A Hurricane and hot chocolate dominate Clementine’s 28th adventure at The Happy Store.
Even before a three-legged cow flew over the sign at the entrance to the mall, the mood at The Happy Store was tense. But it was Monday morning, and Mondays were always peculiar.
Customers arrived in unmanageable clusters, or they did not come in at all. One President’s Day, only five people showed up, and just two made purchases. On other Mondays, Clementine Fraile and any of her co-workers might drop mirrors, scattering glass everywhere like splinters of a dying star. Or they would mislabel the prices on furniture, or fall off ladders, or trip over foot stools, or any of a host of minor calamities.
That particular Monday started out with its customary predilection for things to go wrong.
Nobody, however, could have anticipated how wrong.
Or how right.
The first indication came at 9:30 a.m., just as Clementine tapped with her knuckles on the door to the store. Walter Graybill, the store manager, let her in with the hint of a smile beneath the brush of his handlebar mustache. But even before the door swung shut behind her, his cell phone emitted a shrill bleat. Clementine’s cell phone signaled similarly, as did that of Athena Eliopoulos, the assistant manager, from the back of the store. All three employees stared at their screens. Walter read aloud:
Emergency Alert. Extreme.
Hurricane Warning in this area.
Take Shelter Now.
Check Local Media.
Athena hurriedly joined Walter and Clementine to stare, astonished, through the showroom windows. Which was when they saw the three-legged cow, its tail waving frantically, catapulting over the traffic signal at the mall’s entrance, the red light itself barely visible through a torrent of rain.
The traffic light flickered off. Exactly then, the music in The Happy Store went silent, the overhead lights blinked once. Twice. And also went dark.
Clementine looked at Athena. Athena looked at Walter. Walter looked at his cell phone. Suddenly, there was a loud thump against the glass. They looked down at the sidewalk and saw a huge white swan huddled motionless in front of the door.
Athena, her jaw set, her eyes a goddess-like glint, moved forward to … to what? Give the bird a slug of brandy? Bandage its wing? Administer C.P.R.? But before she had gone two steps, the swan staggered to its feet, shook itself like a punch drunk boxer, turned its beak toward the wind, and with a running leap, flew off in the same direction as the cow.
Ten minutes later, raindrops clustering on her eyelashes and her beautiful blond hair soaking wet, Betty Davis banged against the door, breathlessly announcing as she walked in, “I heard the hurricane warning.”
Walter raised an eyebrow. “Why are you here? You aren’t scheduled to work until Wednesday.”
“I know,” Betty grabbed a shock of hair and wrung it out on the doormat. “I came to see if you were all right.”
Now all four Happy Store employees were standing just inside the door. Clementine, whose eyes had not left the raging storm since the advent of the swan, shouted, “Look!”
One by one, they saw a wind-driven ponderosa pine tree tumble over the tops of two cars and somersault into the road, followed by a black clad woman in a pointed hat pedaling a bicycle up an invisible ramp; a red door spinning like a top along the sidewalk; and two men casually paddling a canoe about fifteen feet above the pavement and disappearing around the corner.
“Wow!” Clementine exclaimed, clenching her small fists against her chest, her yellow-speckled eyes aghast and agog.
Athena gulped, “I’m seeing things.” She raised a hand to her carotid artery and added, “Check my pulse.”
Betty Davis moved purposefully toward the stock room, and said flatly, “I’m making hot chocolate.”
While Walter, once again looking at his cell phone, announced, “Ten o’clock. I’m opening the store.”
Now one would think that in the middle of a hurricane, few, if any, would leave the comforts of their homes. Particularly on a Monday and extra particularly on a day when objects, both tangible and phantasmagorical, were forsaking terra firma and taking to the air.
However, one would be wrong.
Because within minutes of Walter unlocking the doors, not only did some customers walk in, but many of The Happy Store’s favorite shoppers and friends breached the barrier that kept rain, flying bovines, bicycle-riding witches, and men in canoes on the exterior side of the store’s perimeter.
There was Shawn, the awkwardly shy, mousey-haired woman who, over a year before, had spent all morning seeking the perfect Christmas present for a co-worker who had “once been kind to me.”
There was Hyman Pease who, before he gave up his career to open a book store, was Clementine’s boss at the advertising agency where she had been an art director, and … well, you already know what she did after that.
There was the mother-daughter team who, speaking rapid Spanish, had fretted over which pillows to buy their daughter/sisters, Carmen, Penelope, and Herminia.
There was the man who couldn’t read or write and the beautiful elderly lady, bereft from the recent loss of her husband, who had met at the cash register, where she offered to teach him to read.
There was the attractive trio in mufti, two tall men and one petite woman, who’d asked for military discounts and whom Clementine had impulsively hugged, murmuring, “Thank you for your service to our country” …
And so many others.
As promised, Betty Davis, her hair dried and bouncy, her pretty face a kaleidoscope of smiles, pushed out a trolley bearing a huge pot of boiling water, bowls of hot chocolate mix, paper cups, stir sticks, spoons, and bursting bags of mini-marshmallows.
Athena, from a secret stash (who knew?) brought out two tall, slim bottles labeled OUZO, and poured the liquorish-flavored liqueur into votive glasses that she took right off the shelves.
Meanwhile, Clementine detoured to her locker to retrieve a book of matches, hurried back, and lighted ten of the aromatic three-wick candles for which The Happy Store was so justly famous.
Tummies were warmed, nerves were calmed, and senses were sated.
Toasts were made.
Stories were told: “Almost every stitch of furniture I have I bought here” … “I used to work at The Happy Store in Staten Island” … “I bought my father one of your Milos armchairs, and now I’m his favorite child!”
Outside, trees bent almost in half. Canadian geese cowered under parked cars. Branches, park benches, traffic cones, and For Sales signs hurtled upward on ferocious gusts of wind.
The rain lessened. The wind ceased to howl. And eventually, customers and friends looked through the front windows and saw that the sky was clearing. They packed up their purchases, said goodbye, and went home.
Sales receipts for that Monday met and exceeded expectations, not only for the day, but for the entire week. From feelings of camaraderie such as warriors experience after surviving battles, Clementine and Betty, who either should not have come in at all or who should have left hours earlier, stayed all day. And as 8:00 p.m. rolled around, were still at the store when Athena and Walter closed.
Athena said, “I’m pretty sure I imagined the whole thing.”
Betty said, “Well, I’m here, and you didn’t imagine me.”
Walter stated firmly, “Today was not a day that we’ll talk about with our district manager.”
“No,” Athena quickly responded. “Of course not.”
He added, “Did you wash out the votive candle glasses and … don’t throw out the Ouzu bottles in the trash. Take them home with you.”
Athena winked and pointed to her purse.
Clementine stood for a moment on the sidewalk as Walter locked the door.
Night had fallen. All of the street lights were on again, and the sky, an inky expanse of sapphire blue, was uncharacteristically dotted with bright, bold stars.
“We didn’t really see…” she began. But before she could finish the sentence, Walter raised a finger to his lips, and said, “Shush.”
And somewhere, maybe in the real world, maybe in our imaginations, a Canadian goose crawled out from under a car; a white swan with a black eye told his friends about a wild flight through a parking lot.
And a three-legged cow jumped over the moon.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2020. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falco09n awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com