Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Clint enjoyed his job as general manager of Bass Pro Shop. Really, he did.
He’d started working as a sales associate when he was 20. Six years later, (on a recommendation from his retiring manager “for his responsible and capable tendencies and ability to adapt to and manage any given situation”) he’d been offered the position of general manager. He hadn’t been sure if he was ready for it—after all, he’d never really been the kind of person to like confrontations, or unpredictability. And it was only AFTER he accepted the position did Jim, the manager that Clint had inherited this job from, give him two pieces of advice.
“Clint,” Jim had said, wrapping his arm around Clint’s shoulders and steering him toward the carp pond as if they were father and son discussing life matters, “this is a recreational facility. A big boy toy store. So don’t take your job too seriously.” Then he stopped walking and looked Clint in the eyes. His voice deepened.. “But take your customers seriously, son—always. And never underestimate what they’re capable of.” Though it sounded dramatic, like instruction for dealing with big game, Clint had followed it to the letter and it had worked for a year now.
But in that year, Clint had seen exactly what Jim was talking about. Customers presented him with all species of situations not addressed in his managerial protocol handbook. Once, a woman brought a trapped raccoon into the store because she thought the Bass Pro Shop could take it off her hands. But when Clint kindly explained that they weren’t an animal refuge, the woman opened the cage, with a spiteful smirk, let the animal loose and then sashayed out of the store. The coon clambered to the top of the mountain goat exhibit, and sat there hissing while Clint helped the animal control people wrangle it into a cage.
Another time, he helped revive a woman who fainted when she was caught off guard by the taxidermied cottonmouth in a display by her foot. Clint had cleaned up a pile of deer guts that had fallen off the back of a pick-up truck in the parking lot. He had fished flip flops out of the fish pond. Had politely asked men who were casting lines from the fishing department over to the women’s clothing section to stop.
In other words, customers themselves were about as unpredictable as any of the big game or hobbies that his store helped them to dominate. And in a place where testosterone raged sometimes out of control and bragging rights were not merely unwritten law, but a constitution to live by, Clint had never quite overcome the fear. The fear of the overpopulation of an unpredictable, sometimes aggressive species of customers. It stayed with him when he was drinking coffee in his office and the phone rang. It twisted his gut every time his name came over the intercom. It assaulted him when he heard a customer say ‘excuse me’ right behind him. He even had nightmares of worst case scenarios. Making and keeping his customers happy was Clint’s lifelong goal. ‘Cause at his core, he assumed that really, he simply feared confrontation with corporate and the consequences of unhappy customers.
Incidentally, confrontation and consequences were all that Clint could think of right now as he stood holding an accident report form. He watched the woman sitting at the table across the café with her back to him, her arms crossed as if she were cold. Her short brown ponytail still dripped, forming a small puddle on the floor behind her. A sack of wet clothes sat by her chair.
Clint jumped slightly as Brad, one of his floor clerks, walked up next to him holding out a fleece Coleman blanket from the camping section. “Here’s that blanket you wanted. Oh and this.” He held out a plastic bag containing a digital camera still seeping water from the cracks in the camera body. “She doin’ okay?”
“Yeah.” Clint released a sigh that sounded pitiful even to him.
“Don’t worry about it, man.” Brad said, as if he could sense Clint’s tension. “It’s not like this is the first time somethin’ like this has happened. Remember those idiots a couple years ago on Youtube?”
“Yeah, but they meant to do it.” Clint rubbed his hand across the auburn goatee on his chin, a gesture he reserved for times when he didn’t know what to do. “Man did you see how scared she was?”
“Could be worse.” Brad grinned. “She could be dead.”
Clint shot him a death glare and grabbed the blanket and bag out of his hands. He nodded toward the girl. “Who knows what in the world she’s gonna say—or want.”
“Eh, maybe it won’t be as bad as you think. Bite the bullet and get it over with.” Brad clapped him on the back. “Good luck, boss. And let me know how this one turns out.” With a chuckle, he walked back to the camping department leaving Clint alone with his cramping stomach.
