After an hour's walk through the rustling gardens, and along roadsides that were slick as soap, Gerry made it out to Zoë's shop. It was located in a quiet residential neighborhood of a far-flung suburb situated on formerly rural countryside that was still crisscrossed by old irrigation canals, which kept things humid all the time, even at three in the morning. He arrived at such an unheard-of hour because Zoë's shop, named after the classic 1920's children's book which was actually based on a quite complex philosophical conceit, namely, that human metamorphoses oddly resemble those of creatures in the insect world, was only open between the hours of midnight and six a.m. That was her gimmick: being open at such strange hours - especially strange for a store that sold nothing but useless little gifts all handmade by Zoë herself. Actually, the store had nothing to do with the complicated philosophy that animated the famous children's book; the name, as used by the proprietress, "The Turned-Into's," was apt in a more literal way because Zoë liked to turn things into other things. There were hand-drawn flip books that told complex dramatic stories like Lela in the Badlands and Magnus North of Stockholm fashioned from fancy writing journals, bells made of marzipan dipped in chocolate, hand puppets created out of wool stocking caps, Volume 15 of the Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedia transformed into a home safe, and every kind of junk imaginable converted to Christmas ornaments displayed on upright, branching, dried yucca stalks in the manner of fancy Southwestern specialty stores. Gerry found himself wandering through that unfamiliar suburb at three o'clock in the morning under a blank, thoughtless moon not because he really needed to pay Zoë's unreasonable prices for his gift-giving needs, but because, being a young man, he had delightful feelings for Zoë.
He entered the tidy white bungalow with the living room that had been converted to a shop and found the two friends of Zoë who acted as cashiers asleep at their posts, with dry, sullen mouths and fanlike hair spreading over their desks. Zoë and the four apprentice midwives that she let sleep in the house which had only been partially converted to a retail shop were wide awake. Being midwives, the four were used to strange hours, and Zoë never slept during the time that her shop was open.
Zoë was tall and laughed loudly at everything, altogether a dominating and agreeable host. Gerry liked her wholesome features and pretty green eyes. The four midwives, Zodiac, Carla, Winter and Claire, were really quite dull in appearance compared to Zoë, as was Gerry himself, who looked like a du jour plumber or garbage man. At least the midwives were dressed in colorful calico skirts and tie-dyed painter's pants and hemp or linen shirts, and smelled of sandalwood and clary sage; and evening primrose oil, which was used medicinally in their sacred calling. Winter had wooly blond hair and Zodiac had dreads and Carla had no hair at all! Claire's delicate little head was covered in short, serviceable brown curls. She was sucking on a lemon lollipop that was as sour as a d scale. Everybody went by first names, as if surnames were a thing of the past. Gerry only knew Winter's, which was musical, like an incantation: Glynfiddich. Winter was strange all over; food would taste green to her at Mercury's perihelion and red at its aphelion. At the moment there were a few drops of dried blood in her sunny naiad hair.
Carla was the outspoken one. She once told Gerry that she didn't think he was very smart. He greeted her where she sat, in a corner filled with baskets of rolled-up block prints on rag paper depicting star charts, fish, and sentimental deer heads. There were two or three rubbings of Sheela na Gigs that Zoë had made on a trip to Ireland when she was twenty. Carla was knitting a scarf out of caramel alpaca. She had spun the wool herself between thumb and forefinger with a hand spindle and was using a difficult double seed stitch. Without getting up from her rocking chair, she looked at Gerry disdainfully.
"I hope you're not here just to look."
"What's the matter with you? I'm not causing any trouble."
"Not yet. But you'll be talking Zoë's ear off the minute I give you a chance."
"Zoë can take care of herself."
"I didn't say she couldn't. But the customer - supposing that you really are one - is always right. Damn, I missed a stitch!"
"Pull the back stitch, not the strand," Zoë said, "and be nice."
