SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction … The Happy Store – The Last Rose of Summer

By Shelly Reuben
SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction …  The Happy Store – The Last Rose of Summer

In her 35th adventure at The Happy Store, Clementine greets an old, old friend.

Many of the people who bought hand-painted teapots or ivy embroidered tea towels at The Happy Store only did so because they were lonely. If they were animal lovers, they would have gone to a zoo. If they were flower lovers, they would have visited a botanical garden. But they were people-lovers without anyone to love. So they came to The Happy Store, the guiding principle for which – as axiomatic as an eleventh commandment – was: CUSTOMER FIRST.

There were, of course, limits on how long a sales associate could spend with a shopper. After showing Mrs. Hilton the teak salad bowl for her daughter and Mr. McBride the leopard print pillow for his den, Clementine Fraile and her colleagues were supposed to move on to whoever needed them most.

But Clementine did not always do as she was told. When, for example, Betty Davis or Athena Eliopoulis saw her giving too much attention to Mrs. Hoerburgen, whose husband had just run off with his dental hygienist, they would call her over and advise her to mend her ways.

In such circumstances, Clementine would do as instructed. But in a blink, she would be back at poor Mrs. Hoerburgen’s side, or opposite Mr. Roper (his cat had diabetes), or at Miss Digbit’s shoulder (her company was moving to Florida), whispering words of encouragement such as: “It’s his loss. The fool.” Or, “If insulin works for people, I’m sure it will work for cats.” Or, “Moving to a new location can be invigorating!”

One of the reasons Clementine found it so easy to break rules was that when Betty or Athena or even Walter Graybill, the store manager, wasn’t telling her what not to do, they were doing the same things themselves. If any of them perceived a customer stumbling around with an I-don’t-know-where-to-go-or-what-to-do look on his or her face, it was against their natures to walk away.

Because … bottom line… there was just something rather wonderful about The Happy Store. The beautiful and often whimsical merchandise … the laughably bad music being piped in on loud speakers … the friendly sales associates who … yes. They wanted you to spend money; after all, it was a store … but mostly, they wanted you to buy something that would make you, well … happy.

This translated into all of the employees, despite any protestations to the contrary, spending too must time and investing too much effort into every single customer.

It was not until the Sunday before Memorial Day, though, that Betty Davis – overhearing a conversation between Clementine Fraile and Isabelle Ismay – realized how far her elfin coworker had gone, and decided to rein her in.

Clementine had known Mrs. Ismay since third grade, first as her Girl Scout leader and later as her high school art teacher. Mrs. Ismay’s granddaughter, Pauline, who died at age 27 in an automobile accident, had been Clementine’s best friend.

After college, when Clementine worked at an advertising agency, Mrs. Ismay met her once a month in the city for lunch. Now that Clementine worked at The Happy Store, she often dropped in to buy a small vase or a glass ornament that she would bring home, leave in its box, and never look at again.

Despite her 86 years, Isabelle Ismay was erect and dignified. Her hair was gossamer silver, her eyes were forget-me-not blue, and her face was a craquelure of wrinkles over good bones. In her long life, she had lost a son in the Vietnam War, two husbands … one to a stroke, the second to emphysema … and a daughter in the same car crash that had killed her granddaughter Pauline.

When Mrs. Ismay was a Girl Scout leader, she often planned events with Clementine’s mother, Polly Fraile, and although the two were never close, Mrs. Ismay liked Polly and had never failed to ask about her.

The first time that Clementine equivocated to her old teacher was a month after Polly Fraile and Mrs. Ismay’s second husband died, both in the same week. Although Clementine was strong enough to bear her own heartache, she found herself completely incapable of communicating it to anyone else. So when Mrs. Ismay asked about her deceased mother, a panorama of the old lady’s personal losses paraded before Clementine’s mind: son, daughter, granddaughter, two husbands, all of her relatives and all of her childhood friends. At the end of that procession, Clementine simply did not have the heart to add to the list.

So, in response, she said, “Mom is just fine.”

That was four years ago.

Today at The Happy Store, Betty Davis who, as you might remember, was dating (and falling in love with) Clementine’s father, Rufus Fraile, listened in on that much more contemporary conversation between her coworker and Isabelle Ismay with total incredulity.

“Yes,” Clementine said with practiced ease, “Mom is still doing crime reporting for The Morning Clarion.”

“Excellent,” the old lady nodded, satisfied. “I hope they appreciate what a good writer Polly is.”

“They do. Oh, yes. They definitely do. My mother is very happy there.”

“Well, dear. Please give her my love.”

Clementine cheerfully agreed, and promptly changed the subject to … the weather … the book she was reading … the price of gas ... anything except questions about friends, relatives, or friends of relatives, because all Mrs. Ismay’s thems and those were dead.

As the old lady departed, Betty Davis followed her out the door with her eyes. Then she snapped at Clementine, “But your mother died four years ago!”

The young sales associate shrugged.

Betty stamped a foot and demanded, “What’s wrong with you?”

For a few seconds, Clementine said nothing. Then she tilted her head to one side and asked softly, “Do you know Thomas Moore’s poem ‘The Last Rose of Summer’?”

“No. Why? Should I?”

Clementine inhaled deeply. Exhaled. Sighed, and said, “The first four lines are:

“‘Tis the last rose of Summer,

Left blooming alone;

All her lovely companions

Are faded and gone.”

She stood a little straighter, looked a little sadder, and added, “Here are the last four lines:

“When true hearts lie withered,

And fond ones are flown,

Oh! Who would inhabit

This bleak world alone?”

Betty Davis, a beautiful buttery blond with almost telepathic intelligence, brushed a strand of hair away from her face and shook her head. “I don’t get it.”

Clementine said, “Every single person that dear old lady loved is dead. She thinks my mother is still alive. As long as I don’t tell her, she won’t know that she is the last rose of summer, and she won’t have to…”

Betty nodded and finished the sentence, “inhabit this bleak world alone?”

“Exactly,” Clementine shot back, and for the first time that day, she smiled. “Some people bake cookies to make the world a happier place. Some donate blood. Some adopt stray puppies. But not me.”

“No,” Betty agreed. “Not you.” She paused. “What do you do, Clementine?”

Clementine’s yellow-speckled green eyes sparkled with defiance. Or possibly with unshed tears. Then, looking something like a pugnacious fairy, she raised her head, thrust out her chin, and announced proudly, “I tell lies.”

 

Copyright © 2020, Shelly Reuben - Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.