The morning my sister Bitsy flung a dead pigeon on my bookstore sales counter was the morning I decided to redefine my mission in life.
“Margaret,” she demanded, “just look at that.”
I was trying not to, but it was hard to miss, splayed as it was, like a bad joke, between the cash register and a display of Elegant and Economic Dinners for Two. I grabbed a bag, swiped the bird into it before the customers browsing the shelves saw it, and gave the counter a quick, disinfecting spritz. Taking a closer look at Bitsy I could see she wasn’t going to be as easy to get rid of. The light of the fanatic burned in her eyes.
“Bitsy, what’s gotten into you?”
There are hundreds of them out there around the courthouse.”
“So you, what . . . ?” I asked, trying for a calming tone of voice, “. . . thought you’d do the town a favor and you shot one?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” She leaned across the counter, beckoning me to do likewise. “It was poison.”
“You poisoned it?” I recoiled, amazed. Reconciling this piece of news with the image I’ve always carried in my mind of Bitsy as the high priestess of the Latter Day June Cleaver Society wasn’t going to be easy. How did this bit of toxic mania fit into the overall scheme of Bitsy as president of the Stonewall Garden Club, darling of the Stonewall Historical Society, happy alphabetizer of her medicine cabinet and linen closet? Actually, I don’t know that she alphabetizes her linen closet, but she has that general air about her and if I turn around fast enough, sometimes, there’s a look in her eye that makes me think she’s itching to have a go at mine, too.
But the look on my face now betrayed my mind wandering down a road best not taken. I’ve never been good at hiding errant thoughts from Bitsy. Her high caliber voice snapped me back in line.
“Not me, Margaret. That swine.”
“Shh, Bitsy.” One of my customers was beginning to look interested in our conversation. He re-shelved the Wodehouse first edition he’d been drooling over for twenty minutes, moved closer, and took an unconvincing interest in the gazetteers at the end of the counter. “What swine?” I whispered, sliding down the counter in the opposite direction. I try to keep my business and my sister separate as much as possible for just this reason. A bookstore doesn’t need to have the rarefied hush of a research library, but the din of a hyena’s den gets on my nerves.
“That swine Douglas Everett,” Bitsy failed to whisper back.
“You know very well who I mean.”
“Well, yeah, Bitsy, of course I do. It’s just that I’m dumbfounded. What did little Duckie Everett have against the pigeon?” I realized I was still holding the bag and handed it to her. She dropped it back on the counter.
“I don’t want it. And for heaven’s sake, Margaret,” she said, brushing invisible pigeon specks from her blouse, “He’s hardly ‘little Duckie Everett’ anymore. He’s at least five years older than I am.”
He’s more like one year younger. Bitsy’s cockeyed view of aging is grounded in some complicated formula involving mobiles, stabiles and tangential slopes. It’s similar to the theory of continental drift, the central doctrine being her age is the only stabile and everyone else’s flows on by. Someday I expect to be five years older than she is, too, though I started out two years younger. Fifty-three will try catching up to her next month, but she already has plans to be out of town so she can avoid it.
“Bitsy, I sense there’s more to this story than a dead pigeon. Why don’t you go on back to the kitchen and make some tea. I’ll take care of these customers and join you in a couple of minutes.”
She stalked off in that direction and I sighed with relief. I do love my sister, but she can’t carry on a conversation in anything but Italics laced with exclamation points. Making tea has a soothing effect on her, though. Bitsy is one of those people for whom kitchen puttering is a tranquilizer.
In fact, I thought, as I rang up a magazine for one customer and the Wodehouse for the other, with that bit of inspired problem solving I’d killed two birds with one stone. But, as it turns out, that was an unfortunate turn of phrase to be thinking much less chuckling over. Too late, I remembered I hadn’t done this morning’s breakfast dishes, or any of yesterday’s either.
“Oh, Margaret, really!” pierced the barrier of the kitchen door leaving all eardrums in its path quivering.
