Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Razor Sharp Teeth, Fred Feldman

The Antique Chair
By Frederick W Feldman

The man let the door thud closed behind him. Immediately, he decided that he preferred the simple motel room to any of the hotel rooms in which he had stayed. This was the first time he had ever stayed in a motel and, truth be told, he’d been looking forward to it. Its single window stretched to the floor and let in a hatchet of light that cut into the opposite wall.
He shrugged off his tweed jacket and let it rest on the lone chair wedged in the corner. His tie soon joined it. The AC made the tie’s burgundy and white polka-dot tail sway like a contented cat. The man crouched and fiddled with the panel until he shut off the frigid airflow. He wasn’t sure whether the wire he yanked was supposed to come out of the wall. He would let the front desk know…when he checked out. Once he left, they could store meat in here, for all he cared.
He sat on the edge of the bed. He smelled linen and a faint odor of must. His train ride was over, he was on solid ground, and he took a moment to recalibrate to no longer being attached to the great machine’s external motion. No longer could he simply move; he had to chart his own course as well, and he had to compose himself for that. On top of the nightstand lay The Holy Terrors by Jean Cocteau, where he’d left it.
He checked his watch, and it was not quite four – still plenty of time to make a call. He un-crumpled a scrap of paper from his pocket and dialed the scrawled number into his cell phone. It rang of few times, while dust swirled in the thinning orange light, then the owner picked up. The voice on the other end – a man’s – was low and smooth, like a tablecloth being pulled off a table.
“Is this Jerry?” asked the man.
“Are you calling about the chair?” answered Jerry on the other end.
“I am. I sent you an email earlier this week.”
“Yeah,” said Jerry. “I remember.”
“When would be a good time to come see it?” asked the man.
“I’m available now, if you want…I’m also here tomorrow evening.”
“Let’s do tomorrow evening,” said the man.
“That’s fine. We can haggle about price after you see it.”

