Gordon saw a rump in the air. An enormous rump, with purple fabric stretched taut over its rolling curves to form an oddly soothing landscape. A woman was on the ground, hands flat on the asphalt, peering under a silver Mercedes.
Engine trouble? Some sort of leak? Gordon edged away. The workings of everything—from staplers to carburetors—baffled Gordon. This was a lifelong source of humiliation, made worse by the fact that people tended to turn to him for just such advice. It was his appearance, no doubt. Gordon had regular features, terrific posture and the tucked-in look of a Scout leader. At times he wished for his grouchy son’s receding chin and myopic look. No one mistook Kyle for someone with know-how about ignition switches.
The woman was emerging now. She backed up, straightened her arms and heaved herself up. As she rose into the sunlight something glinted off her black tee shirt, which Gordon noticed was from the famous Aquarium down the coast. A dense school of tiny silver anchovies glittered across the vast sea of her chest. The dazzling display disappeared as the woman leaned to brush the grit off the knees of her purple pants, after which she lumbered to the back of the car and lowered herself to the ground again.
Gordon knew that to stand there and watch would lead to the expectation on anyone’s part, including his own, that he offer assistance. He spun around and found himself staring at a Hallmark store window display leaping with leprechauns. Freckle-faced sprites in green plaid coats peered out from behind oversized shamrocks and buckets brimming with gold. Inside, a cashier was ringing up a pair of glittery green Derbies and laughing with a customer. Here was an entire industry Gordon had never considered. Legions of people designed, manufactured, marketed, delivered and sold geegaws for major and minor holidays and personal milestones, which, in turn, legions of others shopped for with relish. There were all kinds of jobs, when you thought about it.
Gordon checked his watch. He’d promised Barbara to come straight home after the interview this time instead of wandering around for hours, which he’d been guilty of lately. It was hard to watch his kind wife try once again to muster her confidence in him. Her propped-up cheer was flagging. She spoke less and nodded more, as if she were gathering herself for some kind of decision or hard-to-deliver statement. And Kyle? He acted like he didn’t care one way or the other, which, of course, maybe he didn’t, which could, of course, be viewed as either good or bad.
But Gordon had good news this time. Just two hours before, he had felt the interviewing manager’s vigorous handshake and heard his hearty “Welcome aboard!” Only Gordon was having a hard time imagining himself in the lunchroom with the other red-apronned “associates” of the home repair emporium even if his job was just working the returns counter. They would all talk shop and rehash weekend DIY projects. They would know how to help customers find the correct pipe wrench on aisle eight. Gordon would be trading a now-familiar worry about unemployment, which at least held the prospect for some kind of unimagined good outcome, for a fresh daily panic. He needed to—what did the kids say these days? Man up?
Suddenly, the purple pants lady’s face sprung up between two leprechauns. A reflection. She was standing behind the car, staring at Gordon’s back. What if she called to him? Gordon took a step to the right and pressed his palms against the glass door, unleashing a jingle of tiny bells and a blast of potpourri.
He paused inside the door, taking in the display of cards for the grad, the dad, the coach, the new baby, the bereaved. All moods represented—bawdy, mournful, cloying, apologetic, blank. A woman with a purse over her arm was reading and replacing card after card from a circular rack labeled Friendship. Gordon eased by her and took up a position against the wall.
After a moment, a very tan woman in a denim dress called from the register, “May I help you find something?”
Gordon flushed, exposed—the only man among the handful of customers, all of whom had lifted their heads to look at him.
“Just waiting for my wife!” he blurted. Why had he said that? He better leave. Gordon glanced out the window. The Mercedes was backing out of its spot. At the wheel, a white-haired man wearing aviator sunglasses, alone.
The denim lady looked up as Gordon headed for the door.
“I’ll just go see what’s keeping her,” he explained.
The purple rump had moved one car over. It angled up now from beneath a maroon minivan. Had this woman no idea what kind of picture she presented? Surely he had the right to stare now. The rump wagged as she swept her arms back and forth beneath the car. Then she backed up and sat on her haunches. She snapped her head round to throw her brown hair out of her face. It landed in a smooth pageboy, the ends turning neatly under, bracketing a series of chins. Gordon was surprised by her hair, which was thick and glossy and the warm, rich color of expensive wood.
She caught him looking.
“Wretched little bugger!” she said.
“I beg your pardon?” Gordon stammered.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to give me a hand?” she said, clearly not expecting anything of him.
“A hand? With what?” Gordon asked. “What is it that you’re doing, exactly?”
“Trying to get this goddamn bird out from under this car,” she said, hoisting herself up and plodding around to the other side of the van, intent on her mission, ablaze with purpose. Welcome aboard! Gordon imagined someone saying to her and clasping her wide, can-do hand.
“Why do you have to get him?” Gordon asked.
“Because he can’t fly and he’s going to get run over. That’s why,” she said, dropping out of sight again. “That’s why” echoed in Gordon’s head, its cadence a playground retort.
“If you could just block the other side,” her voice called from under the car, “I might be able to get my hands on him.”
A group of laughing women carrying leftovers in waxed boxes walked by, falling silent as they heard this exchange and glancing from Gordon to the protruding rump.