How much longer is he going to stay open, she wondered. It was already after seven and they’d opened at 9 that morning, Christmas Eve Day. Probably the biggest shopping day of the year at their Ben Franklin Store. Sometimes she thought her dad wanted to wrestle every last penny out of customers before he’d call it quits, tell the cashiers to pull their drawers, and start switching off the lights, one at a time, starting from the front of the store to the back, and finally turn off the record player sitting on the high shelf that had been playing Johnny Mathis and Big Crosby Christmas albums non-stop all day. She was absolutely dog tired, her 16-year old self as tired as a traffic cop finishing a 12-hour shift in Manhattan during a black-out.
He’d let a couple of the ‘girls’, as he called them, go home because they had families and it was Christmas Eve. What about us, she thought? We’ve got a family. There was no use even asking him when he would close up. It wasn’t a question one asked. When he walked to the front of the store with the keys in his hand is when the store would close. He decided. Like a farmer who could sniff the air and know it was time to plant.
This last day before Christmas had been crazy busy, the front doors swinging open every few minutes letting another blast of cold Dearborn air, sometimes blowing snow in along with the wrapped up people rushing to find Christmas presents. Lines at the cash registers had been long but cheery, both lines wound past the candy counter where folks could stop and get a pound of Brach’s Christmas Mix scooped out of the bin, weighed and bagged. Chocolate peanuts, maple nuts, jelly beans, hot cashews, there to grab by the handful. One of the benefits of working all day. No lunch but plenty of candy.
Now the crowds had dwindled to just a few late shoppers. A man seeming to be stuck in the housewares aisle, picking up pots and pans and potholders and looking stumped and tired, and two kids, maybe 9 or 10, circling the parakeets and painted turtles, whispering and counting their money. An older lady in a long coat with a fur collar had a stack of fabric remnants in her arms and was digging through the Simplicity patterns. Was the lady going to make something for Christmas? She looked like a person with a plan. No indecision there.
Maybe I should help the man figure out what to buy, she thought, get him moving along. He’d spent so much time with the cookware, he’d practically taken root. When had he come in, anyway?
“Can I help you find something?” Her dad had taught her to ask people if they wanted help but to mostly leave them alone. Nobody likes sales people breathing down their neck, he would say. So she decided not to breathe down his neck but to at least get him dislodged from what was becoming his permanent home. If this guy would decide what to buy, they would all be one step closer to closing up and going home. For her, this meant going home to Christmas. Her mom had already left work to go home and get everything ready. That meant she was putting presents under the tree right now.
“I’m stuck. I don’t know if my wife wanted a two-quart pot or a soup pot.”
“She wanted a pot for Christmas?”
“I don’t know. You don’t think she wants a pot for Christmas?”
“Well, if she does, a soup pot would be nice. It’s real big and maybe if you got the two quart pot she would think it was too small. Just an idea. What do you think?”
He swiped the soup pot off the shelf and headed for the cash register, turned around and yelled a “Thank you!” She was glad he didn’t ask for gift wrapping.
On to the boys in the pet department. Well, they called it a pet department but it was really a big cage of parakeets, several of which would regularly escape and fly around the store, scaring the customers and making her dad run around with the net the parakeet vendor sent with the first shipment. It made him really mad when somebody left the little door open to their cage and the birds started sneaking out; unnerving, too, to see them perched on the button rack, peering down, cocking their heads to and fro the way parakeets do. And then there were the turtles. Little tiny turtles that were sold with a plastic dish with a 3-inch palm tree. She couldn’t stand the turtles. They came in a big box, hundreds of them, crawling all over each other. It was disgusting to unpack them and put them in the display case. Gross.
“So are you interested in a turtle or a bird?”
“We’re gonna buy a bird for our mom.”
“You want to buy a parakeet for your mom. Ok. Which one?”
“That one, the blue one. The one looking at us. That one.”
“You know, if you buy a parakeet, you need to have something to put the parakeet in. Do you have a bird cage?”
“No. We were just going to take it home. Maybe our mom has a cage.”
By now, they were the very last customers in the store. She prayed they had the money for the bird and a cage.
“How much money do you guys have?”
They squeezed open their plastic coin purses. Together, they maybe had enough to buy the bird, but not the cage. For sure, not the cage.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her dad, arms folded, listening to the exchange. He’s going to give them the cage, she thought. He’s going to give them the cage and say, “Tell your mom that Santa gave her the cage.” She smiled. She knew this would be the end of the day. And so nice to give something away. She watched him walk over.
“Hi boys, I see you don’t have enough money for a bird and a cage. How about this? You can buy a turtle and the aquarium for the price of the bird. And you can paint your mom’s name on the turtle. She’ll really like that. Better than a bird. A lot better.”
He’s selling them a turtle for their mother? She nodded to the boys. “Oh yes, she’ll love getting a turtle. They’re so cute.”
Then it was only a matter of minutes to bundle up their new pet turtle and their aquarium and tiny palm tree. Turtle food was part of the deal so they didn’t have to worry about that. She doubled bagged everything to protect the turtle from the cold. Smiled at them and wished them Merry Christmas. As soon as they were out the door, her dad pulled his keys from his pants pocket and locked the front doors to the store. They walked back together to shut the lights off one by one, climb on the ladder to lift the needle off Johnny Mathis, and go home to find the Christmas her mom had prepared, presents arranged under the tree, tired but having done a long and mostly honest day’s work.