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My husband accused me of embezzlement just before lunchtime on a Tuesday in early September. His aged and partially deaf Uncle Seymour sat at the sales desk a few feet away, straightening a stack of credit card brochures and reorganizing a jar of pens.
"You are robbing us blindly," Leon said. He held a sheaf of papers that might have been the most recent bank statement. He waved his arm maniacally. "Almost two thousand dollars are missing...it is like you are embezzling from your own family. Stealing from yourself, even!"
Delia, the patio furniture buyer, stood loyally by his side clutching a notebook. Her porcelain skin seemed to mock my own ruddy complexion. A middle-aged customer in a sleeveless orange dress pretended not to notice that an incident -- still vague in nature but clearly not congenial -- was unfolding before her, blocking her way as she studied the price tag for a queen-size sofa-bed. An aria intended to enhance her retail experience poured from the ceiling.
"You're totally exaggerating," I protested. "We had huge bills last month. I can explain each one of them." There were many other, more private things I longed to say. Leon and I were long overdue for a somber conversation, for some sort of major marital reckoning. We had just muddled through the worst summer in the history of our seventeen-year marriage, struggling to keep our troubles private in an effort to give our son the illusion of a happy, or at least stable, family life. We had never before let our personal problems spill into the workplace. Maybe this was really it, the beginning of the end of us, at last.
Or maybe it was just the heat. The entire region had been teetering onedge for weeks. The very ground under our feet showed signs of distress; the parched landscape around the store had been subject to a series of underground tremors thought to be related to the record-breaking temperatures. Manhole covers kept exploding off the street, injuring passersby, causing electrical failures, and baffling teams of experts recruited by the local utilities. It was an unfamiliar sort of atmosphere for Washington: hot and dry, with a sharp flammable breeze, not unlike the Santa Ana winds that blow through Los Angeles, sending the murder rate soaring in detective novels.
Instead of looking Leon in the eye as I spoke, I stared down at my new sandals, purchased just the day before. They were an unnecessary splurge, equivalent to the amount of money I had saved by bringing my lunch to work each day for a month, according to my rough calculations. This retail therapy increasingly required a bit of creative financing as our resources dwindled. My toenails poked through the top strap, advertising the need for polish.
Our personal bank statements were usually about $1,000 in the red, and had been for years. This past month was only slightly worse than usual and there were legitimate reasons for the expenditures. The more alarming financial problems, in my view, had to do with the store. Not only were we just skirting bankruptcy, but money kept disappearing from the cash register. Twenty dollars here, thirty dollars there. Small amounts that were beginning to add up. I had no desire to discuss this in front of Uncle Seymour, Delia, and the middle-aged customer in the sleeveless orange dress, so I turned, without speaking, and left the store. I realized only after I had made my dramatic exit that I had forgotten to grab either my pocketbook or the keys to the van. A crumpled wad of cash in my pocket amounted to ten dollars, which, for better or worse, limited the possibility of permanent escape.
I had been seeking refuge at the graveyard for years. I went there to eat in silence, sometimes walking a block in the wrong direction to the sanctioned crosswalk, other times dashing impatiently across nine lanes of midday traffic -- my private flirtation with suburban suicide. Pedestrians were few, leaving the sidewalks weirdly empty. Only the disenfranchised walked, and then it was only to the side of the road to wait for the bus. There were of course the sandwich-board men, a couple of whom I had gotten to know in a casual way, fellow pavement dwellers who crossed my path at roughly the same time each day. I had gone so far as to exchange first names with the man in a wheelchair, an African American in his late fifties with thick-rimmed glasses, named TeeJay. He had spent a year between placards advertising tropical fish for Aquarium World, two blocks north of the graveyard. He put in an eight-hour day, he said, and thought it was not bad work: he was outdoors, and could listen to music on his Walkman. The other guy who claimed the same territory advertised half-price CDs for a shop run out of the back of a truck. He remained elusive, less cheerful about his work. We acknowledged each other most days with somewhat suspicious nods. He was probably a front for something else entirely.
Approaching from the south, the graveyard appeared to be a traffic island, with water-stained tombstones dropped at the intersection of two wildly busy thoroughfares. There were so many twisting, bifurcating, angry lanes of traffic that the road itself seemed an optical illusion, the tiny church off to the right a mirage.
I have stood at the edge of the graveyard, staring at the sea of cars, trying to understand the flow: lights timed to precision; cars crisscrossing, veering, and merging effortlessly, almost magically, without collision. It was a wonder, as mind-boggling as a sunrise. I imagined this as the work of men at drafting tables with long sheets of paper that arrive on bulky rolls. I saw them using T-squares and drawing ornate diagrams.
