The door bell rang twice; stopped, then rang again. I wasn’t expecting anybody. Coming downstairs, I saw a shadow move across the frosted door pane, then hands formed on the glass near the edges where the beveling was clear. I looked out the living room window. A guy was standing there on the porch, writing on a clipboard.
He was wearing a dark blue windbreaker with the zipper done up to his neck. It seemed strange on such a hot day. Out on the street, there was an extended pickup with the loading ramp pulled down at the back. It was covered in racing decals.
Two kids were riding their bikes around it, jamming on their brakes when they got alongside. The guy didn’t look at them. He rang the doorbell again and glanced at his clipboard. He was starting to leave when I opened the door. He turned and smiled and lowered his sunglasses.
His teeth were too white for his face.
“You’re here,” he said. “I didn’t think anyone was home.”
The guy was around fifty, hair combed back in an old pompadour. He came back up the steps and flipped through some order forms.
“Gilroy?” he said.
“That’s my wife’s name,” I said. “Mine’s Andrews.”
“It’s here as the husband,” he said, holding out the clipboard. Down at the bottom was my name in a print. He tapped it with his pen.
“That your wife’s writing?”
I looked and nodded.
He wrote something in the margin and clicked his pen.
“Okay. Got that out of the way. Your wife around?”
“She’s not here,” I said.
He looked past me down the hallway.
“I guess I could leave the samples,” he said. “Most of the time we like both parties present. It’s better that way. Will you two be here this evening?”
“She moved out,” I said.
He frowned and glanced down. A sample case of upholstery swatches was at his feet. That’s when I noticed he was wearing patent leather dress shoes.
“I’m supposed to show her these samples,” he said, glancing at his clipboard again. “Appointment for April fifth. That’s today. See here? April fifth.”
“Samples for what?” I said.
“A couch. Your wife wants it recovered.”
“You’ll have to talk to her.”
He thought about it for a minute.
“Can I use your phone? I have to call this in to my boss.”
I pointed to the phone in the front hall.
He went over and picked up the receiver.
“She leave a forwarding address?” he asked.
“Okay. Let me see what my boss wants me to do.”
While he was talking on the phone, I stood in the living room. I heard him read off the order number. “She left,” he was telling his boss. “The husband doesn’t have a forwarding address. What do you want me to do?”
Out the window, I could see the kids by the truck. One of them was leaning over, trying to look through the tinted glass of the cab.
The guy hung up the phone and brought his sample case into the living room. He put it on the coffee table. Then he took out a pack of gum.
“You want a piece?” he said, shaking a stick out. “Go ahead. Take one.”
I shrugged and took it.
“Best sales tool there is,” he said. “They tell us to do that. Anybody gets sore, you offer them gum. You’d be surprised.”
“Surprised at what?”
He looked at me. His eyes were pale blue.
“Calms them down. They stop being sore.”
“I’m not sore,” I said. “I don’t know anything about this.”
“Fair enough,” he said. “You’re not telling me anything new. They have a saying in my business, Michael. Don’t be afraid to do a little social work.” He started to open the sample case. “You couldn’t spare a drink, could you? It was hot driving over here. You know what the traffic’s like.”
“All I’ve got is water,” I said.
“Water’s fine. I took the pledge. I’ve been sober three years.”
I went out to the kitchen and unwrapped a glass from one of the boxes. Everything else was packed. When my wife left, she had two lamps in her hands. “They’re mine,” she said. She took other things, too. Most of what she took were knickknacks. I turned on the tap, let it run cold, then filled the glass. When I came back to the living room, the man was looking at the order form again.
I handed him the glass of water.
“Much obliged,” he said. “I was checking the dates. She must have left in a hurry. See the date here? Less than two weeks ago.”
“It hasn’t been long,” I said.
“You don’t get much warning,” he said. “I’ve had four wives. I know where you’re coming from. I’m not telling you anything new.”
He saw me glance at my watch.
“Things to do, eh? Okay, we’d better get to it.”
He went around to the side of the couch and knelt down.
“Don’t worry, Michael, this isn’t a sales job.”
He lifted the skirt and ran his hand underneath. As he did that, the waistband on his windbreaker came up. His skin was white underneath. He wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“See this?” he said, tugging at some tacking. He let it fall on the rug. “You don’t upholster a couch right, this is what happens. You’re not looking, Michael.”
“I don’t care about the couch.”
