Where Have You Been?
By Wendy Brandmark
She had come before. A tall full woman with milky arms who ran her fingers over the backs of his chairs. Saul watched her through the curtains shielding him in his office at the back of the store. There, on the long rough wooden table he’d covered in brown packing paper, he was eating his roast beef sandwich and reading the newspaper.
He gave her a few minutes to leave, because customers came and went quickly, when they came at all, during the summer. Who wants to think about upholstery and carpets in the heat? And Saul did not want to be seen lolling around so he stayed in the little office, hot like a sultan’s cave.
But she was standing in the middle of the diamond-shaped room, looking towards the back, as if she could see him sitting there with his half-eaten sandwich and new green pickle. He wiped his lips and moustache and came through the curtains.
“You have some nice things,” she said, lifting fabric swatches from atop a high backed chair with curved legs and arms. “Can I?” she pointed to the seat.
“Of course. Try it out.”
“So uncomfortable. But that,” she indicated the stocky tweed sofa with fat cushions, “that is not so pretty.”
It was part of his American set, the hodgepodge most people chose. Though the store was only one room, Saul had arranged the furniture as if there were several. To these he secretly gave names: French Provincial, Italian, Danish Modern. Each consisted of an armchair or sofa and a coffee table with ornaments or a lamp.
She had an accent, not strong, but he could tell she was from the other side by her clothes: the long, fitted, polka dot dress with the raised shoulders, the hat like a half shell. Who wore a hat on a hot afternoon on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx?
“You want maybe some new chairs?” he asked.
“I want everything. But what I need, I don’t know.” Then she pointed to the glass canister filled with hard candies in colored wrappers. “Can I?”
Downtown the showrooms had bowls of silver wrapped candies, which he rolled around in his mouth as he strolled through the airy rooms. His candies sat there for years, and no one had ever asked to have one.
“If you want,” he said.
“But are they real?” she laughed. “I’m so dry," she said, with her eyes on him, putting the candy in her mouth. Then she was walking around again. “So much in a little place.”
He said nothing to this. When his father had come over from Poland, he became an upholsterer who filled the store with brocade and satin. Sometimes people got confused and asked Saul to make a slip cover for their old sofa. Then he spoke sharply to them: “It won’t be me making it, you know.” He was not an old man sewing in the back room.
He had to stop himself from saying to her, “So what is it you want?” The women — how they played him. “I like that and that,” they’d say, pointing to a modern loveseat and a rich brown French Provincial table. When he explained that these could not share the same room, much less sit within a few feet of each other, they said, “Well, I like them together. And that’s that.”
He’d pace what little floor space existed between the furniture. “Then why ask me?”
“You’re too fussy,” they’d say.
“What do you mean? I see hundreds of homes.” He had not. It was rare that a customer asked him to come over and give advice.
The woman walked over to the Italian set, the brass lamps with their large, silk-tasselled shades growing out of round marble tables. “Too ongepotchket for me. I like simple but not so simple.”
If she were not good looking, he would have said, “Let me know when you’ve made up your mind.” And he’d have gone to the back room to wait for her to leave, because some of the women wanted only to talk.
“Could you come over to my apartment?” she asked, looking at him. “Tell me what to do with my rooms.”
“I would have to charge.”
“But of course.”
She took down his number and promised to phone him.
Saul wandered around the store after she left, smoothing down the swatches she’d picked up. He thought she was not serious. Then he went back to his office to finish his sandwich. In the heat of the dry, windowless room, he longed to go out and play handball. He could almost hear the sound of the small, hard black ball against the grey stone wall in the playground. When he was young, his hands were calloused from playing. He moved, his friends said, like a monkey around the court, but, as he grew older, he began to lose games. It was not his body that slowed down — it had remained firm, lean — his own flesh did not hold him back, but what had attached itself to him: his little daughter, his baby son. Their faces appeared on the edges of his vision, distracting him as the ball flew towards him.
When, nearly a week later, she called, he had almost forgotten her. He was drinking a ginger ale and turning the pages of the newspaper, so quiet back there that the sound of the phone was like an alarm waking him from sleep.
Her accent seemed stronger on the phone. Even her name, Lottie Saltzman, sounded like some grandmother or aunt who had come over later than everyone else.
“I told my husband I was having the interior designer come over. ‘Oh, big shot,’ he says. So you’ll have tea with me and then we’ll talk.”
Normally he went to customers’ houses in the evening, after he closed the store. But then he would have to tell his wife to hold back his dinner, and she would want to know everything.
Lottie Saltzman lived in one of the heavy old buildings on the Grand Concourse, made to look like mansions, with carvings of angels and curlicues on the doorways. Once the rich had lived here, and, now it was those who made more money than he did. As he walked down a long dim corridor, with its tiled floor and brown doors, he thought of what his wife would say: “Old — so old — it makes me depressed.”
It was cool in her apartment, as if the walls of the building shut out the day and all its heat. He could see a hallway where the bedrooms lay, room after room, in darkness. She took him down to a sunken living room, where the floors were parquet, and the big sofas wore chocolate and crimson covers, like fat emperors. The only brightness came from the table lamps and a little yellow chandelier.
