by B.K. Stevens
This story was originally published in Woman’s World on August 15, 1995.
“What lovely eyelashes!” Priscilla Grebin exclaimed, bending over the stroller for a closer look. “Why, I’ve never seen such lashes on a baby – so long, and so curly! How beautiful!”
He was the ugliest baby Priscilla had ever seen. His eyelashes were all right, but he had a pointy head, only a few listless wisps of hair, a squat nose and a peevish mouth. But his mother, a tired-looking young woman in a faded skirt and threadbare sweater, straightened up at Priscilla’s words. New light came into her eyes and she looked at her son with amazed pride. “You’re right,” she said. “He does have great eyelashes.”
Smiling, Priscilla peered down the street, straining for a glimpse of the bus. All afternoon, traffic had been even slower than usual, probably because of that bank robbery three hours ago. Police cars still clogged the streets.
The baby squawked, and his mother crouched down to kiss his forehead “There, there, sweetie,” she said. “The bus will come along any minute, and we’ll go home to Daddy – and won’t he be happy to see his beautiful, long-lashed boy!”
Priscilla smiled again. She knew how the young woman felt. It had been just the same for her, so many years ago. She’d been on her way to a job interview, miserable because she was sure her new haircut was hideous, because she knew nobody would hire someone who looked so grotesque. Then, as she was getting on the elevator, a stranger took a moment to pause, smile, and say, “That’s the perfect haircut for you – it’s very professional, and it frames your face so well.”
She never saw that stranger again, but he’d given her the confidence to ace the interview. She’d gotten the job and loved it, she’d eventually married a co-worker, she’d made many dear friends and she’d gotten promotion after promotion until finally retiring as division director. She owed it all, she was convinced, to the stranger’s few, kind words.
Even now, a widow with a flock of grandchildren, she’d never forgotten the debt she owed that stranger. Every chance she got, she repaid him by giving little compliments to people who crossed her path. “Flattery may get you nowhere,” she often said to her grandchildren, “but it can turn some poor soul’s day clear around.”
The bus finally came inching through the rush-hour traffic and Priscilla helped the young mother get the stroller up the steps. She took a moment to compliment the bus driver on his crisply pressed uniform and felt pleased to see his surly, harassed expression brighten to a smile. The mother and her baby found a seat near the front and Priscilla edged her way back until she spotted an empty space next to a tall, thin man. He definitely looked as if he could use some cheering up – sweating even though it was a cool day, clutching an oversized briefcase to his chest as if it were his only friend.
Priscilla smiled as she sat down next to him. “My goodness!” she said.”What an impressive briefcase! It’s the sort of briefcase a successful person would carry. Seeing you with that briefcase makes me think you just scored a big success. And it certainly is large. I bet you can fit a lot in there. It’s brand-new, too, isn’t it? I don’t see a single scratch. You know, my daughter Evelyn needs a new briefcase, and I bet she’d like one just like that. Where did you buy it?”
The tall man shrugged and turned his face aside. “I don’t remember.”
“Oh, too bad. Well, it must have been at one of those nice little shops downtown. I love those shops. The mall’s lovely too, of course, but the people who work downtown seem friendlier, somehow. They take a real interest in customers and they always remember them the next time they come by. They’d certainly remember you, since you’re such a good-looking young man.” That ought to do it, Priscilla thought, and turned to him with her biggest, brightest smile. But the thin man didn’t seem to have cheered up. His face was absolutely glistening with sweat now and he stared straight ahead, refusing to meet her eyes.
More compliments, Priscilla decided, and glanced down, searching for something else she could praise. She pointed. “Now, those are attractive shoes – and such good support! Why, you could run for miles in those shoes if you had to!”
The tall man gulped hard but said nothing. He seemed to be sweating even more heavily now. He must really be unhappy about something, Priscilla thought, but if she could find just the right compliment, he’d be bound to feel better. “What a distinctive tie!” she said, turning to peer at it more closely. “Is that a monogram? W.G. What nice initials!”
The man paled, his hand shooting up to hide the monogram. Well, Priscilla thought, I guess he doesn’t like his initials. Maybe a more personal compliment would do the trick. “You know,” she said, “you look very familiar. Wait a minute – I know what it is. You’re –“
She’d been about to say he was the spitting image of that handsome young actor on the new Tuesday night doctor show, but she never got the chance. The tall man leapt up. “All right!” he shouted. “I can’t take any more sarcasm! You made me! But I’d like to see you catch me!” With that, he shoved her with his briefcase, knocking her into the aisle and then stumbled over her and ran for the front of the bus.
He didn’t get far. The young mother had heard the shouting and seen Priscilla fall. She jumped to her feet. “Monster!” she cried, smashing the fleeing man in the face with her diaper bag. “How could you hit that nice lady?”
The bus screeched to the curb and the driver turned around to see Priscilla still lying in the aisle, the young mother pounding the tall man with her diaper bag. The driver’s face turned red.
“What’s wrong with you?” he bellowed. “Hitting a sweet lady like that!”
He threw himself on top of the tall man, knocking him over backwards. The briefcase flew out of the man’s hands, landing at Priscilla’s feet, and popped open. Priscilla’s eyes widened as a gun and thick bundles of cash spilled onto the bus floor.
“Hey!” a passenger said. “That must be the guy who held up the bank on Fifth and shot the guard! The cops caught up with the getaway car and nabbed his partner, but this guy got away on foot. Hold him down, driver! I’ll call 911!”
Another passenger helped Priscilla to her feet. “Nice going,” she said. “The bank’s offering a big reward for that guy, and you’re sure to collect. How’d you figure out who he was?”
Still struggling to absorb what had happened, Priscilla managed a smile. “I just used a little flattery,” she said. “It gets you everywhere, you know. And by the way –that’s a lovely jacket you’re wearing.”
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