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Mookie walked between the pyramid of exterior latex paint cans that were on sale and a table of wallpaper sample books. He stood in front of the counter, hands held loosely at his sides. Mrs. Twilling stared at him.
“You nervous about something?” she said.
“Maybe you should be,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” Mookie said and kept still while his heart thumped like the old paint mixer in the corner.
“Somebody hit my neighbour’s dog over the head with a shovel. That little pooch is dead as a doornail.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mookie said.
“Is that so?”
He was nervous, but more frightened than nervous. Mrs. Twilling stared at him and then she nodded her head.
“All right,” she said, “you can open up.”
Mookie relaxed. He set up the usual street display the area rug shelves, the bin of odds and ends, wallpaper rolls, and the roll of burlap.
“No sign of my husband,” Mrs. Twilling said, when Mookie came back for the broom to sweep the sidewalk.
“Why am I not surprised?” she said.
“I guess because it’s happened before.”
Mrs. Twilling gave him a sad smile that made his heart lurch.
“Anything special today?” Mookie said.
“I’ll work the cash and help out on the floor if it gets busy.”
She hardly spoke to him all day. When she did speak to him she called him Stuart. Every time she said his real name he felt his heart expand. When things bunched up she was there on the floor to help and then he was there at the cash to make sure things got into their bags and there was a carry-out when it was necessary. As the day went on he got the feeling that they were moving in synch. There was a kind of rhythm that he felt as the customers came and went.
During a lull she said to him, “Remind me how long you’ve been working here?”
“Six months,” Mookie said.
“Where’d you work before?”
“Where’d you learn your stuff?”
“Library after work on the computer.”
“You studied up on paint and wallpaper?”
“Yes ma’am. And practice too when I have a chance.”
“Who’d have thought,” she said, shaking her head as the door jangled and business began to pick up again.
Just before closing time, Mr. Twilling came in. He was a big, rangy man. Mookie took one look at him with his shirt hanging out and shoe laces undone and knew he was hung over and probably short of cash. Mrs. Twilling immediately got between her husband and the cash register.
“You’re not helping yourself today, mister,” she said angrily.
She crossed her arms and stared defiantly at her husband. From where Mookie was standing it looked like things might escalate but then Sister Connie came in the door.
“There you are,” Sister Connie said.
Mookie thought she was about to hug him and he stepped back.
“You're a genius,” she said. “You have a gift. Thank you for the tutoring session on puttying a window.”
“No problem, sister. It’s sort of my job.”
Sister Connie smiled benignly at him, then looked over at the Twilling stand-off. She nodded in their direction. Mookie turned in time to see Mr. Twilling follow his wife into the office.
“Is everything all right?” Sister Connie said and touched Mookie’s arm.
“I think so. I guess they argue sometimes. I don’t see much of Mrs. Twilling.”
“You get along with Mr. Twilling, then?”
“You bet. I think he’s happy to have me. I work hard.”