Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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You Never Know

September 29, 2014

Recently while shopping at our local grocery store, I was reminded of someone I hadn’t thought of in years, someone who’d inadvertently changed my outlook on life. It happened shortly after I got married and moved to Oxnard, California.

    

My art degree hadn’t opened any career doors for me, but after a long and exhausting search I landed a job as a display manager for Mervyn’s Dept. Store. I was trained to trim windows and change mannequins, and sent to a newly opened store in Oxnard, California. Oxnard was a small coastal town about an hour north of Los Angeles. Back then, it was an agricultural community famous for growing lettuce and soybeans. Mrs. Chatterbox and I weren’t particularly happy about moving away from our families but, for me, jobs were hard to come by. Mrs. C’s English degree and office management background made it easy for her to land a job anywhere.

     

A long center aisle divided Mervyn’s in half, and every afternoon a lone old woman walked the length of the store in a housecoat and slippers. She carried a cane but didn’t seem to rely on it. I had no idea where she came from; there were no retirement facilities nearby and she didn’t look like someone in possession of a current driver’s license. She could have modeled for a portrait of Methuselah.

    

Afternoons usually found me changing mannequins on the center aisle, so I had an opportunity to witness her up close. She passed by me with the mournful air of Marley’s Ghost, dragging a lengthy chain of ledgers, her white hair framing a taciturn wreath of wrinkles. Frankly, my blood ran cold when I saw her and I couldn’t bring myself to confront her with the cheery smile I gladly shared with everyone else.

    

She plodded through the store every afternoon, precisely at two o’clock. She never paused to look at merchandise, and none of Mervyn’s employees spoke with her or impeded her trek through the store. This went on for months.

    

Will Rogers once quipped that Calvin Coolidge’s sour expression must have been the result of his having been weaned on a pickle; it wasn’t hard to imagine the same might be true of this wizened old woman.

    

One day I was ramming a pole up the backside of a mannequin and bolting it to a platform when she ambled by. One of the mannequin’s plaster arms detached. I grabbed it in midair but the hand separated and landed in the middle of the aisle, at the old woman’s feet.

    

After retrieving it, I stood and found myself staring into the droopy face of a human basset, the saddest-looking human being I’d ever encountered. Time stood still as I wondered what had turned this face into a mask of misery.

    

Without thinking, I smiled and said, “Are you having a nice walk today?”

    

I didn’t expect a response since her face looked as immobile as the faces of my mannequins, so you can imagine my surprise when walls of ice seemed to melt from her and every descending line in her forlorn face shifted to an upward direction—she returned my smile.

    

With a brittle voice she said, “Thank you for asking. Yes, I am having a nice walk. I hope you are having as lovely a day as I am.”

    

In the center aisle of Mervyn’s Department Store, clouds parted to reveal a rainbow.  She proceeded on her way.

    

We never spoke again, but from then on we exchanged smiles whenever our paths crossed. I mentioned her to my co-workers, who also began smiling at her. Eventually, we began looking forward to the old woman’s treks through our store.

    

Too soon she stopped coming. I assumed she’d passed away.

 

So when I encountered a similar expression on an old woman in our grocery store, I remembered this old woman and the regret I’d felt for all the months I’d let her pass without a smile. It wasn’t a mistake I intended on repeating.

    

The grouchy killjoy was blocking the entire aisle with her cart. I looked her in the face, smiled and said, “I hope you’re having a nice day.”

    

Her scowl quivered. Then she smiled back at me.

 

     

        



