© Moira Michelle Hues
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An Ordinary Occurrence
It was really just another stretch of days, with sunrises and sunsets, with everyday conversations and people. I tell you, no one talked about it after it happened, because it wasn’t important. It was just an ordinary occurrence, like the blooming of that same daffodil in Mrs. Perry’s garden every spring. Not much to get excited about.
There were so many people passing through that year, most of them on their way out to St. Louis, for the World’s Fair. They came in droves, many from Chicago, by way of the Nickel Rate Road—why they built a railroad through this town I’ll never know—and some all the way from New York or California. Every one said the same thing, as they slept in our beds and bought our coffee, “Oh, Collinsville, Illinois. What a quaint little town.” And then they left, off to spend their big purses in the big city.
But who am I to talk? If you really want to know what happened—and why would you, honestly, it was just another one of those things—you shouldn’t ask me. I had nothing to do with it. I just watched it happen. Granted, I may know a little more than Mr. Barrett in his saloon, but that’s only because I manage the store. Everyone in town flits through my store at least once a week, and I never miss a peck of gossip. When Miss Gary eloped with her beau? I knew about it before her friends even noticed she was gone. When Mrs. Nelly fired her maid? Well, I’ll tell you that it wasn’t just because she thought she could do the housework on her own!
My grandfather established the store in 1860, and I’ve worked here my whole life. Now, you might say I’m a little young—cavalier, I’ve been called—to be working the store myself, but I don’t have any other options. This store is my family’s pride, and ever since my parents died and my sister went and got herself sick over that boy from New York, I’ve kept up the store alone. But you didn’t ask about me, did you? Let me tell you what happened.
One pleasant evening Mrs. Marsh waltzed into my store, looking for a can of peaches for her grandson.
“What a beautiful sky we have tonight, Mr. Nielson,” she said, searching idly through the stacks of canned fruit on the shelf beside her.
“Yes, indeed, Mrs. Marsh, yes indeed.” I smiled at her. I wondered at her coming in so late; I was a little tired and considered closing up the shop after she left.
“Oh, you boy,” she tittered, “you do flatter me. Please, call me Annie.”
“Are you finding everything you need there, Mrs. Annie?” I was embarrassed to use her first name like that, but it made her feel younger, and I was only going to oblige the customer. One learns in Collinsville to live peacefully with every oddity and quirk that graces each element of the population; because what else could one do? And somehow between the annoyances and the laughter I’ve found that you really do come to love each and every person. Collinsville meant more to me than just a little town—it was my home. It was my own castle and moor of heather.
“I am, my dear Mr. Nielson,” she replied, still searching around my aisles. “Have you heard any news around town lately?”
“Not really. Well, Miss Lavinia and Miss Elizabeth Anne were in here before noon, gossiping about some such nonsense.”
Mrs. Marsh laughed. “Do I ever see those girls do anything else? But they are just so lovely.”
And it was true. In the heavy heat of 1904’s Midwestern July, Miss Lavinia Daily was the most beautiful girl in Collinsville. Eighteen, just out of finishing school, and ready to be presented to society; she was a blooming flower in a desolate, dusty landscape. She and her friends came by my store all the time, looking for odds and ends, like a pretty ribbon for Miss Emily's hair, or a new powder puff for Miss Lavinia.
“But have you heard about the other news?” Mrs. Marsh pressed.
I looked up at her. “What else is there?”
Mrs. Marsh looked scandalized. “Haven’t you heard about it?”
“Heard about what?”
“They’ve only been talking about it all morning! There are a bunch of them city men due on the next train in. Rich men, on their way to St. Louis.”
“You don’t say?” I asked, absentmindedly reorganizing a few cans of peas on the aisle. Mrs. Marsh was the biggest busybody in Madison County. I was halfway sure she would continue to talk about these men whether I was a living thing or a brick wall.
But this wasn’t the first mention I had heard of a mess of foreigners stepping foot in Collinsville. I pressed her for details. I was keenly interested in these men because newcomers always mean a boost in revenue for the town, and especially for me. Their conversation was interesting as well; they brought stories of the big cities and even sometimes news from overseas.
Mrs. Marsh did not have any truly useful information, but in the coming days there would be many whom were glad to share their knowledge with me over a few dollars in store purchases. I heard of Mr. Stone Mills and Mr. Gold Mines, Mr. Actor and Mr. Singer, but no one really interested me until I heard about Mr. Entrepreneur. Mr. Robert Turner was an attractive young businessman from Chicago. Born and raised in a privileged family, Mr. Turner attended Yale College and Business School. Afterwards he returned to the Windy City to become grossly wealthy and popular among the ladies. It was said that he was attending the World’s Fair to try to start business overseas.
