“Did that customer who asked Mona out come back last night after I left?” Paula inquired.
“Yeah, he bought a cappuccino-maker from me,” Tom said. “Suzanne said he works somewhere in the mall, and has a wife and kids.”
“Uh-oh. The last thing Mona needs is more domestic complications. When her teenage son showed up last week, her boyfriend was so jealous, he pulled a knife on the kid.”
“He was jealous of her son?”
“I guess so. Mona wants to split. Question is, can she do it before he pulls a knife on her?”
“The plot thickens,” said Jerry, the Whirro Vacuum Cleaner rep.
“Forgive me, I haven’t asked after your nose this morning,” Paula said.
“It’s hanging in there,” Jerry said.
“How’d the schnoz thing get started in Housewares, anyway?” Tom asked.
“Oh, one of the managers came through on a slow day and asked what we were doing. Suzanne told her we were just standing around picking each other’s noses.”
Tom laughed. “How’d that go over with the manager?”
“One might describe her expression as icy,” Paula said. “Anyway, that got elaborated into, gettin’ any? and Wanna go in the stockroom and rub ‘em?…Speaking of noses, I had a funny smell in my apartment this morning I couldn’t track down.”
“It’ll be waiting for you when you get home.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Jerry spied in the distance, in neighboring Bridal Accessories, three store managers who appeared to be doing reconnaissance. He alerted the Housewares crew which scattered, Paula to punch computer buttons with apparent purpose, Tom to wield a feather duster in glassware. Jerry polished a demonstrator Whirro with a cotton cloth.
But it was a false alarm. The managerial triumvirate had veered off into Electronics. The Housewares staff reassembled around home base, the central cash register.
“We once had a godawful smell in that Tasty Chicken I managed down on Moreland Avenue,” Tom said. “When I went down to the men’s room and opened the door, this rancid smell came rolling out. There was a homeless guy standing in the toilet. He was buck-naked and he was taking a bath.”
“He was in the bowl?”
“Like a bird in a birdbath. He had himself all lathered up, and he was pouring Dixie cups full of water over his head.”
“When I worked over at Lenox Mall,” Paula said, “this fat gal went into the woman’s restroom at Rich’s, and set up a portable bar. She stripped naked and stood there pouring margaritas. The funniest part was watching the security people trying to decide what to do about it.”
A female store executive in a square-shouldered pinstripe business suit surprised the Housewares staff by entering the department unconventionally from the stockroom. She glared at them over horn-rimmed glasses. “If you’re all standing there, you won’t be able to greet customers when they enter over there, or over there.”
“And what customers would those be?” Paula whispered to Tom as the group dissolved.
The manager paused a moment by the vacuum display. “And you are…?”
“Jerry. I demonstrate Whirro vacuums.” He offered his right hand, which she did not shake.
“I don’t see you demonstrating them.”
“There isn’t anyone to demonstrate for.”
“Have you cleaned your display?”
“Why is there a hair brush on the dais?”
“I brush my hair with it.”
“Bury it—and turn on a vacuum. Create some excitement.”
Jerry put a vacuum on the demonstration carpet. He turned it on, and, lo, an old woman with blue-rinsed white hair materialized like a genie out of a bottle. “What the devil are you doing?” she shouted.
“Demonstrating vacuum cleaners,” Jerry shouted.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” She crossed the department to where the manager was talking with Tom; and then the three of them were looking Jerry’s way.
The manager returned to the vacuums. “Turn it off.”
Jerry turned off the machine. “Too much excitement?”
“Are all your vacuums that noisy?”
A flamenco guitarist was whaling away pianissimo on Muzak, when Paula began singing quietly to the tune of Auld ang Syne: “We’re here, because we’re here, because we’re here, because we’re he-e-e-e-e-ere….”
“We used to sing that on school buses in Ohio,” Jerry said.
“We did it in South Carolina,” Tom said.
“We did it in Greencastle, Indiana when the band bus arrived at out of town football games,” Paula said.
“I didn’t know you played in the band, Paula.”
“There are a lot things I haven’t told you.”
“She’s told us quite a lot, though,” Tom said. “She told us the other day she doesn’t clean between her toes when she bathes. I, for one, was shocked.”
“That’s because he wants to suck my big toe,” Paula said.
“Did,” Tom said.
“I played glockenspiel in the band,” Paula said. “I was, in fact, lead glockenspiel.”
“Ever consider going pro?” Jerry inquired.
“We had a band director just out of college one year. We played football with Crawfordsville up the road. The band director at Crawfordsville was a young guy, too. They decided to have the two bands play The Star-Spangled Banner together before the annual game that year. It would be simple, no rehearsals or anything. Our band would just march out of one end zone, theirs out of the other. We’d meet in the middle of the field and do it….Well, as you may or may not know, the national anthem is arranged in either A-flat and B-flat. If the directors knew it, they obviously hadn’t discussed the matter. We cranked her up, and I can still see our director standing there in his white uniform beneath a spotlight with his arms frozen in the air. He looked like a guy being held up.”
