Cramming the store,
Fighting for love
Or a stray glove.
The crackle of bags
The buying of swag,
Credit cards soaring,
Rural Jack & The Fish
“Christmas Credit Cards”
Natasha sat cross-legged by the giant Christmas tree in the spacious living room of Avengers Tower. She examined the gaudily-wrapped present closest to her. The wrapping paper was shiny gold with a big, red bow and the tag read, ‘From Tony; To: Steve.’ She smiled and started to check out the next present when the elevator down the hall dinged softly. The sound of high heels clicked on the polished floor, mixed with the rattle of shopping bags.
Pepper appeared at the living room entrance, laden down by bags and looking exasperated. Natasha looked at her with open amusement.
“What?” Pepper demanded.
“I see you are fully in capitalist mode.”
Pepper rattled the bags. “It’s a madhouse out there!”
“I find the mall obstacle course to be amazing.”
“’Amazing’ isn’t the word for it.” Pepper wobbled over to the couch and deposited her bags with a whuff! of air. “I deserve a Purple Heart. Damnit, it was a battle out there! I could’ve used Captain America to strategize for me,” she grumbled.
“Why do Americans put themselves through this? Camping out for hours before stores open, bolting Thanksgiving dinner to rush and buy, buy, buy, ramming through when the doors open to physically assault each other over toasters and sweater sets.”
“Hmph, when you put it that way, it does sound stupid.” Pepper rummaged through the bags. “Gah, I hope I didn’t lose that watch I got for Steve.”
“No, he’s uncomfortable with extravagant gifts. I went to an antique shop and found this darling pocketwatch…ah, yes, here it is!” Pepper triumphantly pulled a white box out of a bag and handed it to her lover. “Take a look.”
Natasha opened the box. “Wow!” She admired the gold casing and its intricate sculpture of leaves and berries.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
“A genuine piece. How old is it?”
“Look at the engraving.”
Natasha scrutinized the inside of the filigreed lid. “1861. I like it. And more importantly, Steve will.”
“Thanks.” Pepper took the watch back and replaced it back into the box.
“Did you get me anything?”
“Oh, ho, now who’s the capitalist consumer?”
Natasha quirked a smile. “So is that a yes?”
Pepper searched through the bags. “You’ll see on Christmas morning.”
“Maybe I’ll help you with those bags.” Natasha made as if to get up.
“No, I’ll take care of them.” Pepper gathered up the bags and tottered into their bedroom. Five seconds later the door shut.
Natasha smiled as she resumed poking around under the tree.
& & & & & &
“It took you only an hour to wrap those presents?” Natasha asked.
“Most of them were wrapped at the store.” Pepper sat down on the couch with a sigh and winced. “I’m not looking forward to going back out tomorrow.”
“You mean you haven’t finished?”
“No, I still need to get presents for Happy and Nick and Maria, among others.”
“So you get Fury a Christmas present?”
Natasha stretched and accidentally hit a dangling ornament. The teardrop-shaped bauble swung and reflected the light from the tree lights, creating dancing patterns on her black shirt.
“You’re really going to go back into that madness?”
“Hmm? Oh, um, yes.” Pepper was distracted by the play of golden light in Natasha’s hair. She reached out and grabbed her lover’s sleeve and drew her close. “Mmm, you’re using that peppermint shampoo I like.”
Natasha chuckled. “Decadent frippery.”
“But evocative.” Pepper nibbled behind her companion’s ear.
“I like your thinking.”
They made their way to the bedroom, kissing and stroking as they fell onto the bed. Fingers combed through hair as clothing was artfully removed and kisses grew more passionate.
“Mmm…can’t get enough of you,” said Pepper as she rained kisses on soft skin. Natasha smiled and returned her kisses.
The stars fell gently down.
& & & & & &
“We need a plan of attack to tackle those stores.”
Pepper came fully awake. “You’re coming with me?”
“Yes. You need help, zvezda moya.”
Pepper fell asleep to the sound of Natasha outlining her plan.
& & & & & &
“I know we’re hitting Macy’s, but it’s sneakers, jeans, and a fleece-lined jacket. And a sensible handbag, not one that can barely hold a tube of lipstick.”
