Click here to read Part 1 of this story, if needed. Otherwise, here we go…
I squealed into the parking lot in front of Lou’s Hallmark, careening into an available slot and nearly sending myself through the windshield when I was overly enthusiastic and yanked on the parking brake before the car had even come to a halt. I leaped out, slammed the car door, and raced toward the entrance.
Just a few paces before the actual front door, I made myself slow down and appear casual, as if I had merely been strolling through the neighborhood on my way to an art exhibit concerning the work of someone French when I managed to stumble upon this quaint little shop.
I pulled open the door and was nearly beheaded by a giant bell as it swung wildly, clanging away and announcing my arrival. This thing was huge, and it put some actual church bells to shame. Apparently Lou or one of his or her employees was hard of hearing, or perhaps they spent a lot of time in the back room of the place, doing whatever it is that the people of Duncanville might do when bored in their retail establishments.
In any case, I sauntered in, not wanting to appear too anxious, on the off chance that Lou had some natural predatory instincts and would be able to smell my desperation and need if I wasn’t careful. One and a half seconds after stepping into the store, I realized that no one in this store would be able to smell anything other than the overwhelming sickly-sweet smell of flowery candles designed to entice elderly women on their way home from the Ladies Auxiliary luncheon at Cracker Barrel.
With the right humidity and wind strength, that stench could take a life.
“Hello,” said a female voice, from the direction of what appeared to be a centralized check-out area. There stood a very squat woman, with a dyed mess of unnatural blonde hair teased and jacked to the ceiling in that small-town Texas manner, pausing to look my way and greet me in the midst of her fiddling with a bit of ribbon on some foo-foo knick-knack lying on the counter. “Can I help you find something?”
And I responded with that universal lie that some of us always use, “Oh, I’m just looking around, but thank you” which roughly translates as “I am one of those people that does not want sales clerks hovering in any way while I review the merchandise. Do not approach me unless I give some indication that I need assistance or it appears that I may have injured myself and require medical attention.”
She smiled primly in a manner that indicated she did not think my response warranted a smile at all. “I see. Well, then. If you have any questions, just let me know.” Then she picked up the knick-knack and relocated to the opposite counter in her little square box of operations so that I was no longer in her direct line of sight. I had been dismissed.
What the hell was that? I hadn’t been overtly rude or anything, but apparently she thought so.
Just then, there was another near-decapitation at the door, and in clattered a woman sporting Exhibit B in what was quickly becoming an impromptu review of jacked-to-Jesus hairstyles. “Lou!” screamed this overly-coiffed new arrival. “How ARE you, honey?” (Ah. So now we had an ID on Lou and her gender.)
Back at the counter, Lou tossed aside the lame ribbon thing without a second thought. “Betty Jean! What are you up to today?”
Betty Jean sashayed her way to the counter, and clunked down a purse that sounded like it contained spare car parts. “Oh, honey. I was about to take a covered dish over to Delilah’s house, see how she was doin and all, then I thought, why, I better get her a nice card.”
Lou immediately exhibited an obviously fake expression of sympathy, one that she had fine-tuned during many hours of superficial gospel outreach, but other than that she was clearly now engaging in one of her favorite sports: Gossiping with town folk about other town folk. “Poor Delilah. It’s such a shame, what happened. I know her heart is heavy. I prayed for her just this morning.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” oozed Betty Jean, leaning in conspiratorially. “I have been prayin non-STOP, I tell you. Lord. You think you know people and then they go and do something like that.”
“Oh, honey, I was SO surprised to hear about it. Myrna called me the second she heard. I could not believe it.”
And at that point, honey, I quit listening. I’m from a small conservative town. I know this type of conversation. It’s not what they are talking about that is important, it’s the fact that they have something to talk about concerning other peoples’ lives and not their own. It didn’t matter if Delilah had an awkward death in the family, had a son that got caught being friendly with a sheep, or if Delilah got kicked out of Prayer Circle because she let slip that she thought that the Democrat that moved in over on Parker Road was really kind of nice.
