A Christmas short story: «The shop assistant» by Esther Campos

In a large shopping center, a veteran head of the stationery section is obliged to incorporate a young and inexperienced shop assistant with an intellectual disability during the most stressful sales campaign.
How will the experience turn out for both of them?

Times had changed… and if there was a time when the evidence of change gave Ramiro Sánchez a mixture of nostalgia and displeasure, it was precisely the arrival of the Christmas season.

            Ramiro Sánchez had made a name for himself working for that great store, the flagship of his city’s prosperity and a synonym of prestige for any professional who could boast of being part of its staff. For him, who had started from the bottom and who, by dint of tenacity and swallowing, almost in equal parts, had reached step by step the responsibility he now held, that large store meant everything. That is why he disliked so much the new generations of professionals whose tasks he could not understand: for example, those of that scruffy guy in torn jeans and glasses with yellow frames whose mysterious occupation was the «social networks» as if that store was not already the center of the universe of the society of his city without the need to advertise its offers on the Internet!  But … Of course, they told him… those were old times when his city was a provincial capital with potential for development and not a ruined city by dint of installing macro shopping malls around every corner.

            And what the hell was doing that odious woman with the endless questionnaires and bitter face? He had been told that she was responsible for the quality systems and therefore had to answer all his questions, no matter how busy she was. «Quality of what,» he dared to ask, and they condescendingly explained to him that there was a quality that was not that of the fabric nor the garment, but a standardized mold of how «he» should serve customers. «But what kind of quality was it that to serve the purpose he had to stop serving her customers?»

            Besides, quality standards were easy to learn in his company. They were burned in when they entered the company:

             – Rule number one – the customer is always right

            –  Rule number two – if the customer were not right, better shut up and pretend that by returning the money you are giving up to his reasoning and, that’s the end of it.  So with these simple rules, which Ramiro Sanchez still felt burning on his skin like the first day he stood behind the counter in the men’s textile section, there was no need to waste so much time filling out questionnaires on how to serve customers.

            None of that dismayed «Don» Ramiro Sanchez indeed, since he liked to hear how the public address system of the department store gave him such treatment, amplifying the respect due to his person and his position:  Don Ramiro was convinced that despite the cell phones, the floor managers were still being called by those big loudspeakers, it was to establish a reverential cult towards the superior employees.

            Nor did Don Ramiro like the strident commercial decoration consisting of phosphorescent signs shouting prices and offers. It was a vulgarity because, in his opinion, the well-to-do clientele never stopped to look at them, although he had ended up ignoring them.

            And despite being a recurring theme, neither was Don Ramiro worried about the loss of market share and possible staff cuts, as had been rumored in the corridors for several years. His company was serious, not like those upstart speculators who had recently become successful and who were not so zealous with their sales representatives the first time sales dropped.

            Don Ramiro nervously adjusted his pants while he looked sideways at his face in one of the countless mirrors of the large store, searching for pearly gleams of the cold sweat that had been invading him for days without warning. What deeply seemed to him the height of absurdity in this wave of modernity that his company had undertaken, was that he was forced to have a deficient girl under his orders, precisely now that the weeks of greater sales pressure for Christmas were approaching; That crazy idea had been the work of another young man with many degrees and no experience in selling.

            He didn’t even remember his name or his position, but he did remember the speech the presumptuous young man gave him about the social responsibility of the flagship company in which they both worked with the neediest people in their environment and other things like that.

            Was it all about helping others to sell more? Didn’t that cretin know how many donations and collaborations his company made and which were public knowledge among all employees?

            – Yes, but charity doesn’t sell, Don Ramiro, does it? This is something else, the young man explained to him, this is a step forward, a commitment to equal opportunities in the workplace.

            – Yeah, well, if you said so… well for you – said Ramiro Sanchez, and he swallowed his pride as so many others because discipline was rule number three – what they say about clients is true of bosses – especially if they are cretins in diapers, he added to himself.

            And the discomfort increased because he still did not know his new and special employee. He had been warned that she was tall and dark, good looking, but one of the seamstresses who adapted the sizes to each shop assistants had already warned him that she would still have to make «some adjustments», and that, in the secret jargon of political correctness, meant that she was overweight somewhere?

