There’s hardly anywhere like Norton’s anymore, and no one like Norton. He sold phrases for special occasions out of a shop in Queens. They were handsome things of iron or wood or wax or air, to keep or to give, but Norton was the true attraction, the ever-present source of an understanding so fine it soothed like the sun on your back. I was a clerk there, so I remember.
To the furrow-browed families of the hospital-bound, the globetrotting, the soon to be on leave, Norton offered Welcome Home. To many, he provided inexpensive politenesses—May I, Excuse Me, Pardon Me, If You Wouldn’t Mind, Thank You, et cetera. Goodbye sold well, though Norton liked people to swap it for See You Soon if they could. I’m Sorry languished by the entrance.
I Love You sold best, of course, but Norton’s guesses were the real draw. He could tell the phrase a customer needed by looking at them. It was as if he saw the words hanging around a person, trellised and bright, there for him to pluck and return.
To a trim woman in denim, rubbing her wrist with her thumb, he offered: Happy Anniversary, Darling. Happy Five Years. She nodded, proud.
To a ponytailed man clutching takeout and stretching his neck: Ahh, Can You Believe It’s Finally Ours?
To a puffy-eyed woman with folded arms, a thoughtful frown: She Wasn’t Right For You, Really, She Wasn’t.
To a big man in a stained polo shirt: They’re Healthy and Happy, Mother and Child.
To a ballcapped boy fidgeting patiently: I’m Ten Now! And off the boy spun, wide-eyed and thrilled.
This was Norton’s gift, to observe and express. He was amazing, able and eager to stand fixed in the maelstrom, to occupy the eye of the storm of the language, flinging words around him, conjuring them into apt and lovely combinations at whim and by request, rendering the particular heart by the particular motions of the body that wished, at once, to be both hidden and seen.
I only saw him falter once. A tall, timid woman came in with a pea-green coat.
Let’s see, he said. It’s An Honor To Be Here? If You Want To Know The Truth, I Could Use Some Help? Would You Like To Go For Drinks?
The woman blinked at him.
More serious then, he said, rubbing his chin. I’m Sorry For Your Loss? I Heard What Happened?
Norton? she said. Norton, who lived alone above the shop, who had no past we knew of, had a wife. The moment hung long enough for me to catch it. The shock and shine of his eyes. The wry displeasure of her pursing lips. They were separated, I saw, split by an unnamed pain. Until she said his name, she had been unrecognizable, all but invisible, cloaked in the words unspoken between them.