Millie Tydings isn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. It’s not a nice thing to say, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, for all that. People have certainly said this about Millie before, usually when they think she can’t hear them, but sometimes right to her face. Millie doesn’t react; it’s not worth getting riled over. Anyway, she sometimes thinks, the joke’s on them because she IS the sharpest knife in the drawer- she’s the butcher, and who has sharper knives than a butcher, huh? Millie thinks this, and chuckles to herself.
There’s one thing that Millie is very good at, besides being a butcher with a very sharp knife, and that’s watching. No one in the whole of Crisfield has ever beaten Millie for watching, and that’s a fact. You might think that’s no skill at all; surely anyone could watch, couldn’t they? But very few people were as good at it as Millie. They got bored or distracted, and went off to do other things, be it going home to tend their fields and nets, or going off to the big cities in search of adventure. Millie had the knack of watching, and she practiced at it steadily.
She had always been a natural born watcher, and her favorite subject had always been Ab. They were pretty close in age, and so had been thrown together first at the Methodist church and later at school. Millie ought to have been afraid of Abigail Hackett, with her sharp eye and sharper tongue. Even as a skinny, sullen five year old, she had no patience for foolishness, not even from her own sister Cilla, who was already seventeen and sillier than any girl of that age ought to be, which was saying a lot. But Millie had taken a shine to Ab all the same, and Ab had liked her right back, in her own queer fashion. She joked with Millie in a more teasing, pleasing way, and hardly ever unleashed on her the razor wit that could have reduced Millie to a quivering pile of jelly.
So Millie and Ab had watched and wandered their way through childhood and on through growing up, not quite friends exactly, but something more than acquaintances. They just knew each other, the way you did with people in small towns. It seemed right to end up on the shores of adulthood being courted at the same time- Millie by Herbie Tydings, the grocer’s son, and Ab by that handsome John Tillerman. Oh, how Millie sometimes envied Ab, watching her step out with such a fine looking man, though of course her own Herbie was perfectly nice, and sweet to her despite her slow wits and ways. There was only something sometimes that she did not like in John Tillerman’s eyes and air. It was a coldness that passed through the room like a breeze, leaving her shivering despite Herbie’s arm wrapped snugly around her shoulders.
Millie had married first, being a year older and not very keen on the value of a high school diploma. Herbie liked her anyway, and he wanted her to keep house and the store with him, now that his parents were getting on. She had said yes and then I Do, and had commenced to being a grocer’s wife. She expected children to come right along in their time, but they didn’t and then didn’t some more, and she worried that Herbie would stopping looking at her in that fond way. Surely someday soon his eyes would betray his disappointment and maybe she would have to watch his love die in those eyes, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to look away. It wasn’t in her nature. But instead, Herbie had finally asked her if she didn’t want to learn the butchering trade, because he thought she would be a natural, and the fond look stayed in his eyes even at the end of a long day filled with beef bones and naked, puny looking chickens like sacrifices to a heathen god.
Through all of her disappointments and triumphs, Millie did what she could to keep an eye out on Ab, now properly Abigail Tillerman, but it was a poor job at best. Ab had married John soon after she had graduated high school and then her folks had given up the farm to them and moved to Florida for the climate. Millie guessed running the farm must be a chore and a half, even for such strong young people, because Ab looked tired when she chanced to see her walking through town; tired, and a funny kind of blank that Millie had never before seen on that mobile, pert face. She watched as first one, then two, then three children had trailed along behind her on the rare times she appeared in the store. Usually it was John who came to do the shopping, and she didn’t half like having him there, since he grew shorter and more impatient with her deliberate manner as the years went by. One glorious day, she had watched Ab and the kids run a race down the sidewalk, hair flying and hands flailing, and she was so taken with the picture that it didn’t even hurt to see all that Ab had and she didn’t.
Millie kept watch, over those long near-silent years when she and Ab rarely crossed paths, and so she was the one who noticed the queer kind of math that seemed to be happening in the other’s life. One, two, three children growing up towards the sun, then three, two, one again as they left Crisfield and never returned. To be sure, John Jr. was a smart boy, no reason why he wouldn’t go to college, though the look on John Tillerman’s face the first time he did the shopping after he left would have stopped a clock mid-tick, as they say. Then Liza, always a pretty thing given to flirts and eyelash fluttering, had run off with her man the sailor. Millie guessed that was all right, that maybe they were suited for each other, for all that he was a dozen years her senior if a day. Odd how they never came back, but who’d want to, with sour John Tillerman to bark at them. And then Bullet had gone, joined the Army and off to Vietnam, and Millie wondered what Ab would do with all that land and just her and John to work it.
