Anselm Miller owned the variety store in the Hilltop Shopping Center; Ceil Pratt had Hilltop Quilts. Their children had grown up together, and they’d owned these stores for years, even before Ceil’s divorce. A quarter of a mile up from the center of town, the strip of stores (a pizza place, a hairdresser…) had two empty storefronts, and the gift shop was in trouble.
One warm spring evening, just before closing, Ceil shut a window in the back room of her shop, and the pane must have been loose. It shattered onto her handan angry gesture from something that had seemed to have no opinions. As she stared at her hand studded with glass, and blood falling on a baby quilt she’d been assembling, Anselm came into the store and found her. He picked glass out of her hand, washed and bandaged it. He sat her down and cleaned up the broken glass.
Then he crouched at Ceil’s feet and put his hand on her knee: his right hand, not the one with the wedding band. He wore glasses with pale translucent frames. She touched his hair, which was faded brown, straight and thick, stiff like dry grass, and perceived that something she had known about herself for years was also true about him.
He leaned forward awkwardly and kissed her. Then he stood, and told her what he’d come to say: his son Laurence had enlisted in the army. Anselm and his wife were frightened.
I’d be afraid too, Ceil said.
I’ll drive you home, he said, but she insisted she could manage. He came back the next night.
Two years later, Ceil often lingered after locking the door of her store, refolding quilts and arranging bags. Nothing was cheap, nothing had hackneyed designs: no snowmen, no pumpkins. She sewed much of her intricate, subtly designed patchwork herself, in the room behind the store, and often greeted customers with threads on her clothes and with a distractedness that came from being interrupted, her short gray hair disheveled because she stored her glasses on her head. Her mother, Dorrie, helped out in the afternoons and was more presentable, but she left early. Dorrie hated to drive in the dark.
Ceil waited, most evenings, and finally drove home to her dogs. But sometimes she heard Anselm’s footsteps ring on the cold pavement that connected the strip of stores. He could see her. When the shops were lit at night, anyone inside was visible. After six, nothing was open but the pizza place, and even they mostly did a lunchtime trade. Three storefronts were empty.
Anselm would tap with a fingernail on the glass of her locked door. One night in April, he told her as he came in that Laurence was in Afghanistan.
I can’t tell what it’s like, Anselm said. His son was an officer, responsible for other men. He would be there for a year. Soon Anselm touched Ceil’s arm and she put her coat on, turned off the lights, and locked up Hilltop Quilts. He rested his hand on her shoulder and guided her to his dark store and down the aisles crammed with merchandisemugs with pictures of mountains or pine trees, toys, tools, hiking gearinto the room at the back where he and his wife, a curly-haired woman Ceil didn’t know well, had put a couch when they bought a new one for their living room.
Anselm brought out a bottle and two glasses, and poured an inch for each of them. They kicked off their shoes and drank on the sofa in the dark, then reached for each other. They were cramped, though they shoved cushions onto the floor, and chilled, despite a blanket Anselm kept in a closet. They made love, they hugged and clung, and then they put on their clothes and shoes, washed the glasses, folded the blanket. In their clothes, they spoke again. He drove off in his pickup.
As she turned toward her car, that evening in April, Ceil was startled to see lights in her store. Then she spotted her mother’s old Ford. Dorrie had recently asked for a key, and Ceil had made a few extra.
Where were you? Dorrie said, coming from the back room. I saw your car. She was taller than Ceil. She kept her hair brown, and wore black, like a city womanwoolen sweaters and slacks.
What are you doing? Ceil said.
I lost my wallet.
You drove back in the dark?
I phoned. They stood facing each other in the brightness, which seemed more intense than when the store was open. You didn’t answer. She’d probably seen Anselm’s truck as well. Everyone knew what everyone else drove.
Anselm and I were talking, Ceil said. Laurence is in Afghanistan.
Dorrie said, You talked in the dark?
In the back room. I guess you couldn’t see the light, Ceil said. She broke the tension by moving forward, toward her own back room.
They searched together. Then Dorrie remembered that on the way home she’d stopped for gas. The man in the convenience store would have her wallet. They laughed, and turned to wave goodbye, getting into their cars.
A few days later, Ceil was alone when a young woman came into the store. She had thin blond braids down her back, like a character in The Sound of Music. She began looking over tote bags on a table near the door. Dorrie had made them, and they were a little sweet for Ceil’s taste, in pinks and light blues. Let me know if you have questions, Ceil said. The woman moved on to the pillows, and selected one in muted earth tones: terra cotta, yellow, and a deep ochre.
I love that color, she said, touching the smooth cotton, as Ceil rang it up. She considered saying that she charged less for each if a customer bought two, but there was a sign to that effect and presumably the girl could read.
It’s a wedding present for my college roommate, the young woman said. I was going to make one, but I didn’t get to it.
You sew, Ceil said.
Do I ever. And by the way, there’s a crooked seam on one of those bags. She put down the pillow, went and brought back a pink bag, and showed Ceil the offending seam.
Annoyed, Ceil nodded.
The girl said, If you ever need an assistant…
Ceil wondered if she even had a college roommate who was getting married. Where’s the wedding? she said.
Oh, I can’t go, said the young woman. Hawaii.
Katythat was her namereturned twice more, not to shop but to inquire, and began working a few hours every other morning, all Ceil could afford. Katy said she needed more money than Ceil offered, so she raised her hourly rate a little. She usually hired a high school girl during the summer. She was working on a large quilt that she wanted to finish, and it was good to have another adult in the store for some of the hours that Dorrie was absent. Twice every year Ceil made a queen-size quilt in bright colors, using a traditional design. It hung on the back wall for six months: it defined the store. Ideally it sold as the next one was being finished, one at Christmastime, the other during the big tourist season in summer. At present the big quilt on the back wall was in clear yellows, unbleached muslin, and a light, cheerful blue, a pattern called Birds in Flight. Ceil was sure that if she could only finish the new oneswirls of dark green, lighter green, and salmonthen the old one would sell. Most of her business was in small items: bags, pillows, potholders. When the big quilt sold it meant a happy infusion of dollars.
Ceil found Katy’s candor startling but diverting. Constrained when she worked with her mother, with Katy she discussed customers, sewing techniques that they disapproved of, or their own lives. Ceil had moved to this town when she married. Katy said she’d come for a summer job waiting tables after her second year in college, met a man, and had never left, though that first man hadn’t lasted long. I don’t know why I stayed, she said. There’s nothing.
Ceil didn’t like to think that way about her adopted home. She finished the green quilt and got an idea for the next one, but the blue and yellow quilt didn’t sell. She folded the new one in the back room.
That color is super on you, Katy might say, pointing to a customer’s T-shirt, then proposing a tote bag in a complementary color. Sweeping the back room, she sang lines of songs in a boyish voice that was low and roughsurprising with the blond braidsbut true in pitch. Her friends dropped in, most with children. It turned out that Katy was thirty-seven, not twenty-two, as Ceil had first thought. The friends said the store was like a museum, and though they rarely bought anything, one helped Ceil update her website. And Katy sewed. She invented a line of overnight bags for children in the shapes of animalsbig dogs, cats, and owls in red, yellow, green, and blue canvas, with heavy zippers. Grandmothers bought them for grandchildren. Her work was more contemporary than Ceil’s or Dorrie’s; large geometric shapes in solid colors replaced tiny flowered triangles.
It’s easier with four pieces instead of thirty, she said, showing Ceil a tote bag unlike any she’d offered: a rectangle made up of a black triangle, a white triangle, and two trapezoids in orange and pink. A plain white back. With no lining or zipper, it was sturdy, simple, a little outrageous. Ceil reached for it; Katy’s bag made her want to let everything go and design new things. Over Katy’s objections, she sewed bias tape over the raw edges inside the new bag, but then agreed to Katy’s suggested pricewhich was highand people bought it.
Raw edges are like, edgy, Katy said. People go for edgy.
You’ve done retail before? Ceil said.
Kind of, Katy said, flicking a braid off her shoulder.
One afternoon, early in summer, there were few customers. Dorrie was sewing in the back room, and Ceil half heard the whirr of the machine, a pause and another whirr, silenceand then a cry of dismay. Dorrie came out carrying a lined, zippered purse in green and yellow calico. I’m an idiot, she said. It’s finishedand the back is inside out. I just noticed.
The front and back of the purse were squares of patchworkmany triangles stitched together into starbursts in graduated shades of yellow on a background of unbleached muslin. Each square was framed with dark green strips. On the back, the starburst in its green frame was wrong side out, and the seam margins of the small triangles were exposed in a tangle of thread ends.
I wasn’t concentrating, Dorrie said. She sounded annoyed with Ceil though her words accused herself.
Ceil took the bag. She would open the seams and redo it, then put it on the discount table. Somebody will buy it, she said.
I’m glad your little friend isn’t here, Dorrie said. She wouldn’t be so nice!
What do you mean?
Dorrie and Katy came at different hours, and had scarcely met.
She’s a little snotty about mistakes, Dorrie said.
When was she snotty about mistakes?
Oh, I don’t remember. Dorrie turned toward the back room, then stood still, the bag on her outstretched palm like something she preferred not to close her fingers on. Her body looked young for her ageshe was straight and still shapely. You know, honey, she said. If there’s anything, everyou can talk to me. I’m not judgmental. I just don’t think that way.
About Katy? Ceil said.
About Katyor anything, Dorrie said.
Oh, Ceil said. She remembered the night in April when Dorrie came back for her wallet.
Oh, sweetie, everyone makes mistakes, Dorrie said. She laughed.
Of course, Ceil said. You’re still indispensable, she said, more loudly than was necessary. Don’t get ideas about retiring, just because of one little screw-up!
In mid-July, Anselm’s son was badly wounded in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. An area he and his men had to cross supposedly had been cleared of explosives, but one device remained, and when it blew up it killed a soldier and almost killed Laurence. Hearing the news from a customer, Ceil drew back, making a strange noise. The woman left, and Ceil hurried to Anselm’s store, but it was closed. She closed her store and drove home, where for hours she could do nothing. The dogs whined. She couldn’t phone the Millers. She remembered a sturdy nine-year-old with untied shoelaces. A few days later, she heard that Anselm and his wife had been flown to see Laurence in the hospital. He would live, but might be blind.
When she finally saw Anselm in the parking lot one morning, she walked out of her store and hugged him, and he talked more than she’d ever heard him. In the next months, whenever they met, she asked about Laurence. He could see, but there were problems. When Anselm stopped speaking they parted. They had not said they were lovers before, and had no words to speak of it now. Ceil didn’t let herself remember in detail. It was as if they’d have been able to warn Laurence if they hadn’t been intent on each other.
On an afternoon toward the end of summer, Katy dropped in at the store just as several customers came in. She brought two small children, whom she introduced as Derek and Grant.
Are they yours? Ceil said. The names seemed like boys’ names but one looked like a girl. She reached to touch one of the bags Katy had made.
Katy seized her hand. My friend’s kids, she said.
Dorrie came out of the back room and approached the nearest customer, a man. Can I show you something?
He wanted a present for his wife. She collects little elephants, he said. Have anything with pictures of elephants?
Katy dropped the child’s hand and stepped over to him. Well, no, she said. Before she gathered up the children and left, Katy talked the man into buying one of her new tote bags.
Ceil, meanwhile, picked up the little girl, who was again handling the overnight bags. She was warm and moist; she smelled of artificial fruit flavor.
Several customers left without buying. When Dorrie pointed that out, Ceil said, But how about that man?
I would have sold him something, Dorrie said. Later she came out of the back room. And those are certainly her children, she said. Why did she lie? What if they understood her?
