The Most Beautiful Stranger In The World

Paul walked the aisles of the crowded flea market, looking at the trash and treasures piled everywhere. He agreed to do a flea market crawl out of reluctant obligation. His girlfriend Jessica loved browsing and prowling the dusty aisles of old buildings. “You never know!” she repeatedly admonished him. He never said it, but he thought in his head, “Yeah, I never know how much time I might waste.” Paul loved some of the things he found but tired quickly of the prowl.

They’d returned to his hometown for a long weekend. Though he had no plans to attend his Aunt Jill’s funeral, he did agree to return to go to visitation at Crowley’s Funeral Home. Jessica took the opportunity of their visit to ask to see downtown, all two streets of it. There were four flea markets in that small area. Paul imagined that the number of flea markets would soon reach a pinnacle, as most of the older population were dying rapidly. No one wanted their stuff filling their attics and cupboards.

Paul meandered through the maze of trinkets and what-nots until he spotted Jessica an aisle over from where he stood. He pantomimed tapping at his wristwatch, the one he never wore. She shook her head “no.” She held up five fingers. Though it meant five minutes to a normal person, Paul resigned himself to at least thirty more minutes of browsing. He nodded and walked all the way to the back of the crowded flea market.

He saw her face immediately, propped up against a plate. Her picture was printed as an 8 X 10 black and white picture, taken decades ago. Though the picture was a bit water-stained at some point, it didn’t conceal the set of her piercing eyes or the subtle smile on her face. Her lips filled toward the center, and her curly hair framed her face perfectly. Paul had rarely seen such a picture capture beauty like hers.

He picked up the photo and looked at the back. He first noticed that a small photo was glued to the back. Next to it, the name “Loretta” was scrawled with immaculate handwriting. The picture on the back showed Loretta slightly in profile. Her face was angular, defined, and revealed a slender neck. Paul found himself enraptured by the image. A slight smile framed her lips, a smile that seemed to be reflected in her eyes. Somehow, he also knew that Loretta was smart and had a wickedly sharp sense of humor.

Paul flipped the picture over again, taking a long second look at the front. He sighed. He walked back to the front, where the cashier stood inattentively. She looked up as he approached.

“This item isn’t marked,” he said, showing it to her without handing it over.

The cashier pointed to the sign by the register: “Unmarked items or items missing a price cannot be sold without the permission of the owner of the booth.”

“I’m in town for a couple of days. I really need this picture,” Paul said, surprised by his own words.

“No can do!” the clerk replied.

Paul thought a minute. “Look. I will give you twenty dollars for this picture.”

The bored cashier showed a bit of interest by arching her left eyebrow.

“I can’t. No exceptions,” the cashier said, her voice rising.

Paul didn’t miss the implication. “My apologies. I meant that I will give you forty dollars for this picture.”

“Sold,” the clerk said and laughed. She would have been irritated to know that he probably would have given her a hundred dollars.

Paul took out his wallet and handed the clerk forty dollars.

A few minutes later, Jessica appeared from the bowels of the byzantine flea market. She found Paul standing next to one of the long glass curio countertops, leaning over it and peering at an old photograph there. She leaned in and craned her neck around his elbow.

“Isn’t she gorgeous?” he asked her without looking. Jessica nodded. She found herself admiring the stranger’s face. She was a classic beauty, one that defied time. Paul flipped the picture over and showed Jessica the smaller image on the back. “Loretta,” he said, his voice taking on the tone of someone lovingly reading a poem.

“Okay, weirdo. Let me pay for this old watch, and we can skedaddle.” She smiled at Paul, who ignored her. His eyes were still locked in on the picture. “Don’t forget to bring the picture of your new girlfriend with you, Paul.” He didn’t hear her.

Jessica teased Paul a dozen times about taking another look at the pictures throughout the afternoon.
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Saturday afternoon, Paul and Jessica arrived at Crowley’s a bit early. Paul wanted to be able to arrive comfortably and watch people as they walked up. He needed cues and reminders for some of the family. As for the rest, he wanted to prepare himself for the inevitable comments about his long absence from home, questions about his family status, along with the other obligatory comments people make at funerals.

Mr. Crowley stood by the main entrance. Paul assumed he was at least ninety years old. He knew everyone in town, though, and a lot of secrets that would shock people. There were times when his failing hearing led him to answer questions that people hadn’t asked him.

Paul shook his hand enthusiastically and introduced Jessica. To his surprise, Jessica hugged Mr. Crowley, who turned red and smiled. Mr. Crowley directed them both to enter the building. Inside the vestibule, Paul picked up an announcement and handed it to Jessica. The music that always fills such places echoed strangely inside the main door. Paul hurried through.

In front of the long room, he noted Aunt Jill’s casket, adorned with a variety of flowers and a picture of her, one he had seen in someone’s living room when he was younger. Aunt Jill had been a beautiful young woman. Seeing her as a young woman in the memorial photo gave him a sense of deja vu.

Within minutes, a couple of dozen people had entered, each saying hello to Paul if they recognized him. Most attendees were well over retirement age. Paul did his best to pretend that he recognized them all. Jessica, who seemed to have magically acquired the ability to make personal connections, helped him by hugging each person who approached. Paul didn’t know she was such a hugger. In a quiet moment, he asked her about it. She smiled and shrugged. “I love people, Paul.”

