The Customer is Never Right by Leila Allison

Friday, December 14, 2018
Leila Allison's character, determined that she has overcome her youthful gullibility, sets out to test her boyfriend's credulity.

A few nights ago, Jim identified the great, distant sun Naazar in the autumnal sky, and then attempted to sell me tales of its splendor and glory. This caused an old memory to trip my inner "As If" Alarm. Some claim my inner As If Alarm underscores the ever-suspicious side of my personality; all things considered, I find it a useful and necessary device.

My inner As If alarm was installed because I was one of those kids who grew up knowing something about "hill cows." To my great shame I had held on to and defended hill cows longer than I had stood up for Santa. My beloved father was responsible for this. When I was four or five (or six or seven - eight, tops), Daddy and I were on a drive in the countryside, and I saw several cows grazing on the faces of the rolling hills. Although the cows were standing sideways, thus against the grain of the slope, their big bodies appeared as though they were grazing on flat ground. Very strange. If Mom had been in the car, perhaps an embarrassing situation in the fourth grade might have been averted. (My spectacular ignorance became public when I read aloud a short essay on the topic of "My Favorite Animal.") But Mom wasn't in the car. And, eventually, Daddy and I had a conversation that went something like this:

"Daddy? How come those cows don't tip over?"

"Why, those are hill cows, honey. Farmers specially breed them with shorter legs on one side. The ones with longer right legs are called conservative cows, the lefties are liberals. Gotta milk 'em in slanted barns."

I guess that does look like something that not even a four or five (or six or seven - eight, tops) year old should buy into without question. And I suppose if Daddy had gone too far and said something about nervous cows dispensing milkshakes, I would have caught the yuk a lot sooner than I did. In my defense, Daddy earns a great living selling used cars (oops, sorry, "preowned vehicles"). He has the gift of making the most idiotic gibberish sound perfectly reasonable. And I remember and hold close the advice he gave me when I got my first job working with the public (advice, which, unlike the hill cows, continues to withstand everything thrown at it): "Don't repeat this to the suits, honey," Daddy said, "but don't you forget it, either: The Customer is Never Right." If I ever get a tattoo, that will be it. But, as I've recently discovered, it's also a cautionary statement; sometimes you can cross the seller up with the buyer.

Memories of the hill cow debacle (how my classmates laughed and laughed) reached for the As If Alarm the instant Jim began speechifying about Naazar. "It's a variable star, Alice. Its magnitude runs from eight to minus one. We are lucky to see it on one of its shinier nights..." I wasn't too sure about that because I'd thought that I would have heard something about such a flaky star at least once on the Discovery Channel. But before I could express my skepticism, the constantly brightening Naazar switched on its landing lights for its approach to the county airport. I laughed and laughed; damn near popped a kidney.

The big difference between Daddy and Jim, however, was that Jim actually believed what he had told me. Somewhere along the Jim Experience he had bought a bag of beans whose only magic had been in his head. Could be he traded a hill cow for them.

Still, it's always a good idea to give your Significant Other's credulity a test, much as a person will kick the tires and look under the hood of a preowned vehicle - even though Daddy has told me hundreds of times that people who kick tires and look under hoods seldom know anything about cars; further proof that the customer is never right.

But, really, what good is having a boyfriend if you can't mess with his mind now and then? Nothing mean, of course, just a little tweak of his mental nose here and there, maybe even a virtual wedgie. Besides, I didn't start it. Right? I'm no more responsible for Naazar than I had been for the hill cows. Yet the two men I love most had found it wise and just and dandy to not only bring me those things, but both had also expected me to gratefully and unquestioningly bask in the glow of their Manly Knowledge.

As If.

A few nights after Naazar had morphed from a cepheid to a Cessna, an opportunity to see just how deep Jim's credulity was. I plan on marrying Jim and having children with him someday (to whom I will tell three things: "I love you," "You can always come to me," and, "Why, those are hill cows, honey"), so I'd figured that seeking out answers regarding his faith in the ridiculous warranted further research.

Conditions for the experiment were perfect that night. It was still several days before Halloween, but everyone in our neighborhood had had their decorations out for weeks. Jim and I share an apartment on a particularly old street, whose late nineteenth and early twentieth century faux-Victorians have a way of looming and leering at you juusst along the corner of your eye. (It seems that every last one of them has read The Haunting of Hill House.) This subtle and malevolent attitude was in no way gentled by the sophisticated, battery-powered, LED enhanced, motion-sensing, extremely realistic posse of Halloween ghouls, ghosties and various other Things That Shouldn't Be, all gibbering and jabbering demented PG-13 thises and thats at passersby from nearly every yard.

Although the weather had been fair, an electric transformer had blown around eight, which knocked out the power for about half of Charleston. My Charleston Light app informed me that "Crews have been dispatched to solve the problem." There was an estimated two hour wait until service would be restored. Charleston Light measures time the same way a dog does; I knew that Jim and I probably had a whole night to kill - and in complete darkness, as soon as our flashlight apps at last killed our phone batteries. So, we decided to take a stroll.

It was a clear and moonless night, but well-illuminated because of all the battery-powered Halloween decorations. An orangey glow, similar to that radiated by the late great Naazar, made the flashlight function unnecessary.

Even though the stroll had been my idea, I initially had no plans of undertaking a Jim Experiment until he again went "YEE-guh" because of a motion-sensing, spring-loaded, cackling jack-in-the-box witch that one of our neighbors had set up at the head of the walkway. Even though Jim and I had passed that damn thing together at least fifty times in that last week alone, everytime the witch popped up, went "BOO-WEE-HEE-HEE-HEE..." then said any one of the five stupid things programmed into it before it fell back into its box (in which it would wait until the next bozo got too close to it), Jim would jump and gasp "YEE-guh." To be fair, after the thirtieth "YEE-guh," he did attempt to play it off as a joke, but his feigned "I knew, I knew" smile seemed awfully late.

