I lean my chin in my hand and sigh. I slouch across the counter and stare at the lackluster scene outside my candy store. I can’t remember being this depressed in my life.
Zack enters from the storeroom, followed by Gilly, but the cheery smile on his face only sends me deeper into my funk. “Cheer up, Mom.” He claps me on the back harder than I care for. “It can’t be that bad.”
I wave toward the window, but I can only summon the energy to grumble. “Look at this place. A few weeks ago, West End was so packed with visitors and tourists you couldn’t scratch your neck without jabbing someone in the eye. Now look at it. You could fire a cannonball down Main Street and not hit a soul.”
“I like it quiet,” Gilly chimes in. “All those strangers take away the town’s charm. I like it better when it’s a sleepy little beachside hamlet that nobody knows about. It’s Connecticut’s best-kept secret.”
“When we were in the middle of the holiday rush, I probably would have agreed with you,” I tell her. “It’s different now. I mean, I got myself all psyched up to make my own candy. After the season died down, I made one batch and look at it.” I gesture toward the front counter. “It’s still sitting there. No one will buy it because all the locals have already tried it. I’m telling you guys. If I don’t sell some candy soon, that same batch will still be haunting the display case come Easter when the traffic picks up again.”
Zack laughs. I love nothing better than to see him happy, but now the sound grates on my nerves. “Enjoy the time to get some rest, Mom. Be grateful for some quiet time between rushes. We’re going to Peterborough. We won’t be back until tomorrow, so you’re on your own. Just promise me you won’t slit your wrists by the time I get back.”
I snort. “As if.”
They both laugh and bustle out of the store. They get into Zack’s car and drive away. Why do I resent them so much for being young and happy and energetic? Why can’t I enjoy this lull the way they do?
The sight of absolutely nothing happening outside drags me down too much. I shuffle my feet to my office and collapse in my creaky old chair. What difference does it make if I sit here and wallow? No one is going to come in wanting to buy candy.
My eye lands on the ledger lying open on the desk in front of me. I haven’t made a single sale since Valentine’s Day. Without meaning to, I scan my expenses column. I saved enough during the holiday slam to cover rent and utilities. I’m not in any danger of closing my doors, but this can’t go on. I have to think of some way to pick up business, if only for my own sanity.
Candy isn’t doing it—not mine or anyone else’s. It’s a paying proposition when the town has visitors around, but not now.
Just then, the doorbells jingle. It can’t be a customer. That would be too impossible to believe. I start to haul myself up to go see who it is when Patty Matthews sticks her head into the office. “Oh, there you are. I wondered if you had gone home for a nap.”
I recline back in my place. “I wish I had. Nothing is going on. I was just thinking I need to find a way to drum up business during the downtime before things pick up in spring.”
Patty takes the chair opposite me and rubs her mittened hands. She keeps her jacket and scarf on. “Brrr! It’s cold! You know what would really hit the spot right now? A steaming cup of hot chocolate—or better yet, soup! A hot mug of soup really warms your insides on a cold day like this.”
“You’re right,” I reply. “I love nothing better than a hot cup of cocoa or soup on a cold day. It’s one of those exquisite pleasures that makes life worth…”
“Or cider.” Patty wriggles inside her coat. “Hot mulled cider with lots of cinnamon. Mmm!”
I chuckle. Just thinking about a hot cup of something in my hands right now helps dispel the winter malaise.
“You know that craft shop that just opened up next door to the Daycare Center?” she goes on. “The lady that runs it has blank clay mugs that you can paint any way you want, but she also has some really nice ones already done up. I was in there the other day wandering around checking out her stock, and all I kept thinking looking at those mugs was, ‘Man, I sure wish these had something in them right now’. Then I came across one that was painted with a chicken noodle soup recipe. Now I can’t get soup off my brain.”
I laugh out loud. “That’s funny.” All at once, I frown. “Hey, I heard that woman who opened it is a local. Do you know her?”
“Sure. Her name is Kathy Neilson. She lives in the western neighborhood. She’s been in town for years. Don’t ask me what made her open a business now.”
