When my niece asked me to help her at her vintage consignment store during Christmas season, I couldn’t decline. Number one, she’s my favorite niece. Secondly, I can always use extra money for Christmas. Last and not least, the voyeur in me loves going through the stuff that people bring in to sell: Jewelry, china, silverware, vintage toys, and fancy collectible figurines. Only the nice stuff customers really like. Some of these types of businesses are nothing but glorified junk stores, but not hers. Clarisse is very passionate about it.
In fact, she’s so consumed with the shop she has little time for anything else. That’s probably by design. The faster and harder she works, the more she can leave her past in the dust. I try telling her it has a way of catching up with you, but she forges on. Deep inside, she may be gutted, but she’s always cheerful. That’s what I most love about her. I look into her eyes and see deep down into her troubled soul. She can’t fool her Aunt Mathilda.
I watch her polish a set of frosted crystal wine glasses with a fleur-de-lis design on them. She takes such time and care with each one. I find it so pleasing to observe someone—anyone—performing work they cherish. Anyone can detect the deep devotion that a violinist has when he or she is playing. But I like taking time to notice more ordinary folks, like the school crossing guard near my house. He takes such joy in seeing the children in his charge safe. It comes across in his face, his smile, his wave.
I busy myself with a glass case filled with silver, gold, and pewter charms. “I thought I’d separate out the Christmas charms and set them out here on the front counter,” I tell Clarisse.
“Perfect, Aunt Mathilda.” She turns around and smiles at me, her honey-colored hair tied back in a ponytail. She dresses like fancy department store salesladies used to dress way back: skirts, blouses, stockings and heels. She usually wears a fancy scarf or brooch, and her earrings coordinate perfectly with her outfit.
“I have a red velvet-lined display case that will be perfect.” She glides to the back storeroom and comes back with the ideal case.
“Why don’t you take a load off, Clarisse? Let me pour you a cup of tea.”
“Oh, I can’t stay still for too long, Aunt Mathilda. Especially in the morning. I’ve got this nervous energy. Why don’t you take a break though?”
I pour myself a cup of Community coffee and make a cup of tea for her anyway. I set it on the small table behind the counter area. She graciously comes over to sip the tea.
“You’re coming for Christmas dinner?” I ask.
“Absolutely. I’ll bring my figgy pudding. I know you love it!”
She loves all things British, and I don't have the heart to tell her the stuff makes me kind of nauseous. Give me chocolate any day. I smile. “Great. The whole family will be there. It’s going to be fun. Chaotic but fun.”
She smiles one of her forced smiles. I can tell she muses about where her life is and what she might be missing. Since Nicholas died, she buried herself in her work and stopped putting herself out there. She keeps a small, framed photo of him on the table. His sudden death was horrific enough, but something else eats at my niece. Almost three years later, Clarisse’s heart stays bolted and bound. I never expected her to rush into another relationship, but she doesn't even socialize at all. She curls up with a book every night, which might be good for her mind, but she needs to unlock her heart.
A couple of uptown ladies venture in and start browsing. Clarisse helps them with their hunt for anything Beatrix Potter. I get busy with the charms. As I place the Christmas-themed ones in the red velvet case, I gaze out of the quaint shop windows decorated with snowflakes. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar plugs along down the avenue. When darkness falls, I look forward to seeing the beautiful homes that line the Avenue all lit up for Christmas.
I sort the Christmas charms: Santa Clauses, Elves, Stars, Mangers, and Snowflakes. When I get to the last snowflake, I find my hand gripping the tiny charm tighter. I try to place it in the velvet case, but my hand won't cooperate. I hold it in my palm and take a good look at it. A comely little silver charm with streaks of blue sparkles when the light hits it just right.
A couple of college-age gals bustle in, both jingling with all the bangle bracelets they wear. They start oohing and ahhing over the charm display. When the red-haired young lady spots the snowflake charm in my hand, she gasps: “That’s the cutest thing I ever saw! Look, Mandy.”
“Oh my God! That would go perfect on my bracelet.”
The red-haired one turns to me. “She’s gaga over snowflakes.” They both giggle.
“I’m afraid this one’s not for sale.” Those words slip out of my mouth. I don't know why or how. “I mean, I just got a call from someone to hold this on the side for them. Sorry, gals. But look”—I point to the display—“there are more snowflake ones here.”
I stick the special snowflake charm in a drawer behind the counter. I also stick my strange attachment to it in the back of my head as the day rapidly moves along. Around one o’clock things slow down.
“Well, Clarisse, if you don’t need anything else, I better head out. I got dog-sitting and house-sitting to tend to.”
Clarisse smiles. “You never stop, do you, Aunt Mathilda?”
“You got me,” I said.
“Before I leave, though, I wanted to ask you about one of your treasures.” I open the drawer where I hid the special snowflake charm. I dangle it in front of her. “Where’d this little guy come from?”
After eyeing it for a moment, she answers. “A Vietnamese couple that ran a little jewelry stand in the Riverwalk. They closed their business, and I bought some of their nicer things. I guess I’ve always had a thing for snowflakes. You know what they say—no two are alike. Each one is special.”
I rub the charm. “They sure are.”
“Would you like that one, Aunt Mathilda? You can keep it if you want!”
