Thursday, December 15, 2011

near Christmas, a timely story

Visitors          “Frank called. He’ll be here in an hour!”

Almost in choral unison, my staff announced a visit I had least expected from an old friend, a traveling salesman who, for years, had stopped by my store every three months. Then came startling news, his diagnosis of leukemia. Not seeing Frank had been like losing my ear to the ground of retail; he is or was that well-informed.

Of course, we’d talk about our sons and daughters, their plans and ours. But we seldom, if ever, talked about leaving the schmatta (clothing) business. Being in it was a given, it had seemed, for both of us. We’d never discussed retirement, an issue too closely connected with mortality.

“Not supposed to shake hands,” he told me, as he backed away from my ordinary greeting that had always included a hug and a handshake. “Doctors orders.”

Thanks to, I’d followed his battles with chemo and radiation, his tortuous comeback. “It’s under control,” he told me. “Treatments should end in late February or March. Then it should be easy to control with new drugs, even though one that I’m taking was developed by my brother, a doctor at Johns Hopkins!” He said that with pride, then assured me he’d be OK for the next 5-7 years before he’d need more treatments. We talked about his son, from whom he’d been separated since his son was an infant. “Unlike me, he was raised Jewish, by  a family in Israel. It’s taken him years, but he found me.”

We worked for a while; I bought his Stacy Adams ties; we kibbitzed. Seeing Frank again was reassuring. Retail was sick, but it hadn’t died. He and I were proof of that. That we were able to share again in commerce served as an antidote for predictions of gloomy Christmas sales.

Just being able to see Frank again served as a needed boost, and, also, as a reminder to do or say things I might have been putting off doing or saying. That’s when Bishop H. walked in, smiling as usual, but, unlike him in the past, with slight limp.

He needed shoes; his old ones were part of his problem. In our shoe section, he sat down. Quickly, I fitted him while I asked a question I’d put off that now seemed timely. It was about the Civil Rights era, about his relationship with Reverend C., a leader, known and respected throughout the south.

“You were with him, but you parted ways. Was that hard to do?” I asked, although I wasn’t sure I deserved an answer. He could have said it was none of my business.

But he didn’t.

“Yes. I left his church after he sent me to Winston Salem. He’d told me that the church would buy me a house, build me a church. After six months when nothing happened, I came back to Danville.” Here he started his own church, named it to honor the vision that lead him back here. And his church has grown ever since.

He loved his shoes. And he seemed to welcome my prying questions. We shook hands; I felt radiant, the way I do when I’ve stumbled on something worthwhile.

Just as he reached the door, his brother, C.G., owner of a gospel radio station, came in. Both were surprised, greeted each other heartily. They were my only customers.

When I finally asked C.G. what he needed, he answered quickly, as he always does, “a new pair of shoes.”

Coincidentally, the pair he bought was exactly like his brother’s. When he left, a feeling came to me, a feeling especially familiar during past holiday seasons when business was better, that I’d been given a sign. That day, three important visitors, unexpectedly, had brought their good tidings.

 B. Koplen 12/15/11

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