September 26th, 1974. 10:45 AM
I was driving into Nastoria, Ohio for the third time in seven years, and the place still smelled like birdseed. Before my first trip here, I probably would have guessed that birdseed had no particular smell, and if it did, there would be no way that I would be able to recognize it. But apparently it does, and I can.
Most of the Midwestern areas I’d been driving through over the last couple of days were just starting to have that sweet smell of autumn that hangs low to the ground as the leaves change color, reminding kids that Halloween is fast approaching and giving boys of all ages that urge to throw the football around. In Nastoria, however, the trees were still green. It was as if Mother Nature was hanging around a little while longer, hoping to see something, anything, happen in Nastoria before she laid down for her long nap and Old Man Winter took the helm for a few months.
Eventually she’d tire of waiting, as she has so many hundreds of times before, and let autumn and winter roll through. She’d awaken in the spring as hopeful as ever that this might just be the year, only to undoubtedly be disappointed once again.
Maybe now would be a good time to introduce myself. My name is Sam Louviere and I sell beads.
Usually when I tell someone what I do, his or her first response is, “Beet salesman? Like the vegetable?” After I correct them, their reaction is always along the lines of, “well what do you know?” It makes total sense, of course, but they had never before spent the mental energy on connecting the fact that for people to have beads, there must be someone who sells them. They nod their head introspectively; just as I must have done the first time I realized I could recognize the scent of birdseed.
If someone then asks me why I sell beads – which rarely happens – I just tell them that it beats selling vacuum cleaners, and that seems to satisfy their curiosity.
Of course, there is a real reason that I sell beads, but it’s quite a lengthy tale, and I believe that when people ask a question out of politeness, I should be equally courteous and not monopolize their time with a story that, in all probability, they’re not really that interested in, anyway. And if they are genuinely curious, I always run the risk of their interest waning when I’m halfway through, and then I’m in that uncomfortable position of trying to speed it up so they can get on with their day.
On this day I was paying a visit to Beth Pencole, or April May as she called herself professionally, who ran a souvenir shop out of her home. Since Nastoria has absolutely no tourist trade, at least her business had no competition. But for the exact same reason, I couldn’t fathom that they could possibly have any customers. Why did Beth Pencole/April May think that there were travelers who would want a keepsake from their trip through this very rural town that offered nothing in the way of attractions? The answer to that had always eluded me, so I just chalked it up to the eccentricity of the shop’s proprietor.
September 26th, 1974. 11:00 AM
I turned off the two-lane highway into the winding, gravel driveway that leads to the home of Beth Pencole and the place of business of her alter ego.
When I pulled up in front of the Tudor-style building, Ms. Pencole - or Beth as she always insisted I call her - was waiting for me on the porch. Beth was a jubilant woman who appeared to in her early forties, but people with her energy and optimistic outlook on life usually seem to have the added benefit of looking several years younger than they actually are. Her hair, which fell over her shoulders in a natural wave that made other women jealous, was the same color red that many of the leaves in Nastoria should have been turning by now. And just from the left of her widows’ peak, there grew a strip of white hair about an inch wide. It was just another of the dozens of things that made Beth Pencole a very unique person.
She was wearing a man’s red flannel shirt, and men’s dungarees, yet somehow managed to make them appear nothing but feminine.
Beth waved to me, and I waved back after I had shut off the engine of my ’64 Mustang convertible, that, for a reason that completely escapes me, I had named Shirley.
“I’ll be right up,” I yelled.
After exiting the car, I took my sample case from the backseat and rested it on the trunk. It was a large cube, bound in leather that, despite the years and miles it had gone through – and my propensity for banging it on doorways -- was only showing a few scuffs here and there. Unclasping it, I pulled open the two sides, which fanned out to form three tiers – these were sectioned off into eight different compartments - which faced each other. Each compartment held a different variety of my stock in trade: beads.
As I slightly rearranged the baubles in the display case before showing them to Beth, I noticed something that troubled me slightly. “It” was still in the case. Hadn’t I thrown It out? No, I guess I just told myself to get rid of It several times, but never have. Why didn’t I? It would only take a second to toss It over my shoulder, and here would be as good a place as any.
The “It” that I’m referring to is by far the ugliest bead ever made. Maybe the ugliest thing ever made – and that includes the objects d’art which decorate the homes of some of my customers. It was a bead only in the sense that it was small, hard, and had a hole running through it that a person could run a chain or wire through. It’s color was the dullest of browns when the light it hit right. But when the light hit it wrong – which is the way the light seemed to prefer to hit it most of the time - it appeared to be the dullest of grays. There was a coat of polish on it, but even that seemed wrong; like a hideous necktie on an unsightly man. Yes, he wouldn’t be much to look at without it, but with it he looks even worse.
I thought this particular bead so hideous, in fact, that I often found myself feeling sorry for the bigger whatever-it-was that this small chip had previously been a part of.
I snapped the case closed and made my way onto the front porch, having to duck slightly as to not bump my head on the large wooden sign that announced I was entering “April May’s Souvenirs.” It was a slightly ostentatious sign, which called out cheerfully to everyone around – which I guessed was usually no one at all.
After entering the house, we took a right from the foyer into Beth’s parlor, and she offered me a seat on the couch.
“Would you like a glass of iced tea?” She offered politely.
“That would be lovely,”
“Oh, and please excuse the mess,” she said, making some room on her coffee table for me to put my display case. “I’m getting a jump on the spring rush.”