“Maybe it’s because the town is growing so much,” I suggest. “If crafts are her thing, maybe she didn’t think the town was big enough to support a craft shop.”
Patty nods. “She would have been right about that. Anyway, she’s got a good thing going. When I was in there the other day, three schoolgirls were sitting at the table painting plates and clay figurines after school, and Kathy was right there with them decorating more cups for sale. She’s a smart cookie. She also does birthday parties where the whole group can go in and make stuff just for fun.”
I start to sink into another stupor. That’s a smart business proposition. Everybody needs something to do indoors during the dull winter months. What better way to have fun than doing some kind of craft?
Then it hits me like a thunderclap. I blink at Patty. “That’s it! Patty, you’re brilliant.”
She looks around in confusion. “I am?”
“Yes!” I rocket out of my seat. “That’s the answer! We’ll sell hot chocolate and mulled cider. I don’t know about the soup, but we can work on that once we get going. It’s the perfect solution. It’s a great way to get people into the store. It will warm them up and bring them together. Thanks!”
She blinks up at me. “Um…. you’re welcome.”
I hustle out from behind my desk. “I’ve got work to do.”
“Wait a second!” she exclaims.
I stop in my tracks. “What?”
“I was just going to ask you…..” She shrinks in her chair. “I know it’s asking a lot, but…. you see….”
I wait, but she doesn’t spit it out. She wilts even farther. Whatever it is, it must be something pretty bad.
I ease back to my seat and prepare for the worst. “What is it, Patty? Is everything all right?”
“It’s just that…. you see, since the season died….” She gasps out loud. “Oh, what the heck. I know you have bills to pay, Margaret. I don’t mean to impose on you, and there’s no reason you should pay someone to work the store when you can do it yourself. That’s the smart way for you to save money until business picks up again, but…..you see, things are pretty thin on my end, too. I…. I hate to say I got used to the money, but that’s the truth. One minute I was working all day, every day. Now I’m not working at all. I was wondering if you could…. I mean, I wouldn’t dream of asking you to pay me to work here doing nothing. It’s just I want to work somewhere. If I’m not working for you, I could get another job somewhere else—just temporarily, you understand, until you need me again. I would come straight back to you. I would just be earning some pocket money on the side. Oh, please don’t be offended! If it upsets you, I won’t do it. I just thought I’d come over and talk to you about it first to test the waters, so to speak.”
I open my mouth and close it again. “You want to work? You want to make money?”
She stares down at her hands in her lap. “Yes. I’m so sorry, Margaret.”
“Why should you be sorry about that?” I ask. “Of course you should work. I never expected you to go all winter without making any money. That would be ridiculous. I only scheduled myself for a few weeks following Valentine’s Day to give you and Zack a break after the holiday rush, but I’m certain you’re on the roster for at least three shifts a week for the rest of the winter.”
Her head shoots up and her eyes pop. “I am?”
“Yes, you are. I made sure of it because I didn’t want you to go all winter without work. Is three shifts a week enough? If it isn’t, you can have some more of mine. We all have bills to pay, Patty. If I can’t give you enough work, just tell me. I would have no problem with you getting another job, either now or even during the busier times if that’s what it takes to pay your expenses.”
Her face cracks in a delighted beam of exquisite pleasure. “Thank you so much, Margaret! You’re a lifesaver. Three shifts a week is more than enough.”
“I’ll let you know if any others open up. If anybody needs to take an emergency day off, you’ll be the first person I call.”
“Thank you, Margaret.” She lunges at me and flings her arms around me. She hugs me so hard it hurts. “You’re the best.”
She blasts out of the store so fast my head spins. That’s another crisis averted. When she leaves, I fall back into my pensive state, but now I have something to think about. I start spinning plans to sell cider, cocoa, and soup. There’s just one thing I need to do first. I need some way to market it to draw the customers out of their hibernation.
I amble back to the counter. The view outside the window looks the same. Nothing has changed except inside my head. Now I have something to look forward to.
