An elderly man, a brief delusion, and Clementine’s 17th adventure at The Happy Store.
That day at The Happy Store was strange in more ways than one. Or, rather… it was strange in just one way, but enough so to fulfill a quota of “strange” for the entire year... although the morning had started out ordinarily enough.
Since Mondays were always slow – regardless of weather, holiday sales, or special promotions (50% off on all Christmas wreaths), only Betty Davis, the lead sales associate, and Clementine Fraile, our diminutive retail heroine, were minding the store.
As usual, Clementine grabbed a broom and dust pan and did what she called “My Cinderella thing,” while Betty performed the mysterious administrative duties required at the start of the day.
After having worked in The Happy Store for almost a month, Clementine had seen her boss in several guises: Real-life double (but prettier and older) for the Betty of Archie Comic Book fame; no-nonsense and instructive Supervisor Betty – “If a customer ever talks to you like that again, just walk away;” and comic-relief Betty – “This vase is absolutely ghastly. Let’s sell it to the next person who walks in.”
That Monday, Clementine would see her in yet another incarnation.
At 9:05 a.m., she did one last swipe at fingerprints on the entry doors and put away her cleaning tools. At 10:00 a.m. exactly, she unlocked the glass front doors. As she bent to release a bottom latch, she noticed a pair of what she called “men’s grown-up shoes.” The kind her father and grandfather wore with three-piece suits to business meetings and to work. They were dark brown leather with brown laces and an almost military spit and polish shine. And the slacks that met the instep were ironed into a sharp crease.
Clementine stood, stepped away from the door, and studied the first customer of the day. He was a striking man in his eighties with slightly rumpled silver hair, bushy eyebrows, a sharp nose, and a square chin. His eyes were summer-sky blue.
But there was something wrong with them.
Clementine, caught off-balance by the incompatibility of a determine jaw and unfathomably wounded eyes, forgot to utter her usual, “Good morning. May I help you find…” speech.
The man, not seeing her, strode up the aisle toward the cash registers, and about a dozen feet away, turned purposefully into the furniture department. There, after a short search, he located what he seemed to have been looking for – a tub chair with a plush purple cushion and a tag bearing a SOLD sticker – and he slowly, almost arduously, lowered himself onto the seat.
Betty Davis, busy sorting through corporate office memoranda, saw peripheral movement to her left. In shock, she dropped her sheaf of papers and exclaimed, “Mr. Mallory!”
She walked to the papasan chair where he was sitting, crouched, and said, “I was so sorry to hear about your wife’s passing. Did you get my card?”
He turned to look at her.
Now would probably be a good time to tell you about papasan chairs – one of The Happy Store’s best-sellers. They consist of three elements: A rattan base. A huge rattan bowl. And an equally large and wildly comfortable cushion, which comes in a wide variety of colors, fabrics, and patterns. Sold separately, it would cost close to $200. During Christmas, the three-piece set was on sale for only $129.
Clementine had already decided she wanted one for her apartment, and was just waiting for the time and energy to discuss color schemes with Betty. Who, tears in her eyes, was gently stroking the hand of the gentleman occupying said item of furniture.
He also had tears in his eyes.
He said, “I came here today to pick up Holly’s chair.”
Betty said, “Mr. Mallory … Quentin … I know this was to have been her birthday present, but now that she’s gone, I would be happy to cancel the sale and return your…”..