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It was a cigarette burn. .
I could scarcely have been more shocked if I'd discovered it on my own flesh, appearing out of nowhere, like stigmata. But it wasn't on me. It was on my grass green carpet, Aisle 3, Condolences/Get Well Soon, where I knelt, rooted in horror.
"Dear God," I said. "Dear God. Dear God."
"Girl, get a grip," Fredreeq called out, barging through the front door of my shop, Wollie's Welcome! Greetings. "I can hear those 'Dear Gods' all the way out to the parking lot. Did someone die? Is it Mr. Bundt? Please tell me Mr. Bundt died and I can take the day off and go to the beach."
"He's not dead. He's due here any minute. I was doing the final Dustbusting, and look, look--" I waved at the carpet. "At the last inspection, Mr. Bundt questioned the decor. I told him it was French Provincial. I can't pass this off as French Provincial."
"No." Fredreeq loomed over me. "Cigarette burns are strictly Trailer Park. White Trash, no offense." She leaned down, sending a wave of Shalimar my way. "That's one hell of a burn. That is the mother of all cigarette burns. That's a cigar burn."
I looked up at my friend and employee, took in her attire, and said it again. "Dear God."
Earrings the size of teacups dangled from delicate earlobes. Zebra- print stockings stretched from the hem of a very short, very tight skirt to a pair of velvet stiletto heels.
"Yeah, I know, I'm pushing the envelope here." Fredreeq straightened up and moved to the cash register counter. "Is it the stockings? You think bare legs are better?"
It was a tough call. I wasn't wearing panty hose myself, but I had on a long calico skirt and socks and red high-tops. Also a red sweater with a dalmatian applique. It had seemed like a good outfit an hour earlier, but now I wasn't so sure. I'm over five foot eleven. Next to Fredreeq, I could look like a piece of playground equipment.
"Maybe," I said, and turned to scratch at the cigarette burn with my fingernail. "You're black, which I always think makes the high heels-no stockings look--"
"No," I said, "just more--"
At that moment, Mr. Bundt walked through the door of Wollie's Welcome! Greetings, setting the Welcome! greeting bell to ringing. I jumped to my feet, planting a red high-top right on the cigarette burn. "Good morning, Mr. Bundt," I said. "Welcome."
A pink carnation graced the lapel of his beige Big and Tall suit. There was something incandescent about Mr. Bundt, his skull as shiny as his wing tips, the few strands of hair combed neatly, slightly damply over the top of his head, like one long eyebrow. He saw me and smiled, and for a minute I thought it was going to be all right, but then he saw Fredreeq. Well, he could hardly miss her. She was sitting on the counter, a bunched-up chunk of stocking hanging from one foot as she struggled to get a stiletto heel off the other.
Mr. Bundt stared for a moment and then--and here's what I admired about him--he turned and began inspecting the Welcome! Greetings racks, beginning with Birthdays, Juvenile. If there was a Welcome! way to handle every situation in life, this man, either from instinct or training, knew exactly what it was. Mr. Bundt was the field representative for the Welcome! Greetings Corporation, devoting his life to inspecting all Welcome! shops seeking an upgrade to Willkommen! status. Willkommen! status allowed Welcome! shop managers to buy their shops. This was what I longed for. This was the stuff my dreams were made of. This man held a piece of my life in his hands.
Mr. Bundt dropped out of sight behind the Condolences/Get Well Soon rack, checking stock in the bottom drawer. I motioned to Fredreeq to hurry up with her changing routine.
"Wollie," his disembodied voice said, "is this Frank Sinatra?"
For a minute I thought he meant in the drawer. Then I realized he meant on the stereo.
"Yes," I said. " 'That's Life.' The song, as well as the album."
Mr. Bundt rose, his skull appearing slowly from behind the card rack. "Wouldn't we be safer with easy listening? Here in Los Angeles, KXEZ." Mr. Bundt was based in Cincinnati, yet knew every major easy listening station in his territory, North America. It was a gift.