Apparently her current project consisted of gluing together various sizes of seashells that were being anthropomorphized through the use of googly eyes, and little plastic banjos or bongo drums attached to their “bellies” with thin wire. Each little seashell person stood on a rock, on which Beth was hand-painting “1975.”
Now, why anybody would want a seashell sculpture to remember his or her trip to Nastoria, (this is assuming there is someone who would actually take a trip here, and want to remember it,) when there isn’t a sizable body of water within hundreds of miles, is beyond me. And why Beth thought there would be not only a someone, but apparently several someones - judging by her massive inventory - was something that I was very curious about, and finding increasingly difficult not to bring up.
As I opened my display case, Beth reentered the room, carrying two call glasses of iced tea, each with a little sprig of mint floating amongst the ice cubes.
“I hope you brought me something exotic,” she said enthusiastically, clasping her hands together and looking into the case. “When people want a souvenir, they always want something that looks like it came from a far away place.”
Why would they want something that looks far away, if they’re getting something that is supposed to remind them of Nastoria? I wanted to ask that question so badly, but somehow found the strength to just keep the query trapped in my head.
“Well, let’s see what I have here for you,” is what I opted on saying instead.
Over the next hour and a half Beth picked up every bead, finding, charm, crystal, pearl, (both freshwater and faux,) pendant and component between her forefinger and thumb, and held them up in several directions. She was letting every possible shadow and shaft of light strike the beads from every conceivable angle before setting her selection back onto the coffee table. Each bead went into one of two piles.
September 26th, 1974. 12:30 PM
Beth had meticulously made her way through every sample I had to offer, and then she got to “the bead.” Didn’t I throw that out in the driveway?
She picked it up, but didn’t bother to study it too closely. She just made the same face that someone would if they were to bite into a sardine when they thought they were about to eat a banana. Then she quickly set it back down. It was now the only bead in the entire display case.
Her attention went back to the two piles of beads she had placed on the table, and she pointed to the larger of the two.
“Let’s say an even hundred of each of these. How does that sound?”
“Sure,” I answered, taking my pad of purchase orders from my breast pocket, and jotting down just what each of her selections were. When I had finished, I realized that I could fill a good portion of her order right then and there; for the rest I would have to call the home office in Seattle and have them mailed out.
After I put the beads back in their proper compartments of the display case I made a quick trip back to Shirley, where I went through the various boxes, gathering the on-hand brothers and sisters to the beads Beth had chosen. As I came back in the house, and sat down to politely finish my iced tea, a sudden urge hit me. Apparently I had left my common sense back out with the car.
“Beth, right. Uh, Beth, I have a little question I’m curious about, if you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all.” She said, so pleasantly that for a moment I toyed with the idea of not asking the question – but unfortunately it was only for a moment.
“Well, coming from someone who is in sales, mind you, I was just a little curious about your business here. Again, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. What’s your question?” I silently cursed her for not minding. I was past the point of no return; I might as well plunge ahead. “Well, maybe you’d do a little more business if you called your place Aunt May’s Gifts, instead of Souvenirs. I mean, it might bring in some local traffic. Everyone has to buy birthday gifts, Christmas presents and whatnot for friends and family. I mean, just how big is the demand for souvenirs from Nastoria, Ohio?”
Beth tilted her head and bit her bottom lip. She was wearing the same curious expression a squirrel does when it looks at you and wonders why the hell you’re looking back at it. Then a realization hit her, and she broke out into a smile. It wasn’t a malicious or condescending smile at all – in fact, it was almost warm enough to light a cigarette off of – but I knew, deep down in my gut, that I was about to feel really, really stupid.
I was so sure of it, in fact, that my face started getting warm. This was no good, for I am a blusher. And the problem with me when I blush is that I’m embarrassed about being a blusher, and so blushing a little only results in me blushing even more.
Beth noticed my face turning pink, and her smile turned into a laugh.
Great, now I could feel the little pinpricks of heat on my cheeks. I knew my face was redder than a hotel on Illinois Avenue, and the more I obsessed over it, the worse it would get.
“Oh, Mr. Louviere,” she said, trying to control her laughter. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, that’s rude. I’m sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“No, of course you didn’t,” I lied, and she knew it. And then, in a weak stab at changing the subject, “And please, call me Sam.”
“Well, Sam, I don’t sell souvenirs to Nastoria tourists! I mean, there’s no such thing as a Nastoria tourist.” She put her hands over her mouth, attempting to muffle any residual laughter. “I make things that I sell to tourist shops around the country. You know, places where people go on vacation and whatnot.”
She picked up one of the many little banjo-playing seashell men.
“These little guys are going to Put-In-Bay, on Lake Erie. Some of the necklaces I make with your beads will, too. But I sell everywhere.”
There was nothing I could do but sit there quietly and let the conversation dissolve into nothingness. I knew it would only take a few seconds, but, oh, how those seconds seem to dawdle.
“So,” she said, taking her checkbook from her purse, which sat on the floor. “Why don’t we settle up, and I’ll make you a sandwich.”
I handed her the billing slip, and as she wrote out the check: “That’s awful nice of you, Beth, but I was thinking of heading down to Jacky-Boy’s Diner for lunch. Maybe check in on Annie Slocumb. Does she still work there?”
“Oh, I would imagine,” she said, tearing off a check and handing it to me. “I haven’t been there in quite a while, but I haven’t heard anything about her leaving.”
I stood and Beth and I shook hands. “Well, thank you very much, Beth. I’ll be sure and send a postcard before the next time I come through. And if you need anything, feel free to write or call the main office.”
I made a clumsy goodbye, still feeling brainless for my misunderstanding, and headed out.
.....to be continued.