By Chana Shapiro
I stood on a stool behind the counter, working a huge cash register, the kind that didn’t tell you how much change to give. I was 11 years old, and I’d helped in our family store since I was 8.
We sold women’s clothing in a small town in southern Illinois. Many townspeople toiled on nearby farms or oil rigs. Men worked hard, women were resourceful, and kids were scrappy.
Our store carried moderately priced women’s clothing; however, few customers paid for a purchase in full. The back room had racks of layaway items, for which their future owners brought in $2 or $3 a week. We carried everything a mid-20th-century, small-town female wore; however, the store’s most popular item was the $5 cotton “house dress.”
We were surprised one Friday afternoon when a man entered our store. It may have been common for a man to buy a gift of clothing for a female in a city like St. Louis or Chicago, but not in our town in the 1950s.
My father greeted him, “Hello, Henry!”
Henry’s hair was smooth and thick, but his face and hands were red and rough. There were dozens of men like him in town, and my parents knew all of them and their families.
“Hey, Benny!” Henry answered, momentarily distracted by the lingerie section. My mother appeared, giving Henry something else to look at.
“Hey, Miz Mim!” (No one in town ever called my parents Ben or Miriam. It was always Benny and Mim.)
“I bet you came to pay off Bertha’s dress? Is it her birthday? She only owes $1.”
“If it’s Bertha’s birthday,” my father offered, “take the dress now, and pay me next week.”
“I want something special,” Henry announced. “The well came in.” He patted his pocket.
My father had once invested in oil drilling near town, and every night my little brother and I prayed that his well would come in. Other town merchants invested, too, but the well didn’t produce.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” my father said. But once was enough.
Here was Henry, one of the peripatetic riggers, and his boss’s well had come in.
“We’re moving to a new rig,” he explained, “and we got a bonus. I’m gonna surprise Bertha with some nice clothes.”
My mother helped Henry shop. She knew Bertha’s size, and she also protected Henry from wandering through a women’s clothing store alone. The sales ticket totaled nearly $40, more than the cost of a coat.
Henry pulled a wad of money from his pocket, paid me and checked as I gave him change. He was a happy man.
The next day Bertha marched in. She had found the clothes and the sales receipt. “Hey, Mr. Benny. Hey, Miz Mim!” she called out. “Who let Henry waste his money?”
“He wanted to surprise you!” my mother began. “Did you try on the clothes?”
“Sure, but they’re even too fancy for church!”
“You can exchange everything,” my father promised. “Or we’ll refund the money. But why hurt Henry’s feelings?”
“I need regular clothes, like my layaway dress.”
“Let’s think about it,” my mother suggested. Bertha took a seat on a chair in the fitting room, apparently to do some thinking. When she came out, my father took charge.
“Leave the clothes here, and come back tomorrow. Trust me.”
Actually, everybody in town trusted my father, so this wasn’t a stretch for Bertha. Sure enough, she complied.
My father had his camera. My mother helped Bertha pose in each item from Henry’s gift, and my father took pictures. Then he insisted that Bertha bring Henry back in a week, allowing time to have the film developed.
Reluctantly, Henry came back. When my father spread the black-and-white portraits on the counter, Henry understood: The clothes just weren’t Bertha-ish.
“Keep the photos for your future grandchildren,” my father said as he refunded Henry’s money.
Henry was determined to provide the gift himself. “I’ll buy ’em! How much?”
“Five dollars.” I knew my father had spent more.
“It’s a deal!” Henry announced, proudly, like a millionaire purchasing a pink Cadillac for his wife.
True, our store was most identified by our best seller, the quotidian house dress, but it was the “Bertha Story” that made us part of the town lore.