Fall 2016, Volume 21

Fiction by Peter Obourn

Kaplan's Furniture Store

Delores Molesworth has been in Kaplan’s Furniture store more than a hundred times this year, even though she has never bought anything. Mr. Kaplan—Herman Kaplan—always gives her his full attention. That’s the kind of person he is. She likes him and wishes she could buy something, but nothing can change in her house.

Jimmy Crawford is the one who counts her visits. Jimmy is Mr. Kaplan’s sole employee. He moves the rug piles when there is a customer who wants to look at the bottom one, and he takes over when Mr. Kaplan isn’t there, which is not often.

Mr. Kaplan and Jimmy have arranged the furniture in the store as if it was in the home, so there are several “living rooms” spread around the store. Mr. Kaplan and Mrs. Molesworth always sit in one of these room arrangements. One day last week, they were seated on a couch. Mr. Kaplan had lit the floor lamp because they were near the back of the store. It is their favorite living room. While she was there that day, a few customers appeared and were handled by Jimmy. Whatever their business, Mr. Kaplan was not needed.

She was saying to Mr. Kaplan, “You know, Herman, for me, it’s the simple things in life. Life is just full of happy surprises for me.”

He nodded and smiled.

“I am content with the mysteries of the world. I’m entranced. They are magical. Nothing spoils magic more than knowing how the trick is done. It ruins the miracle. Maybe some people say I have no curiosity. That would be wrong. I want more magic, more mystery. I’m trying to bring Frank around to my way of thinking.” Frank is her husband. “He’s always in his clock shop, trying to figure out how these clocks work. I say, ‘Frank, be content; enjoy the clocks. Let them do their thing. You don’t have to know everything.’”

When she first started coming into the store, maybe the first ten visits or so, she and Mr. Kaplan spent time examining carpet samples and discussing her decorating plans, but they also began, like the walrus and the carpenter, to talk of many things. Mr. Kaplan is a good listener and so is Mrs. Molesworth. After a while, Mr. Kaplan began to understand the lay of the land. Now they are past talking furniture. They exhausted that subject months ago and have moved on to deeper waters.

Mr. Kaplan is always serious. He knows Mrs. Molesworth’s deep anguish, but he never lets on. He is perhaps more serious than necessary, but for him the seriousness is crucial. So they engage in light conversation that only seems light. He knows they are playing a deadly serious game.

Delores Molesworth dresses impeccably and with taste. One can tell. Purple is her favorite color. Her tailored suits are modest, maybe a little dated, perhaps a bit overdressed for a trip to the furniture store. She always has a fresh flower pinned high on her chest near her left shoulder, often a rose, but also often something else, and always fresh. Her makeup is discreet, showing signs of careful application.

Mr. Kaplan wears a shirt and tie every day, although he is not an impeccable dresser. Sometimes his shirt and tie are a questionable match, but he is always neat. He has a tie which has a picture of a cabin in the woods with smoke coming out of the chimney and running up to the knot at his neck, which particularly amuses Mrs. Molesworth. She once told him she likes it and, after receiving the compliment, he wears it proudly once a week.

Mr. Molesworth spends most of every day working on his clocks in a basement workshop. If he is not in his workshop, he is out looking for clocks, says Mrs. Molesworth. Mr. Kaplan guesses aloud to Jimmy that at lunch and dinner, which Mrs. Molesworth carefully prepares, Frank is silent except when there has been a major change in his clock world, such as the acquisition of a new clock or the successful restoration of one which had stopped years ago and he has successfully resuscitated. She says this is a rare occurrence.

Mr. Kaplan and Jimmy exchange nods or smiles whenever Mrs. Molesworth says, “I hear some of the darnedest things,” which she often does. And they smile when Herman reminds her that he gives a five-year floating guarantee on all the carpeting, which is his idea of a joke, but she doesn’t seem to get it.

She tells them in detail what her husband likes to eat—in some cases reciting an entire recipe—and how Frank loves to work on his clocks, but there is never much detail about the clocks, because, she says, he works alone. She does not go down to his basement workshop.

