The bus started and I opened a pack of gum. A woman turned around and told me, “Take care of your teeth. I lost mine during rehab — opiate addiction.” Her lips formed what I perceived as a smile. Her bottom lip practically tickled her nose. She turned around and re-entered the larger bus debate about the weather. Then a man bit into an apple. “Take care of your teeth,” she said.
The bus stopped and I hopped off. I threw my gum into a trashcan.
White River Junction, Vermont is a curious small town, hard to define. Perhaps that is because it is redefining itself through art galleries, a trendy café, and vintage shops situated among decaying storefronts, cheap hotels, and old fallout shelters. But long time resident Cherylann Porter doesn’t seem to mind the changes.
Like the bus I take to White River Junction, Cheryl starts and stops. Through night and day, health and wealth — or lack thereof — Cheryl threads her beads and her life with interruptions.
“I don’t want to get green mugs of beer! Not my thing,” she said as I walked into her store. “Bloodshot eyeballs — huh!”
She giggled. She was talking about beads.
Sitting at her desk, squeezed behind the cash register, Cheryl’s presence was at first only noticeable through her small bouts of laughter. She turned around and stared at me, her blue eyes intensified by her round, wire-framed glasses. She paused. “Hi,” she said. She returned to her computer, talking to both it and me. “I’m ordering more lamp work beads — Oh bumblebees! And flip-flops!” she gasped. “Everybody loves flip-flops!”
She clicked “Add to Cart.”
At that moment, I was — and usually am — the only person in the White River Junction Bead Store, though she has trained me how to respond to a customer if she is not in the room. I’m supposed to say, “Hi.”
When I first met Cheryl, we talked mostly about what anyone talked about in a bead shop — beading. But she hinted at her history: serious illnesses, lost jobs, lost homes, and her husband. She seemed very open. We hit it off, or so I thought. When I called her beading a “craft,” she corrected me. “My jewelry is an art.” I hesitated as her eyes went right through mine. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or if I had offended her, but I didn’t apologize. Instead, I asked if I could observe her shop and write about it. She straightened her back and curved her mouth into a smile. “Wouldn’t that be nice.”
Her lavender colored shop glitters with glass and shimmers with mineral beads. Silk and leather string is strewn on the shelves. Finished jewelry is laid about and priced for a clientele that she doesn’t yet seem to have. She has made all of the pieces in her shop, which she has owned since August. “There are over 200 earrings, 50 necklaces, and I’d say more than 50 bracelets,” she explained. “If I can’t sell beads, I try to sell my pieces.” Most of her creations cost $30 to $50. She needs to earn $100 a day, five days per week if she wants to stay afloat. “I don’t make that,” she said.
Yet, behind the thousands of unsold beautiful, sparkling beads, lies Cheryl’s ugly past and lonely present.
“I look forward to you coming,” she said. “I enjoy our chats.” But she talked at me, not with me, giving me advice I don’t plan on taking. She has suggested I get engaged four times before I marry. That’s what she did. “Norman thought I was a girl from his high school who got pregnant,” she said. “Coulda but didn’t!” She met her husband through church and has been married 34 years.
I told Cheryl I’m going with the flow. “I see,” she replied. “That’s nice.”
I mostly sat at her workshop table and fussed with beads, contemplating my own designs. When I was younger, my mom signed me up for various art and music classes including beading. It’s still in my fingertips. Cheryl has been beading for three years. “I have an incredible amount of natural talent,” she said. “I don’t even think — I let it set.”
She showed me a design template for a bracelet from a magazine she orders. “Isn’t that ugly?” she asked. Then she showed me how she refashioned it using the materials the publication listed. She was right. That magazine’s design was ugly. Although made of hundred of tiny textured beads, her creation felt and looked like a gold and bronze ribbon with an emerald hue. It was unexpectedly smooth. She showed me other versions that she started and stopped. “I might teach these in a class.”
“Do you have many classes?” I asked. When I first went to her store, she had handed me a calendar with class times and workshop hours. The calendar looked full and she looked busy.
“No, I have none. If someone comes in and needs help, I’ll help them.” She paused and took a sip from her French Vanilla coffee.“Would you like a cup?’
“No, thanks,” I said. I should take care of my teeth.
“I think Linda is still teaching classes,” she confided. “She took her clients with her. She’s not supposed to do that. I’m being polite when I say ‘think’ — I know.”
