Tea and Happiness
Happiness is my neighbor. Huge, garish, multi-coloured type proclaims it on the sign above the otherwise dowdy century-old brick building that our shops share. The tails of the P’s dangle down into the doorway. You have to push through them when you walk into the shop. The A protrudes from the sign, a clown nose on solemn brick.
Happy’s sign makes the simple serifs of my own look dull in comparison. Max’s New Bohemia Curiosity Shop. I tried to be clever, had the sign maker set ‘Max’s’ in a smaller size, nestle it in the space above the E and W in New. It looks ham-fisted now. I suppose it always has.
My curiosities are eclectic, like New Bohemia. Dishes, books, snow globes from all over the world, a Japanese tea set with a missing cup. It’s not a junk shop. It’s not.
Happiness Briggs, proprietor of Happiness, Inc., trades in more exciting fare. Candy. Cakes. Ice Cream. Pink tchotchkes that tickle young girl’s hearts and tiny green soldiers that bring smiles to little boys. Sometimes they’re reversed. Pink soldiers, green tchotchkes. It doesn’t mater what particular thing delights a child, Happy Briggs has it.
She does slightly more business than I do.
I don’t mind. I specialize in high margin merchandise. I don’t need a parade of giggling munchkins to sustain my shop. Spike the shop cat hates kids. She climbs to the top of the plate rack and hisses at them when they come in with their grandparents.
“Good morning Max!” Happy says, opening her store as I shamble past on a drizzly April morning. I can seem sullen, at times I even am. It’s the frumpy Colombo trench coat. My ex-wife accused me of looking like a flasher in this coat. She’s probably right. I mumble my greeting. Or do I grumble it? It’s hard to tell.
“Wonderful day, isn’t it?” Happy is too old to be bubbly. And yet. Her grey ponytail has hints of blonde. The wrinkles on her face trend to endearing smile lines not grandmotherly crevasses. I think I’m infatuated with Happy. I try not to let on.
“It’s very Seattle,” I say, raising my paper cup of courage at her in salute.
“I suppose it is.” She laughs, looks into the cloudy grey sky, drinks in the falling mist. She pirouettes in her blue rubber boots. I shuffle into my shop quickly. Happy may draw me into her orbit. Would that be so bad?
“You know what you need Max?” She doesn’t exactly burst into my shop later that day. There’s a wave of emotion that precedes Happy wherever she goes, like the downdraft of a summer thunderstorm, just a little one, not one with tornados or lightning. A Happy storm, plying across the prairie, bringing refreshing cool gusts and sprinkles after. Everything is better with sprinkles.
“Afternoon tea,” I say.
“You need afternoon… Yes.”
We flip our signs, escape to Brewhemia. It’s a slow Thursday, before Summer break. No kids yet. Not that my business depends on kids, but Happy’s does.
I fuss with the infuser in a scalding cup of Oolong. She smiles at me, blowing gently across an ocean of Chai. She’s a manic pixie dream girl that’s gone pruny in the pool. I’ve never seen her not smile. Never a frown, never a neutral face. Not even first thing on a fog-covered New Bohemia morning.
“You ever lived in Seattle?” she asks, between cooling blows on her Chai.
“No. Business trips through. I get out once a year, sometimes more.”
What would it be like to take Happy on those trips? What is Happy like when she’s not minding her store, finding baubles to enchant and delight children?
“I did, for a few months. Everyone thinks it’s so gloomy, but it’s not, not deep down. Nothing is gloomy if you look at it the right way.” Her eyes are the most amazing pale blue.
“That’s a real talent,” I say. My tea cools more slowly than hers. I’m not blowing on mine. I test a sip. Too hot.
“Nah, you just need practice.” She winks at me. Did she wink at me? Wait. Is Happy flirting with me? I’m terrible at flirting. I can never tell. When I think maybe someone is flirting, I don’t want to seem creepy. Not any creepier than my Columbo/Flasher coat makes me. ‘Dirty,’ does not need to be added to my ‘Old Man’ moniker.
“You should smile more Max. I bet you have a pretty smile.”
I can’t help myself. I smile. I’m sure it’s a crooked Grinch smile, not at all creepy; no, not at all. I try to be indignant for all the women in my life that are told to smile. Do I have resting creep face? Oh God, what the hell is going on? My heart beats a bit faster.
“You shouldn’t say that,” I tell her. I can’t stop my smile.
“I know.” Her eyes twinkle. How the hell does she do that? “But it got you to smile. You have a lovely smile.” It’s less creepy coming from Happiness Briggs, isn’t it?
Why does flirting with Happiness feel wrong?
When I was little, before I went to Kindergarten, I was best friends with January Davis. Jan and I did everything together. We hunted frogs in the stream behind our houses. We made mud pies. We played baseball with little plastic bats, the skinny ones, not the big bopper bats. In those pre-Star Wars days we talked for hours about Batman, the Adam West Batman, the goofy one, perfect for kids. Bat Shark Repellent.
Jan’s Mom named us jabber-jaws. We’d talk over each other, around each other, past each other, until a flood of speech filled the house and chased us into tall grass and corn fields. Our Moms knew excactally where we were. They just listened for the murmur of tiny voices in the corn¹.
I have a picture of Jan and me, two grubby hobbits, hugging each other in the sprinkler on a hot day. You couldn’t tell us apart at casual glance. I’m not sure if it was the dirt or the kid-ishness that people don’t grow out of until they start school.
We were happy, like only kids can be. I think I remember being that happy. Maybe I imagine it. We never fought. Jan practiced emotional judo that kept us out of arguments. She laughed. A lot. So did I, I suppose.
Her family moved the year we started Kindergarten. Her parents wanted her to go to Catholic school. Jan was the first loss I remember. I don’t know if I was sullen, probably. I never talk about it with Mom or Dad. I’ve tried to forget it. I still remember some of the days we paddled in the frog stream, but I don’t recall any of that seperation.
I had other friends. Kids make friends so easily. Then they were gone too. Different middle schools. Different high schools. Different colleges. Each time there were fewer friends to replace what had been lost.
The whole idea of ‘friend’ changed. What was a friend, what was just someone you knew? Eventually, even ‘people I know,’ started to dwindle. Everyone has their own lives, their own families. We drift apart, stretched on a universal canvas of life that’s ever expanding.
“The hockey game Max? Tomorrow night? Do you want to go?” Happiness asks me, drawing me back into the moment.
She has January’s eyes.
She has her laugh.
“Yes.” God, yes. I should be screaming it, startling everyone in the coffee shop. I’d go to anything with Happiness. I’d go to opera with Happiness.
Her hand brushes mine, just a finger, a slow, gentle caress down the back of my hand.
“I’d like that,” I almost whisper.
1 We were children of the corn, just less stabby.
Gary Rogers is a traveler of both time and space, to be where he has been, currently living in Iowa.
You can find his other stories at garyrogers.squarespace.com.