From The Coloring Scroll

Chapter 1

It arrived Special Delivery on a rainy summer day, a thick cylinder wrapped in brown paper, purple stamped and securely taped. Grandma held it up for our inspection with a look that forbade us to touch. Ceremoniously, she peeled off the outer wrapping to reveal a sturdy cardboard tube. She carefully inserted her fingers in one end and extracted a mysterious roll of white paper.

Emily Grace, Critter and I waited in a hush.

“This,” said Grandma holding the paper aloft, “is a coloring scroll. Not a book, mind you, a scroll. Now pay attention, children.”

She slipped off the rubber band that held the paper and began to unwind it on the dining room table. Emily Grace, Critter and I crowded close to see. Outside, the July day was dull and gray. It had been raining for hours, and I longed for some excitement to break the boredom. The scroll, however, had been tightly wrapped, and Grandma’s efforts to make it lie flat were unavailing. As soon as she let go the beginning to proceed along the roll, the front end curled up after her. When she tried to push the remaining paper out and away, it snapped back to her fingers and rolled them up, too. The coloring scroll seemed to be very long.

“Emily Grace, you help me,” Grandma ordered, snatching up the paper and marching to the living room. “D.S., Critter, come along.”

Emily Grace followed obediently, her long, skinny legs scissoring in her green shorts. Critter and I hurried after. At the front window Grandma turned, bent briskly, and planted the lip of the scroll under her right foot. Then she directed Emily Grace to unwind it down the hall.

“It’s too long, Grandma,” Emily Grace said, kneeling at the end of the hallway. “There’s still more of it.”

“Then you must bend the paper very gently and continue into the bedroom.”

After a minute, out of sight in our parents’ room, Emily Grace called, “I’m at the end.”

Grandma turned to Critter and me. “Now, boys, you may walk along the scroll.” She pointed down the hallway like a general ordering troops into battle. “And mind you don’t walk on it!”

I jumped forward greedily to examine this new treasure. What a marvel spread before my eyes! The coloring scroll was longer than our home above the grocery store, its entire length printed with black outlines waiting to be colored in. At the beginning was a station where a group of people stood on the platform waiting to board a train. Then the locomotive was on its way, chugging through a pretty countryside. I saw rolling meadows and a shepherdess guarding her flock, then a scenery of mountains where tiny villages nestled in snow. After the mountains came farmland with tall fields of corn, a barnyard full of animals, and a country schoolhouse on a knoll. The next scene showed the train up close. It had an engine, four cars and a caboose, and while the engineer tooted the whistle, smiling passengers waved to us from the windows. Critter stopped to wave back, and I felt a pinch of annoyance. If only Critter weren’t here! If only Emily Grace and I could have the beautiful scroll all to ourselves! Then, caught up in its wonder once more, I forgot my little brother and hurried on, to the busy main street of a town, and farther, to a sparkling skyscraper city. Last came a seashore, waves lapping at my feet. Then the train pulled back into a station, its trip at an end. In all this length there were no vertical divisions, no black lines cutting the paper into panels or separating the various scenes. The coloring scroll was one continuous picture of a journey by train.

“All right, children,” Grandma called. “You may come back now.”

Emily Grace was still holding down the end of the scroll. She rerolled it carefully as far as the bedroom door so it wouldn’t tear at the turn. There, however, she let it go, and as the three of us trooped back to Grandma, the coloring scroll rolled itself up and arrived the same time we did. Grandma presented each of us with a brand-new box of crayons.

“Now, I have ordered this coloring scroll as a special surprise for you to work on together. It will teach you the value of teamwork and cooperation. But before you begin, I want you to listen to me.” Grandma was fond of enumerating things, and she did so now with relish. “First, you each have your own crayons, so you must not take each other’s or get them mixed up. Second, you can’t color the scroll where it is. The carpet is too soft. We’ll cover the dining room table with newspaper, and you can work there. Third, don’t be hasty. Unroll only a few feet at a time and hold down the ends with books. If you try to do too much in one day you’ll get tired and your work will get sloppy, and then you’ll be sorry you’ve ruined it. The coloring scroll can be a rainy day project for all summer long. Fourth, because Emily Grace is the oldest, I am appointing her to be in charge. If there is any disagreement, she will settle it. Fifth,” Grandma halted, knitting her eyebrows in search of a final caution. When nothing came to mind she concluded peevishly, “Very well, you may begin.”

Emily Grace picked up the coloring scroll, and we each took our crayons. As we headed for the dining room, Grandma called sternly after us.

