Let’s talk about secrets.
There are secret chambers, secret passages, secret passions, secret gardens, and if you consulted titles of old Nancy Drew mysteries, even a Secret Staircase.
But on a slow afternoon in July, it wasn’t one of those secrets that Clementine Fraile encountered at The Happy Store. It was another animal entirely.
The day had been shuffling along. Because of the heat – listlessly. Because there were few customers – lethargically. Walter Graybill, the store manager, was busy in the table top department, reorganizing the shelves and adding new signage. Clementine liked the bold silver letters against a gray background that announced: DINING … GLASSWARE … BAR ACCESSORIES … PLACEMATS.
Meanwhile, Athena, the assistant manager, had assigned herself the impossible task – only she could do it – of forcing two pillows to occupy a space big enough for one. Her red hair was a wild mass that, surrendering to the humidity, surrounded her sternly beautiful face like a cloud of fire. Tall, determined, and goddess-like, she ascended and descended the squeaky Happy Store ladder with two pillows tucked under each arm. Yellow floral beside yellow geometric. Red velvet beside red linen. Striped green beside solid green with tassels.
All pillows were buy one get one 50% off … and don’t interrupt the pillow wrangler when she’s working, or she will hurl lightning bolts your way.
Betty Davis, also taking advantage of the downtime, was reading product information sheets about the construction of wicker furniture. Wicker, she learned, is a generic term describing more than one material. Rattan, for example, can come from any of sixty-plus different vines; cane is created from the outer skin of rattan plants; bamboo, unlike rattan, has a hollow core; and loveseats or chairs made from banana leaves start out as dried, twisted, and braided banana fibers.
Which left Clementine alone in the showroom to deal with the few-and-far-between customers. There was Mrs. Westacott, wearing tennis togs and an air of purpose, who strode into the store promptly at 10:00 a.m. to purchase eight packs of 4th of July paper plates, eight packs of American flag napkins, and a festive red, white, and blue Independence Day wreath. All 40% off.
After her came two giggly teenagers to buy a dozen magnolia napkins rings ($1.49 each from the Clearance section), and a full-price potted philodendron plant.
Ten minutes later, Carolyn Mumble-Mumble (Clementine didn’t get her last name) pushed through the door and stopped, her head swiveling left and right as if too dazzled by the cornucopia of merchandize to move forward. She was about thirty-years old, with a stylish geometric haircut, a nice figure, and a pretty face.
Clementine approached smiling (the smile wasn’t part of her training. It came to her naturally), and said in her most welcoming voice, “Hi. I’ve got a gazillion wonderful things to show you today. How can I …?”
Then she clamped her mouth shut, noticing something deeply wrong gazing out at her from the woman’s beautiful, sad gray eyes. Without asking permission, she took her by the arm and led her to the furniture department. Practically pushing her into an armchair, she said, “I’m Clementine. What’s your name?”
“So what’s wrong with you, Carolyn? You look like you just swallowed a funeral parlor.”
The unhappy woman blinked back tears. “I didn’t realize I was so obvious.”
“You’re not. I’m just spookily perceptive.”
Clementine sat down on an ottoman beside the armchair and said, “Your neighbor cut down your favorite tree? You’re dog died? Your house burned down? You just found out that one leg is shorter than the other?”
In response to each, Carolyn shook her head.
“Out with it,” our favorite sales associate demanded. “Who did what to whom, and how did you get stuck in the middle?”
If Clementine had stopped to think beforehand, she would have predicted the sudden deluge that followed, for in her brief but flamboyant tenure on this planet, she had been the catalyst to many such confidences. Partly because she was a good listener. Partly because she was good at reading people. But mostly because she really cared.
Thankfully, the story that Carolyn told was not horrendous. Nobody was raped, murdered, fleeced out of their life savings, crippled, or wrongly diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Rather – so common yet so painful – it was an instance of a nice person trying to please impossible relatives and feeling as if she were the only punching bag at the family gym.
Cast of characters:
DOMINATING MOTHER who did not like the way Carolyn dressed, her hair, her job, and most of all, her blue-collar, single-parent, good-as-gold boyfriend: “A plumber? Really, Carolyn, you could do better.”
DARLING, HENPECKED FATHER whom she adored beyond measure (he was always slipping twenty dollar bills into her purse when she wasn’t looking).
THREE SUCCESSFUL, BITTER, MARRIED SIBLINGS who lied about Carolyn to their parents in order to create chaos and backlash about whatever their un-beloved sister did or said – “Of course, I’m going to Daddy’s birthday party. Well, Eve, Melinda, and Zoey are wrong. I don’t know why they would tell you that.”
And so on.
By the time Carolyn left The Happy Store forty minutes later, Clementine had laid out the rest of her life for her like a royal flush in a game of cards. One, she should marry her plumber. Two, she should inform her mother that henceforth all communications would be pleasant, or they would be terminated. Three, any interactions with her siblings would cease the instant Carolyn began to feel like the designated scapegoat. And lastly, she and her plumber, whenever possible, would kidnap her father to make him the center of their attention and love.
As Clementine led Carolyn out the door, she said, “Okay. That’s it for today. But I expect you to come back soon and buy a ton of things so that I’ll look really good to my boss.”
Carolyn smiled, her beautiful gray eyes, no longer sad. Then she leaned over, kissed Clementine lightly on the cheek, said, “You are a very strange person,” and left the store.
Enter Walter, who at some point had stopped fiddling with shelves and signs and positioned himself close enough to the two women to witness every turn of a head or blink of an eye. He sauntered over to Clementine with a gleam of mischief in his eyes, looking like a villain in a silent movie about to twirl the ends of his handlebar mustache before tying the ingénue to a railroad track in front on an on-coming train.
He said musically, drawing out her name, “Clem-meeen-tine.”
She turned abruptly. “What, Boss?”
His lips curved into a wicked grin. “Do you know who that was?”
“Who who was?”
“The woman that just left.”
“Yes. A customer. Nice lady.”
Walter raised an eyebrow. “Maybe yes. Maybe no. Her name is Carolyn Wilste, and she’s a secret shopper.”
Clementine’s brow furrowed. “What’s a secret shopper?”
Walter’s wicked grin widened. “Corporate hires them to go from store to store and pretend to be customers. Then they report back on the sales associate who took care of them. Did she greet her at the door? Did she offer to help find the item she was looking for? Did she make product suggestions? Did she explain all sales promotions? Did she tell the customer about our credit card and rewards program…?”
Walter continued in this vein for another few minutes, and with each of the behaviors mentioned, Clementine’s chin sank lower onto her chest, and she cringed at what the future would bring.
The next morning, Walter holed up in his office, and other than a curt “Good morning,” said nothing until five minutes before the store was to open. Then he walked to the checkout counter and shouted, “Clementine!”
She rushed to his side, and blurted. “You’re going to fire me, right?”
He thrust a piece of paper under her eyes.
“It’s a printout of the secret shopper’s report,” he said. There was no indication on his face as to what was in the report. With a voice of doom, he continued, “For every category – from greeting the customer to helpful suggestions to explaining rewards points to pleasant personality to discussing our credit card …” He paused to draw out the suspense. “You were graded excellent.”
Clementine gasped, “Excellent?”
“Yes. The secret shopper wrote that you were particularly helpful in creating a centerpiece for her hall table.”
“So I’m not fired?”
Walter’s mustache twitched and his eyes twinkled.
Then his usually reluctant grin metamorphosed into a barely suppressed smile, and he added, “Not today, Clementine. Not today.”
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