Linda, along with a woman named JoJo, was one of the two former owners of the bead store. When wholesalers or past customers call, they ask for Linda. According to Cheryl, JoJo was diagnosed with MS and had a bad spell, so Linda took over the business side. Linda’s mother was then diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so now she takes care of her mom. “I haven’t paid Linda yet.” Cheryl says she owns the store, but I’m not sure if she really does. “I don’t have the money. I need to get on the ball — Oh, there’s the bag,” she interrupted herself. She had found a bag of miscellaneous beads on the table.
Cheryl says she completely redesigned the store. “Norman told me I have to do something that makes me happy for once in my life. So, I took over the store and changed it.” When Norman has tried to tell her how to run her shop, she has asked him, “Does your opinion belong here?”
Cheryl delights in alluding to her happiness, her sadness, and her illnesses. Finally, I asked. “How did — I mean, what was...?”
She cut me off.
“What was the illness that almost killed me?” she said. “Aspirational pneumonia that turned into a hiatal hernia. A misdiagnosis from the uppity people at DHMC. It went on for years.”
Next to jewelry, Cheryl loves revisiting her time in and out of hospitals. She inventories her conditions similar to how she catalogs beads. As she took out her Tupperware of pills, she told me, “I’m propped up by pills. I’ve got fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue disorder, PTSD — from a childhood trauma which is all I will say about that.”
At her worktable, there are placemats covered in beads, wire, string, and pliers. Like a bead, she plops one of her pills on the table. It’s pink in color and small in size. “That little fella’ is my chill pill. We don’t want anything to happen again, do we? It’s an anti-psychotic.”
Around four o’clock every day in the afternoon, Cheryl took her medication. “I need my meds with food,” she told me. She usually finished her homemade salad from lunch and began eating a “baked apple.” Norman made them. She would pierce the top of the apple with her fork and bring it to her mouth. She ate and rotated it as if the apple were corn-on-the-cob.
“I can’t say I’ve ever tried a baked apple,” I told her.
“Well, it’s not actually baked. It’s microwaved,” she said. Cheryl frequently mentioned Norman, so I asked about the rest of her family. Her two grown sons, Carl and William, both live in New Hampshire. Her daughter-in-law, Josie, is supposed to help her with the shop’s Facebook page. “I need to e-mail Josie,” she said. She reminded herself of this and her illnesses every day, family and disease existing side-by-side. “I was kicked out of the church my son goes to. When people see mental illness, they’re afraid it will rub off on them. I was even kicked out of a hospital once. The doctor said, ‘You’re out. Your insurance will not pay past today.’ Nobody likes a fight.”
That was a hint. Nobody likes a fight with Cheryl. But Cheryl doesn’t like to fight either. When she is confronted by a person, a design, or a feeling, she avoids it for as long as possible. “The other week,” she said, “someone came in here who made me feel uncomfortable. I don’t often feel like that. If I knew she was a street person, I’d have let her make something. She gave me the willies.”
Cheryl described the woman as a girl who wore a hooded sweatshirt with big pockets. She was, according to Cheryl, “lugging around everything she owned.” She told Cheryl that she stays in the Gates-Annex Motel. She didn’t buy anything, but she touched everything.
“I just have to touch,” the girl told Cheryl.
“I’m a tactile person. I get that. But how many times do you have to touch things? Maybe I’m wrong. Never in my life have I gotten that feeling. I don’t know yet how to deal with it. I can peg someone down quickly. I don’t distrust people — this was the only time.”
Cheryl handled the situation by leaving the store. “I’d ramp up my PTSD again. I don’t want anyone to get in my face. I definitely do not like the thoughts I have with that woman. She was not overtly mentally ill.”
Creativity is how Cheryl survives illness. When she began beading, she said she weighed over 300 pounds. One afternoon, she handed me her driver’s license as proof. “Look at that,” she said. She would spend weeks in bed with no activity, trapped within 50 feet of oxygen tubes and supplemented by Prednisone. Now she can fit into her old Lee jeans, but she is disheartened that her body is not back to its original state. She stood up and lifted her shirt to her waistline. Pointing at her hips and belly, she explained she has folds of hanging skin. She refuses to get surgery. “I’m not vain.”
Cheryl used to play the cello. It satisfied her artistic and musical side. Now, Cheryl listens to Yanni on repeat. “I’m eclectic, extremely eclectic,” she said.
When Cheryl didn’t have art or music, she “floated through life.” After high school, she enrolled at Columbia Bible College. There, she learned about homiletics. “I didn’t get it,” she said. “The more head knowledge, the less heart knowledge — and that runs true for everything.”
