Grace stood barefoot with one hand on the garage door and the other forlornly sinking through air. The car clock read 2:03 a.m. I’d worked late on five mergers that month, and she correctly didn’t believe my department had six going. When I shut the Bentley’s driver door, her pleading stopped at once as if she’d been unplugged. I eased out of the driveway, shifted into drive and rode off with one guilty eye on my rearview mirror until she disappeared.
I could only imagine where she thought I was going: a Midtown hotel with insufficiently starched sheets and a hired girl who wore an excessive amount of lipstick; an Atlantic City casino where I could rub elbows with grandmothers playing penny slots under rotting-pumpkin-colored light. Instead of strolling seamlessly from car to underground elevator to my secured office, I planned to drag myself past the sort of people who’d eye my black diamond cufflinks and alligator wingtips with hostile knowledge until I disappeared inside the Hermès corporate office to design Grace’s Christmas gift. When I wondered aloud at the time the CFO asked me to come by, he reiterated the one-time-only nature of his offer.
The Bentley’s wheel felt like a snakeskin coat under my hands; exotic and rarely worn. Since it was Jeffrey’s night off, the Bentley and I drove alone past vibrant estates, cookie cutter cul-de-sacs and working class towns full of houses covered in worn pastel paint. I descended into the Lincoln Tunnel and crossed Eleventh Avenue. The sidewalk was a quarter full with people who paid a hair more rent than the average New Yorker to pretend they were me. Streetlights cheapened their off-brand polos and coats. I turned my heat up a notch and celebrated the distance between them and my classical music soundtracked moving fortress.
A traffic light’s perfect timing let me look up at my law office while stopped. The forty-fifth floor lights that meant my team of associates had wisely decided to work through the night warmed my soul. I made two lefts and entered the underground parking garage I used on the rare occasions when I drove myself into the city for work.
“Severin,” the garage attendant said.
I’d never bothered to learn his name, so I simply nodded in response.
“Going into work?”
“No. I’m going to buy a gift for my wife.”
“Didn’t know you were one of them Black Friday people.”
He accepted my car keys with a jaunty swing of his left hand.
“Well, you are picking something up for your wife right this minute.”
“I have to go.”
Instead of becoming angry at the garage attendant’s words I perfected my walk. I straightened my feet and back and shaved at least ten years off my stride. A good blink or two later I found the exit staircase and descended it with the grace of a falcon. Just because he’d rather wait in line to descend upon a discount store instead of working his assigned shift didn’t mean he had to project his need for sloth on others.
Fifth Avenue fell upon me, its holiday windows filled with obscene amounts of tinsel, wreaths, mistletoe, reindeer and mannequins in red outfits. Halal meat vendors’ fluorescent cooking lights added bluish tones to tourists’ faces. Other tourists held street pretzels at angles that highlighted their resemblance to emaciated arms. But the people waiting in line at big-box stores provided the real terror. Their parkas inflated them into multicolored imitations of the turkey our chef removed from the oven just after six p.m. Thanksgiving evening. Their proximity sent periodic tremors through my hands.
If Grace knew I was walking past these people, she’d repeat all the stories the women in her dressage group told about poor people who ate the rich, with their drooling and their haphazard biting and their lazy habit of leaving unchewed hunks of us on the sidewalk. The day after Grace and her dressage friends went to Midtown to view Saks’ Thanksgiving themed windows, the police found a jawless man in tuxedo and tails with his feet atop a pound of broken glass on Saks’ sidewalk and his head between two rows of stuffed, sequined turkeys and cornucopia-colored men’s suits. The note tacked to his chest said “If you can’t join them, eat them.”
In addition to jawless men, Grace’s dressage friends also feared Bat Boy, a rumored half-boy, half-bat creature that supposedly flew into people’s homes at night in search of bran flakes. Yet I touched my jaw reassuringly as I passed the people waiting in line for Black Friday sales.
Three doors down from Hermès roughly five hundred people stood in line outside a store called H&M. A hundred people stood next to them on the sidewalk, unaware that New York City custom doesn’t allow two lines outside a building. It was a shame that the city allowed even one line. Many people should be kept from view.
The left hand of the last person in the H&M line finished a series of frantic gestures and swung out from the sidewalk at me. I leapt into the gutter to pass the hand before the traffic arrived. Though I avoided the cars, the hand touched my jacket and whipped up a round of static that tasted like pain.
“Watch out,” I barked at the hand’s owner, one of nine or ten men dwarfed by an undulating horde of women.
“You fuckin’ watch out,” he said.
