Prose Header

Behind the Clerk’s Smile

by Charles C. Cole

The summer after graduating from high school, thanks to my supportive guidance counselor, I took a dream job assisting an oral historian on assignment in town.

Our paper mill had closed recently and the town council was looking for a way to memorialize the many people who had supported the place over the years. The new owner of the building, in return for an amazing tax break, donated a suite in the basement for a permanent multimedia museum.

A story in the paper fired up people’s enthusiasm and made me look a little more valuable than I was. My job was proofreading, indexing and making digital copies of personal photos and home-movies. I did not lead interviews, though I sat in on quite a few from behind the camera, so I had a feel for them.

One Sunday after attending church with my folks, days before I was to leave for college, a lady parishioner called for help. Her beloved husband of over fifty years was dying at home, and he wanted someone other than the parish priest or immediate family to hear his deathbed confession. This had absolutely nothing to do with the closed mill. No one was prepared to accept the answer that I was completely unqualified.

My father drove me the two blocks. “Don’t embarrass yourself or your mother or me,” he said. “There’s a new stenographer’s notebook in the glove compartment. Apparently, your mother guessed right that you’d leave the house unprepared.”

“Guess I was resisting,” I said.

Mrs. deScutcheon showed me in. “Euclid drops off mid-conversation,” she apologized. “Be patient; he’s worn out. I told him you were coming. He may not talk to you. If you could just sit with him for an hour, at least we can say we tried.”

Mr. Euclid “Scott” deScutcheon lay in the bright sunshine on a rollaway cot on the enclosed back porch. He was in his eighties, pale, a tube of forced oxygen snug against his nose for help with his breathing. He wore a simple white robe over light blue pajamas.

“Euclid, the boy we talked about is here. I’ll leave you two alone.” Mrs. deScutcheon emptied the nearby dryer of some kitchen towels and excused herself.

With a strained sigh, Euclid opened his eyes. “Are you that oral historian everyone’s gossiping about?” he asked

“Sort of. I work with him.”

“Kind of young, aren’t you?” he asked.

“It’s a costume I wear to put older people at ease,” I teased.

“It ain’t working for me,” he said.

“How can I help, sir? This must be pretty tiring. You’d probably rather nap.”

“I hate napping,” he said. “I’m always afraid I won’t wake up.”

“You’d make a lousy cat,” I joked.

He relaxed. “I would at that.”

“I’m here to listen,” I offered.

“I’ve got no kids, no relatives besides the wife. Before folk forget me completely, I want people to know the real me, warts and all,” he said. “Maybe you came to hear about some secret crime I committed that nobody knows about, like the body chopped up under the floor, but I wasn’t that kind of person. I just feel like I’ve been wearing a mask my whole life, and I need to finally take it off. Can you deal with that?”

“Sure. Fire away,” I said. “You tell me and I’ll tell the world.”

“People saw me smiling in my store,” he began, “and they thought that meant I liked them, but it didn’t always. That was my uniform, like the white shirt and tie I always wore. I’ve heard how smiling babies aren’t smiling at all; they just have gas. It was like that.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Write that down.”

I opened my new notebook and realized I didn’t have a pen.

“There’s a pencil on the window sill if you don’t mind that I’ve been biting it when the pain spikes,” he said. I swallowed my pride and grabbed the sad instrument.

“Fire away,” I repeated.

“I want folks to know everything,” he said, “like that I didn’t appreciate toddlers with temper tantrums or indecisive shoppers or people who showed up at closing time and wanted to talk about their sick relatives. I didn’t like the ladies with the big purses who accidentally broke something and made me absorb the cost. I wasn’t fond of the teen-agers who tried to sneak out the door without paying for their chips or gum or soda, and then lied about it to me and their parents.”

“No regulars who brought a smile to the counter?” I asked.

“Plenty. They know who they were,” he said. “I know my customers supported me and the wife, but I didn’t think they were always respectful or responsible or nice. They didn’t treat me like an equal, you know? I was just a convenient means to an end. And I just want people to recognize the hard truth. Though I should probably be saying wonderfully sentimental things or remembering the funny, quirky days, I don’t have it in me any longer. So, this is what I want: to unburden myself. If you can find a newspaper brave enough to publish this exactly as I’ve declared it, then I guess I could have closure, maybe get out of here on my terms at last. What do you say?”

“I’ll do what I can,” I offered, “so long as we don’t have to use the names of your customers.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “They’ll know. But you have to to use my real name so that they know I’m talking about them. Otherwise, what’s the point? Can you do that?”

“I’ll try,” I promised.

Unsurprisingly, the local paper declined the story. Mr. deScutcheon couldn’t wait; he died.

Out of obligation, I’m making this final appeal for the smiling clerks everywhere: Be nice. The words may not be pretty and some of the facts fictionalized, but hopefully Mr. deScutcheon and those like him will recognize the belated effort.

Copyright © 2013 by Charles C. Cole

Proceed to Challenge 512...

Home Page