Hidden Under Irony

“I’ve lost my sense of humor and all reason to live.”

Sylvia closed her eyes and sighed. Lord in Heaven, if it is possible, let this cup pass… The shattering sound of crockery shocked her eyes open. She made a one-eighty and stared at a splintered flowerpot, spilled dirt, and a pathetic Dahlia sprawled like a wounded soldier on the floor. She glanced at her assistant dressed in a long flowered skirt, a light blue blouse, and lacy sandals, wincing at what she knew she would see.

Yep. Karen had one hand over her wavering lips as she blinked back tears. What a mess. Sylvia stepped forward with a raised hand. “You get the broom; I’ll save the bloom.”

Karen’s expression hardened, her eyes drying like a swimsuit under a hot desert sun. “You think that’s funny or something?”

Sylvia swallowed back a retort with a cleansing breath. “I had no intention of being funny, or even alluding to an alliteration…” Oops. What the heck? “I’m not trying to speak in rhymes today…” She paused, perched her hands on her hips, and stared at the woman fifteen years her junior. “Look, I know it’s been hard. Breaking up with your fiancé, the loss of your grandmother, the move to a new city…you’ve had a lot on your plate. Life is challenging. But you can’t let things get you down. You just gotta face the day and be strong—”

“I’m not an infant. I’m a grown woman.”

Keeping her face impassive, Sylvia nodded. “Yep. Got me there.”

A cat padded near and sniffed the dirt.

Scuttling forward, Sylvia shooed it away. “Don’t you dare track this mess all over my clean store.” She glanced up. “Get that broom, would you? I’ll repot the flower and put it in the south window. That way you won’t have to knock anything over when you water it.”

Karen retreated, taking her personal storm cloud with her.

With a shake of her head, Sylvia carried the limp plant to the back room, passing the classics section, the romance nook, and finally, the kids’ corner. Books of all shapes and sizes perched on shelves, sat on end tables, cluttered corners, sagged comfortable couches, tottered in towers, and even hugged the walls in uneven stacks.

She pulled a tall clay pot off a shelf and, with dexterous fingers, dug through the soft potting soil and laid the afflicted plant in its new home.

A familiar thrill swelled in her chest as she glanced around. Her crowning glory, this beautiful bookstore, thriving despite economic downturns and all the nay-sayers’ dire predictions. She hadn’t closed within a year…or even ten years.

After pouring a comforting stream of water over the buried roots, she cradled the pot in her arms and retraced her steps, quickly arriving at the south end of the store. Like a mother showing off her prodigy, she set the plant just so in the window seat between a first edition Harry Potter and the framed picture of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

Next Monday, she would celebrate ten years as proprietor of the most successful bookstore in the city. Perhaps in the whole country. Any why? Because she—

“Excuse me?”

Sylvia peered down. There, standing before her, had to be the tiniest woman she had ever set eyes on. Considering her own Amazonian stature, this was something of a novelty. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Karen wiping the floor with a damp towel. She certainly had cleaned up the mess—gotta give the girl that.

“Are you busy?”

Sylvia shook herself. “No, of course, what can I do for you?”

“Well…” The tiny, well-dressed matron jutted her chin toward the old-fashioned teapot sitting on top of an antique dresser with an ornate mirror reflecting the glory of happy book buyers.

A round table dressed in lace and surrounded by plush chairs announced a comfortable corner for any book lover just needing a place to cozy up with his or her newest acquisition and a spot of tea. To the left, a no-nonsense black coffee maker stood at attention on a low table with a carafe of creamer, a dish stuffed with a variety of sweeteners, and a jar of luscious cookies, available at the reasonable donation of seventy-nine cents. The jar was stuffed full of one dollar bills. It was so much easier to drop in a bill than to dig through one’s wallet for the needed four pennies.

After settling the elderly matron in a chair with a warm cup of tea and a cookie, Sylvia waited. She clasped her hands on her knees, one eye following Karen, though she couldn’t help but be curious about this commanding little personage. Of course, old women were notoriously lonely, and they frequently begged a cup of tea and a moment’s “rest,” which often involved relating all sorts of stories about relatives that Sylvia didn’t honestly care a fig about. Still…

“So are you from around here? I don’t think I’ve seen you in the store before.”

“No…you haven’t. Not, at least, if I could help it. I mean; I’ve been here…a few times. Checking up, so to speak. I came first, years ago, before you even bought the store.”

Prickles raced over Sylvia’s arms. “Oh?” She sat up and tried to keep her heart from galloping through her chest.

“Yes. You see; I wanted to know if you were the kind of person who could make a go of such a thing.”

Sylvia wondered if an earthquake actually rocked the room or if it was merely her imagination. “What do you mean, exactly?”

