Shoppers

w.t. pfefferle

  
            Henry's wife is Sara and she's the reason we've made this trip out of the city into Connecticut. Every weekend she and my wife Catherine make excursions into the netherworld of shopping, either in the small shops of the village in the city, or sometimes outside the city. Henry and I sit in the car and Henry explains the world to me. We once drove 175 miles to a store where the ladies bought two velvet cowboy paintings. Each. 
            Henry is smacking his hand on his knee to some song on the radio. "I love this Blaupunkt stuff. I think it's good you buy foreign equipment and then put it in a big boxy American car. What's wrong with Pioneer or Kenwood?"
            "Kenwood is a Canadian company," I say. "Pioneer is made in Korea."
            "Whatever," he says. "Is this Limp Bizkit or whatever? Because if it is, I don't get it. It sounds just like Black Sabbath or something."
            Henry's milieu is irony. He looks for it like some people look for empty aluminum cans. I sometimes feel like I don't have to actually answer him back; I'm more of an audience than anything else. He can go on quite happily without my participation.
            "You've got a CD changer in the trunk, right? How do you like that?"
            I don't have a CD changer in the trunk. "It's the radio, Henry. You've got a radio station on there. FM."
            Henry turns the volume knob up a bit as one song ends and another begins. "This sounds like Deep Purple. It really does."
            I look in the window of this little store and try to see the girls. "They're not ever coming out," I say.
            "Of course they are," he says. "You know Sara. She'll be trying to save forty cents on a ninety dollar dish."
            I've been thinking about things a lot recently, especially since Henry and Sara have just had their tenth anniversary. Catherine and I have been married not quite five years; our anniversary is a few weeks away. I use Henry and Sara as a guide to what we will be in five more years, and sometimes I don't know if that's what I want or not.
            "There they are," Henry says. "Pop the trunk and I'll help them load up."  He gets out and he holds the door open for Catherine.
            "Bought it all," she says, getting in. She blows a kiss my way and begins to pull five different lampshades out of a bag.
©
            "We don't even begin to scratch the surface here," Henry says. "Most countries don't have decent communications. No real newspapers to speak of. Television on one or two channels even now. No music. Last time I was in Belgium a girl at the airport offered me $500 for my Walkman? I wanted to sell it, but I couldn't imagine taking that kind of money. Sears? Penney's? Jesus, those people would riot.” He pauses and reaches for his coffee cup. "Do you think my kids would get that excited about anything?"
            Henry is a history professor at Columbia and is known in his circle as a bit of a radical. He takes his classes on walks outside of the classroom, one time arranging them on one of Columbia's lawns in the formation of some Civil War battle.
            "I was trying to explain to these kids about China, and Haiti, and Somalia, but they don't want to know. They're so in love with Rush Limbaugh that I just don't have the heart to tell them that he's just plain wrong. Some kid told me he read in American Spectator that they have proof George W. closes the White House early so he can get in to the Old Milwaukee. They eat it up with a spoon." 
            Sara sits beside Henry on the couch and she's moving her empty coffee cup around on the table with her extended foot. "Tell them about the kid who's a colonel. The one who came back from Kandahar."
            "This kid says locals were begging marines for fresh water when they had it. They'd pass around canteens and help them get it out of big army tankers. Some of the locals handed them coins and currency but the marines mostly just gave it back. One kid took some money because the family was insisting on it. It turned out to be about $100 American, for one canteen full."
            Catherine gets up and brings back one of the five or six bags that she left in the front hallway when we came in. "Look here, Sara.” She spills the contents out on the table among the coffee cups and the magazines. Ten varicolored plastic purses, each one with a gold, ribbon strap.
            "They're buying water like it's gold. The other kids in class wanted to know why they just didn't drink juice or something."
©
            It's almost a week later when Henry calls me up on the phone and demands that we eat lunch at this diner in the basement of his office building. I walk across 5th Avenue in a freezing rain, take a cab seven blocks and when I get out I see him in the diner talking on the pay phone.
            I sit down at a table that he points me to. He's still on the phone, talking quickly, grave expression. The girl comes and brings me a cup of coffee although I haven't ordered it. I tell her I'd like some pie, too.
            Henry hangs up the phone, and then comes over and collapses in the booth.
            "Jesus, what's the deal?"
            "It's Marcie."
            Marcie is Henry's ex-wife, a tiny, frail woman whose forays into attempted suicide and contagious illnesses are only slightly more fascinating than the stories Henry has about their six-month marriage.
            "What's happened?" I say.
            "She's been on the front lawn all morning. Sara found her there after I went to work. Some crisis thing that couldn't wait. Sara told her to go in the house, but Marcie's still there. I just talked to her on the goddamned cordless."
            "I thought she had moved away again."
            "Ohio. She went to see her sister, but apparently the sister contracted this rare bone disease and sent Marcie back." 
            "Where does she live? What does she want from you?"
            "Sara seems to think that I should call her analyst and talk to him. That somehow I'm responsible for straightening this out."
            "So you just talked to Marcie now?"
