The Secret

by Douglas Young

    Julissa Ye relished all the comfortable little routines and quietude defining her part-time job at The Bookery, downtown’s last small, locally owned bookstore. As much as she enjoyed the excitement of the college social scene, working at The Bookery provided a tranquil respite from the other rooms of her life which were often too crowded, loud, and dramatic. Though mostly satisfied with her family, friends, roommates, and classes, she savored the sense of serenity soon enveloping her as she walked to the bookstore just a few blocks from campus.

     Entering The Bookery infused her with an aura of peace, permanence, and predictability unrivaled by any other chapter in her biography. From the consistently gracious greeting of the owner, dignified old Mrs. Varina Davis, to the soothing smiles and nodding heads of the largely older regular patrons, Julissa saw her job as a charming recess from whatever family, romantic, or academic turmoil troubled her that week.

     Upon signing in for the afternoon shift, Miss Ye conscientiously inspected all the shelves to make sure no book was astray, being careful to frequently glance at the checkout counter in case anyone was there. Aisle by aisle, she diligently shifted books, so no shelf was too full or bare. Satisfied the shelves and promotional displays were all in swell shape, she moseyed up to the checkout counter by the store’s entrance to confirm everything there was in its proper place and to greet each of the store’s new arrivals.

     Mrs. Davis knew she would hire Julissa the minute she asked for the job with one of the sweetest, most ebullient faces she could ever recall. As cute, friendly, and well-spoken as she was, Varina sensed Miss Ye would be the ideal pretty and perky employee to lend a youthful charm to the old bookstore inherited from her father. The young lady was immediately embraced by the other two part-timers, as well as all the clientele, and Mrs. Davis was delighted with what a dependably upright, respectful, and upbeat worker Julissa at once proved to be. In fact, Varina soon realized she was in better spirits and looking more forward to work on days she knew Miss Ye would grace the store, for this young coed was inspiring many more smiles and happy conversations with all but the most curmudgeonly customers. Varina also noticed sales had increased in the first months of Julissa’s employment and gratefully awarded her a raise after just half a year on the job.

     Miss Ye never expected a pay increase, especially so soon and, though she didn’t need the money, impulsively gave Mrs. Davis a hug amidst a couple of tears on what had been a decidedly difficult day. Varina was touched by her young employee’s gratitude and felt a strong maternal affection for her, even wishing she was a grandchild.

     Julissa quickly saw Mrs. Davis as a surrogate grandmother. Though she loved her grandparents, they remained in Liaocheng, China when Miss Ye’s father and mother moved to America. Despite communicating frequently by mail and phone, Julissa had always been jealous of friends whose grandparents were within easy driving distance.

     Ever since early childhood, she had informally adopted many cherished old friends at church and in the neighborhood as surrogate grandparents, both within and without the local Chinese community. Mrs. Davis was the latest for her benevolent and traditional ways. Though Julissa had only met her kind and courtly husband Jeff twice, she admired how the couple had been married 44 years.

     Since her parents’ divorce when she was a high school sophomore, Miss Ye found herself intently studying the interplay within married couples, especially old ones hitched for several decades. Her parents’ parting had been particularly painful for Julissa, hurling her into therapy. Since this was the first divorce in the small local Chinese immigrant community, a deep loss of face was added to the family’s ordeal. What made the split all the more humiliating was that neither parent was “ABC” – American-born Chinese. Many Chinese had wanted to believe only those born and bathed in the culturally corrupt ways of the West would be susceptible to such disharmony. Julissa’s grandparents were convinced the first marital break in their families’ history never would have occurred had their children remained in China.

     Their super sensitive, American-born granddaughter had worried about her own chance of marital success ever since the collapse of her parents’ union. Reliably romantic, each subsequent breakup with a boyfriend unleashed another wave of fears she might have inherited some inability to maintain a long relationship. Adding to her concern were all her friends’ parents who had divorced and the countless times she had heard older Chinese immigrants bemoan the stumbles of ABCs. Learning in a college psychology class how the children of divorce were also more likely to divorce convinced her the odds of attaining an enduring marriage were not favorable.