Comments

29 Comments
Sweet! Sweet! A good reminder to us to look beyond the surface and spread kindness. It's the crankiest, meanest people who need it the most. ;)
By: Rita McGregor on September 29, 2014
a smile is never wasted and so easily shared. bless you.
By: TexWisGirl on September 29, 2014
Having experienced old age through my parents, it's not really surprising that the elderly look so damn miserable. I'm glad you got her to smile!
By: L on September 29, 2014
The kindness and sincerity of a smile is never wasted.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 29, 2014
Too often we pass by those who need a simple kind word. Thanks for reminding us.
By: Kathe W. on September 29, 2014
The old dear was probably having her 'daily constitutional' and it may well have taken all her resolve and will-power to do it. Well done, you, for finding the rainbow and for remembering to look for it again!
By: The Broad on September 29, 2014
What a lovely story! One of the nicest things about this country (Egypt) is how quickly people smile and joke. Have a great week!
By: Lexa Cain on September 29, 2014
You lived in Oxnard? Our beach condo was in port Hueneme, just next door--but I was not THAT woman!!
By: fishducky on September 29, 2014
A bittersweet story - so many old people must be like her. We don't look behind appearances enough.
By: Jenny Woolf on September 29, 2014
It's not sourness, it's sadness. You've proven it costs nothing to give a smile, and it will probably be returned!
By: messymimi on September 29, 2014
We had a woman who came into the Macy's in Illinois where I worked. She was there about once a week. She would buy some clothes and then usually return most of them. I learned her name and chatted with her. Some customers seemed to catch on to her neediness, and they encouraged her to stay and visit while they made their purchases. It was a bit of happiness injected in the sadness and loneliness of her life. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 29, 2014
Oh the scowls and the ugly wrinkles. Aristotle once said, "Beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of introduction." It's as true now as it was then and it's one reason why old ugly people never have any friends.
By: Michael Offutt on September 29, 2014
Lovely story. In NY, those old crones will give you the finger...or maybe they won't, I'll have to try.
By: Cranky Old Man on September 29, 2014
Beautiful story. Sad how the elderly are often seen like the homeless--invisible.. How sweet that you acknowledged her. You made her day.
By: Akansas Patti on September 29, 2014
What is they say? Try some kindness every day or something like that. What you learned was confidence in yourself.
By: red on September 29, 2014
I love this story! It's amazing how you can make someone's day with a smile or a kind word.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 29, 2014
After a long, distressing period of my life, it was the smile of a stranger in a grocery store that signaled better days to come. Thank you on her behalf.
By: Jean on September 29, 2014
Good for you. Peel away the layers of the onion, and it can make you cry.
By: Val on September 29, 2014
What a great reminder to be pleasant to everyone you meet - even if it doesn't come naturally :)
By: The Bug on September 29, 2014
Nice story. Now I know why some of those young people smile at me when I'm wandering aimlessly around the mall killing time waiting for B.
By: Tom Sightings on September 29, 2014
Stephen: You may never know how much of a difference you made with this woman. You may have been her only contact in weeks or months. A great story!
By: Michael Manning on September 29, 2014
I agree with your first commentator - looks can be deceiving, and it is often the crankiest-looking people that are most in need of our kindness.
By: Bryan Jones on September 30, 2014
What a great story, if we all smiled at other more then the world would be a much brighter and happier place!
By: John on September 30, 2014
Yes, sometimes people get caught up in personal thoughts, or just have a face that looks angry, even if they aren't... Ask me how I know... Cat
By: Cat on September 30, 2014
Wonderful! Something to always keep in mind. There's an old song called "Hello in There" (written by John Prine in 1971) that tells this story beautifully and has stayed in my mind since I first heard it. It ends with the words: So if you're walking down the street sometime And spot some hollow ancient eyes, Please don't just pass 'em by and stare As if you didn't care, say, "Hello in there, hello."
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 30, 2014
A sweet reminder about how much a simple kind gesture can do to keep a person alive, spiritually and physically.
By: Robyn Engel on September 30, 2014
A wonderful post! Words to live by.
By: Tom Cochrun on September 30, 2014
You're a good man, Mr. Chatterbox. And since you paid it forward, I expect you will see that returned to you in kind. Always lovely to hear how a person can transform someone with just a kindness and smile.......
By: omalinda on October 1, 2014
Delightful account! I do not remember seeing any soybean fields around Oxnard, but strawberries did abound. I once spent a weekend in Ventura after the water pump on my truck engine decided to come apart while heading straight east out of the area. My most predominant memory of that time is of a mechanic literally diving under my truck when he saw a small drip of antifreeze on the shop floor. When I asked him what all of the excitement was about, he told me that he would not put it past the state having observers in the surrounding trees to document any infractions of the environmental protection codes.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on October 3, 2014

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