Mother failed to understand the immense pleasure of watching faces, he thought. Percy was a studier of faces at the corner of Eighth and Main, the busiest intersection in town. At the corner of Eighth and Main, Percy was anonymous enough to stare rudely—with no one the wiser.
“Aren’t there any girls you can meet down there at Eighth and Main?” mother asked. Sure, he thought, but why would they want him? For one, his mouth was clearly too small for his face, and the eyebrows too light and, therefore, mostly disguised. Dishwater blonde hair did not help, either, he thought. Still, it was a face—his face—one he knew he had to live with. But could anyone else? He focused on his most appalling facial feature, its roundness. Ghastly. His globular face, with stubble, did not make the world go round.
“Percy, why don’t you take part in things—and exercise?” mother scolded. “You are a disgrace. You have no interests.”
His nose was pushed in too far, the complexion too pale, and the blue eyes too close together and far too recessed, even with spectacles.
Turning from the store window at the bus stop, he focused on the comings and goings along the intersection. Then, he settled, as always, on one face: Nettie’s, as she typed away right in the travel agency window, just 47 paces away. Now, she had a face, Percy thought.
“Sir, do you have a light?” asked a gray-haired woman standing near the bus stop.
Percy turned west and ignored her. Instead, he adjusted his checkered bow tie in the window. He took a metal comb to his dishwater blonde hair, now damp from the late afternoon rain.
“Really!” said the woman. “I’m so sorry to have bothered you,” she said roughly.
Well, by now, Percy had decided. He had long studied faces. Now, he would talk to one, one in particular.
He crossed the street and walked a block up toward the hill before he reached the travel agency’s front window on Eighth Street. He said the words several times to himself. The cassette tape of his mind played, rewound, and played again.
Then, he was ready again to focus tightly on Nettie’s face. She had two creases that extended from her triangular nose down around her pert, smiling mouth. Her auburn hair framed the pale skin and her dominant green eyes. So perceptive they were, especially while she was typing, Percy noticed admiringly. He stopped, took out an index card and tiny pencil from his lower left vest pocket, and wrote her exact description on the card. Then, satisfied with the details, he put the card and pencil back where he found them.
Finally, he walked to the window and looked at it directly: Graham’s Travel Agency. A large, hanging globe made of cheap plastic filled the east side of the window, and on the western end sat Nettie: Nettie Silver. Her nameplate was right on the desk.
He adjusted his tie in the reflection and caught his own face—particularly round and bloated today, he thought. Then, just two steps up. He pushed down the brass door handle and pulled.
The typist finished the sentence and marked her place on a travel contract before swiveling around in her chair.
“Good afternoon,” she said. “It looks like you got caught in the rain.”
Was he blind not to have noticed? he thought to himself. Did she see something in his face that he did not? His eyes sunk deep, and his brow raised one-eighth-inch upward. He opened his mouth, and he carried on with his rehearsed sentence. “I am interested in world travel,” he said, driving a point home.
“Very well, then,” she replied. “World travel is my specialty. How may I help you?”
He opened his mouth again, but the words did not come. Instead, Percy pulled out the card to verify that his description was accurate at close range.
“Dominant green,” he said, unknowingly.
“Green!” she replied. “Well, you must be thinking of Ireland—the Emerald Isle. Yes, that’s dominant green for sure.”
She stood, offered Percy a chair, and then reached for a brochure on a bookcase along the north wall. “Just look at those green hills,” she said.
Standing, he pulled out the index card again—just in case he needed it. He stood dumbfounded.
“Are you alright, Mr. – ?” she asked.
“Percy,” he said, returning the card.
“Mr. Percy,” she said. “Is Ireland your destination then?”
“Auburn hair framed the pale skin,” he said, bewildered.
“Yes, well, you’ll find that throughout England and Scotland, too,” she said. “They are a handsome people. Should we consider a trip to Britain?”
He nodded. His left hand searched behind him, and his fingers touched the wood chair. Then, he rested his backside on the seat, and he inhaled and exhaled long and loud.
She looked at him, and the corners of her mouth drew together. Then, she refocused and pulled the lines out and upward on her face. Finally, she reached for a travel contract from her metal file cabinet.
“Now, Mr. Percy,” she said, “the best time to leave is right now—before the summer tourists visit. Could you travel in, say, the next two weeks?”
He nodded again, and pulled out an index card from the vest.
“Ah, you’re a note-taker,” she said. “That’s fine, but I’ll have an itinerary all put together for you. Now, Mr. Percy, I do need some information from you. Where do you live?”
“Eighth and Main,” he said.
“That’s convenient,” she said.
By now the combination of the brightening sky and Nettie’s silver smile made Percy less tense. He relaxed in the chair, wondering what Nettie saw in his own face.
“And what do you do for a living?” she asked.
She paused and looked into his tight blue eyes, set deep behind the black spectacles. “How fascinating! Are you a photographer or a painter?”
“Both! You are talented. It just so happens that I’ll be leading that tour of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It’s two weeks away,” Nettie said. “Can you join us?”
“Yes,” he said. “Pert, smiling mouth.”
“Did you say Perth?” she asked. “Yes, we’ll be there for the arts festival—right on the River Tay. It’s a lovely Scottish town.”
Percy had come to believe that he was making real progress in actually talking to a woman. And not just any woman; it was Nettie. Just as he was hopeful that more talk would come, the door opened, and a man entered.
“Nettie, how are those contracts coming along?” the man asked. He walked and raised his shoulders up and down, pacing back and forth.
“Fine, Mr. Graham,” Nettie said. She turned toward the metal cabinet. “One moment, Mr. Percy,” she said.
