Porn Shop Chronicles (Miriam)

Miriam Wittmer was the second person that walked into Mom & Pop’s that day. She was twenty years old but appeared much younger. Pinpointing why was difficult at first. It definitely wasn’t the way she looked. She wore a floor-length navy blue dress with sleeves that covered her wrists, the most inconspicuous black flats a woman’s feet had seen since the Grand Opening of Payless Shoes, and her hair was matted down as if she’d been wearing a bonnet. Judging by her looks she’d been dead for nearly 200 years. Her youthfulness came through in the way she carried herself.

For an Amish girl, visiting a sex shop must be somewhat akin to a nutritionist’s kid being let loose in a candy store. All of these worldly pleasures finally within reach and no one to tell you no.

She snickered as her fingers grazed the pink fur on the handcuffs. She gasped when she crossed in front of the BDSM section with its ropes and chains. She jumped after accidentally activating a vibrating cock ring. And she froze when she laid her eyes on Goliath.

It was almost too much to take, and after the novelty weaned, her years of conditioning kicked in. The look on her face went from wonder to something like guilt. She eyed the exit, but as she began to head that way, she noticed something.

Amidst the toys and gadgets and debauchery there was a section of jewelry, mostly bracelets. The collection was small, but they were exquisitely made. Round metal charms painted all different colors strung about a black leather string. One in particular caught her eye. The charms were sterling silver and each one had a hand-carved crucifix in the side. She took it off the hook it was hanging from and wrapped it around her wrist. It was far too big, but that was all right. She had plenty of experience making necklaces and bracelets for her younger sisters and could most certainly make this work.

This place can’t be all bad, she thought.

She held the bracelet in place around her wrist as she scanned the rest of Mom & Pop’s selection.

She wasn’t sure what she was looking for. She had no idea what men who weren’t Amish expected in a woman. It wasn’t her fault she’d fallen for him. At least that’s what she told herself.

◊◊◊

Chance had come to eat at the restaurant on the farm like so many others before him. He’d been polite and said, “Thank you,” and left a good tip like so many others. He’d even said, “I’m gonna come back soon,” like so many others. But, unlike the others, he did; every weekend for six months.

It wasn’t long before Chance and Miriam began to exchange more than just the pleasantries between a customer and the staff. The days when he would come alone, her mother encouraged Miriam to keep him company. She knew how rare it was to have a regular all the way out here on the farm and could see Chance’s interest in her daughter was the best opportunity they had at keeping him around.

Miriam answered all of Chance’s questions about what it was like to be Amish and Chance told her about all the things he thought she was better for missing out on, like Facebook and Angry Birds, and some of the stuff he knew she wasn’t, like Facetime and Words with Friends.

Miriam began to look forward to the days when Chance would come in. He was always polite and always said, “Thank you,” and always left a good tip and always said he’d come back soon and always did…

Except when he didn’t.

It had been a full month since Miriam had seen him last. She was sure he said he’d be back.

The first Saturday he was a no show snuck up on her like a cold that begins with the slightest tickle at the back of your throat. It started as a hollow space in her chest. It was hard to breathe, as if she were hiking up a mountain. She kept having to excuse herself from the kitchen and her mother kept asking, “What’s wrong?” and she kept saying, “I don’t know.” It wasn’t a lie. She really didn’t. Until she saw him. That scruffled brown hair that teased the collar of his favorite light blue button-up shirt, sitting in his usual seat with the back facing the kitchen. The air wasn’t so thin anymore.

What’s wrong with me?

It was something she’d never felt before. She could feel every nerve in her body. She couldn’t quite explain it, but she liked the feeling as much as it scared her. She grabbed a pitcher of water and walked toward Chance’s table. As she set it down, it dawned on her that the scruffled hair and blue shirt belonged to someone else.

Stumbling back to the kitchen, her mom asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” she lied.

◊◊◊

Arranged marriages were common in her community, and at 17 years young, Miriam was married to James Wittmer, an expert carpenter with looks to boot. The other women who’d been hoping to wed him were jealous and began to talk behind her back and call her terrible names. Outcast. Whore. If only they’d known the truth, they’d probably have burned her at the stake. She didn’t know how to explain that it wasn’t him, but that fact that she hadn’t chosen him, or him her for that matter, that made her resent their marriage. Ungrateful. Selfish.

James died during a sawmill accident on the farm a year after they were married. The same women who had cursed her behind her back were now her best friends. They expressed their sympathies. Miriam held onto her grief.

James was a good man and she was sad that he was gone, but the tears that streamed down her cheeks at his funeral were there for another reason. It wasn’t his death, but rather the guilt she had over the relief she felt that caused her to mourn. She was certain those thoughts would land her in hell.

