I saw him coming from a mile away. OK, so maybe not an actual mile as in 5280 feet, but, well, pretty far. But then again, how could I not? The man in question was wearing loud plaid Bermuda shorts, a coordinating golf shirt, high white socks and matching patent leather loafers with soft rubber soles--in other words, the official male uniform of the South Florida retiree. He must have felt my gaze pull him from across the corridor, because he was making his way in my direction with the sort of brisk determination usually reserved for those arriving for the Early Bird Special with only minutes to spare. I wondered to myself, could this be my sugar daddy?
It was Valentine's Day 1984, and the hour was growing late. I was working at the cosmetics counter at Burdines, a department store several notches above Woolco, the discount dive where I had worked (and suffered) through high school. As a college student, I was still required to earn my own pocket money while my parents continued to cover only the essentials, a word whose definition was the subject of at least one heated debate per semester.
As a paid-on-commission employee, this was crunch time, because as a whole, men, even retired men, typically put off buying Valentine's gifts until the very last moment. By the time they reached me, they were desperate, which was not necessarily a bad thing, depending on which side of the counter you were standing.
The shopper headed my silent call and seconds later, appeared before me and breathlessly explained that just that afternoon, somewhere around the 9th hole, it had occurred to him that he had forgotten to get a gift for his wife. He then pointed to a bottle of Youth Dew, an ironically-named fragrance favored by the senior set, but generally considered so vile that we college-aged clerks privately referred to it as "Youth Poo." Willing to sacrifice my good taste for a big sale, I put together a whole family of Youth Dew products, including perfume, cologne, eau de toilette, bath beads and even dusting powder. I quickly calculated that my potential commission would able me to acquire another (nonessential) Swatch Watch, which would bring my total up to 12, a dorm record.
But just as my customer was about to seal the deal by surrendering his Burdines charge card, he looked me in the eye and posed this seemingly make or break question, "Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and therefore join Him in heaven when your time on earth is through?" Uh-oh.
Now up until that moment, the most difficult on-the-job question I'd ever been asked was, "Does this (ridiculously expensive) eye crème really reduce the signs of aging?" And there it was, 15 minutes until closing time, completely blindsided by a shopper who I couldn't afford to give up. Well, not if I wanted to be the best accessorized co-ed at the University of Florida, anyway.
In lieu of an answer, I merely pointed to the gold Star of David charm that hung around my neck and then shrugged my shoulders as if to convey a sort of apology for not sharing his faith. I hoped like heck he wouldn't hold it against me...and he didn't. He simply smiled and held up his hands in mock surrender, and I was surprised as well as relieved that he didn't try to proselytize.
Our transaction ended happily, as well as profitably. He even sprang for the additional body lotion and heart-shaped sachet.
"Peace be with you!" I called out after him, as a sort of consolation prize. I figured that if I wasn't going to convert to Christianity, the least I could do was dazzle this nice man with the one piece of church-going lingo that I'd picked up from my gentile friends.
"And also with you!" my customer happily replied, and if he privately felt that my ultimate future was in danger, I hoped that maybe he'd have His People call My people and try to work something out.
Well, since nearly 30 years have gone by, it occurs to me that my then-elderly customer has more than likely passed on. And if so, I hope that he and his sweetie spent this recent Valentine's Day together in heaven, where harps play and angels sing, and the smell of Youth Dew drifts through the clouds.
Layla Ann Silver is a freelance writer who believes that all decent people, no matter their faith, deserve a shot at a pleasant-smelling afterlife. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.