“And you, D.S., you are to let Critter have a fair share of things to color, do you hear me?”

I growled between my teeth. “Yes, Grandma,” I said sourly.

•••

I did not always hate Critter. In fact, when Grandma first announced I had a new little brother to play with I was quite anxious to meet him. I knew a lot of good games. If he had some toys we could be in business. But to my chagrin my new little brother turned out to be a drooling baby. He couldn’t even talk, let alone play. Mother said Critter would be more fun when he was old enough to sit up and I waited patiently, but months later he still couldn’t do anything but take a cup in his hand and wave it at me, smiling stupidly. Playing with Emily Grace was far better, and I decided to ignore Critter entirely. I couldn’t understand why Mother, Grandma and even Father fussed over him so. It was my opinion they should put him in a drawer and leave him there till he was old enough to be a person.

Emily Grace, on the other hand, was a miracle to me. Emily Grace could read books. She was seven years older than me and very smart, everyone said so. Most of the day she went to school, and I was left in the care of Grandma with dumb, gurgling Critter. But at three o’clock my sister came home, and the rest of the afternoon was ours. Armed with tall glasses of milk and a plate of cookies, we’d sit together in the blue armchair and she would read to me. People said Emily Grace was homely, and I thought this was what they meant: to sit in a big, comfortable chair, full of milk and cookies, her warm arm around me and an open book in our laps. She read me marvelous stories, about Presidents, about places called Paraguay and Uruguay, poems by Great Poets. They were her homework assignments, though I didn’t know it. I was convinced my sister was the wisest person in the world.

We lived above our grocery store on the main street of town, and while Father and Mother ran the store, Grandma took care of Emily Grace, Critter and me. It was clear to me that Grandma was a very old person. She had crispy white hair, crepe-paper skin, and glasses with rhinestones in the corners. The lenses of the glasses had a thin line across the middle that I didn’t like. Once, when Grandma had dozed off on the sofa and left her glasses on the coffee table, I crept over and slipped them on. Instantly the whole world went blurry, and I sat down hard. By luck, the glasses weren’t hurt, and Grandma didn’t awaken. I forced myself to look through the lenses, but the harder I tried to focus, the more it made my head hurt. The living room was cut in two, the top and bottom halves painfully misaligned, and objects woozed sharply in and out of view. When I relaxed my sight, my eyeballs seemed to come loose and float around in my head, and the living room dissolved into a watery blur. I took off the glasses, shuddering. What a terrible thing it was to be old!

Besides being old, Grandma was very strict with me. She made me always stay where she could see me, eat lumpy oatmeal in puddles of milk, and wash my hands before meals whether or not they were dirty. Whenever I picked up anything not legally mine, a candy dish or her knitting yarn for example, she would demand in a menacing tone, “Just what do you think you’re doing with that?” and if she didn’t like my answer, she would take the object away. But Critter could do anything, spill his food, cry, wreck my best toys, and still she spent hours cooing over him. It was more than I could bear, I could tell I was neither loved nor wanted, and whenever possible I made my escape to the grocery below.

I went there with a mission: to practice the art of magic. I planned when I grew up to be a great sorcerer. Entering the grocery from the storeroom at the rear, I became at once cautious and aloof. I could feel the transformation beginning, my ordinary self peeling off like a false skin, as I stepped through the door. Up and down the aisles I wandered, admiring the paper labels on the canned vegetables, watching the customers, listening to gossip, smelling the fresh fruit. I was small and dark, capable of being very quiet, and I discovered that if I kept to the shadows and made no noise people often didn’t realize I was there. I would come up behind Mother at the checkout counter while she was ringing up the purchases and chatting with the customers. I might be there, silently watching, for fifteen minutes or more before she would see me and say, “Why, D.S.! How long have you been here? Is anything the matter, dear?” I would shake my head, and when Mother turned back to the till, slowly fade away.

The best part about the grocery was the hiding places, secret places no one ever thought to look, my caves. One was the bottom shelf under the produce counter in the far right aisle. The shelves here were extra deep, and if I crawled in and pulled a sack or two of onions after me, I would be quite safe. Another cave was the broom closet in the back corner. Unless there was an accident, something broken or spilled, no one opened the closet all day. Except me. I squatted on an overturned bucket and spied through a knothole in the door. Also, from time to time Father would set up a display table at the head of an aisle to feature a new product or a sale, and this table he always covered with a blue cloth that reached to the floor. Didn’t the grown-ups realize the potential there? Apparently not; no one ever lifted the hem of the cloth and found me. Safe in my caves, I summoned all my concentration and chanted a powerful spell.