On Sunday a week later I saw Miss Lavinia Daily in her church pew. Swathed in satin like a seraph straight from Heaven, she held her Hymnal in her tiny soft hands and prayed the holy words through full red lips. I greeted her on my way out into the day, and as I looked back behind me to catch a glimpse of the minister, I was blinded by the shining white of the sun upon her bonnet. The full brim of the hat swept across her pale cheeks and shielded her delicate brown eyes from the bright Midwestern rays. She stood alone for only the slightest second, and then was surrounded by friends and admirers alike. I turned away and followed a lone fluffy cloud to my house.
I don’t live alone anymore, of course. I was happily married in 1906, and I’ve lived in bliss ever since. My wife has a special affinity for the color white. For any truly special occasion, such as Christmas, Easter, our anniversary, or her best friend’s wedding, she wears white. I can’t describe to you how precious my wife is. You haven’t met someone genuine until you’ve made her acquaintance. She is rarely angry or irritated, but when something is distasteful to her, you can see the little wrinkle between her nose and her forehead. She wrinkled her nose when I told her about the Jamestown exposition in 1907.
Mr. Robert Turner arrived in town on a Monday. I heard several people whispering about him before he actually stepped foot into my store early Tuesday morning.
“Good day to you sir,” he tipped his hat.
“Good morning,” I replied graciously. “Welcome to Collinsville, sir.”
“Thank you.” Mr. Turner smiled at me, brushing off his Italian silk suit and wiping his brown suede shoes on my floor. He shrugged a black briefcase off his right shoulder and let it slide past his fingers to the ground near his feet.
“May I find you anything?” I asked, approaching him slowly from behind my desk. I pushed aside the little door between the counter and the aisles and stepped closer to him.
Mr. Turner nodded as he swept his gaze across my merchandise and nearly turned up his nose at what I suppose did not live up to his big city expectations.
“Do you supply shaving cream?”
“Of course, sir.” I said, grabbing the best can I had from the first shelf and ringing it up immediately. I figured he could afford it. As we made a cordial transaction, I tried to engage him in more useful conversation. But as I was getting to ask him about his business in St. Louis, Miss Emily waltzed in, her blond curls bouncing un-ladylike on her shoulders.
“Oh!” She tittered, stopping short at seeing Mr. Turner. “My gosh, I didn’t think I’d find anyone here but you, Mr. Nielson,” she exclaimed, as if I were less important to her than a piece of dried meat. She blushed and waved her fan across her face. Mr. Turner took off his hat.
“Good day, Miss. Are you a resident of Collinsville?”
“Yes I am! But I’m sure I’ve never seen you before, Mr…?”
“Turner. Robert Turner.”
“Delighted to meet you Mr. Turner.” Miss Emily stretched out her hand like a ballerina and waited for him to accept her. He took her hand gently in his and kissed her knuckles.
“Enchanté, Miss.” I watched the exchange quietly. Miss Emily was completely flustered by his savoir-faire.
“Mr. Turner, will you be purchasing anything further today?”
“Oh, Mr. Nielson, you are always thinking about business!” Miss Emily giggled, tugging at her gloves and eyeing Mr. Turner’s young and smooth face from beneath her eyelashes.
I made no comment, watching Mr. Turner interact with her and wondering if I needed to do more to intervene before Miss Emily asked him to marry her.
But Mr. Turner laughed it off, took his item from my desk and graced both of us with a good-natured goodbye. Miss Emily held her breath until my door closed behind him, and then she spun around, breathless and excited.
“Oh Mr. Nielson! Wasn’t he to die for? Who is he? What do you know about him?”
I was cautious with what I shared with her. I thought it would be in the girl’s interest to keep Mr. Turner’s considerable achievements to myself. Soon after, Miss Emily bought herself a bar of soap and left, swearing that she had to tell her friends about the newcomer as soon as possible. Of course, one of her best friends was Miss Lavinia Daily.
So I let Miss Emily go, took a couple dozen more customers that day, and went home. I heard nothing further about Mr. Turner except the excited jabbering of young ladies until that Friday morning, when Mrs. Marsh was back in the store for more peaches.
“How did Isaac enjoy those peaches last week?” I asked solicitously. I was watching the back of the store with one eye, as a Mr. Wheat Mills from Missouri browsed the liquor aisle.
“He just loved them. I don’t know where you get your canned peaches, but they beat mine any day!”