The only other customer in the store was a shopper who had come all the way from Fort Davis, the kind of hipster redneck found only in the Van Horn-Marfa-Balmorhea triangle. He posed no threat to Gerry in his pursuit of Zoë's affections, having ruined his chances with her by using the "she's all that and a bag of chips" line within earshot. No goddess wants to be compared with a bag of chips.
Even before complimenting Zoë on the look of the shop, Gerry felt obliged to ask Claire about her recent brush with jail over a small amount of bud.
"Jail's the worst. You're under the absolute control of people apparently hired solely on the basis of their stupidity; their cruelty and laziness."
Somehow the conversation quickly devolved to a discussion of the famous story, "Tonalá," which concerned, among other things, a cat named Pipí who was constantly getting involved in scrapes that he used his wits to get out of.
"In many ways the petty criminal acts as the trickster figure in our own society. He or she causes us to question our own hypocrisy. Like Pipí the cat, he or she causes us to question why, or whether, it's wrong for the hungry, the needy, to steal from the rich. Pipí is hungry, but the fish-seller has all the fish. Pipí is able to outwit the fish-seller by using his cleverness, just as the successful petty criminal does."
It was time for Gerry to temporarily bow out of the conversation and do some shopping. He kept his eye on pretty Zoë, and she kept her eye on him as if he were a potential shoplifter. To please her he made complimentary comments about the bookmarks made out of old jeans that were embroidered with suns and galaxies, the candles with OM in Sanskrit-lettering crudely painted on them, and the variety and quantity of marzipan fruits, lizards and frogs all brilliantly tinted with vegetable dyes. He picked out two suncatchers made from old patent medicine and whale-oil bottles filled with colored water. And a string of chocolate-covered marzipan bells. Zoë's patchwork quilts were the only real works of art in the place, but were prohibitively expensive. Instead, he chose three patchwork chicken potholders.
The humid air outside in the deepening night was filled with laughter and voices, even though everyone was asleep but the customers and hangers-on inside the little shop that smelled of herbal sachets and homemade smudge sticks. The laughter and voices must have been coming from sleepers, who, because of their hectic lives, were only able to enjoy themselves in the realm of Queen Mab. One of the clerks who had fallen asleep awoke for a moment, let out an audible sigh, and almost immediately succumbed to the effects of nepenthe and nightmare.
Gerry didn't like the general languid air of the shop, but was determined to impress Zoë with his purchases. She rang him up herself and bundled the suncatchers, the marzipan bells, and the chicken-shaped potholders in fine white rice paper that smelled of milk and cinnamon, like rich pudding without the raisins. Even though she had swindled him out of twenty dollars with her rubbish he continued to feel overwhelmingly tender toward her. He opened a bundle that he had brought in the pocket of his overcoat and produced a worn toy that had been saved from his childhood. It was a plush animal, a yellow and black tiger. Its face had been re-embroidered several times, and not always with skillful hands. The whiskers looked like a mustache.
"This is for you, my Gloriana of the discarded."
He handed the little tiger to Zoë, who took it eagerly. She knew - after all - that Gerry worshipped her.
"Woe to women who accept gifts from men," Zodiac said petulantly, in what may or may not have been an affected Dutch accent. She was wearing a flimsy pair of earrings crafted by Zoë that looked like cocktail olives and were made out of clear red and cadmium-green plastic sheeting.
"I didn't see you have any hesitation about taking that quart of partridgeberry jam from the street minstrel we met in Seattle."
"He was all the way from Cape Breton. Cute, too. Anyway, it was lingonberry."
"Next thing you'll be telling me that Rubus idaeus and Rubus leucodermis are the same."
"Don't start with the Latin names. You know I don't know the Latin names. I still have trouble with English. Not to mention my eyesight."
"Eyesight, eyebright. It's the late hours you keep."
Zoë encouraged the midwives to go to bed and awakened one of the cashiers - by means of a cup of cambric made with almond milk and honey - so that she could take care of the customer from West Texas. Putting on her soft, red felted-wool coat, Zoë invited Gerry to sit on a bench just outside the door where they would have a little privacy. A cache of very stubborn falling stars greeted them as they ventured into the cold, sodden night air.