He looked around as she left to make tea. In the deep of the room, he felt like he had entered some wondrous cave, and — who knows — maybe she’d come back wrapped in sheets of gorgeous silk.
The tray shook as she walked in in her high heels. He watched the dress move on her body, how, when she bent over to put down the tray, he could see the smooth whiteness of her breasts and the fine drops of perspiration on her neck. The tea was in glasses with silver filigree holders and she pushed a gold-edged bowl of sugar cubes towards him. He had only ever seen sugar cubes in fancy restaurants.
“So, have you thought what you want?” He always asked this first, but in the end they listened to him.
She placed one and then another of the cubes of sugar in her tea and sipped it delicately. “I’m not born here. So I don’t know how people make their houses.”
He asked if she had lived in the apartment long.
“What is long?”
He shrugged. He’d lived in his corner of the Bronx all his life. Even the apartment his wife loved, because it was new and modern, was only blocks away from the playground where he had first seen her.
“I want not to move again. If I make this place good, maybe then we stay. Before I came to this country, well, I am moving all the time.”
He feared she was losing her words and soon would speak in some other language. He didn’t want to ask her about the other side, where she had come from before, who she had been in that place. He had a second cousin who’d been in a displaced persons camp after the war, and he laughed all the time.
“I would bring big colors in here and modern furniture,” she said. “You see, I want to banish all this brown, colour of mud.”
“Modern would not fit in this older apartment.”
“Saul. May I call you Saul? You must know one thing. That I cannot be sad.”
“Who’s saying you’ll be sad? You’ll be sad with loud colors.”
“I’ll be sad if I have any more brown.”
“Who said you have to have brown?”
“Then we agree.”
He sipped his tea. It was still too hot for him, but he could not do what he did at home, which was to blow on the tea till its surface scudded with his breath.
She said she would have to phone to arrange the next appointment. “Because Irving. My husband. He’ll tell me we have to somewhere to go, so I cannot know ahead.”
He asked what Irving’s line of business was, though he did not really want to know. She had met him, she said, when she came over after the war, and he had made sure that she could stay. He was a lawyer.
He imagined Irving as much older than her, a balding lawyer she had married out of desperation.
“Irving’s like you. A real American.”
He handed her some catalogues. “Once you decide what you want, I can go to the showrooms just to have a look.”
“‘Showrooms’ sounds very grand.” She smiled at him.
He shrugged at this, feeling for the first time irritation with her. It was true that he rarely went down there where dapper young men wandered about with their customers. The showroom assistant would come up to him to ask if he needed help, but he always shook his head. He was just looking, he’d say, getting ideas for someone fussy.
Lottie did not phone for two weeks. He figured she had changed her mind. Maybe she was just toying with him or lonely for company till her husband returned in the evening. Saul had occupied one of her dead hours.
One afternoon, when there was heavy rain, which came and went so quickly that the hot air outside never cooled, she walked in laughing, her hair dripping. She had been up in the Catskills at a hotel. “All day it’s eat, eat, eat, and old men play cards in their bare chests, and, at night, some little man comes on and tells dirty jokes. I was so tired from being bored.”
“But you got away,” he said, his hand touching his moustache, rubbing across it with one definitive gesture, as if to say: finish with this talk of expensive hotels. When he took his family up to the Catskills, they stayed in a bungalow colony. His wife cooked and sat on the porch of the wooden cabin holding his son, while his daughter went off to day camp.
“Who wants to? Don’t you feel, when you’re away, how could you have left? But maybe you don’t go.”
He was thinking of the lake water on the first day, how, when he dived in, it cleansed him. “We go up there in August. You take a deep breath of the mountain air and let out the Bronx.”
“I like this air,” she said, smiling at him.
He came over later that week to do some measuring and talk about furniture. He sat on the brown sofa in the sunken room, while she served him tea and little square cakes — with pink and white icings so sweet they made his teeth ache — to which she gave a French name.
“One thing I cannot get used to. The cakes here. You see them in the stores with names like cartoons. I am fond of cake. And you? Maybe your wife bakes.”
He laughed at this. “She’s no baker.” What he wanted was his usual Danish, chewy and just sweet enough, which his wife bought every day from the Italian bakery. The smell of it when he pulled it out of the wax bag.
He gave her some rug swatches to choose from and got out his tape measure and pad. He was down on his knees in the corner measuring. She came over with the rug samples cradled in her arms. “I am lost without you, so I’ll wait.”
He looked up at her. She seemed so voluptuous, in her black and white checked dress, standing above him, her legs in shiny stockings, her bare arms moist in the dim light.
“You narrow down what you like.”
“What I like you won’t.”
“You’re the one living with it.”
She sat down on the sofa in the place where he had been. Saul kept going around the room measuring and writing. Then he could no longer delay going back. He looked at the high, hard chair, but went instead to sit beside her.
