Great love and great daring dominate Clementine’s 25th adventure at The Happy Store.
Once again, it was November 12th. A year since Clementine Fraile had first walked through the doors of The Happy Store, been seduced by the smell of oatmeal cookies, and charmed by a beautiful brisk saleslady with bouncing blond hair.
On impulse, Clementine had blurted, “Are you doing any season hiring?” And two days after that, found herself wearing a red Happy Store apron and telling customers that if they needed assistance, her name was Clementine.
Twelve months later – it was a Thursday – she was still helping customers and still named Clementine. That particular night, she waved at Betty Davis as her co-worker pulled out of the driveway. Then she walked to her old-but-usually-reliable car and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. .
Not a growl. Not a groan. Not even a pathetic purr. She tried five more times. More nothing. So she took out her cell phone and called Emergency Roadside Assistance. A sympathetic operator apologized for the delay, and said that an authorized mechanic would be there in about sixty minutes.
Which is why Clementine Fraile was standing alone outside The Happy Store, and why she saw what she saw. Or saw what she thought she saw. Or, perhaps, imagined the whole thing.
Night may have descended upon the rest of the world, but the interior of the store remained dramatically visible in soft, low light. Clementine stared through the wide glass window and, as always, was enchanted.
She loved the way her boss, Walter Graybill, created thematic islands of merchandise, each arranged in perfect symmetry to highlight specific color palettes. Blue, gray, and silver. Brass, wood, red, and gold. Cascades of sapphire velvet. Bouquets of burgundy silk. Table settings of glittering goblets, sparkling China, and lace-edged napkins. Garlands entwined with pillar candles and decorative spheress. Piles of pillows. Mountains of warm woven throws.
But, consistently artistic as the displays were in spring, summer, and autumn, the climax of the year was always Christmas. For during that two-month sabbatical from dour professionalism, Walter Graybill’s Secret Service eyes ceased to pivot in search of imperfections. He smiled, he hummed, he sang Christmas carols, and by the time he was finished decorating The Happy Store, he had turned it into a Fairyland.
Clementine pressed her nose against the plate glass window, looked inside, and forgot that her ride home had become a useless hunk of metal.
People who worked at The Happy Store – even our favorite sales associate – did not know what, if anything, occurred when doors were locked, lights were low, and no one (at least no one human) was inside. All activity, however, did not cease. For during those magical hours, manmade objects took on lives, hopes, dreams, and even loves of their own.
Small snowmen wearing vests trimmed with bells hopped off shelves to visit gnomes in Santa hats so big they drooped over their noses. Angels flapped gossamer wings and flew from the tops of Christmas trees to join elves carefully balancing tea candles on the tips of their fingers.
Reindeer made of silver tinsel or brown sisal or white resin galloped, cavorted, and pranced. Nutcrackers dressed as naval officers, drummers, and musketeers chomped out cheerful words between ugly teeth. And everyone – big Santas, small Santas, polar bears, funny furry sloths, white foxes, even a small stuffed ostrich wearing earmuffs, chatted, gossiped, and compared notes, impatient to be purchased by admiring customers and taken to their new homes.
Well … not everybody.
For two ill-fated ornaments remained at their posts, as apprehensive as twins about to be separated for life and as motionless as bugs pinned to a bulletin board in a museum.
The “he” of the duo, Dwayne, was a felt beagle, plain in comparison with the other ornaments, as he wore only a short red kerchief around his neck and had a somber yet sweetly trusting expression on his face. The “she,” Priscilla, was a stone powder dachshund, prettily petite in a demure Santa hat and wearing a bright red vest embossed with snowflakes and holly.
They had met at The Happy Store distribution center, where they were packed together by mistake, since felt ornaments were always put in one box and solid ornaments were always put into another. The mishap that transported them in the same carton was as fateful as Romeo meeting Juliet, Cathy meeting Heathcliff, or Mickey Mouse meeting Minnie.
Yes. It was love at first sight. But stuck as they were, dangling from a wall filled with hundreds of similar ornaments, they could not escape their display area to celebrate their freedom like the others.
Everyone at The Happy Store, by which I mean everyone not human, understood and commiserated with the plight of the two lovers. The sleek silver reindeer understood. The plush polar bear understood. The pink ceramic flamingo understood. So did the ostrich, the penguin, and the lemur.
But it was Santa, who “knows when we are sleeping and knows when we’re awake” who conceived of a plan (could it succeed?) to keep the two together.
This particular Santa was an ornament sitting in the cockpit – a snug fit – of a single engine bi-wing airplane. In his omniscience, he not only knew about Dwayne and Priscilla, he also knew that Walter Graybill, despite his strictly-business approach to life ten months of the year, was a carol-humming, tree-decorating, employee-indulging sentimentalist during the weeks before Christmas.