At the moment Paul assumed that everyone had arrived, the door opened, and he felt his heart leap to see Aunt Jill’s partner, Betsy. Betsy had watched Paul countless times when he was young. She and Aunt Jill were together before such things were acceptable. Though she was with his Aunt Jill, Betsy always kissed him on the lips when she saw him, something that used to cause his mother a bit of grief. After pecking him, she always cackled with glee and winked at him. When he turned eighteen, she casually told him that she didn’t know she liked women until she met his Aunt Jill, who stole her heart. But that she hadn’t forgotten to appreciate a good-looking man.

Betsy slowly walked toward him, already smiling. He instantly felt glad that he’d answered her phone call a couple of days, asking when he would arrive in town. Paul bent toward her, and she put her hands on both sides of his face and kissed him thoroughly on the lips. Had he not pulled away, Betsy might have kissed him for five seconds. She laughed, looking at Jessica. Jessica also burst out laughing. “You must be Betsy!” Jessica said and moved to hug her. Betsy caught Jessica off guard, too, and gave her a kiss on the mouth. At that point, all three of them burst out laughing, which drew everyone’s attention around them. Jessica took Betsy’s right arm and wrapped it around her left arm, standing with her.

Once their laughter subsided, Betsy said, “I wish your mother were here, Paul. I can’t believe she’s been gone for all these years. She died too young, just like their momma.” She nodded toward the casket. “We had a good life together, even when people didn’t appreciate our kind. Your momma told us to keep our heads up and to love who we wanted to. And we did.”

Jessica looked at Betsy inquisitively. “Paul doesn’t have any pictures of his grandmother, Betsy. Did Aunt Jill look like her?”

“Oh lord, girl. You won’t believe it! I have some pictures in the car. Our friend Bill drove me. I’ll have Bill fetch them for you.” Betsy got distracted by another visitor as she looked around the room for Bill. He saw her craning her head and started to walk toward her.

“I’ll be back in a minute, Jessica. I forgot the pictures in the car.” Paul turned to exit the building from the service entrance on the side. Jessica followed Betsy toward the front pew and kept an eye out for anyone needing a hug. She discovered that a few did.

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A few minutes later, Paul returned, carrying a leather folder with the pictures he brought. He was chewing furiously as he walked up to Jessica, who laughed at the absurd mouthful he displayed.

Between chews, Paul managed to tell her that Mr. Crowley’s brother Earl insisted on giving him a handful of his homemade beef jerky before coming inside. Paul also told her he ate a ton of the stuff when he was a teenager and worked for Earl at the hardware store. “Better his beef jerky than his wife’s dipping snuff,” Paul said.

Paul and Jessica went to sit on the front pew with Betsy.

“Earl is here, I see,” Betsy said and winked. Paul nodded, trying to swallow the last of the jerky.

Betsy pulled a handkerchief from her black purse. He noted she had a cigarette case inside. She saw him looking and said, “That’s where I keep my gun. People see it and assume it must be cigarettes.” She handed Jessica the case. Jessica opened it. She laughed. The cigarette case contained a tiny .22 single-shot pistol. “Betsy!” Paul exclaimed, unsure what to say.

Betsy shrugged, took back the case, and stuffed it back inside her purse.

She unfolded the handkerchief and uncovered several pictures stacked together. “Let me see,” she said as she moved her fingers across them.

“Here it is. This is your Grandmother Mary, Paul. Quite the looker! You can definitely see my Jill and your mom Rosie in her face.” Betsy handed the picture to Jessica, whose mouth dropped open. The confusion on her face was unmistakable.

“What’s the matter, honey?” Betsy asked.

Without a word, Jessica handed the picture to Paul, who stared at the picture in surprise.

“What is it y’all? You’re making me nervous!” Betsy seemed to be a bit alarmed.

Instead of answering, Paul handed the picture back to Jessica. He unclasped his leather folder and picked out the 8 X 10 he bought yesterday at the flea market.

He leaned across Jessica and handed the picture to Betsy. She went pale and took a sharp breath. “Oh my!” She turned the picture over and saw the other one on the back, along with the inscription “Loretta.”

Tears formed in her eyes. “Loretta’s middle name was Mary, Paul. This picture was in her living room when she died. We wondered what happened to it. Where did you get it?”

Paul, still in a bit of shock, said, “At the bigger flea market downtown, the one off Main Street. Yesterday. I bought it because I thought it was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Jessica didn’t take offense. Tears were forming in both of her eyes.

Betsy nodded. “Yes, she was. Jill and your mom had her looks and definitely her kind heart. She was the smartest person I ever knew, Paul. That’s saying a lot.”

The three of them sat in silence for a full moment. Betsy sighed.

“Let’s go say our goodbyes to my precious Jill, shall we? Help me walk up there if you will.” Betsy didn’t attempt to wipe away the tears on her face.

As they stood, Paul found himself hugging both Jessica and Betsy. They held the hug for at least thirty seconds.

They walked to the casket, looking at Aunt Jill’s memorial picture on the display stand near the casket. Paul held up Loretta Mary’s picture from yesterday. Somewhere in between, he could picture his mom’s face.

Betsy, her sense of timing as perfect as it always was, said, “When are you two going to be proper and get married? You can’t shack up forever, you know.”

As the three of them looked at each other, they burst out laughing, even as tears rolled from all their faces. Though the onlookers didn’t understand what they bore witness to, everyone smiled.

In the distance, thunder boomed across the sky.

Paul decided he might stay a few more days to keep Betsy company. And to prowl flea markets with his girlfriend.

“Goodbye, Loretta Mary,” Paul whispered, even as he stole a sideways glance at Betsy. She was crying, though a smile was on her face. And he looked over at Jessica, who also cried as she held Betsy against her. He couldn’t remember why he had avoided his small hometown. His whole world was with him at that moment.
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