The Writers Voice
A Million Dollar Room
Sandra S. Corona
I loved the downtown Dayton, Ohio, Roebuck and Company store! They offered me my first job working in their toy department for three Christmas seasons--1964, 1965, and 1966. When I dropped out of college in 1967, the supervisor of the snack bar/candy department, Glenda, offered me a full time job. I left June 1st, 1968, when I married a fellow Sears employee, Dan, and then returned to work part-time in 1980 when our two children were nine and eleven years old.
Every city has its own assortment of characters . . . even a place as big as Dayton. One was a man named Arnold, a Vietnam vet, who would stealthily slink in--nervous as could be--for a cup of coffee. After he paid, Arnold would take his covered cup, crouch down and duck-walk behind the candy counter, a display rack, etc. His camouflage garments were covered with words written in permanent ink . . . like ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ ‘Da Nang,’ and bore the signatures of many soldiers. He’d pretend to be talking on a walkie-talkie. “Fire! Oh, God, we’re surrounded! You **!&^ , you friendly fired on us, I’m burning.”
Needless to say, security kept an eye on Arnold until he left the premises. Arnold lived at the downtown Veteran’s Hospital. The man, obviously suffering from post-war trauma, distrusted many people. I was one of the few that he allowed to serve him. He thought folks were trying to poison him.
Another of those ‘characters’ was Francis. He was bald, about 5’10” and carried around two hundred and fifty pounds of stocky muscle. Francis wore the same outfit, cleaned and pressed neatly, every day. All of his identical shirts and pants were khaki, his polished shoes and belts were black, and his socks were white. He purchased everything in lots of twelve so he didn’t have to fuss with ‘choosing’ his clothing. Often Francis would bring his friends or ‘special someone’ into Sears for coffee before they went back to the YMCA where Francis lived. Most folks knew Francis was gay but, in reality, he was actually bi-sexual.
Previously, when he was a lot younger, Francis worked for the National Railroad. Even in the 40’s and 50’s, the railroad experienced tough times so, instead of cash, Francis accepted bonds and stock in the company. Although his appearance and his living at the ‘Y’ seemed to imply that he was ‘poor,’ Francis was a paper multi-millionaire who lived on the barest of essentials. Many times Francis would bring his stock reports into Sears and pass them around for folks to see. He was proud of his wealth. Some thought the reports were ‘forged’ documents but, owning stock myself, I recognized the reports as genuine. I believe Francis was worth well over ten million dollars in 1980!
Francis was a daily customer at Sears’ snack bar--coffee, black. Usually he was one of my first customers as he liked his coffee ‘piping fresh.’ The snack bar, like the top of a capital ‘T,’ straddled an area between the candy department on the right and vacuum cleaners/sewing machines on the left. Harry and Ollie were commissioned salespeople employed in the vacuum/sewing department. Whoever was working there would inevitably accompany Francis to the snack bar as he’d treat them to free coffee.
One morning Harry, Ollie, and Francis were having a discussion over their fresh coffee. Their faces suddenly drooped which implied that their topic was depressing.
“Hey, Sandy,” Harry called me over to the side booth. “Francis is sick.” In my white uniform, I ambled over to them, wiping the counter down as I progressed. Francis had a ‘thing’ about germs--which he made me aware of--so I was constantly ‘disinfecting’ the Formica counter. We had no seats but no one seemed to mind standing up. Francis knew we weren’t allowed to accept tips but, since I didn’t mind constantly ‘cleaning’ his area, he would always tip me a dollar or two for his thirty-five cent cup of coffee. At first I’d return the ‘tip’ but then he started reaching over to ‘stuff’ it in my top uniform pocket.
After speaking with my boss, Glenda, about the tip problem, she told me to ‘just take it’ because I didn’t like the ‘free feel’. Once we worked that problem out, I considered him a good, though headstrong, customer. “Sorry to hear that.” I looked directly at Francis. “Is it temporary or treatable?”
Francis didn’t get the words out fast enough. Harry, who reminded me of Pee-Wee Herman with his jacket always flapping about and his over-sized steps, butted in. “He’s got some sort of immune deficiency.”