Ever since that day Miriam had felt herself drifting further and further away from her community.

She kept her head down and did what the elders asked of her, working in the restaurant on the farm as a server. She wanted to be a cook but the best compliment she’d received on her food-making abilities came when her mother told her, “It’s edible.”

“An Amish woman without culinary inclinations is as useful as a fishing line without the hook,” her father used to say. At least he phrased it in the positive.

People came from all over to experience the novelty of what Miriam had so often heard them refer to as, “A simple life.”

It is anything but, she thought.

Then one day, Chance showed up at the restaurant with his college friends. She poured them water and listened as they talked about politics and parties, God and girls, love and lust and everything in between. Their lack of reservations intrigued her and she couldn’t help but feel she was missing out on much of what life had to offer.

◊◊◊

“I’ll see you soon.” She was sure he said it, but he hadn’t come back.

A month is a painfully long time to miss someone. Wars have been waged and won in less time.

She came up with a plan to track him down. He always paid in cash and she’d never thought to ask him his last name, but she remembered his friends calling him “Schmitty” the first time he came in.

His last name must be Schmidt, she thought. How many Chance Schmidt’s can there be in a 50-mile radius of the farm?

It turned out there was just one.

There was an old computer on the farm with a dial-up Internet connection, but that was strictly for business purposes. One day Miriam had used it to look up pictures of Italy. She’d heard a customer talking about how beautiful the canals of Venice were and wanted to see them for herself. When her father saw what she was doing he struck her with a belt. It was embarrassing enough at 16, but a 20-year old widow being struck by her father would be unbearable. She decided to wait until the next time Mrs. D came to the farm to make her move.

A recent widow herself, Greta Dietrich was always talking about finding the good in life’s tragedies. She and her husband, Tom, had been married for 42 years. A lifelong smoker, he’d passed away after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. The doctor said his lungs were fine.

And that pretty much summed up how Mrs. D saw the world. You can live your life rooted in worry and try to minimize the damage, or you can live your life based on what brings you joy and hope the damage doesn’t minimize you.

It seemed to be working out for her. At 73, she’d just joined an online dating site and had already lined up three dates.

“What would your husband say?” Miriam asked while Mrs. D was showing her the pictures of her suitors.

“Who, Tommy?” she laughed. “He’d probably punch every single one of ‘em in the eye, then put a cigarette out on their foreheads, or worse. He was always such a protective son of a you-know-what. But it had its perks. He always made me feel safe and he adored the hell outta me. Now, the latter is something that drew me in, but the former is why I stuck around all those years. Never let a man go if he makes you feel safe.”

“But you said he wouldn’t want you to date anyone else and you are,” Miriam said. “Isn’t that kind of like letting him go?”

“The way I see it I don’t have much of a choice. You can’t hold onto someone who isn’t here and trying to is only gonna drive you crazy.”

Miriam let those words sink in for a moment.

“Can I see your phone?”

Mrs. D handed Miriam her phone. She typed “Chance Schmidt” into the Internet search bar. A picture of Chance in his light blue shirt popped up. Miriam forgot to breathe as she clicked on the photo. It took her to his LinkedIn profile. There, she discovered that he was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a recent graduate of Columbia’s Film School, and was currently working as an intern at a small production company in Hollywood.

California, she thought. No wonder he hasn’t been back.

When she was sure no one but Mrs. D was looking, she wrote down the address. She asked Mrs. D if she could mail him a letter, but she was having none of that.

“Do you want to see him or not?”

“I do. It’s just–“

“Just nothing. I’ll drive the horse and buggy myself.”

“We have a car,” Miriam said.

“Even better.”

“But I don’t know how to drive.”

“Who’s driving? We’re gonna fly.”

“But you said–“

“I’m old. I say a lot of things.”

“You’re not that old.”

“And you Amish aren’t very good liars.”

Miriam smiled. This was never going to work.

Mrs. D had other plans.

◊◊◊

“What did you say to them?” Miriam asked. A week after that visit her parents had agreed to let her accompany Mrs. D on a trip to California.

“I told ‘em the truth. That there was some guy you were all hot over and that we were gonna track him down cause you needed some action.”

Miriam’s face turned as red as a stop sign.  “You didn’t.”

“Course I didn’t. You’re gonna help me with some work on my farm now that my husband’s dead.”

“You have a farm in California?”

“Course I don’t. It’s called stretching the truth.”

It’s called lying, Miriam thought. But she didn’t much care. It had worked and now she was on her way to see Chance. She looked out the plane window at the tiny squares of green and tan grass. It reminded her of a giant green and tan checkerboard and, for a moment, she understood what people meant when they compared life to a “game.”