I laughed modestly, and as Mrs. Marsh picked out the cans that she liked best, along with a few other produce items to supply her for the weekend, she asked me if I had met “that charming young man from Chicago.”
“I met him earlier in the week, but I haven’t seen him since. Has he left yet?”
“Oh no he certainly hasn’t. And get this—I heard tell he is extending his stay at the Magrid Hotel.”
I stacked the peaches in a bag, slowly opening my cash register.
“Why would he do that?”
“Well you must know about Mrs. Nelly’s barnyard dance this Friday evening. Rumor has it he wants to take someone.”
“Who would he take?” I asked, thinking I already knew the answer. I closed my register and handed Mrs. Marsh her change.
“He’s asking Miss Lavinia Daily. Can you imagine a pretty thing like that with such a handsome young man? They’ll make the best couple in all of Illinois!”
Mrs. Marsh wished me a good day and I took care of my other customer. I lunched late that afternoon, preferring a short walk down Main Street before finding a seat at Mr. Shelly’s café. I ordered a hot sandwich and coffee, staring out the window into the bright and sunny promise of a pleasant weekend. From the distance of the park behind town hall, I saw two figures walking up Main Street, one the tall, unmistakably fashionable figure of Mr. Turner, and the other, a slim, beautiful young girl dressed in white and green. Miss Lavinia Daily.
They approached the café slowly, enjoying each other’s company. Miss Lavinia was laughing at something he had said by the time they entered the café.
They sat at a booth not far from mine, so I can tell you what I remember from their conversation.
My waiter asked me if I wanted anything else as Mr. Turner asked her about her family.
“I have two sisters, both younger than I,” she replied.
“What are their names?” He asked.
“Fiona and Martha.” Miss Lavinia paused to take a drink. “And what about you, Mr. Turner?”
“I am an only child.”
“Oh, how lonely you must have been.” Miss Lavinia said, her eyes crinkling at the sides. Her eyes were always so expressive of her emotions; Miss Lavinia could never hide her feelings from anyone. She was transparent and sincere about everything she did.
“Not so,” he protested. “I thoroughly enjoyed college, and I had a roommate who was like a brother to me.”
“What was his name?”
“Joshua Bancroft. We played tennis together every day.”
“Do you enjoy tennis, Mr. Turner?” Miss Lavinia twirled her food around her fork and looked at him coyly.
“Quite,” he replied, a smile turning the corner of his lips as he responded to her flirting. “I am very fond of the game. When I was in London—”
“You were in London?” She asked suddenly, perking up at the thought.
“Yes, for two years. I was trying to set up a business deal, but it fell through.”
“How sad, Mr. Turner.”
“Not really. If I had made that deal, I wouldn’t have come to the World’s Fair. And if I hadn’t done that, I never would have met you.”
My waiter came by once more and I paid him and left the café.
I did not attend the dance that night but I heard from Mrs. Chase that Miss Lavinia looked gorgeous in forest green satin, and she and Mr. Turner made a handsome couple. Sunday morning found Miss Lavinia and Mr. Turner sitting a respectable distance from each other in her normal church pew. Needless to say, the whispering about them increased tenfold, to the point where it was nearly the only thing I heard about for the next two weeks.
Midway through July I was beginning to feel as though Mr. Turner was quite outstaying his welcome in Collinsville. He stopped by my store every once in a while for odds or ends, but never remained long enough for more than the general niceties.
Miss Lavinia stopped by on a bright Wednesday. It had been a slow morning, so I looked up immediately when I heard my bell ring. It was she.
She wore a full pink skirt with a brown bodice.
“Good morning Miss Daily.” I greeted.
She looked up at me from underneath thick lashes and a white bonnet with pink flowers.
“Good morning Mr. Nielson.” She smiled, and pulled at her delicate white lace gloves.
“Can I help you with anything?”
Miss Lavinia walked through the aisles, trailing her fingers along the items. She didn’t respond, simply glided across the floor, approaching my desk.
“Miss Daily?” I prompted.
She whipped her head in my direction suddenly and then laughed. “I’m sorry Mr. Nielson, I’m a little absentminded today!”
“That’s quite all right. How are you doing, Miss Daily?”
“Oh, wonderful. Blissful.” She floated to a stop before my desk and laid her arms across the table like it was an altar, resting her chin in her glove with a lovely expression in her brown eyes.
“That’s good to hear. Are you looking for something in particular?” I stood a respectable distance from her, simply observing.
“Yes. I need something really special for tonight.”
“And why is that, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Miss Lavinia met my gaze, and then dropped her lids modestly and let her eyelashes sweep the tops of her cheekbones.
