In her 44th adventure at The Happy Store, Clementine’s mailman is a girl.
When Clementine Fraile asked her mother how she and her father met, Polly Fraile’s answer had a life-long effect on Clementine’s ability to sympathize with other people’s gender sensitivities.
She didn’t have any.
If she was called on to preside over a committee, she considered herself to be its chairman. When she and a bunch of school chums decided to make a short movie out of a script that she wrote, she became the film’s cameraman. Later, when it was entered into a national competition for young filmmakers, she was its front man.
And when confronted with pressure groups that considered words such as “human” to be sexist and lobbied to de-sexualize the identities of professions – actresses to become actors, waitresses to become waitpersons, stewardesses to become flight attendants and so on – her response was to laugh.
And it was all her father’s fault.
At least according to Polly (who died before Clementine quit her art director position at an advertising agency and got a very different job at The Happy Store).
Polly’s employment history was quite different from her daughter’s. Right out of high school, she went to work for The Morning Clarion, and after an apprenticeship in circulation and two weeks selling classified ads, which she hated, she was promoted to the editorial staff and assigned to write feature articles about local businesses. She had already written about Horton Hardware, the S & S Café, and the Harpursville Rotary Club before The Ribbon Factory caught her eye.
She called the contact number listed on its website, and Rufus Fraile, who had been walking past the phone and heard it ring, picked up the receiver. After Polly tendered her request to speak with the company’s president, Rufus responded, “You’re speaking to him.”
She asked if he was willing to be interviewed for an article about The Ribbon Factory, and he said, “Sure. Come on over. I’ll take you to lunch.”
Polly was a dark-skinned amalgamation of parents and grandparents from Alabama, Canada, Norway, Arizona, the Philippines, and Ireland. She was pretty, petite, direct, funny, and fearless. None of which Rufus Fraile noticed upon their first meeting, as he was mesmerized by her yellow-speckled green eyes (which Clementine inherited).
Polly asked question after question. About the history of The Ribbon Factory. About Rufus’s Scottish ancestry. About where he went to college. About what he had studied. About the jobs he had held before he decided to take over the family business.
Staring into her eyes and wondering if the yellow speckles were more oval than round and more amber than yellow, he answered, “I never had a permanent part-time job when I was in school, but I worked steadily as a Kelly Girl. The worst place they sent me was a toy factory where I spent two miserable weeks gluing curly wigs onto ugly plastic doll heads.”
The fledgling reporter stopped listening as soon as she heard the words Kelly Girl. She gasped and laughed. “You were a Kelly Girl?”
“Yeah. Sure. Back then, they had temp worker divisions in manufacturing, construction, landscaping, and transportation. That was before they changed their name to Kelly Services.” His eyes glinted under his bushy eyebrows and a wide grin creased his square face. “I was a Kelly Girl all four years of college.”
After Polly disclosed how she and Rufus had met, Clementine assumed that if her hairy, powerful, and manly father could be a Kelly Girl, then she could be a chairman, a cameraman, and a front man … and the person who brought the mail to The Happy Store (and we’re finally getting to the point of this story) could be a mailman, too
Even if that person was a woman.
And even if she was delivering that day some Very Important Mail.
Her name was Bernice, and she was a large, fortyish female in a loose-fitting US Post Office uniform. She was broad-shouldered and boxy, with skin as dark as mahogany, a high forehead, unblinking brown eyes, and a dour expression on a face that never smiled. Clementine always made a point of greeting her by name when Bernice dropped off the occasional flyer, newsletters, or utility bills, and she spouted friendly inconsequentialities about traffic or the weather, to which the lady mailman only grunted in response.
That day, Bernice parked at the curb outside The Happy Store and entered holding an intriguing stack of thick ivory envelopes in her right hand. She took two steps forward, but stopped dead in front of an elephant-shaped end table that Walter Graybill, the store manager, had brought into the showroom that morning. It had a raised trunk, upward curved tusks, a smiling mouth (unlike Bernice’s), sturdy, wide set feet, and a flat saddle over its back, on which one could place a plate of cookies or a glass of lemonade.
The instant Bernice saw it, she stared at it. Entranced. Clementine, observing the interaction between female and artifact, hurried over.