The man took a cab the next day to the address he’d been given by Jerry. It looked to be a home address. He’d passed the day hunting around the town for local pawnshops and consignment stores, sifting through junk, looking for anything that might be valuable and worth reselling when he opened his antique shop.
The cab smelled like urine, and he was glad to exit it. He’d been dropped off in front of a two-story row home looming high above him. His soles scuffed on the stone stairs and he rapped on the door.
An old woman with gray curls opened the door. She had a noticeable stoop but looked as if she was still reasonably limber. Her smile was confused but sweet, like the candies they left on the table at his grandmother’s erstwhile retirement home, the memory of which suddenly flashed back into his head.
“Hello?” she inquired.
“I’m looking for Jerry…?” said the man.
“Oh, of course! Please come in.” She tottered back into the house and opened the door for him.
The inside of the house was shallow but high. The second floor hallway was not separated by any wall and was completely visible from the entrance. A brief staircase led up to it. The walls were white and the wood was light and the whole house felt open and bright a result. It exuded a tolerant and controlled atmosphere.
The sitting room was likewise un-partitioned from he rest of the house and stood immediately to the right of the entrance.
“My name is Marjorie,” said the old lady. “I’m so glad to meet you. Please have a seat.”
The man was surprised but pleased by the warm greeting he was receiving from someone who was hoping only to sell him a chair. She gestured towards a sofa sitting in front of the window. He sat down and she rushed back into the kitchen, saying she would make some tea.
“What line of work are you in, dear?” she called to him.
He leaned back in the sofa, which was worn and comfortable. “My…background has been in technical writing, but I have recently put an end to that and I am in the process of opening an antique store.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said, and sounded genuinely pleased. “Do you have a place picked out?”
“I do. I will become its exclusive renter in two months. Meanwhile, I’m hunting down as many worthwhile items as I can.”
She came out with two cups of tea and placed them on the glass-topped tea table in front of them. It was an attractive cherry wood and he half-wished he could buy it. “Where will your store be?” she asked.
He told her the name of the town. “That’s far away,” she said, her brow furrowed.
“Well, I don’t live here. I live near there.”
“Do you? Then how is that you’ve ended up here?”
“I saw an ad online. It’s not terribly far. I took an overnight train in.”
“On online ad? Oh dear, I’d no idea it was that difficult…poor thing.”
He raised his eyebrow at that, but she didn’t see him. She kept her head down and clucked.
“It’s quite normal,” he said. “Times being what they are, the internet is an excellent way to advertise to a larger group of people who one couldn’t contact otherwise.”
“Of course, dear. I didn’t mean...”
The age gap, he thought. He supposed some took the ubiquity of the Internet better than others.
“It’s quite alright,” he said. “I understand.”
He took another sip of his tea and glanced at the grandfather clock in the corner. “It’s been a little while,” he said, “and I would like to…”
“Yes, yes. Let me check to see if she’s ready,” Marjorie said as she stood.
She? He was sure he’d spoken to a man.
Marjorie went to the stairs and called up. “Gerry! Hurry up, the gentleman is waiting.”
Upstairs, the sound of a door opening interrupted the conversation. High heels clacked on the hardwood floor. A woman’s voice called downstairs.
“I’m coming!” said the voice.
A woman’s voice?
“I’m really happy…I was afraid you weren’t coming,” said this woman, as she walked into view on the upstairs hallway, her bracelet jangling and rustling as she fastened it. She looked to be about thirty. She was wearing a black dress and a gold necklace. Her hair was black, combed down to be as smooth as a waterfall, and looked, as far as the man could judge, very fetching.
She looked up from her bracelet to give him a big smile, but when she saw him it turned into a blank look of confusion. He, too, probably had a similar look on his own face.
Sweet old Marjorie looked expectantly at both of them, a halo of naivety lighting up her face as she patted her teacup like it was a little pet. Clink, clink went her big ring against its painted side.
He had a strong impression that he should explain everything and set aright the tense expectations sitting in the balance in that moment, but the man had no idea what he ought to explain.
He muttered out, “I’m looking for Jerry?”
“I’m Gerry,” she said. The glowing expression she had walked in with was fading fast. “What did you want to see me for?”
“I’m here about the chair,” he said.
She still looked puzzled.
“What chair?” she asked.
“The…chair?” he answered.
“Excuse me,” said Marjorie. “You are taking my Gerry out for a date, aren’t you?”
The man felt very bad now. “No,” he said, softly. “I’m sorry, no.”
“Oh,” said the old lady. The teacup landed onto its saucer in a clamor. Marjorie didn’t try hiding her disappointment the way the daughter did; she looked crestfallen. She was blushing as she spoke, “I’m so sorry, this is all my fault. You came in, and I assumed you must have been here for…” She trailed off in fluffy apology.
“I was looking to possibly purchase an antique chair. This was the address I was given,” said the man.
Gerry had come down the steps by this point and entered the living room. She gave her mother a knowing look. “This one’s not coming, either.”
“I’m very sorry for the confusion,” said the man.
“It’s alright. It’s just a misunderstanding,” Gerry replied. “It happens.” She sighed and sunk into the easy chair beneath a painting of a meadow. She looked tired all of a sudden, as if she wasn’t going to move for a long, long time.
The man stood up hurriedly as the two women were sinking into their spots. “I should be going,” he said.
“You don’t have to go,” Gerry invited. “I’m not going anywhere. Did mom make you tea? You can stay and finish your tea.”
He felt uncomfortable and was feeling more uncomfortable every moment he spent in between staying and leaving. “No, no. Thank you. I should be going,” he said. Part of him seriously considered staying, but he had a chair to find and his face was reddening. “Thank you for the tea.”
“Of course,” said Marjorie. “It was nice to meet you.”
“You, too.” He looked at Gerry. “I’m terribly sorry. Good evening.”
“It’s alright,” she smiled wanly. “You have a good one, too.”
The man stumbled out onto the street. The openness of the outdoors greeted him. He pulled out his cell phone. It was time to sort this problem out.
He dialed the number and waited for the silky voice to answer. When it did, the man read the address he had been given.
“Yes, that’s not the right address. My address is – ” and Jerry corrected it. The correct address sounded similar to the one he was at and it was easy to see how it had been misspelled in the email. That the occupants had such similar names was just the wildness of coincidence.
“Well, this is the address you’d given me. I’ll try to catch a cab and be over as soon as I can. Are you still available?”
“Sure. Come over whenever you can,” said Jerry.
The man hung up and waited for a taxi to come by. He thought about love. Love was for those who had both feet in the real world. What a deep and strange compulsion it was, and how many did it drive to unhappiness and disappointment. He had concluded that the drive was deep and fundamental, and he could identify it in himself, too. In his younger days he had been more interested in indulging that desire, but they all had dissipated in a cloud of impossible possibilities and left him surly for a month afterward. That ship had sailed for him. Assuming it had ever been in the harbor, which was an awful lot to assume. It was more accurate to say he didn’t feel he had to worry about it as much, at his age, and overall didn’t miss the unpleasantness.
Still, he felt bad for Gerry, and the scene he had fallen into. It had been unfortunate that his arrival had gotten the woman’s hopes up, only to drop them so fully. And he had stumbled out, embarrassed, while there was so much, he felt, left unresolved and raw. Perhaps he should have stayed in their company for a while, until the situation had deflated, but his awkwardness had sent him fleeing.
A taxi pulled up and he was off to what he hoped was the correct address this time.

