A snow storm, a timid customer, and Clementine Fraile’s eighth adventure at The Happy Store. Part of an ongoing series.
It had started with snow. Enough to delay school openings and back up traffic at major intersections. When the snow turned to sleet and collisions became commonplace, the mayor issued a statement that everyone who was in “should stay in,” and everyone who was out “should go home.”
For the time being, however, The Happy Store was open.
Because it had promised to be a slow day – Mondays were always slow – Walter Graybill, the store manager, scheduled only Betty and Clementine on the morning shift. Other than filling a few Internet orders and putting pillows back on the shelves where they belonged, there was very little to do.
At a little after 10:00 a.m., the phone rang. Betty answered, “Good morning. This is The Happy Store. Betty Davis speaking. How may I help you?” And Clementine realized that, having classified her stunning fortyish blond supervisor as an older version of Betty from Archie Comic Book fame, she had never heard her last name; nor had she remotely considered that it might be a famous last name!
She waited until her boss ended the call and exclaimed, “Bette Davis? Huge eyes. Huge talent. Huge movie star! Jezebel! Now Voyager! All About Eve! Dark Victory! THAT Bette Davis?”
Betty turned to Clementine.
“I saw All About Eve in college. I know who Bette Davis is. And what are you? Some sort of a film buff?”
“Yes!” The fledgling sales associate sang out. “I am! I am! If it was made before 1959, I’ve probably seen it twice. And I love, love, love Bette Davis.” Clementine did a little jig. “My boss is Bette Davis!” She sang again, revealing for the first time at work the uncontrollable joy that abided at the core of her being.
“I’m not Bette with a theatrical ‘e.’ I’m Betty with a pedestrian ‘y.’ So rein in the jubilance.”
Clementine continued to grin. Betty reached for a pen, and Clementine noticed for the first time that there was no ring on the fourth finger of her left hand. “Interesting,” she mused: Widowed? Divorced? Or…
But just then, the door tinkled, and the only customer of the day pushed in, shivering from the cold. As soon as she stepped on the doormat, she began to brush clumps of snow off the shoulders of her coat.
Clementine bounded forward and commanded, “Turn around.”
The startled woman obeyed.
Clementine swept more snow off her back, and with one last swipe of her hand, said, “That’s better. We don’t want you catching pneumonia.” Then she stepped aside, and recalling the prompts she had learned from Walter, asked, “Are you here today to shop for yourself, or for someone else?”
The woman looked down shyly and practically whispered, “Someone else.”
Clementine waited for elucidation, but it did not come. She persisted. “A brother? A sister? A parent? Aunt? Uncle? Friend?”
Each suggestion was met by a miniscule shake of the head. However, when Clementine finally said, “Co-worker?” The woman gave an equally infinitesimal nod.
She’s an odd duck, Clementine thought, appraising the weather-weary woman who had just walked in. Mid-thirties. Plain as a brown box. Small nose. Narrow face. Mousy hair. Eyes like those of a timid turtle poking a tentative head out of a well-camouflaged shell.
“What’s your name?” Clementine asked.
The woman’s eyes retreated further into her shell, but she answered, “Shannon.”
“Okay, Shannon. My name is Clementine, as in ‘Oh my darling’.” She grabbed a red cart from under a shelf, thrust forward, and added, “Now let’s go and find something for your friend.”
Shannon’s head jerked up. She met Clementine’s eyes for a nanosecond and said – it was barely a whisper – “She’s not my friend. But ever since I went to work there, she has been kind to me.”
And that was all Clementine was able to get out of her. Not where “there” was. Not the colleague’s age, hobbies, marital status, or favorite color. Only that she was kind, and that the gift, “has to be very special.”
In their first sweep down the aisles, Clementine showed Shannon “one of my favorite things in the store.” It was a delicate blown glass salt and pepper set, each shaker resembling a cellophane wrapped twist of peppermint candy, and both packaged in a satin-lined blue velvet box.
Shannon gazed at the set with quiet admiration. Then she lifted it off the shelf and placed it gently at the bottom of the red cart.
Clementine beamed merrily. “Home run. First time at bat!”
But her customer shook her head, glanced around the store at the hundreds and hundreds of items that had not yet caught her eye, and said (Clementine barely caught the words), “I’m not sure.”
And so, our indomitable sales associate showed Shannon where to find the Clearance section. Silver antelopes. Benevolent Santas. Ever-present hedgehogs. And truly hideous nutcracker soldiers. Then she said, “Why don’t you do some exploring on your own, and I’ll check back with you later.”
Over the next two hours, Clementine occasionally caught glimpses of Shannon carefully inspecting a napkin ring or a magnolia centerpiece or a scented candle, returning it to a shelf, and moving on to the next item, in search of the perfect gift for a co-worker who had been kind to her, but who was not her friend.
Clementine wondered, as she straightened tiny Christmas trees in boxes and moved ornaments here and there to fill empty shelves, if Shannon had any friends at all. She imagined her living alone in a beige one-room apartment, with a beige sofa, beige curtains, a small kitchen table with one chair, and a telephone that never rang. But there would be a lush avocado plant she had grown from a pit on the window sill, and…
Her reverie was interrupted when Walter Graybill called and told Betty to close early and go home. Seconds later, the only customer in the store appeared like a shadow beside Clementine, and said solemnly, “I’m ready to pay.”
She was. And she did.
Her final decision was the first item that she had considered: The dainty peppermint salt and pepper set that, through all of her wanderings, had never left her cart.
“Perfect gift,” Clementine said. “I’m proud of you.” But when she looked into her customer’s shy eyes for affirmation, all she saw there was trepidation and doubt.
Well, Clementine thought. We can’t have that. And with words that thousands of directors have said sending nervous actresses on the stage…mothers have uttered sending frightened children to school…and commanders have said sending terrified pilots on bombing raids...she swept away fear by, insisting, “I am one-hundred…nay, one-hundred-thousand percent certain that you are doing the right thing!”
Maybe the actress didn’t smile. Doubtless, the child didn’t. And certainly, the pilot did not. But there at the checkout counter, the solitary shopper who took her Christmas shopping so seriously reached for her wallet, handed over the correct amount of cash, and smiled at Clementine Fraile.
It was a truly lovely smile.
Clementine smiled back. A slightly sad and infinitely tender smile. Hoping, as the friendless, intense, and generous-hearted woman walked down the aisle and out the doors, that someday, someone else would be kind to Shannon, and that she would come into The Happy Store again.
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