by Wallace Maass
The apartment building was on North Sheridan, just where the oriental man on the phone said it was. He told her that if she turned around toward Lake Shore Drive, she could catch a glimpse of the lake; the only place on Sheridan where this was possible. He also said that there would be a wood finishing shop next to the apartment building, and there was. Ms. Alderman had parked in the lot of a small grocery a block away, for there had been no available parking along the length of the street. She wasn't surprised though. If it wasn't for the great deal she was sure to get on a couch, she wouldn't have gone about on a cloudy Sunday either.
Ms. Alderman stood in the entrance of the building and looked over a panel of buttons for the man's apartment number, following her fingers with her eyes, up and down each column. She came to 128 and lightly pressed the button and waited for the man's voice. She peered into the wide hall, more like a lobby, beyond the glass doors leading to the security desk. It was an elegant place, like a hotel, she thought as she caught the shine of the polished cobblestone floor. Unbuttoning her long coat, she realized that it had been a minute since she pushed the button. Again she pushed it, this time staring into the panel as if doing so would make the man hurry. When there was no answer she put her face to the locked glass doors and looked for the security guard. The desk was in disorder, a small clock was balanced against an apple and a coffee mug sat close to the edge of the table. She rapped on the glass and watched the second hand on the clock turn. Agitated, she stepped back outside, where a panhandler approached her. The tattered man looked at her briefly and kept walking.
Ms. Alderman was relieved. She knew she'd have given him money; not a charity born of sympathy, but as a way out of trouble.
She looked up the height of the building and saw a few opened windows, pop bottles, plants, a hand or two, even the nostrils of a small child high in the building, but she saw no evidence of the oriental man. She thought she might see a windchime, or incense by the window, but then she wondered how those discoveries might help her. Remembering a phone-booth by the grocery, she began walking with the idea of calling the man.
She looked at the ad she'd torn out of the newspaper for the phone number. The notion of just getting in her car and going home to a bowl of soup and good conversation with her friends on the phone came to her. She wondered if the couch was worth the fuss.
She'd come across the ad in the paper over a cup of coffee. She hadn't been looking for a couch at all. She'd just been looking, turning the pages, drinking coffee. She only noticed the ad because of a misspelled word. Whether it was the oriental man who had misspelled it, or the receptionist who took the information for the ad didn't matter to Ms. Alderman. She found great tragedy, intrigue, even humor in misspelled words; like the way she was when she'd seen a car accident or some other misfortune. She read it twice. The second time, she thought about her daughter who would be moving into an empty apartment. For ten dollars, or less if she could help it, she could give her daughter a "fancy" couch, as the ad said. Decisively, she picked up the receiver and began to dial the numbers. As the phone rang, she turned around to see if she could see the lake from the phone booth, but the man had been right so far. The oriental man answered. "Hello?" he said with only a trace of an accent.
"Hello... this is Jan Alderman, I called about the couch." "Yes." "I don't think your buzzer is working, so I'm calling you from the phone booth by the grocery store." She could hear the man breathing, then he said something to someone that she couldn't understand. "I'll wait for you by the door... outside," he said. "Oh, o.k. then, see you in a bit. " The door to the phone booth became stuck when she tried to open it. She put both hands on the handle and pulled. The door folded a little. She kept pulling and the door inched open. Her skin turned prickly, electric under her coat and she gave up on pulling the door open. She tried to squeeze herself out of the narrow crack she created.
Her eyes were wide and frantic, and she could see a small gathering of four or five people gawking at her tragedy from the grocery store. She didn't concern herself with them. She only wanted out of that tiny space. She forced her body through, but her large purse wedged itself between the door and the frame of the booth. She wasted no time. She gave the purse a stiff tug and a twist until it finally sprang at her. The contents; lipstick, tissue, pennies and a bottle of nail polish clattered to the ground. The man must have been waiting a while, she thought, or at least he'd been smoking his cigarette right after he talked to her, for it was half burned and a scatter of ash blew around his feet. He stood still, with a hand on his hip and seemed to be entranced by the quivering lake. She clacked to the entrance of the building. The man looked at her, then looked away, down the street at someone hot-rodding.
