Royalty, or the illusion thereof, inhabits The Happy Store in Clementine’s 21st adventure
She never said her name was Anastasia. Nor did she claim to be of any particular royal family. Certainly not the Romanovs. Certainly not descended from the Tsar.
On previous occasions when Clementine Fraile had spoken to the vaguely exotic and elegant woman in The Happy Store, she (the customer) alluded to an ancestral home (a castle?) seized by storm troopers, parents fleeing Nazis, a cloak-and-dagger journey when she was two-years-old from Europe to America, and a long and healthy life – she was seventy-nine-years-old – that would have been happy, but for the lingering sadness of…
Clementine could not look at her – tall and willowy with slightly hunched shoulders like an ingénue sculpted on an art-deco vase – without visualizing perfectly shaped Greta Garbo-like lips softly exhaling the words, “I want to be alone.”
Everything about the woman reminded Clementine of that fabulously beautiful movie star of the 1930s. Large, deep-set eyes as translucently gray as a dragonfly’s wings, with high cheekbones, bone ivory colored skin, naturally red lips, and soft silver hair.
Her name, as she explained whenever the subject came up, was Ioana. It was pronounced Yannah, but Clementine could or would not remember this simple instruction, and persisted in pronouncing it with a hard “i” as in “Eye-Oh-Nah.” Neither pronunciation really mattered, though, for in her mind’s eye, Clementine thought of her only as “The Princess.”
The first two times that Ioana came into The Happy Store, she wandered the aisles, inspecting salt and pepper shakers shaped like bluebirds, butter knives with mother-of-pearl handles, and every kind of faux flower from long-stemmed magnolias to delicate branches of cherry blossoms, departing an hour later with only one item held loosely in the long white fingers of a perfectly manicured hand.
Always one item. No more. No less.
Last time in, she had purchased a set of wind chimes so small they could have hung outside a hummingbird’s window. The time before that, it was a heavy hand blown glass bottle embedded with tiny air bubbles that seemed to dance like fireflies in the sun. It had a neck wide enough for silver dollars or pearl necklaces or gold doubloons, and it was as evocative and exotic as the princess herself.
One particular spring morning, Walter Graybill, the inscrutable store manager, Betty Davis, the stunning, smart and sassy lead sales associate, and Clementine Fraile were on duty when The Princess walked in.
The guiding principle of salesmanship at The Happy Store (iterated often when Clementine got too chatty), was “touch and go.” Which meant that an employee should make limited contact with a customer, move on to the next customer, do the same, and then return to each as necessary to advise, inspire, and assist.
But it was a slow day, and Clementine liked The Princess. So she strolled over to the table where Ioana was examining a plate with a delicate violet border, and said, “Good morning, Ioana,” as always, mispronouncing the name.
The Princess’s smile was welcoming, but weary (again, Clementine thought of Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel saying “I have never been so tired in my life”).
The greeting was acknowledged and returned.
Just then, the door to The Happy Store tinkled open and another customer walked in. Clementine excused herself and greeted a mother (thirtyish; limp blond hair) and an elfin six-year-old daughter with corn silk hair and periwinkle eyes.
At Clementine’s urgings, the woman – her name was Wanda – explained that she needed a house warming gift for her sister, and was thinking of something for the dining room.
The sales associate asked a few questions (“What kind of a house is it? What’s your price range?”), made a few recommendations (“This lazy Susan would be perfect”), and was about to point out a hammered brass serving bowl when Wanda abruptly turned away and snapped, “Felicity! Don’t touch anything!”
Watching the child dart from a soapstone cat, to party masks, to candlesticks, to coasters (and touching each item in its turn), Clementine realized that she had lost the mother’s attention. So she shrugged and looked for Ioana, who was now inspecting colorful sets of demitasse cups in a display area nearby.
But before she could take a single step forward, a commotion erupted two aisles over, with a frustrated Wanda now exclaiming in motherly irritability, “Felicity! How in the world did you manage to do that?”
The “that” was a pretty napkin ring attached to a huge magenta hibiscus, which Felicity had succeeded in slipping over her hand like a bracelet.
