Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Jewel Tea Man

by Robert Giles

“Let me show you my wares,” the Tea Man said to Grandma.  He laid out his catalog along the length of the kitchen table. The separate parts were foldered in shiny plastic like you might use to organize cards and photographs inside a billfold. Of course, The Jewel Tea Man’s catalog was too large for the average purse or back pocket.

He unzipped and unfolded it in a single graceful movement.  He did it as quietly as a professional deals a deck of cards.

The Tea Man sidled over in the direction of the refrigerator, turned about, and fixed his eyes on Grandma's.

“Do you see anything you like, dear?”

Grandma let out her breath as though she had never seen pictures of towels and curtains and bed linens before.

“Dora, is there anything you can use?” Grandma asked her daughter-in- law, as if trying to divert the Tea Man’s gaze.

“No, the first time Mr. Gardner was here, there was nothing that I needed or had the money for.”

“Please call me “George”? I like it much better than Mr. Gardner.”

The Tea Man had turned his attention back to Grandma. In Grandma, he perhaps saw someone of more refinement - someone who could appreciate and afford “nice’ things.

For a moment he admired Grandma’s silver hair and the economical way it was arranged atop her head. The tortoise-shell combs above her ears betrayed a normal dose of human vanity.

“I have some lovely cotton print aprons you might like.”

“Why yes, I believe I could use a new apron, George.” Grandma didn’t sound one-hundred percent comfortable pronouncing the Tea Man’s first name.

 “I hope you haven’t noticed how shabby this one’s gotten. I do all the readying up after dinner and I help Dora with the dishes. I try to keep the kitchen looking just like my own did up at Summit.”

“Summit Township, isn’t that up around Saxonburg? I used to have some customers out that way.”

Grandma and George were still talking about places and people they both knew in Butler County when I got up and left the kitchen.

The Tea Man sold three aprons and a can of air freshener on that first visit. Of course, he didn’t have the aprons in his truck. He had to put those on order. He promised to bring them on his next visit, in one week.

The Tea Man looked a little scary to a small boy. He had a heavy black beard which he shaved as close as he could, leaving a mere shadow. He probably kept a razor in his truck and freshened up in the afternoons. His suit was like the ones you see on the men in the church choir, slightly rumpled by his days on the road. He had a flashy wide neck tie.

His hair was combed straight back but was fluffy and buoyant. There were streaks of grey at his temples. He had a widow’s peak, like the old guy on “The Munsters”.

His fingernails were brushed and shiny. He smelled nice. He was light on his feet and moved like a dancer. He had a dancer’s body.

Who was it that played the older detective on “Law and Order” – Jerry something or other? I understand that women found him irresistible. I’ll have to take that on faith. Anyhow, a picture is worth a thousand words – the Tea Man looked like Jerry (the actor).

A wee bit sleazy. Too smooth in a bumbling sort of way.

When he brought Grandma the aprons, he laid it on thickly.

“My, you ladies sure have this kitchen looking spic and span. Why, it’s cleaner than a whale’s backbone. It smells so fresh as well – isn’t that air freshener nice?”

He didn’t stop for Mom or Grandma to answer; he just charged ahead. Mom leaned on her broom. Grandma sat transfixed.

“These aprons are just your color. You’re so attractive – I hope you don’t mind my saying that. When I meet a pretty lady, I just have to blurt it out. I hope you take it the way I intend – I just want to let you know you are the most beautiful person on earth – next to my own dear wife of course.”

On that second visit the Tea Man sold Grandma a small set of dresser drawers. She already had a nice dresser but I guess it’s true that she needed one, as she explained, just for her support hose and girdles and all that other stuff she hid down deep.

I heard Dad asking Mom what Grandma needed with a new dresser – that’s why I knew how Grandma had explained her sudden need for one. I would have never been bold enough to ask her directly.

Grandma seemed a lot more pleasant after the Tea Man started visiting. When I played checkers with her, she no longer hated losing. She didn’t accidentally on purpose upset the board just because I had her cornered. Sometimes she hummed along with a song on the radio while waiting for me to move my piece.

She did look nice in her new aprons, and wearing the earrings she hadn’t had on since Uncle Gene and Aunt Ada’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Uncle Hal had told her on the way out of church that they made her look like a gypsy – right in front of everyone.

It was a cruel thing to tease Grandma. I knew she hated it even though she would never give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her vulnerable.

I didn’t mean to tease her when I asked her one morning – “Grandma, what are you all dressed up for? Is the Tea Man coming?”

She looked stricken – right away I knew I had said something childish.

“Bobby, why must you always nose around in other people’s business? Go on, get out of here. Run off.”

Week after week she seemed to have a sudden need for things she had done without all her life. The Tea Man kept calling.

And then one day maybe Grandma heeded the voice that repeated in her ear –

“Don't you know little fool, you'll never win.  Why not use your mentality, come on step up to reality.”*

That’s what I would like to think – that Grandma realized her flirtation with the Tea Man was that and nothing more. She didn’t flinch. She stepped up to reality. Like we all do.

Dad always said that Grandma pinched a penny so hard she could make Abe Lincoln recite the Gettysburg Address backward. Maybe she just didn’t want to part with any more money. Or maybe her bedroom had reached its limit of junk.

The Tea Man had a love that was as large as his sales territory. It was a big love but it was a conditional love. When Grandma stopped buying, he stopped selling. It takes two to tango.

* From the song “I've Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter.

1 comment:

  1. jd aka john domansky

    actor was jerry orbach, was in dirty dancing, FX & many more a true actor & gentleman. died 5 or so years ago. FX was a great role for him. w/the aussie actor that was with rachael ward in a movie too.about sheep shearing.