Mr. Paint had spent the better part of forty years making a go of it in the small-time grocery business, and though his frequent patrons would die of shock upon hearing him say so, he had seen his fair share of what most would call good times. Mr. Paint poured his very heart into the running of that grocery; he faithfully kept the shelves fully stocked and the floors neatly swept. He ran a nice store, a clean store, a good store; you could just feel it when you walked through the door. If you brought it up in conversation, no one would disagree with you.
Broken down to its purest state of being, Paint's Grocery was the corner store. Its corner happened to be, likely enough, on the edge of a neighborhood and near a school. The roads that formed this corner were fairly average roads; one of them was four lanes, one was only two, and neither could be called busy. These roads had nice sidewalks, and the neighborhood folk enjoyed the convenience a corner store offered. Paint's Grocery was a place to walk with the kids on Sunday afternoon. Paint's Grocery was a place to stop for a Coke on the way home from school. Paint's Grocery was the corner store.
When your mother's recipe calls for confectioner's sugar and, alas, there is none to be had from the cupboard, Paint's Grocery was the place you were sent to get some. If it was a weekday, and it was a half hour until dinnertime, four out of five customers stepping through Mr. Paint's door were between the ages of nine and twelve. He would think to himself, oh, it seems Mrs. Tinsley ran out of lemon juice; or hmm, I wonder what kind of pie is Mrs. West going to bake with this. He never thought God, it is really annoying the way these mothers send their kids to pay with ones and rolled change. He never thought that because Mr. Paint was basically a good guy.
Her mother wasn't typically impatient, but she was surely in a rush this afternoon. Maybe company was coming over for dinner; maybe something was burning. She didn't have time to ponder that point; her mother had used that tone of voice, that tone of voice all mothers use when they need to say do exactly what I say immediately and without saying or asking anything, but they don't really have time to go about saying all those words in particular. Go was the command, and a list and a bill were shoved in her hand.
It took quite an effort to hide her smile until she rounded the corner. She was at that age where she understood that the twenty wasn't the largest denomination, and was by no means a whole lot of money, but President Jackson there still seemed to glow a little bit. She hadn't taken too long a look at the list quite yet, but saw at a glance that it couldn't be longer than four or five items. Whatever small bit of the change from that twenty she might be able to keep for herself may as well have been the treasure of the Sierra Madre to a ten-year-old.
A child faced with such an errand as this can easily get lost in a desolate doldrum of thoughts like aw, man, why am I always being told what to do; such unbridled negativity (as only the minds of the young can create) easily stretches a ten-minute walk into what must seem like an eternity. Quite elated at her prospective riches, she found herself thinking no such thoughts; her feet weren't even pretending to be tired as she strolled up the last bit of freshly swept sidewalk before reaching Mr. Paint's open door.
And there she was. She could smell it before she could see it; even in a relatively clean part of a relatively clean town, there was a particular cleanness in the air around Paint's Grocery that just woke you up. Paint's Grocery; if her vocabulary were larger, or maybe if her audience had the patience to listen to her describe it using only the words she knew, surely she could give every detail of this little store from memory. She always noticed the brickwork first: good, solid mortar lay between shiny, old brick. For her, seeing those walls always brought thoughts of fairy-tale giants holding up the sky. As far as she could tell, those bricks could have been laid fifteen years ago or fifteen-hundred years ago; all she knew was that the walls of Paint's Grocery were old. Not the old you use to describe an abandoned farmhouse or a frail, grey man, but the good, nice kind of old. These walls had an ancient strength, and that's why they were still standing. Good, strong walls--it made perfect sense, fit just fine into her particular view of the world. Those bricks were exactly as they were supposed to be: old, bright red, and a bit warm to the touch even on winter's coldest day.
When she notices the bricks, she can't help but see Paint's beautiful sign. A hand-painted mural lay right on the brick wall, speaking loudly and clearly the words Paint's Grocery in a flowing, unforgettable script. Consonants and vowels sang in the purest titanium white; their outlines of bright cobalt blue absolutely shone every time you walked by. Paint's sign had always looked this nice, for as long as she could remember. She assumed it was because Paint's Grocery was just a good place; she did not know that Mr. Paint stayed up all night and lovingly brushed a fresh coat onto that sign the night before Labor Day every year.
As she approached the door of Paint's Grocery, she decided it was time to examine the list. Her mother needed a white onion not a yellow onion, baking soda, flour, and three limes. She had not yet learned very much about the magic that is cooking, but still she found herself hoping that all the items on this list weren't making their way into a single dish.
Perusing the aisles light-heartedly, she convinced herself that she was shopping and not just playing. The flour and baking soda were easy enough to find; these were things she had bought at Paint's Grocery many times before. She found an onion, and put it back, and picked another one, and realized that she should be looking at the white onions, and started over. She didn't like onions and didn't know much about how to pick them out, but eventually decided that the one she had was quite good enough.
