My wife and I were in a store in the mall where you could have you own custom jewelry made. I decided that it would be nice to have a necklace made for my wife. She picked out several roughly cut jewels and crystals from bins scattered around the store, turquoise stones and jade and amber, as well as a couple of engraved metal pendants. I took them to the counter where they made the jewelry, and I explained to the man and woman working there how I wanted the pieces strung onto the necklace. I wanted them arranged so that there would be a metal pendant between each different jewel, separating them.
I handed the man all the jewels and pendants, and he cupped them carefully in the palm of his hand. He put on a visor and an eyepiece and he fed the jewels and pendants into some greasy old contraption and bent intently over his work. I figured that it would be a while, so I told him that we’d be out shopping at the other stores. He just shook his head without lifting it from his work. He said that the necklace would be ready in only a minute or two. He said that by the time we got up to the front counter, the necklace would be done and waiting for us.
The woman working with him escorted us up to the front. She handed us a large shopping bag filled with pine cones. This was apparently some complimentary gift that they gave to all of their customers with their purchases. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with a bag full of pine cones, and we were even a little embarrassed by our own confusion, caught in that intimidating moment of uncertainty you feel in a store that’s above your class. But we thanked the woman and I tucked the bag of pine cones under my arm and carried it awkwardly to the front. Just as the man had promised, the cashier already had our necklace ready and bagged at the front counter.
We paid the cashier and went to leave, but my wife wanted to see the finished necklace and she was already opening the bag before we were even out of the store. A confused wrinkle formed between her eyes as she pulled out a coat hanger that had a tiny pink sweater and a red scarf and bow combination arranged on it. This wasn’t a necklace. We were about to take it back up to the counter to complain, when it occurred to me that the necklace might be concealed under the sweater and scarf, that maybe it had been packaged this way to give the customer some sense of what the necklace would look like when they were wearing it. Like the pine cones, this was just another bewildering anomaly in foreign territory. We didn’t want to look like complete fools.
My wife rummaged around under the neckline of the sweater until she felt the loose edges of the jewels and pendants. She pulled the necklace up and out over the scarf, and the dark stones gleamed in the store’s soft lighting. But she still wasn’t sure that this cleared things up. Maybe she had been given the sweater and scarf by mistake. I suggested going back up to the counter and asking the cashier about it. My wife nodded and agreed. But when she got to the counter, instead of just asking the cashier outright, she proceeded on the assumption that the sweater and scarf were part of the packaging, and she framed her question as a complaint, saying, “I don’t think that this is the right outfit to go with this necklace.”
The cashier stared impassively at my wife until she was finished and then he picked up a radio that he had on the counter. He held eye contact with her the whole time he spoke. “I have a customer here requesting the urban presentation rather than the floral presentation.” He waited a beat for their response, which we couldn’t hear, then he formed an acidic smile and told my wife, “It’ll be just a moment.” We turned as a tall man from store security approached us. The cashier explained that we were being taken into custody temporarily because we were suspected of stealing store merchandise. By this, he meant the scarf and sweater. Since we had just established that it wasn’t the packaging that we preferred, by some strange logic this meant that we had just confessed to trying to steal it.
We protested vehemently, of course. Loudly. Passionately. The cashier expressed every sympathy he could for our plight, but he told us that we would have to go to their holding area until the matter could be cleared up. The tall man from store security took us to a room in the back where there were a number of mattresses laid out on the floor with people sitting on them or laying on them in clusters, their faces despondent and glum. They didn’t even look up as we came in. They had given up any hope that anyone had come to retrieve them, that there had been any new progress in their cases. The tall man walked us down to an empty mattress at the far end of the room. He pointed to it and told us to wait there.
When he had left us, I took a seat on the mattress, but my wife stayed standing, ready to start pacing like a caged animal. I asked her why she had handled things that way, why she had gotten us into this mess, why she hadn’t tried to just clarify the facts instead of using them like blunt instruments from a psychological toolbox. She had nothing to really say in her defense beyond the obvious point that she had no way of knowing that things were going to end up like this. Fair enough. I couldn’t really argue with that. I shook my head and sighed deeply and settled back on the mattress for the long, long wait.