All the needy straight husbands can be found at TJ Maxx around 12:30. There are pants to try on, updated styles of underwear, lawn furniture, moisturizers, and a variety of stemware to browse. The men here make eye contact — very few are stuck to their phones. They’re looking for something — the way a perfect candle smells: natural, not forced, not manipulated — but haven’t found it yet. When eye contact is made, it lingers. This is the universal code for loneliness.
If a woman walks in — she’s browsing like all the rest — the men feel self-conscious about the bags under their eyes. They know they look tired. (Loneliness tires a body more than one would expect.) But tired can be mitigated with a smile. Smiles are a one-more-chance-at-connection. Not a smile with motive, but a smile with modesty. A smile that wants to say more than it has time to. After all, a smile has a lifespan. If it exceeds the span, it morphs into something else, something (the men at TJ Maxx don’t use this word) with intention.
In a life, how many tablecloths can be purchased? There is probably an exact number. But discretion factors in. Discretion restricts things, as it should. It wards off unfocused choices. It makes one realize that one shouldn’t. (Shouldn’t be impulsive, shouldn’t agree to certain combinations of pastel.) It is an evocative portrait to see a man holding a tablecloth wrapped in cellophane longer than he should. No longer is he thinking about the cloth. He’s thinking about the parties he’ll never host. He’s thinking about himself dressed in linen. He’s thinking about chardonnay and effortlessness. About casual banter and what would make a group of people laugh.
Once this man was beautiful. Not beautiful in the magazine way. Beautiful in the I-am-ready-to-love way. But love is a chemical thing and chemistry left untended can turn on itself. He’s insecure about nail fungus. His medications cause dry-mouth. He knows that confidence is important, but love becomes trapped under layers of uncertainty. It falls dormant.
12:30 is the wrapping-up of the lunch hour. Some people have important things to return to. Not all of the men at TJ Maxx do. Some will walk slowly across the parking lot, nothing purchased save wrapping paper and a bottle of mineral water, and beep their remote to unlock the door of the silver SUV that their wife bought for them to keep the children safe while in heavy morning traffic on the way to school.
In order for there to be a man named Radcliffe, there had to first be a little boy — however many years back it takes to call a boy little — anchored with the same name. Little Radcliffe went to school with his name. He heard it called out by the teacher. He heard, on the playground, his name uttered with taunting irony. Radcliffe looked at the nine letters of his name after he wrote them down in marker on a piece of paper. Already his mind was playing tricks on him. Rad was concealing, just under cliffe, the rest of radish. The morpheme cliffe could be pronounced as if he were in a clean and well-lit space — cliff-ay. There might even be a concoction of Spanish coffee with goat’s milk: Cliffé Olé.
This is what got little Radcliffe into trouble. His love for the shapes of letters and their minds-of-their-own meant that he would attend to their universe before the universe of people. Letters could resemble people, but to see people behave as letters — that was more difficult. People, especially adults, came with smells and blemishes. Letters, even the ones that combined to make the word putrid, never smelled, or if they smelled they smelled like paper. Or newly fallen snow. Letters fell into place — their stems, strokes, and stresses — and became their own faces. It was called typeface.
The assignment now was to build a bridge out of plastic straws. Whoever’s bridge could withstand the most pennies placed on top of it — before the bridge buckled under the coins’ weight — earned lunch-with-a-friend in the classroom. Radcliffe did not particularly like the cafeteria, but he couldn’t think of a friend with whom he’d choose to dine. A penny said IN GOD WE TRUST, which was fairly mundane. Using the exact same letters, a penny could say TONGUED WRIST or WINED ROTGUTS or even TOWERING STUD. Straws were different. Who would make a bridge out of straws? Someone out of the past, someone sitting on a stool in front of a soda fountain. Surely engineers had more options. But Radcliffe’s spindly structure crumpled after just nineteen pennies and he did not have lunch-with-a-friend.
At recess, it was not the news of Bethany showing off her underwear that drew Radcliffe’s attention. It was Linda. Up in the sky, a plane appeared to be writing a message. LINDA it said. But already Linda’s L, followed by her slender I, had begun to dissolve. WILL the plane spelled with some effort. U it said next, which was economical. MARRY, but that word took so long to spell out that by now LINDA was nowhere. LINDA was a slither of exhaust heat, a ghost of a name haunting another part of the sky.