            "Exactly. On the lawn. Forty degrees. Sara's feeding her toast and warm tea.” Henry puts his hands up over his face and rests his elbows on the table. The waitress comes by and brings my pie and more coffee.
            "Well, what did she say?" I say.
            "She wants to meet me," he says. "She wants to meet me at Bloomingdale’s Saturday morning. She wants a convection oven. She'll leave us alone after that."
©
            Catherine meets me in the driveway when I get home. It's dark already, even though winter is slowly ending. She's wearing sweats from U.S.C., where we both went to college.
            "My brave husband is home," she says. "Sara's been calling all day. What's Henry's deal this time?"
            It's cold outside, but I put my briefcase inside the door of the house and sit on the porch out there. Catherine goes in, gets a coat for herself, and joins me. I don't really feel like talking, and that's all right. Sometimes at night we just sit here and look around the neighborhood, watch the kids ride their bikes up the sloped driveways, hear the family next door talking about their dinner plans, or just watch the small, light aircraft drop slowly out of the sky and land at the little airport north of here.
            "Henry's going shopping with her," I say.
            "Really, where?"
            "Bloomingdale’s," I say. "Convection oven, I think. Maybe a stove. I don't remember."
            "Does this strike you as being a bit odd? I mean how long has this woman been acting this way?"
            "Ten years," I say. "They've been divorced ten years."
            A car pulls into our driveway and its lights strike us there on the porch. I squint for a second, trying to make out the driver, but the car just hesitates for a second, and then backs out.
            "What did you do today?" I say.
            "Shopping. I bought a lamp, sort of a kitschy thing. Big glass bottom, all red and gold. No shade, but I got that covered."
            "What would you do if I had an ex-wife that wanted a convection oven? I mean, would you help me pick it out and stuff? Can you get that kind of stuff at Bloomingdale’s?"
            "Oh my, we're tired tonight, are we?” Catherine puts her arm around my shoulder for a second and then points at a plane going over top. "When are we going on a trip? We really need to go somewhere. Maybe Henry can take us somewhere."
            "I don't want to go anywhere with Henry," I say. "Henry thinks that a Polaroid gives him the right to talk more about things. Henry thinks because he teaches history he can tell right from wrong."  I just throw my hands up and when they land back on my lap there's a loud slap of flesh against fabric.
            "Let's go in," Catherine says. "We're going to absolutely freeze out here."
            But I grab her hand and don't let her move for a second. There have been these things that at times could have broken us apart over the five years, but we've always been able to talk, or not talk, whatever was needed. And right now, I just like the feel of the cold air around us and the sounds of the evening. Catherine puts both of her hands around my one and she hums a bit, just like she always does. It's not a song, it's just some tune that's all her own.  
We stay there for a few more minutes, and then we go into our house.
©
            Henry solved his problem with Marcie. He met her on a Saturday morning and he arranged it for Sara, me, and Catherine to all be there to watch the scene. We waited on the second floor, and stared down from the railed opening and watched Henry turn a credit card over to a very small, blonde woman, who looked ten years younger than Henry. She looked lost the entire time we watched which was only a few minutes. There was no greeting. She just came up to him, he took out his wallet and gave her a card, and she hardly broke stride. She moved right into the ladies wear section and picked three identical red dresses off a rack and took them immediately to a cashier.
            Henry had his hands in his pockets the whole time, and slowly moved along behind her. The cashier bagged the dresses, gave Marcie the card and Marcie walked right to Henry and once again, never breaking stride, passed the card back and started walking to the doors.
            Catherine and I laughed a bit, watching it all, and Sara made some small joke about the dresses. But as Marcie reached the doors of Bloomingdale’s, she stopped and very carefully placed the bag of dresses on the floor, folding the top over carefully so that it looked neat and perfect, placed there for a reason.
            We all stopped talking and watched her leave the store. Taking the same route that she had, walking in the same sort of deliberate way that we all recognized, Henry went to the bag, picked it up and walked back to the cashier that had sold Marcie the dresses. Henry took them out one by one and placed them on the counter. The cashier kept saying something to him, but Henry wasn't listening.
            Catherine and Sara wandered off after it was over, and Henry came up the escalator and stood beside me, quiet. I couldn't think of one thing to say.
©
            On the day after Valentine's day, Henry calls me first thing in the morning.
            "We're not coming for dinner," he says.
            "Why not?" I say.
            "Not a good time. Sara and I are dealing with something right now, and I just don't think making the rounds is a good idea."
            "Whatever you say," I say. I'm still in bed and Catherine is beside me, head in the crook of my arm.
            "It's nothing, really," Henry says. "It's just another weekend, you know. The seasons passing. It's not a big deal to buy roses for the hundredth time. It really isn't. If it were, I'd tell you. Give you something to look forward to." 
            He's quiet for a bit.
            "Sara wants to talk to Catherine," Henry says, and then I don't hear any more.
            I give Catherine the phone and get out of bed. I walk to the window and look out at the browning grass around our house. Still no snow, and I'd give anything for some. Catherine is talking, but I don't hear any of the words. Just a low tone, sounds that don't quite connect with me.
