FICTION: Shelly’s World: The Happy Store – Mistaken Identity

Updated 3 weeks ago By Shelly Reuben
FICTION: Shelly’s World: The Happy Store – Mistaken Identity

A delusional customer and a smile characterize Clementine’s 43rd adventure at The Happy Store.

The drive to The Happy Store from Clementine Fraile’s home took twelve minutes. Her route brought her around curves half-hidden by white hydrangeas and along lanes lined with rambling red roses on split rail fences. Uphill. Downhill. Past old stone cottages on one side of the street and sprawling estates on the other. Every day Clementine drove through this lush countryside, and as she drove, she daydreamed. Nebulous thoughts that arose out of nowhere and drifted back to whence they came.

 

On one particularly hot but delicious Tuesday in September – ninety-four degrees at only 9:00 a.m. – she was on her way to work when, in the road ahead, she saw a rugged looking man standing beside a gargantuan pothole and holding a long pole topped by a small round sign. One side of the sign said SLOW and the other side said STOP.

 

He was wearing blue jeans, work boots, and a denim shirt with a brown plaid patch on the right elbow. His eyes and nose were hidden behind tinted safety goggles, and she could see only the lower half of his face.

In the hot sun and standing on hot pavement, Clementine thought she detected weariness in the tight set of his jaw, and feeling a surge of sympathy, she looked right at him through her windshield and shot him her brightest smile. The one that made her yellow-speckled green eyes shine brighter than sun-stroked clover on a summer day.

 

The instant that she smiled, the man spun the STOP sign to SLOW, stepped back, and returned her smile. But his smile was bigger and better than hers. It was a smile so earth-shatteringly beautiful that she felt her heart do a belly flop and her head jolt back as if she’d been slapped. She continued to drive, he disappeared from her rearview mirror, and unbidden, the thought came to her … “I am in love.”

 

Five minutes later, Clementine parked outside The Happy Store, walked through the door, and her workday began. She tied a red apron around her waist, retrieved a broom from the stockroom, and started to sweep. She’d been at it less than a minute when Walter Graybill, the store manager, called out from the computer at the checkout counter, “Put the broom away.”

 

Lately and contrary to what she considered his management style, Walter had been smiling at odd, unexpected intervals. It was usually a welcoming smile. Sometimes a “don’t waste my time” smile. And occasionally, a “do six things at once and don’t bother me” smile.

 

Today, it was the latter.

 

He said, “We have sixteen Happy Store Dot Com orders. It’s only you and me this morning, so we’ve got to get them done before the store opens.”

 

Clementine put away her broom, hurried to the computer, and assembly-line style, began to call customers, update order statuses, and roam the aisles in search of three-wick candles, crystal goblets, and metal flamingos with their wings outstretched as if ready to fly away. Walter wrapped and bagged the purchases, labeled the bags and then shelved them in the storeroom to await customer pick-up.

 

They finished five minutes before 10:00 a.m.

 

Without preamble, Walter turned to his now harried sales associate and said, “You look very pretty today, Clementine.”

 

Shocked by the uncharacteristic compliment, she was unsure what to say. But before she could respond, Walter continued, “What are you waiting for? Open the doors.”

 

There followed an eight-second walk to the front of the store, during which her mind flew back to the man standing in the road that morning. But when she saw four customers waiting impatiently to get inside, she refocused on what she had been hired to do. “Beautiful blue sky this morning, isn’t it?” she said as she unlocked the doors. “My name is Clementine. How can I help you to …?”

 

And so it went.

 

As days go, it was for the most part typical. All outdoor furniture was thirty percent off. Throw pillows were buy one get one free. Customers were friendly, the air conditioner hummed, and the music was almost bearable. There was one peculiar interaction that day, however, that was profoundly disturbing.

 

He was old. Probably in his late eighties. And no taller than herself. He had thick gray hair, a low forehead, and a trollish face. Clementine had seen him in the store twice before. Each time he pretended to be inspecting merchandise. In fact, though, he had been inspecting her. When he came in that morning, he homed right in on Clementine and asked her to show him some tablecloths. Uncomfortable in his presence, she said curtly, “We don’t sell tablecloths,” and moved quickly to the other side of the store.