Clint stood for another thirty seconds, trying to determine his approach. Overcompensate. If we give her what she wants upfront, maybe that will hold off a lawsuit or even out of court costs. He remembered from his days of watching Davy Crockett as a boy that with enough charm, you could tame a grizzly. So with a well-rehearsed smile spread across his face, he approached her table. “Hey there. Look what I’ve got.” He wrapped the blanket around her shoulders “This’ll help warm you up. It was Robyn, right?”
She nodded, accepting the blanket eagerly. But her face remained sullen.
A bad sign. “You doin’ okay?” He pressed, settling in the seat next to her, hiding the plastic bag with her camera under the table.
“I’m fine.” She fingered the price tag dangling from the blanket just beneath her chin. Wincing at the price, she dropped the tag as if it were hot. She tried to recover by looking over at him. “Um, thanks for the change of clothes.”
Marlene from the ladies clothing section had fixed her up with a dry pair of jeans and a t-shirt. “Do they fit okay?”
“They’re perfect. But, um—” She looked down at the outfit, “how much will all this cost me?”
Clint stared at her blankly, not wanting to underestimate the simplicity of the question, yet marveling at its innocence. “Oh! No, no. You can keep those. No charge. In fact, is there anything else that I can get for you?” He looked around for something else to offer her and spotting the snack bar, asked, “Are you hungry? Want some water?”
“I think I’ve had enough of that for today.” She coughed, as if a few drops of water still remained in her lungs.
He wasn’t sure whether to laugh or apologize. She was either severely disgruntled or just sarcastic. Gotta feel her out a little more.
“Oh, and—” she gave him an apologetic glance. “I’m sorry about—the fish.”
Clint sat up straighter and blinked. A customer was apologizing to him? “Oh, d-don’t worry about it.” He crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward. “We’re gonna mount him and put your name on the plaque as the fisherman who caught him.” He saw her smile slightly. Charm boy, charm. Works every time. “Although, I gotta say, your technique ranks right up there with throwing dynamite in the lake.”
“Yeah, well, technique wasn’t exactly on my mind at the moment.”
“No, I guess it wasn’t.” This seemed like a good enough transition into what he was really there for. He pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket and clicked it open. “Look, I need to fill out this accident report. Can you tell me what happened?”
She groaned, putting her head in her hands. “It all happened so fast. I was taking a picture from above the tank, but my foot slipped on the waterfall spray and then— ” She stopped, as if she couldn’t bring herself to repaint the scene. “And then splash.”
He pressed a little harder on the pen as he wrote, hoping that she’d overlook the fact that technically it was their fault that she went over. He’d been telling corporate that they needed to redirect that waterfall spray. It settled right there on the floor at the landing.
Her sharp gasp pulled him out of his reverie. “I just remembered. Did my camera—?”
He stopped writing and set the plastic bag in front of her. “Sunk to the bottom of the tank. We dipped it out, but it’s probably dead.” He hurried on. “But we’re gonna take care of that for you too.”
Lifting the bag to inspect the camera, she shook her head. “It was a 300 dollar camera! I don’t expect you to pay for it.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been through a lot. We want to take care of you.” He jotted down the expense of the camera in the margin of the report.
She set the bag down and eyed him for a minute. “All right,” she smiled, as if resigning to this and any future kindness. “Thank you.”
Her smile made him feel better. She was small and, well, cute. Some mascara was smeared around her eyes and— Focus Clint, focus. He cleared his throat and went back to filling out the accident report. “So why did you come in to the Bass Pro Shop today?”
She chuckled, remembering the simplicity of her visit. “I was looking for a pink Browning buckmark for my car. But you didn’t have any.”
