Sunday, April 18, 2010
Please help Dalia celebrate her success by reading her newest work:
Those Men Who Carry Coffee Tables
By Dalia Wolfson, 16
On January 12th, 2010, the Bagel Corner was missing exactly one coffee table. Theoretically, the coffee table was stolen at exactly 2:14 AM, according to the construction worker who dozed nearby, under unfinished apartment building, beneatha long cement slab that was meant to be a lobby ceiling. When other locals were asked about the incident, drunken Fred claimed that he'd seen extra terrestrials in purple knickers with cup holders and nowhere to place them, but his testimony was nullified because of the reputation of its inebriated witness. Old lady Edna swore - by her cat Leopold's whiskers - that she had locked the place up by maximum nine o'clock, inserting the rusted bronze key into the padlock and twisting once, twice, thrice just in case because you could never be too sure these days, yes? "Yes," Officer Hearst replied, pushing back his police man's cap, and made further inquiries into the appearance of the table (copper body, a print by Alphonse Mucha of a woman with long, blond luxurious hair and vegetative matter, flattened by a glass surface, purchased at Mr.Gibb's Antique Furniture Store when The Bagel Corner first opened its doors). He was sweating profusely, because this was one of those days in the winter when the sun pushed out its rays so forcefully, you could have thought that some Power up on High had forgotten to fill in the poor solar star on details of seasonal weather. The sun, in fact, further illuminated the absence of the \coffee table, which - once removed - left a large anti-shadow on the floor, tiles suddenly exposed, their tea stains bared like birth marks on white skin.
Edna refused, though, to close the cafe because business was slow these days, and besides most of the stores on Riverdale Avenue had already closed and, by George, she'd be the last to go down that lane, eh, eh! So she hitched up her skirts (only to the knees, so that the spotted calves were exposed) and reached up to the padlock, unlocked it - one, two, three - and the work day began. It was already January 13th, 2010, you see, because the previous day Edna had closed down shop only because Morty's yarzheit fell on that date, and she could not miss a visit to the grave.
The sun- through a coffee filter, now, for morning was starting - trickled in, leaving its brighter dregs behind in the wax-paper clouds and falling upon the cafe. Already, the three steady employees were busying themselves behind the counter. Someone turned on a bit of smooth jazz CD one-oh-one point nine, pigeons began to collect in small gray huddles and the first few customers trickled in.
A lady, tall and dark with hair almost as purple as twilight entered, followed by a man in a leather jacket and distressed denim jeans. Bagel Corner readied itself for business.
Bagel Corner was founded by Morty Epstein in 1968 and Edna, his widow, now kept the store in order, as much as order can be maintained by a 70-year-old woman and as long as the orders themselves kept coming in for massive bagel catering by worried bar mitzvah moms. Bagel Corner, I must tell you now, is a corner cafe in all legitimate proportions - not like those small pretentious patissieres with french names that locate themselves off the side of the street and claim to own the label - no sir, Bagel Corner jutted out like a store thumb, all jagged edges and solicitous grannies with hairnets asking "Dearie, toasted or what?" (always toasted, because otherwise the bagel tasted cold in your mouth).
"Toasted Poppy, please, with Tofu Cream Cheese and Scallions, but not too toasted, I can't stand the burnt bits. Oh, and also a coffee, skim milk" (that's the lady at the counter now, leaning on her fingertips so that her spine arches out like a finely shaped bridge and the arcs of her eyebrows become birds on her face. Picture that. )
"And for you, sir?" Edna smiles encouragingly at the man, who has placed his own fingertips - coarser, with rivulets of whorls running within them - upon the top of the lady's bridge back, where it would rise to let ships pass, except there rest the smooth plates of cartilage, sliding in and out. She squirms under his touch.
