Sexy Babes

Sitting on the polished wood bench before the Sears store in the brightly lit mall, Professor Oliver Pearl heaved a sigh. He tugged disconsolately at a piece of greenery overhanging the landscaped island behind him. It was a Wednesday afternoon in late April, approaching four o’clock, and so far today’s excursion had been most unsatisfactory. First Margaret had dragged him in and out of shoe stores, cheerfully insisting he needed new slippers. Now, the unwanted footwear in a bag beside him, he was doomed to wait while his wife wound her way deeper and deeper into the glittering maze of Sears, a giant labyrinth of consumerism from which only the hardiest returned with checkbook intact. Should he have given her a ball of string to retrace her path? Drat! Pearl fidgeted in his seat. What he really wanted was an excuse to get to The Gap at the far end of the mall.

Two overweight women plopped down beside him and began to discuss their bunions. Pearl pivoted on the bench and peered longingly in The Gap’s direction. An artificial jungle of palm trees and feathery ferns blocked his view, and forgetting the passing crowd, he climbed onto his knees and strained to see over the plants. Suddenly, he ducked and parted the leaves with his hands, staring between them. Not a hundred feet away, a young blond woman had emerged from the Hallmark store and was heading his way. Pearl’s pulse quickened, and he began to murmur reverently.

“Galatea, Leda, Psyche, Persephone.”

He lilted through the litany of Olympian names, prepared to bestow an identity upon the unsuspecting shopper. This, after all, was his true purpose in coming to the mall: to seek out goddesses and blessed maidens, to honor and acknowledge them, to enshrine their beauty in the temple of his memory. It was a mission he’d begun some months before, a secret project that had sustained him through the long, dull winter. But already he could see the blond shopper was unworthy, a pretty but vapid girl, lacking the divine spark that raised a female to celestial rank.

“Are you looking for something, sir?”

Professor Pearl started, and his glasses snagged on a palm frond and slipped off his face. He jerked around to see the blurred figure of a security guard, a hefty black man in a tan uniform.

“Uh, uh, uh,” said Pearl, fumbling at the air, then patting his bony nose. “Yes, my glasses, that’s it. I’ve lost my glasses.”

“Maybe I can help you,” the guard said. He fished among the plants and pulled out the spectacles. “No harm done. Here you go.”

He handed Pearl the glasses, and Pearl put them on. The guard came into focus, regarding him with a lingering of suspicion.

“Bother these spectacles!” bluffed Pearl. “What I wouldn’t give for the eyesight of Argus, eh, my good man?”

The guard nodded a little quizzically and moved on.

Drat! Professor Pearl huffed and composed himself, the two bunion women eyeing him distastefully. The blond shopper, unaware of her rejection, had strolled on. At least Margaret hadn’t witnessed the escapade. Pearl glanced at his watch and sighed. If he were still at the university he would be in his comfortable cubbyhole of an office right now, surrounded by well-worn books, brewing a pot of herbal tea in anticipation of the students and colleagues who often dropped by at this hour to chat. They’d talk of Homer and Hesiod, of Pindar and Plato. Meanwhile, outside his third-story window, the campus would be exulting in the warm blush of spring, the surge of crocus and daffodils, the shoots of new green grass, the blue bowl of sky. If he gazed out on the common he’d see glad youths and maidens, especially the maidens, fresh-faced and carefree, reveling in the sun-kissed light.They’d  cast off their books and jackets, and Frisbees and guitars would appear. Their laughter would float up to his window as, arms entwined, they commenced their mating dance.

