IF THERE IS one thing for which I have a talent, it is spending money. I have to stay away from stores the way a drunk has to avoid bars. But the talent has lain fallow for some time due to modest funds in my checking account.
Little did I believe it, then, when I was asked recently to take a day to spend somebody else's money and to get paid for it to boot.
One morning a long black limousine slid to a discreet stop in front of my house. Inside was a friend we can call Joe, who had hired me for the job. I leaned back against the plush and closed my eyes.
"Listen," said Joe nervously. "Here's the deal."
Abdullah was head of a visiting Arab mission that had just given a large order to Joe's company. I was to spend the day helping Abdullah select pretties to take home to his wife in Baghdad. There might be a couple of younger men, too, if they could get out of bed after a late evening at Elan.
I nodded and the limousine eased down Connecticut Avenue and turned into the Hilton. Joe emerged half an hour later with three gentlemen, none of whom looked at all like my idea of an Arab. None wore a burnoose. Abdullah, a melanchonly-looking, middle-aged man, was sporting a double-knit leisure suit that reminded me of my dentist's working uniform. He was followed by two tall young men who could have melted into any group at American University.
They were anxious, everybody said immediately, to see White Flint, so the Cadillac purred northward through Chevy Chase while I searched for suitable small talk. White Flint, I told them, was one of our more elegent shopping centers. Abdullah removed his melancholy eye from the passing scene at the window and remarked that it would have to go some to surpass the shopping malls of St. Louis.
The young men in the jump seats in front of us ignored us, conducting a leisurely Arabic conversation sotto voce, punctuated with expressive moues of distaste. Joe cast a pleading glance in my direction and I was dredging up some pleasantries when we passed a long gas line on the avenue. All three Arabs leaned forward attentively, peering backward until the line receded into the distance, and then fell to jabbering among themselves in rapid-fire Arabic. I began to feel earning money this way was harder than it sounded.
The limousine slid to a stop at the entrance to White Flint. "I like to buy nice dress," Abdullah said, and the way he said it made it clear that petroleum riches beyond my ken were on call. It was heady, even if once removed, and I felt the challenge.
"Right," I said, leading the way through the Bloomingdale's entrance. "A nice dress."
We lost the young men in Bloomingdale's. They made a few desultory purchases in the kitchenware department and explained in perfect Oxford English that they had decided to return to Georgetown to look up some girls they had met the night before. Abdullah looked relieved. His concentration was single-minded.
"I. Magnin's," I said confidently, and shepherded him onto the escalator. Write it in your copy book 10 times: It is folly to judge a man by his appearance. In I. Magnin's coutourier department, the salesclerk, presumably put off the scent by Abdullah's leisure suit, pointed to a rack of gowns and stood by while we pawed through.
Abdullah's wife, it turned out, was an English size 44, which means not exactly a model figure. Consulting a notebook he withdrew from his pocket, he demanded a tape measure and applied it diligently. We found a little two-piece drifty number for $750 that would do for a start, but his expression made it clear that I had failed to produce the "nice dress." We handed over a fistful of travelers' checks and decided to have lunch and regroup.
In the grill at Columbia Country Club, Abdullah's wife took more shape and form in my mind. Warmed by the glow of a Bloody Mary that we pressed upon him, Abdullah confided that he would have brought her to America, but it was not suitable for the senior member to bring a wife when others could not. She had much wanted to accompany him.
Perhaps he would bring her in the spring. Would Joe inquire for him about a little pied a terre at the Watergate, which he had heard was pleasant. They might be here two or three weeks and hotel rooms were depressing. A nice little apartment would be better. Joe made a note and ordered chicken sandwiches.
Back in the limousine, Abdullah fixed his gaze trustingly on me. "Saks," I said with authority to the driver. Somewhere in the nation's capital there had to be a "nice dress."
Up the elevator and through the corridors to the moderate dress department, where I collected the eye of a salesperson who had waited on me for years. "This," I said with emphasis, "is Abdullah, and he wants to find something rather special for his wife. You might want to get the manager," I added, speaking slowly and distinctly.
She did want to get the manager, and we made quite an impressive little parade to the coutourier department. Here at last proper word had spread and discreet attention was everywhere lavished on us, gossamer gowns tenderly laid out for Abdullah's inspection. But alas for Saks, the tape measure rejected every one. Abdullah measured, shook his head and walked away.
Panic is not too large a word for what I read in Joe's eyes. "Neiman's," I said bravely and led the way.
Ah, Neiman-Marcus. How well they understand the art of the seduction of the wallet, the owners of oil wells, burnoosed or leisure-suited. In the salon a woman came forward, absorbed the situation in the flick of an eye, bowed to me (who had known her in an earlier period in the better dress department) and led us to velvet-covered chairs with the tender solicitude of a nanny whose children have just come in out of the rain.
One by one, her wares were spread before us, all quite equal to the challenge of the tape measure. We bought and bought and bought. If anything was under $1,700, we waved it away. You cannot imagine the headlines of being in a position to reject dresses because their price was too low , their quality not quite up to snuff. It was like a dream.
Abdullah's face took on the studious concentration of a man who has at last found the mother lode. I leaned back and accepted grateful looks as the purchases were made. Tiny self-covered buttons, exquisite hand-painted underslips on which tall cranes seemed to fit among the reeds adorning the overskirt. Beautiful jewel colors, long sleeves and discreet necklines suitable for Baghdad soiress.
"Half of Baghdad will be in love with your wife, Abdullah," said Joe, now all smiles, laying a friendly hand upon his shoulder. Abdullah's smile was small and unworried.
"And now," Abdullah said, turning to me and allowing pudgy hands to trace voluptuous curves on the surface of the leisure suit. "Some . . . ." So we went through the intimate apparel department like children spending their allowance in an ice cream store.
I had lost interest by then in the payment details, feeling sure any difficulties would be worked out. I was locked in a private thought: What if, in grateful recognition of my services, a $1,000 bill should flutter to my lap? I came to when I realized that they were arranging to put Abdullah's total purchases on my Neiman's charge plate.
I gave so violent a start that my purse fell to the floor, scattering wallet, charge plates and aspirin everywhere. Scrambling after them, I had time to think. No Arab gentleman was going to charge thousands of dollars to my account and wing his way out of my life, guaranteed by Joe's company or not.
When I got to my feet, the charge had been shifted to Joe's plate and the multi-colored gossamer delights were being whisked away for wrapping. I drew the first full breath I had managed in five minutes and put out my hand to say goodbye.
"Such a pleasure," I murmured.
"Perhaps we will meet again," said Abdullah, formal in his double-knit, mission accomplished. "Shall I see you at the disco tonight?"
I shook my head and slipped away, mental images of his Baghdad evenings to come floating about my brain like so many scenes from "The Arabian Nights." No $1,000 bill ever fluttered into my lap; Joe's company did pay me a $100 fee.
I probably would have done it for free.