And then there's the "Raven" in the yard just south of us. Trust me, belief in hill cows would be considered cynicism compared to giving credibility to that piece of kaka. Possibly a sentimental keepsake, this veteran of many Halloweens is an early motion-sensor. Its shtick involves cawing and a couple of garbled snatches of Poe. One wing's missing, half the feathers and talons are gone and most times it either doesn't work at all or gets stuck and won't turn off until someone comes out of the house to give it a good smack. Babies laugh at the Raven, and small dogs pee on the perch it's duct-taped to. But whenever Jim passes and hears the wheezy "Caw-caw-caw! Nevermore! Lenore!" his head whips around so fast with concern that I swear the tendons that hold it in place have snapped.

I think that the thing most responsible for Jim's gullibility is his extreme intelligence. I know a couple of persons like Jim, and they, like Jim, tend to have wonderfully busy yet distracted minds. These persons dwell mostly at some sort of theoretical astral plane of their own construction, and they are so often lost in their own high-falutin musings and theories that it is sinfully easy for a mental peasant to Trojan-Horse in a puerile, albeit harmless, mind you, little gag.

Jim didn't quite pee his pants when the tuckered Raven went off, but his head jerked to the left, yet neither as far nor as rapidly as it had done in the past. Hand in hand we continued down the sidewalk, eventually I guided him across the nearest main street and headed toward New Town Cemetery. (Now, before you begin to think that I'm some sort of brave blowhard, I'll admit that I won't go within a football field of that place alone.)

If there had been a been a corn-fattened Harvest Moon out that night, I think that the sense of unease I experienced while walking along the graveyard's hundred-year-old wrought-iron fence would have been smaller and easier to shoo away. New Town is situated in the face of a cow-free hillside, of which we were at the crest. The sudden fall of the hill, punctuated only by the faint outline of an imposing graveyard oak tree cast against the only slightly lighter sky, were all we could see. Jim and I knew that more than two-thousand graves lay in there, but not being able to give a visual account for a single one made the cemetery spectacularly mystical and foreboding. (Funny how you don't appreciate street lights until they are off.) And the few homes across the street from the cemetery didn't help to allay my unease at all; not only were they dark due to the power outage, but none of them had as much as a jack o' lantern on the porch. I then had a double-headed epiphany: Halloween swag isn't for scaring, it's for reassuring, and Jim was on my right, which meant that I was closer to this spectacularly mystical and foreboding place of doom than he was. Although escorting me with his side exposed to the street was a show of proper old-fashioned manners on Jim's part, I figured that there wasn't a buckboard apt to splash my petticoats with mud within a century and a half of us.

After I'd fixed that arrangement, I set about rummaging around my head for little leftover scares and inspirations from the darker side of my imagination. On the spot I was going to cobble-together a ghost story for my darling Jim (aka, The Customer) much along the same way master-criminal-in-meek-disguise Kevin Spacey had pumped unwitting yet condescending Detective Chazz Palmenteri full of hot steaming cow-pies derived from a bulletin board in The Usual Suspects.

Yes, the experiment was going to be wise and just and dandy. But then...

"I've heard that if you can't see a grave its ghost has got out," Jim said, not all creepy-like and affected, but in that soft, analytical tone he sometimes falls into.

"Who told you that - you - why say that, Jim?" I said, minus my customary self control and dignity. It seemed that the darkness had affected both of those qualities, which I pride myself on. Moreover, a tiny "yip" augmented both "yous"; it caused me to sound like a thirteen-year-old boy whose voice was going through the change.

"Mom," he said in the same deadpan tone. "She also told me that you can only see the ghost of strangers - never anybody dear to you."

Oh, Jesus, I thought, Mommy. Don't get me wrong, I like my future mother-in-law, plenty. And I'm sure I will someday learn to love her, as long there's a suitable distance between us. Someday. Miles and miles. Time zones and time zones. But, man oh man, the stuff she has pinched-off in that boy's head. Suddenly it became clear to me just who put Naazar in the sky. Shirley. It had her cloven-hoof prints all over it... Why, I bet she even sold Jim some hill cows...

I guess it was my night for epiphanies. And if two events hadn't happened then in rapid order, each one practically falling over the other, I probably would've hit on the meaning of life, by and by. But my fear enhanced synapses were overloaded and wiped clean by the events.

First, the goddam lights came back on. We were unknowingly standing beneath what might be the most powerful streetlight in Charleston. I felt like an escaping convict caught in the deadly beam of a prison searchlight. Second, Jim and I were facing the cemetery, and at the very instant the lights returned, a sudden gust of wind brought a discarded, extremely large, white shopping bag up the graveyard hill and plastered it right in front of our faces against the fence.

I will spare myself and Jim the embarrassing details of our flight. But I will admit that the seven seconds or so following the events featured neither calm deadpan tones nor covert attempts to out-spook one another. Hand in hand, we bolted away from New Town Cemetery at top speed, hardly pausing to look both ways when we came to the intersection between us and home, and we did not stop or speak until we were safely back amongst the undead, the kind who were purchased at WalMart.

Jim and I stopped and smiled at each other. I say that if you are going to be one half of a pair of fools, make certain the other fool is the one you love.

"Jim?" I at last said as we approached our bent but unbowed friend the Raven, "What's your mother's take on customer service?"


  1. Humorous, clever and tender without being sentimental. Educational, too. I always wondered about hill cows. Very nice.

  2. Well-crafted and engaging. I loved the penultimate paragraph - wry, light and emotionally intelligent. Many thanks,

  3. I found myself as credulous as the characters with the deadpan humor. Sarcastic and wry, fun to read.