The Wiry Man With the Underbite by Kevin Brennan
The wiry man with the underbite shows up again. He comes in, he stands there for a minute or two, then he turns and leaves. We don't get it.
The Supervisor says we're just to ignore him. We don't need to ask him the usual questions like, “Can I help you?” “Are you finding everything you need?” “Would you like to fill out an application for our store discount card?” We can go on about our business as if he's not even there.
But it's not so easy when the wiry man with the underbite is just there staring at you, and his underbite is so underbiting and he's so wiry that all you can think is what does he want? So you do say something like “Can I help you?”—just because it comes so naturally. And of course he doesn't say anything, and odds are he'll turn around and leave before you can ask another standard question, and you might notice as he goes that he also has a mild hitch to his gait, as if he has at least one artificial hip.
We ask the Supervisor to intervene, to be there when the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip comes in next, but the Supervisor says that he has better things to do and anyway it's our job to manage The Floor. But it's distracting, we say, and a little bit scary. What if he pulls out a gun and starts shooting up The Floor? Does he look like he's carrying a gun? the Supervisor asks, and we say no because he doesn't have a bag and he's always wearing just a pair of Dockers or something and a nice tucked-in sport shirt, so no.
Then he won't be shooting up The Floor, says the Supervisor. Back to work.
And then, sure enough, the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip comes in and just stands there, and all we can do when that happens is go on about our business, as difficult as that is with him standing there like that. He does what he always does, which is to stand there staring at you for a minute or two, then he turns and leaves, but this time — this time — I summon the nerve to speak.
“Excuse me! Excuse me?”
He gives me a half-turn, not really meeting my eyes, then continues toward the front of store and goes on out. He speeds up his hitchy gait, as if he doesn’t want me to catch up with him and help him with something or offer him a chance to save money every time he shops with our store discount card. I follow him out. He’s half a block ahead of me now, and, though knowing the Supervisor will probably be furious with me, I keep following him.
He looks back once or twice, now visibly limping, and tries to speed up a little more because I’m gaining on him. “Excuse me?” I call. I’m thinking that if I can just speak to him, get him to say something, acknowledge me, maybe he’ll stop coming in and staring at us for a minute or two, and then leaving.
We don’t deserve that. It objectifies us, I think.
Then again, he has no name at all, other than “the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip,” which is how we all refer to him now. Did you see the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip today?
He turns a corner and I lose sight of him for a moment, then I turn the corner and realize that he’s ditched me. He’s ducked into another store or something, and judging by the other people on the sidewalk, who are just going about their own business, there’s no point in trying to guess which one the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip might have ducked into.
We have a little meeting that afternoon, where I talk about this incident, and the Supervisor comes in just as I’m telling everyone exactly what I did.
You didn’t chase a possible customer out of the store, did you? he asks.
And I can rightly say no, I did not do that, because the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip had never shown any signs of being a possible customer. He’s always been just a weird ominous metaphor or something.
We’ve all been on edge since then, but apparently the wiry man with the underbite and at least one artificial hip is laying low now. He came, he confronted us with his maniacal ambiguity, and he left. Was he trying to tell us something? Was he a Christ figure? A portentous messenger? Did the cat have his tongue? We just don’t know.
Even now I’ll sometimes walk the block where I lost him and try to catch a glimpse of him in his own habitat, maybe shopping for Dockers at the men’s store over there or grabbing a black coffee at the Starbucks. I’ve never been able to spot him again.
As I fold sweaters now and close out my register, I wonder what he’s doing at that exact moment. What’s he thinking? Who does he love?
It’s the weirdest thing, I know, but I’ve come to realize that I miss him.
Kevin Brennan is the author of six novels, including Parts Unknown (William Morrow/HarperCollins), Yesterday Road, and, most recently, Eternity Began Tomorrow. His short fiction has appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, Mid-American Review, Every Day Fiction, Bright Flash Literary Review, Twin Pies, The Daily Drunk, and others. He's also the editor of The Disappointed Housewife, a literary magazine for writers of offbeat and idiosyncratic fiction, poetry, and essays, which is represented in the 2021 Best Small Fictions anthology. Kevin lives with his wife in California's Sierra foothills. Twitter: @kevinbrennan520