"Whole Wheat with Butter, and a small English Breakfast, please." The man removes his fingers from the lady's spine and the bridge of her back collapses. It is not uncommon for Bagel Corner to witness breakfasts like this, though the hour is still early and these two first customers are stranger than usual, thinks Edna to herself as she spreads the cream cheese in ridges upon the naked underside of the bread. Having done the spreads, Edna walks to the sink. She turns on the water, which runs down upon her hands and she soaps them with Lavendar Patchouli gel, then washes off the cream cheese, which first dampens and then admits, confesses to removal - because spread are meant, ultimately to be removed, adhered, received. As she washes, Edna curls up her fingers and imagines that they are different limbs of her body. First her legs- stick them out, knees twirling, churning. Then her head- now she rotates the parts of her finger around the knuckle, like a neck on a hinge. Then her fingers become shoulders and she moves them backwards, forwards, beneath and below, a somatic stretch achieved through her hands. Because Edna has arthritis and the symptoms are heavy and her movement are limited, her body is hurting her and only these hands that she holds before her are mobile, fluttering things.
Edna then washes her hands- here is the ritual, the one that keeps her sane, confident, stable - three times on one, three times on the other, and eats her own bagel, sits down upon the stool behind the counter so she can breathe, for a second. The hands she is washing, she imagined then that she was immersing - for a second, a moment - herself, the body enveloped. But the taste of the bagel, now, in her mouth, reminds her that this isn't bathing, her hands are just hands and not feet, ears or eyes and this is bread, bread that's she's eating, on a corner of Riverdale Avenue.
So Bagel Corner, is yes, on a corner, not in an L-shape or U-shape or what have you, but in a septagon of sorts. If you a look at it with a drafting pencil in hand and an architect's intuition, you'll notice that the problem with the coffee tables here (sans the one in the corner, which at this point isn't) is that they don't fit against the straight lines of the walls, and there's a curvaceous half-hour glass between the wall and the table. Along the right-hand wall is the counter, where an elderly lady - sometimes Edna, though occasionally replaced by Phyllis, with the red hair and Southern accent (where did she get that tongue and the hair, is it dyed?) - where the lady staffs the counter. On the white surface is a packet of gloves, coffee stirrers, a selection of various Splenda imitations and a cash register that dings every time an employee needs to hand you three dimes, one nickel and a charred round penny. To the side is the glass display case where ceramic bowls glint dully, the same color as their trademark product - cream cheese, the whiteness mixed with the slightest wash of yellow because the Bagel Corner refuses to install fluorescent lightning because that, ladies and gentlemen, would leave you faces in green pallor and we just can't have that, now can we? So three ceramic bowls are chock-full o' cream cheese, and then the whole canon of flavors: Walnut Raisin, Smooth Tofu Cream Cheese, Olive Paste, Tuna Delight and some experimental things that seem to be popular with the new generation, like Honey Butter. The place of glory, however, is reserved for the Lox- glorious, fishy, resting in luxurious folds upon a large plate on a lettuce bed like a monarch of the Spreads; above the spreads but within them, crowned by beads of perspiration and soaking, basking in salmon splendor at $3.64, tax not included.
"Separate"- the lady intones. "No, Sara, together" - now the man keeps his hold on her elbow, and places the total - 6 dollars, 40 cents - on the counter. Edna unfolds the six bills as she does every day, undoing each and every of George Washington's wrinkles until his cheeks are as smooth as baby palms then puts each bill in a slot and bounces the four dimes into the change bin.
Behind her, in glass half-boxes, are the bagels themselves, a little bit stupid-looking compared to the spreads. They are piled one on top of another in clumsy disarray- Blueberry softly applying pressure on the dough of Pumpernickel. Sesame and Poppy battle for seniority rights on the side, while a solitary Garlic bagel sits and contemplates its smelly fate in the extreme right corner. In the center, the Everything bagels celebrate their dominion. They are never wastefully expended - a customer will never opt for, say, a Poppy seed bagel and, if handed an Everything, that customer wouldn't complain. But give him an Onion instead of an Everything and - oh, the horror! - the whole order is ruined, and there's a burning necessity to do Everything over again, because the customer knows best, even when he doesn't really, and Onion provides a more singular taste.