“But you kept on playing?”
“To the bitter end.”
“How’d the crowd respond?”
“Oh, they loved it.”
Muzak was offering a distant, bouncy rendition of “June is Busting Out All Over.”
“Robert in women’s shoes told me this one yesterday,” Paula said. “This state patrolman sees a car weaving down the road, and he pulls it over. The driver’s a minister, the officer can tell, from the collar. ‘Reverend,’ he says, ‘you weren’t traveling in a straight line when you passed me back there.’ Reverend says, ‘You know, officer, I’ve preached twice today, and I get so full of the Holy Spirit sometimes, I’m just not myself.’ The officer’s nose is in the air and sniffing. ‘When you passed me, I noticed you were drinkin’ from a cup,’ he says. ’Oh that,“ the Reverend says. ‘Just a little water. My throat gets so scratchy when I preach, you know?’ ‘OK if I looked at that cup there on the floor?’ the cop says. ‘Why certainly,’ the minister says, and he hands the cup over. ‘Now Reverend,’ the cop says, ‘this here ain’t water, this is red wine.’ ‘Praise Je-sus,’ the minister says, ‘it‘s happened again!’”
Suzanne reported for duty. “I can see that I am needed desperately in this hell-hole.”
“How’s your nose today?” Paula asked.
“Can’t complain. Any customers?”
“No, but good stories about smells,” Tom said.
“Short, but not sweet,” Jerry said.
“We’ve also learned that Mona’s boyfriend pulled a knife on her son, and that Tom wants to suck Paula’s big toe.”
“Jerry,” Tom said, “I think I’m the only one you told the story about the ten-cheese lasagna.”
Paula was laughing. “A ten-cheese lasagna?”
“Yeah, my wife Carol rides a bus to work with a woman named Katie who lives in our neighborhood. Her retired father whips up ten-cheese lasagna in his kitchen. Katie asked if we’d like to try some. Sure, Carol said, we’ll try anything once. Katie delivered a frozen slab of the stuff to our door. She said many people liked the lasagna so well, they placed orders for it with her father.”
“The old boy’s got a lasagna factory going.”
“When we thawed it. It was kind of a slimy goo. The pasta had vanished without a trace. Carol poked around with a fork and found hunks of pork sausage floating in the cheese.”
“Not enough cholesterol without that,” Suzanne said.
“Tell them about the smell, Jerry.”
“When I was a kid I used to deliver papers to an old woman in the attic apartment of a rooming house. It was real hot up there in the summer when I’d go up there to collect once a week for the paper. The place always had this funky smell. I thought the old woman probably didn’t wash her neither parts, or change her underwear very often. Well, when we put the ten-cheese lasagna in the oven, it smelled exactly like the old woman’s room.”
“The old girl’s keister,” Paula said. “Did you eat it?”
“Could I please have some help over here?” called the woman with the dark, angry eyes.
Tom scurried to her aid. “Sorry, m’am, we didn’t notice you.”
“Yes, you were too busy talking.”
“You know, we’ve had so little business today we’ve kind of lost concentration.”
“I’m surprised you ever have any business, the way you treat your customers.”
“I’m interested in the Corningware you advertised.”
“Don’t know how to tell you this, but we never did get our shipment of that.”
“You advertise things you don’t have?”
“M’am, personally I don’t advertise anything. The ads come out of New York, the merchandise from all over, and if you can tell me why they don’t get the two together, I’d like to know.”
“Are you being smart with me?”
“I’m just telling you the way it is.”
“I’m going to speak to the manager, and I do not intend to shop here again.” She strode off.
When she was out of earshot, Paula said, “Third time I’ve heard her do that routine. She’ll be back. She needs us worse than we need her.”
“What’s new with that old black woman who lives across the street from you, Jerry?” Tom asked.
“Mzz Grant? Well, she’s been pretty upset lately about those special containers for aluminum cans and newspapers the city’s distributing. She liked the old system of dumping all the trash and garbage together. I told her if we separate out newspapers from the rest of the stuff, we can recycle them. It takes a lot of trees to make a Sunday newspaper, and we’re running out of trees. Who make newspaper out of trees? she said. I told her everyone did. She looked skeptical, but thoughtful, and then she said the new system still seemed a lot of trouble, considering that the world was about to end.”
“Sure, why go to the trouble?” Suzanne said.
Tom grinned. “She’s a character.”
“We had a double murder on Boulevard yesterday,” Jerry said.
“Near your house?”
“Well, not very far away.”
“What happened on Boulevard?” asked Jeremiah, the young black stockroom worker who had just wheeled a cart of merchandise into the department.
“A double murder.”
“Boulevard and Atlanta.”
“I went through that intersection just last night! My girl lives near there!”
