Customer ServicebyAdrian Leverkuhn©
"Customer Service, this is Tracy," the woman answering the phone said, "how can I help you this evening."
"Yes, well, I was just down at your store and I think I left a bag of groceries on the check-out stand. Could you check for me, please?"
"Could I have your name, please?"
"Eunice. Eunice Gibson. I was there about an hour ago."
"Yes, Mrs Gibson, I have your bag here at the customer service desk, just inside the main entrance."
"Look, there was some butter and yogurt in the bag..."
"Yes, ma'am, I put your perishables in our 'fridge, and both your bag and the stuff in the 'fridge are labeled with your name on them -- in case I'm not here when you come by."
"Thank you so much. Is this Tracy?"
"Yes, ma'am, and I'll be here 'til six this evening."
"Well, thank you Tracy. If I can get a ride, I'll be over as soon as I can."
"Do you need a ride?"
"I don't drive anymore, Tracy," the woman said. "Too old and too stupid for all that nonsense, I suppose."
"Well, if it can wait 'til six, I could drop your things off on my way home?"
There was silence on the line for a moment -- like the woman was hovering above the plains of a vast indecision -- then she said: "You wouldn't mind, Tracy?"
"Not at all, Mrs Gibson. We have your address on file as 233 Maple Avenue; I assume that hasn't changed?"
"No, no it hasn't."
"Alright, I should see you some time after six, probably around six-thirty."
"Thank you, Tracy. I appreciate this, I really do."
"You're certainly welcome, Mrs Gibson, and I'll see you soon." Tomberlin put the phone in it's cradle and turned to a customer just walking up to her desk. She knew him, and his two daughters, had known him since high school, and she could tell something was wrong; even his girls looked out of sorts. "Can I help you, Tom?"
Tom Stoddard's eyes were watery, and he looked way beyond out of sorts -- he looked genuinely depressed, or worse. "I bought these shrimp last night," he said angrily, slapping a receipt down on the counter, "and they smell like ammonia -- mixed with a healthy dose of dog turds." Tomberlin couldn't help it -- she grinned, started to giggle, and this seemed to anger the Stoddard even more. "Look, Tracy, I don't happen to think this is all that funny..."
"I'm sorry, Tom, it's just that I've never heard that particular odor described, well, so perfectly..."
"Okay, but what are you going to do about it?"
"Well, what would you like me to do about it?"
"Well, Tom, we can refund the purchase price, cash or store credit, or I'll get the department head over here and you can go with her and find some fresh shrimp. Your choice."
"That's it? No paperwork to fill out, no 'wait two weeks while we process your complaint?'"
"Simple as that, Tom -- no muss, no fuss."
"I'll be dipped," Stoddard said. "Well, guess I'd still like some shrimp..."
Tomberlin nodded her head, picked up the phone and called the seafood counter, told the manager what was going on. "Tom, if you and the girls could just wait over here," she said, pointing to a spot out of the main line, "someone from seafood will be right up, and I'm so sorry this happened..."
"Certainly not your fault, Tracy. Thanks for helping me sort this out."
She helped the next woman in line buy a few lottery tickets, waved "bye!" when the seafood manager led Tom and his girls away, then she noticed 'him' in the checkout line across from her desk.
But then again, almost everyone in the store noticed him. They always did.
He was Hollywood royalty -- or had been, anyway, once upon a time. He'd retired, written his memoirs and discovered he liked writing -- and had been writing ever since. Three novels -- all about movie studio treachery, torrid, behind the scenes love affairs, and an occasional murder thrown in for spice -- and now he was seemingly more famous than ever. He lived on a ranch outside of town these days, but all kinds of Hollywood types came up on weekends to visit him; just now he had finished checking out and looked her way, smiled and came over to her desk.
"Howya doin', Tracy?"
"Robert! Fine...so nice to see you!"
He smiled. "You still get off at seven?"
"Wondered if you'd like to go out to a movie?"
"You know, a customer left a bag of groceries and I was going to run them over when I get off."
"You still taking the bus home?"
He shook his head. "Nope. Not tonight. I'll be out front at six-o-five."
"You don't mind?"
"Tracy, the only thing I mind is you won't marry me."
"If you asked, I missed it," she said, grinning. This was there long-established routine, and he feigned memory problems next, then muttered his way out the front door, out into the snow...
