Jeff Mason hung up the store phone, pleased. He’d convinced a brokerage firm downtown to hold a Hawaiian Nights event; every employee at the brokerage firm would get a Christmas bonus to spend online at the Hawaiian Nights store Jeff managed. He smiled as he realized that the event meant a performance bonus of $350, a nice morning’s work. Jeff kept smiling until he calculated that the bonus represented 0.8% of the school loans he’d face when he finished law school next year.
He forced another smile onto his face for the customer now entering his store. Jeff’s knowledge of formal women’s attire remained close to non-existent – Hawaiian Nights was a mall chain store selling upscale beachwear – but he had learned that a brooch like the one this woman was wearing meant money and the willingness to spend it. This woman wore a brooch nearly the size of her fist.
“How can I help you?” he asked, approaching her. She stood by the rack of Ultra Kona sunglasses, the frames ranging in colors from Vapor to Glacier.
A puzzled look crossed the woman’s face as she studied Jeff. He waited. He’d learned that waiting was vital to selling. Some customers expected nothing less. He tugged at the plastic lei around his neck and waited some more.
He wore a cotton, short sleeve Hawaiian shirt with a print of sea shells. In the store, with the heat kept high, the shirt was fine. After his shift ended, on the walk to his car parked in the mall garage, the December wind would knife through his coat as if he wore no shirt at all.
A few more seconds passed until the woman said, “You’re Jeff – Jeff Mason, aren’t you?”
He’d occasionally been recognized in the store before, by people remembering him from school or lacrosse. Depending on the speaker, he might reply, “Guilty as charged,” or “You got me.” With this woman, who was around sixty with silver hair flawlessly styled, he answered simply, “Yes. I am.”
“I’m Claudia Argent,” she went on. “Drew Argent’s mother. Do you remember Drew?”
Jeff felt a smile fill his face, this smile very much unforced. “Of course I remember Drew. We were classmates and teammates at Lakeshore Country Day all four years. It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Argent. How’s Drew doing?”
“Drew is doing just fine, thank you. He’s selling for my brother’s real estate firm. I’m looking for a gift to celebrate — he just sold a house in River Forest.”
“Well done, Drew.”
“Yes. The house is six bedrooms, four baths.”
“A nice commission, I’m sure.”
“Yes. The buyer is a partner in my husband’s law firm.”
“Which law firm is that?”
Mrs. Argent’s precisely trimmed eyebrows arched upward at a question she clearly did not expect from someone working in a mall store.
“Kirkland and Skaddon. On North LaSalle.”
Jeff knew the firm. They’d been around since before the First World War and had produced a number of governors, senators and a member of President Hoover’s cabinet. The word among his law school classmates was that the firm hired only associates who could bring family business with them. Jeff had started applying for legal jobs after graduation, but did not bother applying to Kirkland and Skaddon.
He hurried to fill a less than comfortable silence. “What do you think Drew would like, Mrs. Argent?”
“I was hoping you could tell me, Jeff.”
“Has he mentioned anything he’d like?”
“He never does. I can tell you that last winter when Drew stayed at our condo in Maui he complained about his shirt. And his sandals. The shirt was too tight and the sandals too loose. Do you have shirts you could show me? Sandals?”
“Shirts we have. Sandals too,” he replied. They crossed the store to the footwear section. Jeff turned to face Mrs. Argent again. This close he could tell she wore contacts, tinted violet.
He informed Mrs. Argent, “We have sandals, flip flops, and slip ons. In beige, carbon, metallic and half a dozen other colors. We can of course order for you, if you’d like. I can expedite the order, have it delivered in time for Christmas. If you’d like. It would be my pleasure.”
“We’ll see,” she told him. She spoke in a distant, dismissive tone. Jeff waited for her to speak again.
She looked at but did not touch the sandals on display. “He’s a size eight and a half. Drew gets his small feet from me, I’m afraid.”
Jeff had forgotten about Drew’s tiny feet, which had been the source of some good- natured teasing in the high school lacrosse locker room. Jeff’s shoes were size eleven and a half. Andy Block, the other scholarship athlete in their class, who was the son of a captain in the Chicago PD, wore size thirteen.
“We have every size sandal there is, I think. And, as I say, we can order anything you’d like.”
“Yes,” she said once more. He went back to waiting. There were maybe another six Christmas shoppers in the store, forcing the sales clerks on shift with Jeff to scramble. Most of the shoppers clutched coupons for half priced belts. The belts were made of rope to imitate a castaway’s and were available in black or white only. He continued to wait for Mrs. Argent. She said, “Let me look at those sandals right there, in size eight and a half.”
