Jacqueline’s Brush Shop
Jacqueline Bebe owned a brush shop. The kind of place that, though relatively small, had every type of brush for every need; from nail to pot to hoof, hers were the kind of brushes customers took care of while using indiscriminately for their respective jobs, appreciating the perfect results. Whether scouring sauté pans in the local bistro or scrubbing out the muck bucket on the farm, Jacqueline’s brushes provided an ideal experience for mundane tasks.
She was in a row of shops southeast of the old mayor’s office on the cobbled town square. The open plaza smelled a little like antiseptic cleaner masking cooked vegetables but not too bad. It was a walking place only, so fresh air prevailed over horse manure.
On the other hand, Jacqueline’s shop smelled of lanolin and straw, beeswax, and the lavender soap she sold on behalf of a neighbor. It was a scent that wafted out with the opening and closing of the entry door, providing the shop its own fragrant advertisement.
She received goods from a barefooted teenager at the back of the shop in a narrow alley. He carried a large burlap pack on his back, handles protruding at odd angles, bundles carefully cloth wrapped. The brushes from each of his stops had to be sorted and classified: kitchen, farm, restaurant, personal hygiene. The artisans who made them lived out of town miles apart in modest, two-room stone homes with thatched roofs, always a small vineyard or fruit orchard nearby, a few chickens, and perhaps a couple of sheep or goats in a rear pasture, if they were very skilled. They obtained their raw materials from the beech woods, their livestock or orchard, or in trade with a pig or horse farmer.
One wheat farmer with swollen, cracked hands made up excuses to buy a brush each month from Jacqueline. He would arrive at the front door, stomping his feet of the soil he cultivated and wearing rough, hand-sewn clothing, buttoned and loose, with a dusty face and sun-darkened skin. His straw hat, which he only wore when going to town, held pride of place atop a shaggy head. He smelled like the fresh earth that coated him.
Petite, raven-haired, and gentle, Jacqueline would show him an odd brush, for the nails or hands or something delicate like whisking tea, knowing he had no use for such implements. Then, one day, her hand brushed his while showing him the display of goat-hair dusters, and he took in a breath. He wouldn’t wash the spot where her fine fingers touched until, reluctantly, that Sunday before going to church. Over the years visiting Mistress Bebe, the wheat farmer understood her knowledge and passion for brushes in the same way he felt his heart leap with the waves of wheat in his fields at harvest.
For her part, Jacqueline had many potential suitors over the years, but none appreciated the beguiling nature of the humble brush and wanted her to give up her cherished business to be a wife and mother. She could not and would not consider it; the shop had been in the family for generations, she the last to inherit with distant ignorant cousins waiting in the wings to take over for the money. Jacqueline felt keenly responsible for carrying on the family tradition, serving all who needed brushes in her community and beyond.
People came from many towns over to visit and buy at her shop: sometimes the dairyman would send a milker for the stiff oval brush for a cow’s hide, or the house painter from miles away would visit, carefully selecting the proper four-inch sable brush he would then care for with great respect for this essential tool of his trade. Meantime, the wheat farmer made up his mind to ask Jacqueline for her expertise in making tea, giving the excuse that he wanted to surprise his mother. Then he practiced.
Six months later (he didn’t want to appear too anxious), he invited Jacqueline to tea by arranging with the local hotelier, a discriminating friend, a screened back room for privacy but not impropriety. The farmer arranged all the instruments to make the perfect cup of tea, using the brushes and whisks as she instructed him. He placed a sprig of white anemone in a bud vase at the round table for two.
While busying himself with leaves and powders, porcelain, and cups, serving delicate crème on small plates, he asked her questions: Do you have family? Where do they live? Do you go to church on Sundays? (He knew the answer to this one as he had seen her in the back at the Orthodox church, keeping proper distance.) He grew bolder with more penetrating questions: What do you think of brushes? Why do they interest you? Why have you never married? What do you think of wheat? And, finally: What do you think of me?
“I hold you in the highest regard,” she said formally. She knew this question was different and, especially, noticed the kind touches with the flowers and folded linen napkins, which looked handcrafted and dear.
His face fell with a deep blush. “Nothing else?”
Then, after years of idle conversation and his six months of exhaustive preparation, she took the hoped-for leap: “Perhaps I would get to know you better with more talking?”
Heartened, he replied, “We can talk for as long as you like.”
Thereafter, for one calendar year, the couple met for one-and-a-half hours on Thursday afternoons in their secret place. Jacqueline’s new habit of humming while feather-dusting her displays and uncharacteristic absentmindedness while assisting customers got neighboring shopkeepers talking. Particularly the baker, quite a gossip and just opposite Jacqueline across the square, wanted to know: Why did she close her shop for thirty minutes longer than usual of an afternoon?
These questions were answered when the intention of the wheat farmer and Jacqueline to be betrothed was printed in the newspaper, as required by the Church. Her neighboring shopkeeper, the dressmaker, burst into the brush store filled with jovial happiness. “Oh, ho, ho, you kept that one beneath your brushes. You will come to me for any dress you might need for the nuptials? A special price for you!”
Jacqueline demurred. “I shall be wearing my grandmother and mother’s dress. It may be needing some adjustments and freshening up. I am sure you can help me with this?”
The dressmaker beamed. “It would be my humble pleasure.”
The news spread rapidly, as is the case in small towns and countrysides. The wheat farmer was asked to congratulatory drinks at the pub over and over by various farmers and people with whom he did business.
Jacqueline, for her part, kept selling brushes while making way for a new husband in her upstairs apartment, obtaining a proper bed with linens and a dining table with four chairs for guests. After much wrangling, during which the farmer understood her stubbornness to his core, they decided he would live with her on weekends and have his foreman occupy his farm on Saturdays and Sundays. This way they could attend church like a proper couple, he would have time for a Saturday bath, she would have time to straighten his collar and cut his hair, he could go for a drink in the town pub, and she, she could continue to sell brushes right through Thursday afternoons.
The arrangement kept their ardor fresh for one another, the wheat farmer missing her common sense and kindness and she, his masculinity. When it came time for her to have children, she did, binding them to herself when they were infants, cradling them in the corner of a rearranged shop until the dressmaker next door decided to move. Then, creating a wide, arched opening between the walls connecting the spaces, she took over his shop. Now she had a brush gallery of bristled delight to the sounds of children’s laughter. The wheat farmer never felt such pride when Jacqueline Bebe’s brush shop became a beloved and busy enterprise known to homemakers and bachelors, families, relations, and businesses everywhere.
And their three, one girl and two boys, grew up with the fragrance of a shop like no other. They sought but never found it again anywhere else as they became adults. One, Cecil, the middle son, showed a remarkable capacity for understanding fine brushes and became his mother’s assistant. Jacqueline and the wheat farmer had borne an heir, distant cousins became disgruntled and disappeared, and the clear bequeathing of the shop made way for Cecil as proprietor.
The cobbles remained the same. The deliveries at the back-alley door now required two or three strapping men, and many of the artisans had begun employing apprentices with fresh materials like exotic feathers and bones coming from the river docks miles away. Cecil added to the stock a stand-up sweeper, lamb’s-wool dusters and mops, wood boxes, and rolling pins for embossing cookie dough, all impeccably constructed. He recognized his mother’s expertise, and all was accomplished with the approval of Jacqueline’s aging gaze.
© Suzanne Ste. Therese
Suzanne Ste. Therese holds a BA in English literature from Loyola Marymount University and a BS in urban landscape architecture from City University of New York. Her work is published or forthcoming in Caveat Lector, DASH Literary Journal, El Portal, and October Hill Magazine.