Only once did she think of bestirring herself during all these long years of watching, as she worked the butcher counter and didn’t think of the children she never had and Ab couldn’t seem to keep a hold of. The day that Ab appeared on the street and Millie could see through the storefront her face, twisted and pursed in a way it never had been before, she almost went out to her. She thought she ought to, ought to leave the counter and her apron and see what had made Ab’s face do that. But before the thought had percolated from the watching side of her brain to the doing side, Ab was marching past the store and up the street, pausing at the telephone company for a bare moment to square her shoulders before pitching the telephone that Millie had just then noticed right smack through the window. The crash it made, the little tinkles of glass, kept her still and speechless until long after Ab had marched back down the street and climbed back into her boat to sail away. Millie was not surprised when word got around about Bullet dying in Vietnam.
After Bullet’s death, Millie did not see Ab for a very long time. Only John Tillerman came into town to do the shopping, and stories began to circulate about that Ab Tillerman, wasn’t she always the queer one, and growing stranger by the minute. Five days after her sweet Herbie died, John Tillerman came in for his weekly shopping, giving only a brief nod that might have been his idea of sympathy and pointing out two mistakes in the math on his bill. Millie thought of giving it all up, but where would she go and what would she do? She had only ever been Herbie’s wife and a butcher all these years; no way to change that now. She grew into her watchfulness fully during this time, standing at her counter and seeing everyone who passed by the store. Perhaps she didn’t pay as much attention to the state of the shelves and the windows as she ought, but she could see just fine through the door.
Sometimes she wondered just what she was watching for, but though thoughts of Ab floated past her from time to time, she was still surprised on the day she actually walked in. Millie started to smile, to say what a long time it had been, but something in Ab’s expression had stopped her cold. Ab had told her how John had died, sudden-like, and that she guessed she’d be doing her own shopping from now on. Even Millie could see there was no profit in trying to say she was sorry. No one was very sorry to see him go, and that was the God’s Honest Truth of it. Instead she put the order together, and wrote out the bill. Once Ab had paid and was turning to the door, Millie only said that it was good to see her again. Ab hesitated, but then her shoulders and chin went up, and she only nodded a thank you and good day.
That was how it was between them then, not the friendship of the past, but some kind of unspoken agreement of acknowledgement. Groceries for cash, though that got harder and harder to come by as the years rolled on and the farm went downhill. You couldn’t run a place like that all by yourself, but Ab wouldn’t thank her to say it, and so she didn’t. Millie wished sometimes that she could do something, but she didn’t exactly know what there was to be done. Ab was so stubborn, always had been, and the years with John Tillerman seemed to have hardened that stubbornness into a shell that you couldn’t crack. Millie still felt tenderly toward the woman she had watched all those years, though, so when a dirty, ragamuffin scrap of girl walked into the store one day and asked first for a phone book and then if she knew an Abigail Tillerman, she had reacted, in her own slow way, defensively. No need she could see for this child to be bothering Ab, so Millie told her she was crazy as a coot, and wouldn’t hire the girl anyway. But something about the child’s manner caught her eye, and she found herself giving directions to the farm. She wondered as the girl walked out into the sunshine, what it was that seemed so familiar about her.
When Ab appeared in the store a week later with that same girl by her side, it wasn’t the looking of a moment before Millie knew what she had seen before. The girl was Ab, right down to the ground, no ifs ands or buts about it. Millie didn’t understand exactly what was going on, but from the look in Ab’s eye, she wasn’t going to be allowed to ask. So she had totaled the bill, taken Ab’s money, and packed up all the groceries before her nerve broke and she asked the girl about finding work. The look the girl gave her was pure Ab, but to Millie’s surprise, Ab herself spoke the next moment, asking her about the Social Security she got for Herbie’s death and whether she had ever bought a Christmas tree, of all things. Millie answered her in plumb amazement, and both Ab and the girl were out on the street before she had a chance to recover. As she reflected later, standing behind her clean counter in her dusty store, Millie smiled to herself a little and thought that maybe you didn’t have to be the sharpest knife in the drawer to see what was right in front of you. You just had to be watching at the right time.