This is the second in a series of stories about Clementine Fraile and her adventures in retail.
Fact: Even though Clementine Fraile had art-directed award-winning advertisements for products ranging from vitamins to vacuum cleaners, she did not understand merchandise.
She had lived spartanly ever since her college years, paying off her student loan, wearing the designer cast-offs her clothes-horse friends got tired of (being slender and petite, Clementine looked good in everything), and saving whatever money she had left to buy a one-bedroom condominium in a townhouse not far from where Hyman Pease, her ex-boss, had opened his bookstore.
Her bills were paid, and she had a little money left in her savings account for “emergencies.” But, other than a bed and some hand-me-downs from relatives who had moved to Florida, she had very little furniture, and she had never purchased anything new. Even her towels and dishes had begun their careers in other people’s houses. On top of which, of course, she had no job.
Why did she smile so broadly when she thought about that? “Fiddle-de-Dee,” her heart sang out. No job.
It was cold outside, but not bitterly cold for mid-November. And she would have the entire day to herself. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. And the curiosity, now that she had the time to finally investigate – dare she say the words or would she gag on them? – The Happy Store.
Clementine pushed open the glass door to the showroom and heard an electronic tinkle. Probably, she thought, a bell to alert employees that a customer had walked in. The door closed behind her, and she was suddenly bathed in warmth and surrounded by delicious aromas.
This is so nice, she thought, inhaling deeply. But just as quickly, she quelled her enthusiasm, unwilling to be seduced by optimism … or by her better self.
Within two steps, however, her sour-self lost the battle, and Clementine was utterly and completely enchanted. Atop a table not five feet in front of her, she saw a mesmerizing array of cloth napkins embroidered with wild flowers in a pretty palette of autumn hues; a vase holding a fountain of creamy white silk hydrangea; an adorable pair of hedgehogs looking kissable and cuddly but not so, as they were made from some bristly hard material; dinner plates edged with acorns and ivy; and matching dessert dishes adorned with dainty fawns looking alive enough to leap off the plates.
Under the table, baskets overflowed with velvet pillows in subdued burgundies, bold oranges, and soft gold. The baskets sat on a carpet patterned with fall flowers so deliciously enticing, Clementine wanted to take off her shoes and wiggle her toes in the woven loom.
She looked to her left and saw display after display of napkin rings, coasters, cookie jars, hand-painted goblets, tabletop figurines (bunnies, more hedgehogs, foxes, deer, and dogs), music boxes, and …
But before she could take another step, an articulate and friendly voice interrupted the very first merchandise-induced reverie of her life.
“Good morning,” the voice said brightly.
Clementine Fraile turned to where it was coming from and saw a tall, slim, attractive woman in her late forties striding confidently her way. She had buttery blond shoulder-length hair, intelligent brown eyes, and a sunny smile. She quickly added, “Cold out there. Isn’t it?”
But the newly unemployed art director, suddenly feeling very young, very short, and utterly inadequate to her surroundings, muttered, “Um…””
Undiscouraged by the monosyllabic response, the woman said, “Follow me. I have something wonderful to show you!” And she led Clementine past glittery boxes, feathery plumes, and fragrant candles to a table filled with cups, plates, napkins, a thermos of hot chocolate, and platters filled with oatmeal cookies. Clearly, Clementine realized, this was the origin of the aromas that had greeted her when she first walked in.
“Refreshments!” the saleslady said proudly. “We don’t always do this, but today, we want to thank our customers for coming out in the cold.” Then, without the breath of a transition, she went on, “My name is Betty. Like in the old Archie comic books. You know, Betty and Veronica? Betty was the pretty one.”
Clementine reacted to this cheerful bit of information with a blank stare, overwhelmed by the friendliness, the warm welcome, and the cookies. The saleslady laughed. “Never mind. You’re too young.”
And the door tinkled again. Betty glanced briefly toward the sound, returned her attention to Clementine, and said, “Don’t forget to look at the clearance items in the corner. All of our pillows and tableware are buy-one, get-one 50% off. Enjoy your cookies. I’ll check back with your later.”
And in a graceful swish of long blond hair, she walked away.
Still stunned, Clementine Fraile reached somnambulistically for a cookie, bit into it, and wondered aloud, “Where in the world am I?”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2019. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com