Profits of the Heart
The brass bells tinkled as I opened the door, but my dad was too busy behind the counter to notice. The pegboard above the gift-wrapping table—the one that held the shelves stocked with gift boxes and bins of hand-made bows—lay in pieces on the floor. In its place, a shiny yellow and black rack with KODAK emblazoned across the top. It was so fancy that for a moment I felt embarrassed for the handmade signs: “STAMPS SOLD HERE!” and “FREE GIFT WRAPPING!” taped to the wall beside it.
I closed the door.
“Oh, hello, Suzy Q!” my dad called out. “How was school?”
The same question, every afternoon. I shrugged and mumbled it was okay. Thankfully, my dad was so focused on windexing the Plexiglas front of the KODAK rack that he didn’t ask any more questions about school. After several circuits of spraying, swiping, and inspecting, my dad stepped back from the rack.
“How do you like it?”
“Uh, it’s nice,” I stammered, taking in the tiny boxes with markings I didn’t understand. 100. 200. 400.
“Film,” he said. “Our new business.”
Just after New Year’s, my dad had discovered that a CVS would be opening in the strip mall down the road.
“They got Hallmark,” he said quietly when he delivered the news at dinner that night.
‘Getting Hallmark’ had been our crowning achievement, when we’d first opened, years ago. Holding the letter from Kansas City headquarters in his hands, my dad had decreed that it was a “feather in our cap.” ‘Getting Hallmark’ was what set our store apart from other card stores. That five-point gold crown in our window. That slogan: When you care enough to send the very best.
Now CVS would have all of that.
Along with three times as many square feet.
And parking. A freshly-paved asphalt lot with rows and rows of spots. No one there would have to hunt for a space and hope they had a nickel for the meter.
I headed toward the back room to hang up my jacket and book bag, past the Russell Stover Candy rack, its top two shelves loaded with half-price hearts from Valentine’s Day. When I returned to the counter, my dad was dabbing price stickers onto the sides of each roll of film. The pegboard lay on the floor, next to the hammer and a crowbar. I tried not to think of my dad, struggling to remove that board from the wall. The cardiologist had warned that physical exertion might bring on another heart attack. I felt that old familiar ache in my throat. But no. He wasn’t grimacing or clutching his chest, like he had the morning of his last heart attack. He was smiling, like he’d created a work of art.
“We’ll need to tell our customers,” he said, gesturing grandly toward the rack. “KODAK film. The real deal. We sell and develop film.” My dad looked out into the distance, at something I couldn’t see. Then he tucked The New York Times crossword puzzle under his arm and headed toward the back room. In a few minutes, he’d be asleep, head on his chest, arms hanging limply by the sides of the chair. This happened more and more these days.
“It’s the wave of the future, Suzy Q,” my dad said as he was leaving. “The wave of the future.”
I tried not to see how thin his face was or how wasted his once-strong arms. There’d be a future, I told myself, and my dad would know how to navigate it. After all, he’d been a business executive before he got sick. And our store was still afloat, even though the other card shop in town had gone under. Bankrupt, I’d heard my dad’s mortician friend Tim whisper. Bankrupt meant you were forced to sell everything. The cards. The gift wrap. The stuffed animals. Bankrupt was a CLOSED sign that no one ever flipped back OPEN. An EVERYTHING FOR SALE sign taped across the front window.
“We sell film now,” I said to my first customer, a woman with two whiny kids. They clung to her as she tried to wrest her wallet from her handbag. One of them spun the rack with the porcelain animal figurines on it; the other pawed at the Russell Stover caramel bars on the counter.
I flipped the cards over and started to add up the prices. 35 cents + 25 cents + 35 cents. 95 cents + tax.
“That comes to $1.02,” I told the woman.
“You did that in your head?” From the way she raised her eyebrows, I could see she didn’t trust my calculations. So I wrote the numbers on the scratch pad we kept by the register. One long column of numbers with a total at the bottom. Like the ledger I’d seen my dad hunched over at the kitchen table that morning, the reds bleeding onto the page. Since the CVS had opened last month, there was less and less black. No one had to tell me that red ink wasn’t good.
