Friday, April 19, 2019 by Shelly Reuben
Two souls collide at the cash register in Clementine 12th Adventure at The Happy Store.
Clementine Fraile did not see Mrs. Sylvia Winlock walk into the store on that Saturday afternoon.
Nor did she know that the elegant, reserved, and self-possessed septuagenarian was named Winlock – Mrs., Miss, Sylvia, or otherwise.
If she had seen the door open and shut, Clementine would have recognized the neatly coiffured silver hair and the aura of sad self-possession; and she would have recalled that two weeks earlier, the old lady had told Betty Davis, her boss, that she always came to The Happy Store after her husband’s chemotherapy treatments, because being here made her feel happy.
Clementine, however, was busy helping a customer find “the perfect Christmas present” for his niece.
The man’s name was Tony, which Clementine had extracted from him after she introduced herself. Tony had a nice, craggy face, thick eyebrows, a big nose, a strong jaw, and unwavering blue eyes that saw what they saw, bided their time for a while, and then quietly moved on.
Tony was about 40 years old. He wore a battered leather flight jacket, corduroy trousers, and construction worker boots. He had strong, capable, work-hardened hands, a deep voice, and if Clementine hadn’t been so busy asking questions, she probably would have fallen in love with him.
But he had come into the store because he needed something, and it was her job to provide it.
“How old is your niece,” she asked.
“Are the two of you close?”
“She’s my girl.”
“How much are you thinking of spending?”
“What’s she like? Are the two of you friends?”
“She’s wonderful. She loves me.”
“What’s her name?”
“Okay, Tony. I get it that Kathy’s wonderful and that you adore each other, but help me out here. Is she a girly-girl? Does she like to dance? Is she athletic? Does she have a pet? Is she a reader?”
And so on.
Eventually, Clementine pried out enough information to help him select a jangly necklace made of green and red bells, three small glass ornaments (a unicorn, a swan, and a snowman), and a beaded box covered in a snowflake design. She suggested that he also get a bigger box with Kathy’s initial on it, but when she asked if it was Kathy with a “K” or a “C,” Tony changed the subject and said he was ready to leave.
Clementine led him to the cash register. At the same time, Betty Davis was helping the aforementioned silver-haired lady to unload her selections at a different cash register on the same counter.
Of such coincidences are stories made and lives changed.
Mrs. Winlock mutely stared at her purchases while, just three feet away, a nice-looking man in a leather jacket was doing the same. Responding to the proximity, she studied him briefly and then turned away.
But she was still listening.
Clementine scanned the barcodes on the necklace, the ornaments and the beaded glass box. Then she said, “The total is thirty-six dollars, Tony. Are you paying with cash or a credit card?”
“Credit,” he answered curtly, and he inserted his card into the small device on the counter.
Clementine clicked a few more keys on the cash-computer, smiled, pointed to the device’s small screen, and said, “May I ask for your signature, please?”
Tony froze where he was standing.
And the world stopped.
Then it started up again.
These things do happen: Travelers blurt out their life stories to anonymous seatmates on trains. Anxious relatives confide secrets to strangers in waiting rooms of hospitals. People under pressure bypass the fortress of their natural reserve to give glimpses of their innermost selves to happenstantial passersby.
As did Tony that afternoon when his eyes suddenly became shiny and moist, and he uttered mechanically, “It’s the fourth time in two days I’ve been asked that.”
“Asked what?” Clementine said.
“To sign my name.” He reached for the stylus and scrawled something across the screen. “I memorized how to do it. But it’s gibberish to me. I never learned how to read.”
Clementine’s mouth fell open.
Tony met her eyes. “I don’t know if Kathy is spelled with a ‘K’ or with a ‘C,’ and I wouldn’t recognize either letter if it came to me wrapped in a hundred dollar bill.”
Her mouth was still in the “O” position when Mrs. Winlock, not having moved from her position opposite the cash register, cleared her throat authoritatively and said, “Young man.”
Tony turned and met the old lady’s eyes.
“If I may offer a suggestion?”
He raised an eyebrow.
Still stern and erect, Mrs. Winlock went on, “Before I married, I taught the Palmer penmanship method of cursive handwriting in elementary school. My husband died last week, and I don’t know what to do with myself. You would be doing me a great service if you permitted me to teach you how to read and write.”
Clementine printed out Tony’s receipt and handed it to him.
Betty printed out Mrs. Winlock’s receipt and handed it to her.
“Seriously?” Tony asked the former school teacher.
“Seriously,” Mrs. Winlock nodded curtly.
Then, picking up their packages, the man who loved his niece but could not spell her name, and the woman who loved to shop at The Happy Store even when her heart was breaking, stepped away from the counter and continued to talk softly to each other as they wended their way toward the front of the store.
Clementine looked at Betty.
Betty looked at Clementine.
But before either could say what both were thinking, a customer rapped her knuckles impatiently against the counter and snapped, “I’m in a hurry and I’d like some attention, please.”
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