Ms. Alderman smiled, but he had already turned away, which irritated her. "Hello, are you the man with the couch for sale?" she asked, knowing that he was. He was clearly oriental; dark, stiff hair, short stature, a flat face like that of a Persian kitten. The man turned to her. He smiled and then nodded, dropping his cigarette to the ground and mashing it with the heel of his paint stained boot. "Yeah," he said, with more accent this time. "Come up, I'll show it to you." The lobby she had seen from the outside was indeed elegant, antique, yet stale and damp; a stone smell, as if they were passing through a cave. A chandelier hung from the ceiling with its glass candles burning dimly. They passed the security desk. Ms. Alderman watched the security man eye the oriental man as they walked by. He then looked curiously at her and smiled. They came to a waiting elevator. The oriental man held it open for her as she stepped in. A flickering light buzzed overhead.
"Did you get lost?" he asked, pushing the button to his floor. The elevator did nothing and he jabbed it again. "Oh no," she said "you gave me good directions, I understood you perfectly. You speak very well." He smiled, but was silent the rest of the way up to his floor. The hall leading from the elevator was narrow, like an alley. Apartments were arranged on both sides, one facing the lake, and the other probably facing a building, or a street. There was the pervading smell of oriental cooking; eggs, spicy perhaps, steamed rice and garlic. She knew the smell, although she couldn't place it. It could have been Thai, Korean or maybe Japanese. It took her back to her marriage to a career military man, and the visits to her oriental friends from the Officer's Wives Club, and it occurred to her that she'd never known them as Thai, Korean, or Japanese. She'd only known them as oriental. It had never been important to know anymore. The man knocked on his own door. He stepped back and rocked on his heels, then slid his hands into the back pockets of his overalls. He looked at Ms. Alderman and smiled. The sound of feet scuffing along on carpet came from the other side of the door, then the jingling, metallic sounds of locks being undone. The door cracked open and a boy, a pre-teen, looked out. He saw his father and opened the door wider, then stood against the wall as the man and Ms. Alderman entered the apartment.
There was a bead curtain, hanging almost to the floor between the doorway and the living room of the apartment. The oriental man held the strands of brown beads out of Ms. Alderman's way as she walked into the living room. From where she stood, she could tell it was a small apartment, consisting of a living room, a bathroom, a sliver of a kitchen and a tiny bedroom. If it had been just the man and his son, the apartment would suffice, she thought. But there was a presence there, the delicious aroma of a baby's skin after bath. She could taste the sweet kiss on the cheek of an infant. She became electric, prickly, and she knew there was something more to that suffocating existence.
They walked to the couch, but she hadn't looked at it yet. She was intrigued with the way others lived. She spied into the bedroom where there was no bed, only cans of house-paint and painting supplies. She remembered then, the paint stained boots, the white overalls, and she figured the man was a painter, but she hadn't figured where these people slept. A stack of pillows and a couple of thick comforters sat in the corner of the living room, and Ms. Alderman could picture the small family spread over the living room floor, under the comforters, under the beeps and rumbles of the city outside.
There was a commotion on the floor of the kitchen. She looked and saw a small woman crouched to the floor, wiping the tile with a rag in a sensitive circular motion. Ms. Alderman couldn't see her face, only the long strands of coarse hair hanging almost to the floor. The woman never looked up as she worked the rag around the legs of a small, paper strewn, round-table in the kitchen. The oriental man and Ms. Alderman looked over the couch. She thought it was worth more than ten dollars. She sat down on the center of it. The smell of babies surfaced from the cushions. She began to look around, listen for the noises that babies make, then turned her attention back to the couch. The arms were of cherry wood and she felt as if she could sink into the cushion.
