Things could be worse – that’s what Ted McManus was thinking when the vacuum vomited something black and metallic.
“Oh shit,” he said, and stepped on the power button, which had been broken for a month. He ran for the plug, but the vacuum, already smoking up a burnt rubber stink, came to a squeaky halt on its own.
“What happened?” Eileen asked. She yanked at the cord and it came to her like a whip.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to pull the plug out like that?”
“I don’t care about the cord. Is that smoke?”
“That’s how things break. Here” – Ted pointed at the accordion‑like joint between the plug and the cord – “this is the relief joint. You’re going against the physics of the product when you pull it out like that.”
“Oh, I see. So I broke the vacuum, right? I broke the physics of the product. That’s why it’s stinking up the whole store.”
Ted choked the cord around the vacuum, avoiding looking at his wife. When he finally did look up, he found her staring into the giant round mirror that was Cimmetri’s centerpiece. A year ago, they had paid twenty‑five hundred dollars for that mirror. Twenty‑five hundred dollars just hanging there, doing nothing but reflecting their naiveté.
“I think we got a great deal,” he’d said.
“It’s expensive, but it’s so gorgeous,” she said.
“It’ll sell within a month. Or I have no business sense.”
After a year, Cimmetri was barely breaking even, and both of them were to blame.
Ted turned the Hoover on its side. He pried open the bottom panel and peered carefully. “I think the belt came off.”
Eileen came over and perched over his shoulder. Ted did the best he could, but he eventually had to say it: “You’re blocking the light, honey.” Without a word, she went back to cleaning the crystal figurines displayed inside the bi‑leveled hexagonal showcase.
“But honey,” Ted said, “you were.”
She’d finished buffing the top level, the mammals, which included a dog, a cat, a bear, and two pandas, all made out of tiny crystal balls glued together. The bottom level was a family of clowns – laughing clown, juggling clown, fat clown, and baby clown, complete with a microscopic pacifier. Underneath the showcase was stock – two of everything, untouched.
Only one figurine had sold, an octopus, the one that the wholesaler had begged them to take. Who’d want to buy an octopus? They bought it as a joke, but the joke was on them: After they sold their one and only, they had five more requests for it. It drove them crazy. Nothing made sense in the retail world.
Watching her polish the crystals, Ted wondered if Eileen missed her old job as hostess at Thirsty Pete’s. At least at the restaurant, there was logic: People wanted seats as quickly as possible and all she had to do was act pleasant even if they were crabby.
Ted wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, careful to keep the grime off his face. He looked down at the vacuum, its innards splayed on the floor. His hands were as filthy as a mechanic’s. At AT&T, where Ted had worked for over twenty years behind a desk, the only mess he encountered was in the form of copier toner. He’d also reported to four demanding bosses, met ridiculous deadlines week after week, covered his ass before a project blew up – but really, had it been any worse than this?
His fingers jammed into the guts of the machine, Ted regretted buying this dump of a store from the previous owner. He and Eileen had considered two other possibilities before plopping down a good part of their nest egg on Cimmetri, a café and a candy shop. They never should’ve chosen to sell something as frivolous as mirrors. Everybody drank coffee and ate sweets, and although people used mirrors on a daily basis, how often did they actually buy one?
“Damn it,” Ted said as a thin silver rod sprang up and bounced away from him.
“Let me try,” Eileen said, picking it up. She placed it back into the cradle, but she couldn’t make it fit either. A closer examination of the dark crevice revealed a smell not unlike rotting garbage. “Oh Lord,” she said.
“It’s awful,” Ted said. “Like something threw up and died.”
“Look,” Eileen said, pointing at East Meets West, the oriental gift store across from them. Mr. Kim was running a vacuum that looked remarkably identical to their Hoover, at least from afar. “I’ve seen him fiddle with his. I think he’s good at fixing stuff.”
“You know he doesn’t speak English too well,” Ted said.
“Oh come on, this isn’t rocket science. Just go up and ask, what’s the hurt in that?”
Excerpted from Everything Asian
Graphic by Dawn S. White