Nearer to the entrance you've got an assortment of muffins, bialys, croissants and some baked goods with unappealing names and stale exteriors, so pay those no heed. On the back wall some motivational phrase on a country-style sort of wooden sign helps employees stay their tempers, and in the far right hand corner (stage left) one of those hanging curtains, dirty plastic strips swaying slightly from that invisible ventilation that emerges from the harsh white light of any Bronx kitchen interior. Right next to the kitchen, Edna is finishing a phone conversation which sounds something like this (excuse the ellipses, Edna mumbles when confronted by the receiver, and my voyeurism is weaker than in years past):
"Yes...One coffee table, any design is fine..art noveau, sure, whatever this is...please, as soon as possible...Edna Epstein, 235th St and Netherland Avenue... You'll be here in 5 minutes? Great, great. Wonderful...what? Of course we're still in business, it's great...No, Morty isn't a-vail-able..he's been out for a while...Yes, thank you. See you soon" She had ordered a coffee table earlier, having bolted straight awake at 7:00 AM the day after the theft and realized how the coffee table's absence left a small circular mark, like a faded cent, on the imprint of her entrepreneurial consciousness. Edna felt uncomfortable with the idea of the circle of emptiness sitting in her cafe, so she called up the nearest antique dealer and today, yes, she was expecting a prompt delivery. Mr.Gibbs had promised to send two men early in the morning. They would be carrying the coffee tables, he claimed, on their shoulders.
At 9:05 AM, approximately 2 hours after Edna had opened up shop and seven minutes after Sara and the man had strolled in - they were now waiting, one foot apart, for their toasted bagels- two shadows moved step by step down the sidewalk, followed by the objects that created those shades of gray. The two men wore vests the color of dark grapes ripening, and their chins were adorned with trim beards that came to a point. They walked with a purpose, boots rising and landing on the street with intent. On the backs, in the strangest way, they carried a coffee table. A child with a disposable camera who was waiting at the florists while his father ordered tulips for a wife not his own took a picture, frozen, of the two carriers. It was an odd sight, because their bodies were not contorted, but you could feel the tension in their figures: elbows jutting forth like proud marble limbs, spheres into which were inserted the radia and ulna and so arranged that they made right angles. At the ends of the arm were the hands - in black, fingerless gloves - one man carried the circular base, the other lifted the larger circle of the table. The overall effect was of the impression that an unfinished sculpture had come alive from the heat of the sun and now, radiating, bronzed, muscles tense, was moving down the street, melting in the air. Upon arriving at the doorstep, the men lowered the coffee table and it balanced between them like a two-sided shield.
Edna rushed to the door in her lime-green slippers, floral apron flapping and making imaginary, air-filled folds on her stomach.
"You deliver the table, yes?"
"Yes, Brothers Moving and Delivery, Inc., our office received your order earlier today."
"Mr. Gibbs, ma'am."
"Oooooh, great!" Edna rubbed her hands together expectantly, and suddenly her cheeks flowered before the four stoic male eyes. She glowed for a second, then her hands suddenly soared out of her dress sleeves and, with a jaunty lift of the leg, she yelled "Oleee- OHP!" and the table was in her hold again. "Didn't think a woman could manage it, eh? Well, you got another thing coming, boys!" She whooped again, throwing one arm in the air - the other was clutching the table, why would they need two of them to carry this paperweight? - and the arm flab wobbled underneath her bone like turkey chin flesh. Edna's hair net untangled itself from her round head -to be honest, these days there wasn't even that much hair for the hairnet to cover- and came to rest on a crack in the sidewalk.
"Well, kids, thank you very much for bringing me this table, I gotta say I've missed it like my great aunt Muriel's wedding handkerchief! You should have a nice day, no worries, and a marriage on the horizon, and we should merit to see your children helping you deliver coffee tables! Zai Gezunt!" Edna cried and banged the door shut, inserting in the last bit of Yiddish happily, almost indulgently because, in fact, most of her Yiddish had gone when she'd come to America. But this phrase she remembered, of course, because it was most relevant to her health (or lack thereof) - Edna had been diagnosed several years ago with skin cancer. No one pays attention to elderly cancer so much, partly due to the fact that instead of attacking the body, elderly cancer is as heavy-boned as the victim, walking through the membrane with a cane and trailing a long beard of defenseless white blood cells.