Do you think they look like her?
Of course they look like her.
The next time Katy worked, Ceil asked her about the children. Derek was the girl.
My friend’s away, Katy said, so I keep them when their dad’s busy. She apologized for bringing them in, then asked if she could make them overnight bags. She said, They kept talking about puppy bags and kitty bags! I could do it at nightor, don’t pay me for the time. I’ll pay for the materials.
Oh, just do it, Ceil said. She didn’t want Katy in the store at night, but the bags were her inventionshe had a right to a couple of them.
Actually, Katy said, Derry and Grant are my boyfriend’s kids. He used to be with my girlfriend.
In the next few days she made a yellow cat for Derek, and a blue dog for Grant, both with red zippers. She added exterior pockets in green, something she hadn’t done before. For toothbrushes, she said. But Katy left the bags folded on a table in the back room that they used for measuring and cutting.
Those bags you made for the children, Ceil said, when they were alone one morning.
He’ll sell them if I bring them home, Katy said, looking up from the sewing machine.
Brendan. My boyfriend. He’ll sell them. He has a temper.
Ceil hesitated. Well, there’s no reason not to leave them here for the time being, she said. She heard the door and went out to greet the customer.
When the woman left, Ceil busied herself in the main part of the store. The sewing machine made its noise. Katy and Dorrie made different sounds with it; the rhythms were different. At last Ceil walked in and stood behind her. Does he hit you? she said.
Oh, yes, what do you think? Katy said. Have you ever had a man who didn’t, at least now and then?
Of course I have, Ceil said.
Katy turned around. Have you had boyfriends since your divorce? she asked. I bet you were a virgin when you got married. She flipped a braid behind her back. I could put a big outside pocket on some of the tote bagswhat do you think?
Maybe, Ceil said. She had not been a virgin when she married.
Somebody told me you were going with Anselm Miller, Katy said. Ceil walked back into the main part of the store.
There’s something I have to tell you, Dorrie said. It was coldearly fall, but spitting snow. I haven’t wanted to talk about this.
No customers had been in for an hour. Dorrie was at the machine, and Ceil was cutting fabric for a new big quilt, though the blue and yellow one was folded on a shelf above the work table. After a while she had taken it down and hung up the green one. Even so, she found herself planning the next big quilt, sketching shapes and comparing fabrics with new excitement. It would be in intense reds and brownsgeometric, bold. She arrived early each morning, the palms of her hands almost painful with anticipation, and worked until Katy or a customer arrived.
When Dorrie spoke, Ceil turned around. Her mother had pulled her chair back from the machine.
The sadness in your face when you think nobody’s looking breaks my heart, Dorrie said. Ceil, it’s Anselm, isn’t it?
I’m not sad, Ceil said. Of course I feel terrible about Laurence.
That’s not what I meant, her mother said. I feel terrible too. I don’t know about this war…
Is that what you wanted to tell me? Ceil said.
Her mother stood up and then sat down again. Standing, she had the dignity of a public speaker, not the quiet of a woman alone with her daughter. This is difficult, she said. I’m ashamed of myself.
Did you make another mistake? Ceil said. It’s okay.
Katy is living here, Dorrie said.
She must have taken one of the extra keys. This happened early onI found her here one night, back in the summer.
You found her here? What were you doing here?
This is the hard part. I kept driving back to see about you and Anselm. I’m your motherI had to know. I’d just check to see if your car was there, but once, I saw a light when your car wasn’t there, and it was Katy. She had a story about spoiling a bag and making it up to you, working on a new one at night. She accused me of spoiling things and not coming back to make new ones.
Ceil said, But that’s not
Then I walked in on her at midnight, on the floor in a sleeping bagright here. She pointed to the floor between them. You’ve got to get rid of herbut you can’t. She has a key, so she could rob the placeand she knows about Anselm.
What do you mean?
Look, anybody could see your car and his truck in that lot time after time.
