“You shouldn’t wear red. It’s not slimming. You need dark colors to minimize your weight. Are you listening to me?”
Margie walked away from Vivian’s morning rant, descending the stairs slowly, not wanting to show any anger, which would only add fuel to her mother’s tirade. The shouting continued as Margie plugged in the coffee pot and set out fruit and rolls.
“Don’t be late tonight. I want to get to the council meeting early to get a front row seat. I’ve got a few things to say. Margie?”
Margie left by the back door, closing it quietly. Let Vivian think she was still home. Let her yell until she was hoarse.
Once she was inside Margie’s Mercantile she turned the Closed sign around to Open. The Mercantile was a shop two blocks from where she lived where a little of everything could be found. At eight o’clock no one would come, but she needed, as on every morning, to get away from her mother’s complaining. Her first activity was to brew a single cup of strong coffee in the back room. She then sat at her desk and thought about her mother.
Vivian always had things to say, moans about Margie being unmarried, about not having grandchildren, rants about Margie’s gay friends, rants about the Muslims living in the neighborhood. This particular complaint had been growing stronger as the rumors about a mosque being built in the neighborhood grew stronger. Margie had no resentment for the Muslims. Yes, she abhorred the Muslim terrorists, but they were someplace else, not here. She hardly gave a thought to the Muslims here. They were just another ethnic group, along with the whites, the blacks, the Asians, the Hispanics, who lived and worked here. Her mother didn’t think so.
Enough about that. She needed to concentrate on what she would say at the council meeting that night. She would speak calm and moderation and acceptance. Her decision to speak was only after listening to Vivian that morning.
“They’re all terrorists,” Vivian had said. “The neighborhood will be at a greater risk with a mosque. It’ll give them a gathering place to ferment their evil ideas. You’re too easily swayed. That’s always been your problem.”
The bell ringing over the door and someone calling Margie’s name came at the same time.
“It’s going to be a scorcher today.” It was Card Peterson, the bachelor who rented the small house on the back of her mother’s property. “How can those women wear those long things, those whatchamacallits? All covered up like that. God, they must sweat like pigs and smell.”
“It’s burqa,” Margie said, trying to control her annoyance. “What may I do for you, Carl?”
“Cigarettes and a newspaper and notebook. I’m taking notes on the council meeting. Want to see who’s for and who’s against. We don’t need a mosque here. Only attract more of them. Let them drive twenty miles to pray. Let them go back where they came from. People will leave, you know, if there’s a mosque.”
No sooner had Carl left than Julien, the owner of the bakery next door came in with a fresh blueberry muffin for Margie. “Taste this. I put ginger in with the blueberries. Think it’ll sell?”
“With me, yes. But there are purists who’ll want either spice or berries”
“Alan loves it. My sweetie loves everything I make. He’s a food junkie. I sometimes wonder if that’s why he sticks with me.” Julian shrugged and tapped his fingers on the counter.
“On, stop worrying about Alan. He adores you. He’s been with you for nearly a year.”
“Yeah, but I can be persnickety at times.” He paused his drumming, retied his ponytail, which didn’t need retying, and put his hand in his pocket. “Well. . . anyway, I wanted your opinion. Oh, I just bumped into Carl. He deliberately snubbed me. He hasn’t been in since I hired that Muslim girl who works after school. We’ll have a hard time convincing him and others at the meeting tonight. Hell, if anyone should be afraid of Muslims, I should be the first. But, each to his own, is my philosophy. Peace and harmony, right? Gotta dash.”
Julien was a bundle of energy, and Margie marveled at his youthful fervor. Although in his late thirties, he had the enthusiasm and stamina of a much younger man. She admired his dedication to his craft, getting to the bakery at four in the morning to make his sumptuous creations and his willingness to take a stand for others’ rights, other groups who were feared and hated.
After Julien left, Margie thought about what Carl said, people leaving if a mosque were built. Leaving the area was tempting. Lately she felt overwhelmed. She was tired, tired of her mother’s complaints, tired of worrying about the shop, the rancor in the neighborhood. Sell the shop, buy a small condo, live by herself, get a job, enough to support herself. She’d have to convince Vivian to sell the house and move into a senior home.
Buying the shop had been a gamble. She had had enough of big business and corporate decisions. After thirty years being a buyer for a large chain discount store, Margie put her savings into setting up Margie’s Mercantile in her working-class neighborhood. There was nothing like it, no place near- by to get dishtowels, shoe polish, a box of thumb tacks, or any one of the hundreds of small, useful items without traveling twenty miles by car or by bus for those residents who couldn’t afford a car. The gamble was a success. After four years she was doing well and was able to hire part time help, but managing the shop and her mother were taking a toll on her health and peace-of-mind.
This was all fanciful thinking, of course, closing the store and starting again. Vivian wouldn’t sell the house, give up the home she had most of her life, ten years as a wife, forty-four years as a widow, forever resentful of her fate and circumstances. She raised a daughter here, her dutiful and doting daughter. Too dutiful and doting. Too often and too much a punching bag for her mother’s lost love, lost hopes, lost life. What about her own lost hopes and lost life and her never found love? She would become as bitter and unpleasant as her mother.
