“Mixed Bag”

Fiction by Rita Plush

   Furniture and furnishings, Chinoiserie and tchotchkes, jewelry when she can find it, Sandy’s shop, Mixed Bag, has become the mainstay of her life. Lovers come and go but armoires are forever. That’s the beauty of the old and the antique — they’re well made and built to last.
    Sometimes all it takes is scraping away at the old wax and buffing up the brass. That she can do, loves to do — refresh a worn and beaten-down object and send it on its way again, to still another keeper.
    Other times, with more involved repairs, she calls in Harland, a miracle worker in Levi’s and a softened denim shirt, looking on as he lays out his cache of tools and clamps on the work table in back of her shop.
     His large blocky hands, so tender in their ministrations, setting to a wall bracket with the carving shot, or a door on an antique dollhouse, dangling on one hinge.
    On such a day, watching him slip a leaf of mahogany veneer into place on a floral patterned drawer front, she hears the bell tinkle on the door, leaves Harland to his work, and goes to see who’s there.
    “Milo — what a nice surprise!”
    Carefully moussed and hair blown back, gripping that hand-stitched, cordovan leather briefcase it took her months to find, her live-in of four years is back from a business trip. He missed me. Couldn’t wait till tonight to see me.
    “The last thing I want to do is hurt you,” is how he kicks off the conversation.
    “What’s the first thing?” she says, teasing — he enjoys it when she jokes around. 
    He smiles, but weakly. “Things haven’t been going well for us for a while.  Even you can’t deny that.” 
    “You’re right; they haven’t.” Milo loves being right. “But it’s just a rough patch we’re going through. It happens to couples all the time,” she says. 
    “I think it’s better to have a clean break than to drag it out.”  
    Clean break? Drag out? She has to steady herself up against the breakfront, the glass of the door cool on her sweated palms.
    “Just like that? Aren’t we going to talk about it? What about couples counseling? How about trying that?  Milo?” she says, as if they are talking on the phone, and she’s checking if he’s still on the line.
    “I don’t want to hurt your feelings . . .”
    “What do you want to do, then? Cut my heart out? Is there someone else?”
    “Uuh . . . ”
    “Yes or no damn it! Is there, or isn’t there!”
    “There is, but we haven’t . . . you know . . . I wanted to get this straightened out first.”
     “You always said we balanced each other. That you were too uptight and I relaxed you. That I made you laugh.”
    “You did,” he says, double-breasted, pima-shirted and Sulka-tied up to his eyeballs. 
    “And I don’t anymore?” Her smock is rumpled and blotched with furniture stain. She looks down at her hands. They could use a manicure.
    “Not so much,” he says.
    “So that’s it? Finis? What about your things. . . ?” her voice trails off.
    “I’ve already taken my things.”
    “Hunh,” is all she can say, but it’s not so much a say, as it is an articulated curl of air escaping her lips, denoting the end of her and Milo.
    “I took my clothes and my Mr. Potato Head collection. The rest is all yours.” He places his key to her apartment on a nearby table. The little bell on the door ushers him out.
    All hers. After four years of eating, sleeping, sexing, and planning, all he wanted from their couplehood was Hugo Boss and some plastic spuds? Nothing of theirs? No curio from a trip they’d taken? No memory piece of their time together? And why should he want? He was done and they were kaput. A  nest of painted boxes from a Shaker Village? A poster from a Keith Jarrett concert? He had no use for them.
    “Sandy?” she hears behind her.
    Tugged back into the present, she turns to see Harland, who says, “I’m about ready to leave. I’d like you to check the drawer before I go.”
    She follows him to the back room, his feet in their work boots nimbly maneuvering the crowded isles, threading his way around and through the store. He lifts the drawer by its sides and holds it out to her.
    She admires his workmanship, the care with which he brought the old table back to life, and for some reason it makes her want to cry. “It’s lovely. Just lovely.” She chokes back tears. “You’d never know it was a repair. It looks better than new.”
    He peers down at her from behind the round wire frames of his eyeglasses. “Is something wrong?”
    “No,” she says. “I see you bleached out the veneer you replaced.”
    “To get it to match what was already there.”
    “And you put a few nicks in the inlay to show the wear of time. You’re good, Harland. You’re very good . . .”
    Harland smiles. “All it needs is a coat of clear varnish. A satin finish just to give it a little luster. But let it sit a few days.” 
    Sandy could easily pull that off, but knowing how he likes to see a repair through to the end, she says, “You’ll come back and put that on, do that after your gallery show? In the Meatpacking District, I think you mentioned last time.”
    “Off Jane and 14th Street.” He pulls a flier from the back pocket of his jeans, hands it to her.
    “Good luck,” she says, looking it over.
    “Think you can stop by?” he says. “It’s running through next weekend.”
    “I’ll be there. You can count on it.” She makes for her handbag on the shelf above the table. “Here, let me pay you now.”
    “No rush. You’re good for it.”
     It takes her the better part of the weekend to clean up her apartment, not that Milo has made a mess of it. If anything, she’s the devil-may-care one about picking up after herself; he was neat to a fault. Refolding his underwear when it came from the laundry — he liked it just so — his shaver and Water Pic, his hair products lined on the shelf above the toilet, the seat down, after he’d finished his business.
    But all her cleanup and clearout isn’t enough; the idea of him, the poor choice of him remains. And so, armed with cleaning sprays and disinfectants that sting her eyes, she takes to the stove and refrigerator. As if to ward off a contagion or a rapidly spreading virus, she scours the grout lines of the shower tiles with an old toothbrush, her fingers puckered and red.
    She tackles her closets — purge is more like it. Bellbottoms from the ’70s? Gone. Don’t tell her they’re coming back. Platform shoes? Goodwill’s got them now.
    Exhausted, she falls into bed. Over the next week she paints her apartment, and not her usual schmear job. This time she does it like a pro.
    Taking time with the prep work, she runs the blue painter’s tape along the top of the baseboard to catch the drips. She uses an angled brush to cut a neat, clean line between the ceiling and walls — careful, deliberate strokes. And then, overlapping each previous pass with the roller brush, she lays on the paint itself. She wants Tangerine Tango in the bedroom, it’s Tangerine Tango in the bedroom, she has only herself to ask.
    It makes her tired, and more than a little sad to think about Milo and those other relationships.  She’s 42. How many more years does she have before she finds a guy who’s got it in him to make it last? And children? Have? Don’t have? She’s been iffy about that. Baby her lovers as she did, they seemed child enough for her.
To Be Continued

    Rita Plush, an interior designer, lecturer, and writer on the decorative arts, is the author of the novel, “Lily Steps Out,” which will be published next month by Penumbra Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including The Alaska Quartely Review and The MacGuffin.