After wiping her fingertips free of cookie crumbs, the woman stretched out her hand. “I’m your birth mother. Matilda Scott. I gave you up for adoption when you were just a wee thing…but I never lost track of you. I’ve followed your progress through babyhood, high school, college and right into this business here. In fact, I was the anonymous donor who helped to pay for your tuition, and I also spearheaded the citywide revitalization project, which is what gave you the support you needed to do—” She waved her hand at the posh space. “All this.”

The expression, “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather,” suddenly embodied Sylvia’s very existence. She stared hard at the old lady, wondering if the person before her was a psycotic illusion. “You must be—”

“Oh, don’t say mad. That wouldn’t be very nice.” She pulled her little black purse onto her lap. “I have all the proof I need, right here. A copy of your birth certificate, the adoption papers…even clippings from every—”

“Oh, God!” Sylvia shot to her feet and wondered if she would make to the back room before she threw up. Her whole body trembled as her self-image tottered on the edge of an abyss.

Matilda reached out and, with surprising strength, gripped her arm. “Take a deep breath, and calm your self. I know this comes as a shock, but it’s not exactly the end of the world.”

Sylvia could not open her eyes any wider. She blinked to return the world to some sense of normalcy. “Are you sure?”

Her eyes twinkling, Matilda chuckled. “See! That’s why I knew you could do this. Your humor and your tenacity are a rare combination. It comes from your dad…and me, I suppose. We were a rare combination too. Until he died. I knew that I could never take care of you. Unwed…and all that. But I knew you had our blood flowing in your veins. Our spark in your soul. So…I’ve always believed in you.”

A sob rose and burst the dam of Sylvia’s self-control. “Oh, Lord in heaven. I knew I was adopted…but I never knew…not a thing about you…or my father.” She plopped down on the chair. “My biological parents, I mean. My real parents were—”

“Yes, I know. And I’ve stayed out of the picture all these years to give you space to live…to…how shall I say…to discover your own identity.”

“But why—? Why tell me at all?”

“Through the years, I ‘d stop in now and again. Look and listen. See how you’re getting on. Discover what kind of woman you’re turning into.” Matilda glanced aside at the dropping figure behind the counter. “I overheard your comment today. How your young friend shouldn’t let things get her down. She hasn’t been so lucky as you. She’s lost a great deal in a short time.”

Sylvia swallowed a lump in her throat.

“You see, you’ve been watched over and cared for in ways you’ve never known. But that girl there…maybe she hasn’t been so lucky. Maybe life is impossible for her. Maybe she has lost her sense of humor…for good reason. And perhaps, she might wonder why she’s alive.”

“But doubt and despair won’t help. No matter what the situation, I did the hard work…no matter what. And like you said, it was my spark…my humor and tenacity—”

“Yes, but also my love and your parents’ compassion. Your words were right…but your attitude is wrong.” Matilda laid the stack of yellowed papers on the end table by the cookie jar. “I’ll leave these for you to look over when you have time.” She glanced at the old fashioned clock on the wall. “I should go now. But don’t worry, I’ll be back, and we can chat again.” Her gaze peered into Sylvia’s eyes. “If you want me.”

Sylvia nodded. Her voice lost in a whisper. “Yes. Please.”

Matilda toddled to the door, smiling at Karen as she passed.

Sylvia scurried ahead and tugged open the ornate glass door. She stepped aside.

Matilda patted her daughter’s arm and grinned. “It’s been lovely to meet you…after all these years. I’ve dreamed about this moment…and it has not been a disappointment.” She waved to the tea table. “Oh, but a word of advice…make the donation offering a dollar.”

Sylvia’s world swirled again. “Why?”

“Because, my child, it’s what you really mean.” She turned and stepped into the summer sunshine.

As the door shut, Sylvia turned and met Karen’s gaze.

Karen pursed her lips into a twisted smile. “I think I just found my sense of humor.”

Sylvia sighed. “I bet you have. Hidden under irony, I’m sure.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter  https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Guardian

I turned thirteen that summer and had my first real job. Well, it felt real, even though I didn’t get paid much. I helped out at the local library, shelving books, cleaning up, and polishing the tables after closing. This was back in the day when libraries bustled with students who plucked paperbacks and heavy resource volumes from designated sections labeled with letters and numbers according to the Dewy Decimal System. They propped their elbows on long, polished tables and turned thin, paper pages. It was old-time, but it worked. My heart still thumps with joy at the sight of books stacked neatly on shelves.

We had a hot summer that year. I was late getting home because the library hosted a big, summer festival and someone needed to put the place back together afterward. I didn’t mind. Shelving, sweeping, even wiping down the tables, kept me busy and at peace. I would stop and flip open an interesting cover, read the first page, and then let the story linger in my imagination. I felt like a kid snitching candy off a shelf, but I don’t think anyone minded. Sometimes my boss, Mrs. Murdock, would smile at me, her eyes twinkling even though she usually kept a serious demeanor about the place.