A buckmark? She looked so unassuming. As if she might have a hobby making jewelry or scrapbooks. That’s right. Those were the ones Jim told you to watch out for. Better keep her happy. “Well, we’ll get you a pink buckmark, even if we have to special order it.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“Nah, we want to take care of you.” He slid the paper over to her. “Here, can you fill out this top information for me?”
As she concentrated on filling in her phone number and address, he asked, “So what do you want with a buckmark? You hunt?”
“Me? Hunt?” She burst out laughing. “No. I just like the fact that I’m making a statement.”
“What kind of statement are you trying to make?”
She filled in the last space before passing the pen and paper back to him and then smiled coyly. “I support the right to bear firearms. And I like to keep people guessing.”
“Most of them don’t think of me as a buckmark kind of person.”
You got that right, Clint thought. “So what kind of a—”
“Good grief, do they really have to stare?” She put her hand up to block the side of her face closest to the people in the café. “I should have sold tickets.”
Clint looked over his shoulder. A twenty something year old guy, who looked as if he sincerely didn’t realize that capitalizing on someone else’s trauma was ethically in question, pointed to his high-tech phone screen and laughed. “I was filmin’ the fish tank when you fell in,” he yelled over to her. “I got it ALL on video. Just uploaded it to YouTube.” As if this were meant to calm her.
“Great.” She squinted at him, her voice brittle with sarcasm. “Thanks for lettin’ me know.” She pulled the blanket closer around her.
Clint moved his chair around to block their view, and reached out hesitantly to touch her arm. “Hey, don’t worry about them. They’re just ignorant rednecks.”
“That’s redundant.” She snorted. “Ignorant. Rednecks.”
He loved the way her intonation barely changed with each statement, no matter what her emotion was. “That’s right. So give ‘em a break.” He grinned. “Besides, I have to admit, watching you cling to the side of that tank, screaming, ‘Will they bite?’ was pretty darn hysterical.” When she cut her eyes over at him, he hurried to clarify, “NOW—of course—it wasn’t THEN.”
“Well this IS Bass Pro Shop.” She snapped. “Aren’t y’all supposed to have exotic stuff in here? I mean, you could have had piranhas in the tank for all I knew.
“They’re Grouper.” He said, dryly, attempting to keep the conversation light. “Grouper don’t bite. What cracks me up is that you were in a 10 foot tank and you can’t swim, but you were scared of the fish?”
“How did you know I can’t swim?”
“Because in between yelling about the fish, you were also screaming, ‘I can’t swim.’ And then there were the tell tale signs of the sinking and struggle and gasping and—”
“All right, all right.” She rolled her eyes but couldn’t stop the grin. “I have an overactive imagination. The only thing more mortifying than falling in a fish tank at the Bass Pro Shop is being systematically stripped of my flesh in front of an audience. A docile death like drowning didn’t occur to me as a worse option.”
“You’re taking this pretty well.”
“Eh, you either laugh or cry. Why waste the body fluid? Things like this just happen to me.” She reached up and loosened the ponytail, casually. A trickle of water splashed onto the floor. “I’m always looking for an adventure, but catastrophe usually finds me first.”
“Are you a connoisseur of near death experiences?”
She thought for a minute then shook her head. “I think today was the first life threatening one. But you know, the petty little things. Flat tires, getting lost in the bad section of Atlanta, being accosted by angry herons—that kind of thing.”
He grinned, hoping she had more stories to tell. Anything to give him an excuse to—Clint, get a hold of yourself. She’s a customer. Get her in, get her out before she suits you. Business, boy. Business. His smile disappeared. “You could have drowned you know.”
He ignored the sarcastic comeback and suppressed a grin, trying to remain professional. “That wouldn’t have looked good for Bass Pro.”
“I think people would have thought worse about the retard who fell into your fish tank.” She looked down at the tag she was fiddling with again.
“Y-you’re not a retard, Robyn.” He assured her softly. “Anyway, we’re really glad you didn’t drowned.” There that sounded professionally distant.
“Glad I could help you out.”
