I'll tell you a story: A fiction column by Shelly Reuben
My name is Chester McBride.
I taught literature in Community College for twenty-six years.
In the course of my career, I came to believe that in order to excel at his or her job, a teacher must be a good psychologist. I also came to look at a student’s mind as a limited space into which large items must be moved through impossibly narrow doors.
Should Tennyson’s Mort d’Arthur, for example, be turned on its side so that its metaphors are facing the hinge? Should I try a diagonal approach with Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and hope that in doing so I don’t knock an important stanza to the floor? Should I stand alliteration on its end?
Regardless of the subject matter—mathematics, science, geography, poetry, philosophy—it is the teacher’s job to decide upon a route, determine an angle of attack, and transfer knowledge through often-obdurate openings into the student’s often-empty brain.
Which is where psychology comes into play. We study our scholar. Is he stubborn? Eager? Terrified? Confident?
Should we be stern? Creative? Flamboyant? Pedantic?
Should we coax? Seduce? Intimidate? Badger?
And so, by the time I retired from teaching—predominantly adults in night school at community college—I had a firm grasp on how people tick and who they are beneath their business suits, uniforms (many were police officers and firefighters), T-shirts, or blue jeans.
Although my responsibilities encompassed various areas in the English Department, including Nineteenth Century American and British novels, my personal hobby has always been outside my professional area of expertise. I enjoy exploring the earth’s surface and strata, and I have a respectable collection of fossils, minerals, and rocks.
It was after my beloved daughter had patiently endured yet another session with my gemstones—she pretends to be interested in the rarity of bi-color demantoid garnets and the light absorption characteristics of pigeon blood rubies—that she suggested I go back to work, and recommended a job which she deemed ideally suited to my solitary state: I am a widower; I am interested in precious stones; and I longer care to teach.
And so, seven years ago, I was employed by the department store (no need to tell you its name) at which I still work. Although I was hired as a salesman, I am now manager of the jewelry counter. I very much enjoy and I am very good at what I do.
My customers trust me.
If there is a flaw in a gem, I point it out. If a ring is too large or too small, I facilitate re-sizing. If an item is going on sale, I suggest that my client put it on hold so that it can be bought at a reduced price the following week. And even though we are strongly encouraged to pressure patrons into buying damage and loss insurance on their purchases, with a roll of my eyes, I can generally convey that such an expenditure would be a waste of money.
My regular customers buy gifts for birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, weddings, sweet-sixteens, confirmations, bar or bat mitzvahs, and graduations. For themselves (not as gifts to others), they buy earrings, pins, necklaces, studs, cufflinks, watches, and pearls.
Men often bring their fiancées to my counter to select wedding rings. Women, however, never come in to purchase those items alone.
Or, such had been the case until the advent of Mrs. Tannis.
Mrs. Liliana Tannis, to be exact.
I shall attempt to describe her.
She is an attractive lady in her early forties with a sound knowledge of gems. Her eyes have the luminous translucence of blue tourmaline; her hair is golden amber, worn in a sleek and stylish cut that emphasizes small, shell-like ears. She is slender and of medium height. She has the slim, muscular legs of a dancer, and she favors boldly colored designer dresses accessorized with Italian imported high-heeled shoes.
Mrs. Tannis also has beautifully shaped hands.
She first came to my jewelry counter three years ago. On March 13th to be exact. This was also the first time she informed me that her husband, and I quote, “adored” her. She was, I remember, wearing too much foundation makeup under a somewhat discolored left eye.
Mrs. Liliana Tannis was quick to relate a confidence and eager to talk. She stated that her husband was Randolph Tannis, and that he was a management consultant for Mallas, MacReady, and Kimball on Park Avenue and 51st Street. They had been married for twenty years, and when Randolph had awakened on that particular Sunday morning, he had said to her, “Why not go out today and buy yourself a bauble?”
In exactly those words, she emphasized.
“Buy yourself a bauble.”
“Which,” she assured me, she had considered an excellent idea.
The ring I sold her that day was exquisite: A band of brilliant white diamonds in a platinum setting. It looked as slender and delicate on her hand as a spray of morning dew.
It was not until six months later that she returned to my jewelry counter for a second visit. Specifically, on Thursday, September 15th.
As before, she was stylishly dressed and perfectly groomed. This time, however, she wore considerably less makeup, there were no discolorations under either eye, and she appeared to be more relaxed. Again, our interaction began with a preamble about how devoted her husband was, how generous, and how eager to please.
Randolph liked the ring that she had purchased earlier, she informed me, but had thought it a “teensy bit too conservative,” and suggested that she come back and get a larger stone in a more decorative setting.
Mrs. Tannis inspected the items in my display case, and after lengthy consideration, selected a sunflower cluster of 17 small, perfect diamonds set in platinum around a brilliant diamond center stone.
During the first two years of our association, Liliana Tannis returned to make additional purchases every six months. However, by the third year (I have all of the dates written down if you are interested), she began to accelerate her visits to three-month intervals. Her final purchase occurred on Saturday, May 18th at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon.
It was in this third year of our acquaintance that I noticed some changes in her…shall I say style? Demeanor? Vocabulary? Or, perhaps, all three.
Instead of referring to her husband in the present tense, for example, she would slip, or so it seemed, and say, “Randolph would have loved this!” or “Randolph always wanted me to have the best.” And when picking out a particularly expensive gem, “Randolph was such a generous man.”
Nothing obvious, and had I not taught English for over thirty years, perhaps nothing would have registered in my conscious mind.
However, her manner, too, had altered. Although never self-effacing or tentative, she became livelier and more electric. She spoke faster, smiled oftener, and took less time to make up her mind.
If I could condense the changes I perceived into just one word, it would have to be “cheerful.”
The Mrs. Liliana Tannis who purchased a magnificent 17.54 carat emerald-cut sapphire ring was neither more nor less elegant than the Liliana Tannis who had acquired her first “bauble” three years earlier, but she appeared to be a distinctly happier woman.
That, combined with her inexplicable references to devoted Randolph as though he existed only in the past tense, made me wonder.
In retrospect, I wish that I had kept all ruminations, speculations, and conclusion to myself, because I had always found Mrs. Tannis to be a most admirable woman, and I had no wish to cause her harm.
Nevertheless, I drew my suspicions to the attention of the authorities, and they (sadly) found the remains of Randolph securely ensconced under several feel of soil at the foot of a robust looking honey locust tree in Mrs. Tannis’ backyard.
Suffice it to say, I deeply regret, not only my psychological acumen, but also my rashness in verbalizing my beliefs.
Subsequent to her arrest, I learned many things about Mr. Randolph Tannis that increased my regret a thousand fold. Rather than enumerate every incident of physical and mental abuse—corroborated by witness statements, hospital records, police reports, and restraining orders—I record here with amazement that Liliana has forgiven me. Not only for deducing that she had prematurely diminished her husband’s lifespan, but also for my eagerness in proving to the world how exemplary were my deductive powers.
Liliana herself is hopeful about the outcome of her trial, as is her attorney. He anticipates that she will be incarcerated for no more than two years on a charge of manslaughter which, optimally, will be reduced to time served.
At present, I have in my possession what she still refers to as her “baubles.” The entire collection. From the first band of white diamonds that she purchased over three years ago, to the huge emerald that she acquired on May 17th.
Liliana has entrusted her treasures to me because she believes that I will preserve them in safety until she is released from the correctional facility at which she is presently being detained. At that time, she informs me, she intends to resume the activities of her previous life.
Despite the many difficulties which my rash interference has caused her, Liliana remains an optimistic and happy woman.
I know this because I am a good psychologist.
I know this because thirty-two years of teaching has turned me into an excellent judge of character.
And I know this because I like Liliana Tannis.
I like her very much.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit: www.shellyreuben.com
Copyright (c) 2014. Shelly Reuben