by M. E. Mishcon
Things break. When they do, no matter how old or neglected, it is unexpected. For instance, the fact that this city is crumbling like old cake comes as a shock. No one pays attention to a decaying road until you rattle over its lunar surface. It seems that, suddenly, storefronts are empty where vendors used to wait years for a lease.
Finally, there is no AUTOMAT.
For me it starts with a rip with the base of the sofa. Not even a rip, per se, more with fraying. Barely noticeable. Too insignificant to do anything about, really, except take it in stride.
Mistake. First rule when facing the possible collapse of civilization: do not take it in stride. Same thing as condoning Chamberlain's tactical error with Hitler. History proves that it is better to overreact than under, and being British only works in the movies. In real life, maintaining grace under pressure or a stiff upper lip just gives you a sore mouth.
Two days later the worn spot widens into an actual hole. By nightfall, a gaping one. Was my divan gasping for breath or ripping for attention?
I show this to my husband, Rob. He shrugs. "It's not so bad."
"It's not bad as in evil, but it is a hole," I mention, running my hand over the broken fabric.
He rolls his eyes. "I meant that it wasn't a very large hole."
"Size has no relevance," I rejoin, even though I know that men are dubious about this concept. "It should be repaired or replaced. The size of the tear doesn't change that fact."
He stretches out on the couch. "It's still comfortable. How old is it anyway?"
"I don't know. We got it just after we got married. Ten years?
"That's not so old."
Right. The next day I am in my office not grading papers, on the phone learning the difference between reupholstering and slip covering. To sum up, one fits and the other doesn't. Turns out that reupholstery costs twice as much and lasts half as long. And then there is selecting fabric. How do you pick a new skin for an old body? Do you try to match what is there and fail, or go for the fantasy and fail?
* * *
Friday the bell rings and a man is standing in my doorway with three books the size of wedding albums under his arm. He wears a brown suit and his breath smells of gum disease. When he smiles his eyes disappear into crescents, making it impossible to distinguish their color. He smiles all the while he is in my foyer.
"Mrs. Walden, I'm Len Blinker." He offers his hand, limp and damp as a used hankie. "May I come in? I've brought swatches."
Glancing down at his battered loafers, I doubt everything he has trapped in those books. But, to follow form, I flip pages. Florals, paislies, stripes, solids. I never knew there were so many fabrics to dislike. Each offering looks flat even though the books have provided illustrations depicting possible rooms these fabrics might enhance.
I shake my head and his face droops. Apparently I am difficult. I do not wish to be. But I am one of those people who want to see the second hotel room before I have seen the first. Full of remorse, I think of the eager artists hunched over drafting tables gnawing erasers, desperate to come up with prints that might please, fit in, decorate. I see them rushing a design into a higher-up's office only to have it rejected for lack of earth tones.
What the hell, go with the leafy thing. It's not too bad. "How much for that one?"
Mr. Blinker's smile reappears, the return of good weather after so much bad.
"Nice choice. You have excellent taste. That one is very expensive." He extracts a pad from his breast pocket and scribbles some numbers. "Let's see, thirty dollars a yard at ninety-one inches, plus labor, plus three back cushions..."
"The cushions are extra?"
"Of course. Then there's shipping, handling. Minus our ten percent discount would make it...humm. Fifteen hundred."
"Dollars? For a slip cover? The whole couch cost half that."
"Mrs. Walden, this work is labor intensive." I let the Mrs. thing go. His eyes when open reveal a glassy iris which is too blue.
"That's ridiculous. I mean, I'll buy a new couch or something."
"It's a shame to toss this one. If you think about it, slip covers are good for ecology."
I walk Mr. Blinker to the door. Salesmanship is one thing, holding me responsible for global warming is hitting below the belt.
After he is gone I sit on the couch, run my hand over its worn tapestry. Perhaps if I get busy with a needle and thread I can fix that hole, make do a bit longer.
* * *
Rob walks in, lays his briefcase on the kitchen counter, opens the refrigerator, closes it.
"What's for dinner?"
I am in the living room grading those papers. "You tell me."
"Oookay," he says. "Is that the way of things?"
"Gee, I thought that whole Mamie and Ike thing was settled for people like us way back in the sixties."
He snorts, re-opens the door. The upper part of his body disappears into the box. He becomes half man, half Sub-Zero appliance.
"There's just enough turkey for one sandwich."
"I don't want anything," I reply to his unasked question.
Whatever marriage is supposed to be, all too often it becomes a place to store your possessions. Some people hole up in a trailer, others select a salt box, colonial, ranch, igloo, yurt, thatched hut, or cave. Rob and I have lived in one bedroom and one living room for over a decade. The kitchen is the size of a bathroom. The bathroom is the size of a closet and closets are a luxury we can ill afford. We share one with a warped bifold door. The crowded bar supports a tangle of wire hangers bunched up, overlapping. Life in the city is a matter of occupying a submarine on the seventeenth floor. A health club in the basement is supposed to make up for that.
