Friday, April 5, 2019 by Shelly Reuben
Pillows have a life of their own in Clementine’s 10th Adventure at The Happy Store.
Clementine Fraile adored her parents.
Her mother, Polly Fraile, had been a small town newspaper reporter who covered the crime beat for The Morning Clarion. She was a short woman – shorter even than Clementine – with those same speckled green eyes, the same elfin stature, dark skin, and darting hummingbird-like movements. And she always had a pencil tucked behind one ear and a press pass pinned to her jacket.
Polly loved her job and loved her husband, Rufus Fraile, a fourth generation manufacturer whose family came here from Scotland to start a ribbon factory in the late 1800s. Clementine, an only child, had radiated enough joy and energy to fill the large Victorian house that Rufus inherited from his family, and where he still lived.
She spent big chunks of her childhood eating lunches with her mother in the car on their way to crime scenes, accompanying her to murder trials, and laughing with her about things that had happened in the newsroom or in school. This much-loved daughter worked summers in her father’s factory, learning how to fill orders and design specialty ribbons, and showing school children how the straps on their backpacks and ribbons on their gift-wrapped packages were made.
Polly Fraile died suddenly when Clementine was twenty-eight years old. Since then, so many things – usually happy ones – reminded her of her no-longer-on-earth mother, that on occasion she would succumb to great waves of emotion like a deer caught in a flash flood. This occurred most recently when Athena Eliopoulos, the assistant manager of The Happy Store, was doing what Clementine called “pillow wrangling.”
That day, two things concerning pillows caused Clementine to laugh and then to cry. Both more or less simultaneously.
It started with a new and very large shipment of Christmas pillows (buy one get one 50% off) that Athena, tall, gorgeous, and goddess-like, determined to fit in available shelving on the showroom floor, a task which, to Clementine, seemed as impossible as stuffing a dozen Volkswagens into a clown.
The box Athena unpacked was bigger than a refrigerator, and it was literally bulging with pillows. For about five minutes, Clementine watched, awed by her boss’s strength, fortitude, and dexterity.
Athena worked as if she had four hands instead of two: First she removed two pillows from the box and tucked them between her knees. Next, she thrust her arms up to the elbows between two pillows on a shelf, spread them apart, and shoved a shoulder temporarily into the breach. Then she reached down for the pillows between her knees and quickly shoved them into the space she had created, whereupon the surrounding pillows sprang together, and she stood back to admire her handiwork.
And handy it was, with all of the pillows, including the two new ones, aligned neatly on a row, not an edge out of place.
Clementine exclaimed, “Cowboys break horses, and you break pillows. I never saw anything like that. Can I help?”
Athena, too busy to acknowledge a compliment, said, “Yeah, Kid. Sure. Do that shelf.” She pointed to one kitty-corner to where she was working. “Put red next to red. Plaid next to plaid, Snowman next to snowman, and so on.” Then she turned back to the box to wrangle another row of pillows.
I won’t go into great detail about Clementine’s efforts, other than to allude to her almost smothering when her head got caught between a Santa pillow and a reindeer pillow … her hair getting snagged in a sequined bow pillow (big, red, and very ugly) … and her confidence collapsing when, after fitting five new pillows into a space big enough for two, they all popped out in unison, smacked her in the face, and threw her to the floor. Thereby confirming to her that not only could she not break horses, she also could not “break” pillows.
Athena, now on a ladder, heard the commotion, looked down, smiled briefly, and said, “Just leave them where they are, Clementine. I’ll take it from here. Go greet customers at the door.”
By now, and it was no great surprise, our fearless heroine was helplessly laughing. Betty Davis, her other boss, glided by, as graceful as the ballerina she once was, and with a toss of her long blond hair, said, “Don’t feel bad. The same thing happened to me.”
Still laughing, Clementine shoved aside the half-dozen pillows under which she was buried and got to her feet. But before she was properly situated, she saw an arm dart past her face and a hand grab a pillow an inch from her left foot. Then another hand (companion to the first) did the same for the pillow resting on her right toe.
And instantly, she was thrust into a bi-lingual conversation between two women, one in her mid-sixties; the other in her early thirties. Both had the same glossy black hair, large brown eyes, and high cheekbones. The older woman was handsome, but her kindly face was etched with anxiety. She looked as if she could lose a week’s sleep if the texture of her home-made tortillas were less than perfect. Whereas the younger woman sparkled with style, self-assurance, and unselfconscious beauty, and looked as if she would be equally at home running a corporation or washing dishes in her mother’s kitchen.
The older woman spoke only Spanish, and the younger woman spoke only English as, one by one, they inspected the catastrophe of pillows surrounding Clementine.
Their conversation went something like this:
MOTHER: Long, rapid-fire burst of Spanish.
DAUGHTER: Okay, Mom. But I think Herminia would prefer the pillow with the holly. She doesn’t like anything to be too cute.
MOTHER: More Spanish.
DAUGHTER: I agree. I think two pillows is a little excessive, but it’s your gift and your call. What about for Penelope and Carmen?
MOTHER: Another stream of Spanish.
Whereupon they continued to evaluate Christmas décor pillows, which included such designs as a Santa surrounded by attentive dogs; a moose silhouetted against a plaid background; a snowman surrounded by snowflakes; a reindeer with Christmas lights dangling from his antlers; and a partridge in a pear tree.
After meticulous consideration, the mother and the daughter selected two pillows each for Herminia, Penelope, and Carmen. Then, thrusting all six under their arms, they moved cheerfully toward the cash registers, chattering happily along the way.
Clementine sank back against the nearest shelf and stared after them. She did not know that there were tears in her eyes.
But Betty did.
Once more hurrying down the aisle, she stopped when she saw her associate’s face, and with sincere concern in her voice, she asked, “What’s wrong?”
Clementine, unaware that two solitary tears had trickled down her cheeks, met Betty’s sympathetic eyes and responded simply, “I miss my mother.”
Then she blinked once, shrugged, and moving toward the front of the store, said, “Back to work.”
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