Minnie’s was an antique/junk store located near an artificial impoundment near the state line, where people went to buy beer, cigarettes or ice.

The place had an odor of cigarettes from the customers, naturally, but there was a deeper one that permeated every sofa , eight track tape, directional brass finished lamp and novelty blackface collectible  so they almost could have been scraped and used as evidence. It was a library of cancers, with the source materials stacked against the walls and spilling out into the room in the guise of reeking Laz-e-boys, tar crusted wagon wheel lamps and Elvis memorobilia, Mitch Miller, Bobby Goldsboro and Charlie Pride albums, walkers, elevated toilets, fiberglass composite ashtrays, and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books; all heaped in a testament to the long necrotic decline and death of every smoker and chewer in a hundred mile radius.

And you could hear her dead husband’s corpse there, too, chewing through the stick-built trailer whose tiny bathroom he elected to decorate with his brains. It was the only bathroom on the place , so you got to aquaint yourself with his ghost if you had to piss.

Over the years, I got the feeling her family was haunted. They loved God so much he decided they were improbable. Bad press. He began snuffing them steadily around her while she pretended to ignore his obvious malice. The worst was her grandaughter, who’d suffered  from seizures from early childhood, and recovered suffiently from  ice-cream scoop brain surgery to get a degree from a small college. She married some clown who spent his evenings at the titty bars and got busted downloading porn at his DOT job.

She moved back in with her folks after the divorce, and started a remote master’s program, because she couldn’t drive. I’ve never seen a twenty two year old kid that looked anything like her. She was graying and inclined to silence. When she talked, it was obvious she’d never anticipated anything  beyond childhood, and had accepted dying that way. But her father was next. He was a small round man who was anxious to be alive, as though his father’s suicide had left him with some debt of physical exertion to repay. And he just payed like he wasn’t made of skin or muscle or fat or bone – just cigarettes and how can I help you. And he helped us numerous times, to the point where I couldn’t sleep soundly for guilt. When his mother said he’d been admitted to  a teaching hospital for surgery I got that sick feeling I was about to be released from my debt. The physicians knew precisely what they were looking at, but they gamed him a little while. The initial diagnosis was a kind of  commedia del arte brutality: an ulcer on the buttocks. They scheduled a quick surgery to remove this, perhaps to determine his ability to pay. Then they delivered the punch. Wildly growing cancer of the stomach. He continued to smoke.

I met and talked with dozens of people at Minnie’s store that I wouldn’t have made eye contact with if it were strictly a matter of choice. It was odd. The pickings at the store were good enough to occasionally warrant the chance meeting with a Klansman, a Pentecostal Holiness Minister, or a lonely old man who might be stuffing dead teenagers in his basement. From Minnie’s, I purchased several heavy but functional Victorian pieces that must have been spirited from a funeral home during an insurance fire, an 1830’s reprint of a foundational Mennonite text, a hand-caned oak wheelchair, and a depression era reproduction of an Elizabethan cannonball leg dining room suite, with servier, banquette, twelve foot table and a dozen or more chairs. I found a sunlamp from the dawn of electronic quackery, paintings of Boy Scouts kneeling in supplication to George Washington, the hand carved household articles of slaves, deeply foxed popular chromolithographs of the late 19th century, and the discarded photographic record of virtually every family in the area. Minnie, it seemed, knew everybody, and worked every sale. And she brokered the meetings and conversations, too. She employed an ancient black man, William Thorpe, who’d been at Normandy when he was kicking forty years old. He was constantly trying to get us to split a dog of Richard’s with him, because he had the drinker’s eye for fellow sots. I will eternally regret not taking him up on it. Snobbery has a steep price. Much worse than a filthy hangover. When William died, my wife and I both detected a kind of slowing down in Minnie that indicated filial grief. He’d basically been her husband after the first one stuck a pistol to his jaw and gave his hell up to everybody.

William was the guy who gave the operation that fucked-up Southern panache. He did the  heavy lifting, with his wiry ass old back, and said yes-sir and yes-ma’am with an actor’s detachment. He lived in  a child’s playhouse, purchased prefab from a lumberyard. I didn’t know he was at Normandy until he died, and  I read his obit.

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