S H O R T S T O R Y
b y a t a r h a d a r i ~ l o n d o n , u n i t e d k i n g d o m
LIGHT STILL hangs in the sky through the front window of Claudia's large living-roomed brownstone apartment when she calls the sofa warehouse and inquires at six as to whether Mr. DeAngelo, the proprietor, is in. He is not. She leaves her name and a request that he call at his earliest convenience, then walks from the phone to her refrigerator, where the list hangs. She cannot, as she'd hoped, cross "Inspect Sofa Upholstery" from it. Laundry has been done, muesli bought, the cases in her folder browsed through that morning and seriously worked line by line that afternoon. But the list still cannot be crumpled and thrown away in the corner of the vast black-and-white-tiled kitchen floor because the sofa has not been delivered. There is a hole in the living room.
Claudia looks over her wardrobe. Scarves of green, yellow and red plumage, like lost parrots from a jungle she's never seen nor would she ever visit, drape across the closet door and billow when she opens it, blurring her mirrored reflection like fronds of palms. She looks at herself between the red billows and picks out a black waistcoat to wear over her white chemise and charcoal slacks, then goes to the window to look again to see if she can spot Mark's car.
Mark is a marketing analyst, has a new roommate and, as ever, is bringing him over so Claudia can sniff him out. Mark doesn't appreciate Claudia's sense of humour, but he likes knowing an attorney, especially one who is, comfortingly, a member of the same Residents Association. The sound of brakes around the corner lets her know that his shot old Buick is here. He appears two seconds later, with a tousled looking kid -- couldn't be thirty, slouching in a hand-stitched leather coat. Claudia puts the wine glasses on the table in the front room where there is no couch, then cuts the rind from a round of Gruyere while she waits for them to ring the doorbell.
When they leave, the tousled kid has a name. Ernesto. Ernesto hasn't slouched once. She puts the empty plate with cheese scraps on it in the sink and thinks of the kid, who she's going to talk with again, she's certain, though nothing, of course, has been said. As he draws his coat on, she places her hand on his back just below where lifting muscles might ache if he held someone in his arms all the way off of the ground. She has rubbed many men's backs over the years. When she puts her hand there on his back he stiffens, then relaxes, and she takes her hand away. He turns to look at her. She doesn't get many looks these days that don't involve her in anatomical speculation of the kind she doesn't appreciate. His look looks her in the eye and opens to her look, then he holds out his hand to hers and says he looks forward to meeting again.
She doesn't get her hopes up -- plans she has made before have proven fruitless -- but it is nice to look and to be looked at in return, without coldness rising in her throat, or resistance. Though what does it ever mean, she sighs, emptying water down the drain and going back to the front room to look at the absence of the couch.
Friday morning she calls again, now from the office. Mr. DeAngelo is still not in. She calls after court, and has her office call hourly after that. Nothing. She calls once more from home, at five. This time, the voice comes on, warm, like coffee just a little too hot to drink. It's Mr. DeAngelo.
"You are such a good woman," he says. "You are so patient, like a saint, not a woman. Like the blessed lady! So maybe I can see a way to take a little something off the price."
"I'm not religious, Mr. DeAngelo," Claudia explains. "Last night, I had people with asses that wanted to sit on that couch."
"I'm sorry," Mr. DeAngelo murmurs. "I had no idea."
"Don't make me have to regret you, Mr. DeAngelo," Claudia says.
"No, please," DeAngelo's voice gains depth and texture while staying warm, like cappuccino now, "it's a beautiful spread. So beautiful, I didn't want to cut. That's why it's late. I couldn't bring myself to cut the fabric. If you -- please, Signora Carr, come to the shop and see."
She has no idea why but she says yes, she'll come tomorrow to visit her couch in the store downtown.
The store, ventilated by high windows above long rows of foot-operated sewing machines, is dark. Long fluorescent tubes hang suspended on black snakes of wire. The grey paint flakes off the ceiling and falls over each swatch of fabric that the girls work on. But she doesn't see them brushing flakes and smoothing folds because they're all coat-wearing and headed out the door when she comes in at five. It is the earliest she could get out of the office and breathe.
Mr. DeAngelo is wreathed in smiles like a mortician. He presses her palm with both of his for not long enough, then leads her through the dark room with the sewing machines to a darker hall in back of the warehouse. Light comes from a few blocked high windows, filtered as through the leaded panes of a church. In the corner, behind a wicker chair and some stools of dubious pine, she sees her two-seater. It still wears the same fabric on its frame, including fraying.
