The Need, Part 1: Morning
"Here's what you're looking for," the saleswoman blurted. She jerked an overeager finger at a synthetic down jacket. "This new stuff acts like down material - you know, goose feathers - except it keeps you warm when it's wet."
Jake shifted his weight to his left foot. The century-old wooden floor creaked beneath a threadbare 1970s-burnt-orange carpet.
"I don't know," said Jake. "I mean, my budget right now isn't...I think...well, I better hold back on buying any luxury items. I still need to pay for the gas to get out there. You know."
The woman made an attempt to chuckle sympathetically, but the sympathy was sabotaged by her own phoniness, and instead of gliding cheerfully out of her belly, the chuckle came blasting out of her lungs, slightly wet and almost palpable.
Jake coughed, embarrassed for her.
"Oh, I hear ya," she chortled. "Gas prices are crazy these days."
'Hmmm...gas prices are lower than they've been in a decade,' thought Jake, as politely as he could.
The corners of the woman's mouth were turned upwards, but Jake thought he could see a strained, perpetual sadness in her eyes.
Jake smiled casually and rocked back on his heels. He slid his fingers into his back pockets.
"What's your name again?" asked Jake, though she had not told him her name in the first place.
"I'm Vivian," said Vivian.
Jake watched as the fog of sadness lifted from her eyes.
"What's your name?" asked Vivian.
"Jake," said Jake.
Jake and Vivian nodded and shook hands. They took extra care to lessen the strength of their grip simultaneously, in direct proportion to each other and at the exact same moment.
The handshake is the most valued social dance in America.
Jake was starting to feel guilty about lying to Vivian. He had pumped a full tank of gasoline into his Subaru Crosstrek when he arrived in town not fifteen minutes before. He had more than the amount of gas he needed to last the hour-and-a-half drive to the trailhead, and still plenty after that for the three-hour drive back home.
This woman was old enough to own the store, but here she was, working a college-kid job, clearly needing money from the sales commission, and Jake was denying her this opportunity for reasons unjustified and not defined.
"Well," said Jake, effortlessly making eye contact with Vivian, "forget about the gas money. The price of gas is arbitrary, anyway."
Jake looked down at the jacket. Midnight-blue, sleek, inviting, perched on a wooden hanger on the discount rack, nestled against more jackets born of the latest backpacking technologies, aesthetic marriages of mind and material available for just seventy-five percent of the suggested retail price, until Sunday.
Jake had purchased his last backpacking jacket at this same store ten years ago, during his senior year of college. He had no idea where it was now...and his ski jacket's bulk was only ever an accepted nuisance....
Jake took a deep breath, feigning hesitation.
"I suppose...I can buy my coat and wear it, too."
A genuine smile spread across Vivian's face. Her teeth were stained with the remnants of ten-thousand of coffee-soaked mornings and decades of cigarette breaks.
Vivian raised a bony hand into the air and slid the jacket off its hanger with her thin fingers. Clutching the neck of the jacket, she outstretched her arm and held the jacket front of Jake's heart.
"Why don't you try it on first? You don't wanna get out there and have to scrap it because the size don't fit." The corners of her mouth flickered playfully.
Jake clutched the jacket. "Thanks."
His hands were dotted with marker swipes, orange and green and red reminders of how necessary this weekend was for his personal wellness. Every teacher needs a getaway.
Vivian lifted her arm and aimed it at the back wall of the store. "Dressing room is back there. You'll see it."
Vivian let a smile break out as she strolled out of the room. She was required to wait patiently near the register as customers dressed themselves in their about-to-be new clothing.
Jake walked briskly to the back of the store, opened a thin, creaky door, and entered the wood-paneled dressing room. It was decorated tastefully with faded Polaroids of outdoor adventures some people had while living in the early 1980s.
Jake was struck by the realization that he could have tried the jacket on outside the dressing room and still maintained his decency, as he was the only customer in the store, and as far as he could tell, he was the human being who was shopping downtown at the moment.
Early Saturday mornings in October find college towns at the apex of biological slowness.
Jake slid his arms through the jacket's sleeves and tugged it tight around his upper body. He snapped the brass buttons with automated muscle memory.
It fit. Jake knew it even without looking in the mirror.
Jake eyeballed his reflection. Thirty-two years had carved lines into his face, framing his features with creases formed by laughter and wrinkles forged with worrying, etching the tracks of his experiences on his face, promising to carve and carve and carve until eventually, like all old men, his face will be hidden behind those tracks and in this way people will come to know Jake's experiences before he himself has a chance to speak of them.
Jake walked out of the dressing room. His about-to-be new jacket was folded neatly over his arm. He wanted to give Vivian's boss the impression that she was a valuable asset to the business, that he was proud to own this jacket because of Vivian's investment in his buying experience.
Jake didn't expect to even remember the employees from this store, but going through the motions of having compassion for other human beings validated Jake's efforts to think of himself as a likeable person.
There was a man standing at the register in the next room, nursing a Thermos of lukewarm tea, huddled over an outdated copy of Outdoor magazine, eyes unmoving, intently still, listening to nothing and everything all the same. This man was the king of his small retail castle. He really couldn't care less whether or not Jake bought the goddamn coat anyway. He was the boss. He was a good guy. If you asked anybody who knew him, they'd tell you that they liked him a whole awful lot. He was a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association.
A sympathy-drum beat out a cadence in the woman's honor on the inside of Jake's chest. He, too, had once worked for a straight-laced prick.
"Good morning," piped Jake as he approached the register. "Vivian sure knows how to sell a..." Jake shifted the wad of jacket around with his hands until the tag emerged. "...a therm-oh-ball jacket."
The boss's brain told the boss's mouth to smile. The mouth obeyed and slid its greasy lips over the boss's slimy teeth.
"Good," croaked the boss's throat. He mashed the jacket's price into his keyboard with unnecessary roughness. "Seventy-three-eighty-two."
Jake looked at Vivian. She pretended to miss Jake's eyes, focusing instead on absolutely nothing, which was nowhere, but according to Vivian it was somewhere on the opposite side of the room.
Jake slid his credit card out of his wallet and handed it to the boss of the store.
Vivian sauntered away.
The boss handed Jake his credit card. He was sliding it into his wallet when he noticed five stacks of business cards organized in neat piles in front of the cash register - Don Cordero, Macklin Sweethouse...Vivian Q.
Jake reflexively picked up Vivian's card. It was cheap, featuring computer-generated text and printed on off-white construction paper. Jake thought it looked like something one of his students might create for a project. He slid the card into his wallet, folded it closed, opened a thigh-pocket zipper on his hiking pants, and pushed the wallet inside.
Jake forgot Vivian's name before the zipper was closed.