I get out a piece of paper and start scribbling out all my ideas, recipes, promotions…..The list goes on. I get to the end of it and raise my head to look outside again when two familiar figures appear. They cross my line of sight and walk straight to my front door.
The doorbells sound extra loud in the stillness—that is, until David Graham and Ariel Dunroy come into the store. David cracks a grin at me. “How’s my favorite workaholic?”
I laugh along with him. “Would you believe I’m cooking up more work for myself?”
“Of course I believe it,” he returns. “What else would you be doing?”
“Zack and Gilly say I should be enjoying the time off while I can, but I don’t seem to be made that way.”
Ariel leans over the counter and cranes her neck to read my scrawled notes. “What get-rich-quick scheme are you planning now, Margaret?”
“Patty gave me the idea. I’m going to sell hot cocoa, mulled cider, and soup. I’m going to do a promotion to get people to emerge from their cocoons, change out of their pajamas for a few hours, and come into the store to share a hot cup of something with their neighbors.”
“That should do the trick,” David agrees.
“That’s a great idea!” Ariel chimes in. “I can’t wait.”
I round on her. “What are you doing out of school at this hour, young lady?”
“We had an assembly,” she tells me. “School let out early so Dad came and picked me up. Now we’re here pestering you.”
“Isn’t it nearly your closing time anyway?” David asks. “It’s four-thirty. Aren’t you closing at five now that the season is off?”
“You’re right. I should be getting ready to close now, although there’s not a lot to do. I haven’t had a single sale today.”
“What are you doing tonight, Margaret?” Ariel asks. “We came over to ask if you want to go out with us.”
I look back and forth between the two of them. “Go out—with you both? Isn’t tonight another school night?”
She rolls her eyes to Heaven. “Oh, come on, Margaret. You sound just like Dad. Can’t we have a little fun some of the time?”
I bite back a grin. She gets more confident with every passing day. “I sound like your dad because I care about you the same way he does. You’re still in school whether you like it or not, and you’re going to be in school for a long time to come if you plan to go to some hot-shot Ivy League college. I’ll make you deal. You two come over to my house and I’ll cook you dinner. That way, we spend the time together and you still get home at a decent hour.”
She leaps high in the air and comes down clapping her hands. “Yay! Thank you, Margaret! That’s perfect. Do you need us to buy anything? Should we bring anything? We’ve got a head of broccoli in the fridge at home, and I know Dad has a bottle of wine locked up somewhere. Oh, and ice cream! We have a carton of ice cream in the freezer. We could bring that, and if you need anything, we could zip down to the grocery store to get it. Just say the word.”
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” I tell her. “I wouldn’t send you all the way to Peterborough at this hour and I have everything we need. You bring the ice cream and a bottle of wine and I’ll do the rest. I’ll meet you back at my house in half an hour.”
A cloud darkens her features. “Half an hour is five o’clock. You won’t be closed before then.”
“It’s all right,” I tell her. “I can close now and walk home. No one is going to come between now and then, and I’m still the boss around here. Go get your ice cream. I’ll see you back at the house.”
“Yay!” She has another clapping fit and spins around. “Come on, Dad!”
She barrels out of the store. The door slams behind her and the bells rattle. David watches her out of sight and chuckles. “You really know how to make her day, don’t you?”
I walk around the counter to his side and slip my arm around his waist. I rise on my tiptoes to kiss him. “I haven’t seen you guys for ages. I haven’t seen you for ages. Sometimes I wonder if we still live in the same town.”
He kisses me back. His presence warms my cold heart. “Are you sure you want to have both of us over? You and I could do something alone together.”
“I want to. I miss her, too. It will be good to see you both together for a change. You and I can do something alone another time.”
“Okay.” He kisses me one more time. “I better catch up with her before she eats all the ice cream. I’m going to hold you to that promise. We’re going to go out, just the two of us.”
He backs toward the door and blows me a kiss before he leaves to find his daughter. In a few seconds, I’m alone with the endless silence, but I don’t have to tolerate it anymore. I fold my notes, tuck them into my pocket, and get busy closing the store.
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