Mrs. D and Miriam checked into their room at the Renaissance Hotel. Miriam stood in front of their window staring at the Hollywood sign. It gave her the strangest feeling, like the world was smaller than she thought but much bigger at the same time. She had to pinch herself twice to prove that it wasn’t a dream.

As the wonderment started to fade, she began to think that maybe she’d made a mistake coming all the way here. Maybe Chance had come back to the restaurant all of those times because he really just liked the food. If that were the case, what would he think of her following him all the way out here? She might as well tattoo “crazy” on her forehead, but then she’d have a hard time differentiating herself from all the other girls in Hollywood.

Miriam couldn’t sleep that night. Anytime she got close to dozing off, her thoughts would shake her mind awake. She wondered if she’d go to hell for this and if Chance had a girlfriend and why she’d only thought to pack her blue dress. Each thought was equally upsetting.

By the time Mrs. D came to in the morning, Miriam had already been awake for three hours and was waiting for her with a full breakfast spread.

“What have I done to deserve this?” Mrs. D asked.

“I just figured it was the quickest way to get you out of bed.”

“I’m 73 years old. Ain’t no quick way outta bed.”

Mrs. D smiled and Miriam forced one back. The real reason she was trying to rush was because she wanted to get this whole thing over with in case she lost her nerve.

They arrived at the production company where Chance was interning at 11am. Miriam whispered something about how they should probably wait until lunch, but Mrs. D wasn’t going to let her off the hook.

“Come on, Petunia. You didn’t come all this way for lunch.”

She grabbed Miriam by the arm and pushed her through the front doors of the building. Inside was a small, white room with movie posters hanging on the walls. Miriam didn’t recognize any of them, but then, she’d only seen a handful of movies in her entire life. There was no one there to tell her to turn back so she continued down a long, narrow hallway, just big enough for her and maybe one other person to fit through standing side by side.

At the end of the hall was a room with three assistants sitting in three desks with three coffees wearing three identical headsets. They said things like, “Take it offline,” and, “Circle back,” and “Ping me.” Miriam had no idea what any of it meant, but thought it sounded cool.

“How can I help you?” a familiar voice said from behind.

She turned around and there he was. Same light blue shirt. Same scruffled hair.

“Hey,” is all she could manage.

“Miriam?”

She touched her own face to make sure. “Yeah, I think.”

Chance smiled. “Hey.”

He led her back down the hallway she came from where they could talk without disturbing the assistants. It was just big enough for them to walk side by side.

Once they were alone, Miriam explained everything. The feelings of missing him and the hope that he might feel the same and was she completely crazy? Chance assured her she wasn’t and tried his best to articulate how he simply had no idea how to go about asking out a recently widowed Amish girl.

“Same way you ask any other girl… give her father three cows and a bottle of moonshine.” Mrs. D’s sense of humor was rubbing off on her. Still, Chance only laughed after Miriam smiled.

“Tonight,” he said. “Let’s go out tonight.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll bring the moonshine,” Chance joked.

“I’ll take care of the cows,” Miriam said. She had no idea what she meant but he laughed anyway. It was the first time she’d ever flirted.

◊◊◊

Mrs. D was waiting for her when she strutted out of the building.

“So,” she asked.

“So… we’ve got a date!”

“Look at you go, Miss Thing.”

Miriam shimmied out a little victory dance, or as much of one as she could manage in that dress.

“We gotta get you a change of clothes, girl,” Mrs. D said. “But first, you gotta get caught up on some other things.”

Mrs. D led Miriam to a small shopping center tucked away just off of Hollywood Blvd. They stopped in front of a store called Mom & Pop’s. Whips and chains hung from the window next to adult magazines and sex toys.

“Go on,” Mrs. D said as she pulled an electronic cigarette from her purse. “These Hollywood types are into some freaky shit so you better get acquainted.”

Miriam was almost positive this was one of Mrs. D’s dirty jokes, but she went along with it anyway.

◊◊◊

She approached the checkout counter with the bracelet. Her hands shook as she unwrapped it from her delicate wrists.

“Did you find everything you were looking for?” the clerk asked.

“Yes,” she stuttered. “Just the, umm… Just the bracelet today.”

Miriam kissed the cross on the bracelet’s charm before handing it to the cashier. She hoped it would give her strength.

The cashier looked up, a mixture of confusion and amusement washing over his face.

“Ma’am,” he said, holding up Miriam’s bracelet. “These are anal beads.”

She swallowed, unable to think of anything to say.

“Don’t worry. We don’t accept returns.”

Any other day she would have run from the store overcome by embarrassment, but not today. Today she’d already faced her biggest fear and survived.

Miriam handed the cashier $30, grabbed the bag, then walked out of the store and into her new life.

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