3328 words (13 minute read)

Chapter Two: Florence

I adjust the nozzle on the garment steamer. I swear, the manufacturer must iron these wrinkles into the suits before they ship them to us as a cruel joke. It’s taken me the entire afternoon to get through this box.

The steamer sputters—time for more water. I switch off the appliance and my ears continuing humming. The shopkeeper’s bells jingle out front. I barely hear them through the workroom curtain. No matter, Jordan Linn, my manager, is on duty. He’ll handle whoever just walked in. Jordan is the youngest son of Nathan Linn, the store owner. Everyone at Linn Brothers calls Jordan by his family nickname, Sonny. All the employees, except for me, are members of the Linn family either by birth or marriage. I’m the outsider. At first, I called him Jordan. I wasn’t sure it was proper for me to use his family nickname, plus I knew another young man who went by Sonny and, to be honest, I didn’t like the constant reminder. But Jordan insisted I was part of the family and should call him Sonny like everyone else, so I do.

Sonny took over as store manager a year ago—about two seconds after he graduated from The University of Tulsa. He turned twenty-two last month. Must be nice to be the boss’s son and go straight to the top. When customers are present, I refer to him as Mr. Linn.

Sonny’s smooth voice seeps through heavy red curtains separating the workroom from the showroom floor. I can’t make out the conversation, but the tone is charming—must be a female customer. I pick up the small pitcher to refill the steamer and head over to the utility sink. Sonny parts the drapes and sticks his head into the workroom.

“I hate to interrupt you, Florence, but Mrs. Spencer is out front and she’s asked for you personally,” he says.

He looks me up and down. His penetrating gaze, accompanied by a wry smile, makes my stomach lurch.

“Hmm, and I can’t blame her.” He walks through the curtains and heads in my direction. “You look lovely today, Miss Florence, and a little steamy yourself.”

His sweet talk turns the tight sensation in my gut into a knot. I set the pitcher on the lunch table and walk back toward the alterations’ platform to put some space between us.

“Give me a second to freshen up,” I say. I inspect myself in the three-way mirror.

“You helped her once before—right after I started work. Where did the family go on their big vacation last summer?” he asks.

“Chicago. The Spencers spent two weeks in Chicago. She outfitted her twins from head to toe. The boys will graduate from College High this week.” I attempt to tame my frizzy hair. “Ugh, I look like a head of over-cooked broccoli.”

Most days, I’m grateful I look Irish like my mother instead of Cherokee like my father, but I’d take my late sister Rachel’s perfectly straight black hair on a day like today. I always envied how unruffled she looked, even on the hottest summer day. Sonny stands behind me and stares. Is he gonna give me a few pointers on how to pull myself together?

I speak to his image in the mirror, “Please tell Mrs. Spencer I’ll be right out. You never want to leave an important client alone on the floor, Sonny.” I shoo his reflection out of the workroom.

When Sonny started at Linn Brothers, I trained him. We spent long hours together. He was eager to learn and took to the business like a natural. At first, his attention and compliments were flattering. He’s a handsome young man, taller than his father, slender with a thin nose and eyes the color of a strong cup of tea. I never considered Sonny’s kind remarks or a grateful hand on my shoulder to be flirtatious; I’m old enough to be his mother, for goodness sake! As our working relationship progressed, I suppose I encouraged his behavior and teased him back in my own way. It was fun and harmless. Or so I thought. A couple of weeks ago, his hands started landing places other than my shoulder.

Last Saturday, when we were closing the store, Sonny snuck up behind me while I was straightening the dressing room. He put his hands on either side of my waist and I screamed like I’d just seen a rattlesnake.

“There’s no reason to be alarmed,” Sonny said.

“You’re the one who should be alarmed,” I shot back at him. I turned around and pushed his hands away. “Get out of this dressing room immediately!”

