Ask anyone in Greensburg where was the best place to shop for fresh produce, and they would have said James. That’s Sonny and Iris James proprietors. For 57 years the grocery had a reputation for having the cleanest and freshest collards and greens of any store in Brandon and Dinwoodie counties.
That was why Sonny never envisioned going out of business. And when the closing seemed imminent, he never expected it to end the way it did—with cake. In fact, he thought it might have ended in gunfire.
Sonny’s father, believing it was easier to sell crops than raise them, established James’ Produce at a time when folks still considered coming to town on a Saturday a wonderful adventure. His produce was the best mainly because of its time to market; it never traveled for days on end over rail and road, just country byways in the surrounding area.
Over the years the store survived the likes of the A&P and Piggly Wiggly and that despite its location on Barnes, a street that became less and less inviting and the object of frequent police patrols. Around the time Sonny was drafted into the army Trailways built a bus station at the end of the block. For a while Trailways was a very respectable neighbor but then America got in a hurry and traveling by bus became a least desirable mode of transportation because it was too slow. The refuse the station collected and discarded now was at times troublesome and always desperate, if not menacing.
James’ was a clapboard structure with a large double door splitting two oversized bay windows. The interior was surprisingly spacious and its lighting especially lucent. As you entered, the four aisles to the right which accommodated canned goods, paper products and frozen items stood in dim contrast to the expanse of the produce section whose warm glow owed its aura to the shiny pine-planked floor.
Not once in all its years did the business score anything less than 100 in its health inspections. It was a matter of pride for Sonny, who was less than attentive to personal inspections. Generally he wore white; shirt, apron and trousers. His record for besmearing his outfit was seven minutes after opening. The spots and stains were easy to see because Sonny was a man of extraordinary girth. His apron alone would have served as a tablecloth for a six-top. Try as he might, Sonny was helpless to trim his expanse, and he, a man of exceptional build when serving in the Special Forces. His circumference was such a concern, especially after his heart attack four years ago, that Iris put him on a strict vegetable diet. The regime saved them money, Sonny shed a few pounds but his physique never shrank.
His waist was not the only feature that was outsized. He possessed a large square head with a large fleshy nose and a large, shiny brow whose furrows often ran up and over his tightly cropped head. Even the hairline scar running across his forehead, a memento from Vietnam, couldn’t stop the crinkles from rolling upward—or downward depending on your point of view. There was always a pinch of snuff in his lower lip and an old Styrofoam cup right next to the hoop cheese on the check-out counter for the juice.
Iris was the polar opposite, pretty and petite, although she believed her neck to be ”chickeny” and always wore dresses, blouses or scarves to cover the imperfection. She was a year his senior, but that was not why she was the de facto decision maker. In the days leading up to his deployment to Vietnam as an “advisor”, she asked for his hand in matrimony. She reasoned that if he were to die in combat she would have at least made love to the man who had made her swoon ever since Craven Elementary. When he came home in 1967 the couple took over the store. Even though Sonny knew everything there was to know about its operation, Iris called the shots. She was the boss, a position she held without the accoutrements of a throne.
Toward the end of the spring of ‘08, a customer asked Sonny if it would be all right to purchase all of the fresh strawberries on the shelf. The question brought on the realization that two of the three berry growers, Frank McGregor and Charlie Ledbetter, hadn’t come in to trade in over a week. He wasn’t sure how Iris would react to his oversight in not contacting the farmers. He breathed easy, though, when she calmly said, “It’s the gas prices.”
“I should have called them.”
“Calling wouldn’t have filled their tanks.”
“No, but what’s a 30 mile round trip cost?” Assuming a truck averaged 15 miles to the gallon, he answered his own question, “What’s that, eight bucks?”
“A dollar ain’t a dollar anymore.” She added, “Hasn’t been in a long while.”
“I should have gone out there and picked them myself.”
In an effort to learn what happened Sonny called but got no answer at the McGregor place and no answer, not even an answering machine, at Ledbetter’s. He drove out to the McGregor farm. The fields were overrun with weeds; what fruit was out there was probably ruined. A knock at the door elicited no response. It was the same at Ledbetter’s, although not entirely. Sonny saw that Charlie had plowed under his crops. He didn’t bother to knock.
Upon leaving Ledbetter’s, he traveled the back roads of Brandon and Dinwoodie counties, seeing one fallow field after another and every so often a foreclosure or for-sale sign. On his cell phone he called Iris, asking her to check in with all their vendors.
“Brown still expects his sweet potatoes and collards and greens to come in, but Jones won’t be bringing in any onions, maters or lettuce. And Cliff says there won’t be any apples because of the drought in the mountains. And Shropshire—“
Fidgeting with her high silk collar, Iris added, “Well, at least Bowles will have carrots all season.”