“You could have caught a stray bullet, Jeremiah.”
“You could have eaten your last chicken.”
“I’m too young to die. There’s a whole lotta chickens out there I still wanta eat.”
“Speaking of which,” Paula said, “as I recall, you and your lady friend were dining together last night. We trust you stayed on your low-fat diet.”
“Yes, tell us what you had to eat, Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah did an imitation of a shifty-eyed, cornered person. “Now you guys know I don’t ordinarily eat no more than about a chicken a day—without the skin.”
“Although it tastes real good with the skin.”
“Yes, it do,” Jeremiah agreed.
Paula raised her arms and directed the Housewares choir in unison, “It’s the fat!”
“Now, if it’d been up to me,” said the grinning Jeremiah, “we’d never, ever set foot in that McDonald’s. But that was where she wanted to go, my hands was tied.”
“Still,” Paula pointed out, “at McDonald’s there would have been choices. No doubt you ordered the chef’s salad without eggs, easy on the dressing. A few saltines, perhaps, and water?”
Jeremiah was shifty-eyed.
“God saw what you did last night,” Tom said.
“She never sleeps,” Paula said.
“She never eats,” Suzanne said.
“Guys, I had me two double cheeseburgers, big fries, a shake, and a fried apple pie.”
“Oh, this is a disgrace!”
“Call the fat police!”
“It tasted so-o-o-o good!”
“Yeah, it was the fat!”
“Look! Look!” Tom said. “A customer! What can we do for you sir?”
The guy in the Ohio State sweatshirt was smiling. He had been standing a little distance from the group listening to the repartee. “Boy, you guys must be really hard up for business.”
“I don’t think he’s a customer,” Suzanne said. “He looks to me like a guy whose wife is shopping.”
“The little lady wins the prize.”
“You may not be a real customer,” Jerry said, “but perhaps you have stories you could share with us.”
“It must be fun working here.”
“Are you really from Ohio, or is that just a sweatshirt?” Tom inquired.
“As a matter of fact, I am originally from Ohio.”
“Really? Where in Ohio?” Jerry inquired.
“Worthington, near Columbus.”
“I grew up in Delaware,” Jerry said. “We used to play Worthington in sports.”
“Sure did. If you’re from Delaware, you must have known Gerald Smith.”
“He ran the News Shop on Main Street.”
“I roomed with his son Gary at Bowling Green.”
A woman appeared at the side of the man from Ohio.
“Hey, Helen, this guy knows Gary Smith.”
“O, you remember Gary, he….”
“Look, Bill, we’ve got to get a move on, or we’ll never be finished shopping before your parents arrive”—and she towed him by a sleeve down the store aisle.
“If you run into Gary, say hello to him from his old roomie Bill Lucky!” the guy from Ohio called over his shoulder.
Conversation had turned to the Atlanta socialite who had hanged herself recently.
“I knew a guy down in Jonesboro who had a collection of Civil War memorabilia in his attic,” Tom said. “I went to see it once. There was a thick beam nailed between two rafters in the attic. I asked Todd what it was for. He said it was there when he bought the house. He didn’t know what it was for, but he said if he ever got a fatal disease, he’d just tie one end of a rope around it, and the other end around his neck. He wasn’t very old, but a couple years later he found he had inoperable lung cancer.”
“But he experienced a miraculous recovery,” Paula suggested.
“That would have made a better end for the story,” Tom said, “but, no, they had to go up there and cut him down.”
“Well,” Suzanne said, “if we die before our time, it’s less likely to be from cancer than boredom.”
“Not if we keep telling stories,” Jerry said.
When Jerry stepped out of his car in front of his house that evening, Mzz Grant came waddling across the streets. “Got sumpin’ to tell you. You know Junior Jackson died?”
“They had a wake for him down at Grandma’s Saturday.”
“I heard the hell-raising.” Junior was a homeless person, and a drug addict who turned up by fits and starts at his Grandmother’s house down at the corner. He’d been in and out of jail for burglaries so often that if anything was missing in the ‘hood, the police picked him up routinely for questioning. Junior had contracted AIDS shooting heroin, and he had died.
“They had him laid out in the back room,” Mzz Grant said. “While they was havin’ the wake, the po-lice come down the street and knock on Grandma’s door. They say, ‘Junior in there?’ And Grandma, she say, ‘Whaya want him for?’ They say they got a warrant for his arrest. Grandma, she say, ‘Well, he here, Officer, and you welcome to him, but I dunno if you want him in yo jail.’”
Mzz Grant broke into her parrot cackle.
It was one for Jerry to tell his friends in Housewares tomorrow.
James Gallant’s book, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House/a Novel of Atlanta, was published by Glad Day Books published in 2004. His fiction and essays have appeared/are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Epoch, Massachusetts Review, Story Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Exquisite Corpse, North American Review, Raritan, Witness, The Writing Disorder, and The Riding Light Review, among others.