“How dare you touch me,” I said.
“Fuck off, asshole,” he said.
I stepped back into the gutter and glared at the man and the twenty people in front of him that suddenly needed to glare at me too. A green light thrust a new round of cars at me. I leapt from gutter to sidewalk and continued my walk north. I clasped my hands together to still them. For a second I only heard the low swoosh of traffic and the footsteps of people who did not encumber my personal space.
I approached Hermès confident that I’d only need fifteen minutes to survive the inevitable office tour, design Grace’s handbag and leave. The interlopers waiting outside the retail store entrance wore better clothes and shoes than the H&M crowd, but there were still fourteen of them where there should have been none. Private appointments are private. They are not scheduled alongside group tours.
I walked past the tourists to the unmarked side door and gave its knob a turn. The brass sprang back against my hand instead of giving underneath my grip. I knocked politely. The security guard’s left hand pressed the door open a crack. I lifted my hand to catch the door on its outward arc but when I pulled it to me, it stopped. The security guard cleared his throat. Only then did I see his gloved right hand clasping the door seam to keep it away from me.
“I’m sorry sir,” he said. “The offices are closed. You are welcome to join the people waiting out front.”
“But they’re waiting for the retail store to open. I have an appointment with the CFO.”
“Everyone in line has an appointment, sir.”
I looked down the line. Fourteen faces met mine. I took in their thousand dollar haircuts, understated cufflinks, fresh manicures and pinched, reddened faces, unaccustomed to wind. But what the guard asked me to believe remained unbelievable, and so I did not believe it.
“These people can’t possibly all know …”
“He isn’t here yet.”
“He wouldn’t have told fifteen people to wait outside.”
“He had a last minute obligation. And more of you decided to come by than he anticipated.”
“These people …”
I stopped, swallowed, sighed. The guard waited.
“They wouldn’t … we wouldn’t… I don’t wait in line.”
“I’m sure he will be here soon.”
“Why would he have me wait in line?”
The guard shrugged. I looked at him in a manner meant to will more of an answer than that out of him, but he just tipped the edges of his face up into something less than a smile.
“I haven’t waited in line since I turned twenty-eight.”
“It’s Black Friday sir. Plenty of people have to wait in line for things today.”
“I have a private appointment.”
“So do I,” said several voices behind me.
“I’m sorry sir,” the guard said.
I put a little pressure on the door and a hair more on his hand. He gave an inch. I only needed five or six more to get past him. The guard pushed the door back against me. Before I knew it we were scuffling with my left fist aimed into the door and my right into his shoulder. I pushed him until he leaned back and forth and made my push a hit. My fist went into and then through his shoulder and halfway to the floor before I picked myself up, brushed the offending fist off on my pants and apologized for the person who punched the security guard. Whoever that person was. Certainly not me.
The security guard’s face became a hunk of decaying meat: red and gray and indifferent.
“He will be here soon,” he said.
I stepped back from the door to stand a bit in front of the first woman in line, because I did not qualify for the line. But she tapped me on the shoulder twice and the security guard ordered me behind everyone else and I decided to avoid spending my morning in battle. The people in line gaped at me with bovine eyes and I imitated them and laughed.
I walked past the first six people in line on my way to my car. It would be good to return to the heated barrier of the Bentley, far from these people and their lines. I passed the eighth person waiting. If I arrived at my car in ten minutes it would mean I had no gift. I could buy Grace something else, but nothing came to mind. I could come up with a gift idea and send Jeffrey out to purchase it. But if I waited until the last minute and the last minute coincided with one of Jeffrey’s days off, I’d have to march through the cold again in search of an equally original item. The only acceptable Christmas gift for the woman who has everything is an item her friends can’t find.
I passed the eleventh person in line. The cold didn’t feel as cold as it did when I turned away from the guard. I could survive the ten minutes it would take for the CFO to appear and clear up this misunderstanding. I chose a spot slightly behind the last person in line, a woman shivering in a trenchcoat lined in Burberry plaid. The fifteen of us displayed order and decorum, even as we took turns challenging the guard’s errant decision to strand us outside. The animals at H&M huddled in packs with their desperate breath fouling up the sidewalk, yapping and shouting.
Order and decorum briefly sustained me. I finished reading my new email and surfing the Internet in eight minutes and thought of the last time someone forced me to wait in line. On my twenty-eighth birthday my broker double-booked his first appointment slot. I took an unreasonably crowded train into the city only to find his office closed and a woman standing outside.
