Patsy, Mary Ellen and I went to town with Maw Maw Wilson many Saturday afternoons as we were growing up. And we were thrilled when she took us to Stockton's Drygoods Store.
Stockton's had been there for as long as I could remember. I loved the jingle of the cowbell above the door signaling our arrival, the familiar creaking sounds the old wood floors made with each step we took.
To the left of the store were bolts of fabric stacked high on shelves; to the right was the men & boys department, where the sharp smell of denim filled the air. As we moved deeper into the store we were met by the overwhelming scent of new leather. It was coming from the "foot attire" department, where Mother took us each fall to buy school shoes.
By the time we entered our teens, they had opened a "women & young ladies" department. They had all the latest styles, and we could hardly wait to get there.
Bonnie, the sales clerk, greeted us with a smile. "Hello, Miss Muriel," she said in her soft, pleasant voice, "Your granddaughters sure are getting big."
"How you doin,' Miss Muriel?" called Wilbur, "Pretty day, isn't it?"
Wilbur was Bonnie's husband. He stood, arms folded across his thrust-out chest, gazing around the store like a security guard. He seldom moved from his position, and I often wondered if there was a worn spot there, like the faded-out linoleum in front of my great-grandmother's gigantic cook stove.
Maw Maw usually stopped to chat with Bonnie and Wilbur, and any other customers who happened to be hanging around, and then she arranged herself in a straight-back chair just outside the dressing room door.
My sisters and I attacked the clothes racks like cops searching for criminals among the poodle skirts and crinoline petticoats, trying on one outfit after another, darting in and out of the dressing room, gazing in the mirror, turning from side to side, discussing in great depth which outfit we should choose. Maw Maw never questioned our choices. Unless she thought a skirt was too tight.
After we made our selections and Bonnie began ringing them up, we stood in awkward silence, dreading what was to come.
"Maybe she won't do it this time," I whispered.
Patsy rolled her eyes, "You know she will."
Maw Maw cleared her throat. "I'm buying a lot here, Bonnie," she said, "An awful lot."
Bonnie's right eye began to twitch.
"That adds up to quite a bit."
Bonnie hesitated, eye twitching faster.
"Quite a bit."
Both of Bonnie's eyes were twitching, now, and she looked as if she were ready to take flight.
"Do you think you could come down a little?"
Bonnie stopped, fingers poised in mid-air. "Well, Miss Muriel, I don't know..."
Maw Maw stared at her, eyebrows raised.
"Miss Muriel," she said, rubbing her eyes, "We just got these thingsin..."
Maw Maw lifted the price tag of one of the skirts and stared at it.
Bonnie sighed. "Well...I'll have to talk to Wilbur."
She hurried to Wilbur, where they talked in hushed tones, casting furtive looks in Maw Maw's direction. Finally, she dissolved into the recesses of the store and Wilbur moved forward.
His face looked as though it had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad and there were comb marks in his thick, wavy hair. He stuck his forefinger between his neck and stiff shirt collar and began working it back and forth. "Now, Miss Muriel," he said, "These things are new arrivals."
"Yes, Wilbur, I know they are."
"So, naturally, they would be a little higher..."
"I've been buying things here a long, long time, Wilbur."
"I know you have, Miss Muriel, I know you have..."
He lifted a sleeve of one of the blouses and rubbed his finger back and forth across the fabric as if judging its worth. "I just don't see how we can come down on these things, Miss Muriel," he said, shaking his head, "Since we just got them in."
"Is Irby here?"
Irby was the owner. Maw Maw knew him well.
Wilbur hesitated, then he pulled a large white handkerchief from his back pocket. "Yes, Miss Muriel," he said, mopping his brow, "Irby is here."
Nothing was said for a few seconds, and the silence was very uncomfortable. My sisters and I gave each other guarded looks.
He took a deep breath. "Well, Miss Muriel, I think we might could do a little something."
As we walked out the door with our marked-down purchases, I heard Bonnie call out to Wilbur: "Does Miss Muriel need anything else?"
"No," said Wilbur, "She got everything she wanted."