Pepper saluted. “Yes, sir, General.”
“You better believe it. Now, here’s how we approach the target…”
& & & & & &
Once Natasha and Pepper made it through the entrance with only a few bumps and shoves, they split up. According to the plan, they would hit different departments and meet up later to the right of the entrance doors. Natasha had half of Pepper’s list and a good idea of what she wanted.
As Natasha wended her way through the mob, she kept her senses alert, ducking as a sweater was flung from a table nearly bare of merchandise as the mob moved on to the next table like a flock of vultures. Women and a few men were snatching marked-down items off shelves at a dizzying pace. Shoppers were already lining up at the various check-out counters scattered around, tapping their feet impatiently as they were anxious to get to the next department. Natasha pitied the store clerks.
She flashed back to her days in Russia. Lines at stores were not uncommon. In fact, they were situation normal. Waiting in lines was not just at Christmas time, but an all-year-round tradition, but instead of overflowing abundance, Russian shoppers faced nearly-empty shelves and poor quality items.
Americans have no conception of want. As she took the escalator up to the second floor, preferring to avoid the packed elevators, she edited her thought. That’s not exactly true. Plenty of poor people in this land of plenty. Apparently neither capitalism nor Communism can deliver the goods to those who need them.
She reached the Men’s Clothing Department and threaded her way through the crowded aisles.
“Oof!” Natasha rubbed her ribs and glared. “Hey, watch it!”
“Sorry, but you’ve got to keep your wits about you, honey.” The offending shopper’s taffy-colored hair was sticking out wildly as if she had just tumbled out of bed. Natasha wasn’t sure if she wore it that way naturally or it was a result of the current frenzy.
She had to agree with the shopper, who disappeared into the mob.” I should’ve brought my Widow stingers,” she grumbled.
She used her elbows strategically to get to the ties. It was a running joke between Pepper and Tony that she got him a tie every Christmas.
“What do you get the man who has everything?” Pepper had asked when explaining the tradition.
“A tie?” Natasha had guessed dryly.
“That’s right, sweet stuff.”
Natasha reached the tie racks. Dozens of ties. Hundreds! Thousands! She began to sweat at the thought of so many choices. Where were bare shelves when you needed them? Were Five-Year-Plans so bad after all? She drew out her cell phone and punched Pepper’s number.
“Hi, babe, what’s up?” Pepper asked.
“What kind of tie?”
“Oh, something red-and-gold. Classy. Elegant. Or better yet, loud.”
“I see many different color schemes, but not that one.”
“Just keep a sharp eye. You’ll find one.”
Natasha turned on her camera. “No, I can’t. Look!” She panned the endless sea of ties.
“Come now, darling, surely a top S.H.I.E.L.D. agent like yourself can find a tie with two colors.”
“How about a red-white-and-blue tie?” The stars-and-stripes tie was not bad, actually.
“Hmm, hold on to that one. It may end up for Steve, but giving it to Tony could be a delicious irony.”
Natasha sighed as Pepper cut the connection. She pocketed her phone and grimly continued her search.
& & & & & &
Natasha watched as a female shopper made a quick spin move as if she was running out of the backfield and snatched a chic leather handbag just as another hand reached for it. As howls of outrage followed her, the victor ran down the aisle, avoiding tackles all the way. Natasha silently sent her kudos.
“Where are you?”
“In the Women’s Department?”
“Oh, boy! That’s the big time!”
“Tell me about it.”
“So you gave up.”
“Go with the delicious irony. Fits Iron Man.”
“What’s all that din in the background?” Natasha asked curiously.
“Oh, a fight broke out over shoes. Men fight over women and whether they’re disrespected. Women fight over shoes.”
“Well, most shoes last longer than relationships with men.”
“Keeps me grounded in a sea of capitalist excess.”
“Right. All that Communist scarcity toughens one up.”
“Something like that. I’m off to Toys.”
Natasha disconnected and took the escalator again.
In the Toy Department, there was a long line waiting to see Santa, whose sign said he was out feeding the reindeer. She pitied the poor sap who faced a line of crying, smartmouthing, bratty children. Harried parents kept a tight rein on their kids, and more than one looked like they would’ve smacked the brattiest of their bunch if it was socially acceptable anymore.