The two of us waited fifteen minutes before he deigned to blacken his door. I waited another thirty for him to eject the woman. I then entered his office, ordered him to sell off ten percent of my shares in the company stock my dad gave me for my twenty-seventh birthday, waited until he executed the transaction and fired him. His mouth formed a jagged “o” the second I uttered the proper words. I happily pictured an onion cut so haphazardly that a line chef flung it into a garbage can with relish.
The woman’s Burberry trenchcoated shoulders shook. I looked up into the sort of thin-flaked snow that floats back up before falling down. The H&M line grew longer and louder, from a conversation to a steady din I could hear over the traffic. A layer of snow formed on top of my coat. I kept myself warm by thinking about the security guard’s inevitable termination. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and mentally willed the back of the H&M line to snake around in a circle instead of creeping towards me. It did not obey.
When I could smell the hot dog grease on the last H&M person in line I returned to the corporate office door and signaled for the security guard. Twenty minutes hadn’t changed his attitude one whit. He uttered the same damn “I’m sorry.” I mentioned the CEO’s name, stood back, and waited for those syllables to work. The guard signaled for me to wait and disappeared upstairs. I brushed snow off my shoulders and out of my collar and smiled three times at the woman at the head of the line. Oddly my smile did not entice her to smile back.
I looked into the street hoping to clear my head by watching traffic, but staring at reams of people who were actually making progress towards their destinations sent my shoulders inching up toward my neck. In four weeks I’d be rewarded for my efforts with this year’s watch wrapped in the same shiny red paper as usual, with my name engraved under the face in the font Grace liked. Maybe instead of a silver face, she’d spring for gold. Back when I thought designing her handbag would only require a brief trip into the city I congratulated myself on selecting the sort of original, superior, easily attainable gift that would inspire her to be more creative with her future selections. Instead the traffic roared in my ear and the corporate office door remained closed and I thought furtively of gift certificates.
The noise outside H&M went from din to rabid crowd at sporting event level. Three people marched by carrying protest signs. An inflatable rat appeared in the foot of space between H&M crowd and curb. Individual shouts cleared the wall of noise. The woman at the front of the Hermès line stared, then glared, then aimed pity at me. I wiped the fear off my face and applied a mask of contentedness instead.
When I was in law school and we weren’t allowed to sell enough of my family’s company stock to afford Christmas trip plane fare, Grace cooked elaborate meals from whatever was on sale at the grocery store. We’d put on red clothing and gorge ourselves on food and wine and pretend the brick wall our apartment faced was Central Park, which we’d only seen in Woody Allen movies. One frigid year she found the last thirteen dollar duck tucked behind a row of bloody chickens. We spent half of its five hour roasting time tucked under the industrial weight quilt on our bed having sex through the openings in our long underwear. The timer went off and we sprang up, spent and flushed, to eat perfectly crispy duck with homemade spring rolls, hoisin sauce, and two entire bottles of four dollar Cabernet Sauvignon.
After I joined the firm neither of us ever looked at sale groceries again. I made partner. We hired a chef. Two days after I unwrapped the second Christmas watch I pretended I had to work late on a merger and took the train to Chinatown, where I stuffed myself full of someone else’s crispy duck, closed my eyes mid-meal and failed to pull that quilt over my head.
The H&M crowd developed a collective sway like a heartbeat, out towards the curb and the rat and back in towards the store’s front windows. I squinted hard enough to make out the word union on the posters and rolled my eyes at the workers who thought raising their pay by a quarter an hour or whatever anyone might win for retail employees would magically make them a more empowered people. It would be good to get inside, away from the snow and the crowd and the traffic and the general sense of desperation poisoning the street. I would decline the cup of water usually proffered at meetings like this in favor of a hot drink. In the second the door swung open I swallowed the first mouthful of the coffee I knew I’d find upstairs and its warmth traveled through every inch of my body.
“I’m sorry sir,” the guard said. “He’s not in yet either.”
The H&M crowd went deafeningly loud. The Hermès line emitted stronger glares. The traffic sped up and cast a wave of slush over the sidewalk and on my coat. I was cold and wet like a dog’s nose.
“When is he coming in?”
“Just a second, sir. I will find that out for you.”
I could not do it. I could not go back and wait in line. Someone from the H&M line would touch me with hands that smelled like Indian food or fried fish or fat people sweat. I would fucking have a breakdown on the sidewalk. If I’d chosen to cheat on Grace rather than buy her a handbag, I’d be in a warm, private hotel room that would have taken me mere seconds to book with a girl who wouldn’t make me wait.