While Cheryl talked, she was usually fixing a bracelet, hers or someone else’s. I began asking her questions, but soon I had my own stories to share. We aren’t alike, but we aren’t different either. We both like working in front of the TV. We both like science shows. We both eat Sour Patch Kids candy. “I don’t have TV at school, but I like the background noise,” I told her. “In high school, I did math homework in front of the TV. It drove my parents crazy.” She laughed.
After work, Cheryl beads, usually while watching home improvement shows. “I’m not into pseudo-science though,” she said. “Not that through-the-wormhole crap!”
Cheryl didn’t always understand that I had to catch the last bus at five o’clock. It was easy for her and for me to lose track of time. While I would be packing my bag and putting on my coat, she would be showing me her placed or desired orders. She loves a wholesaler called Nirvana. That’s where she gets her Czech glass beads. “I placed a $1500 order. Nir — the owner — and I agreed to split it. I could pay $600 one month, $450 the next month, and the last $450 during another month.” She was in the middle of showing me matte turquoise glass beads with dragonflies imprinted on them while I attempted to excuse myself. “They’d be perfect for a bracelet,” she said as I walked out the door.
“See you on Tuesday!” I told her. They were lovely beads, perfect for a bracelet. But I couldn’t miss my bus.
On the bus I received my weekly weather updates. Martha, an 80-year-old woman who works in Hanover, would report to David, the bus driver, the weather and news. Everyone else aboard the bus listened and Sam, an elderly man with thick horn-rimmed glasses and a tote bag, would chime in, “Unbelievable! That’s crazy!” He said that every day, whether it was snowing or not.
One day on the bus, a man asked me to help him with his phone. He said he wanted to listen to a TED Talk, but his Internet wasn’t working. He handed me his phone. I opened his Internet browser and read the URL: “Hot Celebrity Sex Tapes.” I routed him to TED.com. “Unbelievable,” I thought. I wanted to talk about the weather again.
My bus ride to and from White River Junction was like an elastic string that pulled me back to Hanover and to White River Junction. During those weeks, the bus schedule framed my daily pattern. It became part of my beading experience. But I enjoyed Cheryl’s shop more than I enjoyed getting there. I liked listening to her. I was amused by her quirks, much like how she was amused by mine. “Do you ever drink coffee?” she would ask when I would decline her daily offers.
I often started my interactions with Cheryl by repeating verbatim what Martha had said on the bus. She said she didn’t listen to weather reports. “They’re always wrong.”
Although she had claimed she had a successful Saturday full of shoppers and workshoppers, Cheryl was “in the blues,” as she put it, one Tuesday. I entered the shop and Cheryl was hammering a nail into the wall. She was putting up a new mirror.
She knew I was coming. She didn’t greet me. “The only way to get out of the doldrums is to make plans,” she advised. “I’m making more space.”
“And I’m making a bracelet today,” I told her. “I want to try the brick-stitch. Perhaps you could teach me?”
“Okay,” she said.
I had thought she was going to be more excited. She had been indicating that she was bored without customers.
She showed me which beads I should use for that stitch, which requires thread and a sewing needle to string the tight and tiny design. She showed me to a wooden case of 3mm Japanese cubed seed beads. There were tubes of pink, teal, blue, clear, and green beads. I thought intensely about which colors I should use. I chose black.
“How good are you with instructions?” she asked.
“Quite,” I said.
She rested a stapled pamphlet on my placemat. It was from a bead calendar that featured a new design template for each day. She had saved this one. The design was called a “Diamond Brick Stitch Bracelet.”
“Just ask me if you need help,” she said. “That’s how I learned.”
I realized I would need three more beads to separate each diamond. I scoured every shelf and surface for the right beads. I just wanted to touch everything. By the display window, I found a bowl of blue, round metallic beads with modern floral designs. I took three. When I asked for her advice on the pattern she said, “How nice.”
A customer came in. Cheryl jumped. “Oh my gosh!”
“I’ve been meaning to stop by. I’ve been thinking a lot about you,” said the woman.
“Oh, well, y’know!” said Cheryl. The woman’s name was Yael, a fellow bead enthusiast. Unlike Cheryl, though, she can make her own lamp work and glass beads. “I own a torch,” Yael told me.
Yael and Cheryl caught up in the corner by the back room. In such a small store, I could barely hear them. They were whispering. They were gossiping about Linda.
“This place has a much better feel with Cheryl here,” Yael said to me.
“She was hammering away when I walked in,” I told Yael. “It seems to me this store is one big jeweler’s project!”