Aside from his clock hobby, which Mrs. Molesworth describes as his “clockwork,” the twist of which Mr. Kaplan enjoys, Frank drives twice a week. One drive is past the first house that he built, with a guest room above the garage, which he and Mrs. Molesworth never used. This is where the Sullivans live now. He built the house from scratch leveling the ground for its post and beam construction system.

Over a span of two years, Mr. Molesworth pounded every nail and sawed every board—weekends and evenings. Mrs. Molesworth says he finished just before the accident, but Frank himself can’t even remember what year it was now.

She supposes he couldn’t build anything now—a shed maybe, but nothing more complex than that. She says he parks up the street, looks at the house he built for a while, and then he drives back home. The whole thing takes less than an hour. His other drive is on poker night.

They play Thursday evenings in Jimmy Crawford’s garage, even in the winter, when Jimmy turns on a little electric heater. Jimmy backs the car out of the garage, sets up a table with folding legs, and brings out the kitchen chairs. The garage is attached and they can just go from the garage to the kitchen to grab beer and pretzels. According to Jimmy, they change seats in the winter so that someone is always a little too hot and someone too cold. In the summer it’s always nice and cool, no matter where you sit.

At poker, they like to discuss the old days, which is good, because Frank will talk about the days before the accident, which he can remember, but he won’t talk about the days since. The boys seldom bring up things from after the accident, and never about his wife’s visits to the furniture store.

Frank always leaves poker early. Jimmy says the boys talk about him after he leaves, about how he has changed since the accident. He fell twenty feet onto the concrete floor at the car shop. His back was broken. He recovered in about two years, but his doctor says he can never return to work. They put him on permanent disability. The boys always have to be careful to let Frank win at poker—just a little; too much and he’d be suspicious. They’ve learned the hard way that if he loses, he gets so down on himself that they can’t stand to be around him.

Mrs. Molesworth is kind of a joke in the neighborhood. She spends a lot of time feeding the birds, and she also feeds the squirrels. Some of them will take food right out of her palm. This irritates some people because they consider the squirrels pests and, by feeding them, Mrs. Molesworth has made them totally unafraid of people. Others say she is weird because most days she appears all dressed up, by which they mean she has on a suit and hat.

So, it is the neighborhood consensus that Mrs. Molesworth is kind of a nutty and empty-headed woman. Everyone feels sorry for her because of her husband’s accident, and because he changed into an ornery guy who is extremely sensitive and must be difficult to live with. He complains that the kids in the neighborhood are always whooping and hollering—which of course is true, because they are kids.

When one thinks about it, the thing that makes everyone think she is nutty is that she seems to be happy and always smiling when she does not do much of anything but feed the birds and squirrels and walk to the furniture store, and take care of her difficult, depressed, and nervous husband.

One day, in their favorite living room in the furniture store, they talked about the squirrels. “I think squirrels are fascinating,” said Mrs. Molesworth. “They live in the moment—there is no past—they do play—they chase each other and play—they chatter to each other—so they do think and talk. They do mate—I watched one pair, and one morning they ran across the road together and one made it—the other was flattened by a truck. The survivor, that same day later, was chattering, chasing, and playing with another squirrel.”

“I suppose they have no memory,” said Herman.

Delores thought for a moment and then said. “No, Herman, they remember. They do plan. I give them nuts and they bury them, and I’ve seen them remember where they are buried and dig them up. I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t even remember which tree I built my nest in.”

“Maybe it’s sadness, they don’t have,” said Herman, “remorse.”

“Or guilt,” she said.

“Maybe they have the emotions they need to survive, but not the ones they don’t need, like sadness. Who needs sadness?”

“Maybe,” said Delores, “but I like a sad movie, now and then.”

“Yes, there is that,” said Herman, and they looked at each other. She smiled a wistful smile, and lifted her eyebrows. What Herman loved was the delicate sadness of Delores Molesworth.