"Frank Sinatra isn't--safe?" I asked.
"No one is safe, Miss Shelley." His sudden use of my surname chilled me. "No album, no CD. Not for a manager who seeks to change her shop from a Welcome! to a Willkommen!"
Willkommen! The word acted upon me like a bell to Pavlov's dog. I stared at him, poised to respond appropriately.
"KXEZ radio can be trusted," he explained. "They have done their market research. Even their advertisements provide reassurance. Favorite albums, on the other hand, are expressions of personal taste that run the risk of--"
"Mr. Bundt, blame me," Fredreeq called out. "I keep changing the music on her. Easy listening is very difficult for my people."
Mr. Bundt pretended to just now notice Fredreeq. She'd moved behind the counter, where, from the waist up, she looked almost normal. "Yes, well," he said. "The music is not for you, Ms. Munson, but for the customer. Let's remember that key phrase in our company's Promise to the Public: 'We are here to soothe, not to offend.' "
"Is headquarters aware that there are people offended by banality?" Fredreeq asked.
He did not respond. I thought maybe he wasn't sure what "banality" meant but didn't want to ask. I was a little fuzzy on it myself. I gestured to Fredreeq, who hit the stop button on the music system, cutting off Frank mid-note. For a moment there was silence, except for the sound of a distant car alarm on Sunset Boulevard.
And so we were all able to hear, very clearly, when the phone machine clicked on--the ringer having been turned off--and a voice choked out the words, "Wollie? It's me. Murder, Wollie. Murder. Cold blood. He's talking, he doesn't know I'm here, I'm going to have to--no. No. NO--"
Within seconds I was across the selling floor, reaching over the counter for the phone that Fredreeq was handing me as though we'd choreographed it.
"Hello?" I said. "P.B.?"
My brother hung up.
I hung up too and clung to the counter for a second, telling myself everything was fine, we'd been through this dozens of times, P.B. and I, whatever it was, and it would turn out okay. Then I turned and smiled at Mr. Bundt. "Heh," I said. It was the best I could come up with.
Mr. Bundt stared at me, his eyebrows so high it looked as if he'd had a face-lift in the last half minute. "Murder?" he said. "Murder?"
"Nothing to worry about," I said. "Family . . . thing."
"Whatever--that was referring to. You know. Just--family stuff."
Mr. Bundt looked doubtful. "That was a relative on the phone?"
"Shouldn't you . . . deal with it?"
"Oh, no," I said. "He'll call back."
"Hadn't you better call him?"
"No, he's--difficult to reach." Could I explain that this was because my brother was in the state mental hospital? No.
Mr. Bundt's eyebrows finally lowered. "I suggest you take care of this now, Miss Shelley, because we don't want this person calling back during the hours of operation and startling the customers the way he just startled us."
"Yes, of course." I picked up the phone and dialed the number from memory, long-distance, the 805 area code. "This hardly ever happens."
"I should hope not. Welcome! policy frowns upon family matters intruding upon business. Is this a close relative?"
There was a tug on my heart, but I shrugged in a manner that I hoped indicated a second or third cousin. There are people made uncomfortable by the notion of a paranoid schizophrenic in the immediate family.
My call was answered by a recording, which I also knew by heart, and I gave it half an ear. I watched Mr. Bundt head for the freestanding racks--the spinners--that display the small, independent card lines. Freelance cards made up 25 percent of our selection, and, as I myself was one of these freelancers, there was a lot at stake there.
Mr. Bundt picked a card and studied it so closely he appeared to be searching for drug residue. It was one of mine, a Good Gollie, Miss Wollie. After a moment, he handed it to Fredreeq. She pointed out the writing inside. They appeared to disagree. She shook her head. He nodded. They did it again. Nodding and shaking, they headed my way.
The hospital's outgoing message droned on in my ear, as the two of them went around me, to the cash register side of the counter. Fredreeq opened the file drawer, probably to show Mr. Bundt sales statistics on the card. And that's when his gaze fastened on the List.