 

He followed, calling out, “Annette! Annette! Don’t leave me again!”

 

Completely unnerved, Clementine shouted, “Walter!”

 

Who, ever reliable, moved in to intercept. His Secret Service eyes softened and a rare smile animated his usually unreadable face. Even the tips of his handlebar mustache curved up as he approached the man whose presence had alarmed his smallest, loudest, and most rambunctious sales associate.

 

He said, “I’m Walter Graybill. This is my store. What can I do for you?”

 

 

Ignoring the friendly overture, the octogenarian’s fervid eyes followed Clementine’s retreat. “Daughter! Daughter!” he cried, and lunged forward as if to engage in pursuit. But Walter stepped in front of him and blocked his way. With tragically hopeful eyes, the old man looked up and said, “I thought she was dead. My girl. My daughter. My Annette.”

 

Walter replied gently, “I’m sorry, Mr.…?” He waited.

 

“Violet.” The old man craned his head to see around his interrogator. “My name is Clarence Violet.”

 

Walter shifted to intercept his line of sight. “I’m sure you have the best intentions, Mr. Violet, but you are mistaken. That young lady is not your daughter, and her name is not Annette. Here,” he drew him toward the back of the store. “Let’s see if I can help you.”

 

Over the next hour, Walter inspected Mr. Violet’s wallet, found an Emergency Contact card behind a ten dollar bill, and called Darleen Violet Jennings, the customer’s daughter. After he told her where and in what condition her father was, Walter heard a moan of unfathomable relief. Fifteen minutes later, Darleen rushed into The Happy Store.

 

“We thought we had lost him,” the clearly distraught fiftyish woman cried. “Dad is usually okay. But every September at around the time she died, he gets like this, and he thinks he sees Annette everywhere.”

 

Darleen Violet Jennings profusely thanked the store manager, and when Walter called Clementine over to join them at the back .of the store, she began to apologize to the sales associate, too. But she could not help herself from scrutinizing this object of her father’s mistake. With befuddled sincerity, she said, “Annette was tall, and you’re short. Annette was as pale as a ghost, and your skin is brown. You don’t look anything like my sister, but…” she studied her more closely. “You both have the same beautiful green eyes.”

 

Then, tears streaming down her face and sadly shaking her head, she led the docile old man out of the store…”

 

Clementine barely had time to thank Walter before a clueless woman looking for a wedding present demanded her attention, and she leapt into the sanctuary of professionalism for what she hoped would be the rest of a completely uneventful day.

 

And it was. Almost.

 

At about 5:00 p.m., and just as she was about to straighten a pile of napkins, the door opened, and a man walked in.

 

He was tall, with the rugged look of a cowboy. He had wide shoulders, wore blue jeans, work boots, and a blue denim shirt with a brown plaid patch over the right elbow. Clementine raised her head. First, she saw

the smile. The same one from that morning. A bigger, better, wider, and more glorious smile than she had ever seen on anyone, anywhere in the world. Or, for that matter, anywhere on any world, on any planet, and in any universe.

 

Once again, her heart did a belly flop.

 

He was not wearing safety goggles now, so she could also see thick eyebrows, a big nose, and unwavering blue eyes. She exclaimed “Tony!” recognizing a one-time customer turned window washer turned man-holding-a-traffic-sign on her way to work.

 

He said, his smile not fading, “Are you free for dinner tonight?”

 

Without waiting for permission from her mind, Clementine’s mouth responded, “Yes. I am.”

 

“How about tomorrow night?”

 

“That, too.”

 

“Friday?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Every night for the rest of your life?”

 

Clementine blinked. She blinked again.

 

“What time are you done here?” Tony’s smile softened and moved up to his blue, blue eyes.

 

“Six,” she answered.

 

He winked. Said, “Meet you outside,” and then he was gone.

 

Walter, of course, had been watching and listening to the entire exchange. He said, “What was that about?”

 

Clementine turned to him. Her eyes were misty. Her smile was blissful. “Boss,” she sighed. The same sigh sighed by every man or woman hit by the stun gun of love since the beginning of time, and she answered, “I have absolutely no idea.”

 

The store manager looked out the door after Tony. Looked back at Clementine, shrugged, and walking away, said, “Well, when you figure it out, let me know.”

 

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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