Some of his former colleagues had intimated, not kindly, that Pearl himself suffered from delusions of youth. He had grown his hair long in the sixties, a middle-aged hippie professor, and kept the style as his locks simultaneously grayed and receded. Now they formed a grizzled mane, sparse on top, shaggier around the ears, trailing wisps below his shirt collar. His chin, though he shaved each morning, always bore the slight appearance of stubble. He’d worn love beads in the sixties as well, and on his sabbaticals to Greece and Rome he had acquired odd pieces of jewelry, scarabs and antique stones, that he wore when the mood struck him. “Juvenile affectations,” sniffed Bates, who was only fifty-two but already showed every indication of becoming an old fart. Five years ago, to celebrate his seventieth birthday, Pearl had had his left ear pierced—“Ollie, really!” Margaret had said—and most days he wore in the hole either a garnet stud or a dangling gold owl, Athena’s bird. And he was not afraid of colors—green-and-gold striped shirts, plum-colored jeans, oranges and pinks and ochers. He prided himself that such plumage still looked pretty good on his lean frame. Here in the mall, however, he wore nondescript, everyday clothing so as not to attract attention to himself and his activities.

“Ollie, here I am! Sorry I took so long.” Margaret emerged from Sears bearing a bulky shopping bag. “Look what I got for David.” She pulled out a brightly colored Fisher Price box and began explaining the educational features the toy promised would amuse and instruct their latest grandchild. “Did you get a bit of rest? I need some bias tape from the crafts store, but we could sit here a minute longer.”

“No, no,” said Pearl, calculating that the crafts store, halfway down the mall, was that much closer to The Gap.

“Don’t forget your slippers,” Margaret reminded. Then she was off, and Pearl hurried to keep pace. Margaret lived for three things: her volunteer work at the hospital, her grandchildren and shopping. “No matter what your aches or pains or worries,” she’d say, “you’ll feel better if you can do a little good for someone.” Now she hummed along, a chipper, white-haired woman with a pleasantly wrinkled face and a stout, comforting figure. Pearl tried to remember the last time they had made love. Was it four years ago? Five? Over the years passion had slipped into fondness and, too late, regret at what was lost. But when, half rakishly, half hoping, he had proposed that his retirement would allow them to have “nooners,” Margaret had backed away in embarrassment and alarm.

“I really think we’re a little past that, don’t you, Ollie dear?” she’d said in a confiding tone.

Instead, this past December, she had diverted his attention to the mall, urging him to join her on her Christmas shopping expeditions, and grumbling, he gave it a try. Now that he was finally, thoroughly, banished from the university, now that they’d pried his grip from every last seminar and guest lecture, he spent most days at home idle or wandered aimlessly around the library, unable to find a topic to lock his interest. Everything had been written already; what point in strip mining the compendia of classical literature to unearth one final nugget? Though on his last trip to the campus—and he still manufactured excuses to go—he had been furious to hear Bates trumpeting his latest project.

“‘A Sailor’s View of Ulysses,’” announced Bates, “in which I shall analyze the seamanship and navigation skills employed on the ten-year voyage.” All because Bates owned a 32-foot sailboat he had once sailed overnight to a neighboring yacht club, a voyage he relived at every faculty cocktail party. What irked Pearl most was that the young poop would probably get some huge grant to fund his ridiculous research—that and the fact that Pearl wished he’d thought of something equally clever.

“Do you want to come inside with me or wait here?” asked Margaret, and Pearl realized with a start his mind had been wandering and they had reached the crafts store.

“Stay here,” he muttered, shooing her off, and easing onto another bench he resumed his scan of faces and figures, hoping to spot a deity. Certainly, he had no trouble finding bovine Heras, giggling naiads and snake-haired Gorgons, but perfect matches between the better sort of goddess and human females were rare. And Pearl was a perfectionist: either the woman must match exactly the picture he cherished in his mind or else overwhelm him so completely with her presence that he willingly revised his mental image. He recalled his first celestial sighting, quite by accident, on that Christmas shopping expedition with Margaret. Trailing behind, he had turned a wrong corner in this same crafts store, and there, in a heart-stopping moment, he had discovered the goddess Demeter. She stood amidst a display of artificial flowers, a tall young woman in a green suede jacket and tight—oh yes, very tight—blue jeans. Waves of yellow hair, thick and soft as corn silk, streamed down her shoulders, and her face was handsome and blue-eyed, honest as an open plain. In her arms she held what appeared to be a sheaf of grain. Pearl watched dumbfounded as she plucked one, two, three more grassy stalks from a canister beside the flowers. The grain-like sheaves against her rich green jacket, the sky-blue eyes and corn-ripe hair, her statuesque figure all provoked an immediate ID.

