It’s strange how a person who would ordinarily be insignificant in one’s life, who should already be forgotten, remains in the memory simply because of an association with the first intense, passionate stirrings of love. Some dull, remote co-worker who introduced you to the man or woman of your dreams, for example, will forever be a part of a whole series of magical recollections, a minor character in one’s own personal fairy tale. For me, ugly, middle-aged Pauley Reddy, a ticket-seller at the Field Museum in Chicago, was just such a person.
I worked for a time at a weekly tabloid-format entertainment publication in Chicago, where I held the inflated title of Film Editor. We had a Music Editor and an Arts Editor, as well as a Publisher—who my father-in-law would have called a “success story,” i.e., a trust fund baby—a motley group that along with me constituted the entire staff. All layout, sales, and production work was contracted out. I fell madly in love with the Arts Editor, Eliza Oberwitz, from my first day at the paper.
One morning, the Music Editor, Mark Betts, and I decided to accompany Eliza to a traveling exhibit at the Field Museum that she was planning to review for our publication. The exhibit was called “The Search for Alexander the Great,” and I don’t remember a whole lot about it except that there were a bunch of Greek artifacts and stuff. Actually, I don’t even remember that much. I’m just assuming that there must have been. I spent the entire tour of the exhibition staring at Eliza, studying her smile and her walk, watching the enthusiasm in her eyes. She was born in England, and still retained a soft West Midlands accent—which sounded like music to me. Her family had moved to Chicago when she was fifteen. She still considered herself British, and had a snobbish preference for all things English. The only times I ever saw her act peevish or defensive were on those occasions when someone made negative comments in her presence about something related to England, however remotely. I remember her scathing response to an article Mark had written that was critical of the direction Kate Rusby’s career had taken. She told him in no uncertain terms that he knew nothing about English folk music, and had no right to pass judgement on what did or did not constitute genuine musical development. If it could be said that Eliza had one fault, it was her “Anglo-touchiness,” as Mark so aptly christened it. Eliza is the most wonderful person in the world, so it’s terribly unfair of me to focus on one of her only flaws. But her lovely English accent was part of what distracted me from putting more effort into “The Search for Alexander the Great,” as I listened delightedly to the questions that she asked the guide at every turn, comprehending little of what was actually said.
When we entered the museum I immediately made my way to what has always been my favorite part of those kinds of institutions, the gift shop. Two harassed salespersons were working the entire overcrowded operation, and one of them stood behind a counter ringing up sales and reaching for merchandise displayed on the shelves directly behind him. He seemed inept at both functions, and by the time I had done a little browsing and made my way to his station, he was almost in a panic. I waited for him to ring up a large sale, and explain to a customer that the museum’s credit card terminal was down, before asking to see a small item on the shelf just behind his head. He handed it to me in a surly way. His manner left me with little doubt that if I didn’t actually purchase the item, I could expect even ruder treatment. It was a small, round, clay oil lamp, a reproduction of some artifact that had been found on an archeological dig connected to the Search for the famous dead boy conqueror. The little lamp was about two inches across, with a leaf design embossed on it. One of the reasons that it interested me in the first place was its resemblance to a picture of a lamp in an illustrated Bible I had owned as a child. The price was reasonable (about twelve dollars, I think), and I decided to buy it. The satisfaction the salesperson enjoyed from not having fetched it down for me in vain turned out to be short-lived, as I tried to pay for it with the only bill I had in my wallet, a fifty. He absolutely—and angrily—assured me that he could not break a bill that size for a twelve-dollar purchase. The lamp went back on the shelf, and I sheepishly trailed out of the shop with my two companions.
We decided to spend some time looking around before going to the hall where Alexander—or at least the Search for him—was waiting. The Field Museum is considered a premier scientific institution, but it still retains a bit of the P. T. Barnum air typical of collections that were established in years gone by. SUE, the 7.6 million-dollar T. Rex, the “man-eating” Tsavo lions, the giant bugs; a slightly musty carnival of fun under the direction of a not-completely-sober tenth grade science teacher. And why not?
Everyone in the museum seemed to know Eliza personally. Her status as an Arts Editor also gave her—and Mark and I as her companions—the privilege of free admission. I tried to get one of the women taking admission fees in the grand hall to break my fifty, so that I might go and make amends with the surly sales clerk, but she was unable or unwilling to give me change. I began to suspect that the Field Museum was secretly in financial chaos.
