"I should hope not. Welcome! policy frowns upon family matters intruding upon business. Is this a close relative?"
There was a tug on my heart, but I shrugged in a manner that I hoped indicated a second or third cousin. There are people made uncomfortable by the notion of a paranoid schizophrenic in the immediate family.
My call was answered by a recording, which I also knew by heart, and I gave it half an ear. I watched Mr. Bundt head for the freestanding racks--the spinners--that display the small, independent card lines. Freelance cards made up 25 percent of our selection, and, as I myself was one of these freelancers, there was a lot at stake there.
Mr. Bundt picked a card and studied it so closely he appeared to be searching for drug residue. It was one of mine, a Good Gollie, Miss Wollie. After a moment, he handed it to Fredreeq. She pointed out the writing inside. They appeared to disagree. She shook her head. He nodded. They did it again. Nodding and shaking, they headed my way.
The hospital's outgoing message droned on in my ear, as the two of them went around me, to the cash register side of the counter. Fredreeq opened the file drawer, probably to show Mr. Bundt sales statistics on the card. And that's when his gaze fastened on the List.
I'd taped the List to the antiqued gold counter weeks ago, as a reminder of the Dating Project specifications. Fredreeq and I had become so accustomed to seeing it, we'd forgotten about it.
We remembered it now.
Slowly I hung up the phone, a trickle of sweat sliding south between my breasts. Please God, let him go blind, I prayed. Not forever, of course. For fifteen or twenty seconds.
Then I sprang into action, slapping my hand down on the counter right smack on top of the List. Mr. Bundt peered at it, trying to read between my splayed fingers, then said, "Miss Shelley, what on earth is written here that's not fit for public consumption?"
"Mr. Bundt," I said, "I promise you the public never sees that; come around to this side of the counter and you'll see how impossible it is to read it from here."
He stood his ground. "What is it, Miss Shelley?"
Fredreeq piped up. "Okay, I confess. These are soul mate qualifications. I'm looking for a soul mate."
"Fredreeq--" I said.
Mr. Bundt frowned. "I thought you were married."
"Divorcing," she said, fast dispensing with her long-suffering husband. "Working here at Welcome! Greetings showed me I had real high professional standards and real low personal ones. So I made a list. I'm finding my next man strictly by the book." She moved my hand aside, slapped a file on top of the List, and slid it down an inch. "You see, number one is A Good Name."
Mr. Bundt said, "A good reputation, you mean."
"Okay, yeah." Fredreeq smiled.
Mr. Bundt reached beyond her and moved the file down an inch. "Number two: Not a Convicted Felon. Surely that's not a recurring problem, Ms. Munson?"
I reached over the counter and slid the file over the List again. Fredreeq picked up a receipt book, and began to stamp pages with the Have A Nice Day stamp we used to spruce up our receipts. It seemed an odd thing to do.
Mr. Bundt reached over and moved the file. "Three: No STDs. What are ST--"
Fredreeq stamped him on the hand. Hard. I mean, it must have hurt. I gasped.
Mr. Bundt jumped backward, and I moved in on him, solicitous, but also wedging my body in front of the List. I offered turpentine to remove the ink, but he waved me away. As he waved, his right hand showed the word "Nice."
"Let's lose this." I turned to the List and ripped it off the counter. "There. Gone."
The rest of the inspection tour went better, but then, it could hardly have gone worse. I managed to keep him away from the cigarette burn, which, I realized, must have occurred during Uncle Theo's Wednesday Night Poetry Reading, and somehow escaped my notice for thirty-two hours. Mr. Bundt found no fault with my Passover/Easter decorations, although he did raise an eyebrow at my small selection of seasonal books, Baby's First Easter Story, A Child's Haggadah, and Sri Ramanavami, Hindu Holiday. He then went so far as to call my peripherals beyond reproach: wrapping paper, sealing wax, snow globes, crystal balls, astrological calendars, collectible watches, bookends, bookplates, bookmarks, sterling silver yo-yos, and dollhouse furniture. The other forty-one Good Gollie, Miss Wollie cards on their own spinner passed muster, then Mr. Bundt checked the books and asked if I had additional resources, in the happy event that I won my Willkommen! upgrade.
Excerpted from Dating Dead Men by Harley Jane Kozak Copyright© 2004 by Harley Jane Kozak. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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