“Oh, Demeter, bringer of the harvest, good and bounteous lady, friend of earth.”

The words whispered from Pearl’s lips in awe, too faint above the holiday bustle for the goddess to hear. The next instant she was gone, en route to the cashier. Pearl had to remove his glasses and rub his eyes to assure himself he wasn’t dreaming. Then Margaret found him—“Ollie, for heaven’s sake don’t wander off like that!”—and dragged him away. But who knew what other goddesses this lowly hall of commerce might hold? From then on he was only too happy to accompany Margaret to the January white sales, the end-of-winter clearances, and the Easter bonnet expeditions. So far he had spotted a mischievous Pandora, a sweet-faced Thisbe, and almost, but not quite, a lean-limbed Atalanta trying on hot pink Spandex in The Sports Locker. The ultimate prize, of course, would be Helen of Troy, though he dared not get his hopes too high.

Now a group of three teenage girls was headed toward him, and Pearl riveted his attention on them. He was in special need of a trio to fulfill the three Graces, and he had his heart set on some grouping of Anglo, African, Asian or Latina to represent the womanly beauties of the world. But one of the young females approaching was wearing a sheer white tank top with absolutely no bra beneath it, and her breasts were so voluptuous and the nipples so prominent that by the time Pearl got his eyes off them, the owner and her two friends had passed and he’d missed their faces completely. Drat! He pulled at a nearby plant, then straightened guiltily as Margaret appeared.

“Almost done,” she said, waving her bias tape in triumph. “One more stop. I want to see if the jewelry store can fix the hinge on my locket.”

Pearl hurried to his feet, his patience rewarded at last. The jewelry store was right next door to The Gap, and it was among The Gap’s youthful clientele that he always found the most promising concentration of likely maidens—luscious, long-haired, bright-eyed maidens, bursting with energy and health. His mouth began to water, and his eyes searched eagerly ahead. The mall returned a vibrant vista of shops and boutiques, fountains and glass elevators, chatting pedestrians, pushcart vendors, tempting aromas, colorful wares. Not unlike an agora of old…

Pearl stopped, mouth agape. Of course, that was it! Why hadn’t it come to him before? “The Evolution of the Agora: From the Ancient Grecian Marketplace to the Modern Shopping Mall”—there was a research topic even Bates couldn’t match. Parallels began to crowd Pearl’s mind. The types of shops, clothiers, jewelers, housewares—all had some counterpart in the classical agora. The fake greenery—was that not an attempt to recreate the open-air character of the antique market stalls? And the sense of society, the conviviality of the shoppers—the same festive spirit had no doubt prevailed on Athenian market days. He thought of a better title:  “The Greek Agora: A Day in the Life of the Original Shopping Mall.” He could interview customers, retail owners, the mall management. And his goddesses would fit right in— classical literature was full of examples of heavenly beings disguising themselves as mere mortals and strolling the paths of earth. Now he could come to the mall as often as he liked and indulge his goddess search to his heart’s content. In his excitement, Pearl completely lost sight of Margaret, and assuming she had entered the jewelry store, he hurried to The Gap bench. While half his mind scanned for beauties, the other half turned somersaults of joy and inspiration at his agora concept. So befuddled did Pearl become that his eyes must have been staring at the young woman for a full minute before his brain registered what—or  rather, whom—he was seeing.

“Helen.”