She headed to the preschool area past rows of pretty Barbies and dollhouses. She stopped short at the Avengers section, amused at the action figures that represented Earth’s Greatest Heroes. She picked up a box with one of her dolls and viewed it critically. The Avengers had a display of their dolls in the Tower, sent by admiring fans. Tony had manufactured a Pepper doll and added it to the collection.
She put the box back. Tony had the habit of putting the Pepper and Black Widow dolls in compromising positions. She and Pepper answered by putting the Captain America and Iron Man dolls through their paces, too.
She found a wooden duck that a toddler could pull by a string. It quacked when you pulled it. Pepper’s niece would love it.
She walked to a blessedly quiet department with her purchases. Apparently fine pens were still a thing, at least until the Millenials wiped handwriting out of existence.
“Wanna mess with a Millennial? Write ‘em a note in cursive. They’ll need someone to translate it like they were Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
She smiled evilly as she spoke her little piece to herself. There was an agent in Accounting at the Triskelion that she’d love to mess with, the arrogant little douchebag.
The fiftyish gentleman behind the counter looked a little wistful, brightening as he saw her approach. He adjusted his gold cufflinks and asked in a sonorous voice, “How may I help you, Madame?”
Natasha perused the assortment, asking questions which were gracefully answered.
“This is a replica of a pen that Franklin D. Roosevelt favored.”
“Really? Oh, it’s a fine instrument.”
“Yes, a good pen can aid a man or woman in putting down reflective thoughts.”
“Hmm, yes.” She doubted that the current Twitter culture was big on reflection. Reaction, and immediately, was the modern way. “The man I’m buying this for enjoys old-fashioned reflection.”
“A fine gentleman?”
“Very much so.” Natasha examined the pens. “The FDR pen seems perfect to me.”
Natasha had saved considerable money from her Avengers’ salary. Since Tony paid all expenses and didn’t take rent, she could splurge a little on gifts. Phil was going to love this. She was sure of it.
She accepted the exquisitely-wrapped package from the salesman. “Thank you, sir. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”
“May I say the same, Madame.”
Natasha smiled. She was definitely going to return to the department in the future.
Her phone rang. “Hey, Pep.”
“Where are you?”
“Doing a little shopping for me.”
“I thought you were done.”
“You’re veering off-plan.”
“Oh, well, sometimes you gotta improvise.”
Natasha smiled. “”How are you coming along?”
“Got nearly everything. Keep at it!”
Pepper hung up and Natasha checked her lover’s list. “A cast-iron frying pan?” Shaking her head, she headed for Housewares.
She was glad she had already ordered customized fruit baskets for everyone plus small little gifts like the watch and pen.
“Who’s getting a frying pan?” she muttered.
Arriving at Housewares, she looked for the pan. Most were lightweight, Teflon-esque pans. Cast iron wasn’t exactly popular these days.
“This must be another fit for Steve, unless it’s a gag gift for Tony,” she mumbled. She took out her phone and dialed. “Hey, Pep. Are you sure about this frying pan thing?”
“Yep, I’m sure.”
“I can’t find a cast-iron pan at all.”
“You mean the Black Widow can't find a spider?”
“That’s an old-fashioned term for a frying pan.”
“You have one wicked sense of humor.”
“And you love it.”
Natasha paused as a gaggle of shoppers ran by. “Well, I can’t argue with you there.”
“Keep looking. Out.”
Natasha did keep looking but didn’t find an iron spider.
Maybe I could get Spider-Man to help out.
She texted her predicament and Pepper texted back, It’s okay. I know an antique shop. Meet me in the lobby in fifteen minutes.
Okay. See you in fifteen.
Natasha visited the ladies’ room and while in a stall, listened to the chatter outside it.
“I got a plasma screen for only three hundred bucks!”
“I picked up a ruby necklace for scratch. My hubby has good taste, as he’ll find out when I unwrap it Christmas morning.”
“If I have to fight a mob for the 2018 version of a freakin’ Cabbage Patch Kid…”
“If you ask me, Christmas is a racket.”
