Things Not Heard
I got a new summer job at a china replacement shop this year. Hoffman’s Patterns of the Past in Princeton, Illinois. We sell giftware on the first floor: Willow Tree, Foundations, Jim Shore, Swarovski, Annaleese, Kristina, Polish pottery, fine crystal, flatware, stemware, stoneware, scarves, jewelry, brooches, tacky light-up Christmas trees and carol-singing stuffed snowmen. “Good morning! Welcome to Hoffman’s! Are you shopping for anyone today?”
Downstairs in the basement, we have what Jyl, the owner, likes to call the Sea of China. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, crammed, stacked, sorted—all china dishes of every manufacturer and pattern—Franciscan, Royal Worcester, Nikko, Lennox, Minton, Aynsley, Spode, Wedgwood, Royal Albert, Royal Doulton. Over 275,000 patterns, dating from 1740 to 2014. Aisles, crannies, nooks, shelves, cabinets—full beyond capacity so that the boards bend and sink from the weight of 274 years of china history. Stemware stuffed into the basement rafters, flipped upside down and stacked two or three levels high. Hooks screwed into the ceiling and climbing up the sides of the shelves like ivy—every hook holds a tea cup. Every tea cup holds dirt, sawdust, dead flies and spiders, cobwebs, and sometimes a few mouse droppings. Every corner holds silence.
And tucked away in the corner between the Metlox and the Noritake perches Matt, a semi-permanent fixture, who appears in my senior prom photos with a blushing face pulled into a scrunched smile as I tentatively pin the silk sunset-red rose boutonniere to his rented tuxedo. The rickety tippy wooden stepstool steadies him as his perpetually tanned hands position an Old British Castles gravy boat in a small, five-sided square photo booth so that the spotlights glint off the lighter fluid-slicked surface perfectly for our internet customers. Snap snap. Then it’s a Friendly Village tea cup. Then a Winchester bread and butter plate.
You know you’ve met your soul mate when you can agree on a favorite china pattern.
Today, I’m taking inventory of Johnson Brothers tea cups, a tediously frustrating pencil and paper process, in the hidden back corners of the basement. Down the narrow olive green-carpeted back stairs, take a right, down a step, another right, then straight through a wooden baby gate used to keep customers out, finally dodging around a couple of corners before I’m surrounded by Noritake and Johnson Brothers tea cups. The cement floor is cracked and uneven here—Jyl bought cheap doormats to cover the rough chipped concrete. And today, on the hunter green welcome mat, a large dark wooden cupboard hiding it from view, crouches a tiny ball of gray mouse between my parted feet.
I don’t scream. I back up, cautiously pulling left foot behind right, right behind left, eyes adoring the vermin my mom told me I’m supposed to hate. But his pinpoint pink nose still sniffs the same spot on the grungy welcome mat, whiskers quivering twitching back and forth, up and down. Not afraid of me. Or he’s dying. Or deaf. Or senseless. Or all of the above.
“Matt, come here. You have to see this.”
It was 20ll, and I was sitting in Matt’s parents’ Chevy Malibu in my driveway in Princeton, Illinois a few minutes before his strict midnight curfew, and he turned off the engine and released the breath he’d been holding in before turning his face toward mine with his closed-mouth half-grin and non-committal head tilt and single shoulder shrug that traps the fluorescent light from my lighthouse-like living room in his mussed-up brown hair. Dad was “watching”—i.e. he’d probably fallen asleep, reclining in his brown leather chair, snoring occasionally—but privacy is a simulacrum.
I’d seen enough movies to know that the pretty blonde girl “plays dumb” and drops her keys to signal that she wants a kiss. But she’s “oblivious” to the guy “making his move.” It’s always the same—cliché, vomit-worthy, and unspecific.
I dropped my keys on the slick-stained concrete that’d been stamped to look like rocks. Matt and I crouched down for them at the same time, resulting in the classic awkward forehead bump as we both stand up, and I knew he wouldn’t say it. Three words. Eight letters. “The words every girl wants to hear.” Say it, Matt. Please. The bug-infested lamp light would always glow with moths and gnats and nocturnal pests; the neighbor’s black mutt would always run through our shaded backyard, barking at squirrels, birds, and lawnmowers; my dad would always wear the shorts he stained pink from a Post-It note he left in the pocket; my mom would always drink berry-flavored aloe juice with her granola-and-berries Kashi cereal; Matt would always say “whoopsie” after dropping a piece of paper or elbowing an empty plastic cup or slicing his finger with a book page. Say it, Matt. Please.
I like to think that the mouse survived. He scurries out of the dumpster after the garbage man collected the day’s refuse from behind the shops on the east side of South Main Street, shielding himself beneath a stray single-serve red Doritos bag before spotting a luscious patch of tall, unkempt grass where he could scavenge for seeds, nuts, and whatever else happy mice eat in the wilds of Princeton. Blue birds and robins and crickets and grasshoppers and locusts and rabbits and screech owls and chipmunks and squirrels and foxes and raccoons and opossums—his neighbors. Not two shocked twenty-year-old introverted college students who believe a Doctor Who marathon with a cup of freshly-brewed loose leaf Maharaja Chai is a date, and three hysterical sixty-something-year-old ladies with graying hair and sharp poker faces and temperamental vision made better with color-splotched reading glasses. There’s sunshine and clouds and light and dark and winter and summer—consistency, steadfastness, hope. Home. His mouse wife waits for him in the tall grass, welcoming him back with a squeak and a mousy Eskimo kiss, whiskers twitching trembling brushing against his, she whispers, “I love you.”
Allison Jensen is an aspiring writer from rural Illinois. She has been published in the Antique Explorer and the Illinois Country Explorer, two small magazines that have a heart for local businesses in North Central Illinois. In her free time, she enjoys knitting hats and reading too many books at one time.