The Pint of Nard

Copyright © 2008, John F. Raffensperger. First drafted 27 Sep 1987, updated several times, most recently 26 Dec 2008. The story references the Bible, especially John 12.

Mary daubed rouge on the customer's face. "Yes, ma'am, it is a bit expensive, but you get Marshall Field's quality. By the way, this color is perfect for you. Iím sure it would look just as great on your daughter. It's a great idea for Christmas."

Minutes later, the customer purchased the cosmetic and with a satisfied face walked toward the escalator that lead up to the mezzanine and Ladies' Coats. It was the supper lull when people were in the restaurants elsewhere in Water Tower Place. The clerks knew this lull would be shorter than most. Everyone had last-minute shopping to do. Bob, the floor manager, took advantage of the lull and walked over to the Cosmetics counter to compliment Mary on her sales pitch.

"Nice job. I didn't think she would buy the large size until you commented about the color." Mary was cool. "Thank you."

Bob walked toward Shoes to ask Joe how sales were going. Martha, in Jewelry across the aisle from Cosmetics, spoke to Mary when he was out. "All he cares about is sales. Do you suppose he ever thinks about anybody as a person?"

Mary responded cheerfully. "Well, he wants to get ahead in the company, and it's results that get you ahead. He has a family to feed, too."

Martha smirked. "Yeah, but I wonder when he sees them, between twelve hours of work here and then the bars."

"Now be nice." Mary changed the subject in courtesy to her boss. "Do you have enough for your coat?"

"Ya know, I think I can afford to give myself a Christmas present this year. I wanted that coat all fall, ya know. The one I've got is just not warm enough, and ya know I've had it since I started school five years ago. Ya know?" Mary knew. Martha had been talking about buying a full-length down-filled coat for a month. Martha glanced up at the mezzanine where she could just see the edge of one particular mauve coat with fur trim.

Ralph was leaning on the brass rail on the mezzanine, smiling down at them. "The pay is so lousy here that I can't even afford a new nipple ring for Christmas." Martha laughed out loud. Ralph turned away, out of sight behind the racks of coats.

Mary said, "Do you think you'll get the lab tech job?"

"I think so, ya know? I find out this week, before New Year's. They were nice in the interview. And I've got the credentials, ya know?" Mary looked at Martha with awe. She wished she had the will to quit a job that she had been in for too long. Cosmetics was all she had done since high school. Martha told her once she should try modeling. Mary was one reason the floor did so well. Customers were attracted to her, she was a good seller, and cosmetics had a big markup.

The revolving door swirled, letting in an efficient amount of snow and winter air, and Mrs. Judith, the end of the lull. She always demanded attention, as wealthy people sometimes do, sometimes getting two or three clerks to wait on her at once, even if there were other customers. Bob insisted they humor her. She had a big account at the store, and she bought a lot on his floor. For the moment, she was quiet, peering into a display cabinet of bath oils.

Mary didn't move, knowing that in just a minute Mrs. Judith would call her. Samples were intended for new sales, but Mrs. Judith always had to have her face done. Mrs. Judith was as callous as Bob, but in a different way. Mary imagined that Mrs. Judith had gotten her money by embezzlement. She didn't know why she thought that, and she felt guilty thinking it.

The revolving door turned again with the snow and cold air. Mary glanced up. Through the whirlwind came a bag lady dressed in brown, dragging two stuffed Lord & Taylor shopping bags. This one came in regularly. She always kept to herself, loitering in the warm store. Today, she crept through the aisle by Mary's counter, aimed like a mud ball for the escalator to the mezzanine. She was a tiny little woman, and filthy. Mary noticed she was shivering, wearing only a long brown dress and a couple sweaters. Mrs. Judith still hadn't called.

The image of the street lady a few feet away took Mary back to her childhood. She had gotten lost on the way home from a Christmas Eve party. The party was at a friend's house in a part of town she didn't know well. She was thirteen years old, riding her brother's Schwinn Typhoon that was a little too big for her. After wandering the streets of Oak Park for what seemed like hours, she stopped exhausted in the snow to peer up at a street sign. She hoped the sign said, "Harlem", but after a few seconds in the dark, she read "Homan".