“Maybe this one because it makes me think of cornfields,” she said. She handed him a sample of a green carpet flecked with gold.
“What do you know of cornfields?”
She blushed and looked at him. Suddenly he was putting his arm around her, and she was not moving away. He could pull her towards him, all her flesh, her milky arms, her breasts inside the black and white dress. He looked at her face and in the dimness of the room, she looked unfathomable.
“Are you making a pass? That’s what they call it, isn’t it? Isn’t it, Saul?”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m flattered. If that’s what it was.”
He wanted to be gone.
She leaned back against the sofa. “We are getting to know each other very well. I would say to you that there is something I cannot do here. I cannot be alone with myself.”
He felt chilled, as if he were underground in the sunken room, one step below the rest of the flat. He began sketching the room on a piece of graph paper and writing down the measurements.
“Saul, you want we should talk about it?”
He shook his head, still writing. “You make your decision, and I’ll order for next time.”
“I’ve embarrassed you.”
He continued to write and sketch. “Here. I’ve added the size of your sofa. You want the same size? And the armchair too?”
“I want all new,” she said. He thought her eyes looked teary, but could not be sure because the room had lost its bit of afternoon light.
He nodded. “Next time, you will tell me for certain. You must be certain because once I order, that’s that.”
She placed the money for his visit in his hand, then closed up his fingers. Her hand, long and firm, was not what he’d expected from the rest of her. Then she let go and smiled again her teasing smile, just like the first time in the store, as if he were the greenhorn, not her with her wobble of an accent.
He told her that after next week he would be away with the family. “The store closes,” he said, as if it had a mind of its own.
“So you will come back a new man. How will I know you?”
“I’ll be the same man,” he said. He was thinking of the first day back from vacation, unlocking the heat of the store, and the dust gathered in his absence.
She walked him to the door. “Don’t forget about me up in those boring places. I will count the weeks and be at your store just when you come. Just then. You cannot escape me.”
It was something for him to know that he could return to this cool place with her. They shook hands and then she leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek, soft, like when his daughter kissed him goodnight.
Then he could not help himself. He took her in his arms and held her so close that he could feel her breasts and belly. When he opened his eyes, he saw that she had never closed hers. She looked wild and lost, and he let her go.
Saul did not return refreshed as he had every summer. He’d felt restless up there, sitting on the porch, eating barbecued hot dogs, with the woods like some dark curtain behind him. His daughter came back from day camp crying because the girls had formed a club and wouldn’t let her join. His wife said one day, “Why does it always have to be mountains?”
In the store, he had less time to sit in the back room and remember Lottie because customers were starting to order curtains and thick carpets, now that they could feel the breath of winter. Sometimes he didn’t even think of her — and then he did.
He worried that she forgot him again. He had disappeared from her mind, like her memories: “I am everyday burying and then like a dog digging them up in my dreams”. A week passed, and then another. He wondered if she had counted his weeks away correctly. Then he thought she had been playing with him, after all.
One day, when he was eating his sandwich in the back room, he heard the door open, and when he looked through the curtain, she was standing there.
He came out with his shirtsleeves still rolled up.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“You changed your mind?”
“I was ill.”
“Well, I’m sorry.” He didn’t believe her. She looked as full as ever.
“I was very bad, you see.”
He nodded, but he didn’t see.
“I had to go to hospital. Yes. Well, that’s over with, but what I come to say is we’re moving all the way out to Long Island. My husband thinks it will be better for me in a real house with what you call a lawn. He says the Bronx is going down. But I don’t think so. I think I will be a hausfrau out there.”
“That’s where everyone wants to live,” he said.
“And you, Saul, you want that too?”
He thought of the boys he’d played with, of hitting the ball against the wall, hitting and running and the taste of the sooty air, the Bronx taste. “If I could manage it, yes.”
“Oh well. Maybe you will move out there and become dull like everyone.”
“You’ll never be dull,” he said.
“But dull is what we all want. No?”
She puzzled him still. What made her sadder than everyone? It made her different, this shadow she clutched to herself.
“My husband said, ‘Why keep thinking about over there? When you’re here.’”
“He’s right. What’s past is past.”
“You think that? You don’t.”
“I wish you luck in the new house,” he said.
She took his hand. “You know what it’s like? You say goodbye, and you know that you will never see that person again.”
He shook his head. “That’s not the way it is here. You’ll come back for a visit, at least.”
“I like you, Saul, but what do you know?” She shut her eyes, and he put his arms around her, even though they were standing there surrounded by windows in the diamond-shaped room. He held her like he did his daughter when she had a fever and was afraid.
He let her go, and she was smiling again. “I’ll be seeing you. That’s what they say, isn’t it?”
Saul went back to his sandwich, his newspaper folded neatly beside him. He read and ate, and when he finished he thought he would rearrange his room sets so that it was obvious what was what. Too many of his customers went from French Provincial to Danish Modern without blinking their eyes. He would show them that you could not be both. And when they tried to mix the two, he would show them what peasants they were. Peasants.
But who was she, or what was she? He rubbed his eyes.