And finally, the limes. She liked limes. She liked everything about limes. They were her favorite color. Their smell perked you up. They even had a nice shape and felt good in your hand. She felt like she knew well enough how to pick a lime, and the pickings were absolutely luxurious today. It made her feel like a grown-up to pick through the limes like she was, and that, of course, was a good thing.
These limes had her hooked; she couldn't stop herself, her eyes were swimming happily through a green sea of tangy fruit. So enthralled, she was, by these beautiful emerald limes that she failed to notice the unusual absence of Mr. Paint himself. If she had thought about it, she would have realized that Mr. Paint hadn't even been there to say good afternoon when she came through the door. Those were some fine looking limes.
Mr. Paint was in the storage area of Paint's Grocery, a few feet from the back door. A nice photo of him and his store was hung next to the doorway separating the back room from the main storefront; there he was in the photo, sweeping the front sidewalk with his push-broom. Mr. Paint thought that he looked a lot younger then, what was that, twenty years ago; he wondered who took that photo anyway, and decided that it must have been from that time the newspaper did that story about the store. He noticed how bright and perfect the painted sign looked. It beamed in the photo; at least once a week somebody says something about that sign.
Nobody knew that it was getting more and more expensive to paint that sign every year. That is not to say that the cost of paint is hopelessly on the rise, but that a small-time grocer is running a dangerous game trying to compete with corporate supermarkets in times like these. Mr. Paint didn't like to think about the slow, but steady decline in regular customers over the last ten years. He didn't like to think that he even saw people from the neighborhood doing it now, unpacking parcels of groceries from the big stores across town. Most of all, he didn't like thinking about how his distributors were, one by one, making it clear that they didn't want to support such low-volume orders anymore. He hadn't been sleeping much at night for a while.
And then the other shoe dropped. What was it the doctors had said, he thought they said something about leukemia. Mr. Paint didn't really understand exactly why his poor wife had begun fading into this death-mask shadow; as best he could get them to describe it, it seemed that somehow his wife's body had become allergic to her own blood. It didn't make very much sense to Mr. Paint, but he loved his wife. Now he had too much to pay; he had tried but there was no way to make the numbers work without losing the store. Of course he loved Paint's Grocery, but he loved his wife that much and more. He had to support her, damn the cost.
Here he found himself, in the back room of his own grocery, a building he had saved from fire twice now in his own lifetime, spreading gasoline and about to commit arson. He hadn't wanted it to end this way, but he could see no alternative: he figured that the insurance would have to pay, and then he could pay the hospital. Sure, the grocery will be gone, but times change. People will move on. He opened the back door, and stepped out. He couldn't see through the tears if the burning book of matches he tossed had hit its mark; he tried very hard to convince himself that he did not care.
When a building fire reaches a certain temperature, it can cause the standing air within to explode instantly into flame, quickly consuming even great structures shortly afterward. A fire can seem small, even harmless up to that point, but all it takes is so much heat and an entire building can go up in smoke in what seems like the blink of an eye. There she was, wondering what that smell could be, wondering where Mr. Paint was, calling Mr. Paint, Mr. Paint, when her small frame was, in a flash, swallowed by fire. The flames were engorged, eating the air out of the room at a lightning pace; Her lungs strained to draw upon near-vacuum and let out a muffled, breathless scream that no one could have possibly heard. Somehow, she found a peaceful state of mind right before she assumed it all was ending. She didn't have time to wonder where that peace came from.
Her death was ruled accidental; Mr. Paint was never charged. He collected insurance money and handed it immediately to doctors, kidding himself into thinking that maybe it would be enough to stop what his heart knew was inevitable. Paint's Grocery closed for good.
The local minister brought up this tragedy in sermons for months afterward, occasionally even mentioning her years down the road. He championed fire safety ordinances and and stricter inspections in her name, passing a collection plate and smiling each time.
Her family came to him to pray on their loss, but eventually even they moved on with their lives, as anyone does. Surely, somehow they were all changed, awfully and permanently, but no tragedy is insurmountable.
The mother decided that she could best deal with her grief by heading out to the park behind the old shell of Paint's Grocery and making peace for once and all. She took with her a sapling, a strong sapling, but young. With trowel she made a small place for it in the soil, and placed with care its roots in the black earth. She pat the mound around its base, blew it a kiss, and bade it farewell.
Passers-by sometimes stop and rest in the delightful shade of this tree, now tall and strong and reaching to the very sky. There still can be seen on the fading, blackened bricks a trace of blue and white, though none now can read it. A new sign, however, carved lovingly of marble and set in the earth before the roots of this magnificent tree, reads clearly: this is a tree of love and life, now and forever, and may those to whom its shade provides comfort know no suffering.