Sonny stood his ground. I felt his hot breath on my forehead and smelled the late-day remnants of his face lotion—Aqua Velva, for sure. He smiled and brushed a strand of hair out of my eyes in a gesture so gentle, I almost believed he cared for me. A split second later, he turned away and laughed. He laughed at me in the way men laugh to make women feel small and helpless. It reminded me of how my daddy used to laugh whenever I tried to talk my way out of trouble.

If this was any other job, I’d complain to the owner or quit and move on. But I’m not sure what I’d say to his father, and it’s not just any other job. I’ve worked at Linn Brothers for eight years. C.R. Anthony’s would never pay as much, and besides, Linn Brothers is by far the nicest men’s clothing store in Bartlesville. I won’t let Sonny’s wandering hands force my career to take a step backward.

Oh, but Mrs. Spencer is waiting. I tuck in my blouse and smooth my hair one last time. With a sigh, I part the curtains and walk into the glow of the showroom. I steer myself past the checkout table and around to the front where Mrs. Spencer browses the summer suits.

“Mrs. Spencer, what a pleasure to see you again,” I say. She’s decked out in a pastel-colored print dress with a wide pink belt, coordinating pink gloves, and a matching skimmer hat—dressed to impress.

“Thank you, Mrs. Fuller. You were such a doll when you helped me outfit the boys for our trip to Chicago last summer. Are you up for a repeat performance? We’re spending two weeks at a private estate on a lake in upstate New York. They call it a ‘camp’ but you should see the photographs. It looks divine. The height of old-world charm.” She gestures broadly with her hands as if speaking to a large audience.

“How delightful. Are the boys excited about graduation?” I ask.

“Oh, yes. We all are. We’re hosting dinner for forty people on Saturday! Did you know both of the boys are heading to Oklahoma State next fall?”

“No. I hadn’t heard. Congratulations, Mrs. Spencer.”

Enough small talk, I say to myself. Time to get down to business.

“So, a private estate on a lake, can you tell me a little more about your expected activities and dress expectations?” I ask. I learn they will dress in jacket and tie for dinner every evening except for the two Saturday evenings, which will be black tie. Mr. Spencer has a tuxedo, but the boys don’t. They will need attire suitable for boating and tennis as well. The twins have outgrown all their clothes from last summer.

Sonny assists as I move around the perimeter of the store and pull options for the boys from almost every department—suits, separates, shirts, ties, and casual wear. Then we head down into the center section to look at formal wear. The center of the store is three steps lower than the main showroom. Surrounded by a polished brass railing, the sunken area has wide entrance steps on either side. In addition to formal wear and outerwear, a glass case displays aftershave, cologne, cufflinks, wallets, and a few other gift items.

I present potential outfits to Mrs. Spencer while she sits on the small sofa outside the dressing rooms. The dressing rooms and restroom are in the back left corner of the store, the entrance to the workroom is centered behind the checkout table, and the staircase to the offices occupies the back right corner. It’s a well-organized if modest-sized department store. Sixteen-foot ceilings make the showroom feel larger than it is, and the round crystal drop chandelier is a show-stopper.

Sonny brings Mrs. Spencer a glass of water. She rejects the items she doesn’t like with a dismissive wave of her hand, a roll of her eyes, or a slow shake of her head. I combine the remaining pieces of clothing into outfits for her twins. From the stories my son, Johnny, tells me, Mrs. Spencer’s boys are just as prickly as she is. In less than an hour, the check-out counter overflows with a mountain of approved items. Mrs. Spencer appears as pleased as punch.

“Shall we proceed as we did last year, Mrs. Spencer? You’ll purchase the clothing today, take it home for them to try, and then you can return or exchange anything you desire.” I begin organizing the pile of clothing.

“Yes,” she rises from the sofa, “that worked well last year.” I ring up her purchases. Sonny bags them. “Mrs. Fuller, you are a miracle worker,” she says. “You have such a knack for fashion. The boys are going to look wonderful. You’d better hang on to her with both hands, Mr. Linn.”

“Oh, I’m planning on it, Mrs. Spencer.” Sonny gives me a wink. The knot tightens.