            – What exactly are you adjusting, the skirt or the blouse? – Don Ramiro Sanchez dared to ask? Well, a bit of everything, Don Ramiro, don’t worry, the uniform will be ready in time, just let me work and don’t worry; the girl is very pretty and very funny, you’ll see, the dressmaker smiled jokingly…

            But Don Ramiro Sánchez was not at ease. This year he was in charge of the remodeled Bookstore and Stationery section, with more than ten new sales assistants and more than four thousand product references to memorize; fashion books took a large part of the sales, but also gift wrapping paper, Christmas cards, and brand annual agendas. It was precisely in this section that the little girl she had been assigned to promote articles made by workshops where people like her worked.

            – And wouldn’t it have been enough to put up an eye-catching sign indicating that these agendas were made by sub…, – he stopped in his tracks and searched for the right words » people with some disability». He had been told how he should refer to these people in public.

            Why had he been burdened with a slut who, God knows what clientele she could drive away? Perhaps because Don Ramiro Sanchez did not feel at ease with such thoughts. Deep down he was a good Christian, a good person – the little girl had enough misfortune if she was born with a brain injury to expose her to the wild beasts – he said to himself. And it wasn’t always the rewarding job he boasted about to his family and friends. Especially in recent years, it had become very unpleasant. Hours and hours of standing around watching people touching and messing everything up, disgusted by the consumerism without criteria that forced him to act as a simple collector in a computer sales terminal with which he always ended up pissed off.

            Don Ramiro longed then for the leisurely conversations with good customers, with those whose tastes he knew, their family life, the important dates they celebrated and, in which he enjoyed advising them to get a perfect and unforgettable detail. Present days were, unfortunately, other times, of haste, of anonymity, of bad education, of sales by impulse and, in the middle of that pack, they wanted the little girl of the Association of def…, of handicapped labor inclusion, what expressions they used «personal development» as one could know how to do!

            At that moment Miss Ana Maria Alegría, Ana Mary, as she wanted to be called, passed by her side; 5’10» tall, size 38 with no adjustments, a recently issued diploma in customer service in department stores, an advert smile, magazine make-up, vertigo heels and, oxygenated blonde hair that framed her features where nothing was spectacular but nothing squeaked. A perfect shop assistant for the Christmas campaigns, from the style of the other nine temporary hires, or rather, of all but the little handicapped girl who would surely break out of the mold.

            It is true, Don Ramiro Sanchez, was considered an even-tempered man, so he always gave opportunities, and even went out of his way to be helpful to the inexperienced promoters in the early days, resolving their doubts and showing benevolence in the face of their mistakes. But with the «special» he was not going to give in at all. He had already warned his superiors in the Human Resources Department. If the fool …- her subconscious betrayed her – doesn’t handle herself well with people, I won’t put her in front of the public.  Is that clear? – in an attempt to save his professional honor as an immaculate sales department manager. It was of no use to him to read the girl’s curriculum vitae;  she had also taken a sales training course more or less adapted to what was expected of a saleswoman. Nor was he reassured by the fact that the instructor of these courses would be available to provide personalized support for a while because he was even more worried about the fact that the girl would have to take some sort of external supervisor!

            He was going to keep an eye on her in person and if it went wrong he had the word from his superiors that he could remove her from the retail stands immediately!

            So when Inocencia Cuadrado went to work with her brand new saleswoman’s uniform adapted to her imposing body, Don Ramiro Sánchez decided to become a «big brother» observing everything she did before, during and, after work.

            So, he observed with horror that she was wearing flat, orthopedic shoes that looked grotesque with the mini-skirt of the company uniform, although the seamstress had kindly skirted the rules by lengthening the length to her knees to minimize the visual impact. And he noticed that her movements around the booth and between the aisles were slow and awkward as those who are afraid of tripping over the wedding cake and ruining the bride and groom’s banquet.

            He also noticed that Inocencia had extravagant occurrences such as wrapping gifts with many ribbons to make them shine more brightly, although the value or size of the package did not justify such a decorative expense. With bewilderment, he took note that Innocence, in her eagerness to please, always gave reason to the client,

            – This is leather, isn’t it, baby? – a client asked her, and she affirmed that surely the touch was not deceiving 

            – But do you have something that is not leather and that looks like it?                Then she would hold out her hand and offer the same item again – judge for yourself what a fantastic quality. And the truth was told, the thing is that Innocence never lied, she simply was able to adapt to the temperament and tastes of each client, something that he had never observed in any saleswoman.