“$1.02,” I said, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice. The woman pressed her lips tightly together and reached into her wallet.
“We sell film,” I said, louder now.
The brat spun the rack hard. One of the tiny lambs went airborne. The woman tossed a buck on the counter and grabbed hold of the kid’s hand. A moment later, they were gone.
I had just retrieved the lamb, with its now-broken foreleg, when the next customer approached the counter. A woman about my mother’s age, with dark circles under her eyes. It looked like she hadn’t brushed her hair in days.
“We sell film now,” I said. But she didn’t even look at me. She put two cards onto the counter. One sympathy, one blank. 66 cents. She fished around in her bag. After a few moments, she pulled out a credit card.
Without thinking, I looked back at the small sign next to the KODAK display. Credit Card $15 Dollar Minimum.
“I don’t know how to run the machine,” I lied. I’d been practicing with the machine and hoping for just this opportunity. To slip the credit card into the slot. Cover it with the carbon copy sales slip. And slide the imprinter over it, the sound, a satisfying KERCHUNK. But there was the matter of the minimum. The credit card company charged seven percent for every sale. My dad said we needed to make enough profit for the transaction to make sense for us to do.
I called my dad. He looked at the register display with its .66 TOTAL SALE and the credit card on the counter. Without saying a word, he lifted the metal credit card machine from its box, placed the sales slip on top, ran the imprinter over it, and wrote 66 cents onto the bottom line. The woman signed her first name. She seemed to hesitate before adding her last name, as if she wasn’t sure what it was. I watched my dad watching her. When she was done, he handed her credit card back to her.
“Have a good day.” He smiled gently. “Take care.”
Finally, the last customer of the day. A cranky old lady who asked me to read Sister Birthday cards to her. Each and every one, even the 50 cent cards that we both knew she’d never buy.
As I rang up her 15-cent card, I gestured towards the KODAK display.
“We sell film now,” I said, sliding the card into the bag. “And we develop it, too.”
She sneered at me. “What do I need that for?” She grabbed the bag from the counter. “I got nothing I want to remember.”
I thought of that sappy Kodak ad on the television. It opened with an old woman standing in front of a house with a SOLD sign on the lawn. As that song, “Remember the Times of Your Life,” played in the background, the picture got blurry. The woman appeared again. First, she was a bride. Then a mother. And a grandmother.
Those were the customers we needed. The ones KODAK could bring in. People who’d buy lots of film. And 50 cent cards. And the biggest Russell Stover hearts – the ones that cost $14.95.
After the old woman stormed out, the brass bells banging against the door, my dad came out of the back room.
“How’d we do?” His eyes scanned the KODAK display, looking for any empty slots. I saw him blink, hard, the only sign that he was disappointed. I wanted to explain. I’d told all of them about the film – the mother with her spoiled brats, the mean old lady, and the sad woman with her credit card. None of them was interested.
My dad hitched up his shoulders. “It’s all right. It might take a little while. But once people know we have KODAK, they’ll come here for their film and photos.”
Yes, I thought. With enough of those KODAK grandmothers, our shop would survive.
Just after St. Patrick’s Day–a minor holiday in the card and gift business, meriting only a few rows of cards and a small spinning rack of “Kiss Me I’m Irish” pins and shamrock-beaded necklaces–our film business surged. I came in one afternoon to find that we’d sold four 200s.
My dad was excited. The real money came in developing the film, he’d said, not in the initial sale. For this reason, we’d put foil labels with Village Card and Gift Shop on the bottom of every box of film. As if the film would find its way back to us, like a technicolor homing pigeon. My dad had worked out the profit for the developed film on the scratch pad. A buck seventy-five per roll; seven dollars for all four. We couldn’t go bankrupt if we were bringing in almost two dollars a roll. With over 100 rolls on our rack, that would mean $200. If we developed that much film — every month, or maybe even every few weeks – our little store would stay afloat.
I thought it would take a week or two for that customer to shoot their four rolls of film. But a few days later, I arrived to find the KODAK bag by the register, with all four rolls of film nestled inside, handwritten receipts rubber-banded around each. I struggled to make out the customer name. MIKE (Screaming Eagle) JOHNSON, in my dad’s familiar handwriting.
