Friday, April 26, 2019 by Shelly Reuben
Clementine deals with a diadem and bad art in her 13th Adventure at The Happy Store.
Clementine Fraile knew that Christmas was heating up at The Happy Store when her shift coincided with that of the store manager.
Walter Graybill, much to her astonishment, since she viewed him as remote and unapproachable (although a brilliant boss with a true artistic sensibility), had come in that morning wearing a brown t-shirt embossed with Rudolph the Reindeer’s head, featuring a big red nose dead-center on his chest. To complete the outfit, he wore a hat-like contraption that sprouted small deer antlers.
This was all the more astonishing as it contrasted so comically with his bushy eyebrows, handlebar mustache, and the stern immobility of his face.
Despite his outlandish get-up, however, Walter Graybill (heavy the head that wears the crown) always did what it was in his nature to do: Arrive early. Leave late. And quietly rove throughout the store, his eyes moving constantly like a presidential secret service agent, leaving in his wake displays that he had subtly or drastically rearranged – without seeming to have moved a thing.
Also, as Christmas drew closer, Clementine noticed a playfulness in Walter’s demeanor that went beyond a novelty t-shirt and an antler hat.
He did not manifest this towards her, perhaps because he did not know Clementine well enough. But he did towards Harriet, one of the high school students who had worked at The Happy Store the previous holiday season as well.
Harriet was not particularly pretty, but Clementine thought she was a darling. In a little game of “what if” that she played with herself … “If Harriet wasn’t a senior in high school, what would she be?”… Clementine answered her own question: “a stuffed animal.”
Or, in contemporary parlance – a plush toy.
Harriet had a square face, a well-padded (not fat) body, warm chocolaty brown eyes, smooth chocolaty brown skin, and a keen intelligence that somehow managed to coexist with a nature as trusting as a newborn pup.
Clementine adored her, and by the end of her first week at The Happy Store, they were hugging each other good bye at the ends of their shifts like longtime friends.
Walter’s interest in this young employee was neither inappropriate nor salacious. It combined merchandizing acumen with seasonal good humor. He was the artist and Harriet was his Galatea as he … well, there’s no other word for it – “decorated” – the teenaged girl.
He did this as if she were a Christmas tree that needed a star topper.
As if she were an angel whose halo needed sparkle.
As if she were an elf in dire need of a jingle bell hat.
For atop Harriet’s head, Walter positioned … but wait. I’ll show you how it went:
Eying her after she helped a diminutive shopper to remove a gold dinner plate (clearance price $4.35) from a high shelf, Walter said in a soft, seductive voice, “Harriet, come here. I have a present for you.”
Harriet crossed the aisle and stood in front of her boss, whose hands were concealed behind his back.
“What?” She asked suspiciously, giving the impression that they had enacted a similar scene the year before.
“Close your eyes.”
Remarkably (greater trust hath no teenager), she did.
Walter then raised his arms, and like a host crowning a beauty pageant queen, he put a delicate silvery tiara interwoven with tiny glimmer lights on top of her head. He then clicked an invisible switch on the side of the tiara, and it lighted up like a diadem on a princess in a fairytale.
Harriet was no princess.
She was better than a princess.
She was a charming and affectionate student working part-time in retail.
Walter said, “There. You look beautiful. And it only costs six dollars and ninety-five cents.”
“Are you giving it to me?” Harriet asked.
“No. You’re the model. Anyone who sees it on you will want to buy one for herself.”
Clementine, overhearing Walter’s pronouncement, interjected, “They’ll want to buy ten if they could look as good in it as Harriet.”
“Do I have to wear it?” the teenager moaned in the great “I’m being put-upon by grownups” tradition.
“No,” Walter said. “But if you do, I’ll give you another present.”
Walter said nothing. Thinking. Then he drawled out slowly, “I’ll give you a cookie.”
Harriet laughed and walked away, her tiara prettily twinkling on and off, just as the door to The Happy Store opened and a very thin woman of indeterminate middle-age walked in. Whereupon she stood, as if she had been teleported from a different planet, on the mat in front of door.
Clementine approached and said cheerfully, “You look a little lost. My name is Clementine. May I help you to find something?”
In a voice filled with brisk determination, the woman said “I’m Daphne, and I got this painting…” She had a thin, bony face, watery gray eyes, and a weary presence that suggested temporary, if not permanent, triumph over fatigue. She pulled a cell phone out of her purse, scrolled through what looked like hundreds of pictures, found what she was looking for, tapped the screen, and held it out to Clementine.
But before the sales associate had seen anything, Daphne pulled it away and said, “I need balls.”
Then she marched quickly up the aisle and did not stop until she arrived at a shelf on which half-a-dozen baskets displayed dozens of multi-colored and multi-textured spheres.
“Here,” she said resolutely.”
Again, Daphne held out her phone. This time long enough for Clementine to see a nativity painting, executed, she noted with horror, in the same cartoonish style and with the same reverence as portraits on velvet of Elvis Presley.
The baby Jesus was dressed in a cream colored gown, and he had a huge, metallic-looking gold halo around his head. Leaning over him in a pink dress with an ocean blue cape was Mary. She, too, wore a gigantic gold halo. Beside her was Joseph, garbed in a lime green smock, a fuchsia cape, and the regulation oversized halo. The sky behind the holy family was sapphire blue; the hay in the manger was glowing amber, and the cows in the stalls were reddish brown.
“Pink, blue, gold, red, green,” Daphne said, her voice the hammer. Her idea, the nail. “I got a big glass bowl under the baby Jesus in my bathroom, and … don’t you think it would look pretty if I put some of these colored balls in the bowl to match the picture?”
“Good grief,” Clementine thought. But that is not what she said.
Cheerfully and with a great determination to please her customer, she said, “Okay, Daphne. Let’s get started.”
Read Part II of “The Tiara and the Nativity” in next Pier 1 Imports post.
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