He would have preferred a job without the requisite chitchat, but after a year of shoveling snow, digging ditches, replacing rotted siding, and watching “Sanford & Son” reruns, Joe was relieved to get any job—even if it was working for the lesbians. The sign said “Colton Hardware Store,” but people called it the lesbian hardware store when they were in sympathetic company, which was most of the time. From his first day unpacking wrenches and cute little hammers, he could feel the atmosphere pecking at his manhood, all the handy lesbians walking past him as if he were a tool they didn’t need.
All day long the small shop buzzed with friendly parley and awkward laughter. The customers always seemed to have time to linger; they spun monologues about anything G-rated: their dogs, roofs, the stress of their jobs, shoveling feats, theatre debuts at the Congregational Church. Sometimes there was tragedy and this was discussed in low voices: cancer or mental illness, divorce, foreclosure. The owners, Blaze and Amy, gave each customer their full attention, though Joe noticed Amy’s smile was often weary and forced. He watched her one afternoon, leaning on the counter as she listened hard to a customer recount the winter solstice celebration, her expression tense and rusty, barely disguising a cast of impatience.
The conversation had happened in bed, where they had most of their important conversations, usually lasting just long enough for them to slide their legs under cool sheets and recline, fluff up the pillows. For Amy to take her anti-depressants. Blaze suggested, with “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” on the television, that they hire a man to work at the store. “For your days and on Saturdays,” she made her point.
“Someone appealing,” Blaze said matter-of-factly, as if the topic had been discussed already.
“You mean good-looking?” Amy asked.
“Good-looking. Strong. Affable. You know… a man.”
“Actually, I don’t know. I thought we were a women-run operation. I thought that was, you know, the point.”
Blaze shrugged, stared ahead, done discussing.
“OK. I’ll hire a man. You’re the boss.”
This was true. The store was Blaze’s baby. Amy went along because she was in love, still, after all these years. It was a tired, disappointed love; but it would not go away.
Amy sat up straight, alert. “Why not give him my days? I wouldn’t mind time to do other things.”
“What other things?” Blaze scoffed.
“Like work in the garden. And join the 70s choir.”
“I need you at the store. But since you’re always complaining how overwhelmed you are, I thought a colleague might help.”
Was this true? Amy worried. Was she a complainer? She knew she felt tired all the time. And when she returned home from a workday she would remain silent for the entire evening if possible, reading or watching TV or even cleaning the bathroom—anything to avoid uttering a sentence. But she thought she hid her dissatisfaction; she worked hard to appear cheerful and willing to cooperate.
The next day Amy put a sign in the window: “Help Wanted. Apply Within.” By the end of the first week, 23 lesbians had turned in applications, plus a handful of men. Amy struggled with her conscience, looking past qualified women in search of an appealing male. She kept thinking of what Blaze had said so many times in the company of lesbians: that when women do work that falls under the province of men, they do it more skillfully, meticulously, and with less bellyaching.
‘Hypocrite,’ Amy thought as she dusted the blue mason jars.
On Friday, temps below zero, Amy was making keys for the Town Hall staff. Joe wore his Carhartt suit and a Russian style hat with furry flaps. He waited at the front of the store until the others had gone, then took a few steps in.
“May I help you?” Amy shut the register drawer.
“I was wondering if you’ve filled the position.”
He reminded her of a steer: broad shoulders and lean hips, his upper body V-shaped. His hair was tawny and long and his nose was a straight slope. He cited his painting experience and said he’d been a handyman, when really he’d just helped his brother-in-law put a shop over the garage. And even then he mostly held the two by fours and sheetrock in place, handed over the screws and tools.
That night, when Blaze returned from her weekly poker game, Amy told her she’d hired someone.
“No, a moose.”
She’d been on the phone for nearly two hours with her twin sister in San Francisco, felt loved and listened to, which left her attuned to the echo dead center the minute Blaze returned home. Blaze had had a few bourbons and lost $30. She crawled into bed and clicked on the TV.
“What’s his name?” she asked a few minutes later.
“Joe?” She laughed. “Well, at least it isn’t Dick.”
Amy faced the inside of the closet, undoing her bra.
“Did you check his references?
She realized she hadn’t even asked him to fill out an application. “They were excellent,” she lied easily. If Blaze asked to see the application, Amy would claim to have shredded it. Blaze would blame her usual incompetence, roll her eyes or slam something onto a table.