The cemetery's sole flaw was the noise on its periphery. If you closed your eyes, if you stopped protesting and simply gave in, it was possible to hear the drone of traffic as the churning of a sea. The illusion was easily spoiled by a honking horn, or rap blaring from jacked-up woofers, but this was my summer vacation, the closest I was going to get to any beach this year.
The Fitzgeralds' tombstone was mildly eroded, with an accumulation of moss. Its sleek surface suggested coolness, but positioned horizontally, it actually absorbed the full impact of the midday sun. It was warm and inviting and vaguely medicinal. I couldn't help but wonder what Scott and Zelda would make of their current surroundings. And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The last line of The Great Gatsby, now an epitaph.
I felt a presence here sometimes. Once, when I lay splayed atop the tombstone like Christ on the cross, and not yet like a madwoman fleeing charges of embezzlement, I sensed the coolness of a shadow overhead, and sat up with a start. I looked around but saw nothing. Moments later I thought I heard a rustle in the bushes but again saw no one. I looked down and noticed an empty jar just below my feet, still bearing the Ragu sauce label. Inside was a bunch of blue hydrangeas. Perhaps it was there before I began to doze, although surely I would have noticed this particularly vivid bunch, so unlike the drab, pinkish ones in my own overgrown garden. Flowers frequently appeared, like garlands for Hindu gods, even though I never actually saw anyone visit.
That day it appeared that their grave had been the site of a party the night before: a candle had been melted down to a puddle of blue wax, and an empty bottle of champagne leaned against the stone, balanced precariously. Under the champagne, blue hyacinth. The hyacinth had been there all summer, supple despite the drought, apparently sprouting from a single bulb. Blue hyacinth, blue hydrangea, blue candle wax. Azure. The color of vacations we once took, in happier times.
From the graveyard I had a panoramic view, and just enough ironic distance, to stare back at the mammoth piece of real estate that had brought me here. Kramer's Discount Furniture Depot, so romantically named by my father-in-law during the late 1950s, when Rockville Pike thickened to four lanes to accommodate the phenomenal surge in retail stores and people had a greater appreciation of no-nonsense furniture.
Having grown up during the 1970s in a succession of cities overseas, all about as far from Rockville Pike as one can get both geographically and spiritually, I had at first perceived a certain splendor here. I was delighted by the specialty stores with names like ancient fiefdoms: Bagel City, Appliance Land, Tile and Carpet World, Lara's Plus-Size Universe. The road had once been a dusty Indian trail. It was later packed with ten-inch-deep flint rock in a process known as "piking." The Great Road, as it was called for a time, was plagued by traffic problems even back in the days of the stagecoach, when James Polk and Andrew Jackson were among the travelers who stopped at local inns along the way, heading north.
The only child of a financially strapped aid worker and an emotionally unstable poet, I viewed my parents as tiresomely principled. My family engaged in endless good deeds and mealtimes brimmed with urgent intellectual chatter. Salon-style dinner parties with visiting diplomats and journalists and local writers followed one upon the other, from Delhi to Jakarta to Johannesburg. We lugged hundreds of books around the world, feigning indifference when they began to reek of the leaky vessels that transported the likes of us -- people without the means to pay for international moving companies or spring for air transport. I met Nelson Mandela once, and while I understood intellectually that this was an honor, what I really longed for was the life of comfort I saw at my cousin's house on Long Island on the few occasions we had visited the States: cartoons on a color television set, a pool table in the basement, and membership at a swank country club, where kids tooled around on golf carts, unsupervised. The cousin had disappeared many years ago, just weeks before graduating with some sort of impressive physics degree from Cal Tech. For a while I thought he was the Unabomber, and was privately disappointed when it turned out that he was not.
I met Leon a couple of years after I graduated from college, shortly after my parents' car plunged off a winding road with my mother at the wheel. The police report said suicide, and it was hard to argue with that determination given her acutely messy mind.
I had found Leon dazzling with his Slavic good looks, his faintly accented voice that reminded me of a dozen different cities at once. Although he was born in this country and held degrees from some of our finest institutions of higher learning, his immigrant parents spoke Ukrainian and Yiddish at home, hence his command of English could be idiosyncratic, particularly when it came to adverbs. But this did not get in the way of his promising future as a high-yield bond trader. When we met he was already one of the most successful young MBAs Drexel Burnham had ever seen. Leon was not only willing to offset the losses I had incurred with my multiple student loans, but he encouraged me to give up my dead-end temp job and apply to graduate school.
We met in New York, in a furniture store, of all places. I had stepped into the musty, cramped shop on Amsterdam Avenue to buy a futon for my equally dingy apartment, and he was there just checking things out. He had gone to great lengths to flee the furniture business, but clearly it was in his blood. Of course I didn't know that at the time, although I did mistake him for a salesman, and he gave me good advice. We continued our conversation over dinner that night. I never bought the futon.
