short stories

Dennis positioned the step ladder in front of the entrance to The Christmas Store. A thick serpentine of pine foliage, set with broad, dark, red-velvet ribbons edged in gold, stretched the full length of the entrance. Climbing up the ladder, he stood on the next-to-the-top step and put on a pair of transparent plastic gloves. Then he shook the can of balsam spray and directed it carefully on the greenery, averting his face and pausing frequently to shake the can. Environmentally sound but slow as hell. Well, God save the ozone. He shook the can furiously to summon up the last traces of fragrance. Then he inhaled deeply. $8.99 shot to hell in two minutes, but it was worth it. The greenery smelled as fresh as the morning the workmen put it up. He climbed down the ladder, moved it, climbed up, took out another can, and emptied it. He took another deep breath, like an artist savoring his work, and climbed down again. Then he folded the ladder and carried it through the store to the back room.

As he closed the metal fire-door he took off the gloves and cautiously sniffed his fingers. I don’t smell too much like balsam, do I? He sniffed the air, turning his head back and forth. How do you smell your face? Sir, perhaps I could ask a favor. Would you smell my face? I said smell it, not fondle it. Sorry, but I . . . well, your cheek-bones. Yes, they are exquisite, but this is hardly the place. Please make an appointment. Lennie with his secretary. God, that was living. How was I? Mr. Bernstein regrets to say that he hopes never to see you again, in this life or any other.

Dennis went behind the rectangular counter in the center of the store. Within the counter was a small display island, now topped by a ten-foot spruce. Satin-wrapped packages were clustered at the tree’s base. Dennis slid open a panel in the side of the island and took out a rag and a can of spray wax. Damn! Get the old gloves, you idiot, and save a quarter. He who saves quarters goes to heaven. They really should use paste wax, the mahogany was so magnificent, but it wasn’t cost-effective. Marge had wanted rosewood, but he had talked her out of it. I hate rosewood. It’s so rosy. Now this mahogany has guts. He polished the wood with long, slow strokes. At least I’m getting my exercise. Look at those lats! I wonder how old he is. Look at the damn mahogany, for Christ’s sake. That’s what puts bread on the table. Well, look at it. Little Ralphie Lipshitz doesn’t have anything better.

When he finished with the counter Dennis went to one of the four large display columns and began polishing the dark, fluted wood. Shelves protruded from the columns at regular intervals, and as he polished he inspected each joint for the slightest trace of dust. Offer perfection and they will come. The glue they used on these was fabulous. Not a tremor, not a sign of weakness. It was marvelous what they can do now. All I need now is a new rag.

After ten minutes Dennis stepped back from the column to give it a final look and then went on to the next. When he was done with all four columns he started on the wainscoting. Now that was a pleasant word. Where would we be without wainscoting? I’ve got to fuck Dennis, he has the most fabulous wainscoting. Laugh if you like, but when the fucking’s done, who’s on top? The folks with wainscoting. My fine Jewish hostess—“Look at my wood,” she says. Look at my wood! Sing ho for the life of a JAP! Dennis squatted as he worked, shuffling to his right as he finished a section. Is this good for me? It can’t be. The knees go first. I’ll be bent and wobbly, and no one will love me. How, then? Get out the kneepads, ho, ho, ho. You’re cheerful, and it’s only seven thirty. Think about last week’s receipts. The whole mall is up 20 percent over last year, thank God, and we’re up thirty. Everyone’s up except for Betsy’s Bakery. Girl, what did I tell you about margarine! Quality, goddamn it, quality. Dennis pressed forward, the whole weight of his body leaning against the wood as he rubbed the cloth against the molding. Look at those lats! No, look at those receipts! If this keeps up, you will get that Bonneville!

Oh, black with gray leather interior. Leather seating areas, I should say. Your butt and your back. The feel of real leather. God, it’s so auto-erotic. Well, it will be. I’ll look fucking fabulous. Oh, look, it’s Dennis in his new Bonneville. He’s so fucking fabulous. Maurice, I’m afraid I’m dropping you. Yes, Dennis offered me a ride in his fucking fabulous Bonneville, and I just couldn’t say no. One look at those fabulous leather seating areas and my resistance just crumbled. I hope you’ll understand.