Joe lived on the other side of the mountain where there were mostly pastures and pine forests and slim, winding rivers. The temperatures were undeniably frosty, but they didn’t sink so low that the cold sucked the wind from your gut. His license had been suspended—too many speeding tickets—so he made his way on foot through the crunchy white woods, his huge boots penetrating the icy layer that protected the tender snow. Birch trees were falling every day. They were bent or completely unearthed; their thick, creamy limbs the first to succumb to any onslaught of weather. He could feel the temperature dip as he ascended the mountain, traversed Main Street past the post office, convenience store, and the tiny stone library; until he finally reached the building shared by the pizza place and hardware store. He stomped on the stiff wicker mat then hung his coat on a square nail in back of the store.
In the mornings the store always smelled of fresh coffee; the lesbians made it strong. He put out rainbow-patterned knit hats, as well as the scarves and gloves made by local artisans. The bags of rock salt and sand stayed on the porch so he did just a quick rearranging to make the display enticing. Then he helped himself to some coffee and sat up front by the pellet stove.
It was all too apparent to Blaze that she and Amy had conflicting definitions of appealing. Joe looked carnal, rugged, the kind of man who eats beans out of a can. Blaze had envisioned someone unimposing, with a pleasing smile and laughing eyes, someone of average size, who was garrulous and good with people—not some kind of behemoth. Joe’s mountain-man physiognomy made her uncomfortable, and she banished him to the back of the store so she could forget he was there. Why did everything have to be so difficult? Plus, he and Amy often stood close together while she proffered instructions on the next task for him to begin.
One Saturday, Blaze sat up front by the stove doing paperwork. Joe was arranging the mops, which hung from hooks high on the wall and had needed reorganization for an eternity. Amy stood behind the counter, helping a woman select a pocketknife from the display that rotated and glowed like the moon. Amy stopped it and removed a small purple knife. She handed it to the woman, who held it like it was a treasure found on the ocean floor.
“I love it,” she said. “I’ll take it.”
Joe leaned behind Amy to toss something into the garbage can. The customer raised her eyebrows.
“Who’s he?” she whispered to Amy.
“Oh, that’s Joe. Our new colleague.”
“Good for you,” she said, a hint of something improper in her tone.
So, Amy thought, she wasn’t the only one who found him appealing.
The woman handed over her credit card, fooling with her new acquisition—extracting the tweezers, the toothpick, the knife and the scissors—while Amy ran the card through their antiquated machine.
“You could have steered her toward one of the big ones,” Blaze called out once the customer had gone, leaving the store empty.
“She wanted that one.”
“Right there.” Blaze thundered across the shop and stopped the spinning display with her finger. “It’s a better product.”
Amy said nothing. Joe was sweeping the floor, trying not to listen.
“And it would have cost $75 as opposed to $35.” Blaze retracted her finger and walked back to her chair by the stove. “And she gets three knives and a real screwdriver instead of that little flat head on top of the nail file. Joe,” she pointed to the counter, “could you clean up back there? It looks a wreck.”
“That’s because there are catalogs back here from the l980s.”
“Don’t be hysterical. Come help me pick out watering cans and gardening supplies. That’s your favorite.”
After Joe had cleaned the area behind the register, putting all the pens in a mason jar, stacking the catalogs, making a neat pile of the receipts, he stepped outside for a smoke. Wearing no jacket despite angry cold, he found himself thinking about Amy. She seemed so small, dodging Blaze’s orders and insults. Even though Blaze was shorter, Amy seemed to hover like a tiny hummingbird, never resting because she had to stay in motion. He wished they could share some whisky and a laugh and wondered if her real laugh was more substantial than the chuckle she was always offering up to the customers. He imagined her in his bed—her flat, small body and short, sandy hair. It had been too long to remember the last time he’d slept with a woman he cared about—other than his ex-wife with whom he sometimes fell into bed after a night at the local dive, the two of them behaving like they were still a couple around all the yokels they’d gone to high school with, townies who would drive all the way to the hardware store in Orange rather than give the lesbians their business.
He liked how little Amy talked, unlike his ex-wife who couldn’t keep her mouth shut long enough for a shooting star to fall.
Joe came back in from smoking one Saturday, put his hands in his pockets and kicked the dusty wide plank floor. “I was wondering if you want to see my band play at Marie’s tonight,” he said to Amy. There’ll be the usual loudmouths in the audience, but they’re harmless.”
