Denny and Helen

I have had personal experience with Wonder. There was an old couple in the little ville I where my grandmother lived whose name was Wonder. And as a child, I wondered about how that name made them. Was puzzled that wonder seemed to fill them no more and no less than any of the rest of the scratchers of the earth I knew. They operated a small convenience store, sold eggs fresh from the nest, milk, bread, a few canned goods, and lunch meat. And there was a glass-fronted cabinet of candy.

When we visited grandma, she would give us a dollar to run over to Helen and Denny’s for bread or milk. She also handed us each a nickel to be spent on items of our pleasure from the candy cabinet. When we opened the door of the small room where the store was, a bell dinged and we could hear the TV in the living room. Like grandma’s house, this house had a pervasive smell of breakfast: fried bacon and eggs, and overdone toast. The only difference was that this everyday smell was overlain with the sweet smell of candy like a drugstore or the candy aisle of the grocery store. A small wonder, truly, but one we were used to.

We heard the creak of a chair as either Helen or Denny rose to come tend the store. It was usually Helen. Denny, like my grandpa, sat in a thick arm chair and watched TV. I learned later in my life that they had both served in the First World War and that Denny had been mustard gassed. He and Grandpa had both been ranch hands, miners, roustabouts, and victims of the Great Depression. But to me they were just two old men with cigarettes clipped between their yellowing fingers who sat most of the day watching TV. There was nothing of wonder in either of them—so it seemed to me.

Helen was a round woman who, like my grandma wore a cotton print mid-calf length dress. Her hair was tied back in a bun, and unlike my grandma her hair was still mostly dark brown, but streaked with white lines. We told her what we had come for and she took it from the shelf or the cooler and put it on the counter. Whichever of us had been entrusted with the money to pay for it, put the dollar on the counter beside it, and Helen made change from the register. “I don’t s’pose that’s all,” she’d say and grin at us.

But by that time, my brothers and sisters were already pressed nose to glass at the candy cabinet. My brothers and sisters always dawdled deciding what they wanted, the saliva practically dripping off their chins. But I always knew what I wanted. I just said, “Three black licorice, please.” The licorice stood in two tall jars on the counter, red in one jar and black in the other. Helen would remove the lid on the black licorice jar and tilt it for me to reach in and take my three. I put a nickel on the counter. There was nothing particularly wonderful about all this transaction, except that I now held three sticks of licorice.

What I really wanted to ask Helen was what it was like being a Wonder. I never had the courage to do it, and to this day regret never having done so. I regret not asking because I was truly curious about the relationship between a name and a word. Even today, in the cynicism of my late life, and knowing that the name may originally have actually been the moniker for shaman or magician, I wish I had asked just so that I would have Helen’s mid-twentieth century down-to-earth version of how the name Wonder connected to a real world of store-keepers, cowboys, miners, and fur trappers. But I never did, and the magic of exchanging a nickel for three sticks of black licorice has long since lost its wonder.

3 thoughts on “Denny and Helen

  1. “… the magic of exchanging a nickel for three sticks of black licorice has long since lost its wonder.” Hmmm… not to me, Lee. You keep the wonder alive as you scribe your memories. You are a wonder!


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