When he was done with the wainscoting, Dennis put the spray wax behind the counter and went back to the storage room. He threw away the gloves and the polish-ing rag, and washed his hands in an industrial sink. Balsam and lemon. God I’m fruity. Let’s get on with it.

He left the storage room and went back behind the counter, taking out a huge metal can covered with florid illustrations and labeled “Biscotti.” No we don’t sell them but I understand they’re very good. Yes, they’re very good if you like dry biscuits for $20 a pound. Only Italy would bring you such crap. But they make great tins. He gripped the tin under one arm and pried off the lid, breathing deeply as the mingled scents of orange, clove, ginger and cinnamon rose in the air. Now that was better. If that doesn’t make you grateful, get out of my store.

Inside the can, twenty withered Valencia oranges, studded with dozens of whole cloves, were packed in a mixture of cinnamon sticks and fresh ginger root, where Dennis had placed them the night before. $13.99 a piece, and worth every goddamn penny. It’s marvelous the way they get that bronze color when they shrivel up. Who would have thought? Nature can do such wonderful things. He took out an orange and smelled it. See, isn’t it marvelous? Just hang half a dozen on your tree and your whole house will smell of Christmas. And we’ll give you some of the mixture so you can use them again next year. Isn’t that fantastic? So buy already!

Dennis held the can in one hand and walked around the store, using his free hand to spread the aroma of the spiced oranges with broad, theatrical gestures. Inhale, my children, inhale! Then he took out six of the oranges and scattered them among the packages at the base of the spruce, and placed the can underneath the spruce as well. What else do I need under my tree? What about buck-toothed angelboy John Elway, bare-ass on a bearskin rug? And what does little Dennis want for Christmas? Little Dennis wants Johnnie Akins, bare-ass on a bearskin rug. Not in Toledo, I think. Ah, Grandma with her shining silver tooth, and her Sears fruitcakes, marinated in corn syrup. If it’s Kayro, it’s got to be good. Poor Mom! I could forgive her anything, even Dad. Now, give Grandma a hug. But Mother, she stinks. Oh, you’re right, Dennis. You’re so perceptive. Well, go hug Johnnie Akins, then. Oh, that Aqua Velva!

For the next hour Dennis filled the shelves on the display columns. He arranged Santa Claus dolls, shepherds, angels, nutcracker soldiers, Father Christmas dolls, fairies and harlequins. They were fabulous. For $20 they were giving them away. He held a sixteen-inch Father Christmas in a green velvet robe with gold trim. Now this was fabulous! You didn’t deserve this for twenty. He’d like to see one for fifty, with some real handstitching. Well, why not? Why the fuck not? If goddamn Barbi could sell Bob Mackie outfits for $250, they could damn well sell Father Christmas for fifty. For fifty they could do serious work, nice velvet that would hang, even at this scale. Dennis held the doll no more than a foot from his eyes. This is the best damn value in the mall. I am not marking these down. They’ll stay at twenty through August and then they’re going up to thirty. But I’d like to see Helen make a fifty—maybe a twenty-four inch at seventy five. That would be fucking fantastic. You could use it as a centerpiece. He put the doll down and gave its belly a poke. Okay, old timer. Now I want to you to get your butt out there and sell, sell, sell!

He arranged the Father Christmas doll carefully and set a nutcracker soldier on either side. I like these nutcracker dolls, but let’s give them a Baryshnikov bulge. Sales rose ninety percent, among other things. And get rid of those damn nutcracker jaws. They’re so depressing. I don’t know why. Nine o’clock, let’s get cracking.

