[T]hree men stand near the television section of the store, leaning on oversized washing machines, watching the AFC title game. It’s Sunday, they’re in shirts and ties and waiting for customers to enter Starlight Warehouse.
“Bucs versus Raiders.”
“Bucs versus Raiders, get it?”
“Pirates versus Pirates.”
“Sure, so what? Yeah, okay, that’s cool.”
“I so don’t care who goes to the Super Bowl,” Walter Tripp says. He has a condo in the valley, a gut, a wife with flaming red hair and breast implants, and his two sons, twins, are in college now. One is going to UCLA, the other attends Pierce College. “They’re all boring. Not one player I care for. If the Steelers had made it, or even the Rams…”
“Cheer up.” Sonny Brown’s white shirt is not white anymore, his collar too wide, showing off an orange T-shirt underneath. “Next week you’ll watch it no matter what. And anyway, the Titans are not done, yet.” Sonny seems to have stopped growing older, and each year celebrates his 26th birthday. The other men have lost count. They are pretty sure he hasn’t hit forty yet.
Peter, tall, bulky, but impeccably dressed, walks over to one of the big-screen TVs and switches over to the Golden Globes. Halle Berry stands on the red carpet, donning a pale blue dress. Her jewelry glitters in the sun and flashlights.
“Whoa,” Sonny exclaims.
“No kidding.” Walter forgets his football misery for a moment and stares at famous necklines.
Peter has a bad case of longing. He’s the oldest of the three, and missed chances weigh on him. Like rheumatism, his illness is bearable, but today is a bad day. Yesterday was bad too. It has been a bad week. And while his life, after many years of turmoil, is going steady and without heartbreak, he’s become irritable, out of focus, a blur to himself.
A couple enters the store. He’s in cut-off shorts and mirrored sunglasses, she in a pinkish dress. “Someone needs a tan,” Sonny remarks, “and it’s not the guy.”
The couple looks around, seems to be searching for something, then walks to the back of the store, not passing by the three men. Salma Hayek appears on screen, and Walter whistles. “Who’s that, the guy she’s with?”
“Edward Norton,” Peter says, shifting his weight to his left leg. He’s wearing black sneakers, because dress shoes will make his legs hurt. Even so, after a day at the store – employees are not allowed to sit down, and there are no chairs in the store anyway – his bones feel as though he has been rubbing them together to start a fire. In September, he’ll be sixty.
“Looks young,” Sonny says.
“She’s young,” Walter says.
“How young?” Peter asks. Something claws at his heart and stomach, like hunger, a hunger beyond burgers and fries or spaghettis and meatballs and bologna sandwiches. These last days he’s felt young again, painfully young, back in a time when love, ambition, vanity, and sex were all the same thing. Peter’s ribs feel cracked. At night, when he comes home to his girlfriend, he doesn’t know how to satisfy this hunger.
Suddenly the girl in the pinkish dress stands in front of them, no one has seen her coming. She wears thick glasses, and there’s a little opening in her dress, just where her full breasts meet. Her skin is milky-white, and dark fuzz covers her arms.
“Can we help you, ma’am?” Peter asks, who has noticed the girl’s golden wedding band. She looks awkward, out of place, yet he thinks he can smell how stubborn the girl can be.
“I’m here because of the ad.”
“The ad?” Walter asks, peering past the girl at Nicole Kidman. “What ad?”
She takes her while to respond. “You’re looking for a salesperson.” The girl’s voice is just above a hush.
Instead of an answer, the girl fishes for a neatly folded newspaper page in her purse. Then she reads it aloud. “Starlight Warehouse seeking salesperson. No experience necessary.”
“Do you have any experience?” Sonny wants to know.
“It says ‘no experience necessary.’”
“But do you have any?”
“Not in retail. I worked in a bakery once.”
Beyoncé Knowles smiles into the cameras and answers one of Joan Rivers’ questions about her upcoming movie, while the Raiders go ahead on a Rich Gannon touchdown. “Yes,” Sonny raises a fist.
The girl turns around to see what has caused his outburst. “So are you still looking for someone?”
“I have no idea,” Walter says. At six he can close the store, count the money, go home to the valley in his new yellow Mustang. He wanted the GT, but his wife convinced him that they didn’t need an eight-cylinder car. Even so, it’s snappy. He thinks about buying GT badges. They can’t be so hard to come by.
Peter thinks about upstate New York, where he grew up and studied art in the sixties. Sometimes he turns on the weather channel just to check how cold it is in Buffalo. In Buffalo there were always friends, places to meet other artists or people who mistook themselves for painters, like himself. There was always time for coffee, someone could give you a ride in a beat-up car, and cold lips and front-seat romps were offered. In his memories, it is always getting dark, starting to cool off. The cold was his companion and gave him sharp contours. The bright sun has erased him.
“I can take your name and phone number,” Peter offers and lifts himself up from the Maytag. “The manager isn’t in today. You might have to come back during the week.”
The girl insists. “It says, ‘Come any time.’”
“Look,” Peter says, and prepares for a hard-ass answer. But his eyes catch sight of her blue ballerinas, and he has to smile. They look like kids’ shoes, and something about the girls’ white skin and the baby colors she’s wearing touches him. “Why don’t you come with me to the back?” he asks. “I’ll leave a note for the manager. He’ll call you tomorrow.”
