SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction … The Happy Store – The Bloom Shop

By Shelly Reuben
SHELLY’S WORLD: Fiction …  The Happy Store – The Bloom Shop

Clementine hears an odd confession in her 38th adventure at The Happy Store.

 

The first time that Clementine Fraile saw Thelma Borkin, she thought, “What an odd looking woman!”

For she was too tall, her shoulders slumped, clothes hung on her lanky body like hand-me-downs from a giantess, and she did not make eye contact. Almost as if, aware of The Happy Store’s commitment to customer service, she would rather camouflage herself like a chameleon in a terrarium than be noticed.

Ha! Fat chance. For as soon as Clementine saw Thelma sidling surreptitiously toward the faux flowers in The Bloom Shop, she hurried over and said, “Hi. I’m Clementine. You may think you don’t want me to help you, but I’m really…”

Thelma cut her off. “Nope. Thanks. I’m fine.”

Upon which rebuff, our favorite sales associate did a double-take, smiled broadly, and exclaimed, “I know your voice. I listen to you every day on the radio. You’re ‘Thelma in the Morning.’ I love your show!”

Clementine’s recognition, although it did keep the talk show host from slithering away, did not create a bond. The fortyish woman merely nodded curtly and said, “Thank you, but I don’t need any help. I know what I want. Good bye.”

That April day in The Bloom Shop, Thelma Borkin purchased two purple and two pink hyacinths, three pale yellow daffodils, and a small pebble-filled pot brimming with lily of the valley.

In early May, Thelma slumped again into The Happy Store. This time to buy a large cherry blossom branch and five peonies: two white and three pink.

As she plucked polyester blooms out of display containers, her unprepossessing physical presence was a startling contrast to her exuberant radio personality. For on broadcasts and in interviews, Thelma Borkin projected joy and optimism. So much so that whenever she visited the store, Clementine longed to draw her out. She was quick to offer help. But each time – almost predictably – Thelma turned her down.

Then one rainy day in June, the host of the area’s top-rated radio program again entered The Happy Store, but this time she seemed to be in less of a hurry. Her clothes almost fit, there was a dab of red lipstick on her full lips, and as she stood before a huge tub of long-stemmed roses (so realistic they made Clementine’s heart hurt with their beauty), the stern expression on her face dissolved into the hint of a smile.

Clementine crept up behind the unforthcoming woman, who suddenly jerked her head around to confront the diminutive stalker. She said, her voice almost cheerful, “I know you’re there.” Then, without preamble, she asked, “Are you very busy this morning?”

“We’re never busy when it rains. You’re the only customer in the store.”

Now, if an objective observer (like Walter Graybill, the store manager) was to describe the two females then in The Bloom Shop, he might say that they looked like gaudy flowers themselves: Clementine Fraile, petite and pretty, her dark skin offset by white slacks and a bright orange blouse. Thelma Borkin, tall and gangly in a bright yellow jump suit, her back slightly bowed like the stem of a large, over-ripe sunflower.

Thelma reached into a tub and pulled out a red, red rose. She looked up at the ceiling and began to wave the long stem in front of her the way children wave sparklers on the Fourth of July. Then she met Clementine’s eyes and asked, “Would you like me to tell you a story?”

Clementine leaned against the back of a Berkshire twill cotton armchair ($347.00 and free delivery), and blurted, “Absolutely. I love stories!”

This is what Thelma Borkin told Clementine Fraile on that rainy day in June:

“Once upon a time, I was an obnoxious teenager. I wasn’t angry at the world or defiant. In fact, I was in a perpetual state of awe at how wonderful it was to be alive. I thought of life as a giant buffet. Everything was laid out in front of me for the taking. Books. I loved to read. Food. I loved to eat. And people! I loved to eavesdrop on conversations and attribute personalities to Mr. Thick Eyebrows or Miss Pouty Lips. He was a gorilla with the soul of a humming bird. She was a devious spoiled brat. And nature! God. I loved trees. I loved birds and butterflies. I loved tiny toads no bigger than my thumbnail. I loved grass and leaves and moss and ferns. I loved green. I marveled at how many shades of it there were. Forest green. Lime green. Kelly green. Emerald green. Jade green. Apple green. And I was totally captivated by flowers.”

She dropped her eyes to the faux stem in her hand.

“Mostly, though. I was passionate about roses.”

Clementine’s brow furrowed. “How is that being obnoxious? It sounds like you were an adorable kid.”

Thelma shook her head. “No. I was entirely self-absorbed. I was an octopus with long tentacled arms of greed. I took without asking. I grabbed. I gobbled. I rooted out, I sucked, and worst of all…” She hesitated.

