“Y’wanna walk from here? Might be a bit more distinguished,” Ann Company said. Cora winked at her friend as they clambered down from the cart and landed on the slatted sidewalk in front of a blue-painted house. Ann Company’s skirt swished around her legs with a fine rustling, and the sunlight played on her hair till it looked like dancing firelight. They had worked for an hour that morning replicating the elaborate style Maggie designed. It would be worth it, though, when they walked down Main Street.“Ready?” Cora’s chest felt tight with excitement. Ann Company nodded, lifted her chin, and set off down the board-walk with her smooth, even pace. Cora ran her gloved fingers along the tops of the fence, bumping up and over each picket. She hung back on purpose, wanting to savor this moment of victory for her protégé.Ann Company paused for a moment before the door of the chandler’s shop, then threw a faint smile in Cora’s direction. Cora hastened to join her, and together they ducked through the low doorway into the nautical shop. The interior was dim and cool and smelled of tar and brass. Cora shivered at the change from sunlight to cellar-light.A thin, sharp little man perched on his stool, frail yet grounded as if he were a twig grafted to a stump. His lifted his eyes to the pair and his thick brows, like twin caterpillars, worked their way up the twig.“Can I help you ladies?”Ann Company threw back her head and laughed her Puddleby-laugh. “Don’t y’recognize me, Zeb?”A glimmer of recognition flared in the man’s pale eyes and his mouth worked as if he chewed on a lump of tobacco. His Adam’s apple bobbed once or twice before a thin, husky voice forced itself between his slit of a mouth. “Ann Company, that you?”“It’s me, Zeb.”“Don’t hardly look like ye’self with all them doo-dads on ye.” The caterpillars worked harder and slid down the twig, hiding the pale eyes from view.“It’s Miz Cora’s doin’.” Ann Company stepped to the counter and tossed her pocket-book on the wooden countertop. “But I can assure you it’s me. I’m here t’get that rope Pa ordered, and them fishin’ hooks.”Zeb brushed the palms of his hands against his leather britches and sighed. The caterpillars wriggled up and down now in a worried sort of fashion. “If’n this here De-pression don’t start lookin’ up real soon there won’t be no chandlery for your Pa t’buy his ropes and fishin’ hooks from.”Ann Company put her hands on her hips and stared at the man. Cora dropped her eyes and studied her gloves, brushing flecks of white paint from the wooden fence to the floor. All was quiet in the chandler’s shop for a moment. Then Ann Company spoke in a voice brisk as a breeze off the bay.“And what makes you think this Depression won’t start lookin’ up? You ain’t lost yer faith, have you?”Cora lifted her head, invigorated by the quiet strength in her friend’s tones.Zeb’s caterpillars slumped, chastened for the moment. “Now Miz Comp’ny, don’t you be ridin’ my back. Feller can’t be blamed fer feelin’ the e-ffects of this De-pression, can he? I’m only bein’ the mouth fer what all them hidin’ behind their religion are thinkin’.Ann Company removed her gloves, and pulled each finger right-side out, keeping her eyes fastened on the chandlery-owner. “Then you’re a coward, Zeb. At least some of th’folks are tryin’ to be brave and not complain. Like Miz Cora’s family here. They lost their house and ever’thing they owned back in Illinois and moved all th’way out here, but I don’t hear Mr. or Miz Williams pulin’ about it.”Cora felt the blood mounting to her cheeks as Zeb’s caterpillars pleated themselves in disconsolate puckers and his pale eyes took stock of her. His mouth worked again, and a stream of amber-colored juice sang into a brass pot on the floor at the corner of the counter. Cora drew herself up to her full height and looked Zeb in the eye. He grunted and un-grafted himself from the stump of a stool. With stiff motion, almost wooden in its creaking gait, he jerked over to a wall covered in skeins of rope and yanked one from its hook. “How much did ‘e want, Ann?”“Twenty-five yards of th’ three-inch, and eleven of th’one-inch.” Ann Company grabbed Cora’s hand and squeezed it.Grousing under his breath, Zeb measured the rope yard by yard, pulling pieces the length of his arm, doubling the rope, and repeating the motion. The caterpillars had returned to their “at-ease” positions, and Zeb stared at Ann Company as his hands fed lengths of rope to the growing coil looped over his arm.“How long’d it take t’get ye cleaned up?”“Then y’like it?” Ann Company’s green eyes flashed triumph.Zeb’s caterpillars zipped up the twig and hung, suspended by invisible threads, at the fringe of hair capping his head. “Didn’t say I didn’t. But ye’re lookin oncommon tidy t’day. Tell me true now. How long’d it take?”Cora couldn’t stand it any longer. “I think Ann Company looks simply lovely whatever she wears. Why, we hardly did anything to her except give her a bath.” Cora put her hand to her cheek and quailed inwardly. Clumsy, clumsy tongue! Why had she mentioned a bath in front of this stranger…and a man at that? Hot blood coursed through her cheeks.Zeb’s mouth worked again, but this time Cora suspected he was trying to keep from laughing. She wrung her hands and contemplated ducking into the huge round of rope coiled next to a case of Captain Livvy’s Deck Soap.“And I s’pect ye’re one a’thems that never complain ‘bout this De-pression? One a’them Williamses.”Cora shook her head. “No. I mean, yes. I mean, not truly. I’m Mrs. Williams’ sister. And I do complain more than I ought.”One of Zeb’s caterpillars disengaged itself and slid back into place. He leaned forward and Cora heard his knees creak like an aged tree in the forest twisted by a perverse wind. “You and I’d probably get along real well if ye’re th’ complainin’ type. Ain’t that right, Miz Comp’ny?”Ann Company slapped Zeb with the back of her hand. “Quit yer bedevilin’ and finish up with m’rope. We’ve got a sight of errands t’run and I cain’t be bothered with you.”Zeb’s second caterpillar settled in place beside the first, and his arms continued with their pulling, doubling, and wrapping. The rope was soon cut and hoisted onto the countertop beside a packet of deep-sea fishing hooks.“That be all?”Ann Company nodded. “And if’n you’d get Nat t’haul it over to Eulalie and th’wagon I’d ‘preciate it. I’d not be wantin’ t’get Miz Williams’ fancy dress smirched with grease from those ropes.” She smoothed the blue skirt and smiled in spite of herself.“Wait a spell till Nat gets here. I know he’d be a’wantin’ t’see ye all purtied up.”Cora smiled at the rich color that flooded Ann Company’s face. So that was it! Ann Company tossed a few silver dollars into Zeb’s waxy palm and tossed her head. “I ain’t waitin’ fer anyone. Me an’ Miz Cora are goin’ winder-shoppin’. Good bye.”
Ann Company swept out of the chandler’s shop, tugging Cora behind her. The bells of the door jangled behind them as if the shop were begging for one last look at this new Ann Company.“Where are we going next, Ann Company?” Cora asked, having to trot to keep up with the hearty pace her friend set.“We’re goin’ straight to t’the hat-shop and I’m a’buyin’ myself a real hat like this’un I’m wearin’. Can’t be lookin’ shabby now they’ve seen me like this.”Cora laughed. “Come off it, Ann Company. You’ll always be the same beautiful woman, fancy clothes or not.”“For sure, Miz Cora?”“Undeniably. Come on. Let’s get some coffee.” Cora pushed Ann Company into the coffee-shop, having set eyes on a young man who was gazing in awe at Ann Company from the opposite side of the window. A young man who, if she were not very much mistaken, must be the Nat whom Zeb had mentioned.