He walks ahead to the back of the showroom, toward a door that says “Employees Only.” He notices that his armpits are damp, and that his feet, as always, are cold after spending the day with the A/C on.
Near the back, at the boombox display, the guy in shorts — the husband – is opening and closing CD-players. He’s tall, not thin, though not big either. When he hears steps coming toward him he turns.
It takes Peter several moments to notice that he’s staring at the guy. Armpits and cold feet are forgotten, then suddenly hurt with an intensity that make him wince. He’s still walking with the girl in his back, but staring into the guy’s face. The guy’s eyes are not interested though, and after scanning the situation, he turns back to the boom boxes.
It’s hot in the back room, the A/C hasn’t been working here for several weeks. “Now, now,” Peter says when the girl has entered the room, tentatively, it seems, as if she’s expecting him to come on to her, grab and fondle her. He laughs for no apparent reason.
Tonight his girlfriend wants him to take her to the Grove, for dinner and a movie. She was once in the show business, thirty years ago when she had just come to L.A. and wanted to be a star like everyone else. She has a small house in West Hollywood her ex left her, and maybe one of these days Peter is going to move in with her. Maybe he’ll marry Rita. If she wants to.
“Now.” He opens and closes and re-opens drawers searching for application forms. He can’t find any. His fingers leave wet marks on whatever they touch. “You know,” he says and smiles broadly, more broadly than he intended to, “you can just write it down on this one.” He offers her a piece of paper out of the fax machine. “That should do the trick. Name, name….address, phone number…that should do the trick.” His chest heaves ridiculously.
His uneasiness seems to make the girl uncomfortable. She takes a long time writing down the information, looks up at him frequently, as if to make sure that he’s still standing at a safe distance.
Finally he takes the sheet from her. Finally he can look at her name. “Diedrichs,” he says.
“Yes,” the girl says.
“Good name,” he laughs. Winningly, he hopes.
“Oh nothing. I like your name. You’re married to that young gentleman waiting outside?”
“Yes.” Her answer sounds like a question.
“Well, this should do the trick,” Peter says, and folds the paper and puts it in his breast pocket.
“Won’t you leave the manager a note?” she says.
“Oh yes, certainly,” he says, and is looking for something else to write on.
“I can go then, right?” the girl asks. Even in his nervousness, Peter can tell that she doesn’t have any hopes to ever hear back from the manager.
“Yes. Enjoy your evening,” he says.
“Thanks for your help.”
He waits thirty seconds, counts them on his large digital watch he bought when he was still trying to run two miles every day. Rita had made him, but has softened her stance since. Peter thinks of Western New York. How cold is it going to be there? A blurry picture appears in his mind, the memory of a photograph that shows him shoveling snow in a driveway. His wife had taken it. Their little son was standing next to him, only nose and eyes visible behind hat and scarf.
At thirty, he throws open the door to the showroom. The girl and her husband are still talking. She looks up and spots Peter, and Peter nods and walks past the couple. He’s a head taller than the young guy, who doesn’t look like what, thirty-six, thirty-seven? Peter tries to count years, but loses his nerve.
He joins his colleagues in the TV section. The Raiders have taken what seems to be a commanding lead while Renee Zellweger looks white and wiry next to a gray Richard Gere. Gere must be his age, Peter thinks, well, maybe a few younger.
He’s out of breath, though he hasn’t walked fast or far. He tries to make sense of the TV pictures. The Raiders are up, the Golden Globes on, yet Peter only notices how noisy it is in the store with fans screaming and cheering at both events.
His son Erich is now leaving the store with his wife. He has a hand on her back, seems to gently push her. She must be desperate for a job. They must be desperate to make some money.
From behind a window that has the newest sales smeared all over it, Peter follows the two walking to their car, a tiny old Honda. They look nice together, Erich looks nice, nice, well, he looks like, not exactly, but pretty much…why didn’t she notice how similar they look? It’s me, Peter wants to shout through the glass, over the noise of yet another Raiders touchdown. He doesn’t. He watches the Honda drive off and turn west on Sixth.
Before closing the store, Peter walks into the back room and puts Elena’s information on the manager’s desk. He leaves, then comes back and stares at the paper, not able to pick it up, not willing to leave it behind in the store. In the end, he grabs it, makes a ball out of Elena’s application and throws it into the paper basket. He leaves again and comes back again and Sonny and Walter’s voices are following him. “Hurry up,” they shout. “What’s taking you so long?”
Peter fishes the paper from the receptacle and stuffs it into his pocket. Maybe, he thinks, maybe something can be done. He wonders what his son is doing in L.A. Is he an actor or scriptwriter? He wonders how much his son is making. For a moment Mary Diedrichs appears in front of him, as she sometimes does, slim, dark Mary. In the seconds before his thoughts arrive at the break-up and what he calls his escape, his chest heaves and his lungs won’t do their work.
He carries the crumpled paper around for a week.
Stefan Kiesbye’s first book, Next Door Lived a Girl, won the Low Fidelity Press Novella Award. The novel Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone, was published by Penguin in 2012, and Slate editor Dan Kois named it one of the best books of the year. Both novels have been translated into numerous languages. The literary thriller Messer, Gabel, Schere, Licht (Knife, Fork, Scissors, Flames) was recently released by Tropen Verlag/Klett-Cotta, Germany. Kiesbye teaches at Eastern New Mexico University.