I sighed for a different reason this time, and after ringing up the last sale, I flipped the “welcome” sign on the door to its “back soon” side and went to join Bitsy in her idea of a domestic Superfund site.
* * * * *
The kitchen is the only part of my downstairs I keep private. I’m lucky enough to have what so many people dream of, a combination new and used bookstore in a great old house. Even better, Blue Plum Books and I live on tree-lined Main Street in Stonewall, my picturesque home town, nestled in the foothills of the Tennessee Blue Ridge Mountains. That Stonewall’s population manages to hover under whatever magic number would make it ripe for inundation by mega-merchants isn’t bad, either.
The house my books and I share is a two story Craftsman foursquare built in 1913 with the style’s characteristic shingle siding, rafters, brackets, and deep porch. The books take up most of the downstairs and I take up some of the upstairs. It’s an arrangement that has customers leaning their elbows on the counter, looking moonstruck, and telling me this would be their idea of heaven. The reality is that living at work can be hell, but what the hell, it’s mine and I like it.
I bought the house and business as a package deal after spending a fruitful and unhappy decade applying my MBA as an investment banker in Chicago. Those were bountiful years for the stock market, when moderate sums of money morphed into bulging nest eggs seemingly overnight. But banking and the windy Chicago winters left my heart cold. So on evenings and weekends I ignored blue-chips and bonds and warmed myself in bookstores and even ended up taking an evening job in my favorite one on Michigan Avenue. When Bitsy called to say Charlie Frank wanted to sell Blue Plum, I clapped my hands and packed my portfolio. I’d missed the hills and hollows of east Tennessee. I’d even missed Bitsy. But it was books that thawed my soul and lured me home.
Charlie Frank was a little old gnome surrounded by his family of books. He’d owned the house with the shop forever and parted with them only at the insistence of his human children, who were themselves past retirement age. After reluctantly turning the keys and deed over to me, he was supposed to emigrate to Florida and move in with a daughter. Maybe he did, though maybe he eluded the daughter by slipping inside a conspiratorial book and is spending his retirement in a story with a more exciting ending.
I quite easily slipped into the house and business and we’ve suited each other for almost twenty years, now. That’s not bad considering small independent bookstores have been on the endangered business list for about as long.
When I bought the place, Bitsy helped spruce it up, Charlie having spent more time chasing rare editions than repainting or deep cleaning. Bitsy was in her element, choosing paint colors (pleasing earthy greens and blues) and suggesting chintz for curtains (immediately vetoed.) She also encouraged me to make the kitchen a part of the store and display the cookbooks there. Sort of like exhibiting zoo animals in their natural habitats. It was an appealing idea, but more appealing, instead, was being able to sit at the kitchen table in my pajamas not worrying about customer relations versus doing the dishes. Breakfast in pajamas and a lack of dish-doing are two of the differences between Bitsy and me. Once past our wren-brown hair, blue eyes, and general lack of height, several more differences lie in wait. Chintz curtains, for instance.
To make up for rejecting her kitchen and cookbook idea, I turned Bitsy loose on the front porch. Charlie had enclosed it for more floor space and included lovely windows in the remodel. But then he proceeded to cover the windows with a ramshackle collection of tall bookcases, creating a dark entryway with a piecemeal look. Bitsy saw the possibilities, though, and convinced me to have new shelves built around the windows. Now the porch walls are lined with bookcases and there are window seats for geraniums and enrapt readers. There are also several low, free standing units with shelves on all four sides and space on their table-tops for displays. Bitsy suggested moving the gardening and craft books to the porch and I did.
Bitsy stood, now, in the middle of the kitchen, teacup artfully aloft in her right hand.
“There were so many of them, Margaret.” Her moue, comprised of equal parts distaste, aggrievedness, and belligerence looked as though it had been professionally applied. I wasn’t sure which was causing her present unhappiness, the hundreds of poisoned pigeons flapping and dying around the downtown square or the dozen or so dirty dishes lounging shamelessly on the counter behind her. She looked poised to flee if the pots in the sink made a sudden move in her direction. There wasn’t much I was willing to do about the kitchen at the moment, though, so I tackled the pigeons.