A person could drown in this cushion, she thought to herself. She had the notion of keeping it for herself, in her newly finished basement. She sat still on the couch, thinking about how soft it was, watching the young boy watch television. The volume increased as the action of the program heightened. She could feel the oriental man standing casually over the couch. She could hear the oriental woman rinsing the dirty rag in a bucket of water.
"I like it," she said to the man. He'd been looking at the television, at the drama and tragedy on the screen. He hadn't heard her, she thought, or she hadn't heard him reply. "I like the couch," she said again, only louder, over the raging dialogue on the television. The man first looked at her, then became annoyed with the television. He snapped his fingers and the boy looked at him. The man motioned for the boy to turn the volume down. The boy waited a moment, then reached out and turned the knob until only the moving lips could hint at any conversation. The boy then took to a news magazine and began turning the pages, stopping on the ones with pictures of tragedies around the globe. As she watched the characters on the television speak without sound, Ms. Alderman's throat tightened. She couldn't stand to watch mouths move without speech. It was like suffocating. She took her eyes off the television and stood up.
"It's very nice," she said as she looked at it again. She noticed a bit of stuffing that she hadn't seen before sticking from the side of one of the cushions. She bent over and saw a long tear along the side of the cushion.
"Oh my," she said. She looked at the oriental woman who had stopped what she was doing. The oriental woman stared stiffly at her, almost frightened and she looked as if she'd been crying for weeks. The man said something to the woman, a consoling tone of words. The small, skeletal woman hid her face and went off to the bedroom. Ms. Alderman watched her scurry from the kitchen to the room of paint cans, where at least the smell of baby skin perhaps was overtaken by the fumes of house paint. The man gestured at the couch. "I'll give it to you for nothing," he said quickly, almost desperately. Ms. Alderman looked at him. She was scared to say anything. But she hadn't wanted a damaged couch. She shook her head. "No, I think it's too bad." The man immediately went to the tear. "I can fix it, like this, I'll have it fixed." He pulled the torn cushion from the couch. The boy on the floor stopped turning pages, and the small woman in room with the cans could be heard sobbing. Under the torn cushion, on the barren felt that hid the frame of the couch was a clear, green pacifier molded into the likeness of a bear. Ms. Alderman saw it, and she too stopped.
It lay there, prone, without purpose, emitting a weak aroma of saliva, and she knew that the man would never be able to fix it. She asked the man if she could use his phone. He showed her to it and let her sit at the table in the kitchen. She dialed the number to her daughter. She tried to look shallow, not wanting to confirm anymore misfortune. She didn't want anymore of tragedy, or at least didn't want to be too close to it. She put her hand to her face and looked off into the corner of the kitchen, into a box of baby things gathered like garage sale merchandise; toys, bottles and the half used package of diapers.
The phone kept ringing and she looked back at the man, who stood by the window, staring between buildings. He ran his fingers though his hair as the boy on the floor watched. The answering machine came on and she listened to her daughter's voice and the sharp beep. "Susan, I've got a surprise for you. I've bought a nice couch for your apartment from some nice people," she said. She paused a moment, twisting the phone cord between her fingers. "It's got a little damage, but we can fix it... we can get it fixed. Call me later..." She watched the man, the boy and the security guard load the couch into a paint stained truck. The oriental man insisted on delivering it and she would at least let him do that. She knew the small, kitten of a woman was watching from above, but couldn't put a finger on her experience. It was something only she could know. As Ms. Alderman tightened her coat around her neck to keep out the wind, she thought about the pacifier, the smell of babies. The possibilities confused her. She'd think about what to do with the couch later. For now, she wanted just to get out of trouble, like handing a panhandler a few crumpled dollars.
The oriental man and the boy followed her back down Lake Shore Drive. They would head west off of 55 to her house. On the way, there would be accidents, misfortune, and misspelled graffiti. She knew though, that they'd just keep driving.