At my high school reunion at least ten people I used to sit next to in some class whispered, "Are you happy?" My first response was a reflexive vigorous nod. By the fourth time, however, I began to wonder who or what was posing the conundrum. It had been a long while since I had considered contentment an option. The last was a night I sipped Mateus, read Siddhartha and On The Road, watched the sun come up.
On the other hand, Rob and I pay the bills (most of them) and he can deal with what I look like after three weeks of Christmas parties. In return, I get to see him in the morning before he has showered, shaved, and moussed. All of this exposure has made some things possible but has stood in the way of others. Is it good, bad, enough?
Happiness. The word alone makes itself a question.
* * *
We do not talk tonight. The Minnesota Twins are in the field and the Yanks are up at bat. He leans forward, groans, grumbles, then whoops, both arms in the air.
"Did you see that?" he asks as though I may reply.
It is late spring, the end of the year for an academic like myself. There things to be avoided; papers to be read, tests to be scored, and students wanting better grades. Pre-meds are the worst and they all must take English 101. Today I read an essay likening Swann's Way to the perils of timeshares. The insight lacked depth, though I gave the guy credit for trying to make Proust relevant to Republicans.
Rob has slumped back in the armchair. Beneath his glasses his eyes are closed. His mouth is slack, snoring. Perhaps the true appeal of baseball is its capacity for putting the harried to sleep. Except for the game's chirping banter, making plays, errors, or selling things, it is quiet. We are above street noise and below air traffic consideration. We are not fighting. My work is getting done. Soon it will be summer. It should be enough.
* * *
"Hannah, I can't wait for you to meet him," Olivia says leaning toward me. She looks around, but the cafeteria is bustling and no one is listening. Still, she keeps her voice hushed, conspiring. "He's so handsome. Can you believe this is me talking?"
Olivia has never been married, lived with anyone, been pinned, gone steady, or as near as I can tell, dated. It has been like this ever since my cart smashed into hers in the 'Soup For One' aisle of the supermarket. Kidding, actually, I met Livi during the worst summer of my life. My then lover, Graham, had decided to hitchhike across America, which was my fault. I had suggested Easy Rider when he had wanted to see What's New Pussycat?. The result was that Graham set out to discover Mount Rushmore and I went on literary retreat.
In the rear of the Not Just Anais Nin seminar, one person kept her back to the instructor. Right off, I knew there was someone I could relate to. That was Olivia, still is.
"Where did you meet him?" I ask coming back to our conversation.
"Personals," she says and before I gasp she adds, "The Nation."
"Tell me about him. I mean, aside from his devotion to the left."
She laughs. "Are you eating that?" She sticks her fork into my plastic salad bowl, spears a tomato wedge.
"Yes, I am."
"He's tall. Very tall. Big."
I raise an eyebrow. Is this a euphemism? "Big big?"
"And you know this already?"
"This tomato is not at all bad," she says staring now at the empty fork.
"How would I know?"
"I can't believe your cafeteria gets such good produce."
"When do I meet him?"
"What do you say to you, Rob, and us at Woo Hop?"
"Woo woo," I reply picking at the remains of lettuce left to me.
* * *
He has his arms spread across the surface of the Formica table when I walk in. He does not stand, but neither does he remain seated. There is the smallest flicker of upward movement.
"Hannah, this is Wallace," Livi says. We shake hands and I am reminded of the reupholstery man. He withdraws his wet hand. The fact that I may intimidate him is endearing.
"Where's Rob?" Livi asks.
I shrug. "I've always wondered."
They laugh, look at each other. What does she see in him?
"So," I say. They turn to me. I have no idea where to go with this. It has been a long time since I have met anyone's new anything. At my age one shops for new sofas, not mates.
My age. Too old for adventures, too young for dignified widowhood. Divorce hits anytime, but generally seems to occur right off or late enough to surprise acquaintances. 'They seemed so happy.'
Twenty years ago, meeting, mating, moving on was the rage. Ten years later, we made a commitment, Rob and I. We made sense. True love did not. We were romantic agnostics, Rob and I. We wanted the same things, respected each other. That was supposed to be enough. Then something happened, or rather nothing did. Nothing became the thing to do. Oh, we worked, did dishes, stayed afloat. We treaded water because going under meant getting your hair wet, frizzing.
"Here you are," Rob says planting a dry kiss somewhere on my occipital lobe. I reach up with my left hand but he has gone over to the other side, to the happy couple to offer his hand, proffer kisses.
"Have you ordered?" he asks studying the huge, plastic menu.
"We just got here," I say though it seems longer. "What are people in the mood for? They do a great Peking duck."
Livi does not answer and Wallace, not looking away from her says, "You order for all of us, Hannah."
I bat my eyes at Rob, smile. He does not return the gesture.
"So..." he says.
* * *
There is no window in my office. That is not so appalling. Some people do not have an office. Some people do not have a job. There is a poster of CHRISTINA'S WORLD, a mosaic of laminated degrees, and a Jimi Hendrix poster, but there is no view. I have been willing to be tenured at this college, listen to student laments, write didactic drivel dry enough to dehumidify a basement all within the confines of this carton of a room. I should have at least wanted a window.
