Tilting At Windmills: The Jewelry Counter
Published: February 10th, 2023
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: The Jewelry Counter

My name is Chester McBride.

I taught literature at a community college for twenty-six years.

In the course of my career, I came to believe that in order to excel as a teacher, one must be a good psychologist as well. I also came to look at a student’s mind as a limited space into which large items must be moved through an impossibly narrow door.

Should Tennyson’s poems be turned on their side so that the metaphors are facing the door’s hinge? Should I try a diagonal approach with Shakespeare’s sonnets, and hope that in doing so I don’t knock an important stanza to the floor? Should I balance alliterations on their tippy toes so that syllables can dance en pointe through slender apertures to the brain?

Regardless of the subject matter -- mathematics, science, geography, poetry, philosophy – it is the teacher’s job to decide upon a route, determine an angle of attack, and transfer knowledge through often-obdurate entryways into that often-hidden location where ideas are born.

Which is where psychology comes in. We study our scholars. Are they stubborn? Eager? Terrified? Confident? Should we be stern? Creative? Flamboyant? Pedantic? Should we coax? Seduce? Intimidate? Badger?

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And so, by the time I retired from teaching -- predominantly adults in night school at community college – I had a firm grasp on how people tick and who they are beneath their business suits, uniforms (many were police officers and firefighters), T-shirts, or blue jeans.

Although my responsibilities encompassed various areas in the English Department, including Nineteenth Century American and British novels, my personal hobby has always been outside my professional area of expertise. I enjoy exploring the earth’s surface and strata, and I have a respectable collection of fossils, minerals, and rocks.

It was after my beloved daughter had patiently endured yet another session with my gemstones (she pretends to be interested in the rarity of bi-color demantoid garnets and the light absorption characteristics of pigeon blood rubies) that she suggested I go back to work, and recommended a job which she deemed ideally suited to my solitary state: I am a widower; I am interested in precious stones; and I no longer care to teach.

And so, seven years ago, I was employed by the department store (no need to tell you its name) at which I still work. Although I was hired as a salesman, I am now manager of the jewelry counter. I very much enjoy and I am very good at what I do. My customers trust me.

If there is a flaw in a gem, I point it out. If a ring is too large or too small, I facilitate re-sizing. If an item is going on sale, I suggest that my client put it on hold so that it can be bought at a reduced price the following week. And even though we are strongly encouraged to pressure patrons into buying damage and loss insurance on their purchases, with a roll of my eyes, I can generally convey that such an expenditure would be a waste of money.

My regular customers buy gifts for birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, weddings, sweet-sixteen parties, confirmations, bar or bat mitzvahs, and graduations. For themselves (not as gifts to others), they buy earrings, pins, necklaces, studs, cufflinks, watches, and pearls.

Men often bring their fiancées to my counter to select wedding rings. Women, however, never come in to purchase those items alone.

Or, such had been the case until the advent of Mrs. Tannis. Mrs. Liliana Tannis, to be exact. I shall attempt to describe her.

She is an attractive lady in her early forties with a sound knowledge of gems. Her eyes have the luminous translucence of blue tourmaline; her hair is golden amber, worn in a sleek and stylish cut that emphasizes small, shell-like ears. She is slender and of medium height. She has the slim, muscular legs of a dancer, and she favors boldly colored designer dresses accessorized with Italian imported high-heeled shoes.

Mrs. Tannis also has beautifully shaped hands.

She first came to my jewelry counter three years ago. On March 13th to be exact. This was also the first time she informed me that her husband, and I quote, “adored” her. She was, I remember, wearing too much foundation makeup over a somewhat discolored left eye.

Mrs. Liliana Tannis was quick to relate confidences and eager to talk. She stated that her husband was Randolph Tannis, and that he was a management consultant for Mallas, MacReady, and Kimball on Park Avenue at 51st Street. They had been married for twenty years, and when Randolph awakened on that particular Sunday morning, he had said to her, “Why not go out today and buy yourself a bauble?”