I think about it. “No. But do me a favor and don’t sell it just yet, okay?”
She shrugs. “Whatever you say.”
When I come in a couple of mornings later, Clarisse is standing behind the register holding the photo of Nicholas. She hurriedly puts it back in its place on the table behind the counter. She straightens her navy wool skirt even though it's perfectly straight and neat.
“You miss him a lot, don’t you, darlin’?”
She nods. “I’ve come to terms with losing him. I just wish it hadn’t ended the way it did.”
I glance at the vintage birdcage clock on the wall. The shop won't open for another half hour. Maybe I could nudge Clarisse into spilling a little of her soul.
“You know, honey,” I begin, “when pressure cookers boil over it’s because they’ve got too much inside of them, and they have to release something.”
She smiles at me. “I love your analogies, Aunt Mahilda.”
“Care to share what’s on your mind?” Without thinking, I reach into the drawer and pull the special snowflake charm out. She folds ladies’ embroidered handkerchief and lays them on the counter, such care taken with each one.
“I loved Nicholas with everything in me. I don’t think I always showed it though. I could be impatient and judgmental.”
“We all get that way sometimes.”
She shakes her head. “Nicholas didn’t. My grad school friends quietly wondered why I married him. He lacked formal education, and he had a simple outlook on life. But I found him untainted and refreshing.”
“Well, sure. Education doesn’t equal wisdom.”
“And he loved learning about new things. But I could play the superior card sometimes, and I hated myself for it after. Before he left the house that day, I ranted over something so stupid.” She keeps folding and unfolding the same handkerchief. She clears her throat. “It drove me nuts when he left the kitchen a mess. He had made Belgian waffles from scratch that morning. I walked into the kitchen and saw flour all over the counters, a sink full of bowls and spoons, batter splattered on the floor; and instead of thanking him, I downright admonished him.” She hung her head down. “Shamed him like you would a child in the old days.”
“Then what happened?”
She dabs her eyes with a Kleenex. “He looked at me with those sad puppy-dog eyes, grabbed his lunch pail, and walked out the door.”
I wince. “No phone call or anything before . . . before the accident?”
She shakes her head.
“Darlin’, you gotta focus on the good things, on the love you both shared.”
“I can’t help but think I didn’t give anywhere near what I got. I wonder if he felt loved by me, if I added any light to his life.”
She walks to the bathroom and when she comes out front, she briskly heads to the front to unlock the door. Then she gets busy with her displays.
Nicholas got killed that day on his lunch hour. He was working downtown installing industrial lighting in the Riverwalk Complex. He jaywalked across the busy street, and a speeding car zoomed out of nowhere and rolled right over him. All this time I knew more than natural grief consumed Clarisse. She anguished over her last words to Nicholas. It trapped her.
Customers keep us busy throughout the morning. The cold, rainy weather doesn't deter them from seeking out their treasures. Many are shopping for gifts. The busy day distracts Clarisse from her disclosure. Poor girl kept that in way too long. I wish I could give Clarisse the gift of peace of mind.
During the rare lulls, I pull out the special snowflake charm. I rub it and examine all of its detailed features. Toward the end of the day, the rain stops and a sunray works its way in through the window, highlighting the sparkling blue on the charm. As Clarisse walks to the front door with the key to lock it, a Vietnamese lady walks in.
“Ms. Le’, hi!” says Clarisse.
Clarisse introduces us and she walks to the office in back to figure up Ms. Le’s commission. I sit there, the charm in my hand, making small talk with the smiling lady. I set it down on the counter and she points to it.
“That was my favorite charm. The man that got it forgot his credit card. He say to hold it for him and he would be back. But he never came back for it.”
“I guess he changed his mind,” I answered.
She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. That’s why I kept it in back until my business closed. I thought for sure he will be back.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “What makes you so sure?”
“He got it for someone special. He say his lady’s love for him charmed his life, so he wanted to give her a charm." She smiles. "Very sweet man."
Chills race through my body. Before I jump to conclusions, I need to confirm it. My heart is racing. If my sixth sense is right, this charm would give Clarisse peace of mind.
"Are you okay?" asks Ms. Le'.
I must look like a nut standing there wide-eyed and grinning from ear to ear. I take a deep breath and walk over to the break table to pick up Nicholas’ picture. I show it to Ms. Le’. Before I even ask her about his identity, she exclaims, “That’s him! That’s the man!”
"Are you absolutely certain?" I ask.
She nods. "I never forget his kind eyes."
“Oh, Clarisse!” I call out.
My niece appears with a check in her hand. "Yes, Aunt Mathilda?"
"You and Ms. Le' here have something to talk about."
Ms. Le' looks at me quizzically.
"This is her husband who was killed in an accident," I inform her.
As Ms. Le' absorbs this, Clarisse asks, "Did you know him?"
Before she answers, I interrupt. "You two have a seat. I'm going to make some tea. Y'all have a lot to talk about."

About the Author

Piper Templeton

Piper Templeton’s first book, Rain Clouds and Waterfalls was published on Kindle in May 2014. She followed it up with a women's fiction/mystery set in New Orleans, Beneath the Shady Tree. Piper volunteers for a reading program for second graders, hoping to instill a love of reading in them. Her second novel Beneath the Shady Tree is available on both Kindle and print.