“Thank you, Mrs. Spencer. It is always a pleasure to help you,” I smile.

She’s right. I’ve always had a knack for fashion. Mother and I used to pore over the latest magazines, trying to figure out how we could recreate a look using whatever remnants and notions we could find in Daddy’s store. I loved sewing with my mother in the evenings. When I was fourteen, I played the role of the angel in the Christmas pageant—not the one who told Mary she was on the nest, but the angel who appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night and told them to be not afraid. I made my own costume. There was no way I was going to wear one of those old sacks with a sash from the church attic. Oh no, mine was a lovely, simple gown with an empire waist, bell sleeves, and a long flowing skirt. Instead of a cheap wire-framed halo, I wore a wide headband made of fabric with real gold thread running through it. The night of the pageant is one of my most vivid memories from growing up. John Fuller made eye contact with me that night, you know, the real “I like you” kind of eye contact. We didn’t start going steady for another two years, but my angel costume set the wheels in motion. I’m sure of it.

Mr. Linn’s assistant, Peggy, waves from the foot of the staircase to get my attention. Practically Perfect Peggy has the figure of a pin-up girl and the bubbly personality to go with it. She works in the office upstairs and occasionally helps on the sales floor. Whenever she needs to speak with me, she waves before beckoning with her index finger to “come here.” And there’s the beckoning finger. Oh, I hope she doesn’t want to change the schedule for next week. I’ve worked every angle I could find to finagle three days off in a row. I need a break.

“May I help you to the car?” Sonny asks Mrs. Spencer as we finish wrapping up her purchases.

“Yes, thank you, Mr. Linn.” Mrs. Spencer struggles to hand him two of the bags. Loaded down with a complete summer wardrobe for two, they head to the door.

“Thank you again, Mrs. Spencer. I hope you and your family have a marvelous vacation. Don’t forget to have the boys make an appointment with Clara if they need any alterations. She’s here Thursday and Saturday next week,” I say.

“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Fuller!” she responds. Mrs. Spencer steps out of the store into the evening light, Sonny at her heels. Practically Perfect Peggy clears her throat.

“My, my, Betty Jo Spencer. What an all-inclusive shopping spree. Nice job!” she exclaims.

“Thank you, Peggy,” I say, taking a small bow.

“Mr. Linn would like to speak with you in his office as soon as possible.”

“Of course,” I respond, even though I’m more than ready to clean up and call it a day. “Give me a moment to powder my nose.”

“I’ll see you upstairs in a minute.” She twirls around and bounces back up the staircase. Her blonde hair bobs in rhythm with each step. I grab my purse out of the drawer under the cash register and head to the restroom to touch up my lipstick. You’d think Sonny would direct his youthful advances toward Peggy over me, but she’s married to his cousin, so I guess she’s off-limits. Lucky girl. Besides, an older widow is an easy target. Mr. Linn wouldn’t believe me if I told him Sonny’s behavior was making me uncomfortable. He’d say I was overreacting, that Sonny was being kind and I should feel flattered. Well, after last Saturday, I don’t feel flattered anymore.

I step into the small restroom and close the door. Why does Sonny’s father need to speak with me as soon as possible? Have I done something wrong? The knot in my stomach aches.

Calm down, Florence. He’s probably just adding another family member to the staff.

I’m not sure I have the energy to train another nephew or niece who doesn’t know poplin from gabardine. Well, what else can you expect when you give your heart and soul to a family business and you’re not a member of the family? I shouldn’t complain about working for the Linns. They’ve been good to me and they are a genuine success story—a Jewish family flees Russia to pursue the American dream and all. They changed their name from Fabelinsky to Linn, but family is family, and I’m no Russian immigrant.

I carefully reapply my Red Letter lipstick and smack my lips together a few times—no reason to look as worn out as I feel. I exit the restroom and drag myself up the oak stairs to Mr. Linn’s office. My feet ache and my legs feel like lead. I’m out of breath by the time I reach the top. Practically Perfect Peggy is at her desk, waiting for me. 