The town clock had just struck 4, and Percy saw Mr. Graham pace. His heels were a ticking town clock on the linoleum, like the clock high on the pedestal above Main Street.
Percy took out a fresh index card, looked at Mr. Graham’s face, and began writing: bald with thick, black eyebrows and hairy ears that are too large for the face. Gray facial hair; needs a trim on the back of his neck. Pacing and twitching shoulders.
“Sir,” the man said, “we’re trying our best to get customers’ contracts in the mail. I’m wondering if I could ask you to inquire again tomorrow.”
“Yes, Mr. Percy,” Nettie said. “I’ll just finish up here. We close at 4:30, but I’d be happy to show you our itinerary yet today. Could I meet with you around the corner? At the coffee shop at, say, 4:45 p.m.”
Percy sat up and smiled. “Yes,” he said. “So perceptive.”
“Why, thank you, Mr. Percy,” she said. “I’ll see you then at Shirley’s Café—at 4:45.”
“Yes, thank you,” he said. “Two creases.”
“Oh, Mr. Percy, are you admiring my smile lines?” she asked. “Aren’t you a dear for noticing.”
“Yes,” he said.
He also saw that Mr. Graham had had just about enough. “Thank you, sir,” Mr. Graham said. “Now, Miss Silver, would you please finish the contracts?”
“Yes, Mr. Graham,” she said. Then, she turned to Percy. “I’ll see you very soon.” She winked and Percy stumbled out the door.
Percy walked to the bus stop at Eighth and Main. His full face, now with his mouth turned upward, reflected in every window as he walked down the street. At Eighth and Main, he could see Miss Nettie Silver working away, using her dominant green eyes—so perceptive they were—to double-check a detail while typing.
“Sir, do you have a smoke?” a lady with a large handbag said, intruding on his view.
Percy shook his head back and forth to signal no. Then, he looked at his reflection in the bank window. The face was still too round, but the nose seemed to have settled at just the right place to hold up the glasses. Yes, the blue eyes were too close together, but less sunken in the afternoon sun that was peeking through the clouds.
For the next 45 minutes Percy stood at the bus stop watching comers and goers. One face, just up the street, captured his attention, however. That was the face that rose from her desk near the window. At 4:45, he saw her leave Graham’s Travel Agency and wave at him.
“Hi, Mr. Percy,” she said. “Let’s walk to the café.” Percy saw Nettie put her arm in his, and the two walked to Shirley’s.
“Why don’t we sit at the booth by the window,” she said. There, Nettie showed him the complete itinerary. “I think you’ll like the entire two-week stay, filled with theatre, museums, fine dining, and breathtaking scenery.”
“Yes,” said Percy. “Triangular nose.”
“You have such a charming way about you, Mr. Percy,” she said. “I have to admit, I think you’re cute, too.”
He smiled and drank his coffee while she got all the papers together. Percy noticed the reflection of his face inside the cup. He was surprised how his face now looked less round and more long and lean.
“For two weeks that comes to $500,” she said. “Since we’re so close to our departure date, I’ll need to have the full amount tomorrow. Is that possible?”
“Yes,” Percy said. “While she was typing.”
“I saw you watching me from across the street—you,” Nettie said, placing emphasis on the last word. “I think you’ll enjoy the trip, and I’m so glad you’ll be joining us.”
“Yes,” Percy said.
Percy signed where Nettie pointed. “Thank you, Mr. Percy,” Nettie said. “I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.”
“Yes,” Percy replied. Nettie left and Percy finished his coffee. He took out Nettie’s index card and added “sweet lips” to the description.
With just minutes to spare, Percy walked around the corner and entered the bank as it was closing. He took out his checkbook and wrote a check for $500 for cash. The banker checked his account twice.
“Sir, this is your mother’s account, to which you also have access,” he banker said, wearing his brown tweed suit. Percy took out a card and noted that the man was likeable enough, with dark wavy hair, a long face, wide smile, and brown sideburns.
“This is a rather large withdrawal,” the banker noted.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m traveling with Nettie Silver.”
“Oh,” the banker said. “Miss Silver is leaving in a few weeks. But she won’t be Miss Silver for long.”
“We’re getting married as soon as she returns from Britain.”
Percy retreated from the teller’s window and walked backward, away from the banker, who called out to him. Percy saw his own face, a bloated image showing in the bank’s revolving glass door.
At Eighth and Main, Percy turned west to see Nettie close the door at Graham’s Travel Agency. She walked pertly down the block, across the street, and over to the bank. If she noticed Percy standing at the bus stop on the south corner, she didn’t say so. Then, at about 5:15, Nettie Silver and the banker walked across the street—arm in arm—to Shirley’s Café.
Percy felt the corner crowding in on him. His mind’s eye saw comers and goers walking fast, bumping him, and squeezing in on his image in the window. Now, some raindrop pockmarks reflected onto his face. He heard his mother say, “Percy, no wonder no girl wants you. Just look at you!”
“Young man, would you happen to have a light?” an old lady said, showing her missing front tooth in a grin.
A kaleidoscope of faces ran through Percy’s mind, and some faces reflected themselves in the windows behind him at Eighth and Main.
“Yes,” Percy said. He reached for a match and lit it.
“Thank you, sir,” the woman said. “You are most kind.”
Percy eyed the woman, took out an index card, and wrote: “Charming, well-spoken, sensitive, gorgeous smile over coffee.”
“Sensitive, gorgeous smile,” he said aloud to her at the corner.
“Thank you,” the old woman said.
“Charming, well-spoken,” he said. “Coffee?”
She nodded, and the two walked arm in arm to Shirley’s.
Profile: Jan Wiezorek