In a silence he never thought would come crashing down on him, Sonny tried to understand when it all began. There were the layoffs at the downtown cigarette factory, compounded by the rumors of that Greensburg’s largest employer, Allied, planned to shutter its plants in mid-summer. Then there was the fire that destroyed the Holiday Inn on the highway. And the hospital administrator and the chief financial officer were led off in handcuffs for taking bribes and embezzling.
And then there was the Obama campaigner, a very contentious black man who insisted on putting a Change We Can Believe In sign in Sonny’s window. A registered Democrat, Sonny never displayed propaganda for any candidate, lest he lose customers. There were many vagaries in a grocery business and politics was not one of them. The black called him a racist. Sonny said his refusal was the result of sound judgment. A customer, who witnessed the angry exchange, told Sonny she would never shop there again, whether he placed the sign or not.
Confronted with a situation of damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t, he sought Iris’ counsel, asking her when the downturn started. She didn’t hesitate to point to May 3. That was the day McPherson Hardware announced it was closing. During its final days townspeople lined up to pay their respects as if it were a funeral. The Herald Chronicle called the store a landmark, although it had only been in business for 48 years. McPherson had to hire a liquidator from Kansas who remained conspicuously silent while McPherson expressed annoyance with the crowds. If they liked his store so damn much, he told the newspaper, why hadn’t they come before now? He answered his own question, Wal Mart.
On an unseasonably hot day in the middle of June, a black man, probably from the bus station, came into the store wearing a long trench coat. He browsed the aisles and finally approached the counter. From under his coat he pulled out a sawed-off shotgun. Sonny swallowed his pinch and started gagging. Iris raced over from the produce section never noticing the man or the gun, just her husband on his knees in convulsions. When she reached up for the Kleenex box on the counter she confronted the open end of the two barrels. Outraged, she demanded to know just what the man thought he was doing. Without waiting for a reply she hurled the box at him. He used the weapon to deflect the projectile and dashed out the door. The newspaper called Iris a hero, which she was quick to correct, “Heroine, not hero, you idiot.” To add further insult The Herald Chronicle did not refer to James’ as a landmark. Sonny canceled his subscription on the grounds that the paper wasn’t what it used to be, its page-count down to less than 20.
The cancelation ended all ties with the newspaper, for a year earlier Sonny, needing to cut expenses, focused squarely on his advertising. The retail ad salesman warned that business would suffer if Sonny went ahead with his plans to discontinue the weekly ads in the Wednesday coupon section and in the Saturday food section. Desperate not to lose an account, the salesman offered to put his ads on the Chronicle’s web site for free.
“What’s that look like?” asked Iris.
“Do you have a computer? I’ll show you.”
“Folks going to the computer for collards,” scoffed Iris.
The James’ saw no appreciable difference in their business. By the same token there was no incremental increase in shoppers either.
After the attempted robbery, what with the police wrapping nearly half the block in yellow tape, business began to falter. Sonny anticipated an upturn once the incident faded from memory. However, fewer and fewer came to shop. The result was that he had to throw away produce and worse yet, buy less. His regional suppliers threatened price hikes, saying their discounts were based on volume.
“If I can’t sell it, why do I need to buy it?” he told Iris whose eyes watched the furls of his forehead roll up beyond the hair line. Sonny tried to pat down the folds with no success.
“Let’ em sell it to the computer people,” said Iris.
By the end of July, Sonny was out of berries and fruit and nearly out of leaf produce. The squared-off counters for broccoli and cauliflower and related items were empty. In fact, the entire section looked barren except for carrots. The dry good aisles were thinly stocked, but Sonny had no intention of replenishing the shelves. One day, a Saturday, July 21 there wasn’t one customer; this was a first in 57 years. Sonny put a sign in the window offering free home delivery. They weren’t any takers.
The rumors proved true. Allied put thousands of townspeople out of work when it closed its plants. Real estate speculators razed the burned-down Holiday Inn and placed a for-sale sign on the scarred property. And a jury deliberated for fifteen minutes before convicting the hospital officials.
It was the first Monday in August when Sonny out of boredom opened the till. There were no twenties, a couple of tens, a half dozen fives and a score of ones. The change slots were no less impoverished. He spat juice into his cup and walked over to the brightly lit produce section. Carrots were all he had on display. He looked heavenward, cowled his eyes lest his father be watching and then with a pronounced sigh let his face fall.
Since there were so few customers nowadays, Iris took to coming in at noon. As soon as she arrived he popped the question.
“Whaddya say we sell Lotto tickets?”
“Here? In this store?”
“Next you’ll be wanting them computers with the poker gambling.”
“We’ve got to do something.”
Unsnapping the three alabaster buttons on her collar, Iris marched over to the produce and grabbed the last of the carrots. She turned the sign on the door from open to closed and said, “I’ll make a carrot cake. We got any cream cheese left?”
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