He breathed her name, and even though he was seated, his knees felt weak. Oh, vision of loveliness! Oh, radiant beauty! Oh, noble maiden of exquisite form! She wore a sleeveless white dress with an open neck, softly belted waist, and flowing skirt that fell gracefully from her slender hips to her shapely calves, a frock so simple and elegant it was almost a Grecian gown. Her feet were shod in delicate leather sandals. Her hair was the color of orange-blossom honey, intricately plaited across her temples and descending to her waist in a richly woven braid. And her face! Oval, slightly pointed chin, straight nose, fine gray eyes, winged brows, skin of roses and cream. She stood before The Gap with a gold compact open in one hand, and gazing into it, she began to freshen her pink lipstick. She paid no attention to the passersby but remained absorbed in her task as if nothing else in the world mattered. And to Pearl, nothing else did. He had found Helen of Troy before her looking glass, casually applying her makeup.

“Whoa! Sexy babe at twelve o’clock!”

Pearl whirled around at the voice. Beside him sat two teenaged boys, beastly creatures in grungy plaid shirts, cut-off jeans, high-top sneakers, and those ridiculous haircuts with shaven sides and mushroom tops like a tonsorial imitation of an atomic explosion. Large, uncouth, hairy Minotaurs—one of them even had a ring in his nose! And they were leering at Helen, his Helen, who, unaware, continued to apply her lipstick.

“What do you mean, you young degenerates!” Pearl blustered. “How dare you speak to a goddess in that tone!”

“Aw, cool down, dude,” one of the boys scoffed.

“Yeah,” chimed the second. “What’s it to you if we want to case out chicks? Besides, you were the one sitting there drooling.” They chortled rudely while Pearl spluttered a futile protest.

“I bet she’s hot to trot.” The first boy licked his lips and got to his feet. He thrust out his pelvis in a lewd gesture. “Come to me, baby.”

“Yeah,” the second boy echoed, rising. He nudged Pearl in the ribs. “Use it or lose it, old man.”

“No!” Pearl sprang to his feet. The idea of those louts approaching Helen or any of his goddesses was insufferable. They did not deserve to breathe the same air. But the boys were already two strides ahead of him, and all Pearl could think to do to stop them was to shout at the top of his voice.

“THEY ARE NOT SEXY BABES!”

The words rang like Zeus’s thunderbolt through the stunned mall. People stopped, everyone stared, Helen looked up startled from her mirror. Pearl charged toward her, waving one hand on high as if he brandished a sword.

“Never fear, Helen! I will save you! Back, back, you monsters!”

But before he could reach her, a strong hand grabbed his arm.

“What is going on here?” a deep voice demanded, and Pearl found himself in the tight grip of the same security guard who had caught him peeping between the plants at Sears.

“This old geezer was stalking this lady,” the first boy claimed loudly.

“Yeah,” the second jeered, pointing at Pearl. “He kept mumbling about how she’d be hot to trot. You dirty old man!”

“No! That’s not it at all!” Pearl protested. Helen was looking at him in wide-eyed disgust, and when the guard turned to ask her if she was hurt, she murmured, “No, I’m all right, but I have no idea who any of these people are, and I’d like to get out of here.”

The guard nodded, and she slipped away.

“Helen!” Pearl called feebly. He followed her with his eyes—only to see Margaret standing among the crowd, a stricken look on her face. “There has been an error,” he said firmly to the guard. “A complete misunderstanding.”

“That may be, sir,” the guard replied, “but I suggest it’s time for you to leave.”

He propelled Pearl to the nearest exit while the crowd whispered and stared. Pearl was ushered through the double glass doors, into the sunlight of the April afternoon. He blinked, trying to get his bearings, as the guard delivered a final lecture.

“I don’t care how old you are, there’s no excuse for that type of behavior. If there’s any repeat of this incident we may have to press charges of disorderly conduct.”

Then the guard was gone, and Pearl stood alone outside the agora, muttering indignantly at his banishment and yearning to rejoin all the life and beauty within. He cast about him for a last sighting. Surely Helen would reappear, or wise Athena herself to right this terrible wrong. But his goddesses had vanished; their divine favor was withdrawn. All he saw was Margaret, carrying his bag of slippers, coming to take him home.

(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1999)

The Amherst Review, Volume XXVII, Spring 1999

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