But their conversation did serve a purpose in that it reminded me of small-town protocols. There are certain ways you act, and certain ways you don’t.
When I first strolled in the guillotine door, and Lou greeted me, I should have acted like we were best friends even though we had never met. This is in the handbook. You are supposed to shoot fake pleasantries out your ass even though everyone knows you don’t mean it. It’s just what you do, like going to church on Wednesday or pretending to hope that your neighbor’s daughter really does win Butter Queen at the fall festival instead of your own slutty offspring.
By not following the rules, Lou (and Betty Jean, just as soon as Lou could whisper it to her in a shocked but hushed tone) knew that I was not from around here. Their instincts alerted them to the fact that I was most likely a hooligan from Dallas, that City of Sin to the northeast. As soon as they finished whispering, and were then pretending to be interested in a Christian air freshener (smells just like a Disciple!), they both began to eye me with their primitive and naïve observational skills.
Which really made me feel welcome, of course. There’s nothing quite as refreshing as being closely observed by dimwits that still think the world is flat, scanning my arms for signs of tattoos and needle marks, convinced that I am here to do the Devil’s work and that the children of Duncanville were in danger of being coerced into a life of evil and non-Republican values.
I was ready to walk out the door. I fully understand that people will have differences of opinion concerning moral conduct, societal interaction and the evolution of mankind. What I can’t stomach are people that have no understanding of the details surrounding those three topics yet insist on acting as if they do. Hypocrisy in a Small Town. I could blog on that topic the rest of my life and still come up with something fresh every day.
But, to give this whole situation a fair shake, I kept wandering around the aisles of Lou’s Golden Hallmark, delving deeper into the store, fighting my way past glass cases full of Precious Moments figurines (blech!), hand-crafted religious artwork composed of barbed wire and gun parts (are you serious with that?), and a whole section devoted to God’s Fruits of the Month.
I could go so many ways with that last bit that I won’t even try.
Then I turned a final corner and found myself up against a wall of shelves running the entire length of the eastern edge of the store. Every inch of these shelves was crammed with countless boxes of Department 56 buildings and accessories. An entire wall, people. Riches as far as you could see in either direction.
I grabbed a random box off one of the shelves and reviewed the price tag. It was 40 percent off. 40 percent off a Department 56 product, before Christmas. This just didn’t happen in real life. I was in another dimension, thanks to the kind, insightful words of a fabulous woman with amazing lipstick skills.
There was a clang from the guillotine door as Betty Jean moseyed out to offer pretend condolences to whatever Delilah or a family member may have done. Then I heard pitty-pat footsteps as someone approached my location in the store.
Lou, and her jacked-up hair, peeked around a corner aisle. “See anything that you like?”
Oh really? You’re going to be nice to me, now that I have actually touched one of your products and might actually make a purchase instead of just destroying the morals of your entire community? So commerce trumps all? Great. Get ready to negotiate, Clairol Number 57. I ain’t scared a you.
“Well, I don’t know. What else do you have?”
Lou smiled sweetly. “Follow me.”
Aw hell. What have I done?
I had to remain calm. I was already in a frenzy with what I had seen on the eastern wall. I could be quite happy picking from that fruit. If she was going to show me something even more enticing, I might lose my mind. And I certainly didn’t want to do that in Duncanville. I have my standards.
We meandered across the store, weaving in and out of the aisles, because there was no such thing as a straight shot in this place. They purposely design the layout to be as confusing as possible so that you will resort to buying something just to get directions to the front door.
As we stomped through a section devoted to fake Mary Magdalene etchings from famous churches, we encountered an amazingly tall woman dressed in black and apparently determined to avoid makeup or accessories of any kind. She was fondling a Mary sketch and looking around furtively. I was slightly scared of her for a reason I couldn’t quite define. I just know crazy when I smell it.
“Why, hi there, Virginia,” chirped Lou. “How’s the goiter? Don’t forget, the Mary sale ends tomorrow. Don’t wait too long.”
Virginia? Of course that would be her name. Her entire aura screamed that she had plenty of unused parts.