The two men walked away, their figures melting into that shimmering air that flushes out of the street corners when winter heat soaks the city.
Edna placed the coffee table down in the store, then moved the chairs just so the legs touched the slant of wall. Raising her gray head, she noticed that Sara and Philip - for the name had become clear when Phyllis had asked what label to put on the coffee cup- were approaching her grimly, silently. Sara, with the bagel (Toasted Poppy, please, with Tofu Cream Cheese and Scallions, but not too toasted, ) burnt bits collecting and falling, ashen, on the white tiles. Philip, standing now, with his whole wheat bagel and the bits of yellow, yellow butter emerging from the sides, sticking in misshapen curls to his hand and melting in dribbles. Edna turned to the two: “Everything all right? You enjoying your bagels?”
“Yes, of course,” Philip replied, licking his hand, for the yellowness had trickled down and now lent his fingers a bright sheen of oiliness.
“Alright, alright, good.” Edna muttered to herself, and slipped away, back behind the counter to call Mr. Gibbs and spread the good word of delivery and well, my how quickly those gentlemen carried that table.
Sara sat down, positioned herself cross-legged underneath the coffee table, which came up to just above her knees. Philip cleared off the daily newspaper and a smatter of crumbs from his chair, then fell into the poor plastic structure with a heaviness meant for cranes. They sat in silence. Sarah got up suddenly, then, to wash her hands in the basin where Edna had performed her absolutions several minutes ago.
Edna herself dialed Mr. Gibbs’ antique store.
“Yes, hello? Mr.Gibbs, oh, Mr. Gibbs!” Edna gushed, cupping the mouthpiece of the phone like a good glass of wine.
Sarah washed her hands, three times here, three times there, her lips pronouncing a blessing and- not finding a towel – she dried her fingers in the air, hands brushing against jazz notes, Edna’s accent and the oxygen being circulated from the weak, put-puttering ventilation system. Returning to her seat, she sat down and bit in, hard, into the bread while Philip watched her, the parenthesis of his lips turned upwards, completed the thought with the curvature of his words, the pronunciation of her name “Sara” which he utters, now, the loping first syllable and the descent of the second “a”.
“Philip, there’s very little left to say.”
“Oh, no, Sara, but you’re so wrong. Look at him, he’s absolutely content back in Germany. Let me show
you the pictures.”
“I’ve seen the pictures.”
“No, Sara’le, no you haven’t.” Philip reaches into his bag, extract one of those envelopes with orange and yellow bands of color that send one a 90’s- Kodak – moment feeling. The photos emerged. In them is an elderly man, his skin the color of toffee: that tint that one adopts with age upon sunbathing, the rays darkening and imprint themselves in stamp-like rows. The tan is uneven, naturally, because the skins folds on itself in places where the tension between cells has grown weak and ridges, hillocks have formed. So the elderly man is browned and – flip through the images now – appearing in various environments. He sits at the edge of a pool in purple flip flops or holds a neon yellow drink in his hand, toasting the world. In some he is lounging and in others, contorted with the pure concentration of swinging a gold club- but always a persistent smile. Philip holds the photos and turns them around, one by one, so that Sara can see.
“Don’t you see how happy he seems? I called him only a few days ago, and he was head over heels about Bingo Nacht.”
“That’s a joke. They don’t play bingo in Germany.”
“They played bang-bang in Germany.”
“Sara- it’s over. Forget it. There’s a new generation, they’re sorry, they won’t do it again. You like growing old in the shadow of death? Papa doesn’t. Let him live.”
“He’s dancing on the graves of his elders.”
“At least he’s dancing.”
Sara takes another bite of her bagel, then lift the plastic piece from her cup cover and pushes the flap down. When she drinks the coffee, a small cream mustache forms on her upper lip. On the phone, Edna continues to put-putter to Gibbs, asking after his daughters and arranging the croissants in a mountain of pastry air.
“I just don’t understand why he’d do it.”
“It’s his motherland, darling. They eat the same food, drink the same beer, speak the same languages and curse the same way. You expect me to know what motivates a man like Papa?”
