by Marlan Siren, Grand Bend
There’s not nearly the amount of stuff you’d expect in a one bedroom apartment. (She was minimal and I was mellow.) I could have called a second-hand shop to remove everything, but something in me wants a process, not an event. I will keep my laptop, my Kindle, the red chair, my lamp, and the little black table. Everything else can go.
A woman in a yellow sweater asks, “Your couch. Was it expensive?”
“Dunno,” I say. “I forget.”
She explains that she has a decent couch but her dog died on it last week and now she can’t bear to sit on it. He died of a broken heart. She and her husband split up and after the cheating bastard moved out the poor dog just lay there. It took him two weeks to stop living. Friends will help her move the couch tomorrow.
“Will you take $200?”
Fine with me. I would have taken less.
An old gentleman, turbaned, suited and tied, strokes the stack of books with elegant piano-player hands.
“No bookcase?” he asks.
They were her books. Abandoned, like everything else in the place. She left with only her Blackberry, her flute, a shoulder bag and our smallest suitcase.
Piano man wants all the books. His grand-daughter has just started reading again, after a drunk driver left her with three sightless years and another drunk driver produced a donor for a cornea transplant.
Two women, twins, come out of the bedroom, carrying garments. “You’re selling these?” (I hadn’t considered her closet.)
“Sure,” I say.
Most of the clothing is orchestra black. Some white shirts. She called them shirts, not blouses.
The twins volunteer for an organization that helps underprivileged women “dress for success.”
“Check the shelf in the closet. Should be two pair of shoes and one purse. Take them all. No charge.”
I learned that lesson the night I proposed. Down on one knee, offering up a velvet box, the whole cliché.
“But I don’t wear jewelry.”
“An engagement ring is not jewelry.”
“Of course it is. It’s the most jeweled of all jewelry, the most examined, quantified in both dollars and carats. I do believe there is something very wrong with the thing and the concept. What I could really use is a new tooth.” She pointed to an incisor. “This one’s dead. Remember my root canal?”
The tooth was cheaper than the ring, but something lingered besides the money in my bank account.
For the same reason, we didn’t need a bookcase. Or a bed frame. “The floor is the best support for a mattress.” Or a dishwasher. “Four of everything is enough. Four plates, four bowls, four forks, et cetera.” (She said ‘et cetera’ a lot because she didn’t like to waste words.) “Just wash after each use. A dishwasher is simply a storage unit for dirty things.” We each had a reading lamp. “If it’s beside the couch and you want to read in bed, you just unplug it and carry it to the bedroom.”
At first I thought all this was quirky-cute, but after her first Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ place, her quirkiness became my comfort station.
There was the usual feast of people, girded by sideboards groaning with trays and platters and casseroles and chafing dishes and tureens, offering a surfeit of every food group in various guises and disguises. The buffet was aglut with animal collateral and condiments in boats and bottles and bowls, and biscuits, buns, and breads in a big basket. A corner hutch was clotted with “salad” fare: cabbage salad, macaroni salad, potato salad, apple-marshmallow salad, and a disturbing jellied structure, lime green and shaped like a fish, which interred the shredded remains of former vegetables.
Around the corner I had seen a wheelie cart laying in wait with a two-tiered invasion of confectionery aggression: pies and cakes, custards and puddings, meringues, tarts, brownies and some beige 3D constructs shaped like pilgrim hats. The only food-free zone was the other corner hutch, infested with the knick-knackery of familial mementos and products of the Franklin Mint. The walls were littered with framed photographs and brass tchotchkes, the spreading of which was remedied by the plate rail where an illogical collection of plates with faces looked down. Above the uncle seated across from me were Shirley Temple and Winston Churchill. As I heard the wheelie-cart gathering muster in the hall, I could feel Charles and Diana and a horse named Trigger counting the hairs on the back of my neck. All this stuff lurking around the jam of human traffic. Closing in. I couldn’t breathe. How had I grown up this way?
When we returned home we sat, not on the couch but on the parquet floor, and peeled an orange and shared the sections. Then we made some lovely love and, afterward, smiled smugly to each other like we knew a secret – like we were a secret.
“This poster. How much?” A man with Albert Einstein hair wearing a Blue Jays T-shirt, who I recognize as the tenant two doors down, is pointing to the wall.
It was our only gesture towards “art.” A framed poster of two chairs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
“It speaks to me,” she had said.
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know yet.”
I often found her standing oh-so-still in front of that poster. Divining. When she finally told me what it said I should not have been surprised. All the clues had been there.
“Not for sale,” I say to Albert. (I don’t know why. I have not planned the details of this process. I’m making it up as I go.)
But now this infliction of stories that don’t need to be told. Dead dogs and unbearable couches, cheating bastards and drunk drivers. Previously-used corneas and clothing-deprived women. The guy that bought the stainless steel garbage can has a neurotic one-eyed cat who chews plastic. The toaster and kettle man hasn’t seen his daughter in nine years but hears she’s off to college now. Figures she’ll appreciate small appliances for her dorm room. “Like a graduation present, you know?” Thing is, no one will tell him which college. The scatter mat in front of the kitchen sink reminds a woman, dead ringer for Oprah Winfrey with dreadlocks, of the lap shawl her mother used during chemotherapy. Her voice is the soothing velvet of Rastafarian promises. “One dollar,” I say. The rabbi’s son is in rehab, his story bearing no discernible relevance to his purchase of my vintage Polaroid camera.
This anthology of humanity is exhausting. I sit on the couch.
A skinny twenty-something dude sits beside me.