            Outside the window, I see a lady walking past the house walking a dog. She's wearing a big, hooded coat, and I can see her breath and the dog's. I picture Marcie at Bloomingdale’s and the three red dresses. I picture Henry telling his class about the world the way he explains it to me. I'd be happy if some of it made sense. When Catherine hangs up the phone it seems way too quiet in here.
©
            The day of our anniversary, I meet Henry at a small shop called Rostiani's in the village. I'm inside moving through the narrow aisles when I hear him come in. He follows me for a while, all the time talking about another Columbia professor who knew Peter Jennings in college.
            "Ladies man," he says. "Or was it Peter Lawford?"
            I pick up a small vase that looks nice. I look at the bottom and the sticker says $175. I just set it down and stand there while Henry talks some more.
            "Can I help you?" a voice says from behind us.
            I turn and a very pretty girl with dark auburn hair is there, standing politely, smiling.
            "My friend here is shopping," Henry says. "I get my stuff off the TV."
            The girl is extraordinary. Wide, dark eyes. Her clothes a sort of metallic/bohemian mix that makes her look otherworldly.
            "Christmas is gone, Daddy, gone," she says. "We have sales till who bit the chunk."
            "Huh?" Henry says, but the girl doesn't even look at him.
            "I need an anniversary gift," I say.
            "Number?" the girl says.
            "Uh, five," I say.
            "Five? What's that?" Henry says. "Brick or noose?"
            The girl laughs a bit, and her mouth opens. Perfect white teeth, but pointy. "This guy's a riot."
            "Don't mind him," I say. "I'm doing the shopping."
            She turns on her heel and motions for us to follow. We go on a rapid tour of the store; big felt and cloth hats that look like Halloween, a blue dress covered with safety pins, some more vases, an old black and white TV that has a potted plant where the screen used to be, a painting of Elvis, antique jewelry, a 1920s lamp and lamp shade, a neon sign that says 'Happy 50th Elgin and Eva.' 
            "What do you think," the girl says. "Are we close?"
            "Not even in the right zip," Henry says. "You've got a guy from the suburbs here. You're going to give him nightmares. Listen, maybe we should head over to Neiman's, huh?" he says to me. "Get out the credit card?"
            The girl's hair falls in front of her face, and I can tell she's about to give up on us. Just then the front door opens and the bell rings. Two young men come in, one carrying a guitar case, and the other one carrying pizza.
            "Hey, babe," the guy with the pizza says. "Close up, huh?" 
            "The manager," the girl says to me. "What's it going to be?"
            I look at Henry as he leans against the counter beside him. The two guys disappear behind a hidden door at the back of the store. The girl makes a kissing face and then blows her bangs out of her eyes.
            "I want something leather," I say.
©
            Catherine and Sara are dancing in the living room when Henry and I get back from the city. Henry carries my gift for me and lets me go in with the champagne. The girls are dancing to a Van Morrison CD that is absolutely as loud as it can be. I watch them and can tell they're already a little drunk. It is a party after all. I just pop the champagne right in the living room and take a swig out of the bottle.
            "You can't do this in a townhouse," Henry yells over the din.
            "We're in the suburbs," I say to Henry. "It takes a lot of guts to live out here."
            The song fades away and Catherine turns the volume back to normal.
            "Men like shopping late," Sara says as she comes over for the champagne. "Henry has never gotten me a present on time yet."
            "Hey, I'm on time," I say. "Show her, Henry."
            Henry holds the box up to Catherine and Catherine looks at me.
            "Yours is on the table," she says. "Let's open them later."
            "Suits me," Henry says and he sets the box down.
            Catherine comes over and kisses me full on the mouth and she tastes sweet. It doesn't seem like five years, I think to myself. Even Sara and Henry look good tonight, Henry, looking through the bar, Sara standing with him, her hand on his hip.
            "You guys should get out of the city," I say. "It's ten times more real out here."
            "You should find a cause for your concern," Henry says, picking up an old bottle of Grenadier.
            Catherine kisses me again and pulls me toward the speakers. We're dancing now. "Give me a kiss, baby," she says.
            I kiss her, but over her shoulder I can see my gift on the kitchen table. It's a giant box with blue wrapping and a bright, yellow bow. My wife can shop like no one's business.
            Sara pulls Henry toward us and they dance, too. I think about the new world coming on and about how we got married five years ago this night, and it doesn't seem real. We didn't know Henry and Sara then. Five years ago we didn't even live here. It's all happened in these past five years. We were kids, but we're not kids anymore. Nothing can ever be the same after five years. None of it seems real, not even this night.
            "You guys are quite a team," Sara says.
            "Yeah, let's get to the gifts, huh?" Henry says.
            But Catherine and I keep dancing there. There will be time for the gifts later. There's at least five more years, I'm sure of that. I've seen how Henry and Sara do it, and I know we can at least do that, and probably a lot more. I know that things can change on you, but not here, not for us. There are things that we both can do to make it work. Catherine knows what I can and can't do. She doesn't expect much. I'm not much of a shopper, but my heart is in the right place.