from Country Home
She Doted on Lobster
by Ellis Parker Butler
Mr. Bessing, representing Davis Brothers, had his sample case open on the counter of the Duff & Wix general store, Oranna, N. Y., and George Duff held in his hand a small blue box containing a sample of 50/60 California prunes. Henry Wix was in the center of the store showing old man Kennedy from out Mill Valley way a pair of overalls.
"These the kind the buttons don't come off?" old man Kennedy asked.
"You bet," said Henry Wix heartily. "If a button comes off these overalls before they're worn to flinders you fetch 'em back and get your money back."
"Say, Henry," called George Duff, "I guess I'll order five boxes of these fifty-sixty prunes."
"Sure! Go right ahead," Henry Wix called back. "Order anything you want, it's all right by me," and he turned to old man Kennedy again. "Yes, sir!" he said with his usual good-natured vigorousness, "I'll go you one better than that -- you grab hold of these overalls right now and I'll give you a dollar for every button you can pull off."
The old man laughed a high cackling laugh.
"I guess you ain't takin' no chances at that, Henry," he said, and Henry Wix laughed too. "I'll take 'em," the old man said, and looked at the list in his hand. There were a dozen more items he had jotted down, some of them items on the dry goods side of the general store, and Henry Wix went there with him.
"How about dried apricots?" Mr. Bessing asked George Duff at the other side of the wide store.
"Wait a minute," George Duff said.
The screen door of the store opened and a customer entered -- two of them it might be. One was old Mrs. Fernaby, old Hank Fernaby's widow from the third house around the corner on Oranna's other street, and with her was a bright-eyed and bright-faced young woman George Duff had never seen. Mrs. Fernaby moved directly to the grocery counter but the young woman looked here and there as a person will when in a strange place for the first time. She looked first at George Duff coming toward them, then at Henry Wix and old man Kennedy, and then at Mr. Bessing.
Toward the rear of the store Mr. Bessing, the representative of Davis Brothers, leaned back against the counter comfortably. He was used to these interruptions by customers in the stores he visited; he had abundant time before the down train and he was always sure of a good order from Duff & Wix. George and Henry bought everything they could from Mr. Bessing and were among his best customers. They had bought their first bill of goods from him after buying out old Delatour, and he had always treated them right, giving them the best prices he could and steering them away from unfortunate buys.
He liked the young fellows and they liked him, and there had not been a single dispute between them in the five years since George and Henry had bought the store. It had always been a pleasure to visit Duff & Wix; they were good for anything they would buy, and they were unfailingly cheerful and friendly. They liked their business and they liked each other.
"I'll bet," said Mr. Bessing to them one day, "you boys never had a dispute in your lives."
"No, why should we?" asked George Duff with genuine surprise.
"What have we got to dispute about?" asked Henry Wix. "What do you think we are, a couple of kids?"
Mr. Bessing thought of this as he leaned against the counter and watched Henry wait on old man Kennedy and George wait on old Mrs. Fernaby. "A couple of the best balanced young men I know," he thought. "I wish there were more like them."
Old Mrs. Fernaby was saying in her tremulous voice. "And a package of oatmeal, George," and so on through her small list of groceries. George, as he looked up from his memorandum pad with his pencil poised, looked at Mrs. Fernaby's companion. She was, George thought, just about the prettiest girl he had ever seen. There was nothing flashy about, her but her eyes and her hair and her mouth, and all of her together, were just about right. Old Mrs. Fernaby had introduced her as a matter of course. "This is my granddaughter. Lou Ann." she had said, "Samuel's daughter: may be you don't remember Samuel, my second boy. Lou Ann's been living down in Kingston with her mother but she's got married again and Lou Ann's come up to live with me. This is George Duff, Lou Ann."
"How do you do?" Lou Ann said, but George Duff put out his hand. Lou Ann's hand was all that George had expected it to be.
"We'll be glad to have you here in Oranna," George said and he meant it. He had never been more sincere in his life. He was rather more than usually polite to old Mrs. Fernaby, who was far from being the store's best customer, and when Mrs. Fernaby had completed her list and turned to Lou Ann he was all attention.
"And what was that you said you made such nice salad of. Lou Ann?" grandma Fernaby asked. "What was that salad?"
"Lobster salad." said Lou Ann. "I make it with canned lobster; do you have canned lobster. Mr. Duff?"
