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Contemporary Funny Inspirational

No one got passed them. The seasonal kiosk had been placed in the middle of the Pleasanton shopping mall along the only thoroughfare between the two major department stores. The company that rented it had employed an army of eight product presenters. They were carefully chosen for their social skills and well-trained for sales. They stood in formation, two to a side, prepped for the next wave of shoppers.

An attorney who took off early from work headed to The Body Shop with a printed list of gifts for her staff. A young man walked up to her and reached out for a hug. She stepped back from the embrace. But instead of a squeeze, he left something warm around her neck with the fragrance of oranges that reminded her of her uncle’s orchard in the spring.

An older lady hugged the sales clerk that reached out to her and he placed something warm on her neck that eased her sore muscles. The cloth tube filled with material from a bean bag smelled of cinnamon tea on a rainy day. The two of them talked about family gatherings, Christmas caroling and pleasant holiday smells. She bought the one on her neck and three more for her grandkids. The attorney bought two.

Oscar sensed the danger. Up ahead, ten shoppers rushing through the mall had stopped suddenly like a wave hitting a wall. Salespeople everywhere presented their product and people actually stopped to listen–some even had their wallets out. Oscar slid over to a large group and surrounded himself like a fish hiding in a school of sardines fighting to survive the open seas. A few on the outskirts got pulled away with some kind of cord around their neck. A saleswoman with auburn hair beckoned Oscar to come over, as if she would let him in on some secret. He knew better. He shook his head and stepped away.

“I’ll get you on the way back.” She smiled at him.

“Not if I can help it,” he told himself. Oscar took great pride in his ability to avoid a sales pitch.

But he had made a fatal mistake. Instead of heading straight to the JCPenney at the other end of the mall, he turned right down a dead end with only The Body Shop and a stationary store. He searched for a way out while browsing through a basket of soaps on sale.

“Pst! Hey you. Short guy. Come over here.” A woman whispered at him.

He turned to complain about the insult but with the woman’s height well over six feet she could afford to call anyone short. At least she hadn’t called him squat or stout.

“Pretend to talk to me.” She glanced down the hall and quickly back at him.

“Let me guess. You’re trying to avoid those salespeople over there.”

“Yes, I’ve been stuck here for five minutes and I don’t see a way past them.”

“What about that emergency exit?”

“No. It triggers an alarm.”

A young woman approached. “Are you guys stuck here too.”

A man in an orange cardigan sweater put down a handful of soaps and rushed over. “I’ve been stuck here for ten minutes waiting for another wave of shoppers to overwhelm them.”

“There’s so many.” Oscar was impressed. “They can handle the crowds.”

“Look away. Look away.” The tall woman grabbed a basket of moisturizers and held it up to her face. “They’ve spotted us. Spread out. Act casual.”

“You don’t suppose they would venture out this far?” The man in the cardigan asked.

“They seem to stay close to the merchandise and the cash register.” The young woman hid behind a display case.

“Still, they aren’t normal kiosk attendees. They actually approach people.” Oscar had seen this level of friendliness at car dealerships but never at a shopping mall.

“This group has a weird kind of happiness about them.” The tall woman picked up another basket. “I bet it’s a cult. Those neck warmers are just a front.”

“They do have an odd desire to convince you to buy one.” The young woman peeked around the corner.

“Let’s watch how they work. Analyze their technique. See who successfully turns them down.” Oscar knew they couldn’t get to everyone.

“No one has so far. They’re so polite and friendly. No one wants to be rude.” The young woman ventured out of the store to get a better look. Over at the kiosk a young salesman waved to her. She leapt back behind the display case. “That was close.” Her cheeks turned red.

“Maybe the scent in that bean bag snake is a narcotic.” The tall woman wiggled her shoulders. “You know, to loosen you up.”

“It’s potpourri. Not a drug.” Oscar corrected her.

“Why do people instantly smile when they put it on you?” The man in the cardigan asked.

“It’s warm. Relaxes the muscles. Lowers your guard.” Oscar found a spot between a Christmas tree decorated with soap and a tower of cremes. Between the two he could get a good view of the kiosk without being seen.

“There’s a microwave somewhere to heat them up.” The young woman explained.