My dad smiled as he held up the bag. “This is a good sign,” he said. Yes, I thought. A good sign.
A few days later, the canary-yellow KODAK delivery truck pulled up outside our store, and the delivery man handed over the developed photos. My dad reverentially tucked these into the otherwise empty expanding file folder marked “AWAITING CUSTOMER PICKUP.”
I wasn’t there when Mike Screaming Eagle picked up his photos or when he dropped off the next batch of canisters to be developed. But Mr. Eagle’s business must have confirmed my dad’s faith in KODAK. He affixed the Kodak sticker to our front window, next to the signs for HALLMARK CARDS and RUSSELL STOVER CANDIES. I worried the sticker was premature. Except for two or three other sales that month, Mike Screaming Eagle was our only KODAK customer. Most other people seemed to ignore the KODAK ads my dad had hung next to the yellow rack – the ones that commanded READY, AIM, FLASH, and pronounced KODAK America’s Storyteller.
I was at the counter the day Mike Screaming Eagle came in for his latest batch of photos. He was the tallest person I’d ever seen. He wore a pleather jacket with sleeves that were too short. There was a tear above the left breast pocket that had been repaired with electrical tape. His fingertips were stained brown; the skin on his face looked dusty, faded.
He pulled a small strip of paper from his shirt pocket.
“My film back?” he said, placing the paper on the counter. His voice was cool. When he looked at me, it seemed he wasn’t seeing me at all.
There were three envelopes in the “AWAITING CUSTOMER PICKUP” folder. Rubber-banded together and labeled Mike Screaming Eagle.
“Uh. Mr. Screaming Eagle?” I stammered.
My dad had told me how to ring up photos. Subtract the fifty percent deposit from the total due. Put the money into the KODAK pouch next to the cash register. But Mike Screaming Eagle hadn’t paid a deposit. Stranger still was that my dad had scratched out the price next to TOTAL DUE and penciled in another price. So instead of owing $10.50 – which would have been $3.50 a roll, with Kodak and us splitting the profit – Mr. Eagle owed only $7.50.
I was still puzzling over this when the doorbells jingled and my dad returned from the drug store, a Delco Drugs bag tucked under this arm.
“Mike.” My dad’s voice was friendly. “Did you see your photos? The lighting seems to be better. The lab said it did the best it could.”
Mike Screaming Eagle was pulling the photographs from one of the envelopes. He said nothing about my dad looking at the photos first. He flipped through the photos without saying a word. One pile after another, his brow furrowed.
“So, what do you think?” my dad asked.
Mr. Eagle handed him the photos.
My dad leafed through the stack.
“I think this one looks particularly good.” He handed Mike Screaming Eagle one picture. The others, he placed on the counter. I glanced down at the pile. On top, a picture of Mr. Eagle in full headdress, the feathers like a crown around his head and cascading over his shoulders. The photo seemed off-center, like whoever was looking through the viewfinder didn’t know exactly where to point the camera.
“This one’s good, too,” my dad said, holding up the photo. Here, Mike Screaming Eagle was looking almost directly at the camera. “You did this yourself?”
Mr. Eagle nodded.
“How do you like it?” my dad asked, his voice small. I was suddenly so weak in the knees that I had to grasp the edge of the counter to keep myself from falling. I wanted to be strong – no, I needed to be strong — because my dad was so weak. So I did what I could do. I clasped my hands behind my back and prayed for the kind of magic that would make those photos perfect.
Mr. Eagle grunted.
My dad slipped the KODAK ledger from the shelf beneath the register and opened it. Running his finger across the row, he said, “With the discount for re-doing the film, it comes to $5.25. How does $5 sound to you?”
Mike Screaming Eagle tossed a five-dollar bill on the counter. Tucking the photos under his cracked pleather-clad arm, he left the store.
After Mike had gone, my dad smoothed out the bill and placed it, almost reverentially, into the KODAK return envelope.
It wasn’t my place to ask. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the red ink on the ledger. “Dad,” I asked, quietly, “What about our profit?”
“No profit on reprinting.”
I wanted to say that the reprinting was the lab’s fault, not ours. If anyone should eat the profit it should have been KODAK.