She sat on a hard snow bank on the edge of the street, the bike on its side in the gutter, and began to cry. Her legs hurt. She was afraid of the people hurrying past her. How did she get turned around? How could she get back? She wondered if her parents had been a little too lenient this time, not that she would purposely do anything wrong, but maybe having her bike in the snow and dark was more than she should do at her age.

After several long minutes of misery, a small Toyota pickup truck sloshed to a stop a few feet away. The passenger window slowly cranked down the whole way, all the way open. A middle-aged lady inside leaned over from the driver's seat to peer out the window.

"Honey, you need a ride somewhere? I'm goin' down Lake Street into Maywood if you need a ride." Her kindly face sticking part way out of the window shone in the white street light above them. "Do ya wanna ride?"

Mary knew she should never accept a ride from a stranger. She took a full ten seconds to sort out her feelings of panic and conduct a mental security check on the lady. She decided this was different. The situation was serious. Mom always talked about "those men", not women, and the lady looked kind.

"Do you know where Forest Avenue is?"

"Why sure, but you're gonna have to say if it's Forest River Forest, or Forest Oak Park. I know'em both." If only you had been here earlier, I wouldn't have gotten this bad off, thought Mary.

"Yes ma'am. It's Forest in Oak Park. I'd really appreciate the ride. Can I put my bike in the back?"

" 'Course, honey, that's what it's there for," as if it were an appointment. Together, they lifted the heavy bike into the truck. Mary was glad to get into the warm seat, and the woman kept up a cheerful banter as they drove down snowy Lake Street. When they reached Forest Avenue, the woman took off a brown wool mitten to shake Mary's hand.

Now, shuffling between Cosmetics and Jewelry towards the escalator, the bag lady's street-smell awoke Mary, a shock that contrasted to the rich perfumes of the store. Mary smiled. Suddenly, she wanted to touch the bag lady. Feeling a strange abandon, Mary called gently to her. "Ma'am, why don't you come over here and try some of Calvin Klein's new perfume?"

"Uh." The bag lady looked at Mary, frightened. Mary picked up the crystal bottle of Obsession and held it out straight toward her.

"Ya. Me?" The old woman's fear disoriented her momentarily. She stuttered as though she hadn't been spoken to in a long time. Then, attracted by the pretty clerk, the Christmas decorations, and the crystal bottle, the homeless woman felt as if she were being invited into a world she had never hoped to enter. She toddled towards the counter, stumbling over one of her bags. "You mean it?"

Mary looked at her directly, still holding out the very expensive perfume, and replied with a sincere and warm smile. "Of course!"

The bag lady shuffled the last two steps towards Mary. Mary spritzed a heavy shot of the perfume behind both of the bag lady's grimy ears and on both of her dirty forearms. The woman was incongruously straining to hold the bags and reach her wrists up to the counter. Mary wanted her to relax. "Now why don't you set those bags down, and you can sample our newest facials."

Gathering all her polished expertise and sales charm, in one fluid motion she slipped a tissue from under the counter and opened a bottle of expensive skin oil. Daubing a liberal amount of the oil on the tissue, she began to smooth the soiled face. The old woman smiled at the Mary's soft touch. Her eyes filled. She looked at Mary full in the face, marveling that such a person would touch her with such gentleness. "I haven't felt ... anything so soft in ..."

Glancing just past the woman's ear, Mary caught Martha's eye. Martha quickly turned to her customer, but with a silly grin that was way out of proportion to her interest in a sale.

Mary examined the woman's face and saw how the oil had made her skin smooth and glossy. She had to keep getting fresh tissue with more oil, because every time she wiped, the pink tissue came away dirty. She was afraid the bag lady would see the dirty tissues and be embarrassed, so Mary kept throwing the used paper under the counter, and more fresh oil on fresh tissues. She had gone far past than the regulation quantity of one, and she didn't count. She had never used so much on a customer before. The bottle of oil seemed nearly empty, though it had been full when she started.