“Immune deficiency?” I’d never heard of that before. “What’s the prognosis?”
Harry, with his full head of dark hair falling over his eyes, swept it back with a quick gesture, chirped, “It’s terminal.”
Balding Ollie, a few years older than Harry or Francis, wandered off to assist a customer. I thought he wiped a tear away before he turned to leave. Ollie, sort of a loner, was hard to get to know. Usually he was strictly business and kept after Harry to ‘shape up.’
I stopped wiping the counter, my mouth agape. “I’m so sorry, Francis. What are you going to do?”
Ollie nervously kept looking back at us. He kept motioning for Harry to ‘get to work,’ but wasn’t listening. Usually Harry had the last word. “He wants to live with a family so he won’t die alone. Why don’t you take Francis home with you, Sandy?” Harry smiled mischievously. “It’s worth a million to him.”
Whether Harry put the idea in Francis’ head or whether it was originally Francis’ idea, I’ll never know. Once the idea was stated, neither Harry or Francis would stop talking about it.
Ollie rolled his eyes--the store manager was coming--and Harry wasn’t working. Ollie started frantically gesturing at Harry until Harry reluctantly left.
Francis had very little facial hair and his jaws were as smooth as a baby’s butt. He used a lot of lotion and always wore a musk scent. “Well, what do you think? Can you give me a room at your house and take care of me if I give you a million dollars?”
The idea was absurd! “Francis!”
Whoa! I was really put ‘on the spot.’ Fortunately other customers approached, so I turned away. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, I’m not,” he continued quite clearly. “I’ve never married, have no family and there’s nobody who cares if I live or die.”
Several customers stood, spell-bound, listening intently to our conversation. I kept glancing over at Francis . . . thinking.
“I’ll do it.” Harry, just passing through, shouted out. “Come live with me.”
Francis moved a few steps to intercept Harry and slapped his shoulder soundly. “I don’t want to live with you and your wife. You’re boring.”
Harry feigned a frown but paused to whisper as he went past me to their stock room. “Sandy . . . a million dollars!”
My husband, Dan, worked at Sears from 1966-1970 as a stock elevator operator. That’s how we met. Dan knew Francis before I did though I’d seen him around. In fact, Francis had propositioned Dan on more than one occasion . . . though that was years ago. Dan, in his time, had taken advantage of Francis’ generosity by occasionally letting him pay for his coffee and lunches.
“Why don’t you ask Dan what he thinks?” Francis begged. “All I want is someone to take care of me. I won’t touch any of you ‘that’ way . . . if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Francis had seen our children shortly after they’d been born. I always took them in to show them off to my former bosses and co-workers. Francis would offer to buy them candy, etc. but I’d always refuse saying it was nice of him but, no thanks. So, actually, Francis knew all of us and had watched our children grow up.
Truthfully, I was more concerned about Doug, 11, and Sherry, 9. Having undergone out-patient treatment for prevention of tuberculosis in 1974, I was unable to have any more children. I had a clean bill of health, but the treatment left me sterile.
“I’m sorry, Francis,” I sincerely was, “but you can’t buy a family!” He started to protest but I put a finger to my lips. “Let me finish, please.” Francis closed his mouth. “I don’t know anything about your illness but there’s no amount of money in this world that would cause me to put my children at risk. There are two things money doesn’t buy--love and good health. My children are healthy and I intend to keep them that way.”
Francis grinned. “What if I gave you one million up front and left the rest to you when I die? Would that be enough money?”
Sighing, I shook my head. “You don’t understand. My family is not for sale.”
We were speaking loud enough that others began crowding around Francis . . . offering their homes and families, but Francis waved them aside . . . even Ollie. “I want to live with Sandy and Sandy only. She would take very good care of me; she’d keep her word.”
Francis leveled an arrow-shot gaze at Harry. “Some of you guys would probably ‘off’ me in my sleep for that kind of dough!” The crowd thinned quickly as if they agreed with that notion.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.” Francis put his wallet back in his pants’ pocket. “Talk to Dan. Okay? There’s no hurry.”
“Hey!” I hollered to Francis. “My answer will be the same tomorrow.”
He shrugged. “Talk to Dan. Maybe he will change your mind.”