We worked our way over to the twelve o’clock tour of “The Search for Alexander the Great.” Because the Search was not included in the standard museum admission price, a separate ticket had to be purchased for it by those not lucky enough to be in the company of Eliza Oberwitz. You could purchase your ticket for the tour in the main foyer when you paid your admission to the museum, or you could purchase it (if there was room on the tour), at a desk beside the entrance to the hall. The man selling tickets at the door was, like every other museum employee we had encountered, on a first name basis with Eliza. He was a plump, balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses and a large red nose. Eliza introduced him to us as Pauley Miller. He smiled broadly as he chatted with her, a smile that Eliza so easily brought out in people everywhere. The only time his smile faded was when Eliza asked him about his sister, Mara.
“She’s better,” was all he said, but there was sadness in his voice.
For the next half-hour or so we followed the docent through the exhibition, and I spent the time absorbed in the sights and sounds and smells of lovely Eliza. We filed out of the hall, and as we passed Pauley Miller I stopped for a moment to ask him if he could break my fifty-dollar bill. The little clay oil lamp downstairs had by this time fixed itself in my mind like a Macedonian Holy Grail. He was glad to oblige me, and I was in the process of thanking him when I noticed a box of red, long-stemmed roses sitting on his desk. They were wrapped individually in green tissue paper, and looked as if they might be for sale, so I asked him, “How much are the roses?”
He seemed momentarily confused, and finally said, “Oh, they’re not for sale. They’re for my sister.”
I thought this a little odd, but he was clearly fond of his sister. When I was explaining to him why I wanted change for the fifty, he told me that he had also bought one of the oil lamps as a present for his sister.
He could tell I was disappointed that the roses on his desk were not for sale. Perhaps feeling that a little more explanation was needed, he added, “I try and bring her a present almost every day.”
“That’s very nice of you,” was all I could say. Obviously, he and his sister were very close.
“Why did you ask me how much they were selling for?” he asked gently.
“I’m about to ask Eliza Oberwitz out on a first date, and if the roses had been for sale I would have bought them all for her.”
He considered my words for a moment, and then he smiled.
“Eliza would like the roses,” he said. “There are twelve of ’em. I guess I could let you have ’em.”
“Thank you so much,” I said with surprise. “Let me at least pay you something for them.”
He thought for a moment, and said, “I paid a dollar each for them. That would be enough.”
I pulled out one of the two twenty-dollar bills that had been part of the change he had given me when he broke my fifty, and handed it to him. He handed me the twelve roses, and carefully extracted nine dollars from his wallet. Then he asked me humbly, “Can I have one back. You know, for my sister.”
I handed one back to him. We parted with a smile. I caught up with Eliza and Mark, and dragged them back to the gift shop where I proudly purchased my oil lamp, and perhaps redeemed all humanity a little in the cashier’s eyes.
As we left the museum, Mark discreetly told us that he had to get back to the paper. I handed Eliza the roses, along with a request that she have lunch with me. To my everlasting delight, she accepted my invitation, and gave me a little peck on the cheek as thanks for the flowers. We took a cab to a Greek restaurant that I knew of, which seemed an appropriate place to eat after a morning spent Searching for Alexander the Great.
I mentioned that Pauley had sold me the flowers, and between bites of what the menu called Greek coleslaw—sweet, sour, and salty all at the same time—Eliza told me that Pauley’s sister had worked at the Field Museum as well.
“She used to be in textile preservation or something like that. She’s a lot younger than he is, but she’s his only family. I never met her, but I think she’s in her early thirties. She lives with him. And she’s dying from an inoperable brain tumor.”
Eliza looked down at her food for a moment. “God, life is cruel sometimes,” she said in her lilting accent.
I still have the little oil lamp I bought that day. And Eliza kept one of the roses I gave her that afternoon for a very long time, even after we were married. Eventually, all the dried petals fell off, and she threw away the bare stem. We both had a good laugh about that, about the poor, pathetic, flowerless stem. I’ve bought her plenty of flowers since then, but they are always the same—in honor of Pauley and his sister—eleven roses.
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in a number of journals, both on-line and in print. https://charleshaddox.wordpress.com/