“I know how to handle loudmouths,” she said. “I live with one.” She smiled, conspiring.
“We sort of suck but the crowd has a good time. I don’t want you to have high expectations. It’s classic rock. Credence. Springsteen. Joe Cocker. My ex-wife does most of the singing.”
She still wasn’t there after the second set. It was snowing hard outside, and the crowd was thin, so the band decided to call it a night. Joe ordered a third whisky. He knew he shouldn’t. He could barely feel his fingers sliding into his back pocket to get his wallet. But he wanted to be drunk. Stupidly, he’d hoped that even lesbians gave it up for guys with guitars. He noticed a woman down the bar trying to catch his eye. She was his usual type: ready décolletage, a tumble of dyed hair, aging gym body. He went over and sat down. She smelled of airy perfume like girls wore in high school. She told him her name—Rita—and he laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“That’s a legitimate question.”
“Do I seem funny? Is there something funny about me?”
“It’s just your name reminded me of the Beatles song.”
“Maybe you should go sit on a different stool,” Rita crossed her legs and shifted her body away from him.
“I’m sorry.” He touched her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m in a strange mood. And this bar makes me act like an asshole. I grew up with everyone in here. Except you.”
“I liked your band,” she said. “You’re a good musician.”
“I suck actually. But thanks.”
“I’m here visiting my cousin.”
“Yeah? Who’s that?”
“Angie Taylor?” He’d slept with Angie only a couple of months before. His world, he knew, was too small. “So Rita, do you want to be friends?”
He cocked his head, trying to look harmless. “Oh yeah? What are the terms?”
“I don’t know… why don’t you tell me a secret. Something you’ve never told anyone.”
This was perfect. Joe knew a secret he was dying to unload. “Alright, he cleared his throat, finished his whisky. “I do have a secret I need to tell someone.”
“I do love a good secret.”
“But you can’t tell your cousin. Or anyone else around here.”
“That’s the whole point of a secret.” She put her hand on his thigh and squeezed, then moved it up higher. “You can trust ol’ Rita the meter maid.”
“Lovely meter maid,” he said. “I think I’m in love with a lesbian.”
Rita laughed. “Oh, wow. Like a full-on carpet-muncher or a bisexual? Or a divorcee who’s experimenting? Because a lot of ladies experiment. The lesbians are just hanging around, you know, waiting for us to fall off the hetero wagon.”
“No, I’m pretty sure this lady’s a lifer.”
They went back to his place where they drank more whisky and had sex with most of their clothes on.
“Sometimes in winter, I don’t feel like being naked,” Rita said when Joe tried to take off her shirt. Turned out she was a nurse. Something about that made Joe feel bad; he wished he were going to have a chance to love her since nurses are quality people and here he was licking his wounds. He hated how much like his father he was: directionless, libidinous, perpetually poor. He pulled Rita onto his lap and held her there with the radio playing the Rolling Stones and the silent TV emitting shifting light.
“This is nice,” he said. “Are you hungry? I’ll make pancakes.”
She gave him a flurry of a kiss. “Thanks, hon. But I need to get back to Angie’s.”
She hopped off his lap and put on her shoes. “I had a great time though. You’re a real tiger. Honest.”
He’d just assumed she’d want to spend the night; they always did. He burped and tasted cheap whisky, like soap, and the bacon cheeseburger he’d had for dinner.
Amy woke early in the morning, made coffee while the darkness was thinning out and sat at the long walnut table eating Cheerios and watching the slope alongside the house begin to lighten; it was always the first spot to reveal the nascent grass and the hay laid down over the garden in late fall. Wouldn’t be long she’d be outside in the dirt in bare feet. She couldn’t wait to work in the garden; it kept her despair at bay. But as she looked at the plot now, it seemed to be straining against the same lack of love that swaddled her tight as wet, cold clothes. She mused about how Joe could manage the store on his own one day a week so she could have another day off. When they’d first bought the store Amy was only supposed to work three days a week. Back then she sang in the chorus, threw pots that sometimes sold at crafts fairs, planted and tended her huge garden, and though she enjoyed the friendliness of the shop and admired Blaze’s tenacity in putting the whole thing together (she also delighted in how subversive it was—two lesbians running a small-town hardware store), she had never intended to work there six days a week. But Blaze pushed and Amy succumbed. Now the house had gone to hell because they were both too tired to keep it up.