But before I could anything, my dad waved away my concerns. “He’s a good customer. American Indian. The real deal. And it’s hard to take a photo of yourself. He really wanted one in that headdress.”
I imagined Mr. Eagle alone in his house, trying to snap his own photo. While my dad was here, combing over roll after roll of photos, hoping for the one good photo. Without a penny to show for it.
I looked around my store. The tin ceilings with their elaborate patterns. The way the light played on the glass shelves, casting dozens of tiny rainbows of color across the figurines and glassware. The speaker we flicked on just before we opened, and the Musak, our store’s soundtrack. The expectancy that came with every UPS delivery. All the “Thank yous” and “Have a good days.”
If I hadn’t seen that ledger, I never would have guessed that my little store was dying.
“Wrap each in pink or yellow foil,” my dad had said, pointing to the metallic rolls on the desk. “A bow on top. You know how to make it look nice.”
It was two weeks before Mother’s Day. I’d been in the back room all week, making bows. Winding the thin, pastel ribbon around the metal arm of the bow-maker; punching the hole and affixing the curling ribbon that held it all in place. On the floor were fifty hyacinths and tulip plants. The smell was so overpowering that it made me a little sick to my stomach. But Mother’s Day. Bigger even than Christmas in the card and gift game. My dad decided we should sell plants for the big day. He’d found an old flower cart at the dump and spray-painted it white.
As always, he’d done the calculations. If we sold each plant for $2, we’d make a $1 profit. But that didn’t count the cost of the bows, which we sold for 35 cents each, or the foil wrapping or ribbons. And it didn’t account for the time it took to find and paint the flower cart, or to buy and assemble the plants. All that should figure into the bottom line. But of course, it hadn’t.
After I’d assembled the first six plants, I brought them to the counter. My dad was talking with Dave, a gangly, red-headed man who, despite his 6-foot-3 frame, reminded me of a leprechaun. A loud, creepy leprechaun. Dave came in once or twice a week. I can’t remember if he ever bought anything.
“My mother. Uh, my mother. Not feeling good.” Dave jerked his head back and forth. Despite the warm weather, he was wearing a winter parka. He wrung his knit beanie cap between his super-sized hands.
My dad spoke so quietly that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I felt like I was intruding. I cleared my throat. My dad glanced up.
“Dave,” he said, gesturing toward the flowers I was holding, “what do you think of our new business venture?”
“Oh. Nice,” Dave stammered. “Pretty. Oh. Flowers.”
My dad picked up the biggest tulip plant on the tray. “For your mother,” he said, handing the pot to Dave.
The blood was rushing in my ears. The whole point of those plants was to make more money. To save our store from bankruptcy. But now my dad was just giving them away. I clenched my fists and dug my fingernails into my palms to keep myself from saying anything.
Dave stood there, his mouth silently opening and closing. Like one of the fish they kept in the tanks at the fish market around the corner.
“She’ll like this,” my dad said.
Dave didn’t seem to know how to respond. After a moment, he pulled his scrunched-up hat onto his spikey hair. The tulips trembled in his hands.
After Dave had gone, I followed my dad outside to the newly-painted cart. I had to admit: the flower-covered cart looked good in the entryway, standing in front of the black and gold HALLMARK sign. We loaded the plants onto the cart. Bigger tulips on the bottom shelves; hyacinths on top. The pink and yellow foil shimmered in the sunlight.
“We’re gonna do well with this,” my dad said when we were done. “Cards, candy, flowers. One stop shopping.”
My dad and I were walking from the car into the Acme Supermarket when I saw the plant display: 2 for $3. Tulips and hyacinths. Even bigger than our flower cart plants. My heart was beating so hard I thought it would explode. I didn’t want my dad to see the plants. So while he went to get the shopping cart, I stood with my back to the display like a human shield. But of course, he saw.
Maybe it was because of those Acme flowers that my dad decided to open the store on Mother’s Day.