“He’s expecting you, Mrs. Fuller,” she flashes her glamour girl smile. I smile in return and knock lightly on Mr. Linn’s door. Here we go.

“Come in,” he responds in his even-toned, mellow voice. I turn the handle and push the door open. “Ah, Mrs. Fuller, please take a seat,” he gestures to the leather chair across from where he sits at his oversized wooden desk. Mr. Linn’s custom-tailored suit in worsted wool is an excellent choice for this time of year. The light tan windowpane plaid complements his small dark angular features and graying hair. Mr. Linn smiles. It’s a kind smile. The knot relaxes.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Linn,” I say as I settle into the chair. My legs and feet tingle with relief.

“My dear Mrs. Fuller, please let me start by telling you what an asset you have been to Linn Brothers over the years,” he says in his usual steady and deliberate style.

“Thank you, Mr. Linn. I thoroughly enjoy working for you and your family.”

Except for your son, who is a groping menace, I think to myself.

“Yes, yes, and you are quite good at it, Mrs. Fuller. I have to say, you have an innate talent for men’s fashion and a wonderful way with the customers—not to mention how you’ve increased sales with your window displays.”

When Sonny asked me to take over the window displays, I insisted we have a seasonal section at the front of the store, which corresponds to the items featured in the windows. Now, when customers spot something they like, they can walk right in and buy it. It’s been an effective sales technique.

“I’m impressed,” Mr. Linn continues. “So much so, I’ve recommended you for a management position at our flagship store in Tulsa,” he says clasping his hands together in front of his chest.

“A management position?” I ask.

“Yes ma’am, management. If it all works out, you could be the new manager of the Tulsa store.”

“Manager of the Tulsa store,” I repeat.

Florence, what are you, a parrot? Pull yourself together, girl.

“This is probably a lot to take in. I’m sure you and your family weren’t thinking about leaving Bartlesville, but it would mean a significant pay increase for you and lots of new opportunities in a larger city. I’ve seen your son play ball, and Tulsa Central High School has the best sports program in the state,” he says.

“I’m speechless, Mr. Linn. I’m not sure what to say,” is all I can manage.

“Well, I can only recommend you for the position. You need to go down there and close the deal on your own,” he says, patting his desk. “My Uncle Aaron, at the Tulsa store, would like to meet you in person. Peggy has agreed to work your hours this Wednesday, and the company would be more than happy to cover bus fare and expenses for your trip to Tulsa.”

“How generous of you, sir. Thank you. I would enjoy meeting your uncle and seeing the Tulsa store.”

Much better, Florence.

“Now, I want to be clear on one point, Mrs. Fuller, if Uncle Aaron offers you the position and for any reason you are not interested in accepting it, please know you are welcome to stay here in your current role at the Bartlesville store. I don’t want you to feel any pressure about this decision. Sonny and I would love to keep you right here.” He pats his desk again. “Everything can stay exactly the way it is. This is one hundred percent your choice, Mrs. Fuller,” he says, pointing at me with his index finger to emphasize “your choice.”

“Thank you, Mr. Linn, I appreciate your assurance a great deal. This is such a surprise. I still don’t know what to say.” I shake my head.

“Just promise me you’ll take a look on Wednesday.” He stands.

I rise to meet him. “It would be my pleasure. Thank you again, Mr. Linn, for your confidence in me.”

“Nonsense, you’re the best candidate for the job. It is, after all, still in the family,” he grins. “Now, check with Peggy about the bus ticket and a little lunch money. She’ll help you get your travel plans all squared away for Wednesday.” He walks around his desk and leads me toward the door.

“Yes, I will. And thank you again, Mr. Linn.” I stop in the doorway. “Does Sonny know you recommended me?”

“I don’t think so. This all happened after lunch,” he responds. “You can be the one to give him the good news.”

“Yes, I’ll give him the good news right away.” The door clicks shut behind me and the knot in my stomach is long gone.

Next Chapter: Chapter Three:  Mrs. Henderson