"Why, no, we don't." said George as if it almost broke his heart not to have canned lobster in stock. "The fact is we haven't had any calls for it, not up to now. I can get it for you."
"Oh, can you?" said Lou Ann. "Would you mind? I want to show Grandma one thing I can do."
"Expect it will kill me," smiled grandma Fernaby. "I guess that's all today. Thank you. George. I just want to show Lou Ann those new prints you got in."
George went back to Mr. Bessing and Lou Ann took the market basket and followed Mrs. Fernaby to the other side of the store. Old man Kennedy was on his way out and Henry Wix, who had had his eyes on Lou Ann for the last five minutes, moved toward her.
"This is my granddaughter. Lou Ann. Henry," Mrs. Fernaby said. "She's come up from Kingston to live with me. This is Henry Wix, Lou Ann."
"How do you do?" said Lou Ann and, strangely enough. Henry Wix put out his hand just as George Duff had done. Mrs. Fernaby explained that they just wanted to look at the new prints and Henry eagerly undertook to show them.
"Walt," said George Duff when he went back to Mr. Bessing, "have you got any canned lobster in stock?"
"Sure have, George. Sea-breeze brand, none better -- pounds and half-pounds."
"How do they come, the half-pounds?" George asked.
"Forty-eight to the case."
"You don't want that many, not up here." Mr. Bessing advised him. "Canned lobster is pretty rich for your trade."
"I had a call for it." George said.
"You let me send you half a dozen cans then," said Mr. Bessing. "You can order more if it goes all right. You don't want to overstock with anything like that. Half a dozen? Okay. Now, we've got a special on navy beans --"
George was sort of absent-minded as he gave Mr. Bessing the rest of the order. From his height on the ladder, as he checked stock, his eyes kept turning to where Henry was taking a lot of trouble to show Mrs. Fernaby and her granddaughter the cotton prints. Henry even went to the screen door and held it open when they went out, as if Lou Ann were a visiting queen or something. When Henry came back into the store there was a wide smile on his face. George did not exactly scowl but he looked annoyed.
"That's all," he said to Mr. Bessing.
"Did you tell him brooms, George?" Henry asked.
"A dozen Number Three brooms. That's all." George said tersely, and to Henry he said, "Are you going to leave those prints for me to put back? You took 'em down, you can put 'em back."
"Keep your shirt on," Henry said. "I'll take care of them. What did you order?"
Mr. Bessing tore the duplicate from his order book and handed it to Henry and Henry ran his eye down it.
"What's this? Canned lobster?" he asked Mr. Bessing. "What are you trying to do to us, Walt? We can't sell canned lobster up here."
Mr. Bessing said nothing -- he looked at George.
"I ordered that." George said defiantly. "I had a call for it."
"You did, hey?" Henry asked. "You cross that canned lobster off, Walt -- we wouldn't sell half a dozen cans of it in a hundred years. If anybody wants canned lobster let 'em order it down in Kingston. Who asked for it, anyway?"
"Mrs. Fernaby's granddaughter asked for it," said George, his eyes looking hard.
"Oh," said Henry meaningly. "She asked for it, did she?"
"Yes, she asked for it," said George, sticking his chin in the air. "You leave it on your list, Walt; I ordered it and I want it."
Mr. Bessing hesitated. The air was as full of irritation as if it was packed with emery dust.
"I tell you what I can do, boys," he said. "I can make it one can, or two cans, if you say so. I don't want to load you up with anything you can't sell."
"I ordered half a dozen cans of canned lobster." said George stubbornly. "Send it or not; there are plenty other concerns I can buy of. Davis Brothers aren't the only wholesalers by a long shot."
Mr. Bessing looked from one partner to the other. He did not want to offend either of the boys; he knew how mix-ups like this could lose a concern a good account, and he waited a moment, ready to put in a quieting word if he had to. Henry shrugged his shoulders and went to straighten out the cotton prints.
"I'll make it a quarter dozen, George," Mr. Bessing said, "and what you don't sell I'll take back any time you say," but George was stubborn.
"I ordered half a dozen," he said. "Send them or don't send them; I don't care." and with that he left Mr. Bessing and went to see what Norbert Tucker, who had just come in, wanted.
The rest of that day George and Henry were unnaturally formal with each other, irritatingly polite, and so they were the next day. Davis Brothers' truck delivered the order that afternoon and the six cans of canned lobster were there. Henry put them on the shelf just back of the cash register where they were in plain sight. To every customer that came in, whether it was Bessie Spink, the school teacher, or old Tousey Bunker, who lived at the end of the valley and never bought anything but bacon and beans and plug tobacco, he said "Canned lobster? We have it in stock now."
