I was sitting on a toadstool eating my lunch when a businessman landed in the grass beside me. Munching nectar-on-toast, I shielded my eyes with the tip of a wing and drank him in. It was unusual to find a businessman so far from his natural habitat, especially in spring. To be perfectly honest, I’d never seen one before. If not for an Identification of Warm-Blooded Bipeds class I took at the Learning Annex, I don’t think I would have been able to place him.
“Are you on a coffee break, or is this your lunch hour?” I asked, eager to use the vocabulary from my class.
The businessman picked a dandelion and blew white spores into the air. They settled on the jacket and pants of his gray flannel suit. “Neither,” he said. “I quit.”
“Oh.” I tried with my tone to indicate that I understood the gravity of the situation. “Do you have something else lined up? Have you sent out résumés?”
The businessman shook his head. “It wasn’t planned. I walked out in the middle of a board meeting. About an hour ago.”
Wrapping the rest of my nectar-on-toast in a leaf and corking my thermos of thistledown tea, I studied the exotic Biped. His gray suit, chalky skin, mustache, and set jaw were indistinguishable from those of businessmen I’d seen pictured at the Learning Annex. There was only one difference: the color and pattern of his necktie.
I pushed off the toadstool and hovered above the grass, my wings beating the air. “I guess you won’t be eligible for unemployment then.” I couldn’t resist showing off my knowledge of his world.
He nodded. “That’s right.” He yanked up handfuls of grass and sprinkled the dead green blades over the pants of his suit. He placed a cupped hand above his eyes and watched a flock of birds cross the blue sky.
“I don’t mean to pry,” I said, propelling myself to his eye level. “But what prompted you to leave during a board meeting? Did you disapprove of proposed budget changes?”
The businessman blinked. His eyes were the color of bluebells. “The walls started closing in on me.”
Though I’d lived my entire life in the wood that surrounded the sun-dappled meadow in which I encountered the businessman, I was fairly certain that high-rise office buildings had stationary walls. “But how will you get by without a salary and an expense account and a key to the executive washroom?”
He shrugged. “I could always teach.”
“What would you teach? Accounting? Systems Configuration? Interpersonal Workplace Politics?”
The businessman struggled out of his suit jacket, folded it, and placed it on the grass beside him. He unbuttoned the sleeves of his white shirt and rolled them above his elbows. He crossed his legs and gazed down at his shiny wingtips. “Dance,” he said.
Flitting around his head, I nearly collided with his left ear. Nothing I’d seen at the Learning Annex had prepared me for this. “I didn’t realize dance was part of the MBA curriculum.”
“It’s not,” he said. “I do it on my own time.”
I crossed my arms and hovered centimeters from his mustache. “Show me.”
Rising, he stretched his arms above his head. He stood on his toes, reaching for the sky, then rolled his top half slowly down until his fingers brushed his wingtips and his nose was buried between his gray flannel calves. I had to admit that for a businessman, he was flexible.
After kicking off his shoes and peeling off his thin black stockings, he set his feet wide and bent his right knee. He fell into a lunge, and a loud rip sounded. “I usually wear something looser when I dance,” he said apologetically, stepping out of his torn pants. Below his yellow boxer shorts, his legs were thin and white, with red indentations where his stockings had cut off circulation. He loosened his tie, unbuttoned his white shirt, and stripped that off as well. He folded the shirt and stacked it neatly on top of his suit.
The businessman now stood in a white undershirt and boxer shorts, his hairy toes wriggling like spiders in the grass. His loosened tie hung limply around his neck. Unclothed, he no longer resembled the businessmen I’d seen at the Learning Annex, and it occurred to me that he could be some other kind of Warm-Blooded Biped in disguise.
I returned to my toadstool and uncorked my thermos of thistledown tea. The businessman cleared his throat. “I don’t think I can do this without music,” he said.
“Music. Is there a way to get some music out here?”
I gazed across the meadow, my eyes passing over dragonflies, buttercups, dandelions, field mice, and grasshoppers to land on a cluster of crickets tuning up their wings. “What about crickets?” I said. “Could you shake it to the chirrup of crickets?”
He closed his eyes and dropped his head. The fingers of his left hand snapped five, six, seven, eight, and the businessman exploded out of his stance like a jubilant bomb.
I was spellbound. My forgotten thermos dangling from my fingers, I watched him spin and leap across the meadow. His feet seemed hardly to touch the ground; his white legs flashed with a fury I wasn’t fast enough to follow. His back arched, his hips rolled, his necktie streamed behind him like a thin red-and-purple silk flag. Stretching his arms and neck, he turned and tumbled. His movements seemed dictated by the song of the crickets, who stridulated with a speed and intensity I’d never heard before. When he ended his dance with a knee-slide across the meadow grass, salty droplets stood in the corners of my eyes.
Gasping for air, the businessman stood and walked in a circle with his hands on his hips. His dark hair glistened with sweat. Roses bloomed in his white cheeks. “Well,” he said. “How was that?”
I am incapable of guile, and I knew if he looked into my golden eyes, the businessman would see right through me. So I turned away. Shrugged. “Not bad.”
“Have you thought about your 401k?” I asked.
“If you cash it out, you’ll lose half of it in taxes.”
He pulled on his white shirt. Started buttoning the buttons. “I’ll probably roll it over into an IRA.”
“Good,” I said. “I guess you’d better start pounding the pavement tomorrow.”
Stepping into his pants, he nodded. “Guess so.”
Once his shirt was tucked in and his tie tightened, the businessman looked like himself again. Part of me was relieved; part of me was filled with regret.
“I guess I’m off then,” he said.
“Will you be able to find your way back to your penthouse apartment?”
“I think so.”
As he turned, I flitted up from my toadstool. “Wait!”
He stopped, and I propelled myself to his chest. “Take these,” I said, offering my thermos and leaf-wrapped nectar-on-toast. “You must be starving.” I placed the wrapped sandwich and thermos in his palm. They looked absurdly small, and we laughed, the businessman and I.
“So,” he said.
“So.” I touched down on his palm. Clasped my hands behind my back. As he lifted me to his gaze, I felt my face flush.
“My God,” he said, “you’re a beautiful little thing.”
Bowing myself into a right angle, I kissed his cheek.
As he crossed the meadow and shrank from view, I saw the off-white walls of his corner office closing in on him, and I wanted to scream. I wanted to fly after him and tell him his dance had melted my icy heart, that he’d made me want to give up leading woodsmen astray and sprinkling dust to devote myself to the study of Warm-Blooded Bipeds full-time.
But I couldn’t. In the world of Warm-Blooded Bipeds, a businessman can count on a six-figure salary, an ample stock portfolio, and trips to the Caribbean twice a year. A teacher of dance can count on a meager paycheck and a lifetime of muscle aches and joint pains.
My stomach growling, I sat on the toadstool with my chin in my hands and my eye on the bottom line. The ghost of the businessman haunted the meadow-grass, spinning and floating to the endless chirrup of the crickets, and I cursed myself for not gathering some proof of our encounter.
Rumpus original art by Madeline Kreider Carlson.
Excerpted from Mannequin and Wife: Stories by Jen Fawkes. Copyright © 2020 by Jen Fawkes. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of LSU Press.