Dennis went into the storage room and unlocked a door that led to the mall’s office space. He walked down a narrow corridor to another door and unlocked it. Inside, he switched on the lights and stood over an electronics console. Let’s see. I remember. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. All good children go to heaven. Well, I would have. The name did it. Here’s Dennis! Dennis, Dennis, Dennis! It’s so fucking Toledo. Why not Andre Agassi, for Christ’s sake? How could you not win Wimbleton when your name is Andre Agassi? Maybe someday I’ll go. And who, sir, are you? Lord Dennis, the next Duke of Kent. Get back to the store.

Dennis walked down another corridor that exited directly into the mall. Christmas music flooded the three-story enclosure. Thank God for Bose! Good clarity, good definition, no echo. We’ve got to stop splurging. But Harry, it sounds great! Who’s it for, us or the customers? You’re a tough old bastard, Harry. Shit, maybe he’s right, but we’re selling class. Besides, I couldn’t stand to listen to Frosty the Snowman twelve times a day. People buy more when you play the traditional carols. I can prove it. If the salesman hadn’t been such a faggot in his goddamn Bally jacket, Harry wouldn’t have gotten his back up. We could have gotten a discount, for God’s sake! We do have a little clout around here. Oh Christ!

A man dressed in the full regalia of one of the guards at Buckingham Palace strode along the aisle, on his way to Nordstrom’s. Dennis couldn’t refrain from waving. Who’s the little faggot now? Oh, Christ, who cares, just look at him! What an idea! Oh God, don’t you just love that fucking beaver? Well, are you going to follow him? Why don’t you just ask him for his autograph? Hey I think I deserve a little breakfast, don’t I? So will it kill you to look at his ass for the next two minutes?

Dennis followed the guardsman down the mall, finally stopping at a stand that sold cappuccino. A girl, still in her teens, with a round face, grinned at him.

“Hi, Mr. Johnson, what’ll you have?”

“A regular, a small. Put a little whipped cream on it.”

“Coming right up.”

Coming right up! Coming right up! Well, isn’t that what you want? Isn’t that what you’re selling?

Dennis took the cappuccino, paid the girl, and went back to the store. There was a bench across from the entrance, and he sat there, surveying the interior while he drank the cappuccino. Look intelligent, here she comes.

“Is this how we make our money?”

“Come on, this my breakfast. I’ve been here since quarter to seven.”

“The store looks good. Is this all you’re eating?”

“Yeah, I have a dinner tonight.”

Dennis tilted his head back and finished the cappuccino with one long drink.

“It’s getting late,” he said. “I better make my rounds.”

“You can have until 10:30. I won’t need you till then.”

He nodded and rose, holding the plastic cappuccino cup in his hand.

“Do you think we need a trash can here?”

“People don’t want to look at trash.”

“I know. But then they’d have someplace to throw it.”

“Maybe between us and Port of Call.”

He nodded again and started walking.

“See you at 10:30,” he said.

Dennis walked past half a dozen stores, reviewing their decorations, until he reached the atrium. Ah, yes, the atrium. Well, we do try to be Roman around here. Do you admire our frescos? What about our thirty-foot, artificial tree? Well, what about it? We’re saving the fucking environment, for Christ’s sake. And you need artificial for display space anyway. You can be too authentic. He opened a small door in the base of the tree and flipped a dozen switches. The lights on the tree came on, followed by the strings of lights on the balconies overlooking the atrium, and the lights on the smaller trees that flanked the corridors emptying into it. That’s better. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. God, I hate those plastic ornaments! But what can you do? The space is just too damn big. Why can’t we have trains like they do in Washington. Those big engines are so gorgeous! For two thousand, they damn well better be. Besides, we want them to look at the stores. Old Harry! Something to look at while they sit! I don’t want them to sit! I want them to come to my store! That’s what I want! Better you should put thumb tacks on the seats! That phony accent! God, I love it! Harry, we won’t charge you! Christmas is on us! I am a retailer! What it takes, I’ll do! You want first class, I’ll go first class! Give me a list. No, Harry, I’ll do it. Give me a list. Give me a list! Angels? Angels I can do. Jacob wrestled with an angel. You Christians have a very nice bible. You should read it some time.