            Innocence did not distinguish between her tasks and those of other professionals who, according to her, were intruding in the small kingdom she had been assigned and which she called «HER booth». So there was no point in reprimanding her for not dusting during business hours, as the cleaners would do it at closing time. She took out her feather duster and did not allow the slightest particle of dust in suspension to get near her beautiful agendas.

            Don Ramiro also watched in horror as she used the bottle of mineral water she had at her disposal to water daily the ornamental plants in the aisle leading to HER stand which caused a formidable short circuit and consequent blackout since they were artificial plants and the water ended up overflowing and affecting the wiring of the computers.

            Although it was difficult for Inocencia to speak fluently, he also had to admit that conversing with her pleased him, because she always showed curiosity about the trade and although sometimes she seemed to anticipate the answers, which made Don Ramiro very nervous, no matter who the question came from, it was also true that Inocencia’s questions showed a sincere eagerness to learn.

            Don Ramiro noticed that a boy was waiting for Inocencia, like the other young girls, when she left work. Perhaps a boy more similar to her than to the rest of the boys of the type of her children or their friends. And she was thrilled to see how they embraced each other with the same enthusiasm as the other couples. He felt a deep pity that a person like Innocence could not have a career like he was in a center like his, nor aspire to a life like the one he sought for his children.

            So he ended up wishing the little girl well in life. In a few days, her Christmas contract would be over, the social responsibility jerk would congratulate him on his collaboration and the matter would be solved. For those reasons, he stopped worrying about her and the days passed without incident until Christmas Eve, the most stressful day for sales since that bastard Santa Claus had infiltrated every corner. Don Ramiro was exhausted, he knew it, but what could he do, he had to hold on for a few more hours and then he would rest at Christmas. The unforeseen events had been continuous and always fell on him because of the lack of experience of the promoters hired temporarily but, also, and this bothered him more, because of his desire to pass the bumps from one to another, a trait that once had not had the apprentices and that now was a trademark of all training contracts. Once again, the Christmas campaign had overwhelmed him for another year. «Cute girls but not very committed,» – he would put in his HR evaluation, even though no one would listen to him and they would call in new people again.

            So Don Ramiro Sanchez was looking forward to the end of the day to go home. As he was about to close the last cash register, number nine, which was also registering the most problems since Inocencia had been allowed to try to collect the occasional purchase …., it happened! The nightmare of every floor manager, the last minute, nervous, impertinent, heavy-set lady planted before his eyes, exactly the lady who had already interrupted him several times asking about all the other sections of the department store except his own!  And as if no one else could attend to her, she was facing him to upset his precarious mathematical calculation for the umpteenth time

            – Listen to me, sir, – Where the hell is the toy store in this damn labyrinth, eh, where? Could you pay attention to me? Are you listening to me?  Does nobody think about the customers here, or what?          

            At that point,  Don Ramiro Sanchez saw himself strangling that lady and starring on the front page of the local newspaper, with his prestige ruined, fired with fulmination and, without the dream retirement in the apartment in Benidorm. «What must I do, Mr. Judge, but kill her to reach finishing the cash register at once?»

            In a vain attempt to get rid of her, she looked around, but all the shop assistants had disappeared at the right time and without hesitation. The only one left was Inocencia, who was always late in tidying up her cabinet.

            Don Ramiro Sanchez does not remember if he called her or if Innocence simply guessed the anguish in his eyes. She came immediately to his side.   She smiled sweetly at the woman and took her by the arm. With an incredible tone of confidence, she asked the lady if she had any visual impairment or reading problem because in that case what she was going to teach her would not be of any help.            The lady, offended, replied that of course not, that she could read perfectly well and that her eyesight was that of an eagle. Then Innocence placed the impertinent lady in front of a huge sign that led to the central aisle of the department store.

            -Look at it, please madam, – she said – as I am new, I consult it a lot and I still don’t know it well, but I come and read it as often as I need to – It is called «The Directory» and it explains where everything is sold. If you are looking for toys, you have to look for the words «toy store» – Can you see it there, in big letters? Well, now it’s very easy, in the other column there is a number, do you see the number two? That means you have to go to the second floor and there will be a toy store.

            Inocencia smiled as she passed by Don Ramiro Sánchez and wished him a very Merry Christmas, adding, «Don’t you agree that people should be taught to fend for themselves? To the surprise of the human resources department, Don Ramiro Sánchez gave a positive evaluation for the first time to one of the shop assistants during the Christmas campaign.

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