During her 33rd adventure at The Happy Store, Clementine looks out (and in) a window.
Clementine Fraile was usually assigned to “open the store.” This meant arriving half an hour early and – broom and dust pan in hand – sweeping in and around the aisles. After that, she would take a roll of paper towels and a spray bottle to The Happy Store’s all-glass front doors, and begin to clean.
She described these tasks as “doing Cinderella,” and told Walter Graybill, the store manager, “All I need to complete the picture are a couple of talking mice and two wicked step sisters.”
Clementine usually finished both jobs before 10:00 o’clock, when she unlocked the doors. Then she devoted herself to her duties as a sales associate, which included pointing out special promotions (buy four, get two free; extra 20% off all clearance items), and helping customers to find what they didn’t yet know they were looking for.
Despite this routine, one sunny morning in April, Clementine’s day took a surprising turn. She was cleaning the two front doors and had just finished spraying the one on the left when she saw a shadowy figure loom outside. At the same time, she heard a tap, tap, tap against the glass that sent an Alfred Hitchcock murder-in-the-shower-like jolt down her spine.
Wanting to be brave yet fearing the worst, she raised her head to confront whatever it might be. But instead of the wild-eyed psychopath of her imagination, she saw a ruggedly handsome, fortyish man with a big nose, a strong jaw, and electric blue eyes.
She thought she recognized him and was almost certain that she had seen him before. His identity began to kick with well-worn boots against the perimeter of her brain, but before she could come up with a name, once again he tapped on the door. Clementine’s eyes followed his knuckles to a spot she had missed. She looked up. The man was cupping his chin with one hand and shaking his head with authoritarian disdain. Clementine made a “humph” sound, and went back to work.
About thirty-seconds later, she was rubbing the bottom left panel of the right side door when she heard yet another tap against the glass. This time, the man’s finger rested on a smear to the left of the door handle. Again, he shook his head ruefully. But his eyes were smiling, and his smile quickly turned into a boisterous laugh. Feigning irritation, Clementine attacked the smear with vigorous swipes of her paper towel. A few second later, she looked back up for his response.
But he was gone.
He stayed gone for two weeks. During that time, a frequent customer, Mrs. Winlock, came into The Happy Store to buy a wedding present (fourth marriage) for a friend. Clementine helped her to pick a pair of mercury glass candlesticks. But it was not until she was wrapping them that her mind snapped its fingers, and she remembered where she had met the man who tapped on the door.
It was the Christmas before last and he – his name was Tony – wanted a gift for his niece. Clementine had suggested a jeweled box with the girl’s initial on it, and asked if she was Cathy with a “C” or Kathy with a “K.” With great chagrin, Tony confessed that he did not know, because he could not read or write.
Yes! It all came back to her in a flash. They had been standing at the checkout counter, Tony at one cash register and Mrs. Winlock at the next. Overhearing his confession, the elderly lady told Tony that she had once been a teacher, and that it would be her great pleasure to teach him how to do both.
Tony. Tony. Tony. Clementine smiled at the memory.
Also during those two weeks, as she daily cleaned the front glass doors, she became more and more aware of how dirty the windows were in the rest of the store.
“Walter!” She complained. “We’ve sold all the Christmas, Valentine, and St. Patrick’s Day ornaments. Winter is over. The March equinox has come and gone, April Fool’s Day and Easter are squares we’ve crossed off on our calendars, and we…”
The store manager loomed over his petite employee. “Get to the point, Clementine. There’s a customer waiting for you in candles.”
She ignored him. Joy illuminated her little elfin face. “But, Walter, it’s spring and it’s glorious outside. Forsythia and magnolia, daffodils, tulips, and jonquils are in bloom. People are washing their cars, watering their lawns, and putting their summer furniture on the porch. The sun is…”
Walter took a deep breath. “That does it,” he growled. “You’re fired.”
“Of course I’m not, Silly Boy. Follow me.” She stalked across the floor, not stopping until they were inches from the two sparkling glass front doors. To her right were row after row of murky windows. To her left, the same turned a corner and continued toward the back of the store.
“Look,” she flung out a dramatic hand. “Filthy. Disgusting. Awful! First they were covered with autumn dirt and winter grime. March and April added dust and pollen. And now when people peer through a window to look at our beautiful spring merchandise, it all looks like it is covered in dust.”
Walter shrugged. “Cleaning windows is a corporate decision. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Every day, Clementine battered her boss with variations on the same theme. “We look like a fish tank in a dust storm … Our customers must think that we’re going out of business … How expensive could it be to hire a … Honestly, Walter, I wouldn’t mind doing it myself, if…”
But to no avail. Her boss would simply lift a finger to his lips, say, “Shush,” and walk away.
Then one morning when she was on her way to work, Clementine saw a man standing outside the north side windows of The Happy Store. He was wearing a red flannel shirt, jeans, and construction boots. He held a squeegee in his right hand, and there were a water hose and a pail at his feet. As he raised and lowered the squeegee over the windows, months of dirt, dust, and pollen vanished, and the glass shone clear and clean.
Clementine walked past him, pushed her way through the store’s front doors, and shouted, “Walter!”
He poked a head out from behind a potted palm and said, “Keep it down. The baby’s sleeping.”
Clementine laughed. Then she clapped her hands and said, “Walter, you are the best boss in the world!”
He emerged fully into the aisle. “Why? What did I do?”
She pointed to the windows. “Thank you!” She enthused happily.
Walter’s eyes followed hers to the window washer, who had turned the corner and was now hosing down the ones at the front of the store. “I’d like to take credit,” he said. “But I didn’t even know he was here.”
Clementine also turned. And that was when she saw the face of the window washer for the first time. It was Tony! Tony from her first Christmas at The Happy Store! Tony who couldn’t read or write, but who was going to learn. Tony who had tapped a knuckle against the doors she was cleaning (cheeky fellow) to point out spots she had missed. And Tony, about whom she had been ruminating for the past two weeks.
A big, wicked grin seized control of her face. She strode to where he was working and stood opposite. He was alternately soaping, squeegeeing, and hosing down the glass. To get his attention, she slapped a palm against the window. He looked toward the sound and through the glass into the store.
Clementine raised an eyebrow, smiled smugly, and touched a finger to a smear he had missed. Then, in imitation of his actions toward her, she cupped her chin with one hand and reproachfully shook her head.
Tony’s bright blue eyes met her yellow specked green eyes, and she saw a smile twitch at the corners of his lips. Over the next two hours, when she was not helping customers find serving bowls, napkin rings, and wall art, Clementine would return to point out smudges, real or imaged. And Tony would cheerfully pretend to ignore her.
After assisting a finicky husband to buy his wife a jungle-patterned water pitcher for their anniversary, Clementine returned to the window washer, resolved, this time, to go outside and say hello. But she had waited too long.
Once again, Tony was gone.
The next morning, she gathered her cleaning tools and walked toward The Happy Store’s front doors. But before she got there, the sun hit the entry in such a way that she could see something at the top of the left door that she had missed on her way in. A determined finger had smudged a very large heart onto the glass, and in the middle of the heart, he had written:
T IS FOR
Clementine gently placed her roll of paper towels and her spray bottle on the floor. Then she crossed her arms over her chest, stared at the message, and thought, “I wonder when I will see him again?”
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2020. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com