Why not cable cars? Do they do that? That would be great, your own little San Francisco under glass—Ghiardelli Square, the Cannery, cable cars, everything. You could do it. Yeah, you could do it. Cost a mint, but you could do it.

Modern Music should have done more. Look at that window, damn it! Nothing going on. Absolutely nothing! And when are you going to sell a piano? Not to mention an organ! Marty is getting a goddamn free ride. Right, times are tough, but you don’t tell the customer that. We’re not selling desperation. And look at Jeanie’s place! Those fabulous bureaux. That was the problem. Marty saw those bureaux and dried flowers and knew he could get a goddamn free ride. He should be paying half. Dennis looked at the highboy in the window, its doors swung open to reveal shelves cluttered with beautifully wrapped presents. Scattered among the presents were fat damask Christmas tree balls, dusty blue with silver trim, the size of grapefruits. They’re so marvelous! Where did she get them? Just look at them! You’re still dating him? He’s such a fattie. I know, but you should see his blue damask balls.

Dennis slipped into Nordstrom’s. Just a look-through. To give me an idea. Okay, to look at the guards. Oh God, there they are. Well, put them up front, for Christ’s sake. Oh, just look at them. Pardon me, sir, what’s it like to be six-one and gorgeous? How do you know he’d say no? Oh Christ, be serious. Well, invite them up to the chalet. Why not? A couple of us get together each year—of course, it’s not, it’s nothing special, just homey—Oh, Christ, homey! Yes, that’s what you look for when you’re six-one and gorgeous! Start over. Damn it, well, I will look good when I drive up in the Bonneville, white snow, blue sky, black Bonneville, new tires rolling smoothly through the snow. My God, is that Dennis? I didn’t know he could afford that. I thought he was just hanging on. Oh no. Christ, look at that outfit. And that equipment. Oh Dennis, is all that new? Well, yes, it is the New Year, after all. We do have to celebrate.

Okay, forget the outfit, damn it. Maybe if I gave up cappuccinos for the rest of my life. What would that be? A pair of pants and half a jacket. Okay, don’t give up cappuccinos. Just a few more seconds. I want to look at their buttons, damn it. What is that, intaglio? Security, another queer over by the guards. Just come along, sir. I work here, damn it. Just come along. All right, I’m going.

Alec and me in tweeds on the patio, overlooking the sea. What was it we were drink-ing. God, you’re forgetting! Hot scotch and water with a twist of lemon. It’s very English. We all looked great, and the gulls turning. There must have been a hundred of them, their wings and bellies white, and then pink in the sunset, against the blue-black thunderhead. We just stood there, looking, it was so beautiful. I was crying, it was so beautiful. And then the visit to our host, dying, dead already, his pretty boys, so proud that they were so good to him, and he didn’t care, because he was dead already. We bowed and scraped to show how much we cared, and he was dead already, he wasn’t even looking at us, he was just dead. And when we came back the gulls were gone and the thunderhead had moved, but it was still there, just hanging over the water, and the light had shifted. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t the same. I don’t have time to get my tux. They wouldn’t like it anyway—that’s out, we’re not doing that any more, it gives the wrong image. Well, what do you wear? This, I guess. No, I’ll be sweaty. Something muted. Five hundred homosexuals ate hotel food tonight in honor of AIDS victims.

Dennis looked at the sand-filled concrete urns outside Nordstrom’s entrance. There were half-a-dozen butts scattered in the sand. That alluring note of scarlet. Goddamn broads stinking up my store. Call maintenance. You see a broad light up I want you to kick her butt. Just kick it. Let’s go to the jock shop and look at the torsos.

