied with a smile, before tripping in the gutter a moment later.
Gladys Turner wasn’t fooled. Something had happened to Malcolm in McCroy’s Five and Dime, and a few minutes later she found out what it was. Loretta Lee was stacking a shelf with carved coconut heads from Florida, to the delight of every male in the store. Standing on a three-foot high ladder, the perfect back seams of her nylons were visible up to her garters every time she bent over to reach up with another coconut head. No wonder Malcolm was walking into lamp posts.
Gladys looked down at the low-heeled Mother McCreedy open-toed, black lace-up’s she was wearing over flesh-colored support stockings. A camera clicked in her head. The picture it presented was not flattering, and the fact that she had not seen it before was depressing.
She was thirty-four and looked fifty. No one would believe she had a nice figure under that loose-fitting jumper and shawl sweater, in plum and pea green, an outfit her mother picked out as she usually did. “Young ladies shouldn’t make spectacles of themselves,” she often remarked. “Character is the quality men look for in a woman.”
“If there’s one thing I have, it’s character,” Gladys thought to herself on the walk home, and not one man in her thirty-four years had come looking for it. What she needed were nylon stockings with perfect seams like the ones Loretta Lee wore. By the time Gladys got home, she had made a decision.
It was one week until the Elks Club Spring Social and Gladys kept thinking about Loretta Lee. Not one respectable woman in Mississippi had hair that color. Not yet anyway.
* * *
Gladys spent the day of the Elks Club Spring Social locked in her room. Several packages were neatly stacked on her bed and occasionally she opened one to examine its contents. Her mother knocked on the bedroom door every hour or so, insisting that she come out and stop this foolishness.
“Soon, Mother,” was Gladys’ response each time.
Malcolm opened the refrigerator door for the hundredth time to look at the small white box with the plastic window that sat next to a container of left-over Kentucky fried chicken. The box contained an orchid corsage for Loretta Lee to wear at the Elks Club Spring Social. The pale purple flower with thin satin ribbons had cost Malcolm fifteen dollars, and he needed to reassure himself each time that it was still there.
Loretta Lee looked at her slightly green reflection in the bathroom mirror and gagged. Of all nights to be sick at her stomach. “Screw Mother Nature,” she cursed. Tonight was the Elks Club Spring Social and she had no time to waste. Whether he knew it or not, she burped, Malcolm Purcell was a dead duck.
Gladys could hear her mother’s recording of “Waltz of the Flowers” coming from the living room when she opened her bedroom door at exactly seven-thirty. A moment later, as Gladys passed through the living room on her way to the front door, there was a muffled thud on the living room carpet.
“You’ll get used to it, mother.” Gladys smiled.
* * *
The Elks Club hall was lit up like a Christmas tree. Red and blue lights twinkled from the peaked tin roof and every window was wide open with light spilling out. Music from the Mountain Boys band filled the night as Gladys turned the corner, her high heels clicking on the concrete sidewalk. A feeling of excitement swept over her that was hard to describe. Oddly enough, it seemed to be originating from the new silk panties she was wearing.
Gladys hesitated at the steps leading up to the Elks Club hall and considered turning around and going home. What was she thinking? Had she made a terrible mistake? The answer came in the form of a long, slow whistle from somewhere behind her. She didn’t turn around to see where. She didn’t have to. Her silk panties assured her everything was just fine.
The Mountain Boys were in rare form with the sound of a polka bouncing off of the Elks Club walls. The dance floor was crowded, and red, white and blue crepe-paper streamers waved everywhere, along with dozens of miniature American flags.
Gladys stood in the doorway, her red hair bathed in the soft reflection of a revolving mirror ball in the ceiling. People began noticing her, and by the time the music had finished, everyone was staring at her.
“Welcome to the party, Gladys,” she said to herself, walking onto the dance floor in her form-fitting white dress.
Malcolm stepped on Loretta Lee’s foot in an effort to get a better view. “Gladys,” he gasped as she approached, “is that you?”
“Yes, Malcolm, it’s me.”
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Malcolm whispered, as Loretta Lee dashed for the ladies’ room with her hand over her mouth.
“Would you like to dance?”
“What about Loretta Lee?” Gladys asked.
“Who?” Malcolm smiled.
Copyright © 2012 by Ron Van Sweringen