“Why couldn’t you just tell me about them without bringing one along as a visual aid, Bitsy?”
“What?” She was leveling a bent eye at a sticky saucer on the stove and had lost the thread of the conversation.
“Why did you bring me a dead pigeon?”
“It was still alive and suffering and you’re closer than the vet since he made that stupid move out to the highway. Why do so many people think progress means paving over the countryside and throwing up metal buildings?” Now she had the thread of the conversation, but if she headed off any further in that direction it was going to unravel.
“But Bitsy, I don’t know anything about dying birds.”
“No, but you have all those books out there.”
“Oh, right. I’ll go check my Dead Pigeon section. I think I squeezed it in between Classics and Children’s Picture Books.”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic, Margaret. You know very well you’ve got books on all kinds of things.”
“The library has more and you passed it on your way here.”
Her moue got a little mouier and her eyes reflected her further pain. Bitsy had a run-in with the librarians several years ago when they converted to an automated self-checkout system. I don’t know for certain why she hasn’t set foot inside the library since then, but it’s either a self-inflicted banishment or something the librarians voted on and wrote into an official addendum to library policy.
“You’re always bragging about the books you can find for people that no other bookstore seems to be able to. Like that book on glass wigwam boats you found for that woman and then bored us all to death with for weeks.”
“It was Glaswegian Shipbuilding: 1830-1920. Out of print. Rare.”
“Whatever. You found it and so I thought a small thing like help for a suffering pigeon would be something you could handle. You’ve got the Mayo Clinic Guide to Family Medicine out there. Surely you have something along those lines for pets.”
“Oh, but Bitsy, wild birds are different.”
“And it’s dead now, anyway, so what’s the use.” She dumped herself into a chair at the table and it was an indication of how upset she was that she didn’t brush off the toast crumbs first.
“Has anyone called the street department or whoever it is who picks up dead animals?”
“Who knows?” Bitsy does despondent almost as well as she does aggrieved.
“Someone probably already has by now but maybe you should call anyway to make sure. So then, uh, how exactly do you know Doug poisoned them?”
“Well, they aren’t like lemmings, Margaret. They didn’t all just take it into their heads to jump off the courthouse without flapping their wings.”
“I mean, how do you know Doug is responsible? That’s kind of hard to believe.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
The only thing obvious to me was that talking Bitsy through this crisis was going to take longer than I’d expected. Though why, I muttered to myself as I scrounged around for a clean cup, I should ever expect any crisis of Bitsy’s to die a quick, clean death I don’t know. Maybe it’s my eternal optimism that keeps bubbling up. A bit of misplaced joie de vivre.
Bitsy made a face when I sat down across from her with my tea and took a sip. She hates my “Eat More Possum” mug. “It’s obvious because he’s a member of the Progress Through Paving Party,” she sniffed.
“You know that isn’t its name.”
“It might as well be.”
“And how does that tie in with poisoning pigeons?”“Don’t you see?” she asked, impatient with my denseness. “It’s all part of the plan. Kill off business downtown so people will go out to those new places along the highway to shop.”
“By killing off the pigeons?”
“Would you take your children downtown to shop if they were going to see pigeons dying on the sidewalks?”
“But, Bitsy, doesn’t Doug own buildings downtown? Why would he sabotage his own businesses?”
“He thinks pigeons are a nuisance and hates the mess they make on his window ledges. He says they’re like rats with wings.”
“Rats are probably smarter. But Bitsy, first you said he was sabotaging downtown and now you’re saying he’s doing some sort of cockeyed community service project. Which is it? And how do you know it was him?”
“Anyone would know it was him.”
“But do you have any proof? Did anyone see him sitting on a bench passing around poisoned popcorn?”
