From my position behind the leather goods counter I watched it all.
With the sound of Christmas carolers and harried shoppers in the background, Miss Mary Kauffman straightened the men’s shirts on the oaken display table. In back of her, along the wall, were shelves and more shelves of shirts, underwear, pajamas, and other men’s clothing all stacked neatly in the wooden slots according to color and size. She sighed as she put some blue shirts back with the blue shirts and pulled an errant white shirt from the striped shirt pile.
She stopped to brush a stray strand of white hair that had escaped from her carefully netted chignon. Her skin was so pale that one hardly noticed that she was balding; the high white hairline blended with her white skin. Her tailored toile dress came below her knees, and her black tie leather shoes were old but polished. Mary Kaufman had worked for the family department store since she graduated from high school in 1931. She was famous for knowing the size, style, and underwear preferences of most men in the county. If she didn’t know the size, that was no problem. She had a practiced eye for visually measuring men’s dimensions.
“Ma’am?” A middle-aged man signaled for Miss Kauffman’s attention.
“Uh, I need some jockey shorts,” he said a little uncomfortably.
Miss Kauffman turned and in her characteristically deep and serious voice asked, “And what size do you need, sir?”
When the man replied a size 34, Miss Kauffman looked him over with an appraising eye and asked him, “Could you please turn around for me?”
The man looked a little surprised but with a slight smile he did as she had commanded. He gave one awkward revolution. All business, she gave him a careful look over and then announced, “I think, sir, that a size 36 would be more comfortable for you.”
The startled man responded with a look that said he had been caught in a size lie. “Well, uh, yes, you are probably right.”
The man obediently purchased four pairs in the size she suggested. The sale was written up in a little sales tablet with carbon paper and sent up to the office through the pneumatic tubes. Swoosh! Clunk! The metal cylinder with his change and a receipt shot into the mesh basket.
“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Miss Kauffman jerked to attention and her eyes grew wide and a bit frightened. A blush started to creep up her face to her thin-haired scalp. It was Jiggs Henry, the town Santa, and as far as most people knew, it was the real Santa. He really WAS merry and had red cheeks and a big belly. Every Christmas Jiggs chased Miss Kauffman for a kiss. Being so prim and proper, she was fair game for the mischievous Santa.
“Where is my Miss Mary?” Santa bellowed, all the while shaking his bells and continuing his ho-ho-ho’s as he came through the front door of the department store.
Overhead a wooden sign read, “Through these doors pass the finest people in the world: Our customers.” It was obvious that Miss Kauffman did not apply that good feeling to the boisterous Jiggs Henry, a.k.a. Santa.
“Excuse me,” she said quickly to the next customer waiting to be served. “I need to check an item in the stock room.”
She was too late. Santa came down the aisle and made tracks for her. He was bigger, faster, and determined to catch his prey and plant his yearly kiss on her spinster cheek. As she made her way around the large display table, Santa came from the other direction and blocked her escape to the stairwell. She did not look happy.
“Now, Santa, I have work to do,” she said with no smile and an eye for another way to avoid him.
By this time the customers on the first floor already knew what was happening and were enjoying the fun. Transactions suspended and both clerks and customers turned to watch the proceedings. The second floor customers were learning over the rail of the mezzanine to check out the commotion. Santa was like a loud cat taunting the frenzied mouse. This was an event not to be missed!
Santa and Miss Kauffman had made one more circle around the shirt table when a little girl caught Santa’s eye.
“Ho, ho, ho! I see someone special wants to talk to Santa!”
He turned from Miss Kauffman and spun to face an excited little girl, young enough to relish a visit with Santa and old enough to seize an opportunity. Her face lit up with anticipation, and she let go of her mother’s hand to hold out her arms to be picked by Santa.
Equally excited, Miss Kauffman saw her chance to escape Santa’s bus on her cheeks.
“I’m going to the stock room,” she said with a dutiful air as she marched towards the stairwell.
The customers and clerks began talking again, and the people who were leaning over the mezzanine railing went back to their shopping. It was another Christmas at Rudin’s Department Store.
copyright 2008 P.R. Albaugh