In Clementine Fraile’s fifth story about and The Happy Store, we aren’t totally surprised by what she (impulsively!) does.
Athena Eliopoulos was the assistant manager of The Happy Store.
It was she who made the initial phone call in response to Clementine Fraile’s job application, and she who evaluated all candidates during “first contact” if they passed the telephone interview and were asked to come into the store.
And later, it would be she who introduced a new hire to Walter Graybill, the store manager, who took it from there.
Oddly, Clementine was not nervous when she answered Athena’s questions on the phone. Nor was she nervous two days later, when she entered the showroom for the second time.
“It’s her Brooklyn accent,” she mused about her interviewer as she walked through the doors. “There’s just something about a city girl that feels accessible, even if she does hold your immediate future in her hands.”
But when a tall, impressive woman moved out from behind the counter and said, “You’re here about the job? Glad to meet you,” confidence oozed out of Clementine like oil from a leaky can. For what the eager job applicant saw was not a Brooklyn girl. Or a Philadelphia girl. Or a California girl.
It was a goddess.
Tall. Close to six feet. Not taut and slender like Betty. More classically voluptuous. Like Winged Victory at the Louvre in Paris … but before she sprouted wings.
Athena’s face had strong features. Jaw. Nose. Forehead. A woman who, like her namesake, could lead armies against armies in ancient Greece. But beautiful, too. With such fine arched eyebrows and dark golden eyes that Clementine could easily imagine emperors tossing emeralds at her feet.
She was wearing black slacks that hugged her hips, but not too much. Flat ballet-like shoes, and a cowl-necked red sweater. All suitable wear for a professional. Nonetheless, there was something about the woman – probably the wild tumble of curly red hair – that made Clementine believe utterly in her heart that below the hem of Athena’s sweater, there abided a diamond belly button ring in a flat, toned tummy.
It was Clementine’s speculations about this hypothetical adornment that made her feel as if the assistant store manager must have super powers – a belief she never really relinquished over time.
However, our unemployed art director put all that out of her mind when Athena called Betty away from a giant mosaic urn where she was arranging hydrangea (20% off on all vases and silk flowers) and said, “Betty, would you please show Clementine around the floor and explain how we greet people. Then set her loose, and we’ll see how she does.”
Clementine turned from Athena to Betty, and then back to Athena again. They appeared to be friendly and helpful, but they had jobs. She, as yet, did not.
Still nervous, but not nervous enough to suppress her intrinsic sassy self, Clementine asked, “So, am I hired, or is this a test?”
“Don’t worry,” Betty said, her smile as warm as the hand of a mother on the shoulder of a frightened child. But was it the false smile of a theatrically trained dancer? Or the sincere smile of a person who might one day be a colleague and a friend?
No way to know.
Betty showed Clementine the ropes while Athena followed their progress with her eyes.
The first thing she noted, and from far enough away to provide a genuine perspective, was the job applicant’s appearance. Clementine Fraile was a petite little thing, about five feet tall and somewhere in the area of thirty years old. She had skin the color of coffee beans, yellow-speckled green eyes, a head of light brown ringlet-like curls, a heart shaped face, and a fairy-like body that darted here and there as if she were Tinkerbelle in a mall parking lot searching for a lost car.
Betty told Clementine to greet the next customer who entered The Happy Store, and then, as Athena had instructed, “set her loose.”
A plump, middle-aged woman smelling vaguely of newly permed hair burst through the doors and began to look to her left and right, as if anticipating a flight of migratory geese.
“A bit cold out there, isn’t it?” Clementine said cheerfully.
“What? Huh?” The woman responded, her eyes briefly touching the unknown speaker before hurrying on.
“May I help you to find something?”
The flustered female returned her eyes to Clementine. Almost frantic, she cried, “Bert. My husband. I was supposed to meet him here half-an-hour ago, but I got stuck in traffic, and…”
“Not to worry,” Clementine said. “I specialize in lost husbands.” And she led the distraught woman into the furniture department, where within seconds, they came upon an extremely thin man (Jack Sprat and his wife came to mind) reclining comfortably in a blue velvet armchair and humming gently as he watched other shoppers amble by.
“Bert!” The rotund woman exclaimed.
He looked up. “Hi, Sylvie,” he smiled. “Nice haircut.”
Then he shifted his eyes to those of the individual at Sylvie’s side and added, “This place is great. But it would be better if you served drinks.”
Clementine laughed. “I think I should advise you of our store policy. If someone wants to buy a chair while you’re still sitting in it, you go with the chair.”
The skinny man reached for his now relieved wife and pulled her onto his lap. She landed with a plop, and soon they were laughing, too. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll buy the chair. But I want two. Is that okay with you Sylvie?”
His wife – truly, they were as giddy as teenagers in love – replied, “Whatever you say, Bert.”
At that point, Betty took over and completed the sale (at the check-out counter, Bert and Sylvie told her that they were, indeed, newlyweds, and were furnishing their new home.)
For the next hour, Clementine continued to greet customers, and Betty and Athena continued to monitor her progress. But it was not until after the hedgehog incident that Athena made a final decision about hiring.
The customer was very businesslike and efficient as she waved away Clementine’s friendly hello. “I know what I want,” she snapped, and walked directly to a display of holiday decorations in the shapes of deer, squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs, and owls, all made of fabric, straw, and Styrofoam, and all wearing Christmassy vests or hats with “Buy me and take me home” expressions on every face.
Looking as severe as a prison guard, the woman reached for a hedgehog about the size of … well … a hedgehog. It had a sprig of holly rakishly tucked behind one ear and was grasping a large acorn in its forepaws. She turned the hedgehog this way and that, as if she were a dermatologist looking for a pimple. Finally, she held it out to Clementine and complained, “There is a bare spot on the hind quarter of the left leg. I want this. But I want one that is perfect.”
Without hesitating to blink, Clementine put the defective creature to one side and bent to scrutinize its brethren on a lower shelf. Finally, she pulled out a different hedgehog, handed it to her customer, and exclaimed triumphantly, “This one has absolutely no psoriasis!”
The grim female did her utmost (not succeeding) to stifle an incipient grin. After which and upon careful inspection for unacceptable skin conditions, she purchased an addition fox, owl, and deer.
All witnessed by Betty (formerly a ballerina) and Athena (then and always a Goddess), the first of whom said, “Clementine is a natural,” and the latter of whom said, “And that little chickie just got herself a job.”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com