Thursday, December 25, 2008

When Billy saw the golden court house dome at the top of the hill he knelt on the hump between the built-in seats of the truck to look at the gray stone courthouse itself, the largest building he had seen so far in his five and a half years.

Just before Main Street, Walt pulled a little ways into an alley to let them out. Once she and Kathy were down, Billy climbed out and watched the truck continue down the alley.

“Where’s daddy going?” he asked.

“Just back to the Singer store,” Flora answered. “We’ll see him there in a little while. We’re going to Royers now. Don’t you want to see the flying bottle?”

For a moment he didn’t know what she meant but the idea urged him forward with her. Kathy wanted down from her arms, and so their progress was slowed by Kathy’s walk. Now Billy was impatient and skipped ahead until he reached the entrance, and waited for them to go in together.

Royers was the smallest, smartest and most expensive of the Main Street department stores, so Flora only bought there what she couldn’t find elsewhere. She’d seen a cashmere scarf she liked on a previous visit and had decided to buy it for her brother Carl. She guided her children to the correct counter and made the purchase. Billy, who was looking at the lit glass cases and holding onto his sister’s hand, heard the sound and quickly looked up, remembering.

He saw the clerk in white shirt and tie wrap the sales slip and its carbon copy with a rubber band and put it in a dull gold colored metal cylinder. Then the clerk opened a lid on a pipe that was the same gold color. As soon as the lid was opened, the cylinder was immediately sucked up and sent whooshing and clattering through the pipe that went up the wall and across the ceiling. “The flying bottle!” Billy cried. Flora smiled as Billy watched for the sales slip to come back through the pneumatic tube and clunk to a stop.

Back outside, they walked past several small shops--Nancy’s, the La Rose Shop, Robertsons-- and the big Joe Workman store. Billy knew which one was Nancy's by its orange facade, because of the radio commercial that fascinated him: several men, singing "That's Nancy, with the orange face," slightly off-key.

Billy asked where they were going next and Flora told him, “Bon Ton’s. Do you know where it is?” Billy looked past the McCory’s five and ten (almost as big as Murphy’s across the street) and the Masons building, and saw the big sign that hung over the sidewalk, with a clock in the first O and a temperature gauge in the second. “Right there!” he cried, pointing up at the sign. Billy knew the sign, a conspicuous landmark on Main Street, but he could also read it. He didn’t quite know how to read, Flora had decided. He knew his letters, and he knew certain familiar words, like Bon Ton and Singer, but she didn’t think he had put the two skills together yet. But he was close, and he wouldn’t start school until next fall.

Flora thought about sending him to kindergarten, but there was only one nearby, and she didn’t know anyone who sent their child there. Since Billy seemed to be learning on his own, and also since he still got upset and sometimes uncontrollable in a crowd of children--who could forget the monumental tantrums he threw at his surprise birthday party in Arnwood last year-- she decided against it. It wasn't worth the money. Her mother agreed, as did Doctor Spino, and so did Walt. Of course, Walt thought nobody needed kindergarten—it was just another way of taking their money.

South Main was the level part of the street that stretched through the middle of town. North of the Court House it began a steep uphill climb, cresting at Holy Sacrament Church and Greenbriar High School, before undulating out of town to become Route 66. But fortunately for Flora—with two kids in tow--most of the stores were down here, between the Court House and the trolley and bus station. That was great for the many shoppers out today, but it wasn’t so good last summer, when Jack’s Run overflowed again. It was hard to even imagine that in August there was so much water farther down South Main that people paddled rowboats in the street. That was all forgotten today, with all the people bundled up in the cold, warmed by each other, smiling a little guiltily because they hadn’t finished their shopping yet, as they hurried by the Christmas lights and decorations in the store windows.

By the time they got inside Bon Ton, Kathy was fussing. Royers had been pretty crowded but it was always kind of quiet in there. But the Bon Ton was very crowded and loud. There were no rugs on the shiny wood and stone floors, and the ceilings were higher. She promised Billy some ice cream if he would help her with Kathy while she looked at lined leather gloves for dad. She talked with a clerk at the men’s gloves counter while Billy stood nearby with Kathy looking at the lights on a Christmas tree, telling her the colors. He would point, say the color, and she would repeat it. Then he pointed and waited. She cried out the names of colors. Flora looked back once in awhile. Kathy seemed to know red but her other choices were guesses, and when she was wrong and Billy laughed, she would repeat the guess to make him laugh again.