Then we were plowing our way through a lamb farm of some kind. Lambs made out of cotton and tongue depressors. Lambs made out of corn husks and twine. Lambs made out of sausage casings and spent gun shells. Holy cow, people in small towns sure had a lot of time on their hands. You’d think they might spend a few minutes educating their children beyond the eighth grade, but I guess it didn’t cross their minds.
Finally, we turn a last corner, and we’re standing at an apparent spare check-out counter that hadn’t seen any financial activity since Nixon was in office. Instead, the counter was piled high with boxes, spilling onto the floor in front of it. Actually, “piled” is too weak of a word for this situation. There were mounds and mounds of precariously-stacked boxes in all directions, many of them faded with time.
But they were all Department 56, some of them in box designs that hadn’t been used in decades, with faded lettering and packaging that had the appearance of onion-skin after all this time. I was in awe. How could this possibly be real?
Lou simply smiled at me, with just a touch of wickedness in the tiny corners of her devout and Christian mouth. “I’ll just head over here for a bit. You let me know if you see something that catches your eye.” Then she trotted off to make sure that Virginia still had an intact hymen in the Mary Magdalene aisle.
She had snared me the second I walked in the guillotine door, and she knew it. Damn her.
I cautiously approached the nearest stack of boxes. There was a bit of dust here and there, but you could tell that most of the items had been pawed many times over the years, as people pondered purchasing these treasures or making their house payment.
I delicately picked up one of the boxes that appeared to have higher seniority that some of its counterparts, based on the dust factor. It was a replica of a 1950’s McDonald’s restaurant. Being a Department 56 obsessive, I knew that this thing had not been on the market for decades. Yet I was holding one in my hands.
There was a small notation written on the box, either by Lou or one of her Christian servants. “Small chip on corner. Chip still in box.” And the price was marked down 50 percent. Emboldened and slightly delirious, I opened the box to inspect the damage. The chip was tiny, just a smidge of exposed inner porcelain, and the smidge was enclosed in a cute little baggy. Easily fixed with a bit of glue and you would never know the difference.
This woman was a professional.
I checked another box. This was the “Rollerama” skating rink that hadn’t been seen in at least 15 years. Pristine condition, 40 percent off. My mind was turning into jelly at all these wonders.
Just then, there came a clang from the guillotine front door as the presumably still-virginal Virginia made her exit. “Praise Jesus!” screeched Lou, back at command central in the middle of the store.
So now I had to make a decision. Should I give in to my lust for Department 56 and financially support these warped people with their backward ways and ability to create Christian symbols out of feminine hygiene products and glitter, or do I save my money for more progressive establishments, which would be the right thing to do?
Then I suddenly noticed a man standing right beside me. I don’t know where he came from, he was just there. The front door hadn’t opened recently other than to allow the Black Virgin out, so he had to have been in the store for a while, or he lived here. Not sure.
He smiled at me. “That’s a real nice piece you got there.” This startled me for a moment, until I realized that he was talking about the Rollerama and not anything more personal. “Been wonderin when that one would finally go.”
Then he leaned in and said in a conspiratorial whisper: “Don’t mind Lou. Half of that is for show. She ain’t bad.” Then he grinned, and instinct told me that he was married to Clairol No. 57. And that he was the one who had saved the McDonald’s chip. I just felt it in my bones, in that odd way where you can have the tiniest conversation with someone and instantly know that you like them. And then he winked.
Oh? Birds of a feather? Maybe.
In any case, whoever this man was, he somehow provided the impetus for me to release my moral obligations, even if I did wake up in the morning with regret. I was ready to buy out the entire store, despite the possible soul damage, the stain of giving money to people who judge injudiciously.
“Lou!” I screamed out. “I think I found something!”
She was instantly by my side, she and her processed hair ready to assist in any way.
Yes, I felt a little bit dirty.
But I really wanted that vintage McDonald’s…
Click here to read the next entry in this story…
(Originally published in “The Sound and the Fury” on 12/23/09. Revised and updated with extra flair for this post.)
Categories: The Stories