“You, Philip, it’s you. You told him it would be alright. You talked him into it. Too old for a nursing home, too sick of the weather – let’s ship him to German resoirt! What sort of man builds a house on a cemetery?”
“Let him go. He’s happy, yes? He’s well-paid for, yes? Mama’s still alive and he calls her every night.” Philip settles back, beings putting the photos into his envelope. One of the photos, with a slippery edge, escapes his reach and Sara grabs it suddenly, violently.
“You think this is okay? You think it’s logical? This is ...”
“Crazy, my dear Gibbs, business is perfectly crazy!” Edna laughs into the receiver a little bit too loudly, because her hearing aids are working badly today and the tinnitus has been ringing in her ears since this morning. Her hearing is intact, yes, but she feels the need to compensate by yelling into the phone as one would yellow a favorite song into the showerhead- naked volume bathing in the perspiration of an attempt to release a voice wet and warm with emotion.
Sara looks at the last of the photos. Papa sits at a table, laughing. His beard is a half-circle of grayness and his eyes shine blue in the sunlight. He holds out his arm and embraces another grandpa with leathery tan skin. He once used to hide the numbers on his forearm with sleeves – she remembers the way he’d pull down the edge of his shirts to cover the beginning of the 6, would always refuse to wear cufflinks – but now the barcode lies contently on his skin like a flap of inky blotches that, by happenstance, form figures.
“He doesn’t hide the numbers anymore.”
“Exactly,” cries Philip, slapping his hand on the table as if everything is alright.
“Not exactly, not at all, Phil! What is this? It’s perverted, it’s disgusting. And Mom’s bed is cold in the evenings and I can’t call dad up because of the time difference and he’s dancing on his family’s graves!”
“Hey, Sara, let’s bury it, okay?” says Philip, and he becomes angry now, biting with ferocity, as much as one can do that with a silly, buttered bagel at hand.
Sara fidgets in her chair and remains silent. Philip – as is customary with him, the breadth of hands- shoves the photos to one side in a motion to collect them into a broad envelope. In the process, Sara’s cup shakes.
It quivers on the edge of the coffee table. Phyllis raises her eyes from her nail file; Edna, alert to the scene, accidentally tangles herself up in the telephone line; Sara and Philip watch. Sara has suspended her hands are resting in the air, as if the coffee table has just sunk inches into the ground. Philip allows himself the luxury of watching a fall object. They make no effort to stop the cup. It hovers above the air for the split of a second- uplifted by the tension of the matter – then descends, down down down, until it hits the ground with full force and makes the sound of hollowness. Phyllis returns to her bitten nails; Edna begins to unravel the telephone line.
“Thanks, Phil. What are you blaming the coffee for?”
“Only for the endless amount of energy that you seem to be channeling against Papa. Get it over with. I’m out of here, Sara, I’ve got things to do, a Mom to cheer up and a divorce to file. Call me when you think you’re saner” Philip rises from the table. He is grave but sarcastic, and leaves without saying goodbye, the napkin remains unaccounted for, still sprinkled with crumbs. The words are unapologetic, as are his strides when he whisks open the door and walks out of the Bagel Corner, around the sharp bend of the street and down, away from Riverdale Avenue.
Sarah sits and looks at her hands. She licks her thumbs, then takes a small prayer booklet from her bag, The Grace After Meals, which is said traditionally after one has consumed bread. Philip did not say it, but then he was never taught to do so. Only Sara has grown closer to whatever religion it is her father lost and her mother appeals to in lonely moments. And this is only a small gesture, contradicted perhaps in observance by the sharp pants, the almost painfully revealing tank top – oh, middle age does not flatter- and the tattoo of numbers she has chosen to emblazon, one by one, on her upper vertebrae. Yet she opens the Grace and pronounces the words, whispers them as she learned to in Hebrew School, the letters that always seemed so solid there, black like poppy seeds in formation on white paper.
