FICTION – by Shelly Reuben. March 8, 2019.
In this, her sixth adventure, Clementine Fraile starts her new job at The Happy Store.
During her first week at The Happy Store, Clementine Fraile worked 32 hours, which was at least 20 more than she had wanted to. And every hour, minute, and second that she labored (she had thought a seasonal job would be a mindless romp during which money was exchanged with amiable strangers), she exerted herself to the maximum extent of her abilities.
Everybody in the store worked that hard. Or harder. She had never been so tired in her life.
Her first day on the job, she was given a red apron with the store’s logo embroidered on the bodice – a swanlike swirl ending in an exclamation point – and a pin with “Clementine” engraved in black on a gold background. She was oddly proud of her nameplate and apron, and in a way she had never been of the Clio award she won for art directing a yogurt commercial.
Clementine was also given a locker in the break room. All together, that made four things that she’d never had before: A name pin, an apron, a locker, and a break room.
When Walter Graybill, the store manager (Clementine still had not met him) put together the weekly work schedules, he did it so that there was never more than one employee in the break room at a single time, staggering their half-hour lunches to maximize the number of associates selling merchandise on the floor.
Of the 32 hours she had worked during what she called her “maiden voyage,” Clementine spent 30 of them greeting customers and helping them to find the cookie jar (a snowman head in a black top hat), tree topper (a silver angel with star-like wings), or beaded table runner (white background with a Christmas tree motif) that they had come into The Happy Store to buy.
Then – it was on a Saturday; busiest day in the week – Betty called in with a family emergency, and two of the high school part-timers also called in, rasping and coughing with early cases of winter flu. Which left just two employees in The Happy Store to do all the work.
Athena Eliopoulos, the intimidatingly gorgeous assistant manager whom Clementine thought of as a goddess, searched the front of the store with her eyes, and located her new hire. She was showing gardenia and lavender three-wick candles to a white-haired geriatric leaning on a cane (two for $20.00 – mix and match).
Athena put two fingers in her mouth like a New Yorker hailing a cab, and sent out an ear piercing whistle.
Our young heroine looked up. So did everyone else in the store.
Athena motioned for her sales associate to come to the counter, so Clementine told the old lady, “I’ll be back in a minute” (but she never returned), and scooted toward the rear of the store. Athena met her at the checkout counter, pointed to one of two computer cash registers, and said, “You have to ring up sales.” Then she pointed to a line of customers standing ten deep in front of the counter with merchandise piled high in baskets, tumbling out of the little red carts, and clutched in their arms like exotic bundles of kindling.
“But,” Clementine gasped. Terrified. “Nobody taught me how to use the cash register!”
Pointing to different keys on the screen, Athena rattled off words of instruction that jumbled into each other like dice in a shaker cup: HAPPY STORE CREDIT. DEBIT CARDS. CASH. GIFT CARDS. OTHER TENDER. EXPEDITED ORDERS. QUANTITY. RETURNS. REWARDS POINTS. PRINT. DELETE. CANCEL. VOID. PRICE CHECK.
Of which, Clementine understood nothing, and her head felt like a pin cushion being stabbed by multiple points-of-sale. Finally, Athena said, “I’ll be out front. Call me if you need me.”
Before she had gone two steps, Clementine said, “I need you.”
But the assistant manager muttered, “Wing it,” slipped behind a display of feathered Christmas ornaments (cardinals, owls, bluebirds, doves), and disappeared.
The rest of this story can be told quickly, as I don’t want to keep you, and I’m sure you have dozens of things to do.
The very first person in line was a slim, high cheek-boned woman in her forties with a stylish geometric haircut. She was in contemporary clothes, but somehow managed to look like a fashion icon from a 1930s art deco canvas wearing a fox fur coat and walking an Italian greyhound.
Overhearing the conversation between the nervous sales clerk and the woman who was clearly her boss, the stylish woman placed four tartan napkins beside the cash register, moved gracefully through the opening into the employee only area, threw her coat over an open drawer, pushed back the sleeves of her black cashmere sweater, and said, “Before I got married, I worked at The Happy Store on Hampshire Road.” Then she took the barcode reader, turned to Clementine, and said, “I’ll work the cash register. You wrap and pack. What’s your employee number so that I can log you in?”
The woman’s name, Clementine learned later, was Eleanor Dardanelle, socialite wife of the CEO of Dardanelle Industries. She was on the Board of Directors of the ballet, opera, animal rescue, Children’s Museum, and … you name it. Two hours later, hundreds of items had been sold, wrapped, bagged, and sent on their way. The line was gone, the store was closing, and Mrs. Dardanelle, once again wearing her overcoat, was standing on the customer side of the checkout counter, politely waiting while Clementine Fraile inserted four tartan napkins into a small plastic bag.
Just then, Athena her red hair a Bride of Frankenstein halo, her face pale, and her shoulders slumped, stumbled up the aisle. She stopped at the checkout counter, noted that it was tidy, that the cash registers were humming contentedly, and that there were no neglected consumers angrily tapping their feet and waiting to complain.
“Well done, Clementine,” she said wearily.
Our newly anointed sales associate darted a grateful glance at Eleanor Dardanelle, and began, “But I didn’t…”
Mrs. Dardanelle cut her off. “Young lady,” she insisted, “walk me to the door. I want to tell you about a fund raiser we’re having for the opera on Sunday to which, I believe, you will want to donate your time.”
Follow her? Stay behind and help her boss to close up?
Clementine did not know what to do. She cast an appealing eye at Athena.
The assistant manager said, “Go.”
So she did.
And as they walked down the aisle, she profusely thanked her good angel for “Keeping me from being beaten to death with a unicorn by customers I inadvertently overcharged.” Eleanor Dardanelle laughed. She took Clementine’s hand, tucked it into the crook of her arm, and said confidentially, “I know it’s against store policy for anyone but a sales associate to work the cash register, but…” She squeezed Clementine’s hand once before releasing it. “…once a Happy Store employee, always a Happy Store Employee.”
Then, walking out the door, she added, “Most fun I’ve had in years.”
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