"Mr. DeAngelo," she turns to look at him, but he is gone.
She moves toward the corner. "Mr. DeAngelo?" she says, moving the chairs and creeping toward her couch. No answer. How could he have made it to the door, now twenty feet behind her, or disappeared through vaulting windows?
"Miss Carr," the voice is like a whisper, only not near. She looks around, but no one is there. "Miss Carr." She looks up and overhead in the rafters, up above the windows where light hangs. There is a sheet of fabric with birds flying on it, blue against a creamy, cloudy white. In the middle of those billows, Mr. DeAngelo hangs thirty feet over the floor boards of the room behind his shop.
"Mr. DeAngelo, come down," she says. "What about my couch?"
"That's the problem, Signora Carr," the voice comes down. "How you want me to cut this cloth?"
The coffee, when they drink it, is not as sweet as Mr. DeAngelo's voice has been. She muses, back in the room where the sewing machines and kettle are, on the unpredictability of men. Mr. DeAngelo is all apology.
"Is disgraceful," he admits, stirring his cup, "disgusting, deplorable, is no good -- but I got no other cloth I can do that with. Is too good to cut."
"And I don't think I can put nothing else on your cushions. You want orange?"
"No, I do not want orange," Claudia says. "My living room is blue. How do you come to be fondling your cloth like this, Mr. DeAngelo?"
"You think I want to?" his eyebrows go up. They go down again. "I don't want to. It all started like this. And please," he looks at her over his glasses, "don't think I'm a make this up."
"I'm an attorney, Mr. DeAngelo," Claudia puts her cup firmly back into the saucer. "I know people never make it up."
The swatches had come, as always, on a Tuesday. In among the usual batch of browns and grays and oranges, another fabric came. Mr. DeAngelo, who always looked himself at what came in the truck ("You're a perfectionist," Claudia says without enthusiasm) climbed into the back of the truck and ran a finger down a roll.
"It was soft," he says, "like a baby."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do?" he replies. "The price, it was no higher. Usual consignment like always. I sign for the delivery."
The rolls were unloaded in the warehouse back as usual, the oranges and browns cut into the manageable pieces used to throw over unhinging armchairs, torn three-piece suites, the usual bric-a-brac people brought in because they were too cheap to buy again.
"Not like your furniture, of course, Signora Carr," he says. "Yours is a classic. Never go out of style."
Claudia lets it pass.
Then the white roll had been put down, in back.
"There?" Claudia nods at the far wall.
"There," he nods, not looking. That particular roll of white had stacks of brown and red and orange fabric on it, and once they had all been, in the course of the day, taken off:
"It floats," Mr. DeAngelo shrugs.
Claudia empties the last of her coffee and looks across at him. A small man with too large a shirt and crumpled collar, he holds his hands out, palms up, like a debtor. She sighs, so he nods and goes on.
"It floats," he says, "up toward the ceiling. I did it myself last thing at night, took the last brown roll off the pile. You can't get help nowadays."
"Don't talk to me," Claudia says.
"So I take a last thing off the roll of white," he says, "a brown roll, plaid, not bad stuff. I take it off and I put it across the table to cut and I look back and the right end of the white is pointing straight up off your couch and the other end."
"You had your fabrics piled on top of my couch?" Claudia says.
"Please, Signora, not many. A handful. Is very solid."
"I could sue," she says. "I'll never sit on that couch again, clearly."
The right end had been pointing up at a right angle to the floor and the other end had started to float up when DeAngelo grabbed for it. Only it didn't fall. It refused to fall under his weight.
Claudia is firm. "How did you get up in the ceiling just now?" she demands. "How did it get there if you caught it?"
"You see, Signora," he says, showing his debtor's palms again, "that's the thing. I sleep in the fabric that night."
"Are you crazy?"
"It's so soft, like a baby," he says. "I didn't want to clog up the windows, get it dirty."
"I lay on it to keep it down, just think what to do and next thing you know, like magic, I snore and it went up, boop-boop-boop, in the night, without I notice, but that's not all."
"I don't need to touch it now, all the time," he whispers, leaning to her.
"I fly to it," he rasps, hoarse and thirsty, "when I'm under. In that room. I fly."
Claudia tinkles her sugar spoon against the rim of the coffee cup and lays it down. This is not a problem that can be solved by greater application of caffeine. She rests the spoon's tip against the bottom of the cup.
"Why are you telling me this?" she says.
"Can they sue?" he asks.
"Of what?" Claudia asks. "They sent the thing to you. You signed a receipt."
"They'll want it back," he says. "And anyway, I owe a couch. You asked for white."
