Many Happy Returns

secretlondon_Green_presentAh, the day after Christmas.

The last overnight guest has ambled off toward home and the dishwasher gurgles contentedly on its final load.

Your holiday stress melts like slush in the entry.

(Deep sigh)

Only one task remains on the Christmas to-do list: returns.

Yup, it is time to revisit all the stores you swore never to step foot in for another year.

Black Friday may open the holiday season but Return Day closes it and you will not be free of your holiday obligations until you have spent your morning in a line, eyes focused on the floor, shuffling slowly forward, clutching the zebra-print sweater you received from your Aunt Edna.

It is what she gives you every year.

And every year you plod forward in a procession of holiday refugees, slowly inching ever closer toward a surly young clerk whose face is half-hidden by a mop of carbon-black hair.

Do not be fooled. This clerk is not who you think she is.

Look past the cobalt-blue eye liner, past the foundation applied with a putty knife, past the tear-drop tattoo on her cheek. Despite her appearances, she is a professional. She is the closer.  The one who our economy depends upon to retain the hard-won profits of the Christmas season.

She is now demanding to know why you are returning the item.

“It’s a zebra-print sweater,” you say. as if that were explanation enough.

She falls back on incredulous. “Is it defective?” she asks (as if a defect was the only acceptable reason for returning a zebra-print sweater).

“No, other than the concept,” you say, “it’s in fine shape.”

Then comes the gotcha. “Do you have a receipt?”

“No,” you say, knowing that although the store policy clearly states no receipts are required, we all know such policies come with a companion policy that mandates anyone who returns an item without a receipt be sneered at by clerks well-schooled in the art of sneering.

She sneers – but you are well-schooled in the art of enduring sneers.

She pivots in another direction. “Is this item a gift?” she asks.

You admit it is.

She says nothing but her sneer says, “you ungrateful sot.”

Again you endure.

Eventually the sweater passes from you to her. She accepts it like an abandoned puppy. She folds it lovingly and places it carefully upon a cart of rejected gifts, stacked high with loud sweaters, as-seen-on-TV gadgets, candles, fuzzy robes, boot racks, soaps-on-a-rope and neckties.

“Without a receipt,” she says, “I can only give you store credit.”

This is an acceptable compromise; the store preserves its profit and you are armed with credit to spend on after-Christmas mark downs.

As her fingers clack across the keyboard and the printer zips off your credit slip, another clerk in torn blue-jeans and a floppy t-shirt, wheels away the cart.

He bumps the cart through the swinging doors of the return area and makes his way toward a series of hastily constructed card board signs hanging from the ceiling.

“DEALS!! DEALS!! DEALS!!” the signs declare.

And there waiting beneath the signs stands your Aunt Edna.

You see her but she does not see you. How could she? She is as focused as a famished cheetah on the marked-down zebra-print sweater rolling her way.