My boss, Glenda, working in the candy department, overheard our conversation. She waddled over to offer her opinion. “Sandy, stay away from that man! I don’t believe he has a penny to his name, let alone a million.”
Glenda only came up to my shoulder but was nearly as round as she was tall. I had to look down to her. “I’m not interested in whether he has the money or not.”
“Sandy?” She shook her head. “If I sincerely thought that he had the money and was dying, I’d say take him in. Nobody would turn down a quick million . . . nobody!” I had known Glenda since that first Christmas working at Sears when I was sixteen and a senior in high school. She was graying now but I loved her dearly, like a second mom. Glenda waddled away but turned back momentarily. “You would take him in if you sincerely thought he was rich!”
It was no use trying to reason with her, Harry or Ollie. As word spread around the store even the manager came by with his opinion. “Heck, I’d take Francis in, no matter what he wanted in return, if he’d give me ten million dollars!” Handsome and exquisitely attired, our manager was said to be a womanizer. “Did he really offer you ten million dollars for a room at your house?”
“Yes, but . . .”
He sighed and smiled. “Why are you still behind that counter? I’d be helping Francis pack!”
My opinion was obviously NOT a popular one. Not one person said they wouldn’t take Francis in . . . I was ‘out of my mind’ according to most folks.
After dinner and dishes, Dan and I sat down in the family room. I DID tell Dan about the offer from Francis. However, it wasn’t the first offer we’d had from Francis. Years ago Francis wanted to ‘sponsor’ Dan for porn movies; said he’d make Dan a rich man. He also had previously asked me to his room at the ‘Y’ to pose for ‘nearly naked’ pictures for one hundred dollars a picture! Francis said he’d send them to Playboy and make me famous! We joked about it but Dan left the decision up to me as he considered me ‘the smart one!’
Our kids, however, had been listening to us discuss Francis’ latest proposal and came running excitedly into the family room.
“You’ve got to let him stay, Mom.” Our blond, curly-headed son, Doug, blurted out quickly. Doug was already as tall as we were but was reed-thin. “Heck, we could buy anything we wanted!”
I rolled my eyes, sorry they had overheard. “Honey, you would have to share a room with a gay man until we bought another house.” I thought that would discourage his enthusiasm. “That wouldn’t be a good idea, would it?”
“Hey!” Doug exuberantly retorted. “He can HAVE my room! I’ll sleep on the sofa.”
“Me, too!” Our petite, svelte daughter, Sherry, had long, dark blond hair. It was weird that she offered her room. She didn’t even like me coming in to clean it.
“Simmer down, kids. The man has an immunity deficiency and is dying.” Doug pulled me up off of the sofa. “We better hurry then, Mom! Let’s go! Do you know where the man lives? Let’s help him pack!”
“No, no, no.” I tried to loosen Doug’s grip. “We’re not going to take Francis in regardless of how much money he has.”
“Mom!” Doug moaned. “You’ll never get another chance like this.” He sincerely saw dollar signs everywhere. “You and Dad may never get another chance for a million dollars!”
I dropped onto the sofa as Doug continued pleading his case. “You won’t have to work anymore, Mom. We’d have anything and everything we wanted.”
My head never stopped shaking negatively. “I’m sorry, Sweetheart, but the answer is ‘no’ and that’s final!”
“MOM!” both kids groaned.
Dan, finally, interrupted. “That’s enough! Go to your rooms! This is our decision, not yours.” He shrugged as if weary. “Francis would try to climb in bed with any or all of us so let’s not worry about the money. The man has a problem and we don’t need any more of those.”
Dan ushered them out with a hand behind each of their backs. “Go!”
The next morning Francis was my first customer. He patiently waited while I served several other folks but, at the first break, he asked. “Well, did you talk to Dan?”
“I did.” I habitually wiped the counter without thinking that it was what Francis preferred. “Dan agrees with my decision. The answer is ‘no’.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Harry, just a few feet away, had been eaves-dropping and he shouted. “You don’t want a million dollars!”
It sounded weird that the money was immaterial, but children are irreplaceable!
“My children mean more to me than all the money in the world. I can’t put a price tag on their lives. I love them more than anything.”