A tap at the door. It cracks enough for a pug type nose to poke in. "Dr. Walden?" the nose inquires.
"Come in. Justin, isn't it?" I recognized his up turned protuberance. Dey, Justin, second row, on the aisle. Leans forward a lot. His face is sweet, vulnerable, smooth as a peeled grape.
"Is this a bad time?"
"Define bad?" I say and then recant, "Kidding. What's up?"
He looks at the empty chair beside my desk and I nod him into it. "Well, to be, uh, honest, I uh, well, like..."
After years of listening to students I have learned that it is best to wait for them to spit up whatever is on their minds all by themselves. Heimlich Maneuvering only makes them gag.
"It's, like, my last paper. I don't like what I did."
"You don't like it?"
"Yeah, I'm unhappy. Is that, like, weird?"
I ruffle through a pile on my desk. He leans over, points. "That's it," he says.
I flip through to the back page. Gave the guy a B+, which beat the hell out of Reggie Grey's Proust/Time Share continuum theory.
"Justin, this was not a bad paper."
"Not bad isn't good enough."
I narrow my gaze. "Are you Pre-med by any chance?"
"I don't know what I am major wise. But I been thinking about that More dude. A Man For All Seasons was on the tube so I re-read Utopia. I think I messed up. I'd like to try again. That okay?"
"The paper is already graded and logged." Is this my voice?
"Hey, not for credit then. I just don't want you to think that it was, like, my best stuff, you know."
* * *
That night I rent A Man For All Seasons. Pop it into the VCR when Rob dozes off. My husband is still snoring when Sir Thomas More is incarcerated for refusing to acquiesce to Henry VIII's wish for a divorce vis a vis the Act of Supremacy. In this century, divorce is common practice. But back then, More, a devout Catholic, would not turn his back on a lifetime of belief. He would not turn his back on himself. He gazes out his dungeon window and, between the bars, can see a tree, a margin of river, and whoever passes into that frame.
Was it enough to sustain him? Did he doubt himself, his choices for wanting to see a bit more of the Thames? All of which makes me wonder what meager view I am willing to look out on.
* * *
Two nights later, it is nearly one when the door creaks. I am in bed, staring at the ceiling, following a crack that runs from wall to wall like a vein. Rob creeps in and does not turn on the light. He does not look over at me, but steps over to the silent butler to drape his jacket, tie, trousers. So that is what he looks like getting undressed if I am not here, I think.
* * *
The day the new couch is to be delivered I am heading North on 87. Somewhere in this direction is a country that used to welcome draft dodgers and now, perhaps, me. I pass a sign that has child-like picture boxes of a knife and fork, a telephone, a bed with a stick figure stretched out on it. I pull off the highway. There is a Roy Rogers and a Mobil station. The parking spot I pull into is defined with bright yellow lines, just the right size for my rental car.
In the phone booth I balance the receiver on one shoulder, dig change out of my bag, punch in the numbers, wait. After a while a voice comes on the line.
"Bloomingdale's Home Furnishings, may I help you?"
"This is Hannah Walden. I am supposed to get a delivery today."
"Really? Who was your sales representative?"
"A Mr. Blinker came to my home. But I bought the couch from a different guy. I think his name was Scott."
"He's not in right now. You'll have to call back."
"I can't. I just want to confirm the delivery for today. I won't be there, but I've made arrangements with my super."
"I can not give out information regarding delivery schedules."
I pause, recall that it is not my problem. "It's not coming is it? If it were on its way you'd tell me."
"Not necessarily," she says. I picture this woman examining elaborate tips she has glued onto her nails.
"Oh come on. Talk to me. I promise, I won't scream."
"Well, I'm not supposed to but, okay, let's see. Walden, Walden. No, I don't see it on the schedule. I can have Mr. Scott call back."
I hang up, head into Roy Rogers. I wonder if they still have that good barbeque sauce? It is a shame about the new couch not being delivered. That, at least, would have been something fresh to leave behind. Instead, there will only be that note pinned to the beat up sofa.
Things break. Sometimes it begins with a crack or ping, but more often there is no warning. One second it is whole, working, the next it is not. It starts small so it is best to notice when the paint chips or the toaster malfunctions. Some things are supposed to function no matter what. Your health, mother, the ocean should not require maintenance. But let your guard down, even for a second, and you get used to having it down. Whatever you have been ignoring will fall apart.
M. E. Mishcon has been published in Urthona,
Sequoia, The Mill Hunk Herald, Boston Magazine, The Women's
Times, New York Magazine, The Berkshire Review, The Artful Mind,
Thema, and The George Washington Review. She was a 1997 semi finalist for a
Heekin Fellowship and the winner of the Hackney Award for her her novel Just Between
Us. This last was judged by the late James Dickey. She has been the fiction and
poetry editor for The Artful Mind for the past five years. Currently, she works
as a psychotherapist in The Berkshire region of Massachusetts and lives with her husband
Please post a message on our community bulletin board, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know what you think about this story, and we'll pass your message along to the author.
Home || Current Issue || Prior Issues || Writing Contest || Staff || Links || Rings
© 2000 Serpentine. All rights reserved.