Clementine repeated, “Worst of all?”

“I stole.”

Again, Thelma shook the blossom in her hand. She raised it to her nose, pretended to smell its petals, gave a curt, cynical laugh, and continued, “I stole roses.”

“When? Where? From whom?”

“Ah,” Thelma sighed. “Therein lies this tale, for I stole them from Mrs. Meredith.”

Clementine opened her mouth as if to comment, but Thelma Borkin shook her head, and shushed her.

“I was sixteen years old, and every day on my way home from school, I passed Mrs. Meredith’s garden. I didn’t know her name until she caught me, but she was an attractive lady. Very trim with intelligent ocean blue eyes and an efficient way of moving. She always wore denim, so I came to think of her as a domesticated cowgirl. One who should own a ranch in Wyoming, but go to Paris every year to check out the haute couture fashions. You know the type.”

Clementine had no idea what Thelma was talking about, but she nodded encouragingly.

“I didn’t know the names of the roses I stole, but she told me that, too. All of them were English Roses, and their fragrance was eau de heaven. Olivia Austin, gorgeous pink and pretty as a June bride. Charles Darwin, bright yellow with a huge crunch of petals in the center. The Poet’s wife, a powder puff of gold. And the indescribable white explosion of Desdemona. When she – Mrs. Meredith – confronted me on … oh, it must have been my tenth day of thievery … thorns from the stolen roses had punctured my bleeding palms, so I was caught literally red-handed.”

Again, Clementine opened her mouth to speak. Again, a stern look relegated her to silence.

“The white picket fence surrounding Mrs. Meredith’s garden was smothered in Blushing Albright Ramblers. Trellises on either side of her house were covered with pale Pilgrim roses, and her slate pathway was lined with coral Lady of Shallot.” Thelma paused for a moment before adding, “Over the course of my crime spree, I had filched one or more of them all.”

By now, Clementine’s boss, Walter, had moved silently within hearing range. His Secret Service never-miss-anything eyes were riveted to the loquacious customer’s face.

“When Mrs. Meredith caught me, she led me into her house. I was so embarrassed, I followed her meekly. She took the flowers I had cut out of my hands and put them in an empty vase. Next, she instructed me to wash and dry my hands on a paper towel. After that, she applied antiseptic.

“She asked me if I was all right. I nodded guiltily. Then she told me to follow her to the backyard.

“It was there, over the next two hours, that Mrs. Meredith told me what went into the making of a rose garden. She told me about researching catalogues and visiting nurseries to see what varieties were

available. She told me about buying them bare root or in gallon pots, about preparing the soil, digging a hole, adding plant food and peat moss. She told me about covering the stem with just the right amount of mulch and watering daily, even when you’re too tired to change your shoes. She told me about spraying with insecticides and fungicides and fertilizing with Miracle-Gro. She also told me about dead-heading, pruning, transplanting and weeding. And then …” Thelma Borkin made a sweeping gesture toward all of the faux flowers in The Bloom Shop. “Mrs. Meredith told me how she felt when a lovely young girl – that’s what she called me – came blithely along, unconcerned about anyone but herself, and absconded with huge bunches from her carefully tended garden without a please, a thank you, or a by-your-leave.”

Clementine remained silent. Walter moved closer. He looked steadily at Thelma. She looked steadily back at him. Then she snorted out a laugh. “Don’t worry, Mister Store Manager. I’m not going to steal your plants.”

Walter responded pleasantly, “I didn’t think you would.”

Thelma pulled two yellow, two white, and four fuchsia roses out of a tub and started toward the check-out counter. Trotting along after her, Clementine asked, “What happened to Mrs. Meredith?”

“I apologized, of course, and tried to repay her, but she told me the best amends I could make would be to respect private property and to remember that nothing man-made comes without hard work. Whether it’s a book someone wrote, a boat someone built, or a garden someone grew.”

Next day on her show, Thelma repeated for her audience the same story that she had told Clementine and Walter. Several listeners called in to relate their own experiences as flower thieves (the one about stealing a wreath from a gangster’s grave was very funny). But it was the last phone-in of the day that set Clementine’s heart a flutter. It was from a male caller, and he asked Thelma if she had a favorite garden.

“You mean other than Mrs. Meredith’s?”

“Yes.”

In response, the talk show host’s voice softened so much, you could almost hear her smile. She began, “I do. But it isn’t an outside garden. It’s a garden inside a store, and…”

For the next three minutes, the passionate flower lover and reformed flower thief told her listeners about The Bloom Shop in The Happy Store. Then she went on to describe a particularly beautiful long-stemmed fuchsia rose.

 

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.

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