By Jon Obermeyer
“My ex-husband is from Manchester, in the Midlands,” she said.
“Mancunians,” he said.
“No, I think they’re called Manchurians,” she said.
He didn’t argue with her. She taught high school, and was quite smart. He liked that about her.
When he left the highway, he’d noticed the Latino lowriders congregating in an outer area of a Target parking lot, right off the main drag, away from the shoppers on a Saturday afternoon.
It had been sunny then, but was overcast now. The last Pacific storm of the season was moving in on the wind gusts. There would not be rain again until Thanksgiving, at least.
The lowriders were cruising near the park now, passing where they sat together on the bench. Most of the cars had the suspension set very low, the way he’d seen them do it in high school, so low you used a pack of cigarettes to determine the gap between car chassis and the street, without any allowance for speed bumps or potholes.
“I brought you something,” he said, handing her the driftwood stick.
“Hmmm,” she muttered, perplexed. Why was he handing her this driftwood stick on a first date? One end of it looked like a dog’s face, nature expressing canine features, snout and pointed ears, on the random oak treebranch.
“Perro,” he said, in the parlance of their shared childhood.
“Chien,” she replied. She was a high school French teacher, and taught conversational French to adults one-on-one in the evenings.
Another lowrider came by, an Impala with the suspension jacked up as high as the hydraulics would allow, so high you could almost drive another car underneath it. If the Impala was parked, you could walk beneath it without ducking. The jacked-up Impala made a second lap of the park and then peeled off, in the direction of the Target near the highway.
The park was busy with picnics and softball games and gatherings on blankets. There was a zoo nearby and a lake with paddle boats.
It was the first time people had been out like this in over a year. The grass in the park was in the best shape it had ever been in. Even the oak trees looked healthier, with less car exhaust in the air.
A volleyball game was in progress on the grass. Most of the players looked South Asian, possibly Sikhs. Sometimes the ball would be spiked over the net and would roll right toward them on the bench. Once, he almost stood up and kicked the ball back toward the volleyball players, but didn’t.
He felt the conversation, and the day, slipping away from him.
She had originally invited him to meet her at her house, but then she switched it up and asked him to meet her here at the park.
He asked her if she wanted to go anywhere nearby, to grab a beer or something, anything to keep the first meeting from dying out on the park bench. She turned him down, and said something about her daughter coming over for dinner.
He’d noticed that a lot of single women these days had their unmarried adult kids living with them, or about to move in, returning from Seattle, or Portland, to move back in the house, temporarily. There was no way anything was going to happen, when the kids were in the house. It was a real buzz kill for starting any kind of relationship. It played into the widespread lack of emotional availability among single women his age that he had noticed in the last year.
He wondered what it was about this particular situation, her obvious reticence. He wasn’t just imagining it. Something was putting her off.
He was dressed in clean clothes, black jeans and a short-sleeve shirt with a nice pattern on it. He was wearing regular shoes and not sandals. He had a full head of hair and he’d just been to the dentist recently for a cleaning. He was a bit overweight, but everyone was a bit pudgy after spending an entire year indoors. It must have been something he said, some little phrase or tone that had shut her down.
He offered her a ride home, but she declined.
“I think I’ll walk home,” she said. She was wearing some kind of leather riding boots that almost came up to the curve of her bottom. In fact, the last two clips on the boots at the top had not been fastened.
And who was she to judge him on his weight? He noticed she had a little stomach pouch sticking out beneath her black sweater.
Another lowrider went by, this one a sedan from the 1940’s, painted ruby red with gold trim. There was a club logo of fabricated metal that took up the entire back window oval, but it was hard to read. Desparados?
They were the same age, from the same hometown, both divorced with two married adult kids. They liked the same movies, including Local Hero and Rushmore, and the even more obscure Bottle Rocket.
Her dad was the psychologist for the school district when he was in elementary school. In fourth grade, when he was acting out, it had probably been her dad showing him Rohrshach blots and taking down notes that were in a manila folder somewhere.
He wondered how long she would walk home before she got rid of the dog-face-shaped piece of driftwood he’d brought her, pitched it into a scrub pile or dropped it into a waste bin on the curb. It was a thoughtful gesture on his part, a piece of driftwood from a beach they’d both frequented as kids, but she would not be taking it into the house with her.
The wind brought in more dark clouds from the west, from Fairfield, coming straight up the Delta from the bay.
“I think you were right,” she said, standing up and about to walk home. “I think they are known as Mancunians.”
Jon Obermeyer holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro. The author of 29 books (poetry, memoir, essay, short fiction, writing guides), he lives in Berkeley, CA and works for Project Open Hand in San Francisco.https://www.facebook.com/jon.obermeyer