“Hey!” The tall woman slapped her hands together. “Anyone here play football? We could use a good quarterback to draw up a play to get around them.”

“I used that technique earlier but it requires the blockers sacrifice themselves.”

“What about a distraction? Someone could knock over that display case of perfume.”

“A bit expensive, don’t you think?”

“Anyone willing to sacrifice themselves for the team?”

“So we’re a team now?”

“We should get to know each other. I’m Helen,” the tall woman said.

“Oscar.” Instead of shaking hands Helen nodded in acknowledgement.

“My name is Michelle.”

“Nice to meet you, Michelle.” Oscar bowed.

“And I’m Larry.” The man in the cardigan bowed as well.

“So which one of us will be the sacrificial lamb?” Helen asked.

“Not me,” Larry said, “I’m always buying things I don’t need. On top of that, I have the extended warranty on every appliance and electronic device I own. I just can’t say no.”

“Tell me about it.” Oscar didn’t want to be outdone. “I own an extended life insurance policy and I don’t even have a family.”

“Every time I rent a car, I end up paying for the extra insurance.”

“You guys are a real inspiration.” Helen rolled her eyes. It became apparent to Oscar that her smug frown was a permanent feature.

“I won’t be able to help either.” Michelle joined in. “My friends want me to change my style so they gang up with the sales ladies whenever we go clothes shopping. I have a closet full of stuff I never wear. I just can’t say no to those people.”

“Those people.” Oscar whispered.

“Salespeople.” The four of them spit out the word like it was a filthy, disgraceful profession.

“Well it can’t be me.” Helen stood with her hands on her hips. “I’ve already made an ass of myself too many times today. Unlike you guys, I can say no. It’s just that I’m rude about it. I don’t know any other way. I already yelled no at the receptionist at my gym who wanted to know if I would be interested in extending my membership. I yelled no at the JCPenney lady who said if I buy one more item of at least twenty dollars I’d be eligible for a contest to win a shopping spree. And I yelled at a Santa outside asking for donations. It’s too much bad karma. I can’t be rude anymore today. I just want to be a polite person for the rest of the week and be left alone.”

“Why don’t we just run. Sprint past them,” Larry said.

“We could jump up and down as we go past so they can’t put those things on our neck.” Michelle bounced on the balls of her feet.

“I’m not that fast.” Oscar was ashamed to admit. “I was always the first tagged in hide and seek.”

“And I’m not jumping up and down,” Helen said.

A cell phone rang. Larry answered, spoke, and hung up.

“That’s my wife. She’s done shopping. She’s waiting for me. I have to go.”

“Why don’t you have her come here.”

“I have no pretext for her to come here. She knows I’m just killing time.”

“Is she good with salespeople? We could use her. She could lead us out.”

“She is. She could talk to them. But then she’ll probably buy some of those neck warmers and then complain to me that I shouldn’t have let her buy them. I won’t hear the end of it. She can’t save money but it’s my fault that I don’t stop her. No, I have to go alone. I’ve got my excuse now. I’ll hurry past them and tell them I don’t have time to talk.”

Larry took a deep breath, stretched his neck and arms.

“Here it goes.”

He walked tall. Briskly. Eyes vaguely focused on the distance. The salespeople sensed his approach. Three were talking to customers. They shifted a few steps aside to let the free ones fill in the wall and fortify it. Two in front, three in back. Pretending to talk casually to each other. But with the orange cardigan tracked in their peripheral vision.

A young salesman whispered out of the corner of his mouth, “Incoming.”

A senior salesman nodded to the one with auburn hair. Full lips. Soft eyes. Languid arms. Musky perfume. And a deep, bedroom voice.

“Hey there, sailor.”

Larry avoided eye contact. But he was close. So close. The skin on his neck prickled in anticipation and a drip of perspiration rolled down his cheek.

“Stay strong.” Oscar cheered him on.

Larry’s next steps wavered. His knees went to jelly. And then he saw his wife. Three stores away. His life preserver. He stuck his arm in the air and waved frantically to her. “Honey!” He shouted. Shoppers turned at the loud shriek.

“Honey.” He repeated, trying to sound more natural.