“What’s your story?” he asks.
“Ya – like are you moving? You broke?”
“No,” I say, though I’m pretty sure I am broken.
On his arm I see the oddest tattoo, but I’m too close to get a good look. He sees me trying, stands up to display the artwork. Some circlish things descend from his shoulder to his wrist where there’s an image I can’t decipher.
“What is it?”
His girlfriend tells us she’s going to an ATM. She puts two big bags of kitchen stuff – pots, pans, mugs – at his feet. Thirty dollars, we figure. She leaves.
“A plate,” skinny guy says. “A plate falling.” He points to his wrist. “Plate breaks. Those are the shards.”
Now this is a story I want to hear. I hate to say it, but the image speaks to me.
“Why a plate?” I ask. “Why a falling plate?”
“You tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine. I’m a writer. I like to hear people’s stories.”
So I tell him.
When I’m finished, he stands to scrutinize the poster.
“Wow,” he says. “She deconstructed the shit out of that one, I’d say.”
“Eight years it took her.”
“So how do you become a nun if you don’t have religion? That is a conundrum… So is she still at this retreat place?”
“You want her back?”
“Dunno. I forget.”
“Great story. Can I use it?”
“Ya. Like I said, I’m a writer.”
I think about this. What good is a story, I ask myself, if someone can’t use it?
“Sure,” I tell him. “Use the hell out of it… Now it’s your turn,” I say, pointing to the tattoo.
Here’s the story: his mother was an angry, violent woman with too many children and not enough chores. He was drying the supper dishes in the kitchen when one slipped from his hands. Crash. What the hell was that? mom yelled from somewhere. A p-wate fe-wo, he yelled back. Her fists swooped into the kitchen (his words exactly) as she yelled: Plates don’t fall! People drop plates! Now you say it! He was shaking and his freshly broken lip stung like hell so it was even harder to talk than it usually was and it came out: Pwates don’t fawo. Peepo dwop pwates.
“I was only 3 years old. I couldn’t do L’s or R’s.”
I am chilled. I actually shiver.
We have a moment of silence.
“You know Beyond the Fringe?” he asks. “Peter Cook and -“
“- and Dudley Moore? Sure I do. I love those guys.”
Then he puts on an English accent. “I coulda been a judge but I never had the latin, never had the latin for the judging. I just thought of that.”
“Because she coulda been a nun but she never had religion, never had the jesus for the nunning.”
We both give a slap-your-lap kind of laugh.
An over-pierced teenager comes from the kitchen carrying four plates and four bowls.
“Can I get these for a loonie?”
I’m feeling engaged now, even a bit brazen. “If you don’t tell me why you want the bowls, you can have them for free. But not the plates. Put the plates back, please.”
“And don’t dwop them,” skinny dude adds.
Which leads to more lap-slapping.
Then another silence.
Then the girlfriend returns and they leave with their bags of stuff.
At the end of the day the apartment doesn’t really look much different. The couch hasn’t moved to its new home yet. No one bought the mattress. Though her missing lamp gives pause, the big difference is on the inside: inside cupboards, inside drawers, inside closets. Decluttering. Reducing. She would approve.
I wash my hands in the bathroom and look at myself in the only mirror we’ve ever had, a 10” circle attached to the wall with a steel retractable claw. I stand back to try to see more of myself, but can see only pieces. Something like those blind people brailling an elephant and trying to describe the whole creature.
There’s my belt buckle. My elbow. My wrist. There’s something mattering here, but my brain is moving faster than my mind. I take the elevator to the lobby with its overstatement of mirrors. I look at my whole self. From many angles. Inside out.
Yup, I decide. I’m clutter. That’s what she saw when she saw me. Clutter. One chair too many. An excess plate. An et cetera.
Back upstairs, I look down from my balcony to the expanse of concrete surrounded by construction-site ribbon. They are re-paving the parking lot. It is 7 p.m. so all the yellow-hats have gone home. Every morning they vacuum the debris before they pave. Tomorrow would likely be their last day. I realize that I have plugged into their company during my morning coffee and that now I will miss them. I go to the kitchen and return to the balcony.
I drop the first plate. Though I am four floors up I can see pretty clearly what broken looks like, how shards are made. I wonder about the skinny dude. Did he grow up with that mean mother? Go to Children’s Aid? Foster homes? Wish I had asked. And what about dreadlock Oprah’s mother? In remission or dead now? How could I not have asked that? And that poor fucking dog allowed to die on a couch? How does that happen?
I drop the second plate.
Couch lady says she has friends to help her move the couch so if the dog was too big for her to budge, why didn’t she solicit those friends to help her get the dog to a vet? Or arrange for a home visit. Did she even bother contacting the cheating bastard about the depressed dog?
I drop the third plate.
Broken heart, my ass, that dog was neglected to death. Maybe Munchhausen-by-proxy. Or maybe some twisted desire to punish the cheating bastard. Whatever. When the Bitch of Belsen arrives tomorrow I’ll give her back her money and tell her she’s not getting the fucking couch.
I do not drop the fourth plate.
I take it back to the kitchen and put it in the cupboard. The only other things in there are salt and pepper shakers and a roll of paper towels. I like that.
I look at my couch. I stroke the back of it and sit down. It is a very comfortable couch. Always was. A good and faithful couch. I hunker into the familiar and pat the seat beside me. I realize I am glad my mental drift has brought me to this couch-keeping moment.
I look at the wall. I decide that tomorrow I will knock on Albert Einstein’s door. If he still wants the poster, he can have it.