The human mouth is a multi-functional device crucial to the everyday needs of most of us. It opens and forms shapes for the creation of words, excluding, of course, the art of ventriloquism. The mouth’s lips can be cautiously and discretely opened to whisper, or the lips can form irregular shapes causing what was once merely the thought of a whistle, to escape in a melodious sound that flows from our mouths. The most important and essential functions served by the mouth for most of us are those of acting as the portal of entry for solid food and liquids as well as the occasional odd item which inadvertently passes between the lips. Cleva, however, found an alternative purpose for that area of her face.
In 1969 Noel, Missouri was a small town where the old Ozark traditions that people had embraced for so long were beginning to come into conflict with the newer ways of life the outside world was offering. The electronic media was making the nine-hundred or so residents of the small river town noted for its overhanging bluffs along the highway 59 “Prize Drive”, consider changes consistent with the rest of the country. But not everyone had access to the electronic media, or for that matter, electricity.
Cleva lived with her husband and two children in a small one room cabin about two miles east of Noel. The cabin had a dirt floor and a crudely constructed lean-to only loosely attached to the rear of the structure. There was no plumbing, no running water and no electricity. The cabin was drafty and when it rained the roof more accurately only deflected the drops of water rather than stopping the moisture from dampening the dirt floor.
Nobody was quite certain how the family made a living but there were many people in the area that seemed to inexplicably get by. Cleva and her husband were very private folks and rarely came to town. But, when groceries were needed, Cleva, and occasionally the whole family, did make the two mile walk to Homer Kilmer’s Grocery Store, situated on Main Street in Noel. That walk was swelteringly hot in the summer and skin numbing cold in the winter.
Homer Kilmer could usually be found working at the meat counter located in the rear of the grocery store while his trusted employee Grace stayed up front. Grace greeted the customers, most of whom she knew and called by their first name, helped those looking for special items and operated the cash register when folks were ready to pay for their purchases. Grace was a kind and friendly sort who was liked by everyone.
Grace by no means could be considered a germophobe. In fact, occasional hugs were given to friends as she greeted them in the store or while walking on the Main Street sidewalks. She overlooked an occasional cough or throat clearing and didn’t shy away from those customers who may have had an impromptu sneeze or two.
Larry, a local resident and patron of Kilmer’s, knew Grace very well and was familiar with her sweet disposition. He had never known her to utter a cross word about anyone and it seemed as though she looked forward to seeing friends as they entered the store to shop. That’s why Larry was surprised to hear the words spoken by her one hot July afternoon.
“Oh no, here they come”, Grace said as she looked toward the front door of the store. Larry glanced at Grace and that smile she always had was nowhere to be seen. “Oh my God”, Grace spoke again and obviously to herself, but this time in a much lower tone. Larry heard the sound of the bell that hung above the store’s entrance and turned his head in that direction. With eyes fixed on the front door he saw Cleva, her husband and the two children enter.
Larry had already paid for his purchase but knew he couldn’t yet leave the business. His need to satisfy his curiosity mandated that he meander throughout the small store until the cause for Grace’s apprehension could be determined.
Cleva gathered up a few items from the shelves while the other family members looked on. The children didn’t speak much but seemed captivated by the selection of items for sale. Larry remembers thinking that the two children most likely rarely came to any store in town and the sight of all the goods offered for sale must have been astonishing to them.
Cleva inspected each item carefully then gathered them into her arms. There were only a few grocery products, and most likely only those that were most crucially needed by the family. She then walked to the counter where Grace stood almost motionless with, what may best be described as a look of foreboding, on her face.
Cleva placed, one at a time as if she were calculating the number of items, the objects to be purchased on the counter in front of Grace. Grace began to operate the old cash register and when the machine was finished with its calculations it spit out the total owed on a slip of paper. Grace tore the paper from the roll and handed it to Cleva.
Cleva carefully scrutinized the paper until she seemed satisfied with the machine’s accuracy then, and only then, leaned over the counter. A look of astonishment came over Larry’s face as Cleva began to spit coins from her mouth onto the counter. She continued to drop the coins, and at the same time was apparently silently adding their values together, only stopping when the amount printed on the paper was realized and resting on the counter.
Grace reached under the counter and removed a swath of cloth. Without speaking she looked over the coins, added up the total value of them and finally gathered up the saliva laden pieces with the ragged piece of material. Grace rubbed the coins against the material for a few seconds then dropped them into the cash register. Grace placed Cleva’s purchases into a brown paper bag, and while wiping the counter’s surface with the cloth said, “Thank you Cleva and have a nice day”.
Cleva was well known by merchants for storing her money, coinage and currency, within her mouth. The cause of concern for those receiving payment for goods or services from Cleva was the mixture of metal coins or paper currency with food remnants from areas within her mouth and secretions from the salivary glands, or more succinctly worded, spit and food on the money.