“I should put my kid on the Naughty List and save a few bucks.”
“Man, I need a drink.”
With that final sentiment, Natasha concurred. She finished her business and flushed the toilet, emerging in relief. Her stall was immediately taken by a shopper. She washed her hands, keeping an eye on her bags.
The mixture of perfumes was acute as women crowded the bathroom. Every single woman had at least two bags. Macy’s was cleaning up. The women also looked frazzled, their eyes slightly glazed and their hair a little wild. One woman looked as if she’d kill for a smoke.
Natasha exited the bathroom. She checked her watch. Time to meet her favorite redhead.
She took the escalator down, observing the sea of humanity packing escalators up and down. It was a colorful sea, at least.
Reaching the bottom, she scanned the lobby. Bobbing heads and rattling bags assaulted her senses. Maybe Pepper wasn’t here yet.
Natasha would’ve liked to saunter to the meeting spot but she had to settle for shoving instead. Finally she reached a spot by the front window display and set her bags down. She ran a hand through her dark red hair and felt warm. It was overheated in here. Too many bodies and too much central heating. American suffered from too-high thermostats.
She suddenly felt tired. Shopping at Christmastime was more exhausting than fighting supervillains!
She brushed her bangs back and fanned her face with her hand. Her cheeks were hot. If she stayed here much longer, she would be as wringing-wet as if she’d spent time in the sauna. She’d welcome the cold air outside. Where the hell was Pepper?
“Guess your Spider-sense is on the fritz.”
Natasha jumped as the voice in her ear startled her. “Damn it, Potts, how did you sneak up on me?”
“See previous sentence.”
Natasha scrutinized her lover. “You look a little flushed.”
“What do you expect? It’s over a hundred degrees in here!” Pepper’s eyes were a little too bright to match her overheated skin.
Natasha grinned. “Do you have your heart set on lunch out?”
“Good. How about leftover roast beef sandwiches at home?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“Then let’s get outta here.”
They made one stop at a curious little shop with all kinds of old-fashioned things and Natasha found the iron spider, winking at Pepper.
They went back to Avengers’ Tower and took the elevator up to the living quarters. Steve saw them emerging from the elevator and hustled over to help with the bags.
“You ladies did a lot of shopping.”
“It’s mostly Pepper. I merely helped,” said Natasha.
Pepper’s phone rang. « Excuse me, gotta take this.”
Steve helped Natasha bring the bags into her bedroom. “All Macy’s?”
“Uh huh.” She left out the antique shop purchase in case Pepper was planning to give Steve the frying pan.
“Does Macy tell Gimbel?” Steve said wryly.
“I got that reference.” Natasha whipped out a small booklet entitled A History Of Macy’s.
“Ah, good to see you’re reading the classics.”
Natasha laughed. “I find ’40s slang to be very illuminating.”
Steve smiled. “We did all right.” He winked and chucked her under the chin while clicking his tongue. “What’s cookin’, good-lookin’?”
“That’s my line,” said Pepper as she entered the bedroom she shared with Natasha. "Go find Tony and lay it on him.”
Steve smiled graciously. “See you later, ladies.”
“See you later, alligator,” said Natasha.
His eyes sparkled. “In awhile, crocodile.”
He exited the bedroom. Pepper started unpacking the bags.
“What was all that about?”
“Oh, I’ll admit the slang was more ‘50s, but Steve’s a fast learner. He’s catching up. Soon he’ll be spouting, ‘Hey, man, groovy!’”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you’ve got an odd sense of humor?”
“I have an excellent sense of humor.”
“You’re an excellent source of amusement.”
Natasha smiled. She pulled her sweater over her head, revealing a lacy, black bra.
“Man, I’m bushed. I think I’ll stretch out on the bed.”
“Yeah?” Pepper said.
Pepper set aside her bag and jumped onto the bed to join her lover.
& & & & & &
One Hour Later
The two women were curled up on their bed with a warm blanket tossed over them.
“Hmm?” Pepper was burrowed deep under the covers, drifting to sleep in Natasha’s arms.
“Who’s the spider for?”