“Morning,” Blaze stumbled sleepily into the kitchen.
“Morning.” Amy hated how cute Blaze looked first thing in the morning in her oversized teeshirt and flannel pajama bottoms, shuffling in wool socks, her white hair a mess. Still, after all these years, no one looked better.
“You’re up early,” Amy said.
“I thought we could eat together.” She filled a huge bowl with Cheerios, grabbed the carton of orange juice and poured a tall glass. “I’ve been thinking it’s time to fire Joe,” she said. “I think it was a mistake to hire a man.”
“It’s a little late now.”
“It’s not too late. It’s my decision. A woman would be better. You said so yourself.”
“I said so and you ignored me. We can’t fuck with him like that. He needs the job.” She put her cereal bowl in the sink and thundered past Blaze without looking at her, took the stairs two at a time with unprecedented vigor, surprised at how energizing anger could be.
Joe stood examining his face in the bathroom mirror. He could see himself getting old. He did 100 pushups and 200 crunches and watched a morning news program, mainly for the sports coverage. He knew he should shower. Instead he sat on his bed in his sweatpants and teeshirt. He stared out the back window at the apple orchard, replaying the sex with Rita, trying to push away the gaping hole he felt inside him, something like anger and hunger and incipient flu. The branches glowed in the lacy dawn light and he began to cry. He hated crying, but sometimes it overtook him and there was no holding it in. Best thing was to get somewhere private and expectorate as quickly as possible. He knew love was finished for him. Here he was, obsessed with a woman who obviously had no feeling for him and never would. He didn’t even have a house. Or kids. He thought how he shouldn’t drink; it always left him feeling sorry for himself.
Given the chance, he felt he could be kind to Amy. But maybe she wasn’t given to kindness. Not everyone was. And historically he was not, in fact, kind; he was more often aloof and truculent. He wondered if maybe there was something very wrong with him. For example, the way too much conversation made him feel nauseated. And why had he never had a pet? Not even a cat or a turtle. His ex-wife had compared him to a coconut—hard on the outside, hard on the inside. Not worth the trouble. What if he stayed at the hardware store for years, pining over Amy? He could waste his whole life—what was left of it, what he hadn’t already wasted. The collar of his teeshirt was wet and he needed to blow his nose. He ran the shower and stripped off his clothes, glad Blaze would be there today so he wouldn’t be tempted to ask Amy why she hadn’t come to the bar.
He stood with his face needled by sharp, taut water–like a weapon–and decided he would start over, become a new and improved version of himself. No more longing for Amy. No more avoiding conversation. No more resenting Blaze. He would still play in the band, but he would not bring strangers home—except maybe once a year, because, after all, a man has needs. He would exercise each day, and in spring he would plant a garden. He would visit his mother every Sunday without fail. Also, he would cook for her. Maybe if he worked at the hardware store for another year they’d give him a raise; he could save up some money and buy a house. He’d had a house when he was married. He complained about it until he had to relinquish it to his ex-wife. Then it became Shan-gri-la. And he wanted a dog: a big, meaty mixed breed who would accompany him in the woods. Maybe the lezzies would let him bring his dog to work. The thought of having a dog made him cry harder because dogs wait at home all alone while their masters go out into the world. And there’s so much work involved in having a dog. He’d have to train it and walk it. Still. It would force him to grow up. “Grow up, you prick,” was his ex-wife’s favorite refrain. He’d get one of those really good dogs—maybe a lab-shepherd mix—that wouldn’t need to be on a leash, and name it Mountain. Blaze wouldn’t want it in the store, but Amy wouldn’t mind. Maybe she’d love the dog and it would almost be like she loved him. She’d pet the dog and it would almost be like she was touching him. He stepped out of the shower onto the bathmat in the frigid bathroom, wrapped his hair tightly in a towel and used a second towel for his body—rushing so the chill wouldn’t find its way inside him.
And with Mountain, Amy would see how decent and worthy he was, not to mention abstemious (because that would also have to happen), and she would fall in love with him. Then they would buy the hardware store from Blaze and they’d throw all that penny candy and smelly soap into a dumpster. They’d get a real line of paint—Benjamin Moore—and stock more power tools. And people would talk—they always do—about how Amy used to be one of two lesbians who owned the store, but Joe had come along and set things right. Convinced now that everything would turn out as it ought to, he pulled on his clothes and left his wet hair to freeze up into icicles in the hard luck cold.