FictionMagazine

Christmas Casual

By July 29, 2022 One Comment

By Nicole Jacobsen

Beneath the clamour of passing customers the familiar tune of Santa Claus is Coming to Town began its hundredth iteration.  

            Ella approached a man who stood at the display rack at the front of the store – the one with the hideous red sequined shoes that people either walked right passed or nudged their friend’s shoulder as they moved by the store to laugh over. They’d been living on a back shelf for months now. However, that morning when Ella showed up for her shift, Julie had been carefully rearranging shoes like decorations on a cake. Ella had scoffed and Julie had looked up at her.  

‘What?’ She’d shrugged. ‘If there’s any good time to sell these gaudy things it’s Christmas time.’ 

‘Reckon you can fool some sucker into paying forty dollars for a set of baubles with heels?’ 

            ‘Maybe they can put them on their Christmas tree?’ 

            Ella had rolled her eyes and walked beyond the displays to begin her shift. Which she’d been at now for three hours.  

            The man stood in front of the red disco shoes, the plastic bag in his left hand hung low to swish over the tiled floor. His gaze shifted to Ella as she neared, doing a full sweep from head to toe, noticing her name tag and store shirt.  

‘My wife would love those shoes.’ 

The man’s words lifted the edges of Ella’s mouth. Julie had finished her shift half an hour ago. She would be so cross she’d missed a potential customer for the bauble heels. However, when Ella noticed the man’s gaze, her smile faltered. He wasn’t looking at the red shoes, but at her own feet.  

‘Oh,’ she said, glancing at her beige ballet flats.  

‘She likes the pointy ones,’ he explained. 

‘Well,’ Ella said. ‘We don’t sell these particular shoes here-’ 

‘It’s not a part of the uniform? You know; this being a shoe store and all.’  

Ella embraced her customer service smile and laughed lightly at his joke.  

‘You’d think so, but no. Afraid it’s just the t-shirts.’ The man didn’t return her laugh and she worried he’d been serious. He looked back down at her ballet flats. The silence stretched to ten seconds. She shifted her feet and contemplated reaching for the red shoes and clicking them together three times. Maybe they would take her away from the store, this moment, and the way the man staring at her feet. 

‘We have some that are quite similar. If you’d like to see them?’ she offered. 

The man nodded and gazed aimlessly. Ella guided him a few rows down to where the flats were shelved. ‘As you can see, they’re very similar, and we have them in a few different colours.’ 

The man nodded.  

‘So, are you shopping for a Christmas gift for your wife?’ Ella asked, noticing another customer enter the store in her peripheral vision and walk right up to the red shoes. 

‘Yes,’ the man said. His shopping bag crinkled as he shifted it to his other hand. The smell of Christmas, a mix of vanilla and ginger, wafted from inside the bag. Candles, Ella guessed, delighted by the scent.  

‘Well then I’ll leave you to consider for a while,’ she said, her body angled towards the newcomer. ‘Let me know if you need more help.’ 

Elle shook off the awkwardness as she greeted a woman about the same age as her mum, smiling bright and plum coloured. Eyes nowhere near Ella’s feet. 

‘Hello there,’ Ella said. ‘Can I help you with anything today?’ 

‘Hi,’ the woman’s wrinkles delicately creased the corners of her eyes. ‘I was just walking past and saw these.’ She picked up one of the ruby shoes. ‘They’re quite hideous.’ 

            Ella couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her 

            ‘I don’t know what you mean; these are our best sellers,’ Ella joked. 

            The woman’s smile was warm. ‘Has anyone ever bought a pair?’ 

‘Not in my time here,’ Ella replied. ‘But I’m hoping for a Christmas miracle.’ The woman placed the shoe back wonky on it’s stand 

‘They can’t be comfortable?’ she asked. ‘They’re definitely not.’ ‘Ha. Shouldn’t you be trying to sell them to me?’ ‘Who says I’m not? Do you have any relatives you’re not fond of that you still need to buy a gift for?’ 

            The woman laughed. ‘Yes, however, I doubt red is his colour.’ ‘Drat,’ Ella joked. ‘Well, we do also sell men’s shoes. If you’d like to have a look while you’re here? Though there aren’t any with red sequins.’ 

‘No, thank you.’ The woman adjusted the handbag on her shoulder. ‘I was just curious about these. Wanted to get a closer look. See if they were real.’ 

‘No worries. Happy shopping!’  

