FICTION – by Shelly Reuben. May 10, 2019
Lights! Camera! Action!
Clementine Fraile recalled those words from countless Hollywood movies when, at exactly 10:00 a.m., she hurried down the aisle toward the double doors to The Happy Store.
As she walked, she recalled a paragraph from her new-hire handbook that described the optimum employee attitude and demeanor. It said something like… “No matter what difficulties you are experiencing in your personal life, once our doors are open, we put all of our problems aside to give our customers the happy shopping experience they deserve.”
Then, as Clementine unbolted the last of the doors’ three locks, she laughed and muttered Norma Desmond’s classic line from the movie Sunset Boulevard:
“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”
This was one of the days when her shift coincided with that of Athena Eliopoulos, the tall, no-nonsense assistant manager, and Betty Davis, the exuberantly competent lead sales associate. Clementine called them “The A-Team,” and was always electrified by their energy. With them as her example, she was inspired to do more, work harder, find her customers exactly what they wanted (whether they knew what it was or not), and charm them with her incurable sense of fun.
And on days when Walter Graybill, the store manager, was also on duty – stalking the aisles like a panther in search of inartistically arranged napkins or a candle out of place – Clementine felt even more motivated.
Could she convince a customer that it was greatly to her advantage to open a Happy Store credit card, get 15% off on all her purchases, and receive double rewards points (a $10 certificate for every one hundred dollars spent), or would she end the day without having opened a single card?
All in all, being a sales associate at The Happy Store and doing her job to A-Team standards was a marathon run without stopping to drink water, gasp for breath or wipe the sweat off her brow.
Now, I’ll tell you about the Break Room.
It was off the stock room, between Walter Graybill’s office and the Employees Only bathroom, and it was about the same square footage as a laundry van or a UPS truck. In it were a wall that shared space with a refrigerator, an open-storage unit on which were (top shelf) a small microwave oven, (middle shelf) mugs, paper plates, various canisters containing plastic utensils, packets of sugar, powdered cream, coffee refill cartridges, and (bottom shelf) boxes of cookies, bottles of water, bags of pretzels, etc.
On a small round table across from the refrigerator were a much-used coffee machine and, depending upon the room’s occupant(s) and the time of day, an open bottle of water, boxes of donuts, half-drunk cups of coffee, and/or miscellaneous ball point pens, scissors, and merchandise sales tags.
Two chairs stood beside the table. One was usually empty, except for an occasional purse, sweater, apron, or stack of promotional shopping backs to be handed out. The occupant of the other chair was whichever sales associate had been assigned to that half-hour’s break.
The first time Clementine walked past the Break Room, she had not yet met Harriet, the high school student working part-time at The Happy Store. Her expectation, if she’d had one, would have been to encounter a perky teenager eager to meet the day with a smile. What she saw instead was a human being, probably female, of no discernable age or shape, slumped on a chair with her hands resting palms up on her thighs, her eyes closed, and a half-eaten sandwich neglected on the table mere inches away.
If the girl (we know now that it was Harriet) had looked even marginally vivacious, Clementine would have walked in and introduced herself. But perceiving her inanimate condition, she backed away, thinking, as she returned to the showroom floor, that the creature in the Break Room could have been one of those life-sized soft sculpture dolls sold on boardwalks during summer arts and crafts fairs.
Why wasn’t she more lively? Why wasn’t she more friendly? Where was the snap, crackle and pop Clementine expected from any associate lucky enough to be working in such a wonderful place?
That was what she thought then. During her first week at work.
Now, however, three weeks later, after working with the A-Team eight hours a day and five days a week, she had a different perspective. When 2:30 p.m. finally rolled around, and Athena or Betty told Clementine to “Have your lunch now,” she would stagger back to the Break Room, open her locker, remove her sandwich (they all brought lunch to work, as there was no time to eat out), and place it on a napkin. Then, exactly as Harriet had been when Clementine first saw her, she would flop into a chair, too tired to chew, let alone eat, looking as boneless as a rag doll and as animated as a sleeping sloth.
But that wasn’t the entire story.
Exactly thirty minutes later (not twenty-nine minutes and not thirty-one minutes), her lunch finished, a cup of coffee chugalugged, and her locker re-locked, Clementine would have re-applied her lipstick, straightened her apron, turned toward any customers who had entered the store, and …
LIGHTS! CAMERA! ACTION!
She was on.
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