By John Thomas Tuft

It was such a small gesture, one out of a billion transactions on one of a billion of days. It happened in Smith’s Corner Store on Fifth Avenue, the main street through the tired borough of East McKeesport, Pennsylvania. When you come out the front door and stand on the top of three steps, to your left the road follows a winding path downhill to the wonderland of Wilmerding, which used to house a huge Westinghouse Air Brake plant, and butts up against the battered railyards of Wall, PA–I kid you not. The other way to get to Wilmerding is down the sharp curves of Ice Plant Hill or, take the steps down the side of the steep hill, but we’re not going there, so rest easy. To the right, beyond the slim pickings of a business area, runs the Lincoln Highway, US30, and to the south of East McKeesport, lies McKeesport and the Youghiogheny River, flowing north to the Monongahela. The Yough meets the Mon in McKeesport and heads west to the metropolis of Pittsburgh, home of the Pirates and Steelers and Penguins, and to a ten-year-old, some other less important things, as well. Follow the Lincoln Highway east through North Versailles Township, to the intersection of US48, and there, about a quarter mile off, sits East Allegheny High School (class of ’72, thank you very much).

Andy Ostroskavichyonamoni (it’s Pittsburgh, what can I say)  made his daily trip to Smith’s to peruse the cases full of candy near the cash register. The shelves of the corner store were filled with canned soups, boxes of macaroni, magazines, comic books, razors and other sundries to serve the old neighborhoods built by millworkers and their families. In a town where ‘making it’ might mean being able to move off of Punta Gorda Avenue out to the Taylor Plan development in North Versailles, Susie Kelley, 76, the owner of Smith’s, tried to keep her prices fair, credit reasonable because “you never knew when the next hard times might be yours,” and the atmosphere friendly. Susie kept her beautiful gray hair in a tight bun that accented her quiet features that probably included Seneca or Iroquois blood at some point. She taught Sunday School at the Broadway Presbyterian Church a block over, planted a big garden every summer and possessed what might be called ‘a presence’ about her.

Andy was in the corner store picking up a bottle of Heinz barbecue sauce and some sandwich buns for the chipped ham BBQ his mom was fixing for dinner (eat your heart out North Carolina and Texas!). He took them up to Susie. “Is there anything else?” she asked. Andy shook his head. She handed him his  change and followed him out the door. “Andy, sit with me a minute,” she invited. Andy sat beside her on the top step and for a while they watched traffic as it flowed past at the shift change. “Do you know the story of Adam and Eve?” asked Susie. Andy nodded. “It’s about apples, I think.” Susie smiled. “No, it’s about drowning the sun.” The bottle of sauce clinked as Andy set his bag down. “That’s silly. You can’t drown the sun, Miss Susie.”

“Oh, yes we can, Andy. We can have everything that we need—food, a home, someone who loves us completely—and still want to take what isn’t ours to take. And every time that we take, we think we are more powerful somehow, but what we’re really doing is drowning the sun.” Andy’s face screwed up into a question mark. “Powerful?” Susie put gnarled fingers on his head. “Yes. Every time we tell a lie, which is stealing the truth, or make somebody feel like they are less than we are, which is stealing their life, it’s throwing water at the sun. It’s trying to turn out the light, till everything is dark and nobody sees, not even us.”

Andy hung his head as he pulled a candy bar from his pocket. “I’m sorry.” With tears in her eyes Susie said, “Keep it child. When you eat it, though, say thank you. For the people who grew the chocolate. For those who turned it into candy. For those who made that pretty wrapper for you. And got it here to my store. Will you do that?” Andy nodded. “Is that power?” he asked. “No, child,” Susie said. “That’s grace. It’s the only thing that will keep us from drowning the sun.”

Grace and peace to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all those shouting to us that we are drowning the sun…

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.