“Buy broccoli, buy broccoli.”

In fascination I watched as a customer, about to reach for a head of cauliflower, paused uncertainly with her hand in the air.

“Buy broccoli, buy broccoli,” I whispered. Father had remarked to Mother last night at dinner that the green bunches weren’t selling as fast as usual.

“Buy broccoli!”

The woman’s head came up. She looked left, then right, while her hand hovered over the vegetables like a divining rod. I hunched smaller, absolutely still. Suddenly, her indecision cleared, and before I could repeat my chant she moved and a cauliflower dropped into her cart. Failure! I gnashed my teeth. Then her hand stretched out again—broccoli! Success! Success!

When Grandma, upstairs, discovered I was missing and came to search, I’d dart quickly for one of my caves. No amount of calling would bring me out. I could hide for hours.

“That child has disappeared again,” Grandma complained to Mother one afternoon, while not six feet away I crouched behind the Popsicle cooler. She placed her hand over her heart and sighed heavily. “If only he knew how it distresses me.”

For a minute, startled by this revelation, I thought of emerging. Then Grandma sighed again, even more deeply, and a light flashed on in my head. So that was her game.

“Well, I’m sure he’s here somewhere,” Mother replied, as Father approached from another aisle.

“Anything wrong?” he asked.

“No,” said Mother. “D.S. just needs space to be himself.”

I risked another peep over the cooler. In addition to practicing magic, I spent a good deal of my time in the store in covert observation of my parents. I did not know them well. They worked from early morning until six o’clock when the grocery closed and they came upstairs for supper. The evening meal was a public hour, Grandma dominating, Critter mugging for attention, Emily Grace dutifully reporting the day’s events at school. I was not left out. Mother and Father spoke kindly to me and listened to all I said. But they rarely talked about themselves. After the meal they returned to the store to mop the floors, wipe the counters, and polish the metal trim on the shelves. By the time their work was done, I was fast asleep. Sunday, the one day the grocery closed, was for church and Sunday dinner or a visit to Uncle Fred’s farm. That day Mother and Father were ours. But I had trouble remembering my parents from one Sunday to the next, so my best knowledge of them came through spying in the store.

What I saw, I liked. My parents were nice people, small like me. Father wore a white grocer’s apron, and in the breast pocket he carried a notepad on which he jotted reminders and ideas. At the end of the day he tacked up his notes on a bulletin board in the storeroom. The next morning he reviewed them for possible action. The pencil for these jottings he kept tucked behind his ear. Sometimes he would forget he already had a pencil and absently tuck another one behind the other ear. Other times, when he took off his apron at closing, he would forget about the pencils entirely and come up to dinner with them still sticking out either side of his head.

Mother managed the checkout counter. She kept it very neat and pretty with a bud vase of paper daisies for decoration and a dish of butterscotch candies for the children who came in with their parents. Mother also knew a lot about numbers. She could tell you the price of an item even when the sticker was missing, and she didn’t need to look at the keys of the cash register when she rang up the sales.

Now, as she shooed Grandma and Father back to their work, I sat behind the cooler mulling her comment about space to be myself. I liked the sound of it, and I repeated it several times as if it were a magic spell. Then wrapped in its aura, I rose and made my way to the front of the store where Mother was bidding a customer good day.

“Space to be myself,” I intoned, thrilling to the power of the beautiful words.

Mother turned, startled, and after catching her breath she regarded me closely. “Would you like to be able to come down to the store, D.S., all by yourself whenever you want?”

I nodded gravely.

“And you understand you mustn’t take anything from the shelves or bother the customers or leave toys on the floor?”

Again I bowed my head.

“All right.” She motioned to the aisles with a generous sweep of her hand. “It’s all yours.”

“Thank you.” I offered my palm to shake on the deal. Mother seemed a little taken aback by this gesture, but we shook and my freedom was official.

Yet one fact, as I became aware of it, confused me about our store. Why did people call it Cuthbert’s Grocery when our name was Maxwell? One Saturday when Emily Grace was reading to me in the blue armchair I remembered to ask her.

“It’s a story,” she said, pushing her slipping glasses up her nose. “Do you want to hear it?”

“Yes.”

She thought a moment. “Let’s go outside.”

She took my hand, and we went down the stairs to the storeroom, through the grocery and out the front door. Emily Grace waved to Father and Mother as we passed. Across the street was Hendry’s Hardware, and as usual Mr. Hendry was making use of his wide doorstep to exhibit a few of his wares. We sat down between a stack of shiny new garbage cans and a lawn mower, and Emily Grace pointed back across the street. I followed her finger with my eyes.