“Catherine is from Dartmouth. She’s writing about the shop and me for a class,” Cheryl said to Yael. “I’m teaching her how to do the diamond brick stitch. She’s been observing the shop for a few days.”
I was flipping through the instructions she gave me and threading my first bead when Yael asked Cheryl, “How do you like being observed?”
“We talk,” Cheryl said. “I don’t mind.”
The conversation shifted back to beads. Yael asked Cheryl if she needed help with anything. Cheryl gave her two clear plastic bags, one full of loose beads and the other full of clear plastic tubes. Yael began sorting the beads, packing them into the tubes at the worktable. She was sitting diagonally from me.
Every time I paused to tighten my thread or re-read the instructions, Cheryl would ask, “Are you stuck? Did you mess up?” I was surprised at how close my bracelet looked to the instruction’s pictures and Cheryl’s own designs. When I was on my fifth row of beads, I showed her. “Well, it’s your first try,” she said. She laughed and looked at Yael, who was more carried away with her task.
“Catherine,” she said in a soft tone.
“Uh oh,” I thought. Yael’s presence had disconnected Cheryl and me. She was not like the other customers that quickly entered and exited. She was Cheryl’s friend. I didn’t look up.
“Catherine,” she said again. “I got a little up close and personal the last times you were here.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You won’t include the personal stuff in your paper, right?”
I mumbled. Would my response be Cheryl’s trigger? I couldn’t string any words together, only my beads. I mumbled more.
“You were writing in your notebook and I went with it!” she said.
“Yeah, I’m a note taker,” I said.
I continued beading, Yael continued packing, and Cheryl continued talking. I was surprised she wanted to undo our conversations. She was trying to start over, like she can with a beaded necklace or a pair of earrings. I was, though, even more surprised at myself. I was mad, unsettlingly mad. I was beginning to distrust her. Was this distrust my trigger? My bracelet became my primary interest that afternoon.
That day, the shop did have customers, though none of them bought anything. A man came in trying to find matching beads to some examples he had brought with him. His wife had sent him there. Cheryl did not have them. She bombarded him with questions. “Are these Mayuki beads? Are they 3mm or 6mm?” she asked.
“I don’t bead,” he said. The beads were not his. “I don’t know.”
Another woman came in looking for Hello Kitty beads. “My granddaughter loves Hello Kitty,” she told Cheryl. Cheryl walked around the store and her backroom looking for them as the elderly woman investigated the shop. “I’m sorry,” Cheryl said. “I don’t have them, but I can order them.”
“That’s okay. I’ll be back when you have them,” the woman told her.
After the woman left, Yael told Cheryl that she should not order the Hello Kitty beads. “This is a classy shop.”
“I didn’t say I was going to order them,” said Cheryl.
“Yes, you did,” Yael said.
“Yes, you did,” I thought to myself.
“No, I didn’t. I said I would think about ordering them. That’s different from ordering them. This is a classy shop.” There were several minutes of silence. Cheryl began to say, “Yael and I have a bit of an under the table thing going on —.”
“No, we don’t!” Yael stopped her.
“Okay. If you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t.” There was more silence.
“I guess I shouldn’t call it that,” she said.
I continued beading. In the diamond brick stitch, there’s an extra step when you decrease the number of beads in the middle row to create the diamond shape. It’s called “going back around.” That’s exactly what Cheryl was doing to Yael. Cheryl, I thought, was doing that to me. She was “going back around,” but maybe I was too. I left the shop. I couldn’t miss my bus.
On the bus back to Hanover that day, the weather was wet, sprinkling but not showering. It reminded one woman of the apocalypse that never happened. “I was really counting on the world to end,” she said in an Eastern European accent. A guy laughed. Cody, a Dartmouth College employee, agreed with her. “I’m standing outside when the next hurricane hits. Take me with you. Who needs this world? Seriously.” Nobody responded for a few minutes. “You’ve got to explore,” said another woman.
Cheryl has a lot of “ideas” that she is exploring. She was talking to a woman about gay pride. Cheryl now wants to sell advocacy bracelets. “I’d make a brick or peyote stitch bracelet with six rows. Like a rainbow!” She also wants to earn enough money to travel to Tucson, Arizona for the annual gem show. She might change the prices of her classes and pieces.
One day a young, 20-something man entered the store with a woman who was presumably his girlfriend. “Do you have skull beads?” he asked. “I came in last year and there were skull beads.”
By that point, I had spent so much time at the store that I could point him to the skull beads. Cheryl pointed to the plastic case in front of the cash register. We continued working on our bracelets.