“I’m just hoping for something special tonight, if you understand my meaning, Mr. Nielson.”
“I think I do.”
We shared a small moment in which we smiled at each other before Miss Lavinia broke into a short giggle, letting her inner girl shine through.
“Oh I can’t be so formal with you Mr. Nielson. I’m sure you know everything that’s been happening anyway—you do know everything don’t you? I’m so excited! He’s so perfect, so divine, and so, so lovely. I must be the luckiest girl on the face of the planet!”
I shrugged, dropping my gaze from hers and inching past her towards a different aisle.
“I’m very happy for you, Miss Daily.”
She followed me, chattering about how much she loved him.
“So what would you like to pick up today?” I came to a stop in front of Isaac Marsh’s very favorite peaches and rested my hand against the shelf. I heard her come to a stop behind me but did not turn around.
“I’m not sure. I think I need some scent, and maybe a little rouge. You do carry that, don’t you?”
“Of course Miss.”
“And—could I possibly find a pair of satin gloves?”
“You ought to go to Mrs. Savon’s dress shop for that.”
“Oh yes, you are right.”
I grabbed Miss Lavinia’s items from the shelves and she gravitated back towards the desk, waiting for me.
As I rang up her purchases and counted out her change, she looked through the various specialty items I displayed on the side of my desk.
“The St. Louis Post-Dispatch?” She asked.
“Yes, Miss.” I bagged her purchases and handed them to her. “I order the newspaper every couple of weeks. I like to keep apprised of what’s happening.”
“Of course, of course.” She nodded. “Mr. Turner rues the lack of outside news in Collinsville. I’ll have to tell him that you stock the newspaper.”
“Right. You have a nice day now, Miss Daily.”
“You as well, Mr. Nielson.”
My wife was always fond of staring into my eyes. She says she likes to get lost in them. I certainly love her eyes; the color, the particular hue, the shape, the way they darken at the edges and lighten in the middle—she steals my breath away. But those beautiful eyes have never graced the front page of a newspaper. Like I said, I only ordered the newspaper every so often, and it was really just for me. Not many other people in town ever bought the paper, so after a while I stopped showing it and kept it to myself. I was the only one for miles around who ever read the paper.
Sometimes small town gossip is worth a lot more, anyway.
I visited Mr. Barrett’s saloon one day, and it was truly the only place one could go in town without hearing talk about Mr. Turner and Miss Lavinia. After spending a nice afternoon playing poker with the men, I returned to the store. We just had a new shipment of salicylic acid. The stuff does wonders to cure a headache, trust me. I always stack it right on the front shelf behind my desk, so that people can readily see it, and I can regulate who is buying what sort of medicine. It takes me a few weeks to order new medicines, so I like to keep a tight leash on my supply.
On Sunday, Miss Lavinia and Mr. Turner were sitting very close together—they had been inching closer and closer every week—and on the way out of church I saw the minister shaking Mr. Turner’s hand as vigorously as if he had single-handedly won the Battle of San Juan Hill. I was invited by Miss Elizabeth Anne, one of Miss Lavinia’s friends, to a small luncheon on the hill—sponsored, of course, by Mr. Turner-- but I declined, not knowing what all the hoopla was about.
Monday morning gave me my answer. It was a dreary day, filled with the promise of downpour. Miss Elizabeth Anne and Miss Sadie rushed in, their red cheeks glowing.
“Mr. Nielson, Mr. Nielson! Have you a rose?”
“No, Miss, I don’t stock flowers.”
They looked at each other like I had decreed the end of all barnyard dances. “Well then, a sash,” Miss Elizabeth decided.
“Yes,” Miss Sadie agreed, nodding vigorously. “A sash will do.” Turning to me she asked, “Have you a sash for Miss Lavinia Daily’s new traveling bonnet?”
“I’m sure I do.” I pulled a variety of new ribbon designs down from the shelf and displayed them. As the two girls pored over the ribbons, I inquired, “And what does Miss Daily need a new traveling bonnet for?”
“Why, haven’t you heard Mr. Nielson?” Miss Sadie asked me. When I shook my head, the girls dissolved into giggles.
“Miss Lavinia is going to marry that Mr. Turner.”
“Yes—” Miss Elizabeth chimed in. “And he’s taking her to St. Louis for the wedding. It’s going to be so romantic to be married in some big city church with all them fancy hangings and such.”
“I’m terribly jealous,” Miss Sadie agreed. The two of them clasped hands and smiled. “But she’s so lucky!”
They purchased what they thought was the prettiest ribbon and then rushed out as quickly as they had come. I closed the store early, stopped by Mr. Barrett’s saloon, and then went home.