Our grocery was built of red brick, the door on the left, a large display window to the right. This month, April, the window featured fruit: pyramids of canned pineapple, pears and cling peaches in syrup, baskets of fresh oranges and grapefruits, price notices taped to the glass and twists of green and yellow ribbon trimming the corners. Next month Father would choose a new theme depending on the season, a holiday or his stock. A sun-bleached green awning was rolled out over the window to shade the fruit from the afternoon rays. Sometimes when it rained hard Emily Grace and I would stand under this awning, hugging each other in the cool air. There we’d watch the world melting through a silver-water veil or close our eyes and listen to the raindrops pelting on the canvas overhead.

On the second story of the grocery was another set of windows, their ivory lace curtains, sewn by Grandma, indicating our home. Grandma was gratified the whole town should see these excellent curtains. They would certainly instruct all passersby that living above a grocery store was no deterrent to a stylish existence. Beneath the second-story windows and just above the green awning hung a long, painted sign. The letters were red, outlined in black, and the sign was bordered in gold.

“Do you know what the letters spell, D.S.?”

I shook my head.

“CUTHBERT’S GROCERY, EST.—that means ‘Established’—EST. 1902.”

Emily Grace adjusted her glasses and gazed at the sign with her large sad eyes. She had straight dark-brown hair with bangs, and she was very tall. When I grew up I wanted to be tall, too.

“Father was an orphan,” said Emily Grace. “He never knew his parents or what became of them. He was born in southern Illinois, and he was passed from one foster home to another until he was thirteen. His last home was with a family named Olsen, a farmer, his wife and five daughters. It wasn’t that Mr. Olsen was cruel. But five times he had hoped for a big, husky son, and five times he had been presented with a frail, pretty girl. So when Father arrived at his door, Mr. Olsen couldn’t see anything but the hard-working farm boy he believed was his due. After two months on the farm, Father ran away. No matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t be big and strong enough.”

Emily Grace pumped up the muscles on her skinny arms to show what she meant. I nodded that I understood, and she went on.

“Scared and alone, Father made his way northward. He sneaked into barns at night to sleep. He stole food from vegetable gardens and the scraps thrown out to pigs. Each theft made him tremble. It was wrong to trespass and steal, he knew it. But he couldn’t turn back, he had no place to go, and he was frightened at the outcast life that lay before him. For three weeks he ran and hid until at last he came to this very town, to Cuthbert’s Grocery, Est. 1902.”

Emily Grace paused to give me a chance to imagine Father as a boy standing before us in the street. He was thin and tired, and his hand-me-down clothes were dusty and ill-fitting. I saw a tear in the sleeve of his jacket, a streak of dirt on his chin. Emily Grace resumed her story.

“It was six o’clock when Father reached this spot, and Mr. Cuthbert was just locking up. In the display window Father saw a line of yellow crockery jars with FLOUR, SUGAR, SALT, TEA and COFFEE stenciled on them in black letters. Beside each crock was a sample of that product from the shelves of the store.”

I gasped in recognition. We had those crockery jars still, and Father used them sometimes in a similar display. I listened appreciatively to the rest of Emily Grace’s description.

“In the center of the window was a special jar. It was shaped like a man, a baker man with a huge round tummy and jolly red cheeks, a baker’s apron and a high white hat. In fact, it looked very much like Mr. Cuthbert. Across the jar, across the baker man’s tummy, was the word:  COOKIES.”

I nodded happily. Our cookie jar.

“Father hadn’t eaten all that day. He looked at the crocks and the products from the store. He looked at the baker man full of wonderful cookies. He looked at Mr. Cuthbert turning the key in the door. Then he burst into tears right there in the street. Mr. Cuthbert unlocked the door, and he and his wife took Father in. The Cuthberts had no children of their own, and they raised Father like a son. They never legally adopted him, but it didn’t seem to be necessary. No one else wanted the boy. That was in the 1930s during the Great Depression, so Father learned how to run the store during even the hardest times. In 1946, a few months after he and Mother were married, Mr. Cuthbert died. Mrs. Cuthbert had passed away the previous year. In their final will, they left everything to Father.”

I studied the brick storefront, slowly digesting this information. Then, “True?” I asked.

“True.”

“But Father should change the name now.”

Emily Grace shook her head. “I doubt he’ll ever do that.”

I nodded sagely. “He probably forgot, like the pencils.”

“No, D.S.  He remembers.