He needed to get out of this conversation while she was still in such a compliant mood. Looking down at the accident report in his hand, he said, “Well, I think I’ve got all the info that I need here. So if you need someone to drive you home or if your clothes need to be dry-cleaned, or if you want to stay around for lunch at the Islamorada—anything—you let me know and we’ll take care of it. My office is right through those doors.” He patted the table once and stood. “Have a great day, Robyn.” Well, that was easy. Letting out a sigh of relief, he headed out of the snack shop.
“I could suit your butt off, you know.” Her voice still held the same almost bored intonation.
Clint was sure that he lurched from stopping so fast. Whoa. Where did THAT come from? Slowly, he turned to face her, his stomach cramping, his mouth bone dry.
“That water up on the floor—” she cast a glance toward the waterfall ledge “clear violation of safety code. I know I slipped on it.” She crossed her arms and let silence punctuate her meaning. “I’m seeing emotional damages out the wazoo.”
The almost exotic unreadability that had intrigued him so much before, seemed almost dangerous now as he tried to gather some thoughts, some response. Respect the customers—they’re intelligent creatures. With this one especially, he knew he couldn’t bluff any longer. And surprisingly, he realized that he didn’t want to.
Pulling the chair back out, he sat down. “You’re right. It was our fault.” He pulled a business card out of his shirt pocket and held it out to her. “And if you want to—pursue this further, here’s my name and number.”
She took the card and looked at it for a minute, then slid it back across the table with one finger. “Good thing you’re takin’ such good care of me already.”
He sat there confused, searching her eyes, as if they were a compass that would tell him exactly which direction this entire scenario had just taken.
Finally, she grinned. “You need to chill, Clint. We aren’t all out to get you. Besides—I mean, I got a new outfit, a Browning buckmark, a new camera—possibly lunch and anything else probably short of carting home one of those boats you got out back. What more could a girl want?”
Clint wasn’t sure why he wasn’t more annoyed at her obvious strategy to unnerve him. Nor did he understand why he proceeded to say, “I really do want you to know how much I’m sorry. I’ll never forget the way you held onto to my neck like a wet cat when I pulled you outta that tank and carried you to the back room.”
She laughed, brushing a strand of now almost dried hair behind her ear.
“No, honestly. I’ve never seen anyone that scared and embarrassed before. You shouldn’t have had to go through that.”
“And yet, you’ll go home and watch the video on YouTube and laugh your stinkin’ head off.” She predicted, shaking her head in disapproval.
“Oh, yeah. Probably go back to my office right now and watch it. Probably post it on Facebook and show it at the company Christmas party, too.”
“Do I get compensated for supplying the entertainment?” She twirled the piece of hair around her finger.
He thought for a minute about his comeback. It wasn’t professional, but then again, very little in the past fifteen minutes had been. “I live by the bay,” he blurted out, pushing the business card back toward her. “Why don’t you call me sometime and you can come over and let me teach you how to swim just in case any of your other adventures take you around water?” He held up his hand as if swearing. “No piranhas or flesh-eating trout or vicious grouper or hidden YouTube video cameras.”
She fingered the card. “Promise?”
“You bet.” He winked. “And if there are—I’ll take care of you.”
“And what about YOU?” She raised an eyebrow. “Are you dangerous?”
He wasn’t even sure where, but somewhere along the way the game had changed. Like those hunters who tell stories of becoming the hunted. And, strangely, he didn’t mind the swap. Because for all that this girl talked about wanting adventure, Clint had a feeling that she was herself quite an elaborate adventure. She was unpredictable. Risky. And for once in his life, he didn’t turn and run or offer more amenities, bribing the impulsive moment to pass him by. This girl looked as if she’d be extremely displeased if he answered, ‘no.’ And since customer satisfaction was always his goal, he leaned forward, rested his arms on the table and smiled confidently. “Oh, you’re in luck, ma’am. I’m one big adventure just waiting to happen.”