But they both soon tired of this game, and Flora hadn’t found what she was looking for, at least not at the price she thought reasonable, so they crossed the short side street to Troutman’s, the biggest department store in town. She thought about taking them up to the third floor to see Santa, but Kathy had been frightened by the big man in the bright red suit when they were here a few weeks before, so she didn’t mention it, and they stayed on the first floor.

While she held Kathy and bought a pair of gloves--they weren’t much cheaper or any nicer than at Bon Ton’s but she was ready to give up--Billy stood looking through the glass doors across Main Street where he saw the Singer sign. She thought this would entice him, but when she started to move that way he reminded her about the ice cream. She sighed and changed direction, going back out the side door and down some steps to the little diner below street level called “The Chat & Chew.” She immediately regretted it, for the narrow diner was crowded and so hot that the glass windows were steamed up. But Billy was fascinated with the idea of being below the street and wanted to stay. He was just starting to work up to a tantrum when a booth became available and they all sat down.

Flora was impatient. It was silly promising ice cream when they would all be stuffing themselves for the next couple of weeks, and they would have cookies and candy within all too easy reach most of the time. Besides, it would just make them cold. And it was getting late. Mum would be beside herself trying to get everything done.

She tried to urge Billy along but he was still more interested in looking around in the diner, and especially looking up at the legs of people walking by on the sidewalk. His dish of chocolate ice cream sat melting, but when she mentioned it, he attacked it with intent to finish it all. Kathy was also absorbed in looking around, so a few spoonfuls seemed enough for her.

At last she got them buttoned up and ready to go out again. They crossed Main Street to the Singer store. As soon as they got inside the door, Kathy ran across the carpeted floor. There weren’t many customers and everyone who worked there knew them. Doris, who seemed to be there all the time, made a fuss over Kathy while Billy stood quietly looking around. Walt wasn’t out on the floor. He could be downstairs in the shop or more likely in the back with a favored customer, sipping some holiday whiskey. But Doris’ loud praise and Kathy’s laughter must have alerted him, and he came out. Billy, who had been so eager to come here, hardly moved. Flora exchanged greetings with Ronnie Walsh, who said he and his wife Reenie would drop by, probably on the weekend. This would be the first Christmas season Flora was able to entertain visitors in her new home. Although she and Walt had spent an evening at the homes of a few of his coworkers and their wives, like Ronnie and Reenie, they had not yet hosted any. Now they could.

They would still do a lot of visiting between now and New Year’s. All her mother’s friends expected it. The kids didn’t seem to mind. They liked going to Ronnie and Reenie’s for some reason. Kathy seemed fascinated with their fish tank. Well, it was different.

Flora talked quietly with Walt. He confirmed that he would have to stay to close up, since the manager had the day off and the assistant manager left early. Ronnie, the only other salesman there today, had the longer drive home. She reminded him that they were eating early so that they could go see his family afterwards. She gave him her packages to put in the truck, and gathered her children for the trolley ride to Arnwood.

They walked down past the public library and crossed South Main Street again to the trolley and bus station. Billy wanted to go inside—he seemed fascinated with the large waiting room—but the trolley car came right away, Number 220. She picked Kathy up and hurried Billy along, asking him if he knew what the words on the side of the trolley said. She thought he might know “West Penn” but he pretended he didn’t hear her.

But both kids liked riding the trolley, and the six mile ride didn’t take much longer than by car. After awhile the trolley ran alongside the railroad tracks, which Billy really liked. He loved trains, and wished aloud that they would see one go by. Flora was just as glad none did, for she was grateful for the quiet. There were enough seats for everyone on the trolley, and it was a quiet ride. Snow streaked the grass and clung especially to the trees higher up the hills they passed. The route itself was very flat. Soon they started passing standing coal cars and box cars that meant they were nearing the rail yards of Arnwood, and soon after, Depot Street.

When the trolley stopped near Depot Street, Billy wanted to stay on long enough to see the conductor take him stool from one end of the trolley car to the other for the return trip, but Flora told him they had to get off now or they would have to go back, and he wouldn’t get any of the jumbalones grandma had made this morning. So they got up and walked in the cold and cloudy afternoon across the black coal cinders, onto the short border of grass and then onto the sidewalk, up Depot Street.

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