“Margaret, I assumed you would be on my side in this matter.”“What side, Bitsy? It was a gross and nasty thing to do but you don’t really know who did it. Maybe it was the town, they’ve come up with dumber ideas. But if you’ve got proof it was Doug, go to the police. There’s bound to be a law against wasting winged rats.”
“Margaret. It is not a joke.”“No, you’re right. I’m sorry. But you’ve got to be careful about assuming you know who did it and very careful about going around saying you know for a fact he did it.”
She was very careful as she put her teacup on the table. “Douglas Everett and his buddies are not good for this town. I am not assuming this. I’ve heard enough reports from reliable sources to know this for a fact. You, Margaret, as a small business owner should be more aware of and certainly more concerned about what’s going on. Things are changing in Stonewall and not necessarily for the better. But there are some of us who have our eyes on Mr. Everett and we will fight him. That’s the side I assumed you would be on.”
She gathered herself and her shrouds of glory and stood to leave. “And Margaret, I’ll take the bag with the pigeon. I’m afraid if I left it here you might lose it amongst the dishes and not find it again until next month.”
I usually let Bitsy have the last word in situations like this. It gets her out of my hair sooner. Besides, she knows how to make a good exit and why rob her of an opportunity?
Which brings me back to the redefinition of my mission in life as precipitated by Bitsy and her ex-bird. Oddly enough, almost any time I redefine it, Bitsy ends up getting a mention. I haven’t analyzed this phenomenon and I’m not sure I ought to. Some mysteries are best left in their own dark corners.
Having a mission in life isn’t something I spend a lot of time brooding over. But occasionally giving it definition seems to give my life a sense of direction. Or maybe it’s just that it gives me a sense of control as I wallow along in the river of life. “Lock all doors and windows anytime you see Bitsy coming,” for instance, gave me a wonderful feeling of empowerment for a short time last spring.
I was waxing nostalgic over that memory when the regrettably unlocked kitchen door opened. I jumped, sloshing tea across the table. But it wasn’t Bitsy back to blight my day further. It was our elderly cousin Leona. She has an uncanny talent for slipping through the front door without jingling the bell.
“I didn’t think that was your trouble, Margaret,” she said, surveying the scene. She tottered over to the sink and unearthed a dishrag and handed it across to me.
“What? Being a slob?”
“No dear, that hasn’t ever slowed you down. But you’re not usually the nervous type. Why so jumpy?”
“Bitsy threw a dead pigeon at me this morning.”
One of the reasons I like my late mother’s cousin is she doesn’t either ask me to explain statements like the one I’d just made or offer reproof. She confines her comments to monosyllables. They encapsulate volumes of accumulated observations of the Welch girls, which she’s never lacked opportunities to collect. As children, Bitsy and I were in and out of Leona’s house almost as much as our own several blocks away. Her ethnologic study really took wing, though, when I bought Blue Plum. Her house is conveniently next door.
“Hmph,” she said, “your ‘back soon’ sign is on the front door.”
I sent the dishrag on a half-hearted flight toward the sink and Leona followed me back out front. I flipped the sign on the door so that Tom Kitten was once again welcoming people to the bookstore.
“Have you been downtown yet this morning, Cousin Leona?”
“Yes, dear. I always walk down to Bertie’s for a cup of coffee at eight o’clock. It makes me feel as though I’m getting a head start on the day. You should try it.”
“Maybe I will sometime. Did you see anything unusual?” I stuck my head out the door and peered down the street toward the courthouse. My place is four blocks from downtown proper. The pigeons tend to hang out down there where they can catch up on courthouse gossip and panhandle on the square. There weren’t any staggering in my direction.
“Like what, dear?”
“Like . . . ,” I turned around to answer her, but instead of finding Leona of the comforting shirtwaist ready to give my worries perspective, I was surprised by a man I didn’t know standing at the sales counter staring at me.
All material on this website © Molly MacRae