Once the woman was out of sight, Ella straightened the shoe on its stand. 

A lull in the cacophony of the crowd made the song playing over the speakers sound louder. 

Oh the fire is slowly dying, 

And, my dear, we’re still good-byeing, 

It was one of her favourites, and the fourth time she’d heard it that day. She peered at the clock – two hours left.  

Her workmates hated this time of year. Too many people, too much noise. But Ella loved it. The shifts were tiring but went by quickly. Plus, there was something about Christmastime that, like vanilla and ginger scented candles, conjured feelings of contentment. 

            ‘Any luck, sir?’ Ella asked the man as she approached, steeling herself against any further shoe ogling.  

            He turned to face her. It was then Ella noticed the redness of his eyes. Not the kind of red from a little crying recently, but the kind of red from a lot of crying constantly. Over days. Weeks. 

‘I’m not sure,’ he said.  

                 ‘Well,’ she began. ‘What is it you’re not sure of?’ 

            ‘I’m not sure if shoes are the right gift,’ he admitted, reaching for a navy blue flat with a gold buckle. ‘Not sure they send the right message.’ 

            ‘What kind of message are you trying to send?’ 

            He spoke to the shoe.  

            ‘I’m not sure,’ he repeated. ‘What says “I received the divorce papers a week ago, but I still haven’t opened them because I don’t understand what happened, so I’m pretending everything is fine and I got you a gift. Merry Christmas”?’ 

            Ella’s mother had taken her out for ice-cream when she’d told her. She remembered the melted mint chocolate chip that dribbled onto her fingers as she gripped the cone, trying to think of the words that would fix it. Words that would make them change their minds. Make him stay. 

            The man returned the shoe. 

            ‘Well, shoes can mean a lot of things,’ Ella said, shifting from her left foot to her right. ‘They can be a practical gift, obviously, everyone needs shoes.’ She laughed and the man’s lips twitched. ‘They can be for exercise or work, you know, “smart casual”,’ she touched a black flat, her jerky movements toppling it. She caught it and readjusted it on the plastic stand. ‘They can be for fun–’ 

            ‘Fun,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘She used to say we never did anything fun.’ His voice sounded hopeful. ‘What says fun?’ 

            Ella’s gaze wandered towards the red shoes at the front of the store.  

            ‘That depends. What type of stuff does your, uh, wife, do for fun?’ Her stomach plummeted at her verbal stumble, but he didn’t seem to notice. 

            ‘She likes to read,’ he said. 

            If only they sold slippers. Oh, there’s an idea. 

            ‘We sell socks,’ Ella said. The man’s expression remained neutral. She rushed to explain. ‘There’s fuzzy ones, or spotty ones, or ones with pizzas or cats on them.’ 

            He seemed to be considering her suggestion seriously now. 

‘She’s allergic to cats,’ he said.   

‘There are other animal prints too. Why don’t you have a look and see what pops out?’ She motioned to the wall at the back that displayed various styles of socks. ‘You can mix and match,’ she suggested. ‘And they’re two for one.’ 

She walked him over and hesitated beside him. He looked so lost.  

Could Ella have made her father stay? Was there anything anyone could do or say in that situation? She guessed it depended on the person.  

‘What about these?’ he asked, picking out a pair of yellow socks dotted with daisies. ‘They’re sweet,’ she said, smiling encouragingly. He held them reverently.  

‘You can get another set for free,’ she reminded him.            

He selected a pair with multicoloured stripes, then followed Ella to the counter.  

‘That’ll be twelve dollars,’ she said. 

He paid and Ella placed the socks into a gaudy green and gold Christmas themed paper bag with the store logo printed in glitter. Silence pressed against her chest as she handed over the bag. Their eyes met and the music outside played Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Ella searched for something to say. 

The man muttered his thanks and turned to leave.  

‘Happy shopping,’ Ella blurted, her heart skipping a beat.  

He paused beside the ruby shoes, eyeing them with a strange sort of wonder, before facing her. He lifted the Christmas bag as he waved; the handle clutched tightly in his left hand, gold wedding band digging into his skin. 

‘Merry Christmas,’ he said. 

 

Nicole Jacobsen is a Brisbane artist, writer, poet, and aspiring editor who regularly finds herself re-befuddled by the difference between who and whom. Her background in Psychology emerges through character studies, obsessive bouts of self-reflection, and recurrent themes of mental health in her work. You can follow her work, here.

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