My mother worked until 5 pm when I was in elementary school, so every weekday I would spend that two hour gap on a three legged stool behind the counter of Widow Peach's grocery store. Sometimes I would do my homework. Sometimes I would read the comics in the newspaper that Widow Peach always kept on the counter. But usually, I would watch Widow Peach work.
She was our landlady. We lived in the apartment above the little store, while she lived in a couple of rooms in the back of the store. The best part of living there was not the fact that we didn't have to go far for our household necessities, but rather that Widow Peach baked bread every day from scratch, and the smell of it drifted up into my bedroom. A thick slice of bread with a generous smearing of butter, fresh from a local farmer, was often my after school snack (no matter how many longing gazes I cast at the jar of candy that she kept on the counter).
She looked far too young to be a widow, even with her long gray hair, but her husband had died before I was born, and everyone had been calling her “Widow Peach” for years. Her hands looked young and she wore a different pair of beautiful earrings every day. I thought she was very pretty, despite being “old,” and I never brought up her age. No one could accuse her of losing her memory, since she proved every day that it was as sharp as a tack.
There were no price tags on anything in the store. I used to sit and watch her endlessly informing customers about how much items cost, and even when she had six or seven people waiting to pay for their purchases, it never took her long to ring up everything on the antique cash register. She knew where every single item was kept, how long it had been on her shelf, and when it would expire.
Once I asked her what her first name was. She just smiled. “What, you don’t like ‘Widow Peach?’ It’s what everyone calls me.”
“I know,” I replied, applying a blue crayon to Lake Victoria (my homework that day was to color a map of Africa). “But ‘Widow’... makes you sound old.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I am old,” she informed me.
I squirmed; I hadn’t wanted the conversation to go this direction. “Well, but…” I floundered, not knowing how to delicately agree while still saying something complimentary.
She turned from refilling the chewing gum on the wall behind the cash register and patted me on the head. “Don’t worry,” she said with a smile. “I like my name. Don’t you think it’s just right for someone who runs a grocery store?” She pointed at the produce section, where she had been several minutes earlier, stacking a mouthwatering pyramid of fruit for her customers.
I frowned. “I guess so.”
I had a bit more luck with the subject when Alice came to visit. She was Widow Peach’s daughter who lived in the city. She came home for a visit every few months, and it was the only time I was allowed to help to stock the shelves. I carried a big box for her which was full of smaller boxes of macaroni and cheese, and Alice lifted them out and put them on the shelf, counting them and calling to her mother when she was finished, so Widow Peach would always know how many were there.
When we were finished, I whispered the question to Alice, but she shook her head. “I’ll tell you another secret, though,” she whispered back. “When my mom was younger, all the boys had a crush on her. My dad used to tell me that she had to beat them off with a stick.” My eyes widened at the thought of the gray haired Widow, mercilessly striking a gang of suitors. “He said he knew she really loved him, because she decided to marry him even though his last name was Peach.”
“What did that have to do with it?” I asked. Alice shrugged and winked at me, a gesture I took to mean that I would have to be content with the information I already had.
When I was in second grade, a man started to come to the store every Thursday. He was an older gentleman who wore a bowtie and had meticulously combed white hair. He would ask Widow Peach how much various things cost, wandering up and down the store’s three aisles, through the produce section, and the coolers where the dairy items were kept. Although every Thursday he shopped for hours, he hardly ever bought anything. It seemed to be a game, one that he enjoyed but I could tell slightly annoyed Widow Peach, especially when there were lots of other customers who were going to actually buy the things they asked about.
One particularly slow Thursday, I had just finished my math homework when the bell on the door jingled. I looked up to see the first customer in several hours entering the grocery store: the man with the bow tie. Widow Peach stopped arranging laundry detergent on a shelf, stood up, sighed, and put her hands on her hips.
“Wilson Rice!” She cast a glance at the calendar and shook her head. “Is it really Thursday already? Well, let’s have it over with for once. What are you really here for?”
“Well now,” he said, reaching over to get a plastic shopping basket with what I could swear was a blush on his face. “You really want me to get right to the point?”
“We both know you’re only going to buy a handful of things. What is it that you really need?”
Mr. Rice smiled. “Let’s see.” He shuffled past her, out of my line of sight, and pointed at something.
“Apples are a dollar fifty a pound this week,” I heard her say. “And don’t bother asking about anything else unless you’re actually going to buy it; I’m running a business here, not wasting my time providing you free entertainment.”
I leaned across the counter and saw the man smiling in Widow Peach’s direction as he picked up several apples and put them in a small paper bag, which he tucked into the basket on his arm. She followed him out of the produce section to the back of the store. I sat back down on my stool and peered through the aisle to see him pointing at something in the dairy section.
“Two percent or whole?” Widow Peach asked.
“It’s two fifty for the half gallon, dollar seventy-five for the quart.”
His basket got a little heavier with another addition, and again he stretched out his hand and pointed at something in the dairy section.
“The ones I get from out of town are the same price per dozen as the ones Tom Sutton brings in,” said Widow Peach. She was proud of selling local goods. “Some say it’s expensive, but I say: support the hardworking people in your own neighborhood.”
I slipped off the stool and stood on my tiptoes to peer over the top of the cash register. The man was reaching for an egg carton, when suddenly he stopped.
“Did you really want to know why I’m here?” he asked.
“What?” Widow Peach said. “You’re buying apples and milk and eggs, of course. Why else would you be here?”
I put my hands over my mouth as I watched Mr. Rice get down on one knee. “You know I love you, Georgia,” he said. “I have for thirty-five years. Won’t you marry me?”
Widow Peach’s face was bright red. “What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?!” she choked out.
I got to be the ring bearer at Widow Peach’s wedding. That evening, I asked her what I should call her, now that her name wasn’t the same. “You don’t have the right name anymore for someone who runs a grocery store,” I told her.
“Well, Phillip,” she said, smiling at me, as she laid one hand on my head. “What do you think of calling me Mrs. Rice?”