FICTION – by Shelly Reuben April 10, 2020
Business comes to an abrupt halt during Clementine’s 31st adventure at The Happy Store.
Clementine Fraile, after working for over a year at The Happy Store, had come to think of Walter Graybill, the store manager, as their paterfamilias. When Walter asked her what that meant, she replied, “The male head of a household. The father figure. Our protector. The man in charge.”
Walter, tall and broad-chested with a pleasantly handsome face, ginger hair, and a handlebar mustache, narrowed his eyes, shook his head, and responded emphatically, “I don’t think so.”
But Clementine never altered her opinion. Nor did she bring up the subject again. At least not until one sunny Friday in April, when her world turned upside.
Because for the first time since she had known him, Walter Graybill disappeared. As in … Pfft … as in “Now you see him; now you don’t.”
Contributing to Clementine’s emotional upheaval was a 3:00 p.m. appointment with Montgomery “Monty” Sturgis, District Manager for all The Happy Stores in the Northeast. Athena Eliopoulis, assistant manager, and Betty Davis, lead sales associate, knew about Monty’s pending visit, but only because he needed their help in preparing for what he called “The Great Surprise.”
Indeed. Unbeknownst to Walter Graybill, he had been named Happy Store Manager of the Year, and would be awarded a gold embossed, hand-lettered certificate and a bonus check of one thousand dollars. Monty Sturgis, for reasons he did not explain, decided to present both to Walter personally. Mano a mano, as it were. With Betty aiming a camera in their direction and Athena uploading the photos and posting them on the store’s social media sites.
All of which would have been fine and dandy, except – and Betty Davis checked her watch – that Monty was expected to arrive in less than thirty minutes, and Walter was nowhere to be found.
Athena checked the men’s bathroom. No Walter. She looked in the break room. No Walter. She checked outside the delivery entrance, where he sometimes went when he wanted to be alone. No Walter.
No Walter. No Walter. NO WALTER !!!
Clementine Fraile, although not officially privy to the information about Walter’s award, had shamelessly eavesdropped on Athena and Betty when they were discussing the District Manager’s visit later that day. But of the three women, only she suspected where Walter might be.
Without telling them that she was going, Clementine marched down the aisle to the front of the store, and then walked out the door.
Now we’ll flashback to 11:30 a.m., after Walter and Clementine had opened the store but before Athena and Betty began their shifts.
In terms of Happy Store hierarchy, when Walter wanted to run an idea past somebody, it was never to Clementine that he confided. She was too young. She was too new. She was too … Clementine. However, that day was an exception. He could not vent to Athena, because Athena would tell Betty. And he could not unburden to Betty, because she would be devastated. Heartbroken. Annihilated.
Anyway, Clementine was right there – just four feet away – when he slammed down the receiver and said, “It isn’t right.”
“What isn’t right?” Clementine demanded. “And who upset you? Tell me, and I’ll beat him to a pulp. I’ll boil him in oil. I’ll grind his bones to make my bread…” She continued in this manner for another ten seconds before Walter looked down at her (she is quite short), and growled, “I won’t do it.”
“Who were you talking to, and what won’t you do?”
“Monty Sturgis. The district manager. He wants me to fire her.”
“Betty!” Clementine exclaimed, horrified. “As in our Betty? As in Betty Davis with the beautiful bouncing blond hair? As in … but … that’s crazy. That would be like ripping the sergeant stripes off Sergeant York. It would be like tearing the ears of Dumbo. It’s against nature. It’s contrary to the laws of supply and demand. It’s … why does he want you to fire Betty?”
Walter squinted an eye down at Clementine.
“Because of you.”
“Me?” she gasped. “It’s my fault?”
“Yes. It’s only because I hired you that your father – we all like Rufus – met Betty Davis. He came into the store because you work here. He ogled Betty, and the two of them,” Walter shrugged. “You know. Aging go-go dancer meets old fart ribbon maker, and …”
Clementine shouted, “Betty is not an aging anything, and my father isn’t a…”
Walter ignored her and went on, “A customer overheard Rufus ask Betty out, and heard Betty accept. She – the customer – called Corporate to complain about fraternization, and…”
“Fraternization?” Clementine shook her head. But not as a lady would. Vehemently. Like a wet dog. “You can’t be serious. What is this? High School?”