She woke up when I found her here. She screamed at me, that I was spying on hershe talked about telling that boyfriend. I got scared. I shouldn’t have. I was angry with youbut later I realized I could have made up something, another reason why I was there.
You told her?
I didn’t exactly tell her.
I think you should go home now, Ceil said. She went to the window. The snow flurry had ended.
I’m sorry, sweetie.
Just go home, please, Ceil said. She stayed alone in the store for hours that night, doing nothing. Her love affair had become something spoken ofspoken of in her absence. Katy didn’t appear. At home there was an e-mail from her mother, who usually preferred the phone.
I think it would be best if I took a little break from the store. We’ll talk soon.
Katy came in the next day as the store was opening. Overnight, winter had receded and it was a warm fall Saturday. The leaves were bright, and all day, tourists stopped for pizza or coffee. They bought souvenirs from Anselm and tote bags or potholders from Ceil. In the afternoon, the man whose wife collected elephants came in, bringing her along. Ceil greeted them and the woman smiled, pointing to the bag he’d bought her. Their daughter was getting married.
We need something big, you know? the woman said, fingering a display of pillows, looking uncertain. His parents are buying them a car.
Do you like that? Katy said, pointing toward the green and salmon quilt. Ceil, ringing up a purchase, watched.
Oh, I love it, the woman said.
We have another one, the same size, Katy said, and that one is on sale. She excused herself and returned from the back room with the blue and yellow quilt.
Oh, that’s perfect! Joe, isn’t this perfect?
Ceil hadn’t lowered the price of the big quilt. The price of the green one wasn’t posted, but Katy knew what both quilts cost. When she named the price of the blue and yellow quilt, Katy did not lower it, but added three hundred dollars. Ceil opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. The woman took out her credit card.
I bring you luck, Katy said over her shoulder as the couple left. She turned to yet another woman who wanted a pillow.
When there was finally a lull, Ceil started to congratulate her, but Katy spoke first.
I lied to you, she said.
Derek and Grant are my kids. I thought you wouldn’t want somebody with kids.
I knew, Ceil said, though she had never been sure.
I need a favor, Katy said. Just for a few days. Ceil moved toward the back room, and Katy followed. Ceil stepped into the room and Katy stood in the doorway. She needed a place to stay with the children, she said. She and Brendan had broken up. He was getting too rough.
They’re his, she said, I didn’t lie about that! They’ve been staying with him because I don’t really have a place. But he’s dealing. We both used to do a little, but now it’s big time. I hate to have the kids see that, and he’s getting rough with them too.
You’ve been sleeping in the store, haven’t you? Ceil said.
Well, yeah. I’m careful. I thought you might like having somebody keeping an eye on the place. Katy kept talking. Now, she explained, she needed to sleep in the store with the children. They had sleeping bags.
No, Ceil said.
Just for a few days. I’ll keep them in the back, and I’ll clean up after them.
Look, you sold the big quilt, Ceil said. You sold it for more than I would have. I’ll give you the extra three hundred. Stay in a motel while you find someplace.
It’s leaf season, Katy said. Do you know what motels cost?
OK, four hundred. You earned it. But you can’t stay here.
I was just doing my best for you, Katy said. People like hearing that something’s on sale.
No doubt, Ceil said.
Two weeks passed. First Katy said she and the kids were in a motel, then that they were staying with a friend. It was early November and the leaves were gone; seeing houses on the hills that had been concealed since springsome dilapidated, with battered cars out frontCeil remembered, as she did each year, that her town was more crowded and poorer than she sometimes thought. The store looked good. Dorrie’s things slowly sold, and Katy’swith their joyful and unerring color combinations, their air of being exactly as they should bereplaced them. But though Ceil was angry with Dorrie, she missed her and worried about her. She knew better than to offer her mother money for not working. Dorrie could sew at home, but Ceil no longer wanted what she would make. They talked on the phone about other subjects.