“He will be in shortly.”
The guard’s face was impassive. A guard could not defeat me. I knew what was required in situations like this: an equal measure of impassivity.
“I’m going to wait for him in his office,” I said.
I wedged my other forearm in the door. The guard met my forearm with his. Our scuffle took us from the door frame to the floor. I tasted salt, metal. Hands grabbed my back and hauled me upright, where I looked into the eyes of the man I’d come to meet.
“Severin?” he said.
“Are you beating up my security guard?”
Luckily no one is expected to answer rhetorical questions. I beefed up my smile a bit. I cleared my throat. I would lay out the morning’s events and he would fire the security guard and I’d come in and we’d get to work. I opened my mouth and took a step inside. He held up his right hand with its fingers splayed and its palm facing straight out in a “stop” formation as if something were wrong.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave,” he said.
In my head it was Christmas morning. Grace unwrapped her custom Birkin bag. She handed it to me and I took a ten-second long deep breath into its rich leather.
“Look,” I said. “We can talk about this upstairs over coffee.”
“I think you misheard me. I need you to leave.”
Grace’s bag took on fire-orange trim and dissolved into fire itself, orange and red licks that made me stronger, angrier, ready to survive this.
“You asked me to come by and …”
“And now you’re no longer welcome.”
“My wife’s going to love the bag …”
“That you buy her off the Internet.”
He said my name again. My feet slipped. Snow filled my collar and melted down my neck. I tried to grip the door for support, but he pushed me out. My feet flew away from me. I caught myself on the sidewalk with my hands and stood back up. The fire took over my throat. I could not speak.
“Don’t make me call the police,” he said.
When I turned into the snow it hit me with one giant wet lash to the face. I gave myself the power to turn it on him, to shower his overcoat with that mix of snow and filth New York City injects into snow immediately upon its fall to turn it gray. But the snow did not listen and I heard his uncowed voice behind me.
“I’m so sorry about this,” he said to the guard.
I smiled at everyone in line. They did not smile back. In my head they were trapped under several feet of the snow pouring down on us, their hands working frantically to carve out breathing holes, their feet kicking madly at nothing.
My normal, sensible self would have taken the long way around the block to avoid approaching the kind of gathering that could devolve into a riot at any second. The new me dared the H&M freaks to cross a six-foot two inch well-groomed ball of rage. I elbowed my way between the crowd and the protest en route to my car.
“Fucking unions,” I said to myself.
“What did you say?”
I turned around to face the abnormally ruddy, bowling-ball shaped man standing closest to the rat.
“I said fuck unions.”
At first I thought the wet glob that landed in the center of my face was a particularly heavy clump of snow. But when the man smirked I wiped the spit from my nose. The titters behind me morphed into full-blown laughter. Inside I shook, horrified that my face held a mouthful of the sort of working-class germs meant to confuse my immune system, germs that knew rats and dirt and factory smoke and all the other pollutants and carcinogens prevalent in the sorts of neighborhoods that produced people like him. But shaking is not the proper response to a slight of that sort.
I joined my fist with his nose. He went flying into the street with bad timing. The traffic light had just sent two lanes of cars downtown. Those cars had just begun to accelerate. He landed on top of one car’s hood and slammed into a space in the middle of the street which forced three other cars to hit each other to avoid him. A circle of people formed around the crash site, prepared to do nothing more helpful than gawk. I savored the melee until someone’s errantly positioned toe dropped me face down onto the sidewalk and another person’s foot dug into my side. Someone screamed. Someone else shouted. A third person leaned into my ear and said “Fuck unions, huh?”
In a few minutes I’d collect myself and kick the people who kicked me. In another half hour the police would appear and haul me away instead of correctly detaining my assailants. In a day Grace would post my bail and drag me out to the Bentley with her right fist simultaneously clutching my jacket and shoving my back forward. When I looked into the angry slash in her eyes I hated the Christmas watch she hadn’t given me yet.
Before all that I lay on the sidewalk licking my blood away. For a second the pain outweighed the cold and I sat inside the Hermès corporate offices looking over sketches for Grace’s handbag. Then I remembered that I’d failed to make it inside and returned to the Hermès line to shiver and sulk. I opened my eyes, surprised to see that the back of the woman’s Burberry trench coat had become a cheap parka obstructed view full of my assailants’ yellowish teeth and the letters H and M. Several of them leaned in, presumably to bite me. My mind flashed that disembodied jaw at me in a jaw’s version of full color; a dirty white that bone and snow agree on.