Walter Graybill, whose face rarely expressed emotion, was suppressing the twitch of a grin beneath the bush of his handlebar mustache, while Betty Davis, without missing a beat, rushed to Wanda’s aid and gently – she sounded like the good witch Glinda in The Wizard of Oz – tried to coax Felicity into unclenching her fist so that the napkin ring could slip off.
To no avail.
Clementine, who did not particularly like children but was getting a big kick out of this one, was about to suggest a wire cutter to Walter when she noticed that Ioana had moved away from the demitasse cup display and was half-crouched beside Felicity. She had somehow managed to get the child to rest her clenched fist, complete with hibiscus napkin ring encircling a stick-thin wrist, on her open palm.
Then, in a musically lilting and slightly accented voice (why would she still have a European accent after living here for seventy-six years?), Princess Ioana said, “In my country, where I was born, there was once a little girl who looked exactly like you.”
“Was she pretty?” Felicity inquired, clearly enjoying the older woman’s attention.
“Very pretty. And talented, too. She was destined to grow up and become a famous ballerina, but an evil fairy who was jealous of her beauty imprisoned her wrist in an enchanted bracelet and cast a spell.”
“Like in Sleeping Beauty?”
“Exactly. And the spell was this.” Ioana softly touched a finger to the hibiscus on Felicity’s wrist. “If she did not remove the bracelet that very hour of that very day, the little girl would turn into a pencil.”
Felicity looked down at her clenched fist. She scowled, “A pencil?”
“That’s right. A dull pencil. Without a point. And if a pencil has no point, it cannot write. Even worse, it would have no eraser. So it could not correct its own mistakes.”
The six-year-old’s scowl dissolved into a pout. She demanded, “Are you sure the evil fairy wasn’t going to turn her into a frog?”
“Or put her to sleep for a hundred years?”
“I’m sure about that, too. Because being turned into a frog or sleeping for a century would be interesting, and the evil fairy knew that the worst thing in the world that could happen to the little girl was that she would be bored.”
Felicity contemplated this statement for several seconds. Then she nodded.
The Princess went on, “Being a pencil without a point is as bad as being a song without music, or a brain without a thought, or…”
Ioana continued in that soft, musical voice, all the while gently stroking the thin wrist behind the clenched fist until slowly, slowly, the small fist relaxed, the small hand opened, and unbeknownst to the child, Clementine’s princess slipped the hibiscus napkin ring off Felicity’s hand.
In short order, The Happy Store reverted to commerce. Walter disappeared into the stock room; a flurry of customers walked in; and Betty Davis attended to the cash register while Clementine saw to the new shoppers’ needs.
Hours later, when the store was once again quiet, Clementine strolled over to the lead sales associate and said, “Betty. Remember that tall, gorgeous older woman from this morning. The one who got the napkin ring off the little girl’s wrist?”
“Of course. Ioana. The Princess.”
Clementine’s head jolted back in shock. “You mean, she really is a princess?”
Betty chuckled. “I doubt it. But …” She shrugged. “I always think of her that way.”
“Me, too! Me, too!” Clementine said explosively. “What did she buy?”
“I’ll show you,” Betty said, and she led Clementine to a huge velour arm chair, big enough for all three of Goldilocks’ bears to sit in at once. “She bought this as a birthday present for her husband.”
“Husband? She’s married?”
Betty shrugged again. “I guess so.”
Clementine began to gently bite her lower lip. First, she conjured up the image of a distinguished silver-haired diplomat negotiating a peace treaty; next a dark-eyed orchestra conductor wielding a thin baton; and lastly an elegant impresario grooming a tenor to perform at Lincoln Center … all men worthy of an exiled princess.
Then, with her usual lack of modesty, Clementine mused, “I am a fascinating human being, but many of my customers are even more interesting than I am. Therefore …” She grinned impishly.
Whereupon she began to look for Walter Graybill, because she had, had, had to tell her boss that – absolutely and positively – she was working in the right job at the right store.
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