“I’ll give you five million up-front and the rest when I die.” Francis was persistent. Our audience gasped at his ‘generosity.’
Sighing, I let out a deep breath. “You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want your money . . . period.”
“Then you’re prejudiced because I’m gay!” Francis HAD to find an excuse!
I gasped. “You know better than that, Francis! I could care less about who you sleep with! You’re terminally ill and I will NOT put my children at risk!”
Francis pounded his fist on the snack bar . . . quite angry. His face, as red as a fire truck, flamed. “I’ll buy you a new house, a new car and take care of all of you financially for the rest of you lives. All you have to do is let me have a bed, drive me to the doctor and allow me to be a member of your family. That’s not asking a lot out of you!”
“Yes, it is asking TOO much!” My voice rose. “I do NOT want to have you living under my roof and influencing our lives. It isn’t worth it to me!”
With that said, I stomped into the back room and noisily began doing dishes. I considered the matter closed and only came around to the front bar to service customers. I ignored Francis’ pleas and gestures to ‘talk.’
Harry, dog-eared and pouting, sauntered around and into the back room. “Sandy, are you nuts? I’d get down on my knees and beg for him to come live with me. Why are you being so difficult?”
The more Harry yapped, the louder I clanged the dishes. He wouldn’t leave me alone. Ever protective of me, Glenda, seeing how I was trying to ignore Harry and Francis, came over. “Harry, ‘bug off.’ Let Sandy do her job before she scratches all my dishes up.”
She patted me on the back, sighed, and then went back to her candy counter. Francis and Harry, still getting wicked looks from Glenda, gave up on getting my attention. Both soon left the snack bar but dawdled in the vacuum department for a while, talking.
I had a habit of not locking my car door then. It was in the ‘employee only’ parking lot so I thought it was a ‘safe’ place. When I got off of work that day, got into my car and started it up, Francis rose up from the back seat and touched my shoulder. I nearly croaked. “God, what are you doing in my car Francis?”
“I’m going home with you!”
Turning completely around to speak with him, I saw several suitcases. “No, you’re not!” I was ‘ticked’ that he crawled into my car and hid. “If you don’t get out right now, I’m going to march inside and bring security out here. You will be arrested!”
“Don’t be that way.” Francis seemed to be near tears. His lips were quivering as he spoke. “I just want to go home with you. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
I turned the car off, removed my keys and started to get out.
“Okay, okay. I’ll leave this time but you’ve got to promise me that you’ll ‘think’ about it.”
“No promises, Francis!” I was unyielding. “Just get out . . . now!”
Slowly Francis opened the rear door and began removing his suitcases. Several other co-workers saw what was happening and stood watching. As soon as Francis shut the back door, I started the car and took off.
Dan and I discussed what had happened. Dan suggested that I quit working for a while. Instead, the next morning I went straight to security and told them what had occurred. Of course, they knew about the ‘million dollar room’ offer already. They asked me what I wanted--Francis barred from the store or his arrest.
“I want Francis barred from Sears and an escort to my car!” Francis had been waiting for me outside the store on several other occasions. Now that I’d ‘annoyed’ him, I didn’t want to chance an encounter with an angry man.
When Francis showed up that morning, as the doors were being unlocked, security refused to allow him entrance. He was warned about being on the premises and told he’d be jailed if he showed up in the parking lot again. The escort service lasted for two weeks without incident. Finally, six months later, security asked me if I still wanted Francis barred. He’d gone to security with an ‘offer’--he’d apologize to me and would behave himself if we’d allow him back in Sears.
I accepted with a request for them to ‘watch’ on our overhead monitors for a while when Francis was around. They did. We didn’t discuss Francis’ dream anymore although Francis indicated that the offer was still open. He did continue to show me his financial statements over the years. He lived for fifteen years and was worth twenty-five million dollars when he died. Meanwhile he’d infected many other people . . . all of whom predeceased him. Despite offers from many others, Francis remained at the ‘Y.’ His money went to the state of Ohio.
I have no regrets. Our life was ours; Francis’ money was his. It is sad that he died alone, feeling unloved, but children are priceless.
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