Boom. An aromatic smell filled his senses and the bean bag snake wrapped itself around his neck. Warm. So warm. Lavendar. Fresh. Like the luxurious bath he took with his wife on their honeymoon in Hawaii when she still wore lingerie. Memories. Wonderful memories.

“Do you like it?” The saleswoman asked. “This one’s made of silk. More expensive than our cloth ones but you look like a man who enjoys sensuous pleasures.” The saleswoman came around to face him. Her smile so sweet. And that voice. A voice that could haunt you at night when you are almost asleep.

“Larry? What’s this?”

His wife showed up just in time to break him from the spell. She was here now. He was safe. She’d take him away.

“Lawrence?” She waved her hands in front of his eyes.

“Oh! So this is your lovely wife. Lawrence was just telling me how he was looking for a present for you. We have cloth warmers, but he insisted on this baby-blue, silk one. Spare no expensive for you, he said. Sorry to spoil the surprise. I’ll just ring it up.”

Larry’s wife threw a critical eye at him. He pulled on one end of the neck warmer and let it slide off his neck like he was undressing his tie.

His wife raised an eyebrow.

Larry quickly pulled out a credit card and paid. They walked off with a dainty, pink bag with handles so small you could only secure them by the fingertips.

“Honestly.” His wife frowned. “I think you could purchase something from my list and still surprise me. I really don’t see myself using this.”

Larry sighed. “She was very persuasive.”

“It never stops with you, does it? Buying things we never use.” His wife shook her head. “Ever since you bought that timeshare on our honeymoon.”

Oscar watched the couple disappear down the mall.

“He made it.” Michelle said.

“Are you kidding me?” Helen scoffed. “If this was Jaws, his blood would be everywhere.”

The crowd was thinning around the kiosk. The salespeople spread out and circled like sharks.

“He’ll still fear salespeople.” Oscar sighed. “And his wife has another purchase to remind him.”

“Seems we’re doomed. We either buy what they’re selling or we make asses of ourselves saying no. There has to be another way.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Oscar went to the stationary store and bought a notepad and pen. “Okay, here’s the plan. We fight fire with fire. I’m going over there and I’m going to sell something to them.”

“Brilliant!” Helen’s eyes sparkled. “Tell them you’re selling life insurance. They won’t buy it and every excuse they use is an excuse you can use against them.”

“No. I’m not going to pretend. I’m really going to sell them something. I volunteer my time with a charity that supports afterschool programs for kids in difficult situations. I cold call people all the time.”

“You’re in sales then?”

“Well, I’m a volunteer. I just ask for donations.”

“Oh my god! You’re one of them!” Helen backed away. “You’ve been pretending all this time but you’re one of them.”

“I’m just a volunteer.”

“How do we know you aren’t a part of that kiosk. A spy! You’ve been sent here to infiltrate us!”

“Oh come on. That’s a bit elaborate even for them. I work as an administrative assistant at my church. I volunteer for a charity. I don’t get commissions.”

“We can trust him, Helen. He doesn’t have that swagger or voice that salespeople use.”

Helen lowered her hands from her neck. “True. I suppose you’re okay. Besides, you would have pounced on us by now. Salespeople work fast.”

“So what’s your plan, Oscar?”

“I’m just going to talk to them. I’ll listen to what they have to say and I’ll tell them about my charity. Then I’ll just see what happens.”

“But are you going to buy that snake?”

“Maybe. I’ll just see how it goes.”

Oscar took a deep breath and sauntered the best he could over to the kiosk. He kept his head up, reminding himself to be confident.

Helen stood by the emergency exit, prepared to flee.

“He’s doing it.” Michelle offered her commentary. “He’s talking to that saleslady. The one with the auburn hair. She’s the persuasive one.”

Oscar wore the snake around his neck.

“He clicked his pen. He’s writing something. He’s doing it! He’s walking away. She took back the snake…I mean, the neck warmer. He did it!”

“I’ll be. I didn’t think he had it in him.” Helen let herself smile. “Wait. Why is he coming back here? He had his chance. He could be gone by now.”

Helen returned to the emergency exit. “Stay away from me! I knew you were one of them.”

“Will you relax. I’m not gonna get you.”

“So what happened?” Michelle asked.