“The sandals come in whole sizes only-“
“So you don’t have eight and a half.”
“No.” He added defensively, “I’m sorry, but no one has half sizes. All you have to do is order the next whole size up. For Drew that would be size-“
“How about the flip flops? No half sizes there either?”
“No,” he replied, apologetic now. “But, really, Mrs. Argent, this is done all the time. They’re sandals and flip flops. They’re supposed to be loose.”
“All right.” She spoke as if making a concession and a foolish one at that. “I’ll take that style right there. It will have to be size nine, won’t it?”
“This is the Beach Bum sandal.”
“The color?” he asked.
“It doesn’t matter to me. Size nine.”
Throughout the exchange she never raised her voice, but a barely perceptible shrug of her shoulders let Drew know he was disappointing her. He located the shoebox with a pair of size nine Beach Bum sandals, the lifeless brown of dirt. Mrs. Argent made no move to accept the box, so Jeff had to hold onto it.
“And you said you’d like to look at some shirts, Mrs. Argent?” His voice now had a beaten slowness to it.
“This is our best selling style,” Jeff began, when they reached the shirts. He could have delivered the spiel in his sleep. “It’s called Shark Fin. Seventy percent silk. The background shade is called keg party blue. And this one is luau pink. Put on one of these and you can feel the ocean breeze.”
“I don’t think so,” Mrs. Argent said.
“Pocket?” he asked. He was surprised at how loud his voice had suddenly become, a near shout.
More quietly he said, “Would Drew like a pocket on his shirt, do you think?”
“Do you think a pocket matters, Jeff?”
He did not answer. For a moment he listened to the ordinary sounds of his shift: a co-worker thanking a customer for a sale; the phone ringing; the store music station with the Beach Boys wishing they all could be California girls. The stale smell of fried food drifted in from the food court.
Again he waited, this time to calm down. “Parrots,” he said at last.
“Beg pardon?” For the first time Mrs. Argent spoke in a tone that was less than confident.
“Parrots,” Jeff repeated. “I remember Drew liked to sketch parrots. He did it during study period when we were supposed to be working on our Latin. Parrots on branches of trees. Parrots in lots of tropical colors. He liked parrots.”
“Let me show you a shirt with parrots on it.”
She bought two shirts with parrots, which Jeff thought was well done on his part, since he had made up the story of Drew and the parrots.
He watched Mrs. Argent descend the escalator. He kept watching her until she disappeared on the far side of the fountain. He wondered why he been so angered by her reaction to the shoe sizes. Jeff’d always taken some pride in his ability to keep his frustration under control. Giving it some thought, he decided resentment was the more accurate word.
Jeff informed a co-worker he’d be taking an early lunch. He grabbed his trusts and estates textbook; he had a final exam that night and in the longer Christmas hours at the store there hadn’t been much time to study.
But he didn’t study and he didn’t eat lunch. He thought about Drew Argent: a nice enough, quiet, not especially talented lacrosse teammate. Drew’s grandfather had played on the first lacrosse team at Lakeshore Country Day.
After their senior lacrosse season, the Argents held a team party at their house in Winnetka. Sharing a too-crowded bench outside the mall Starbucks, his textbook still unopened, he thought back to that party. Jeff went with Andy Block, who borrowed his family car, a decade-old Tercel, to drive out.
Jeff remembered sitting by himself on the edge of the diving board of the Argent backyard swimming pool. It was a warm, breezeless late May night and Jeff sat dripping from his last dive into the pool. The memory came back so precisely he could just about feel the drops of water on his back. There was, he clearly remembered thinking, absolutely no breeze at all.
That was the first time he’d been in a backyard swimming pool. Now that he thought about it, it was probably the last time he’d been in a backyard swimming pool.
He’d been of course aware of the great difference in family income between Drew and his Winnetka neighbors on the lacrosse team and scholarship boys like Andy and himself. The difference was impossible to overlook. It was the difference between taking the school bus or arriving on campus in a new Mercedes acquired as a seventeenth birthday present. But the difference hadn’t seemed all that important to him at the time.
He returned to Hawaiian Nights well before his allotted half hour lunch was over. The store was crowded and his co-workers needed him there.
Jeff had been lucky arriving to work that morning when he snagged a parking space not even one hundred yards from the mall doors. Even in that distance, the wind, as he knew it would, ripped through his coat and thin Hawaiian shirt as he walked to his car. By the time he reached the car he felt as if talons had swooped in and shredded his chest. In Chicago they call the winter wind the hawk.