The Exiled Elf

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Michael was working the customer service desk when the angry couple approached and began their tirade.

“We want to return this, it’s not what it claimed to be, it’s an imitation, a cheap fake.”

The woman pulled a receipt from her purse, flattened it out on the counter with both hands. The man opened a paper bag in front of Michael and poured out the contents. A set of steak knives bound together by a single thick blue rubber band, the kind a bunch of broccoli has wrapped around its stalks, fell onto the glass counter top.

Michael stared blankly at the couple. “That’s a set of steak knives. How can they be fake?”

The man was indignant in his response. “They were not made in Solengen, Germany. Instead of being chrome-plated steel, they’re just plain old stainless steel. See here, it’s inscribed on the side of the blade.”

Michael read the words as instructed. He did not question the couple, instead said, “This is a thrift store, not a downtown mall store. We don’t claim to have any brand names and, besides, all sales are final.”

The man raised his head like a rooster about to strut in order to emphasize the depths of his self righteousness. “We paid for Solengen, we did not get Solengen, therefore we want our money back.”

In retail, discretion is usually the better part of valor even if the customer is dead wrong. On the one hand, Michael was about to emphasize the store’s no-return policy, and on the other was considering making an exception because of their strident tone, when a voice behind him said, “It’s all my fault. I’m responsible.”

It was LeRoy, the new sales person, taking credit for the error. “I mislabeled them the other day. Sorry. I was just trying to be funny.”

With hard evidence in the form of a confession, Michael had little choice but to comply with the customers’ demand even if it was against store policy. He looked at the receipt, opened the cash register and handed the couple four dollars and 45 cents. For six steak knives, that was a deal by any stretch, Michael thought as he counted out the paper and the coins.

The couple accepted the money with a haughty attitude, turned on their heels and departed.

“We have to talk, LeRoy,” Michael said sternly. “This isn’t the first time we’ve had product placing issues that have been traced to you.”

The man stood less than five feet tall, but his embarrassment was large. LeRoy’s entire face from where the tops of his ears disappeared into a blue Navy style knitted cotton watch cap down to the opening of his shirt front, all the visible skin including his entire face, turned a brilliant beet red. It was as if he had been painted. Or, Michael considered, it was as if LeRoy’s heart suddenly beat so fast and so hard all the blood in his body rushed to that one area under his skin.

“Yes, well, you see . . .” LeRoy began lamely. “I thought I was doing something special for those people, you know, when they were in here the other day looking at cooking utensils and plates and such.”

Michael hoped his scrutiny of the smaller man would not be interpreted as condescension. He folded his arms across his chest the better to emphasize his displeasure and said, “Yes, go on.” As assistant manager it fell to Michael to head off problems before they were brought to the attention of Miss Gideon who reacted so dramatically to every minor incident, it might as well be the sinking of the Titanic.

“Well, so, I labeled the steak knives. It’s what I do, you know. Label things.”

“Listen to me, LeRoy. You put price tags on things. You don’t label the objects we sell, you price them. And you price them according to our price list which, I see, you do not seem to have with you right this very moment. Do you?”

As if by magic, in a manner which caused Michael to blink twice because he thought he was imagining things, the well worn clip board which described generic items from sheets and bedding to books and sets of shelves, appeared in LeRoy’s right hand. A sheepish grin, which Michael interpreted as “gotcha,” crossed LeRoy’s face.

Michael back pedaled. “Okay, my mistake. You have the pricing guide. What I don’t understand is what prompts you to put a name on the tag in addition to the price.” Then he began to list things which had turned up in the store. He ticked off a finger with each item: “There was a small silver pill box you marked ‘999 Fine’ which was nothing more than nickel covered plate. The crystal ashtray that said Waterford on the bottom was nothing of the kind. But my personal favorite was a comic book called “Haight Street Stories” which you misidentified as being from The Black Sun Press, Rue Cardinale, Paris. Yet nothing was priced like Champagne, it was all fifty cents and a dollar. The price guide specifically says that if you find collectibles or valuables, you are to bring them to the manager or assistant manager for premium care and pricing. So what do you have to say for yourself in these instances, hmmm?”

LeRoy’s features were composed and assured and his skin color returned to normal when he replied: “I told you, that’s what I do.” When Michael looked askance at this statement, LeRoy added, “I label things. That’s my job.”

“Your job here? That’s not your job description here in the thrift store.”

“No, not here. At the North Pole.”

Michael said nothing in reply to this fantastic statement. Obviously, LeRoy was off kilter, probably a psychotic to boot, working in a thrift store because that’s the only place that would have him.

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