     So Julissa scrupulously studied the interactions of any married pair that appeared happy and every couple married a long time. What was and was not said were noted and analyzed, often at length and discussed with friends until they got bored. The body language of old husbands and wives was likewise scrutinized for any revealing keys to marital durability.

     Perched in the highchair atop the raised checkout counter gave Miss Ye an excellent view of

the entire little store, able to survey every aisle. Though Mrs. Davis implored her part-timers never to stare at customers unless they thought they were shoplifting, whenever an older couple arrived, Julissa’s eyes would unconsciously follow the lady and gentleman throughout The Bookery. And, though fond of conversing with everyone checking out, she especially treasured the chance to engage old couples.

     So, when the elderly pair entered the store that afternoon, Miss Ye immediately smiled at them. The hunched little man struggled to hold the door for his wife who walked through with a frown before turning around.

     “Well, come on,” she sighed as he stopped to look over the store with a slight smile.

     “Hello and welcome to The Bookery,” chirped Miss Ye.

     “What? Oh, hi,” answered the wife perfunctorily as the husband seemed satisfied to stand and sop up his new surroundings. Julissa had not seen them before and wondered if this was their first time in the store.

     “How are you?” She asked the husband, but he was focused elsewhere.

     “Now we don’t have time to just stand around,” the woman remarked to the man. “I told you how much we have to do today. So you just stick with me. Now come on.”

     He dutifully followed as she led them to another part of The Bookery. Above a gentle smile, Julissa’s eyes followed them as they walked around the store. She wondered how long they had been married and guessed and hoped it might be even over 60 years. How adorable, she thought.

     “Miss Julissa, is that list of book orders I mentioned earlier anywhere up there, dear?” Varina inquired.

     “Yes, ma’am. Here it is, Mrs. Davis,” Miss Ye replied and handed the paper down to her.

     “Thanks, Love.” Varina smiled and took the list back to her office.

     “Leave that be,” a raised voice declared thirty feet from Julissa’s perch. The old woman snatched the book the old man had been reading, put it back on the shelf, and turned him around to follow her to another aisle.

     Julissa again turned her gaze to the pair and observed the wife’s eyes squinting as she quickly perused each shelf. The husband appeared to be slowly taking in the sights, unconcerned about his wife’s search.

     “Can I help you find something, ma’am?” Miss Ye asked.

     “What?” The wife looked up. “Oh. No thanks. I know it’s here somewhere. I’ll find it.”

     The gentleman was intrigued by another book and began to read it. Julissa noted how slowly and carefully he opened the volume and how deliberately he turned each page, as if examining a just-discovered rare artifact. She fondly recalled Grandfather Ye treating a book in the same reverent way when she visited him in China.

     “At last!” The wife exclaimed triumphantly. “Y’all do still have a copy after all.”

     She pulled the coveted book from the shelf and turned towards the checkout counter. Then she noticed her husband completely engrossed in a new find.

     “Now I told you we don’t have time to monkey around today. We’re on a very tight schedule. So put that back where you found it and let’s go.”

     She took his book, checked its author’s last name, and placed it back on the shelf in alphabetical order.

     “Come on,” she took her husband’s arm and started him in the direction of the checkout counter. He blinked a few times and obediently complied as his wife quickly walked in front of him, put her book on the counter, and opened her purse.

     “Hi,” Julissa smiled as she checked the book’s price tag, rang up the sale, and announced the charge. She couldn’t help but grin as the old man gradually but purposely made his way towards his wife. His gentle, placid countenance appeared pleasantly absorbed by whatever came into view.

     “Oh, now I believe I should have exact change here,” the wife stated absent-mindedly as she carefully probed her purse. “And I need to get rid of some of these ones too. Gracious, I didn’t realize just how much cash there was in here. Maybe we better make a little deposit at the bank this afternoon too.”

     Joining his wife at the counter, the man looked at her and began to pull out his wallet.

     “No. I’ve got it. I want to get rid of some of these one-dollar bills and loose change,” she remarked without looking up.

     He slowly put the wallet back in his pocket and soon picked up a magazine in front of the checkout counter, seemingly oblivious to his wife’s determination to find the right change.

Julissa admired his apparent sense of complete calm and wished she could attain it.

     “There. I do believe that’s it,” the wife declared with satisfaction as she laid all the one-dollar bills, dimes, nickels, and pennies on the counter.