When I trudged home in that late evening, I didn’t know what I might find. When mom was sober, she captivated the house and neighborhood with witty banter and lively open houses. But when she wasn’t sober, few saw her except me, and then she was anything but witty.

Since money was scarce and taxes had risen, Mom had taken in a couple foreign students to board for the year. Jamal stayed in the backroom on the second floor, while Mr. Chin occupied the refurbished attic. Jamal was young, energetic, and obsessed with engineering. He never talked about anything else, and I wondered if he dreamed science formulas in his sleep. Mr. Chin was quiet and always polite. He noticed when things weren’t right about mom and the house, but he never said anything. He’d just go to the kitchen, make himself a cup of tea, and take it to his room to finish his work.

That summer night, I came in exhausted, longing to collapse on my bed, but the moment I stepped in the house, I knew something was wrong. Mom and my brother, Glen, were in the kitchen arguing. Glen was a lot like mom. Smart and good-looking, he could charm a room full of mountain lions, but when he started drinking, he turned even nastier than mom. When they were both drinking, life turned sour real fast.

I remember standing on the threshold. I didn’t want to go in, but it was getting dark, and I had nowhere else to go. Besides, I didn’t want them to hurt each other. I had always been the peacemaker. Hell of a job.

Suddenly, I saw Mr. Chin step between them and go around and about the kitchen. He was making himself a cup of tea, acting like they weren’t having a big screaming match right in the middle of the room. I thought I’d fall over in a faint. How could he be so calm?

It took a little while, but eventually, Mom seemed to realize that Mr. Chin was trying to get his evening meal. Glen tossed them both a contemptuous glare, grabbed a six-pack off the table, and hustled out. I tiptoed in and helped Mom up the stairs to her bedroom. I knew she would sleep it off. By the time I came back downstairs, the kitchen was clean, and Mr. Chin was nowhere in sight.

I went to my room, dropped on my bed and felt like crying, but being thirteen, I figured that I’d better get a grip on my emotions, so I grabbed a mystery novel, leaned back against my headboard, and tried to relax. Tree frogs croaked in unison like a church chorus, and I could see the night sky filling with twinkling fireflies. My head soon felt heavy and drowsy. Then I heard the front door crash open, furniture scraping across the floor, and my mom and Glen yelling at the top of their lungs.

By the time Mom was back in bed and Glen had retreated to his makeshift basement room, I could hardly see straight. But I dared not go back to my room for fear they would start up again. Stumbling to the couch in the living room, I settled on the edge, waiting. I faced mom’s rocking chair and remembered how many times we had snuggled there when I was little. I held back aching tears and, in time, I must have fallen asleep for the light was off, and I found myself laying on the couch with a blanket over me.

I remember being so tired that I could barely lift my head off the couch, but I sensed someone was there, sitting on the rocking chair. He wasn’t making any noise, just sitting there, quiet, and watching—watching over me. I tried to mumble thanks, but my mouth felt glued shut. Peace settled over me. Someone else was on guard, so I relaxed and finally slept.

It took me a couple of months to get up the nerve to thank Mr. Chin for taking over that night. We were alone in the kitchen in on a brisk autumn evening, and I had settled down with a cup of tea. He sat with a bowl of Chinese noodles before him.

“Thanks for being there—you know—that night Glen and Mom had the big fight.”

Mr. Chin chewed his noodles meditatively, his eyes averted like he was trying to remember. But then he smiled and our gazes connected. “Wasn’t me. Must have been your guardian.”

I’m sure my eyes couldn’t have extended any further from my face if I had been a human-sized snail. “Excuse me?”

He pointed at me with one of his chopsticks. “You have a guardian. Big fellow. Nice looking.”

Whoa! I must’ve paled considerably because suddenly Mr. Chin looked rather alarmed. He waved his chopsticks in the air as if to wipe away my concerns. “I didn’t see him, exactly, I just know he exists. You have troubles too big to carry alone, and someone has been helping you. So, you see, I know by evidence. Someone watches over you, and he must be big because your burdens are so heavy. And someone that kind must be good looking—especially around the eyes.”

Mr. Chin’s face wrinkled in delight at his logic, and I couldn’t help but smile back at him. I never knew I had a guardian, but his words made sense to me.

From that day to this, I have remembered my guardian whenever I’m overwhelmed. I feel a presence around me, whether I’m dealing with old family issues or my latest boss’ antics. I’m not alone, and my burdens are never too heavy to carry. When I imagine what my guardian looks like, I see a man much like Mr. Chin—smiling, making a cup of tea, and quite good looking—especially around the eyes.

~~~

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00