“Arnold is here.”
Blythe looked up from the packages of lentils she was weighing and pricing and shivered. “Let Stella deal with him.”
Freddie, Blythe’s younger sister by two years, did an about-face and walked back up the aisle the way she’d come. Blythe heard her calling Stella’s name and then Walter, their father, answering. “She’s at the front, Freddie. Stop yelling.” He sounded irritated and Blythe recalled the argument she’d overheard the night before coming from her parents room. Today the energy in the store seemed laced with tension. Even Freddie, who was usually unconcerned with such things, seemed affected by it. She was quieter than normal and hadn’t been bugging Blythe as much as usual with questions about where the cans of pasta sauce were shelved.
If it weren’t for the customers, Blythe thought, not for the first time, working in her parents health food store would be entirely satisfying. She loved every aspect of the work the store entailed; stocking the shelves and straightening them, keeping the bulk foods section tidy, remembering to add items to the order list when they were running low. She even enjoyed sweeping the floor at six o’clock when the doors had been locked and the Lark family was preparing to go home for the night. But being a natural introvert she found the customers exhausting and normally left them to Freddie, the family’s apex extrovert. But even Freddie wouldn’t deal with the man the two sisters had secretly named Arnold after a sloth in a picture book they’d read when they were younger. Like his namesake, Arnold the store’s regular customer, had long claw-like nails. Unlike the sloth, Arnold’s nails were chipped, cracked and perpetually filthy. Blythe’s throat closed over every time she thought about them and she tended to disappear into the office at the back of the store anytime Arnold came through the front door, which he did with annoying regularity.
Freddie and Blythe both worked at the store from 3:30 to 6pm nearly every day after school. Stella picked them up and drove them out of the Dunbar neighborhood and down Alma Street’s steep curve until they turned right into the ally at West Broadway. The store was half a block in and almost before their mother could squeeze her Volvo station wagon in the stall marked ‘employees only’ Blythe and Freddie had their seatbelts off and were waiting to leap out of the car. Sometimes, of course, the girls would spend the afternoon at a friend’s house if they had a school project to work on. But Blythe preferred her afternoons in the store. She was twelve years old going on 35 and Stella swore she’d been born that way. Blythe loved the feelings of responsibility that contributing to the store’s efficiency gave her. At least once a week at supper Stella or Walter asked if they’d rather not help out at the shop. So far, neither of the Lark girls had accepted the offer.
Blythe heard the bell on the front door jingle and she hoped that meant Arnold had left the building. She tucked her last bag of lentils into the wicker basket on the shelf in front of her and stood up off the stool she’d been sitting on. As Blythe walked to the cash register at the front of the store Joni Mitchell was singing quietly on the speakers Walter had recently installed in several ceiling corners. She found Stella flipping through pages on a clipboard. Beside the cash register, among the small ceramic bowls filled with avocados, jars of bee propolis, and boxes of natural lip balm was a pottery vase overflowing with lilacs.
“Where’d the flowers come from?” Blythe asked her mother.
Stella looked up. She had her distracted face on. “Pardon me, sweetheart?”
Blythe pointed. “Where’d’ya get the flowers?”
Stella glanced at the bouquet. “Aren’t they gorgeous? That smell!” She leaned forward, holding her Botticelli-birth-of-venus hair back from her face and burying her nose into the blooms, inhaling deeply.
Blythe waited until she straightened up again knowing there was no sense interrupting Stella when she was in the middle of a sensory experience. “But where’d they come from?” the tween asked, always irked when her mother couldn’t answer the most basic questions.
“Oh! Um…” Stella looked startled for a moment but then she seemed to focus again. “They were out front this morning when we unlocked the store.”
Blythe tilted her head to one side. “What do you mean, out front? Like, lying loose on the sidewalk?”
“No, they were wrapped in brown paper with a bit of twine tying them at the bottom.”
“Like a bouquet you’d get at a florist?”
“Yes, sweetheart, like that.”
“But…” Blythe was confused, and from years of practice knew it might take some time to pry the details out of her mother. She took a breath. “You mean someone left them for you? Or they were just on the sidewalk?”
“They were right in front of the door. Like they always are. And they had the same little card tucked inside.”
Blythe was feeling teenagery about Stella these days; that is, irritated, impatient and superior, so she was just about to turn away. Then, “Wait. What? What do you mean ‘like they always are’?”
Stella looked up. “Well, they usually have some sort of wrapping. It’s not always brown paper. Sometimes it’s old wrapping paper. Once it was a page from the newspaper. But the card is always there.” Stella smiled at her daughter, convinced she was making perfect sense.
“So this happens often.”
“Not ‘often’, no. I wouldn’t say that. Once a month. Maybe every six weeks.”
“Every six weeks someone leaves a bouquet of flowers outside the shop.” Blythe’s tone was skeptical.
“Yup, that’s right.” Stella nodded, missing the skepticism. She gazed lovingly at the flowers for a moment and then went back to flipping through the pages on her clipboard.
Blythe waited for more explanation but it seemed this event made sense to her mother. “Who are they from? What does the card say?”
Stella looked up again and she almost seemed surprised to see her daughter still standing there. She rallied though and pulled open one of the drawers in the cash desk and began rummaging through it. “I have the cards here somewhere.” She pulled a pair of scissors out of the drawer, then a screwdriver, then a blue hand-knitted mitten with a hole in the thumb. “Ah! Here we go.” She held up a collection of small cards, roughly the size of business cards and handed them to Blythe.
Blythe flipped through them and saw the cards were all plain white with handwriting in black ink. They were all slightly different sizes and had been cut by hand; sometimes the edges were crooked or ragged. Each one said the same thing: P.S. I love you.
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