Just then, Mrs. Judith called out from the other side of Cosmetics. "Yoo hoo. Anybody home?" Mary ignored her.

After smoothly sweeping away the last tissue, Mary opened the storeís most expensive rouge. Her was at her best, with graceful and elegant motions, the way a magician makes a dove appear. Mary began applying the rouge tenderly to the bag lady's gleaming cheek. Mary thought the elderly woman looked good in this rouge. Years ago, she had been pretty.

Mrs. Judith had come around the corner. With her high voice, she sang, "Oh, Mary, could you let me try some of the new rouge?"

Mary answered through gritted teeth with the classic Marshall Field's Clerk Brushoff, and the don't-look-up option. "No, ma'am, I am busy with another customer."

"You think she is going to actually buy something?" Mrs. Judith giggled, paused for a moment, then snapped, "You come here right now."

All Mary said was, "I am assisting another customer." The bag lady, still smiling, didn't flinch.

Mrs. Judith stalked away, but Mary soon heard the heavy footsteps of her chubby boss, with Mrs. Judith on his heels. "Mary, please stop what you are doing and assist Mrs. Judith."

Mary replied firmly, "Bob, you know my record here. It's Christmas. Gimme a break."

"Mary, I won't tell you again. Stop what you are doing and assist Mrs. Judith."

Mary stood firm. "I will finish with this customer first."

Bob stepped over to the counter. "Whoa! All this oil! This could have been sold!"

Mrs. Judith sucked in her breath dramatically, looked out the window, then looked back at Bob. "Do you want my business? I have a lot of Christmas presents to buy today."

"Mary!" Bob was exasperated. Never before had a cosmetics clerk given him grief in front of a customer. Certainly not Mary. She was the meekest.

Mary showed some exasperation too. She spoke quickly in a low and firm voice, guessing that it might cost her job. "That rich bitch comes first for herself and for you. Why don't you show a little concern."

In spite of Mary's low voice, Mrs. Judith overheard. "Of all the nerve! Of course you'll fire her immediately!"

Bob was suddenly aware that the situation was getting out of hand. By now, Ralph was staring over the railing on the Mezzanine. Martha behind the Jewelry counter had her hands on hips, her mouth tight, her customer watching the scene dumbfounded. Even Joe, some distance away in Shoes, stepped away from his register to see the commotion.

"Mary, please. I wonít tell you again.Ē

Mary hurried with the rouge. "Just let me finish up here." She whispered to the bag lady, "If only you had been here a little earlier." The store was silent but for the piped-in Christmas tune, "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem".

The bag lady began to pull away. Bob glanced at Mrs. Judith, who told him everything he needed to know with her angry open beak. "No, please stop immediately."

After he spoke, Martha suddenly tore out of Jewelry with her purse, going the twenty feet to the escalator at a full run, then bounding up the metal stairs two at a time. She turned at the top and yelled fiercely over the rail in the Mezzanine, "Ya know, Bob, you are one jerk! I quit! Ralph, gimme that coat."

There was a loud smack that could be heard all the way down from the Mezzanine as Martha slapped her credit card on Ralph's counter. She yanked a mauve coat with fur trim off the rack, nearly toppling the entire rack, and charged back down the escalator.

The bag lady was displaying a flight reflex. She had turned away half-rouged from Mary and was yanking again at her bags. Martha was upon her like a wolf. "You look marvelous. You need this coat to match."

She flung the heavy overcoat at the frail woman. It landed draped on her hunched shoulder and upper arm, but she was bent to hold the bags, and the new overcoat slid lazily to the dirty marble floor. Martha kept going, roared through Jewelry to get her old coat, and dashed out of the store.

Ralph was at the railing. "Wait, your card!" he said weakly.

The comment broke the freeze. Someone, maybe Joe, let out a whoop and ignited scattered applause. Bob looked at Mary and jabbed his thumb towards the door. The bag lady had scooped up her new coat and evaporated into the growing crowd. Mrs. Judith walked out the front door furious. Bob was at her heels, sputtering apologies. As she reached for her jacket, Mary knew she should be distressed, but she smiled Peace.