The Suggestion Box

by Peter Rustin

May 15, 2023

The unexpected windfall of the island’s off-season gave Annie cold comfort for the horrors of that autumn. She was driving to the ferry to take her mom, Belle, to her chemo appointment on the mainland. In October, few drivers could be found on the windy roads, and the large hedgerows made every blind intersection an adventure. Annie had the right of way and braked only in the most perfunctory of ways at the intersection of Sparkwood and 21st. The passenger side of Annie’s Nissan Leaf didn’t stand a chance against Roger Hiram’s Hummer when he blew past the stop sign and T-boned the Leaf; the force of the collision lodged the car’s remains deep into the 10-foot hedges on the other side of the intersection. By the time the island’s only EMT arrived with a cacophony of light and noise, Belle was gone. Roger Hiram had blown a .16 when the sheriff arrived, a result which surprised nobody who knew Roger one single bit.

Annie’s grief over the loss of her mom had a palpability that compressed the following days into a featureless blur. She would awaken to the watery late-autumn sun, and a blessed second would elapse before the memory of the accident dominated her thoughts until bedtime. Annie’s friends were the fellow shopkeepers and tradespersons who flooded the island after Memorial Day, and so she found herself alone when she visited the family lawyer, Bill McCue.

Belle had never been especially money-savvy (and family decorum precluded any discussion of finances), and so Annie was stunned when Bill told her that her mom had a $500,000 life insurance policy (from her days working with the government on the mainland) with a double-indemnity clause that paid Annie, Belle’s sole beneficiary, the unheard-of sum of a million dollars. New England Life paid promptly, making Annie an unlikely millionaire by the time the winds of Christmas rattled the forlorn wreath on Annie’s faded door.

Annie’s employer, Starbucks, had pulled the plug on its shop near the ferry landing that winter. Some dumb suit with a useless MBA had neglected to account for the island’s near-desertion after Labor Day, and so the space was vacant by Thanksgiving. With time on her hands; no other prospects; and a guilt-filled void in her gut (Why didn’t I slow down? Should I have seen him?) Annie decided to lease the empty store.

The day-to-day whirlwind of fitting out a new coffee shop proved a most welcome distraction. Annie sold the crappy espresso machines mandated by Starbucks corporate, and bought a gleaming La Marzocca Linea AV. Gone were the overhead lights, dark woods and leather of Starbucks’ corporate design language. Annie replaced the bland corporate décor with maple floors, intimate tables with chairs in a soothing palette of blues and yellows, and a multitude of lamps whose soft illumination cast a warm glow that kept the dark New England winter days at bay.

Annie named the shop “Cuppa”, and the hand-painted sign over the door, in brave pastels over a battered white background, featured three squiggly waves over the “u” to connote heat and, perhaps more importantly, warmth. And, in a whimsical touch inspired by countless TV shows, Annie gave pride of place to a suggestion box, next to the register where customers ordered their lattes.

The suggestion box was built from distressed white wood that matched the sign outside. Annie (who had just enough artistic talent to stay employed as a barista) decorated the suggestion box herself. She adorned it with a handsome ‘50s-looking guy with slicked-back black hair. His right hand was cupped to his mouth, and three straight lines angling from his smile (suggesting a call to action) suggested that he – and, presumably, Annie – would be pleased indeed if the patrons would furnish their suggestions. Annie converted a burden to a benefit when she outfitted the space with the white onyx Cross pen set Belle had given her when she graduated high school, and which had languished in a drawer for years. A Field Notes steno pad, emblazoned with a jaunty Futura font, completed the ensemble.

In the month Cuppa was open before the Memorial Day morning ferry heralded the beginning of another summer, business from the winter locals was sparse, but steady. They were not shy about using the suggestion box, either. The notes ranged from the puerile (“Eat a bag of shit”) to the passive-aggressive (“Dear, are you really sure that horizontal stripes are a good idea?”) to the marginally useful (“Dump Sweet and Low. Everyone who ever used it is dead. Splenda please”). Annie was undeterred by the empty tables and the silly notes, because the end of May changed everything.