“I told her about my charity. She was interested in helping. I got her contact info and I’ll send her an information packet with instructions on how to help. It went amazingly well.” Oscar couldn’t stop smiling.

“And you didn’t buy the neck warmer?”

“No. Turns out I’m allergic to the fragrances they use. She told me they’ll have hypoallergic neck warmers available for Valentine’s Day so I agreed to buy one then.”

An alarm went off at the emergency exit and Helen slipped through the door. She came back seconds later with a guard who escorted her into the shopping mall. Helen flailed her arms about, shouting something about a hypoglycemic emergency and pointing at Oscar and Michelle. When the guard turned toward them, Helen lunged for the door and sprinted to the parking lot. The guard called someone on his radio to turn off the alarm.

Oscar shook his head then turned to Michelle. “Come with me. I’ll help you get out.”

“How?”

“Same way I did.” Oscar held out his hand. “Everyone’s promoting something. Why not join in?”

Michelle hesitated.

“Come on. You’ll have to confront them sooner or later.”

“But I don’t have anything to sell.”

“It doesn’t have to be about money. Think of something you believe in. Something you’re passionate about. Something you want to share with the world.”

Michelle thought for a moment and then took his hand. “Okay, I’m ready.”

They walked together to the kiosk. This time three salespeople approached them. No neck warmers in their hands. The auburn-haired woman stood in the middle.

“I see you brought a friend.”

“Yes, Caitlin. This is Michelle.”

“Would you like to try on a neck warmer? We have several fragrances.”

“Okay.”

“Here. We call this one sea breeze.” It was soft and warm with a wonderful fragrance. It didn’t remind her of the ocean but it smelled nice and clean. Michelle stroked the smooth fabric.

Oscar stepped in to break her trance. “Caitlin, Michelle has something she’d like to share with you.”

“Oh, okay.” Caitlin was genuinely curious. She was so patient for such a persuasive salesperson.

Michelle took a deep breath and began her pitch. “Yes. Well, I write short stories. And I was wondering if you’d like to read one.”

December 03, 2021 17:16

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8 comments

Graham Kinross
01:11 Apr 13, 2022

I don’t like people pushing stuff at me in shops. Also, I learned when I got a job in a shop that you’re supposed to ask customers if they need any help if they look like a shoplifter to make them aware that you’re watching them, people had been doing that to me for years and being judged that way is really annoying. Is Pleasanton the next town along from Pleasantville? I read about you moving across the world, sounds like quite an adventure. I ended up teaching in Japan because I wanted to be with my Japanese girlfriend, now my wife. What...

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Craig Westmore
20:27 Apr 13, 2022

Thanks for reading my story, Graham. Pleasanton is in Northern California where I was accosted by a sales team selling those neck warmers. It inspired the rest of the story. Here in Brazil salespeople are trained to make the customer feel special and give them lots of attention, which, as an American, I find annoying. I politely say no thank you, they look disappointed and I feel like a jerk. Exciting that you lived and taught in Japan! Are you still there? I learned a lot about Brazilian culture teaching conversational English to teenage...

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Rob Ryter
18:38 Dec 09, 2021

Enjoyed the multi sensory mall experience. I will be very wary of salespeople from now on.

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Craig Westmore
23:20 Dec 10, 2021

They are out there...watching...waiting...keep your wallet safe!

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Cathryn V
20:18 Dec 06, 2021

Hi Craig, This story made my day. I read it twice, laughing out loud the first time and with the second read, I laughed so hard I couldn't breathe! Here are a few of those lines: “Look away. Look away.” The tall woman grabbed a basket of moisturizers and held it up to her face. “They’ve spotted us. Spread out. Act casual.” Over at the kiosk a young salesman waved to her. She leapt back behind the display case. “That was close.” Her cheeks turned red. It became apparent to Oscar that her smug frown was a permanent feature. We could ju...

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Craig Westmore
11:19 Dec 07, 2021

Thank you Cathryn! I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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Yves. ♙
18:57 Dec 06, 2021

Oh man, I can relate to this one. Such a clever use of the prompt; you really fleshed out the scene!

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Craig Westmore
11:21 Dec 07, 2021

Thanks Yves! I had this idea in my head for awhile after having experienced something similar. When I saw the prompt I just had to write it.

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