“A smart move,” he kept saying in the week leading up to the big day. People would stop by after church or before heading to their brunches or dinners. The truth was that we had so many plants left, and time was ticking. They’d already reached peak bloom. Nobody would want them once their flowers had dropped. On Mother’s Day morning, I’d overheard him talking with my grandfather. He would drop the plants to half price. “Or 2 for $3,” he said. I wondered if he’d been thinking of the supermarket.
But when I got to the store that Monday, I saw he hadn’t sold even one plant. The tulip petals were drooping and the hyacinths were turning brown. When I put my nose to the clusters, they smelled faintly of decay. A total bust. I started to calculate our loss, then stopped. I couldn’t bear it.
I was there the next day when Tim the Mortician came in. “How ya doing?” he asked, reaching across the counter to shake my dad’s hand. He was younger than my dad, his beard perfectly trimmed, not a hair out of place. Like an Irish Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever. I think I had a crush on him. What did I know? No one close to me had died yet. I had no idea what Tim did for a living.
They chatted and laughed – about the new Garfield comic and an ad Tim had seen for an edible chocolate Monopoly set. After a while, Tim buttoned his overcoat. Before he turned to go, my dad pointed at the wilted flowers on the stand.
“Those are the flowers I was telling you about.”
Tim nodded. “Nice.”
“Think you can use them?”
“Sure. I’ll plant them near the parking lot. Next year, it’ll be nice to have some spring color back there.”
“Great. I’ll bring them to you tomorrow morning.”
They shook hands again. Tim left the store, the bells gently tinkling behind him.
“Dads and Grads,” my dad said, pointing in the direction of the front window. It was my job to decorate the window for each holiday.
I took apart the Mother’s Day display, unclipping the Hallmark Cards that hung on the clotheslines across the window and putting back the milk-glass vases, the mother and child figurines, and the display boxes of Russell Stover candy.
After I’d put together the window – a mélange of mortarboards, #1 GRAD mugs and BEST DAD plaques – my dad came outside with me to look at it.
“This’ll bring them in.” He smiled. The fading light playing on his gaunt face and neck. “A masterpiece, Suzy Q. As always.” Still looking at the display, he murmured, “This is something CVS doesn’t have.”
I felt like I was standing on the edge of a cliff, the ground beneath my feet beginning to crumble. Because 15-year-old me could see, even if my father couldn’t. It didn’t matter if we had a nice window display. Or Hallmark. Or KODAK. We’d never be able to compete. It was a terrible knowledge to have. I wanted to take his hand and gently tell him. He needed to know. But I was terrified he’d collapse on the street, his heart broken beyond repair.
Later, after my dad couldn’t navigate without that portable oxygen tank, he tried to sell the store. There were potential buyers, at least at first. But when they considered those ledgers – lined up neatly on the shelf in the back room – they saw all that red ink. We’d been barely breaking even, all those years. They understood, even if my dad didn’t, that the Village Card and Gift Shop, all 2000 square feet of it, would never be a profitable business. We closed quietly. No bankruptcy. No EVERYTHING FOR SALE sign across the window. My dad just turned the OPEN sign to CLOSED one last time.
By the next spring, my dad was gone.
It was at his wake that I got a sense of what he may have meant that June day, as we stood outside looking at the GRADS and DADS window. We did have something that CVS didn’t have. It wasn’t the cards or gifts, or the candy or the film. The customers came for something they couldn’t buy at CVS, or maybe anywhere.
My dad didn’t know all their names. But so many of them were at his wake. The little old ladies, who pressed their faces to guest book to sign their condolences. Mike Screaming Eagle, in a polo shirt and slacks, no sign of that headdress. Dave, fidgeting in the back row. And Tim, gently laying a hand on my dad’s casket. While in a bed outside the funeral home, my dad’s tulips and hyacinths bloomed.
Suzanne Samuels’ fiction and essays have appeared in print and online journals. She is currently at work on The Engraver, a historical novel set in early twentieth century Sicily and New York City. Suzanne has also authored a nonfiction picture book set on the US/Mexican border, and a hybrid fiction/nonfiction chapter book about platypus twins. She has also written a book about the youngest person to swim across the English Channel and Catalina Channel, and around the island of Manhattan. Suzanne has been Artist-in-Residence at Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, Denali National Park, and Gullkistan (Iceland).