At 6:30 that evening Margie and Vivian were not the first ones at the town hall. The meeting room door was still locked, and people gathered in the corridor. By seven o’clock, when the meeting began, people were standing along the side walls and in the back. There was a mix of all the groups living here. Identifying the Muslims was not difficult. The women wore hijab, either just a head scarf or both scarf and burqa. The men wore slacks, shirts with collars. No jeans or tee shirts. They looked respectable, more than Margie could say for some of the people in attendance. Margie was no prude, but this was a serious public meeting. Shorts, skimpy tops, tee shirts with provocative slogans had no place here.
With much gavel banging, Clay Walker, the town supervisor, quieted the crowd and hurriedly got through the usual preliminary business.
“We’re here to discuss a proposal to the Town Planning Board for a mosque to be built here in the town.’
“No. No mosques.” As if planned, a group in the back began yelling and stamping their feet.
“Quiet.” The gavel came down several times. “This is to be a peaceful meeting, or dissenters will be ejected.” Clay Walker motioned for two sturdy policemen to move toward the rear.
Order restored, the meeting continued with the head of the Town Planning Board outlining the proposal of The Islamic Society to purchase the land where the former neighborhood post office was and build a mosque.
“Are there going to be those prayer bells all day long. We got enough noise in this town with them kids and motorcycles. We don’t want those bells.”
Someone told the woman to sit down.
Clay was followed by the leader of the Islamic Society, a fiftyish dark-complexioned gentleman, smooth shaven and wearing a black suit, blue shirt and navy tie. Mukhtar Abdalla spoke about the need for the Muslims in the community to have a mosque nearby where they could pray, hold meetings, a place for education, cultural and social events, a place where all the community would be welcome, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. “There is a Catholic Church here; there is a Protestant church here; there is a Synagogue here.”
“What about that education center? Is that where you’ll teach kids to be terrorists?”
“Mom. Be quiet.” Margie yanked Vivian back to her seat.
“You’re all terrorists.” A man stood up, his fist raised. “We don’t want you here.”
Shouts, stamping, people standing on their chairs.
“No. No. We are not terrorists. We are all Americans.” The Islamic leader held out his arms in a welcoming gesture, but was ignored.
Margie jumped from her chair, turned to the crowd and shouted. “Give the man a chance to talk. Be Civil.” There was lessening of noise. “You all know me, Margie Horton. I have a business here; I live here. Listen to Mr. Abdalla. I want to hear what he has to say. Please.”
A policeman stepped to the front. “Keep it peaceful or I’ll stop the meeting.” He achieved calm and added emphasis to his words by pushing some back onto their seats with a heavy hand on a shoulder, but peace did not last long. The Town Supervisor adjourned the meeting.
“That accomplished nothing,” Julien said. “Alan and I were going to stand up and show our support.” Both men were in Margie’s kitchen, munching on Julien’s scones and drinking coffee.
Vivian had gone to bed after berating Margie non-stop until Margie slammed the bedroom door. She could now speak freely without her mother’s interruptions. She explained her idea to invite Mukhtar Abdalla and his wife for coffee and a few others just to talk quietly without rancor and prejudice. “Do you think anyone would come?”
“To your place?” Julien raised his eyebrows, the skepticism obvious in his voice.
“Because of my mother, you mean. I was thinking about one of the churches. There was a man at the meeting wearing a clerical collar. Did you see him?”
“That’s William Bullock, pastor of the Presbyterian Church. We’ve met him. Good man.” Julian took Alan’s hand as if to confirm agreement. “Alan’s a believer and we go to the services sometimes.”
Alan nodded. “Yeah. Reverend Bullock knows. . .you know. . . who we are and. . . well, he knows.”
Margie often wanted to hug Alan, to show him the love his parents denied. He had had a harder time than Julian. Disowned by his family, he had lived rough until he met Julien. Older by fifteen years, Julien had nourished his body with food and his soul with love.
“Okay,” she said to Julien, resisting the temptation to pat Alan on his unruly blonde head, “since you know the Reverend, will you talk to him? We’ve got a month before the next Town Board meets.”
The first Ecumenical Discussion Group was scheduled for three o’clock that Sunday afternoon in the Presbyterian hall. Flyers were passed out on the street and posted in many establishments, some with reluctance, some with acceptance.
“As an American, as a Christian, as a believer in a Supreme Being, as a believer in human rights, as a father, a mother, a human being. . .” Margie approached everyone she met with a plea, an entreaty to attend. She had begun as a curious spectator with no more intention to get involved than to attend the Town Council meeting.
That changed as Vivian’s vitriol increased. What were first simple, automatic rejections of Vivian’s remarks had morphed into a commitment. Always a strong woman in business, Margie often faulted herself at her lack of strength in her personal life. It was if she were two people, Margie the boss who gave orders, who organized, who was successful and Margie the daughter, the inept, overweight girl, woman, who disappointed her mother. The girl, woman, who kept the peace because of fear as a child, because of duty as an adult, because of habit, because of weakness. Shame on that Margie. The Board meeting was a sea change for her, and she would ride the swells.