Jerry’s house was cluttered. Furniture and photographs and boxes of knick-knacks littered the rooms with no organizing principle in sight. From what the man could see, the house was not dirty or disgusting, just cluttered and dusty. Jerry led him to the chair and the man stepped over cardboard boxes and dodged lamps. He saw an old baseball mitt lying on the floor and he narrowly avoided crushing a tin car underfoot.
Jerry himself was tolerably handsome. He was thickly set and a full head-and-a-half taller than the man. He looked incongruous against the lack of restraint and order shown by the building. Clean-cut and slick, Jerry looked like someone who was competent and had it together, but the junk carelessly strewn around his house belied that.
Wondering if it was his house, the man asked, “how long have you lived in this area?”
“About…twelve years now,” said Jerry.
“What brought you here?”
“Work,” answered Jerry.
“Oh? What do you do?”
“I did customer service for a while. Then I was a manager for a bit.”
“My own background is in technical writing,” the man volunteered.
“I was never into that,” said Jerry. “It’s fine, though. Here's the chair.”
Rising out of the wreckage stood the antique the man had traveled so far to see. It appeared to be a Morris chair, but was it genuine? The man pushed a model airplane out of the way with his foot and crouched to examine the chair. The back, of course, was adjustable.  The wood was a dark oak and the cushions were sewn onto the chair itself – both points suggestive of a genuine antique. Clearly it was made by a talented craftsman. He saw the signs of expertise in the sturdy use of mortise and tenon construction, and he could see faint marks from the imperfect human use of tools (imperfections separated the work of a master from the insignificance of mass-produced junk). Subtle curves lent an elegance and light touch.
Underneath the seat was a small drawer crafted into the chair, which was odd. He tried pulling it, but it wouldn’t budge.
“That’s never opened,” Jerry told him.
The man stood.
“This is very interesting,” the man said, animated by curiosity. “I have never heard of one with a drawer.”
“So that means it’ll cost a lot more,” said Jerry, in a voice that sounded like salt dissolving in water. The man looked up at him, taken aback by the naked mercantilism of the statement. Jerry was showing his teeth, which looked razor-sharp, as if he had trapped some sort of prey in a corner.
The man furrowed his brow. “Not necessarily,” he said. “It would suggest that this is not a true Morris chair, per se. If it appears to be quality, though, so that means it’s not completely value-less.”
He stepped back to appraise the chair as a whole and nearly tripped on a baseball. Recovering himself, he could see the ornate work on some arabesques decorating the wood and on the spindles holding up the armrest spiraled elegantly. Furthermore, the upholstery was patterned – deep green repeating leaves – in Victorian-style grandeur. Perhaps an original pattern?
He stooped again, hunting for a maker’s mark. He found a paper label on the back, but half of it was torn off. The first initials “L. B.” were all that was visible. This was not the work of any well-known craftsman, but it was nonetheless a craftsman who’d made it.
“How can you say that doesn’t make it valuable?” asked Jerry, peeved. “You said you’d never seen one with a drawer before. That means it’s one-of-a-kind.”
“Possibly. But it’s odd. You’ll see drawers on rocking chairs and such, for the purpose of holding sewing supplies. A drawer on a gentleman’s chair is an anomaly.”
“That’s what I’m saying! This is a unique piece!” Jerry insisted.
“It’s unique, just like your toaster would be if it had a toothbrush holder. But nevermind. What do you think is a fair price?”
Jerry’s narrowed into slits as he tilted his head back in thought. “Probably…five thousand.”
The man laughed, unable to help himself. “If I’m very lucky, I could sell this chair for around a thousand. You’ll have to lower quite a bit.”
Jerry’s jaw had taken on a life of its own and hung out from his face angrily. “Then give me a thousand,” he said.
“I’ll give you two-hundred fifty. This chair is a risk for me, but I do have a soft spot for odd things.”
“You said you could sell it for a thousand. So give me a thousand. Or, nine hundred. That’s as low as I’ll go.”
“I’ll offer you three-hundred fifty. I think that’s being very generous,” said the man.
“Nine hundred. That’s it.”
The man shrugged. “That’s more than I can pay. Thank you for letting me see it. I should get going.”
Jerry’s face fell, like a child who had an expected candy snatched away from him.
“Fine then,” said Jerry. “I’ll sell it to someone else.” But he looked far from confident. He’d made the wrong moves, and he’d either sacrifice some machismo or a sale.
He showed the man to the door, but on the way he cracked.
“You know what, I think I’ll give it to you for three-fifty.”
“You will?”
“Sure, sure. You’re a good guy, and I want to help you out. And at this point, I just want to get rid of it. It’s not like I use it or anything.”
He was desperately trying to weasel out of check with some dignity intact. It wasn’t working.
“Very well,” said the man.