The man looked at them. “What are these made of? Glass?” “Yes,” Cheryl said.
“I had a bracelet. They were worry beads. Skull worry beads, but it broke. Made of bone. How many of these would make a bracelet?”
“About 12,” said Cheryl.
“That’s too expensive for me. Sorry.”
“That’s okay,” said Cheryl. “I get money issues.”
The man left. “What are worry beads?” I asked Cheryl.
“They are usually big beads used for relaxation. I have a few here and at home. I’d have to find them in my bed,” she said. “He probably uses them for stress.”
She got up from her seat and walked over to the shelf by the door. There were several reasonably sized hole-less beads sitting on a plate. She picked a pink one, shaped like a heart and made of fluorite. “Energy comes from the bead,” she said. She sat across from me, took off her glasses, leaned back, and straightened her body. “I’m going to stop talking for a minute and then I’ll explain.”
I stared at her, putting my bracelet to the side for the first time in days. She placed the bead on her forehead and then on her chest, alternating between the two. She breathed heavily through her mouth.
She stopped and started explaining what she had done. She said we all have chakras, energy centers in our body. There are heart and head chakras and in order to channel them, you must align your body. “I’m Baptist,” she said. “My church would probably say no, but I’m not concentrating on some white light up there!”
She grabbed another worry bead, a brown one, and placed it my pocket. “Let it warm up in there. Then hold it for 10 minutes.”
“Like a stress ball?” I asked.
“Yeah, kind of!”
Cheryl then told me how she did yoga. She meant to sign up for a beginner’s class, but she was placed in an advanced one. The instructor used her as an example to the rest of the class. “I’m ambidextrous and also have a sympathetic vagus nerve,” she told me. She raised her hands.
On her left hand, Cheryl wears a gold medical bracelet Norman gave her a couple of years ago. She never takes it off. Like her shop, it’s aesthetic. Like her, the bracelet suggests deeper disorders. When she flipped over the center medallion, four of her diagnoses are listed. She wears the bracelet mostly for her bee allergy and her bariatric bypass surgery.
Cheryl returned to her beading and I returned to mine. After four days, I was almost done. Cheryl said, “Y’know, when you started that, I was unsure. But I like it. I really like it.” Earlier a customer had complimented me. Cheryl had listened.
“Have you ever thought about making key-chains?” I asked her.
“No... That’s a good idea!” I had become comfortable giving Cheryl advice, from design ideas to business thoughts. “Y’know, when you asked me about my budget, that really made me think. I need one. I need to make a budget.” One afternoon a wholesaler called Cheryl saying they couldn’t complete her order because her debit card was declined. She avoided the problem, not wanting to look at her account. “I’ll let it sit and not worry,” she had said. Now, though, she was listening to me.
“You’ve become part of my creative process too, y’know,” she said.
I stopped threading and wrapped my bracelet around my wrist. Minus the clasps, it was finished. I started collecting my things. “How nice,” Cheryl said. “Just tie some clasps on it at home.”
In my dorm room, I had been watching YouTube video tutorials about different stitches. I was hooked, ready for more projects. I picked up a blue and green necklace she had made and asked her what stitch it was made of. I had been eyeing it all week. “That’s a tubular peyote stitch. I bead it around a plastic straw!”
“It looks hard,” I said.
“Nah — you’re ready. People always forget how to start it. Starting is hard.”
“Yeah. It took me forever to begin this,” I said holding up my “Diamond Brick Stitch Bracelet.” I giggled nervously.
“You have a funny laugh,” Cheryl said.
I said goodbye. Six months from now, Cheryl sees herself as still here, but maybe in a new location on Main Street. “My creative processes will have expanded exponentially — what I have is who I am.”
I caught the last bus out of town. On board, Cody was complaining about the Escalades students drive in Hanover. Sam was talking about his day, the “unbelievable” weather, and stocks. “I’m never home,” Sam said. “I’m always riding the trolley. Isn’t that right, David?” David said nothing. “Gold went down. Silver went up. Good time to sell it. Sell it for junk!” continued Sam.
While getting dinner, I ran into a classmate. “Did you make your earrings?” Madison asked.
“No,” I said. “I made a bracelet.” I reached into my pocket, where I had put it. It wasn’t there. “Oh, it must be in my backpack or somewhere.” Except it wasn’t. I realized I had left my bracelet, beads, and leftover thread on the bus.
I had gone back around, stopping where I had started. My wrist was unadorned. Next time, I’ll take better care of my beads.
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.