I later heard that the young couple was hoping to leave by Saturday, and to be married by the next Sunday. Mr. Turner stopped by the store nearly every day that week, picking up different oddities he seemed to require for the trip. He came in one day with a terrible headache, and I supplied him with some salicylic acid.
“Wedding jitters?” I suggested.
“Yes.” He laughed. “Excited stress, I suppose. I’m getting married, sir! Can you believe it?” He thanked me graciously and left the store in a hurry. Not expecting any other customers, I turned the sign to read “closed” and began to take inventory.
Near twilight I heard a vigorous knocking on my window, and I turned to see Miss Lavinia Daily peering in past the sign. I unlocked the door for her the slightest bit and pointed to the sign.
“I’m closed, Miss.”
“I know, but I’ll only be a minute, I promise.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m closed.” I tried to close the door, but she pushed against me.
“Please, Mr. Nielson. Please. I promise I’ll only be a minute.” She stared into my eyes, pleading. I stepped away from the door, and she pushed it open and laid a hand against my shoulder.
“Thank you so much.”
I nodded, and stayed rooted to my spot by the door until she had collected all the items she needed.
“I left the money on the counter,” she said, a little uncertainly. “Are you all right, Mr. Nielson?”
“Yes, of course I am.” I said, opening the door for her. “Now I really am closed.” I smiled and gestured towards my sign. She blushed.
“Oh, right. Thank you again.” She stepped onto the threshold, and then looked back at me, almost shyly.
“I can’t quite believe that I’m leaving Collinsville.” She managed a watery smile for me. “I’m going to miss you, Mr. Nielson. You and your store and your quirky little comments.” She suddenly dropped her bags and hugged me. “Be well, and I hope you live a long and happy life. I’ll never forget you.”
Blushing furiously now, she picked up her bags and rushed out the door. I leaned against the doorpost and watched her run.
On Thursday I opened the store late, feeling a little under the weather. There were several boxes piled up at my door and I remembered that I was supposed to have a new shipment that day. This time it was Dr. Rose’s French Arsenic Complexion Wafers and several other beauty products. The ladies would be swarming all over the store as soon as they heard they were in. The wafers were an especially big hit, because it was so popular nowadays to have perfectly fair skin. Don’t ask me how it works, but rubbing those complexion wafers into your skin makes it pale and white. I wondered if Miss Lavinia would pick some up before her wedding or was planning on buying some in St. Louis. Because the wafers were in such high demand, I also stocked them on the shelf behind my desk, along with medicine and ladies’ scents.
The store was relatively quiet. Right before I closed I was graced by the actual presence of Mr. Isaac Marsh, who at his grandmother’s direction thanked me profusely for my peaches. On Friday, Mr. Turner was back with another apparently incurable headache.
“A bottle of salicylic acid, if you please,” he requested.
“You’ll want to take care of that before the wedding sir,” I reminded him, pulling a bottle off the shelf and handling the small white container in my hands. I smoothed my fingers over the round face, thinking how lucky I had been to just receive such a large shipment. I bagged it and turned to him, smiling. The most powerful moments in your life, sometimes, are encapsulated in the most basic interactions of hand grazing hand.
“Here you are, Mr. Turner.”
“Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure knowing you, Mr. Nielson.”
“Of course.” I touched my fingers to my forehead as he left.
And really, that’s all there is to it. That’s all that happened. I told you I had nothing to do with it. Soon after I stopped ordering copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. There is some truly awful stuff printed in there. At the end of the July there was all of that noise about that young bachelor who had gone missing. He was found face down in the river by the side of the railroad tracks on the way to Santa Fe, his personal effects strewn about him. They say he was poisoned. He was traveling alone.
Like I said, it was a totally normal occurrence. Mr. Turner ended up leaving Miss Lavinia high and dry, like every other big city boy who had played our women for dumb. On Saturday morning, when the couple was scheduled to leave for St. Louis, he was simply nowhere to be found. Miss Lavinia was crushed, needless to say. And that’s all there was.
My wife likes it when I tell her stories. We curl up by the fireside with a blanket and some hot cocoa, and I read to her. She says she likes the sound of my voice. I have always been in love with my wife. Every time I saw her standing in her pew at church, every time I saw her walking down Main Street, every time she walked into my store, I melted at her beauty. I love her, and I would do anything for her. I must surely have been in love with her my entire life, ever since she walked into my store on her first day back from finishing school and said, “Why, don’t you remember me, Mr. Nielson? It’s me, Lavinia Daily.”