Every time Henry said this a sort of twitch took George in the wrists and he felt the blood jump in his head. He knew well enough what Henry was doing, rubbing it in and proving that nobody wanted canned lobster and meaning, as plain as if he said it aloud, "I know why you ordered this stuff; you fell for that Lou Ann girl and she made a fool of you."
It was all George could do to keep his mouth shut and not blare out at Henry something like, 'Yes, and I know what's got into you -- you're gone on her yourself."
The next afternoon old Mrs. Fernaby came in with her basket again but Lou Ann was not with her. George happened to be busy with the superintendent of the Micmac Fishing Club, one of their best customers, and Henry waited on Mrs. Fernaby. She had a long list this time, and George and Henry had agreed a week before that they had better go slow with Mrs. Fernaby and not sell her anything but necessities -- because her account was so big and so long past due. But Henry now gave her everything on her list and said. "And what else, Mrs. Fernaby?"
She thought a minute and said, "You don't have bath salts, do you, Henry? Lou Ann said something about using bath salts."
"We sure do," said Henry. "We've got violet and carnation, dollar a bottle. I guess she'd like violet, a quiet girl like her."
Mrs. Fernaby said she guessed she'd take the violet, and Henry went across to the middle table where such articles were.
"We've got some extra nice toilet soap to match the salts," he called to Mrs. Fernaby. Three cakes to a box and only a quarter of a dollar."
Mrs. Fernaby held a box to her nose and said it smelled real nice and that she guessed she would take a box. George, waiting on the Micmac superintendent, saw all this and heard most of it and whether it affected him or not can be judged by the fact that when the superintendent said: "And I want some nails." George said. "Yes, sir; what color?" He had to laugh and pretend it was a joke so that the superintendent would not think he was a fool. "The way the girls color their nails up nowadays," he said, and the superintendent chuckled to show he got it, but George heard and saw what Henry said and did next.
Henry came back to the grocery counter carrying the bath salts and the toilet soap and wrapped them and put them in Mrs. Fernaby's basket, and then he took down a can of the canned lobster.
"We just got in some fresh canned lobster," Henry said, "and we're trying to stir up a trade in it. I wish you'd take home a can with my compliments and give it a try."
"Well, now. Henry!" exclaimed Mrs. Fernaby. "If that ain't real kind of you! That's one thing Lou Ann said to ask if you'd got in yet and I most forgot it."
Henry put the canned lobster in the basket as if it were orchids or crown jewels, and he carried the basket to the door as if old Mrs. Fernaby were at least the Queen of Sheba.
There's no telling what Mrs. Fernaby thought but George Duff knew what he thought. He kept his temper bottled inside of him and did not say anything until he went over the day's tickets that night. Henry was fixing the cash register for the next day.
"I thought I saw you sell Mrs. Fernaby a can of that lobster," George said in a suspiciously calm voice. "I don't see it on her ticket here. Forget to put it down?"
"No. I didn't forget to put it down," declared Henry belligerently. "I gave it to her, if you want to know. That's the only way we'll ever get rid of that stuff. If you go and buy a lot of stuff that's going to stick on the shelves till kingdom come --"
"No such thing," George declared. "I had a call for it. If you're going to give away goods to every dead beat that comes into the store just because she's got a granddaughter that --"
"Dead beat," said George, paying no attention to Henry's sneer at the canned lobster. "You said yourself it was time to shut down on old lady Fernaby, and look at what you give her -- six dollars and forty cents. Bath salts. Toilet soap. And throw in a can of canned lobster free. I know why you did it -- you don't care a whoop if the whole business goes to thunder. You get mashed on a girl that comes in here --"
Henry's eyes glittered.
"Hold on there." he said in a voice hard as nails. "You be careful. George. Don't you go saying things like that to me. You think I don't know what's the matter with you. You think I don't know why you bust loose and order a fool lot of stuff like that canned lobster. You think I didn't see you hang onto that girl's hand like it was -- was -- was --"
He couldn't think of a word, so he left that where it was.
"Canned lobster!" he cried with the uttermost disgust. "You're some storekeeper, ain't you? Canned lobster! Leave you alone and every time a girl comes in here you'll buy fool stuff till we're busted higher than a kite."