The temporary immigrants of summer would, with their insatiable need for bespoke, unheard-of beverages (priced accordingly) take care of Cuppa’s minimal overhead, and perhaps allow for a bit of a profit. Annie was confident that Cuppa would do just fine.

Annie was more interested in the arrival of her friends. Jenny ran a nearby yarn and knitting shop, where she sold outrageously priced supplies and pre-knitted sweaters as bulwarks to the cool ocean nights of June. Sam and Avery owned a gourmet grocery, where, as just one example, they unblinkingly charged (and received) $6.00 for a single Haas avocado. Melody did business at what she called the Island Apothecary, which was more like a general store where none of the products were necessities but, rather, the sort of summer luxuries (lemongrass insect repellent; hand-painted high-top sneakers; $90 reading glasses) demanded by the well-to-do patrons after the solstice left them with nothing to buy with their Wall Street money.

The weekend after her friends arrived, Annie darkened the store early on Saturday night and turned the “Closed. Please come see us later!” sign in the door. She invited her friends over for a combination christening and dish session; there was much to discuss. After the usual chatter about various romantic attachments and decouplings, home improvements, and intolerable family members, Annie gulped and, fortified by an excellent 2016 Malbec, decided to open up a bit about The October Night. Blinking back most (but, alas, not all) of her tears, Annie confessed to her friends that she felt responsible for the accident.

“Why didn’t I slow the eff down? Roger was always driving drunk all over the island after Labor Day? What was I thinking?”

The chorus of renunciations by her friends was immediate and vehement. Are you crazy? He broke the law, not you! Annie, no! No fucking way! Annie heard the remonstrations, and wished she could believe them, but the foundation laid by a winter of guilt abided steadfast.

The next week saw a steady influx of new customers to Cuppa and business was brisk. The suggestion box was a huge hit. The advent of a more educated clientele brought with it a better class of suggestions, such as a request for oat milk (whatever, fine) and some compliments about the improvements over Starbucks (well, duh!).

One night right before the 4th, Annie was cashing out and locking up, and noticed, through the window, a steady stream of summer patrons emerging at an unusual hour from Sam and Avery’s store, followed by Jenny and Melody. A bit hurt, perhaps, that she was not included in whatever soiree this was, Annie decided nonetheless to let it go.

The 4th was traditionally a tornado of activity, with seemingly the entire island dropping by for their coffees and pastries. This year, though, was just crazy. Annie and her summer college baristas weaved like aproned ballerinas all day behind the counter, until business tapered off about an hour before the fireworks. It was only then that Annie noticed that the suggestion box was so full that a few errant pages were actually poking up through the slot.

What the heck, wondered Annie. She fished for the tiny padlock key in a small section of the top drawer of the register, where she kept a 10 Euro coin left by a misbegotten tourist, who had tried to use it earlier in the summer. When the galvanized hasp was lifted, the suggestion box almost seemed to expand of its own volition, as dozens of crammed notes lifted the top.

She unfolded one randomly, written in lovely cursive: “Not your fault.” The next one? “You were a wonderful daughter. Your mom must have been so proud.” Like a paper bouquet, the tiny notes blossomed on the counter like white hibiscus leaves: “Everybody loves you.” “When will you accept yourself?” “You are a wonderful person.” “Not your fault!” “Our town needs you!” “Not your fault!” “Please love yourself—you so deserve it.” “Not your fault!” “I wish my daughter was more like you!” “Not your fault!!!!”

It took Annie almost 15 minutes to read them all. When she was done, the ghost of a smile began to lift the corner of her mouth for the first time in many, many months.

About Peter Rustin

Peter Rustin and his wife Leslie recently moved from Los Angeles to Peter’s native Connecticut, with their three rather intelligent cats. Peter is an attorney practicing remotely with his firm in Los Angeles. He plays guitar badly and drums decently.

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