I'd taped the List to the antiqued gold counter weeks ago, as a reminder of the Dating Project specifications. Fredreeq and I had become so accustomed to seeing it, we'd forgotten about it.
We remembered it now.
Slowly I hung up the phone, a trickle of sweat sliding south between my breasts. Please God, let him go blind, I prayed. Not forever, of course. For fifteen or twenty seconds.
Then I sprang into action, slapping my hand down on the counter right smack on top of the List. Mr. Bundt peered at it, trying to read between my splayed fingers, then said, "Miss Shelley, what on earth is written here that's not fit for public consumption?"
"Mr. Bundt," I said, "I promise you the public never sees that; come around to this side of the counter and you'll see how impossible it is to read it from here."
He stood his ground. "What is it, Miss Shelley?"
Fredreeq piped up. "Okay, I confess. These are soul mate qualifications. I'm looking for a soul mate."
"Fredreeq--" I said.
Mr. Bundt frowned. "I thought you were married."
"Divorcing," she said, fast dispensing with her long-suffering husband. "Working here at Welcome! Greetings showed me I had real high professional standards and real low personal ones. So I made a list. I'm finding my next man strictly by the book." She moved my hand aside, slapped a file on top of the List, and slid it down an inch. "You see, number one is A Good Name."
Mr. Bundt said, "A good reputation, you mean."
"Okay, yeah." Fredreeq smiled.
Mr. Bundt reached beyond her and moved the file down an inch. "Number two: Not a Convicted Felon. Surely that's not a recurring problem, Ms. Munson?"
I reached over the counter and slid the file over the List again. Fredreeq picked up a receipt book, and began to stamp pages with the Have A Nice Day stamp we used to spruce up our receipts. It seemed an odd thing to do.
Mr. Bundt reached over and moved the file. "Three: No STDs. What are ST--"
Fredreeq stamped him on the hand. Hard. I mean, it must have hurt. I gasped.
Mr. Bundt jumped backward, and I moved in on him, solicitous, but also wedging my body in front of the List. I offered turpentine to remove the ink, but he waved me away. As he waved, his right hand showed the word "Nice."
"Let's lose this." I turned to the List and ripped it off the counter. "There. Gone."
The rest of the inspection tour went better, but then, it could hardly have gone worse. I managed to keep him away from the cigarette burn, which, I realized, must have occurred during Uncle Theo's Wednesday Night Poetry Reading, and somehow escaped my notice for thirty-two hours. Mr. Bundt found no fault with my Passover/Easter decorations, although he did raise an eyebrow at my small selection of seasonal books, Baby's First Easter Story, A Child's Haggadah, and Sri Ramanavami, Hindu Holiday. He then went so far as to call my peripherals beyond reproach: wrapping paper, sealing wax, snow globes, crystal balls, astrological calendars, collectible watches, bookends, bookplates, bookmarks, sterling silver yo-yos, and dollhouse furniture. The other forty-one Good Gollie, Miss Wollie cards on their own spinner passed muster, then Mr. Bundt checked the books and asked if I had additional resources, in the happy event that I won my Willkommen! upgrade.
"Because I must tell you, most of our franchise candidates are more fiscally stable."
"Mr. Bundt, you don't have to worry. I've been approved for four small business loans and I have a--a nest egg--earmarked for the down payment. I'm stable. I'm fiscal."
"Yes, well. Don't count your nest egg before you're hatched. You have two more inspections prior to Decision Day." He nodded toward the wall calendar, where the Monday after Easter was highlighted. "These next inspections, however, will be conducted by plainclothespeople."
"Plain, uh, clothes people?"
"To observe the shop in action," he said, "through the eyes of 'a customer.' Should you achieve Willkommen! status, supervision will cease, so we must determine now your level of fitness." Mr. Bundt leaned in, smelling of breath mints. "No more morbid family phone calls, Wollie. You will not wish to remind anyone of the error made with your predecessor."