                                                  

Whoever sees her on Main Street remarks that Mrs. Molesworth is going furniture shopping, because it is known that she always ends up in Kaplan’s Furniture Store chatting with Mr. Kaplan. To some, “furniture shopping” has acquired another meaning—an unkind meaning, so in the local bars, one guy will say to another, “Doing any furniture shopping lately, Fred?”

It has taken some time, but this unkind meaning finally worked its way around to Herman Kaplan, and he understands that probably it is connected to the fact that Mrs. Molesworth has not been to the furniture store for more than a week. He remembers they discussed her love of mystery.

For Mrs. Molesworth, it has been a difficult week. Since her father died, she takes Frank over to her mother’s house and cooks dinner Saturday nights. It works out as long as Frank is there. By this she means sometimes Frank is not mentally there, which happened last Saturday. Her mother called her Sunday morning to say she had a view of the situation and what should be done about it. “He’s turned into a weak, helpless child—not even a child. He doesn’t really know you anymore. He can’t operate the television. He takes clocks apart. That’s all he does. You need to leave him, Delores. You are entitled to a life of your own,” she said to her daughter. “I’ll help you through it. I’m not going to give up on this. And stop spending time in that damn furniture store. People are talking. Your behavior is exasperating.”

Of course this isn’t the first time drastic action had been suggested. She and Frank used to go to church, but they don’t anymore. One day, about a year after Frank’s accident, Reverend Foster took her aside and suggested that she stop going to the furniture store and talking to Mr. Kaplan.

When her mother said she was exasperated, Delores realized that’s what Frank has—exasperation—every waking moment, he’s exasperated. That’s his disease, his condition—he tries but is unable to fix the clocks—he can’t remember—his injured brain is always struggling just to stay in the real world—sometimes he’s there and sometimes he’s gone and then he returns—he knows he’s back—he knows he’s been gone but he doesn’t know where.

                                                  

Today, Herman and Jimmy are opening the store. “It’s been over a week now,” says Jimmy, turning on the lights. “The next visit will be number one hundred eleven, just this year. She must be sick or something. Imagine, missing an opportunity to get away from Fluffhead Frank.”

Herman is adjusting a throw pillow. “I fear, Jimmy, I fear it might be something else. This town has been hard on her. Yet through it all, she still loves Frank, I think. Like, she loves what once was there. Maybe she sees bits and pieces of what’s left. I don’t know. She keeps looking for the man she loved, and even though he’s standing right there, he’s a million miles away. It’s enough to break one’s heart, but hers is made of sterner stuff. She keeps hoping.”

Jimmy folds his arms and rubs his chin. “Maybe. Do you suppose they still do it? You know what I mean.” He smiles. “I mean, she’s always so cheerful. There must be a reason for that.”

Herman punches the pillow, folds his arms and looks at Jimmy. He says nothing. He has also wondered to himself if she and Frank have sex. He hopes they do, but has decided they do not—not since the accident. There is his back, of course, and they would have to talk about clocks, which is a very unsexy subject. And Frank is always so nervous and depressed that Herman thinks, for Delores, sex with Frank would require her to initiate the action, and he doesn’t think she would.

She’s never been away for more than a week. He adjusts his tie, ready to greet the first customer of the day. He will miss her. He fluffs another chintz pillow. He admires the way she made herself a world out of the material given her.

At the moment, Frank Molesworth is in the basement puzzling over a mainspring, as if he has never seen one. Delores Molesworth is upstairs at her dressing table, a fresh pink rose pinned to the shoulder of her suit, making sure her lipstick is perfect.

 

 

 

BIO: Peter Obourn's work is forthcoming or has appeared in Bombay Gin, CQ (California Quarterly), Crack the Spine, descant, Forge, Gastronomica, Griffin, Hawaii Pacific Review, Inkwell, Kestrel, The Legendary, Limestone, The Madison Review, New Orleans Review, North Atlantic Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Oyez Review, PANK, Quiddity Literary Journal, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, Riddle Fence, The Round, Saint Ann's Review, SNReview, Spillway, Stickman Review, Switchback, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Viral Cat, Wild Violet, The Write Room, and The Blueline Anthology 2004.