It was not until the beginning of her second week at The Happy Store that Clementine Fraile met Walter Graybill, the store manager. If she had been a member of the Mafia, he would have been the boss of bosses – the capo di tutti i capi – he to whom, not only Clementine, but also Betty and Athena were accountable.
As with all things organizational, Clementine believed that virtue or venom comes from the top. If the guy or gal issuing orders is honest, good-hearted, efficient, and fair, such qualities flow downstream to lower echelon workers like cold lemonade on a hot day.
Similarly, if the Executive-in-Charge is grasping and cold-hearted, with an inherent contempt for mankind (including his own staff), that too would burble downhill…but like poison from a witches brew.
The Happy Store employees loved their jobs, and behind his back, they said only good things about their boss. So even before Walter Graybill came back from his vacation (Athena said that he had gone to Paris; Betty thought it was London), Clementine was predisposed to like him.
On first meeting, Walter gave the impression of being a big man, but he was really no taller than his assistant manager, Athena Eliopoulos. He had a broad chest, a thick neck, short, curly copper-colored hair, and a pleasantly masculine face dominated by bushy eyebrows over black eyes, and a handlebar mustache.
Whenever Clementine looked at him (keeping in mind that she had once been a highly paid art director), she envisioned a beret on his head, a scarf tied around his neck, a paint brush in one hand, and a lifetime membership at the Louvre in the other. But, of course, that was all in her imagination, for Walter’s actual winter-wear was corduroy pants, sneakers, and button-down flannel shirts. People who did not know his job title and merely had observed him pushing boxes of merchandise to and from display shelves usually assumed that he was the store’s janitor.
Only later did Clementine discover that her image of him as an artist was not far wrong, for 20 years earlier, before he had come to The Happy Store in an entry-level position, he had attended the American Institute of Art and Design, hell bent on becoming a painter.
Why or how that came to naught, Clementine did not know, but that he channeled his artistic instincts into making The Happy Store displays into things of beauty was as undeniable as the looks of childlike joy on customers’ faces when they took it all in.
“This,” Betty explained, removing the pink flower arrangement that Clementine had put on a table diagonally across from the entrance doors, “is Walter’s black and white area. Everything here has to be either or both colors.”
And so they were, with a white salad plate atop a black dinner plate over a black and white checked table runner beside white napkins fringed in black and bunched in a black beaded napkin holder…and so.
Walter was a perfectionist.
And all of The Happy Store displays were perfect.
When Athena introduced their new employee to the store manager for the first time, she paved the way to his good graces by saying, “Walter, she’s terrific.”
He looked down (very far down; the top of Clementine’s head barely reached his collar bones) without much interest, but said, “Welcome. What are you planning on accomplishing today?”
Taken aback, Clementine blinked, looked directly into his eyes, and said, “Huh?”
And Walter began to rattle off instructions: “When you greet customers, tell them that this week only, if they open up a Happy Store credit card, they’ll get an additional 25% off on all their purchases, including sale and clearance. Draw their attention to the two for $20 candle, the buy one get one 50% off pillows, and that all Christmas wreaths are …”
Clementine stared at him aghast, and said, “I might as well try to read them War and Peace.”
Walter gave his new sales associate a half-smile that projected genuine humor, said, “I’m sure you’ll do your best, Clementine,” and walked away.
And she tried.
She really tried.
Once, she got all the way to “…and an additional 15% off for Rewards Members” before the customer thanked her politely and said, “I’ll just look around for now.”
But most often, she was gently shut down before she had said, “Two three-wick candles for just $20.”
All of the customers, however, were kind, as if in their heart of hearts, they were benignantly applauding a wretchedly untalented four-year-old doing a sloppy pirouette in a kindergartner play.
With these, Clementine often said, “Okay. I’ll shut up now, and send you on your merry way.”
But there were others.
The ones who, after she asked, “Are you here today for your Happy Store fix?” would pierce her with a look that conveyed, “You wouldn’t be allowed in my country club,” or “Don’t befoul the atmosphere with your groveling retail ploys,” or “Aren’t you something I once scraped off the bottom of my shoe?”
Clementine called it “The Death Stare.”
She asked Betty, Athena, and two of the high school part-timers what they did when they got The Death Stare, but none seem to understand the question.
Walter Graybill, however, did.
He gave Clementine the other half of the smile he had started that morning. A “been there; done that” smile. Then he nodded, shrugged, and said, “Just walk away.”
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