I found him generous and kind, and devastatingly attractive. But I think what attracted me to him above all was the prospect of instant family. I thought it quaint that his parents owned a furniture store, sweet that he was willing to take a leave of absence when his father had a heart attack, to roll up his sleeves and sweat a sale on a hundred-dollar coffee table.
That I might one day be fleeing to a graveyard to escape all this was unimaginable.
In the past I had worked only while Justin was in school, taking the summers off. But this was the year of belt tightening. The store once paid the colossal mortgage on our house, bought us cars, allowed us a few extravagant European vacations. Now it was struggling, and my extra hours on the sales floor were part of the conservation scheme.
One reason the store was failing seemed obvious enough to me: our furniture was ugly. Reasonably priced, yes, even cheap. But tasteless and out of style. I had expressed this view on several occasions, even imploring Leon and his father to accompany me to Crate and Barrel and Pottery Barn to show them current trends in popular furniture. The one time they'd acquiesced, my father-in-law had scoffed. Who would pay $1,499 for a leather armchair that looked like it had been through battle in World War II?, he'd asked, kicking the wooden leg, offended. Plus another $600 for the ottoman! I understood his incredulity, but tried to explain that people were indeed spending such ridiculous sums on "distressed" furniture. This look was "in." That and the sleek contemporary furniture that had been popular in the 1950s -- "mid-century modern," they called it. He'd looked at me, raising an eyebrow, as if all this was my very own bad idea.
By that point Leon had wandered off to Starbucks and ordered a frappuccino with too much whipped cream, so he had not been able to verbalize the argument that what people really want are more leather giraffes to stick next to their affordably priced neoclassical TV/DVD stands with Corinthian columns for legs. And hey, who was I to judge? They had built their empire long before I stumbled onto the scene.
Yet the store bled money and our personal bills mounted. Justin's already exorbitant private-school tuition had just increased by fifteen percent, and we owed our lawyer thousands of dollars. Forgoing a summer vacation, pitching in at the store, bringing tuna-fish sandwiches in brown paper bags, and trying to limit recreational shopping were my paltry contributions to the cause. The sluggish economy was partly to blame, but the bulk of our problems stemmed from the just-completed, overly ambitious expansion of the store. Leon hired an expensive financial consultant he knew from business school who wore Hawaiian print shirts and spent hours poring over spreadsheets. But he offered an analysis no more sophisticated than my own observation that we were headed toward financial ruin.
Over the past couple of years our marriage had begun to wither for a variety of reasons, some obvious (accruing debt, legal problems, middle-age malaise), some painfully ambiguous (thwarted dreams, possibly); I had begun to long for more: more passion, more intellectual stimulation, more consumer goods to numb my want.
To this end, I had recently decided to launch my own business. Well, it could be a business: I had business cards, anyway, and made an initial investment in materials. If I was able to stick to the monthly earning schedule proposed by the parent company, I would be on track to win a free cruise someday. There was also the possibility of winning a car down the line, not to mention a trip to the company's world headquarters, as well as a new house and a million-dollar bonus. Fabulous incentives aside, I was ready to do something creative and needed space, a break from beloved Uncle Seymour and my father-in-law and my husband, who -- since we hardly spoke at home anymore -- was prone to asking me in front of customers if I had remembered to pick up his dry cleaning; if the car insurance had been paid; if I knew the whereabouts of our son, who had just turned sixteen and was enjoying great success with his recently formed Goth band and therefore was absent much of the time. Still, it was the monthly questions about our bank statements that I had come to fear the most. One had arrived a week earlier, and I had stuffed it, unopened, underneath a pile of junk mail. Evidently Leon had found it that morning.
One storm was followed by another. "Delia has had a brainstorm," Leon said, after he'd paged me over the loudspeaker. Janie to Mr. Kramer's office. Janie to Mr. Kramer's office. The nickname was a term of endearment from long ago, now used out of habit. The formality of "Mr. Kramer" was meant to impress customers, I supposed. I didn't like being paged. It made me feel submissive. Perhaps I had just grown unsentimental from too many years spent talking people into gratuitous furniture purchases, into opening lines of credit sure to haunt them for years to come, but I couldn't help but wonder: would I be the one paging people should Mr. Kramer go away? At times our problems seemed so emotionally and financially complex that I imagined the best solution was for one of us to simply disappear. I wasn't quite ready to contemplate divorce, still felt too tender toward Leon to actively fantasize about his demise. Although given the amount of weight he had put on these past few years and the history of heart disease in his family, a coronary episode seemed a legitimate concern. (Leon's overeating was possibly proportionate to the debt we accumulated.) Then again, should he somehow happen to not show up one day, I would probably dump the store sooner than you could say "liquidation sale." I knew it was irrational to turn my personal frustration into a rage directed at a furniture store, but this awareness did little to help.