The hall attached to the Presbyterian Church was arranged with three rows of folding chairs in a semicircle with each chair placed so that the occupant would have an obstructive view of the speaker. It was Margie’s idea. “It less formal this way, and everyone can see the speaker. See eye to eye, so to speak.”
Pastor Bullock had welcomed the plan and provided funds for the flyers and the refreshments. At 2:30 Alan was fussing over the arrangement of coffee, soft drinks, small sandwiches and cookies on a table. The Pastor and Julien were outside by the door, and Margie was pacing by the window, stopping every few steps to look out. She was both relieved and disappointed that Vivian had refused to come.
No one was on the street, no protesters and no one coming. She checked her watch. Too early. Too hot and humid. Everyone is at the pool, having barbeques, watching baseball. Another five minutes. Still too early. At 2:45, she saw three women approaching the entrance. By the time they helped themselves to coffee and were seated, more people arrived.
The meeting began at 3:15 with eighteen chairs occupied. Pastor Bullock spoke first by introducing himself and thanking everyone for coming. He began with a prayer and spoke about the purpose of the meeting. “As explained in the flyer, we are here not to discuss the building of the mosque, but to speak about our sameness and our differences. This is just the first of many meetings, I hope, where we can talk about our beliefs, our customs, our families, our hopes and fears.”
Mukhtar Abdalla spoke next. “The Qur’an teaches us to fight the flaws within ourselves, not to fight each other. We ask you to be open-minded. We are not here to force our faith on the community but to accept us as people with a shared humanity. We are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, Americans. Ask your questions and my wife and I will answer.”
As Margie listened, she studied the faces and postures of each in attendance. Relaxed, tense, fidgety. She looked for signs of anger and expected interruptions, and there were, but minor ones, people anxious to ask a question, clamoring to be heard. There was skepticism in some voices, refusal in a head shake, uncertainty in a shoulder shrug, but no anger, no vituperative remarks.
Pastor Bullock and Mukhtar Abdalla were pleased with the meeting and encouraged Margie to be patient. “We will get our mosque,” Mukhtar told her, “perhaps not this year, but the next. They were listening today, not all agreeing, but listening, and that is the first step.”
“You should have come,” Margie put on the kitchen table a tray of cookies and sandwiches left from the meeting. “Carl was there.”
“What did he say?” Vivian took a cookie. “Your fairy friend made these, I suppose.”
Margie sat down across from her mother. “Carl said nothing. Why do you eat the cookies, if you dislike Julien?”
“He’s a good baker. One thing has nothing to do with the other. Carl really said nothing?
They’re all unamerican.”
“If you think Julien being gay has nothing to do with him being a good baker, then stretch your thinking.” Margie took a deep breath, needing a fresh supply of oxygen to confront her mother. “Being a Muslim has nothing to do with being an American, same as being a Protestant, a Jew, or a Catholic has nothing to do with being an American.”
“They may be Americans, but they’ve turned against us. As usual, you’re not thinking straight.”
“If I don’t think straight, how I did I keep my job as head buyer? How have I managed to run the Mercantile? You never give me credit or approval. I’m thinking very clearly. You’re prejudiced and unkind and you need to listen.” Margie didn’t recognize her own voice, determined, forceful, full of conviction and courage. This wasn’t the Margie who always walked away, the Margie who kept quiet, the Margie who was the dutiful daughter.
“You lost a husband and, instead of grieving, you became angry. Angry at the other driver who wasn’t at fault. Angry at Dad for skidding on the ice. Angry at the doctors who couldn’t save him. Angry at the world, and, most of all, angry at me for surviving the crash. I’m sick of it.”
Vivian’s mouth gaped, a half- chewed cookie visible on her tongue. She swallowed and gripped the table with both hands. “How can you talk to me like that?”
“It’s time I did. I’m tired of saying nothing to avoid a scene. I’m tired of a lot of things. I’m going out.”
The Mercantile, closed since locking up on Saturday, was hotter than the air outside. Margie turned down the air conditioner thermostat before heading for the stairs in the back which reached the loft above. She switched on the lights and the floor fan. The space was organized with shelves labeled alphabetically for storing stock: clothes, household, linens, notions, stationery, toys. . . She stamped her foot. The floor was solid. That was good. The space was large enough for an apartment. Two windows facing the street and two facing the alley in the back. She would need more windows and room dividers. She would need insulation, plumbing, rewiring, air conditioning and heat. And permits. That stopped her racing imagination. What were the zoning laws? Would the planning board grant permits? Maybe. When she was a child she had a friend whose family lived above their shoe repair shop. It was now a tattoo parlor. She didn’t know if the owner lived above, and, if he did, was it legal?
She turned off the fan and the lights and went down to her office. Sitting at her computer she began a list of what she had to do: check zoning laws, contact the bank, call friends. . .every plan has a first step, and this was hers.
Photo by Isabella and Louisa Fischer on Unsplash