When Ceil entered the store’s bathroom one morning, a crumpled paper towel was in the wastebasket, which she had emptied the night before; there was a streak on the floor, as if someone had mopped. Katy wasn’t working that day. At night Ceil drove home as usual, but returned at nine. Her store looked dark. Anselm’s truck was in front of his. His lights were on. She unlocked her door. Surely nobody would be there, and before going home she’d say hello to Anselm, find out if Laurence was any better.
A blond man came out of her back room, and then she heard children’s voices, Katy’s voice hushing them.
You must be Ceil, he said. I’m Brendan.
What are you doing here? she said.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Katy said, coming out, pushing Brendan aside.
Get out, all of you, Ceil said. Get out and don’t come back.
Wait a sec, Brendan said. We’ve got little kids here. We’re not dragging them around at this hour. You wouldn’t do that to your kids.
Oh, for heaven’s sake, I should call the state and have those kids taken away from you! Ceil said. You’re selling dope. You’re hitting them.
It’s not true, Katy said. I exaggerated. I needed to stay hereI’d have said anything.
I liked you, Ceil said. I still like you.
Of course you like me, Katy said. I’m not horrible. The kids aren’t horrible. Even this dudewell, he’s mostly not horrible.
Ceil half expected Brendan to pull a knife or a gun, but he stood silently, looking at Katy.
We’ve got something good here, Katy said. This store was dyingit would be closed by now if it weren’t for me. And you can help me. We don’t have a place to live. Brendan had an apartment, but we couldn’t make the rent. You can let us live in your house, maybe
My house? Ceil said. My house?
Or you can let us live in the storeand I know that’s not a great solution. Kids are kids, and this stuff has to stay clean. She paused. Or you can pay me more, so we can find a place. Even tonight, we could go to a motel.
No, we can’t, Brendan said.
Sure we can, Katy said. We just need a plan here. How much can you afford, Ceil? I’ll work more hours and you’ll get the use of my fabulous brain. If you say nowell, you don’t want to say no. BecauseI don’t want to say it. Because I know too much.
Ceil thought of Anselm, working pointlessly in his store, finding tasks to keep him occupied when he was too worried to sit still. She thought of his curly-haired wife. Ceil occasionally asked herself if she felt guilty for sleeping with Anselm, and she didn’t; but she felt guilty for being careless with the secret.
There were worse things than being blackmailed. But my mother, she said.
I can’t work with your mother, Katy said, and if you work with me, your mother won’t work with you. But the storethe store will be fabulous.
Fabulousshe had said it twice. Hours of happy work. Exquisitely designed objects. Money. Ceil knew that she and Katy had only just begun. Nothing this young woman said was truthfulexcept when she spoke of work.
We’ll talk, alone, tomorrow, Ceil said. She had confronted Katy almost at the entrance to the back room. As they spoke she saw Derek or Grant move in and out of view, peering at her. Brendan stood awkwardly to the side, and Katy was in the doorway in a gray T-shirt, arms extended toward the door jambs, as if to warn Ceil not to approach the children, or the children not to pass her.
The store could not support all these people in addition to herself and maybe her mother. Appallingly, Ceil found herself wondering how much Brendan could make from selling dope. Not enough. Life as it was now would slowly disappear and then disappear entirely with a pathetic closeout sale, hands snatching their work for a few dollars. Katy and her family would vanish into a city, and Ceil would finish her working years at Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts in the mall. But not for a while.
She rested her hand on what was next to her, and something was there: she had backed up imperceptibly, and was beside a table covered with merchandise. Her hand rested on an object her fingers recognized, a pillow she had made recently. She became aware that she’d been fingering the seams, identifying it without looking, as a blind or blindfolded person might. The pillow top consisted of narrow triangles stitched together in a row, and Ceil pictured its colors: dark red and cream. She glanced to make sure she was right, because she had made several pillows of the same design in different color combinations. But as she had knownas if red would be warmer to the fingersshe was touching the red one.
We’ll talk tomorrow, she said.
Alice Mattison’s most recent book is a novel, When We Argued All Night. She lives in New Haven and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Bennington College.