Delia's brainstorm occurred when she saw the invoice for a couple of Ernest Hemingway Cherry Grandfather Clocks, $2,749 apiece, retail. Why not take advantage of our location, she asked?
Delia had only been around for a few months. She did not actually work at the store: she was a patio furniture saleswoman, a representative of a company based in Pittsburgh. But she seemed to take a special interest in Kramer's, or at least it could be said that she spent a lot of time at the store. In that short period she had proven to be a genius, according to Leon. In the forty-eight-year history of Kramer's Discount Furniture Depot, the store had never stocked patio furniture, not until Delia walked in with her briefcase full of catalogs. She had pointed out that while there were something like five furniture stores per square mile along Rockville Pike, there were no patio furniture outlets for two miles in either direction from Kramer's. And on this crowded strip of commercial paradise, she said, that was practically the equivalent of an entire state, dry. Leon appeared to believe this was the insight that would finally pull Kramer's from its slump.
I wasn't sure where Delia was going with all this. I had looked at her blankly, without judgment, envious of her enthusiasm. Envious of everything about her, really. It was not that I had any desire to have long ceramic nails like hers. Nor was I interested in the plastic surgery I suspected was responsible for her remarkably large breasts. But I was envious, truly, of anyone who could care that much. In striving to earn enough in sales commissions to drive a silver Lexus, she exuded a lust for life. Brava for caring, I thought privately. I couldn't help but suspect that my husband's newfound enthusiasm for patio furniture had something to do with Delia herself. She was oddly mesmerizing. She was not especially young -- close to my own age, I guessed. Nor was she especially beautiful. She was, in fact, a rather large woman, but she moved gracefully and with absolute confidence, as if she were a Ford model. How could she be so confident when her role in life was to sell patio furniture to the likes of Kramer's Discount Furniture Depot? I found this, too, somewhat enviable. Although I had never had a private conversation with Delia, I knew this much about her: she was not the sort of woman who would flee to graveyards when the bank statement arrived. Not the sort of woman who drove a minivan grimy with the accumulated debris of carting her son and his friends around to school and sports events and, lately, even to clubs in the wrong parts of town for Goth gigs. She was not a woman in a rut. I understood instinctively how that made Delia attractive to my husband, even if she was really too tall, even if she could stand to lose a few pounds, even if her lipstick was, objectively, a shade too bright.
But it was not until that day when Leon had summoned me to his office that I decided they were lovers. I could see, or I thought I could see, that this idea of hers, this incredibly exploitative -- but not necessarily bad -- idea, had been first suggested in bed.
And so the idea was born that we develop a line of patio furniture based on the general aura of the Fitzgeralds. Kramer's was not in the manufacturing business, and yet Leon was ready to take the plunge. He was ready to diversify, he said. (With what money? I didn't ask.) And I was being invited to participate in this scheme. Flattering, but it was a confusing mandate.
"Did the Fitzgeralds have any special connection to patio furniture?" I asked Delia, still thinking this might be a joke.
"Had Hemingway anything to do with grandfather clocks?" she replied.
As she spoke, I was fixating on her low, sultry voice, imagining her rolling over in bed, after making love to my husband, her long body wrapped in a white sheet, a varnished nail tracing a line down his chest. Admittedly I had been given to occasional fits of hallucinatory jealousy since Delia first appeared in the store this past spring practically bursting out of her clingy strapless dress. Still, this new stab of pain was fierce, primordial.
"I don't know. Did he?"
"No! Of course not. The whole line of furniture was based on his aura, his machismo, the idea of what sort of furniture he might be, incarnate."
"Anthropomorphism," I replied. "But with furniture."
I believe it was because of my sudden, clairvoyant vision of Delia, which included her blowing smoke rings in bed, that I lied. I wanted her on my side, needed to stay on her team, if only to keep the lines of communication open in order to know what it was she wanted with my husband. So I said that it was a brilliant idea. I said I would be happy to participate. I said that Fitzgerald and Hemingway had always had a complicated, competitive relationship. Indeed, why not follow this to a new arena: competition in furniture sales?
"It's a fucking great idea," said Leon, leaning back in the swivel chair that groaned beneath his weight. "This is the perfect thing for you to work on, Janie. Right up your alley."
Delia smiled so sweetly that for a moment I set aside my theory of infidelity and thought I detected something like genuine warmth.
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Coll