     “Perfect,” Julissa pronounced as she gathered up the money and put it in the cash register. She printed the receipt as the man read the magazine and the woman began talking to herself with her forefinger to her lips.

     “You know what,” the wife mused. “I ’spect we better head to the shoe store just down the street first, get to the post office before it closes, and then go to the grocery last so nothing melts in the car,” she reasoned with a furrowed brow.

     “Here’s your receipt, ma’am,” Miss Ye smiled. “Would you like a bag for your book?”

     “Do what? Oh. No thank you, dear. That won’t be necessary.”

     “Sir,” Julissa looked endearingly at the old man reading the magazine. “Would you like to buy that?”

     “No, Lord knows he doesn’t need that,” answered his wife as she took the magazine from him and put it back on the rack. Without changing his expression, the husband looked up to reassess his setting.

     Hesitating but not wanting to miss an opportunity she knew she would otherwise regret, Julissa decided to speak.

     “If y’all don’t mind,” she lowered her head a little and offered a sheepish smile, “Would you please tell me how long y’all’ve been married?”

     “What? How long we’ve been married?” The wife widened her eyes, leaned her head back, and laughed as the husband looked elsewhere.

     “I just think it’s so lovely seeing a couple that’s likely been married a real long time and I’m just curious. I hope you don’t mind,” Julissa nervously giggled.

     “Sixty-two years last month,” the wife replied.

     “Wow! That’s over three times longer than I’ve been alive. That’s even longer than my parents have been alive – way longer,” Julissa laughed.

     “Ha!” The woman chuckled. “Well, I guess that makes us about as old as the hills. Lord knows I sure feel that way some days. Maybe we have lived past our time.”

     “Oh, no! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way,” Julissa put her hands to her face.

     “No offense taken, child,” the lady raised her hand. “The Good Lord’s been mighty good to us and we’re grateful. Thank you, dear. Come on,” she looked at her husband and pointed towards the door.

     “What’s your secret?” Julissa blurted out before she could stop herself.

     “My ‘secret’?” The woman stopped and frowned.

     “You know — to how long y’all’ve been together,” Miss Ye quickly replied. “How have y’all had such a successful marriage and stayed together so long?”

     “Oh, my Lord, Shug. Well,” she paused. “I guess we never got divorced and the Good Lord just hasn’t called either of us home yet,” the wife reasoned and smiled.

     “Ah, you’re being way too modest, I’m sure. Seriously, I’d really love to know. What’s been y’all’s secret to such a long marriage?” Julissa inquired intently.

     As her husband gazed contentedly at the many magazine covers before them, his wife wrinkled her brow, sighed, looked at the floor and then the wall, squinted, and finally turned to the young lady.
“Patience,” she pronounced slowly before beginning to nod. “Um hum. Young lady, I do believe that’s it. Have a good day now.” She then put her hand on her husband’s back and started towards the door.

     Surprised at her answer, Julissa acquired a pensive look and cocked her head to one side.

     “Interesting,” she murmured, genuinely intrigued by the answer, having fully expected to hear “Love” or something romantic.

     Before the couple reached the door with the wife’s hand on the husband’s left arm, Julissa realized with a start that he hadn’t answered her question.

     “Oh, sir. Excuse me. I’m sorry,” she laughed nervously. “But what’s been your secret to such a long marriage?” She smiled at him eagerly.

     The wife stopped him mid-stride and he turned to her and blinked.

     “She wants you to answer her too,” his wife told him, motioning her head towards Julissa.

     He turned and for the first time got a good look at the young lady. She gave him her warmest grin of the day and he immediately beamed back in kind. When he didn’t answer, Julissa kept smiling and began to nod her head hopefully.

     “Well, answer the girl,” his wife said as she pointed to Julissa with her purse.

     When he appeared confused, Miss Ye smiled again and raised her voice.

     “I’d just love to know the secret to such a long marriage – sixty-two whole years,” she remarked in a congratulatory tone while standing and leaning forward with both hands on the counter.

     The old gentleman cleared his throat and in a raspy voice finally spoke.

     “I’m sorry, Honey. I haven’t heard a thing in ten years.”

The Secret

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