My friend Chris tapped on the flimsy clear plastic that separated the checkout counter from the entryway of Shirley’s True Value Hardware in Vineyard Haven.
“Is this bulletproof glass?” he joked with the woman behind the counter.
“Well . . . why don’t you stay on that side, I’ll get a gun and shoot at you, and we’ll find out.”
With that, the woman walked out from behind the register. She had gray hair, and wore thick, round glasses.
Nervously I asked her where I could find some gold framing wire. Without even looking up, she gave me what sounded like driving directions.
“Go straight up here,” she motioned with her whole arm, “and make your second right. It’ll be on your left hand side. You can’t miss it.”
Then she continued on with her own quest, scanning the shelves for some product with her entire body. I imagined Harry Potter’s magic wand merchant, Ollivander, ripping through anonymous boxes to find a wand he had last seen years ago. I followed her directions exactly and found my wire instantly.
When I brought my gold framing wire rolls back to the counter, I noticed a lined index card pasted onto the countertop under cracking strips of ancient packaging tape. It was a list, written in black permanent marker. On the left side was a column of names opposite a corresponding column of dollar amounts. There were nine names and nine sums.
“Can I buy this from you?” I asked, tracing the edge of the sign with my fingers.
The names represented the Island’s melting pot; a cast of Irish, English, German and Brazilian ancestry. The sums were legible, written with confidence and care.
The woman stopped bagging and looked up at me.
“No,” she said, drawing out her response suspiciously.
“Because you didn’t bounce a check here.”
At first glance, the index card appeared to be an ongoing naughty list. When a customer bounced a check, a name would be added, or removed if the wrong was righted. But then I noticed that the way this sign was displayed, frozen onto the countertop under the packing tape, meant that it was actually a finished product. Pulling up the tape would surely have ruined the index card.
It occurred to me that this list was more of a permanent warning, like the noosed corpses dangling from harbor piers, warding off pirates in Port Royal.
“Only two of those people still live on the Island anyway,” the woman added, perhaps reading my mind. She smiled proudly as though this list were the sole reason for their disappearance.
I imagined C.S., $58.34, wincing, his shoulders slumped, confronted by a friend. “You could have asked me for the money, dude. I would have loaned it to you.”
I saw D.M., $174.74, boarding the night ferry, his clothes clumsily dripping out of his suitcase as he put Vineyard Haven to his rudder for the last time.
I’d grown up seeing candy-colored checks tacked to the sides of bodega cash registers in New York city, but they always seemed to me, in the context of that city, as badges of honor; calling cards of anonymous bandits rebelling against bad credit. But the Island is different. It is small and intimately interconnected, especially in the off-season. The “Bounced Checks” list at Shirley’s Hardware suddenly felt like the weight that balances the Island’s farm-stand honor system, the unlocked doors, the safe hitchhiking and the untrampled dunes. It’s the hammer. It’s the stocks. It’s the Hester Prynne Book Club.
The woman finished bagging my items and ran my debit card. As I bent over to sign my name to the paper, she gestured toward the list.
“Why would you want that anyway?” she asked.
“Because I think it’s beautiful,” I said.
Her grin turned to a puzzled frown. “I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” she sighed as she handed me my receipt.
Gazette contributor Timothy Stanley lives in New York city and Chilmark.