I still don’t like this window! Luis, preppie sells! What would Ralph Lauren do? Why not buck-tooth angelboy John Elway bare-ass on a bearskin rug by an open fire, wearing Santa’s cap? That would sell. Why not Black Watch jock straps with a Baryshnikov bulge? Andre Agassi playing tennis in a Black Watch jock, gorgeous, hairy tanned gut and gorgeous, hairy tanned butt bisected by the sacred emblem of Scots manhood. God, I’d buy a ticket to that. Who wouldn’t? You could sell out the goddamn coliseum. Bad boy Andre in Black Watch plaid versus golden boy Boris in, in what? Something German. Screw it, you can’t do German. But you could do a lot. Rep patterns—take that old school tie and wrap it around your crotch. Well, why not? Why the hell not? Have yourself a very preppie crotch, for Christ’s sake. I could open my own store. Leave Marge out of it. I just wanted to do something for myself. I never dreamed it would blossom this way. Get those torsos from Calvin, maybe in a light chocolate, or coffee and cream. God, it would be preppie! Ducks in silver on navy, teal and ox-blood. And spaniels, and seals. And then you could reverse the col-ors—navy, teal and ox-blood on silver. What else? Stripes, paisley. Why not? Black with scarlet piping, silk paisley lining. Why not? Why the fuck not? My own store. Grandma, what are you doing here? I, I was just in the neighborhood. Um hmmm. Stop fondling my mannequin. I just wanted to hold it. Well, I don’t want you to. I have a business to run. Don’t speak to your grandmother like that! Grandma, you’ll have to let go, or I’m calling security. What seems to be the problem, Mr. Johnson? Officer, remove this woman. She’s groping my mannequin. Lady, you’ll have to come with us. How dare you! This man is a pervert. You should be arresting him! That’s private property, ma’am. You’ll have to come along with us, lady. Use the cuffs, Jerry. How dare you! Just doin’ my job, ma’am. Nothin’ personal.

On to Hardy’s. Oh, Ellie, your drapery’s starting to sag. She isn’t in yet? I’ll call maintenance. But not a bulb out anywhere. I like that. And I like those big, dusty-pink ribbons. What is it with dusty? It just works. Yours is not to reason why.

Dennis stopped in front of another store. Half a dozen dolls, one-third life-size, stared at him with aloof, eighteenth-century eyes. God, aren’t they perfect! This is the best fucking window in the state. See, Harry, this is what we wanted, eighteenth-century museum-quality figures with authentic costumes. Five-thousand dollars for a doll! For that you should get a kid! Oh, but Harry, who wants a kid when you can have one of these? Okay, scrap the Bonneville. No, don’t scrap the Bonneville. Look at the shoes, look at the hose. Christ, they really knew how to dress in those days. If only we could get them half-size, with period furniture, and something that would make them dance the minuet. The Japanese could do it. But sir, all the men are dancing with each other. Well, that’s how they did it. You don’t think there was any mingling of the sexes, do you? God no. They had too much taste for that. Duty calls. Damn it, stop putting your damn gum wrappers and plastic cups in our planters! We try to make this nice for you and you fuck it up with your fucking lipstick! Fucking broads and their fucking mouths! Put a cock in it, lady, that’s all you’re good for.

My God, the first wave. Look at them move! It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Yeah, you can hear those cash registers ring. You damn well better. Daddy wants a new Bonneville. Look at her! God, we should just hire ten of her to walk around and give the place class. What a jawline! Who wouldn’t be black if you could look like that! Oh, and who does he think he is, Mark Gastineau? What’s your position, cutie? I’ll show you a new one. Look at those lats, those delts, those gluts. Why don’t you go look at tampons, honey. I’ll take over. That’s right, bitch, hands off. Are they rich? They must be. Look at those pants—silk, the way they stick on her butt. And no panty lines. Damn it, damn it, damn it. What can you do? Maybe he is famous. He could be. God, a real pro jock. Ask for his autograph? I think not. Well, not bad, not bad. Get back to the store. Chubbie at four o’clock. I’m sorry, miss, you’ll have to leave. Your ass is just too fat for the premises. Your bum is a bummer. How can people think Christmas thoughts looking at those stretched pants. Put an apple in your mouth or you’re out of here.

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