"You look out, Henry." said George, breathing hard. "Don't you go talking of busting us up when you go and sell old lady Fernaby bath salts and put it on the books. You're the one that's going to bust us up, if anybody does. Who's going to pay for that lobster, you or her?"
"Cheap," said Henry offensively. "Cheap, that's what you are." He threw a coin at George. "Take it, you cheap skate."
George knocked the coin to the floor, shouting. "Don't you call me cheap!" and lunged at Henry with his fist, but Henry caught his wrist and twisted it so that George came up full against him and they clinched. They stood panting and twisting and then fell to the floor locked together and rolled over and over, bumping into the counter and against legs of tables, socking a blow whenever an arm got loose enough.
It was not a scientific fight nor very spectacular but it had a lot of intensity and grunts. Ejaculations and cuss words spurted out of George and Henry whenever they thumped the floor or each other and murder might have been done if they had not been so evenly matched and out of practice. They were too mad to use science and they walloped around like a couple of blind-angry kids.
They banged against the front door together and George got on top of Henry and got a hand inside Henry's shirt collar just as Henry pulled up a knee and got it against George's chest and pulled, and Henry pushed. Henry's shirt button came off and George lost his grip and went over backward, out the front door. After a moment George got up and laughed sheepishly as a man will, and hit at his dusty legs once or twice as if he and Henry had just been fooling, and went back into the store.
Henry did not say a word and George did not say a word; George went back to his job of entering the day's sales slips in the ledger and Henry checked the cash register, and they locked up and went home without speaking.
The next morning Henry was sweeping out when George got to the store. He swept the wet sawdust out of the store and across the sidewalk and came back in before he said a word to George. He was cold faced and serious.
"You put a price on your half share of this business," he said, "and I'll put a price on my half. I'll buy you out or you'll buy me out. I'm through with you."
"And the sooner the better," George said. "I've had all of you I can stand. If you can't buy my half Walt Bessing can find someone who can -- or who'll buy yours."
"I'll leave it to Bessing." Henry said.
Mr. Bessing came on the two o'clock train as usual. He said, "Hello. George," and, "Hello, Henry," as usual also, and walked back toward the rear end of the store and hefted his sample case up onto the counter there just as he always did. The response he got from George and Henry was shorter than usual and the boys looked less cheerful than usual, but Mr. Bessing thought nothing of that. He opened his sample case and turned and leaned against the counter.
"We'll see you in a minute, Walt," George called. He was waiting for a small boy to decide whether he wanted licorice strap or jelly beans. Henry was selling Arthur Bender a galvanized pail. They completed these deals at about the same moment and turned toward Mr. Bessing, when the screen door opened and old lady Fernaby came in. Lou Ann was behind her and behind Lou Ann was a young fellow in a new suit of clothes and a new straw hat. Henry and George both went toward old lady Fernaby and they met her close by the cash register.
"No, George; no, Henry," she said, holding up her hand. "I don't want anything today. Lou Ann and I have just been down to meet the train and I thought we'd just stop in and get you to meet Mr. Tunison."
Mr. Tunison held out his hand and grinned.
"How do?" he said.
"Mr. Tunison is from Kingston," Mrs. Fernaby said. "He and Lou Ann are going to get married. They're going to get married at my house come Wednesday."
George was the first to recover. He had Mr. Tunison's hand and he shook it heartily.
"Well, well, well! Congratulations," he said, pumping Mr. Tunison's arm up and down.
"I just thought you boys would be the first I'd invite." said Mrs. Fernaby, "seein' how nice you've always been to me."
"It won't be a big wedding." said Lou Ann. "Grandma's house won't hold so many folks. It's at seven o'clock but if you can't come then you be sure to come later -- we're going to have refreshments."
"We'll come," said Henry. "We'll be right there with bells on, won't we, George?"
"We sure will," George declared, putting his arm across Henry's shoulder. "And I guess we ought to give these folks a wedding present, hey, Henry?"
"Sure." said Henry. "Sure, George." and he looked around to see what could be given, but George leaned across the counter to the shelf behind the cash register. He used both hands and took down five cans of canned lobster, and thumped them on the counter.
"For some of that grand lobster salad you were talking about," said George.
"And you bet we'll be there to eat some of it," said Henry, and he turned and called to Mr. Bessing, "Just a minute, Walt, and we'll be with you."
"Nice boys," thought Mr. Bessing. "Never any trouble, always get along nice and pleasant together."