Let me enlighten. There is a point in the Grace when one bangs on the table, blessing the Owner or owner, his wife and his children. Unless there is an explanatory note nearby (written in indecipherable script, make sure to get prescription lenses to read that section), one might fall into the pit of that reading, as does Sara now, for she has only recently begun reciting the Grace. She does not say that portion for Edna, she says it for herself – but Papa is in Germany (again), Mama is in Pelham Parkway, Philip is getting callous and cold. The only grace left is in the book and the light that filters through the windows of the Bagel Corner, fluttering upon surfaces with the delicacy of transparent white curtains – yes, the light is both microscopic cotton bits of curtain and waves, so why the dispute of science on its nature? Sara recites the Grace and pats her shoe into the coffee stain on the floor, producing a wet smacking sound.
Edna waits for Sara to leave, impatient to clean the stain slowly spreading under the shadow of the coffee table.
Sara finally gathers her things, shuts the Grace- a kiss of the lips upon laminated plastic- and walks out.
Edna watches her go, then gathers her scrubbing rag and liquid. She lets the blue soap collect on the tiles and washes thoroughly, therapeutically, until the last brown hues are extracted.
Edna knows these types of children, kids of the Holocaust survivors who are dead bent on G-d knows What. Parents that act erratic and gulp silence in lieu of air – that is a difficult occurrence and a harder experience to digest, goes painfully down the tracts until it emerges as the strain of living. When you approach nearest to death, you prefer to leave life to the children and push the stories of near-darkness to the side. There it is. The hardest of emotions, the inability to express ever fully. Sara with lack of understanding, Philip with lack of compassion, Mama lonely and Papa on vacation, again, from the nightmare of his mind. Edna sighs for them – a little commemorative gesture, in these domestic tasks she remembers larger events for the sake of the customer – a long, inventive sigh that releases carbon dioxide in a continuous stream. She wrings out the rage and the rag, the tension of these two strange people, and proceeds, because the bell has rung and the next couple people have entered.
So the day goes, and when we found Edna again she had shooed the workers away- let them retire early, heh, if she can’t do that herself!- and stood in the café, doing a once-over. All was well: the sink sparkled like nobody’s business, the counters were fine, the bins were empty and a small alarm, newly installed, blinked its one red eye at her every two minutes.
Only she noticed, with sunset coming, that the coffee stain of that morning had not been entirely removed. Crawling under the coffee table, she once again leaned and scrubbed with renewed force. She lost balance, just looking at it, the menacing refrain of brown outline on the tile, repeating itself as she traced its shape from one side to the other. It wouldn’t come out.
Edna said, let it be the shadow for now. Any coffee table needs a shadow, I think, because we all need a little place for the worries to be shoved under, for the darkness to be kicked once in a while, to be wiped then forgotten then stared at again. A shadow for reminding us that something is embedded between the golden light and its bluer, deeper counterpart, so even when the shadow doesn’t fall- and times exist, when the object’s eclipse prevents it from being in space- there it is grounded. And when light disappears completely, still it remains in its spot, responsible for the object it illuminates.
Edna rose from under the table, peered at the stain almost lovingly.
She touched the table, lightly, with the palms of her hands, running along the cold metallic frame, so perfect in its circularity that she suddenly felt her own roundness reflected in the glass surface, the bulge of hips long gone and bosom expanded and the cheeks a multiplication of circles, a study in globes of fat and the thinness of the aging spirit inside. She mounted her palms onto the table’s smoothest exterior and sat in the air, balancing – for aren’t all tables meant for sitting at, and their very presence necessitates a stationary creature to descend? Some errant ventilation from the side of the wall blew her gray hair into a sculpted mass of speckled marble and levitated the crumbs in her wrinkles into a dance of leavened wonder. With the last bite of energy, Edna sat down now, on the table, gathering her skirts about her and joining the cycle. Morty was gone, so were the customers and those accustomed to the old woman waiting upon them and for them at the counter, counting her days. But evening was arriving and she felt it seeping in through the door. She sat on the table, guarding the last bagel-shaped, eternal possession.
Edna breathed thrice in, thrice out without stopping. Her heart would give itself away later that night but for now.
Everything was circular, and stars in the night outside were the color of cream cheese.
Posted by Rebecca Segall at 10:30 PM