January 26, 2006

The four of us sat silently and tried to project an air of businesslike placidity. We shared no gossip about the girls at Rose Nail Care across the way, no analysis of "Passions," no domestic complaints. Instead we posed, hands folded on yellow legal pads, like some mannequins in an Office Max display. (Wait, does Office Max ever use mannequins in displays? Maybe staffing the copy center.) Mes amis, it was almost a relief when the front door opened and Mr. Sittenzeplatz strode in.

He wore another suit this morning, a soft grey one, with a butter yellow tie. I looked closely when he took his seat; the tie had a print of tiny little scissors and spools of thread. Mr. Sittenzeplatz noted the direction of my gaze and asked amiably, "Do you like my tie, Mrs. Filthy?"

"It's lovely, sir. But I was really wondering," I had to stop there. I wasn't sure if my question would sound disrespectful.

"Wondering?" Mr. Sittenzeplatz smiled encouragingly. With his courtly manners, even if he took offense, he might very well be charming about it.

"Do you sew? I mean, do the folks at Headquarters use craft supplies like we do?"

"Ah, I understand your meaning now. And it is a worthwhile question, one I do not mind answering. I do not sew, but I do enjoy needlepoint. And I certainly admire a well-crafted quilt or garment, even if I do not make them myself. I'd say that a significant portion of the vice-presidents enjoy crafts of one kind or another. Our CFO is quite the knitter, you know."

Lois had been watching me, unsure if my impertinence was going to bring the wrath of Headquarters on my head, or if my native charm would win out. Her intense stare folded into the creases of a relieved smile at Mr. Sittenzeplatz's reply. Hancock Fabrics policy did not prohibit a sense of humor, evidently, and we were all grateful.

None of us were quite sure about how to proceed after that. Should we just follow our agenda as usual, then scarf down the muffins? Should we ask Mr. Sittenzeplatz to take the floor? Lois sprang up from her seat, as if suddenly remembering that, as the manager, she ought to be managing us. "Ladies, I would like to take a moment to introduce our esteemed visitor, Mr. Karl Sittenzeplatz from Hancock Fabrics Headquarters. He has analyzed our situation, especially regarding Jo-Ann across the street, and is here for a few days of observation and guidance. I will now yield the floor to him."

"Good morning, ladies. I have only spent a day in your midst, but already I can appreciate what a fine team Arvada has. I'm very much impressed by your community spirit and friendliness. When customers walk in the door, they're greeted with hospitality and helpful solicitude. I'm sure that customers feel that not only are they purchasing fabrics, but they are also spending time among friends."

Well, dearies, this made us melt just a little, like bon bons in the spring sunshine.
"That is quite an advantage over a newer store, and as long as you keep up your inventory and expertise, I foresee success over the Jo-Ann leviathan. Innovation, has its place, of course," and here he paused and looked at each of us.

Was I wrong, or did his gaze linger on Suzette's hazel doe eyes longer than on anyone else's? Suzette, of course, didn't take her dewy orbs off our guest, not for the whole meeting. Not even pudding cake could distract her at this point.

"But innovation must be guided by the larger picture and planned in terms of the long-term solutions." Dapper this Mr. Sittenzeplatz might very well be, but he sure could trot out the business jargon. And I didn't like the way this was going. Whatever happened to our "fine team?"

And it got worse, my pets.

Mr. Sittenzeplatz looked around the room once more before continuing. "Unfortunately, those stores that don't follow the larger plan of Hancock Fabrics, will no longer operate under that aegis."

Suzette only stopped staring to whisper, "What's an aegis?" but I ignored her for the moment.

My livelihood and my friends were more important than a vocabulary word.

"So it's an ultimatum then?" I blurted. Lois glowered up a storm across the table, and I heard Suzette inhale sharply. I knew I had probably gone too far, but I didn't care, either. As far as I was concerned, headquarters had just fired a shot across our bow. What else could I do but shoot back, even if all I had was a squirt gun?

This Week, Mrs. Filthy's Reading:

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope