Part 58: Thanking Helen
Monday seemed to be a fairly busy time for the country store. Closed for Sunday, it appeared everyone was now rushing to get the things they had forgotten – fruit for the palate, food for the soul. The thing I had noticed about these little roadside country stores: there weren’t like city convenience stores where you walked in, got your stuff and left. No, in these types of places it was more than a place to buy groceries, cigarettes, or beer. It wasn’t just a fruit stand either, with numerous varieties to choose from. No, beyond all that, it was a place to socialize and catch up on the latest news among your neighbors. It was like a city bar in this way – conversation went along with whatever had brought you in. This was very evident as we walked through the door and spied Helen bagging up a few grocery items for a young couple whose cross country backpacks lay at their feet on the floor. She was engaged in spirited conversation with this hiking duo, all of them smiles and laughter. I lifted up my hand and waved. She smiled brightly and gave the couple their change. Moving around the counter, she came toward us with a lively bounce in her step. Before she could say anything in greeting, Summer’s excitement got the best of her.
“Guess what?” she exclaimed, nearly bouncing on the balls of her feet.
Helen was smiling before she even took the bait. “What?”
Summer hesitated, not because she was ashamed or worried, but because she was so happy it was threatening to explode from within her. “We’re engaged!” she shouted, and it seemed to echo through the store. We got a few curious looks from shoppers, and several even applauded, but that was nothing compared to the joy that spread across Helen’s face.
“See the ring?” Summer asked, holding it out for Helen to see it, not realizing that Helen had seen it many times before. By the time she remembered me telling her that the ring had been given to me by her family, it didn’t matter, she was bubbling over. Finally, she made a half apology. “But I guess you knew about the ring, sorry.”
“Yes I did,” Helen replied. “And I had hoped you would say yes to this gentleman. I knew he was the right man for some lucky girl, and when Ray accidentally put you up in the house with him, I knew you were the one. It took him a little longer to get it…” She looked over at me and winked.
“Yes mam, it did,” I agreed. “But better later than never.”
“True. Just don’t wait so long to ring them bells. Don’t be one of those couples that get engaged and then wait years to walk down the aisle. Heck, I would have you walk down the aisle to the register just to see the ties that bind made into a knot.”
We both smiled, and as Summer reached for my hand, I took it proudly as if Helen herself was the minister. “You’ve been the best to us, Helen. When I walked through the door last week, I had no idea I would have such a good friend.”
“You didn’t realize you would be engaged to the prettiest gal in the land either, but look at you. Never doubt the power of love, or the generosity of God, because they both will surprise you.”
I grinned. “I see that.”
Summer hugged Helen and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you so much for the ring,” she said.
Returning the affection of friends she replied, “Wasn’t me. That was Hope and Gunboats.”
“But it would have passed to you one day.”
She smiled. “I already have a ring.”
“But it’s a family heirloom. It’s meant for someone special.”
“You are special, girl. And now it’s a heirloom to two families. One day that ring will have one doozy of a story to tell.”
She looked over to the register. A line had formed, but Raymond was doing his best to wait on everyone. “I got me a good man too, Summer. Orchard House brought me mine just like he brought you yours. I think sometimes that God himself touched that house and blessed it.”
“Sure seems that way,” Summer replied. “I will always love Orchard House. I’ll miss it for sure.”
Helen sighed. “So will I.”
Summer furrowed her brows. “What do you mean?”
Helen winced, as if she knew she said too much too soon. “You didn’t tell her, did you?” she said to me.
“No, not yet. I didn’t want to spoil the occasion.”
Summer looked at me. “Tell me what?” she asked.
I looked back at Helen, who nodded her assent. “Orchard House won’t be open for visitors anymore,“ I said. “We are the last.”
“No,” Summer cried. “Why?”
“Lot of reasons, girl,“ Helen interjected. “For one, we don’t get that many visitors. Look at the guest register. Last year we had maybe two dozen visitors. And for the first time, we have no reservations ahead of you. Economy is changing. People and tourists are changing, too. No one wants to go stay in an old farmhouse in the middle of an orchard. They want to go to an island and lay out on a beach. If they go to the mountains, it’s to stay in a resort with hot tubs and dancing all night long.”
“We had hot tubs and dancing all night long too,” Summer reasoned with a smirk.
Helen laughed. “I bet you did. But the point is this slow life is not want anyone wants anymore. It’s all cellphones and internet and everybody running here and there trying to experience every possible thing, good or bad, before they are old. Used to be the only experience people wanted was love, and I’m sorry to say you don’t see that much anymore, even among couples. Been a long time since I’ve seen a real spark in somebody. It’s been so wonderful to watch you spark and turn into such a bright flame.” She sighed. “But I guess Orchard House’s time has come and I don’t want to wait until it’s gone. Let it end on the highest note possible, I said to Raymond.”
“I don’t want to see you close it down,” Summer said. “Where else are we going to go on our honeymoon or when we want to get away from city life?”
“Oh, the house will still be there. We’ll let you come stay. It’s just not going to be open for business is all. We’re expanding the country store. Going to open another one on the other side, closer to Roanoke city. Lord knows they need a little country. And I have to think of Twyla, too. Been juggling time with her, and I really want to be there for her in these young years. They are only kids once. After that, they are married and gone, and truthfully, I want to enjoy her being a kid just as much as she does.”
Summer was close to crying over the news. “Well, we will miss it like you can never believe. And we’ll miss you.”
“Yes we will,“ I agreed, giving the woman a hug. “This place has literally saved our lives. If it wasn’t for you, we may never have met.”
She blushed. “Oh shoo, blame Raymond. He’s the one rented the place twice.”
“It was teamwork,“ I replied. “One special couple working together to bless another. I’m glad it was us.” I leaned towards Summer and planted a kiss on her face.
“We are too,” Helen replied. “But now I have to get back to the register before Ray lets the line get out the door.” She smiled in a conspiratorial way. “Love that man to pieces, but he needs to get out of my kitchen.”
She hugged us both. “Speaking of kitchens, why don’t you two come to dinner at our place tonight? Unless you got something else planned.”
We looked at each other and shrugged. “Sure, we’d love to,” Summer replied for us both.
“Where you live?” I ask.
“Big white house on the other side of the creek right across from Orchard House. You can’t see it so much this time of year for the trees, but its back there. You can walk up the drive or just skip through the field. We’ll look for you around six.”
I smiled. “Cool. Looking forward to it.”
“Alrighty then,“ she replied, moving off towards the register with a wave of her hand.
I looked at Summer. “Well, I guess we don’t have to worry about our last meal.”
She had a sad look on her face. “Don’t say it like that.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean it that way.”
She kissed me on the cheek. “I know. I’m just kind of bummed now.”
“That’s why I hadn’t told you yet,“ I answered, as we selected the few grocery things we had come to get. Within a few minutes, we had them paid for and were trudging back up the path to Orchard House, which now seemed to beckon to us in loneliness, as if it too knew we were the last lovers to grace its halls.
“Orchard House & The Heart Of Everything” 2016 Paul D Aronson.