"You know," Wilma Brinson said, leaning on the counter, "one of these days you ought to say yes. Just to see what he does, ya know?"
"I'm way to old for him, Wilma."
"Really? Aren't you fifty something?"
She laughed. "I sure am, Wilma. Thanks for reminding me."
"How old d'you think he is?"
"I don't know," she lied.
"You two look so good together."
"Wilma, that man would look good with a dancing prairie dog turd."
The woman screeched, her laughter sounding almost like a low-flying jet airliner as she walked back to her cash register, and Tomberlin just sighed and turned away. She helped a few more customers then closed her register and cleaned up her cubby, then got Gibson's groceries together and clocked-out before heading out the door.
She wondered if the bus would be running on time, but no, there he was, in his cinnamon brown Range Rover, looking just like a freshly-minted Hollywood matinee idol. Sunglasses, sheepskin gloves, salt-n-pepper hair freshly groomed. And it would smell -- overpoweringly so -- of Bay Rum cologne when she opened the door, too.
He was out his door and and jogged round to get her's, and she squinted, rubbed her eyes when the cologne washed out of the Rover's interior -- the flood almost knocking her over.
He took her hand and helped her up, then closed the door behind her and walked around. "So. Where to?"
"Maple Avenue, down by the old courthouse."
"Okay. Nice neighborhood."
"Eunice Gibson. Her husband represented the district in Washington for more than thirty years."
"Morris Gibson? I didn't know his wife was still here...I thought she moved back to Georgetown after the funeral."
"You knew him?"
"Not well, but I gave some money to his campaign when I bought the ranch. He helped me with some water rights issues."
"Well, let me warn you...she's still a real firecracker."
"Says what's on her mind. Has a sharp mind, too, in case you were wondering."
He pulled onto Main and drove through slushy ruts in the wet snow, and she thought he seemed preoccupied. "How're you doing, Bob? I mean really. Not the bullshit version."
"Tracy! I don't think I've ever heard you use colorful language before! What's come over you?"
He laughed, almost whispered "I hear that" -- and with more than a little understanding. "What's the street number?"
"Ah, better turn here." He flipped on his turn signal and the Rover slipped in the slush a little -- then the traction control system dug in and he powered gently through the turn. "Think it's gonna get cold tonight," he said, his voice a little rattled from the skid. "I mean, think you could make it through a seven o'clock movie?"
"Doubtful, but I'm willing to try. What do you have in mind?"
"New Woody Allen flick at the Odeon."
"What? You don't like Woody?"
"I can take him -- in small doses. Midnight in Paris was good, though."
"Yeah," he said, "I thought so too. Just quirky enough to be interesting. Did you like Back To The Future?"
"I liked Michael J Fox."
"Yup. You're a chick."
"So glad you noticed."
"I noticed, Tracy. Long time ago, as a matter of fact."
"Here's Maple; make a left."
Turn signal on, he paused for traffic then turned.
"It's the big one, there, on the left," she said.
"Now that's a house," Robert said, turning into the drive. "They don't build 'em like that anymore. Mind of I go up with you?"
"No, not at all."
He parked and set the brake, then came around to her door. "Slippery as eel-snot out here," he didn't need to say, then "Be careful" as he took her hand and helped her out into the cold.
She stepped gingerly to the sidewalk, waited for him to close the car door, then they walked up together and stood on the porch, rang the bell and waited.
She was coming down the grand staircase a moment later, but two steps from the bottom she caught her shoe on the runner and started to fall.
"Oh, no..." they heard through the glass, and each watched helplessly as the woman -- arms outstretched -- fell to the hardwood floor.
He watched her left arm buckle under the impact, her face bounce off the floor, and tried the door. "Locked" he cried, exasperated, and in one smooth motion he stepped back and literally kicked the front door off it's hinges -- then rushed into the house. He got to her side, put his hand on her shoulder: "Mrs Gibson? Can you hear me?"
"Eunice?" Tomberlin said gently. "Are you alright?"
"Well goddamn, sunovabiscuit!" Gibson said, though her voice was detached, almost a distant moan. "My arm hurts."
He repositioned himself, helped Gibson roll over and sit up; "Oh, Hell's bells," he said when he saw blood pouring from her broken nose. "Tracy? Kitchen towel, or even some paper towels?"
"What's wrong now?" Gibson said, then she looked up, saw that face kneeling over her and gasped. "Are you...?"
