Great Summer Novel, Chapter 1: The cat’s on the counter
There wasn’t much of a blast radius, considering all possible explosions at the end of a relationship, but there was limited, notable shrapnel. A piece of it sauntered noiselessly past the circular saws and leaped lightly onto the front counter.
The cat sat and curled his tail around his pudgy, tuxedoed body, blinking up at Davis.
“Tater. Potater. Mr. Potater Head. Get down.”
“You’re bad for business. This is a hardware store.”
The cat flopped onto his side next to the cash register and casually licked a paw.
That went well, Davis thought. The cat agreed.
So, Lina had left, but the cat – her cat – stayed.
“I need to follow my bliss,” she’d said.
“You’re a cliché,” he’d said. It could have gone better, and he regretted it now, but at the time, as seven years together careened to its crashing end, there were spasms of bitterness.
He’d hidden her much-read copy of “The Alchemist” behind the washer. He’d threatened to delete every soapy, telenovela episode of “Un Refugio para el Amor” in the DVR, and she’d shrugged and kept packing.
He wouldn’t have done it. Thanks to her, he was addicted and ashamed.
He’d squeezed out a few crocodile tears. He’d hedged and hinted that he’d try to sell the store.
“It was your dad’s store,” Lina had replied, rolling yet another pair in a seemingly endless wardrobe of yoga pants. “That’s why we even came to Palisade.”
True. Truman Cooper had died the year before and his life’s work, Cooper Hardware, became the sometimes-joy and two-ton anchor of his only son, Davis. On the good days, the Norman-Rockwell-paints-a-small-town days, Davis burnished memories on every aisle: plunging his fat hands into bins of bolts as a toddler, unloading boxes as a teenager, visiting the old man at Christmas and the Fourth of July.
On the other days, Lina was gone and the unrepentant cat was on the counter and Davis was 44 years old – back where he’d started, it seemed, with a five o’clock shadow, with hair that seemed more gray than brown, with a store that he suspected was considered charming and quaint and people liked knowing it existed. His books teetered on the ragged edge of red, in other words.
With 15 pounds of feline sprawled on the scarred wood counter and no place to put his elbows, Davis leaned a jean-clad hip against the corner of the counter and considered the store. An uncomfortable number of the mottled ceiling tiles showed a florid yellow bloom of water stain. I really should replace those, he thought. Tater agreed and twitched his tail. The last traces of fake wood paneling probably should go, too, along with the ‘60s-era industrial tile.
Without delving into the expensive world of farm implements, the rows of electrical tape and toilet plungers and hammers would only ever seem like a financial boondoggle. Maybe a Cooper Hardware Facebook page? he wondered. Twitter? Instagram, whatever that is?
He scooted around the front counter and rued the buzzing of the long fluorescent lights overhead. Since it was just him and the cat, he docked his iPod in the stereo on the shelf beside the glass front door and hit “shuffle.” The universe, it seemed, has a sense of humor and David Byrne sang what he’d just been wondering: Well, how did I get here?
A familiar, self-pitying funk was descending, and Davis granted himself five minutes to wallow before the store’s 9 a.m. opening. He stared out the plate glass front of the store, at the slow parade of a Tuesday morning passing by on Kluge Avenue: a disreputable F-150 and a preppy Outback, two boys in tropical-print swim trunks riding BMX bikes, a man pushing a dachshund in a stroller.
As one does? It wasn’t so much that the dog was in the stroller, Davis thought, but that the dog was wearing a bowler hat. And the man pushing him had a coconut in each of the front pockets of his clear plastic rain jacket. It was not raining.
Not that Davis was unused to the vivid and bizarre panoply of life – all his years pre-hardware store had acclimatized him – but lately…
There was the woman yesterday who’d sprinted into Cooper Hardware and, well, Davis blushed and did his best to forget. And the ladies at the post office didn’t seem their usual selves. It was nothing earth-shaking, but the forward path seemed one degree off.
Davis unlocked the glass front door, flipped the sign from “Closed” to “Open” and turned to adjust a display of stud finders and levels. The string of bells attached to the silver handle on the door tinkled as it was pushed open, and Davis looked over his shoulder to greet the customer.
Or, to greet Friar Tuck, in this case.
Maybe it wasn’t the Friar Tuck, but good grief, at 9 a.m. and in that brown robe with a thick beige rope tied at the waist? Davis wondered about the rest of the Merry Men. Tater didn’t think that was funny.
“Hi,” Davis greeted the possible monk. “Help you find anything?”
“Mr. Cooper?” maybe monk inquired.
“Davis,” he corrected. “Mr. Cooper was my dad.”
“Ah. Then. I’m here for the trunk.”
“Oh. OK. What trunk?” Davis asked.
“Are you being deliberately dense?”
That annoyed. Customers were the worst sometimes, and Davis wondered how his dad had done it all those years. He breathed in through his nose and sighed out, attempting a pinched smile.
“No, really. Are we talking luggage? Because I don’t carry it.”
The monk sadly shook his head and whipped the biggest knife Davis had ever seen from a deep pocket in the brown robe.
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