The chair was loaded into the moving truck and the man watched it drive away. He’d completed his mission. This was the last large piece he needed before opening his shop. The need to find new pieces would, he expected, compel him to travel again when an interesting prospect came up, but he’d required a basic selection of worthwhile antiques before he could take pride and confidence in his store’s public presence, and now he had it. Now, there was nothing else to do but go home and receive his chair.
He called a cab service pondered his trip as it drove him through the twists and turns of drab row-homes. He thought about Jerry, and his reluctant defeat. He thought about the strange situation he’d walked into by mistake, and the sadness he had left and which still might linger in the young woman’s house.
It was a world of disappointments, he thought, and he was quite fortunate to have had success in his venture. Gerry, he thought again, sadly. There was the greatest defeat of the trip, suffered by someone who seemed undeserving of it.
“Could you take me to the pawnshop near the center of town?” the man asked the driver.
So the driver dropped the man at the one of the pawnshops he had scoured the previous day. The man knew what he was looking for. He could get it quickly and still catch his train home. He walked hurriedly inside to find it.

He exited clutching a brown paper bag. He caught another cab, and read the address off the crumpled piece of paper still sitting in his trouser pocket.
He stood outside of the two-story row home presenting its quiet and demure fa├žade to the street. On a slip of stationary, the man wrote a brief message:
It was a pleasure meeting you by accident yesterday. Do not be discouraged by the actions of fools. Were I less removed from my prime, I would envy the opportunity to take you on an ‘outing.’ As it is, allow me to praise your stature and beauty from afar and please accept this gift, which I think will suit you well.
He placed it in the paper bag containing the jade earrings he had bought for her. Then, guessing correctly at the spelling of the name, he addressed it to “Gerry” in marker scrawled on the crackling surface of the bag and left it in front of the door.
Then he walked away and caught a cab on the corner. From there, he headed to the train station, which would carry him back to his own quiet future.

The cab swerved through traffic. Some might say it was a silly gesture, but he didn’t have to worry about that now. It was better to make the attempt to encourage where he could, than skulk off like he had done yesterday, leaving the cold world intact. That was for young men who had something to lose and cared to guard, with their sloppy parries, their dignity. After all, he was no longer an awkward young man; he was an antiques dealer.


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