"Robert Rankin, ma'am," he said, holding out his hand.
"Well, goddamn!" she cried. "Here I've been, wanting to meet you for something like twenty years, and when I finally do I have to go and fall on my face!" She looked like she wanted to laugh, then she shook once, and started to cry -- just as Tomberlin arrived with several towels, one damp with tap water.
"Here," Rankin said as he took the moist towel, "let's see if we can't clean this up a little bit." He worked on her solicitously, cooing reassuringly as he cleaned the blood off Gibson's face and neck. When he finished he dried her carefully, slowly, then reached for her arm, gently ran a finger to the spreading bruise he saw under the distorted skin near her left elbow. "That arms broken," he said at once, then: "Looks like you're going to the hospital tonight, young lady."
He held a finger about a foot in front of her nose and moved it from side to side: "Ma'am, follow this finger as it moves, and he watched her eyes jerk erratically as she tried to follow, but he put that hand in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911.
"Yes," he said when the operator answered, "I'm at the Gibson residence, 233 Maple Avenue, and Mrs Gibson has fallen, broken her left arm and possibly her skull. Yes, we'll stand-by right here. Okay, about five minutes, and I'll stay on the line 'til they arrive."
"Oh God," Eunice said, beginning to swoon. "I don't feel right."
He was by her side again, held on to her and let her down to the floor gently as she passed out, then he picked up his phone again: "Ma'am, better tell those paramedics to step on it; she just lost consciousness."
They heard the siren moments later, then saw pulsing red and blue strobes racing down the street. Firemen and paramedics scrambled up the walk and into the house and swarmed over the woman, and less than a minute passed before they had her on a gurney and carried her from the house.
"Tracy? You better go with them," he said, looking at the splintered front door. "I'm going to get this door secured, then I'll be along and meet you at the ER."
He stood, helped her up. "You know what, darlin'? You're top-shelf. I mean that...none better."
She looked at him, nodded her head, but she'd seen it in his eyes from the beginning. The empathy, the pure compassion, the willingness to help, to give. And she was pretty sure he'd just fallen in love with Eunice Gibson. "Thanks, Bob. I'll see you there," she said, then she turned and jogged down to the ambulance and stood by the open back door.
He watched her standing out there, snow falling on her shoulders, and he was pretty sure he'd just fallen impossibly in love with the girl. He took out his phone again and called his ranch foreman.
"Bert? You busy? I'm in town, 233 Maple, at a friends. She fell down the stairs as we got here and I kicked in the front door..." He listened for a moment, then: "Yup, one of those old Victorians. Door must be four feet wide, nine tall, looks like solid mahogany planking with a big oval window set in it. What was that carpenter's name? Higgins? -- that's the one. Look, give him a call, would you? -- get him over here as soon as possible. I need to run to the ER. Fine...fine. I'll stand by 'til you get here. Yup, the Rover's out front. 'Kay...seeya in a few."
He moved around the entry, cleaned up spatters of blood from the floor -- and the bigger splinters of wood, too, then he saw the groceries and ran the bag into the kitchen, put stuff in the 'fridge before he went out to the porch and waited.
His foreman's Suburban pulled up a few minutes later, and they lifted the door into place to help keep heat in. "What about Higgins?" he asked. "Did you get hold of him?"
"Yessir. He lives out on the north side of town, snow's getting' deep but he should be here in a few minutes."
"Could you hold down the fort here for a while?"
"Thanks, Bert. Look, as soon as I know what's going on I'll give you a call."
"Don't worry about it, sir. You better get going before the roads get too deep."
He sat looking across at Tracy, at the calm serenity in her eyes, wondering where such reserves of strength came from, then he looked down at the menu on the table. "I've never been here before," he said at last. "Have you?"
"A few times. It's diner food, but Donny has become a sort of local institution. Lots of grease and runny eggs, but the chicken fried steak is famous. People come from all over for his cream gravy."
They'd just left the ER, after the docs took Eunice to surgery to repair her fractured humerus, and when he'd realized the lateness of the hour he thought they'd better grab some chow before everything closed down for the night. This old diner was on the edge of downtown, across from the old railroad station, and it stayed open late year-round.
"Well," he sighed, "any port in a storm."
"You should have been a doctor," she said, looking him squarely in the eye.
