"How may I help you?" she asked, having already determined his measurements. She intended to skip straight to silk unless cotton was specifically requested, and then only cambric would do; Fridays were slow and the hardest days in which to make her sales quota.
"Oh, but you see, you already have helped me," the man stammered. "I wanted to thank you. The shirt you sold me? My mother liked it very much."
"Of course!" Lydia lied with professional zeal. She racked her brain for a memory of the sale; normally she was good with faces. "I suppose you've come for another shirt," she offered. "I've just the thing. We received the shipment this week from Italy--they're brand new for the season. I'm sure you'll appreciate the quality." She hoped to convince him to buy two.
The gentleman shook his head and looked at Lydia with such regret she wondered if she had insulted him, though she could not imagine anyone taking offense at an Italian shirt.
"Ah no," he replied with a quavering sigh. "Thanks all the same, but I don't intend to make any purchase at all today." He was blushing with unusual violence. "I was hoping I might accompany you to lunch. To thank you. You see, my mother really did like the shirt and she is so often hard to please. You were very kind and patient, and I thought it was the least I could do."
"You want to take me to lunch?" Lydia echoed.
"To thank you," the fellow repeated. Though he appeared to be in his twenties, he had the demeanor of a much older man. "For your assistance. That is, if you're permitted?" When she did not immediately respond, his blush renewed. "I've never done anything like this before," he mumbled. "I'm sorry. I haven't even introduced myself. My name is Henry Wickett. You can be certain of my good intentions, and if my motives prove unseemly you could easily wallop me yourself." By this time the fellow's voice had grown so soft it was difficult for her to hear him above the bustle of the store.
Lydia scanned the floor for the manager, but Miss Palantine so seldom left her desk that she had been dubbed "Her Royal Boulder." There were rumors Miss Palantine had been barred from sales after an incident in which she had tearfully but with some force thrown a ladies shoe at the head of a male customer after a heated exchange in Neckties. It was difficult for Lydia to imagine the drab, officious Palantine involved in passionate discourse of any sort, but then she had also been shocked to learn that Her Royal Boulder was not a spinster in her thirties, but merely twenty-three.
Among the countergirls, invitations from customers were uncommon but not unheard of; it was not technically improper to take lunch elsewhere so long as one did not return late. Until now Lydia's intrepidness had been bounded by her reluctance to be an object of pity or lust, but such intent was glaringly absent in Henry Wickett who, true to his own assessment, was far less imposing than some of the Southie boys she had, on occasion, needed to put in their place.
"I haven't got the time for a proper lunch," she replied, "but I won't say no if you don't mind being quick about it." The smile Henry offered in response was fit for a conquering hero.
As well as she knew Washington Street, she was a stranger to its early afternoon habits: Gilchrist's was a creature that inhaled its personnel in the morning and held its breath until evening. Amid the businessmen and lady shoppers Lydia was revisited by the feeling, birthed by her girlhood visits, that she had arrived at the center of things. After years of close observation she had perfected her bearing. She walked with the ideal combination of confidence and propriety, and held her chin at just the right angle. The appeal of this lunch invitation, she realized, lay in walking in such a fashion and in such company. Having studied the world of Washington Street for so long, she could now display her erudition.
Excerpted from Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg Copyright © 2005 by Myla Goldberg. 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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