Clementine encounters the soft side of a goddess in her 24th Adventure.
Not for the first time, Clementine Fraile wished she was living in a world without regulations. In particular, the one about keeping the front doors to The Happy Store closed at all times.
It was a glorious day outside. Warm but not hot. Sunny but not blindingly bright. With a gentle breeze that, if the doors were open, would have brought sweet scents of summer from OUT THERE to IN HERE.
Clementine examined a display of perfumed candles, took the lid off one labeled “Wild Flowers,” and inhaled deeply. It was pleasant. Evocative. Aromatic. But, she sighed ruefully, a poor-cousin to the real thing.
The door to The Happy Store tinkled, her musings were interrupted, and she went to go to work.
A boring couple in their mid-thirties (beige clothes; beige skin; beige personalities) walked in, and Clementine helped them to buy a boring dining room table. After that, she assisted a henpecked man in his 70s to “Yes, dear” his way through his shrewish wife’s purchase of an area rug: “The blue is too gray…the tassels are too long…I want a medallion pattern not paisley,” until finally, at around 2:30 p.m., the last customer cleared out and only she and Athena Eliopoulis remained.
Although Clementine did not know the assistant manager very well, she respected her professionalism and was grateful that – still a goddess in Clementine’s mind – she was such a good boss. Having witnessed her triumphant confrontation with a carpet thief several months before, Clementine knew that Athena was strong and fearless. But she never envisaged the woman as belonging to the 21st century. Instead, she visualized her draped in Grecian robes like her namesake, holding an owl in one hand and a spear (ready to hurl lightning bolts) in the other.
Which is why Clementine was so astonished when Athena, arranging tiny lights around candlesticks at the front of the store, uttered “Again?” … seemingly to no one in particular. Then she dropped the lights, dashed to the front doors, opened one of them, and stood aside.
What Clementine observed next fell into no category she had previously experienced, and required her to carve out an entirely new cubbyhole in her brain. For, led by a mother duck, twelve tiny ducklings confidently entered the store, waddled across the doormat, and continued up the main aisle toward the cash registers.
When Mama Duck reached a dead-end at the cash counter, the assistant store manager jerked a large poster – “25% off all clearance” – out of its bracket and used it to herd all thirteen ducks in a leftward direction, toward the stockroom.
Athena raised her head and shouted, “Get the door, Clementine!” Which the sales associate hurried to do.
Just in time for Mama Duck to lead her brood into the stockroom and past a long row of metal shelves where Walter Graybill, the store manager, was unpacking cartons of back scratchers, wall art, and clocks.
Walter had a mischievous sense of humor, but he tolerated no nonsense and was ever on the alert for what might adversely affected the welfare of the store. He instinctively knew what to do about irate customers, broken glass, sick employees, and erratic thermostats.
But he seemed unprepared to deal with a family of itinerant ducks.
Athena, her curly red hair a fright wig of anxiety, shouted to her boss, “Open the back door, Walter. NOW.”
Apparently, Clementine considered (and later confirmed), Mama Duck had laid her eggs in an island of greenery in the front parking lot and intended to herd her babies through the store to a small, secluded pond in a field adjacent to the parking lot in the back.
Clementine continued to follow Athena, who was following the ducks, who had sensed the smells and breezes coming through the stockroom door that, at Athena’s insistence, Walter was holding open.
Exhibiting the almost-military precision with which she had begun her journey, Mama Duck led her charges – all twelve – past Walter, across a mall stretch of sidewalk (she had to return several times to nudge a few frightened ducklings down the curb) and onto the asphalt.
Clementine began to whistle the theme song from The Bridge on the River Kwai as she, Walter, and Athena continued to watch, transfixed, from the doorway and the mother marched her babies across a wide expanse of blacktop until they disappeared into the tall grass of the adjacent field.
Athena said, “She did the same thing with her brood last year.”
Walter jerked back his head in a double take. “You never told me that.”
Athena shrugged. “I wasn’t sure about The Happy Store’s policy on visiting ducks.”
The tinkle of a door from the showroom signaled that someone had just walked inside.
Athena turned to Clementine, “Go out there and take care of our customers.”
The sales associate nodded, and spun away. But she had not left the stockroom before she heard Walter sternly admonishing Athena, “We can’t let anything like this happen again.”
And Athena responding cheerfully, “Let what happen, Walter? I didn’t see anything? Did you?”
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