In exactly those words, she emphasized.

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“Buy yourself a bauble.”

Which, she assured me, she had considered an excellent idea.

The ring I sold her that day was exquisite: a band of brilliant white diamonds in a platinum setting. It looked as slender and delicate on her hand as a spray of morning dew.

It was not until six months later that she returned to my jewelry counter for a second visit. Specifically, on Thursday, September 15th.

As before, she was stylishly dressed and perfectly groomed. This time, however, she wore considerably less makeup, there were no discolorations under either eye, and she appeared to be more relaxed. Again, our interaction began with a preamble about how devoted her husband was, how generous, and how eager to please.

Randolph had liked the ring that she purchased earlier, she informed me, but thought it a “teensy bit too conservative,” and suggested that she come back and get a larger stone in a more decorative setting.

Mrs. Tannis inspected the items in my display case, and after lengthy consideration, selected a sunflower cluster of 17 small, perfect diamonds set in platinum around a brilliant diamond center stone.

During the first two years of our association, Liliana Tannis returned to make additional purchases every six months. However, by the third year (I have all of the dates written down if you are interested), she began to accelerate her visits to three-month intervals. Her final purchase occurred on Saturday, May 18th at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon.

It was in this third year of our acquaintance that I noticed some changes in her…shall I say style? Demeanor? Vocabulary? Or, perhaps, all three. Instead of referring to her husband in the present tense, for example, she would slip, or so it seemed, and say, “Randolph would have loved this!” or “Randolph always wanted me to have the best.” And when picking out a particularly expensive gem, “Randolph was such a generous man.”

Nothing obvious, and if I hadn’t taught English for over thirty years, such slight grammatical innuendos might not have registered in my conscious mind. However, her manner, too, was different. Although never self-effacing or tentative, she became livelier and more electric. She spoke faster, smiled oftener, and took less time to make up her mind.

If I could condense the changes I perceived into just one word, it would have to be “cheerful.”

The Mrs. Liliana Tannis who purchased a magnificent 17.54 carat emerald-cut sapphire ring was neither more nor less elegant than the Liliana Tannis who had acquired her first “bauble” three years earlier, but she appeared to be a distinctly happier woman. That, combined with her inexplicable references to devoted Randolph as though he existed only in the past tense, made me wonder.

In retrospect, I wish that I had kept all ruminations and speculations to myself, because I had always found Mrs. Tannis to be a most admirable woman, and I had no wish to cause her harm. Nevertheless, I drew my suspicions to the attention of the authorities, and they (sadly) found the remains of Randolph securely ensconced under several feet of soil at the foot of a robust looking honey locust tree in Mrs. Tannis’ backyard.

Suffice it to say, I deeply regret, not only my own psychological acumen, but also my rashness in verbalizing my beliefs.

Subsequent to her arrest, I learned many things about Mr. Randolph Tannis that increased my regret a thousand fold. Rather than enumerate every incident of physical and mental abuse – corroborated by witness statements, hospital records, police reports, and restraining orders – I record here with amazement that Liliana has forgiven me. Not only for deducing that she had prematurely diminished her husband’s lifespan, but also for my eagerness in proving to the world how exemplary were my deductive skills.

Liliana herself is hopeful about the outcome of her trial, as is her attorney. He anticipates that she will be incarcerated for no more than two years on a charge of manslaughter, which, optimally, will be reduced to time served.

At present, I have in my possession what she still refers to as her “baubles.” The entire collection. From the first band of white diamonds that she purchased over three years ago, to the huge emerald that she acquired on May 17th.

Liliana has entrusted her treasures to me because she believes that I will preserve them in safety until she is released from the correctional facility at which she is presently being detained. At that time, she informs me, she intends to resume the activities of her previous life.

Despite the many difficulties which my rash interference has caused her, Liliana remains an optimistic and happy woman.

I know this because I am a good psychologist. I know this because thirty-two years of teaching has turned me into an excellent judge of character. And I know this because I like Liliana Tannis.

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I like her very much.

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com