"Yeah, probably so, but it was the little things, like failing algebra -- twice -- that interfered with my application to medical school."
"Yeah," she smiled, "I guess that would do it."
"I meant what I said, Tracy. You know, the whole top-shelf thing."
"Oh, well, I wish I knew what that meant?"
"They way you didn't panic, they way you seem to care about people..."
"Hey, that's my job...good ole customer service, reporting for duty."
"No, Tracy, that's not it. There's something different about you, the way you wrap yourself around people. You care, and it's not an act; I could feel it as I watched you around Gibson."
"I could say the same thing about you, Bob. You're decisive, you know? Most people would've looked on helplessly, maybe called 911, but not you. You didn't hesitate, not for an instant -- you saw what needed to be done and did it. That's actually pretty rare, when you get right down to it."
"I doubt that..."
"I don't. I grew up here, but went to a college in Boise. I didn't graduate; decided to move to New York City, got a job with TWA..."
"You were a stewardess?"
"Yup. For twenty five years."
"I'll be damned."
"Anyway. I'd been flying for a couple of years when I was involved in an accident..."
"Uh-huh. In Rome. A 707 taking off, lost an engine -- I mean it literally blew apart, knocked out the hydraulic systems and the wing went into what's called an asymmetric configuration. We weren't quite airborne yet, so the aircraft began, well, almost cartwheeling -- but sideways -- down the runway. Anyway, what I remember most about the whole thing was how people reacted when the aircraft came to a stop. A few people, a couple of men, a woman I remember, kept it together and helped, but most people simply panicked...or froze up like a deer caught in headlights"
"I remember that one; did many people make it out?"
"Less than half," she said -- her eyes watering. "There were sixty three survivors..."
"I remember the captain, during those first few moments, most of all. He was hurt, real bad as it turned out, but he secured what he could in the cockpit and came out, helped get people out the galley door and onto the slide. He pushed me out, too," she said, pulling down the sleeve on her sweater, revealing old burn scars that, she said, covered her back and left shoulder, "just in time."
"What happened to him?"
"He got out, but was very badly burned. He died a few days later, of internal injuries."
"So, what's this got to do with this evening?"
"You're one of those people, Robert. One of those who help people find their way out of the chaos."
He looked at the easy grace in her eyes, then looked away quickly and shrugged. "I don't know...maybe. What about you? What kind of person are you?"
"I know who I am."
"I think I fell in love with you tonight."
She shook her head. "No you didn't. You fell in love with her."
He seemed surprised, but didn't say anything for a while, then a waitress came to their booth and asked what they wanted.
"I hear the CFS is pretty good here," Rankin said, but when he looked up the girl was staring at him.
"Are you that actor?" the girl asked.
"Well, I'm an actor," he said uneasily, "or, well, I was once, anyway."
The girl turned around and called out to the cook behind the counter, "Donny! It's him!" The cook smiled and waved, and Rankin waved back. "So, yeah, the chicken fried steak is our specialty. We make our own cream gravy, too."
"Mashed, or fried?" he asked.
"Both, and we got hash browns, too."
"Tracy? What'll it be?"
"Chef salad, please. With Italian, on the side."
Rankin smiled. "Guess I'll try the steak, with hash browns."
"Wet or dry."
"Oh, well...wet as hell, please."
"Oh, what's your name, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Becky, Mr Rankin."
"Nice to meet you, Becky."
"Do you ever get tired of it?" she asked as they watched the girl walk away.
"No, not really. It would be worse, I guess, if all the attention stopped."
She nodded her head. "Understandable."
"So, you kept flying after the accident?"
"Yup, 'til I retired."
"Where'd you live?"
"Boston, a little place on the North Side, above an Italian bakery. It was heaven."
"Why'd you move back here? Parents?"
"That's right. What about you? Why Idaho?"
"Far enough away, but close enough, too, I guess. I couldn't stand LA any longer, but I still need to go there from time to time. So, what makes you think I like her?"
"The look in your eyes when she lost consciousness."
"But -- I was thinking about you. So, what does that tell you?"
"I'm not your type, Robert. I'd bore you to tears."
"I've seen the world, and I wasn't all that impressed. I like staying at home now, curling up with a good book by the fireplace at night, and I like taking care of customers at work."
"And you like living by yourself?"
"Never get lonely?"
"My dad's dogs keep me grounded. And taking care of him can be a chore."
"How old is he now?"