"Don't worry," Claudia says, "off-white will serve."
"I can't cut the cloth," DeAngelo sighs.
"I won't sue," Claudia soothes. "I was kidding."
"What am I gonna do?" DeAngelo cries, "I haven't been home in three days. It sings to me."
Claudia sits and listens, not happy.
"First I tried to leave," he says, "but... I couldn't. I got down fine. That's no problem. I just couldn't go. I'd get to the door and...laughter, singing, something would sound like something. Not far away. And I'd go back, to listen. Then, nothing. I slept in it, best sleep I ever had, but my wife, she worries. I call her at eleven and tell her there's a breakdown in the machines. I have to fix the tread wheel."
"You always lie to your wife?"
"What do you want from me? It's a miracle."
"Next day, I keep everybody out of there. There is plenty cloth to work with. No more rolls 'til next week. No problems. I go in there. I look at the flowers on the ceiling. I go in the next room, I work. Is all fine. But at night. At night, they all go, put their coats on, go out the door, I hear it again. It calls to me. I hear children laughing. Little children. You hear it?"
"No," Claudia says. "Children?"
"Nothing. You can't describe it. You ever have children?"
"I'm not married," Claudia says.
"Doesn't matter. You can't explain somebody what it's like when your child dies. Is like that."
"Your child died?" Claudia says.
"Long time ago now," he whispers. "Many, many years. I can't leave it," he wipes his eyes, "I can't. Could you cut," he looks at her, "that little bit of white magic?" She doesn't meet his eyes and folds her hands.
Claudia goes home and looks at her living room and wonders if she could live with another colour. Off-white, as she said, or something with stripes, maybe. She has given up on things before, like that trip to Africa which she seldom thinks of now. Not more than once a week, twice maybe. When she goes in the bedroom to look at scarves as a set of colour swatches for potential couch covers she drops the red one she's not worn since that day at the airport and it falls just like a cloud dropping to the earth. As she stoops to grab it and sees the stitching up its borders she recalls twisting it in into a ball between her hands.
She had stood at the airport counter with two tickets, waiting for a man who said he would take the world away and bring it back sandblasted with foreign sensations 'til it shone quite clean. He was delayed, he had said, at the office. He'd be there. She'd waited and her suit wrinkled. It was a matching outfit of sky-blue silk she'd chosen for the flight, an all-nighter lasting into the new dawn on another land mass. Wrinkles had spread out from her groin where she'd worked her palms dry across her body as if she were a new map being drawn here waiting for the check-in hour to tick away. Then it was too late and she'd risen and taken the tickets to the counter. As the gates closed, she'd cashed his ticket in, then her own. With the money she bought five suits of elemental charcoal, all impeccably cut with a hem long enough for any judge from fifty to eighty to never even consider what might be underneath her skirt. She'd never left New England since.
She goes back to the warehouse that night. This time DeAngelo is looking a little pale about the cheeks. The cloth never lets him leave to eat.
"Cut it," Claudia says, shucking her coat.
"No," DeAngelo breathes.
"Cut it," Claudia says, "or I'll sue. For failure to fulfill a contract. I paid in advance," she adds, "here's my credit card receipt."
"I couldn't kill a baby," DeAngelo actually has tears.
"You have to eat," Claudia sits on the metal chair next to him.
"I couldn't," he says.
"Mr. DeAngelo," Claudia says, "go to your wife and make another baby. Pull that rolled-up bedsheet down and sew it on the frame of my two-seater. Here. This is a scissors. I'll cut it for you if you like."
DeAngelo looks at her. Real tears cut tracks down from his eyes.
"Do it," she says, "or I will."
They take two hours: One to do the cutting as the sheet wriggles and DeAngelo screams, hunched under the cutting table like she is cutting through his soul, then another for the sewing, which proves difficult, even on machines. The pieces flap at the corners, and Claudia has to hold them down with her purse and a shoe at each corner while DeAngelo works the sewing machine treadwheel. He weeps, trying not to get tears on the cloth. Then they stretch and tug it over the frayed frame. Eventually her couch looks white. Claudia stands and examines it in the dim bulb glow while DeAngelo wipes his palms on the back of his slacks and sniffles.
Later, Claudia will look at it in her front room, off-white against the blue, as she makes the call to Mark's roommate, Ernesto, to ask if he'd like to bring a bottle over and try to help her hold something down. Then she will sit in the shadows of her living room and wait for him, looking at the gap over the floor boards where her two-seater, glowing and white, will be floating about the length of a man's hands off the ground.
This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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