TERRE HAUTE —
In my mind’s eye, it will always be Memorial Day Weekend and Mr. Tilford will be cheerfully scrambling to keep artificial flowers and wreaths on the shelves and display poles of his 12 Points variety store.
A Puccini opera — or maybe Duke Ellington — will always be on the sound system.
Reality will be bent and Tilford’s Variety Store and USPS contract postal unit will bustle into an endless future, selling stamps and money orders, sewing notions and kids’ puzzles, Adam’s Clove Chewing Gum and alarm clocks, and polyester flowers for all seasons.
The store’s proprietor, Cecil Tilford, will always be behind the counter, his pale blue eyes focused on a column of figures or dancing in amusement at yet another long yarn spun by a customer who’s forgotten what she or he came in for in the first place. A pot of coffee will always be on the warmer plate and, outside, an American flag will always be snapping in a strong breeze.
Time will fly and stand still at the same moment. What it will not do is run out.
In truth, Mr. Tilford has not been in his store since April, when long-simmering health issues landed him, first, in the hospital, then in The Waters of Clinton, a long-term care facility at 11th and Elm streets in the home of next weekend’s Little Italy Festival.
For the record, he looks and sounds great. (Amazing what three squares a day, physical therapy and someone to help navigate a maze of prescription meds will do for an 85-year-old guy.) And his roommate is someone he’s known and loved most of his life, his little “twin” brother, Wayne, who was born on the same day as Mr. T, only five years later.
Mr. Tilford said the other day that for a few months after his hospitalization, his business neighbor and friend, Rich Curtis, tried to hold down the fort in the variety store and post office. But Curtis lost his own piano shop lease and had to move out of 12 Points. The post office closed at the end of June. Last weekend, all the fantastic and amazing items in Tilford’s Variety were auctioned off.
The 42-year term of the Mayor of 12 Points was over.
As might be expected, Mr. T is not happy about this. Despite his physical pain, he cherished coming to his store. “I’ve enjoyed every job I’ve had,” he said the other day after lunch at The Waters. “Except when I was first married and I worked at Stran Steel. I did not like that job.”
His beloved wife, Doris, didn’t like it, either. Sometimes, she deliberately let him sleep through the start of a night shift. So, in his 20s, he went into retailing — for F.W. Woolworth downtown on Wabash Avenue — a field he stayed in for the rest of his life.
Doris’ beautiful photo is on Mr. T’s night stand, next to the plaque he was given in 2008, commemorating his 40 years in business in 12 Points. A full-size Marine Corps flag hangs over his bed. On the window ledge nearby is a desktop name plate that says, “Mayor Tilford,” another gift from his many admirers.
As sad as he is about being forced to call it quits in his store and post office, Mr. T characteristically channels his energy toward remembering the good times and being grateful for such a long, rich run. “I’ve always been an optimist,” he said.
Instead of obsess over not being able to get to the store for the auction, he chooses to emphasize the sizable turnout.
“The Shadow people gave me copies of all the sales — 192 people bought merchandise,” he said, shaking his head in wonder. “That’s pretty good. And they included all their names and phone numbers.”
In other words, if he feels like it, Mr. T can call some of those buyers to discuss their purchases and their plans for them, catch up with the folks he knows (probably all 192) and talk business. One of his favorite parts of being in retail, he said, has always been interacting with people — customers, suppliers, the U.S. Postal Service employees he met over the decades.
Even when he talks about the disastrous 2002 fire that destroyed his original, big variety store across Lafayette Avenue, Mr. T tends to concentrate on how lucky he was not to be in the place when the front windows blew out from combustion. Things were never the same; he and Doris went from a sprawling space in which they sold everything from small appliances to jewelry, to a nook less than one-third the size.
And yet he says (and means), “I still really enjoyed every minute in the small store. I loved being around all the people.”
Mr. T met Doris Harbrueger at Fontanet School when he was in the second grade. “She was this skinny little tow head, and I went home and told my mom about her and said, ‘I’m going to marry that girl.’” And so he did.
During his 26 months of active duty during World War II, most of it in the Mariana Islands of the Pacific, Mr. T carried the photo of Doris that sits on his night stand. All of his Marine buddies said no one that pretty would ever wait for him, especially since he was sending her most of his pay for their nest egg. The boys were wrong. Doris waited and stayed married to Mr. T until her death in 1999.
“She was my one and only, of course,” he said, swallowing a little hard.
Other than doubting pals, the Marine Corps fit Mr. T like the proverbial glove. One of 10 children, he’d learned his fierce work ethic from his mother and coal miner dad. The Marines honed his determination and toughness.
“Semper Fi,” he said. “I believed that in the Marine Corps, and I believe that in almost every phase of life. Ever faithful — to your spouse, your family, your work, your friends, your morals, everything pertaining to your life.”
That credo carried him the last several years, when men half his age would have hung it up from the physical pain and the frustration of watching big box retailers grind local independents to dust. Even now, pretty much confined to a wheelchair, Mr. T pictures his store and post office and weighs a reopening.
“I really think I could do it,” he said, “but I’m afraid I wouldn’t do a good enough job.”
For now, he and Wayne and some of the other guys in The Waters take meals together and often gather to discuss current events. As he rolls down the hall toward his room or the dining room, Mr. T is greeted with “Hi, Cecil!” by aides and residents of the facility. It’s as though he has switched from being the Mayor of 12 Points to the Mayor of The Waters.
Yes, he confesses, he gets bored and sad and, always, he misses Doris. “But, otherwise, everything’s fine,” he said. “And whatever’s around the corner, well, we’ll see.”
Fortunately, Mr. T has one of the finest collections of great memories any man could own. Old friends from 12 Points who might care to share them need only drive to Clinton. Mr. T will start up the time machine, and you can go for a ride to a favorite day in either incarnation of Tilford’s Variety Store.
I’ll be taking a pack of clove chewing gum on all my trips.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.