My predecessor, Aldwyn Allen, two weeks after Aldwyn's Welcome! Greetings had been upgraded to Aldwyn's Willkommen! Greetings, had hanged himself. In the shop. Nobody knew why, nor had I been able to find out exactly where it had happened. I liked to think it was the utility closet, the only piece of the premises I had no emotional attachment to.
I walked Mr. Bundt out to his Lincoln Continental, chatting to divert his attention from his surroundings. The shop was on Sunset Boulevard, east of Highland, smack in the middle of a small strip mall comprised of a twenty-one-hour locksmith, a mini-market called Bodega Bob, Loo Fong's Chinese Fast Food, Neat Nails Plus, and a Colonel Sanders knockoff, Plucky Chicken. The good thing about the location was, there were no other greeting card shops for 2.7 miles. The bad news was, this little piece of Hollywood was not optimum in terms of sales.
"Seedy," an old boyfriend once called it. Fredreeq put it another way: "It's like your shop was headed for the suburbs and got off at the wrong bus stop."
It wasn't the prettiest corner of the world, but I couldn't afford the franchise if it were. And my philosophy was, hookers need greeting cards too.
There were no hookers this morning, just a man sleeping in a wrecked red Fiero in front of Loo Fong's, whom Mr. Bundt, by the grace of God, seemed not to notice. Corporate policy stated my jurisdiction included the shop and all public areas connected to it, but you can't really dust and vacuum people.
Back inside moments later, I hugged Fredreeq, dodging her earrings and absorbing her Shalimar.
She patted my back. "Yeah, I know, I'm a saint. Saint Bullshit. What was I gonna do, watch you tell him whose List that really is, Miss Compulsive Honesty? Okay, I'm gonna go put myself back together." She pulled her panty hose out of her pocket and headed toward the back room, then stopped with her hand on the doorknob. It was my pièce de résistance, that doorknob, a ceramic lemon attached to a door that was painted as a tree, set in a wall-length mural of a lemon grove. "Wollie, is P.B. all right?"
"Yes. I mean-" With a sense of unease, I picked up the phone and pressed redial. "He's been off his ziprasidone because of his foot thing, which is why he's talking murder. He's delusional again." The hospital's after-hours recording greeted me once more. I hung up and looked at my watch. "Still too early. The thing is, I don't want to leave a bunch of messages. Once he's back on his meds, these episodes just embarrass him."
"Well, you're the boss, Wollie." Fredreeq disappeared into the back room, her voice trailing off as she said, "But to quote somebody famous, just 'cause your brother is paranoid, doesn't mean that somebody isn't dead."
Despite repeated attempts, by early evening I still hadn't talked to my brother. The psych tech on P.B.'s ward told me he seemed fine, but refused to take incoming calls.
I was dressing for a date in my apartment, a one-room-pluskitchenette that barely contained the old grand piano I lived with. The apartment's main appeal was its price and its proximity to my shop-sixty-nine steps if you used all back entrances. On the radio, the closing music of the talk show Love Junkies swelled.
"Chemistry shmemistry," said Dr. Cookie Lahven, the host. Her magnolia-blossom voice took on a slightly manic edge as she raced against her own closing music. "You wanna get laid, go for chemistry. You want the long haul, the ring on your finger, go for character. The whole trick to keeping the guy is finding the right guy in the first place. How? Honey, I could write a book. I am writing a book. How to Avoid Getting Dumped All the Time, hitting the stands next Valentine's Day, and-"
My phone rang. I turned off the radio, feeling the thrill I always get when I hear a reference to myself on the air. I was the research for How to Avoid Getting Dumped All the Time. Well, me and fourteen other women across the United States. We were the Dating Project.
"Hello?" I said, but there was silence on the other end of the phone. "P.B.?"
A guttural noise answered me. It could have been the growl of an animal. It could have been phlegm.
I felt a sudden, inexplicable chill. As though a flame had been extinguished. "P.B.?"
Click. Silence. Dial tone.
From the Hardcover edition.