He sat back on his patent leather shoes, sighed, then stood up. “Let’s try this again,” he said. He went over and pulled the curtains back on the window. “See the truck out there? Take a look, Michael, it won’t kill you. Like I said before, this isn’t a sales job. I’m just trying to show you something.”
I looked out the window. The kids were still there.
“I used to race stocks,” he said. “I know you don’t care what I did. But I raced everywhere: Kentucky, Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee. Last time I came back, my fourth wife was gone. Took everything.” He flipped the collar of his windbreaker. “This is all I’ve got left. So I know what it’s like.” He picked up the glass of water and finished it. “You know what my boss said just now? He told me to take the couch. He figures she’ll get in touch with us. Women do that, Michael. You’d be surprised. She’s been gone — what’d we say? — two weeks? Okay, follow me here. Say she already knew she was leaving. She gets the couch out by having it reupholstered.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Let’s say you don’t want her to have the couch. You’re sentimental. Maybe she figures you’ll make a fuss. My boss sends me over. I take the heat. Get me?”
“We never argued over the couch.”
“Okay,” he shrugged. “I could be off base here. I’ve been wrong before. It’s a possibility, though, right?”
“I told you, I don’t care about the couch.”
“Take it easy, Michael. I’m just giving you a thought. You want some water? I could use another one myself. Are the glasses in the cupboard?”
I told him everything was wrapped up in boxes.
“I’ll figure it out,” he said and went to the kitchen.
I could hear him unwrapping a glass, then the tap running, then he was back handing me the water. He sat down and rubbed the arm of the couch.
“Look,” he said, “that’s one side of the coin, okay? Other side? She hadn’t decided she was leaving. She figured she’d fix the place up. She was still hoping, Michael. That’s why your name’s on the invoice. Again, just speculation.”
“I don’t think she was — hoping, I mean.”
“Maybe not. Again, just speculation. Two sides of the coin. Either way, I told my boss I’d pick up the couch. That doesn’t mean I’m not on your side.” He knelt down beside the couch again. “Look at this for a second. Come down here.”
I knelt down beside him.
“See where the material is rubbing against the frame here?” he said. “It’s right against the wood. It wouldn’t have lasted, Michael. That’s what I’m saying. You’re not giving up anything. It was lousy the day you bought it.”
He reached into his windbreaker and took out a long pocket knife. He flicked it open, then got down low on the rug. “You were married — what? — few years?” He twisted the knife underneath the couch and pulled it out again. Tacking and batting fell on the rug. He picked it up and shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen with new and old couches. Some people are only together a couple of months. You didn’t know she was leaving, did you, Michael? Not until she did. She staying with friends? A lover, maybe?”
“What’s that to you?” I said.
“You see what I’m saying, though?”
“No, I don’t. Look, take the couch, if that’s what she wants. Take it and get out. It doesn’t matter to me either way.”
The guy sat back on his heels, then stood up.
“Okay, Michael,” he said. “I can do that. We can put it on the truck right now.”
He laid the knife down on the coffee table.
“Or,” he said, looking over his sunglasses, “you could have a little fun. We’re reupholstering the couch, anyway, right? See what I’m saying?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Michael, she made a deposit. She’s committed one way or the other. You or a new guy. It has to be a new guy.”
“There isn’t a new guy?”
“You know that for a fact?”
I didn’t say anything.
“There’s always a new guy, Michael,” he said. “That’s the way it works. I guess I’ll know soon enough. She’ll have to come in at some point. We can’t go out again with the samples. I’ve already made the courtesy call. She’ll come in with the new guy, Michael. They have to choose colors, patterns, buttons, no buttons. Anyway, that’s what I think. Maybe I’m wrong. I’ve been wrong before.”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
“You decide what to do,” he said. “I’m going for a smoke.”
He went outside and stood on the porch. He took out a cigarette pack, tapping one out in his hand. Then he leaned against the rail. He watched the kids on their bikes. He crossed one leg over the other.
I picked up the knife. It had a curved blade like a skinning knife. I turned it in my hand, listening to kids outside talking to the guy. He let smoke trail up his nose. He asked the kids where they lived. I didn’t even know them. I didn’t know any of the neighbors. My wife used to say, “I don’t want to know those people.”
I held the knife in my hand. Then I stuck it in the arm of the couch, pulling it along, the tacking bulging out, the stuffing all white. I drove the knife in harder the next time, right up to the hilt. I kept stabbing away, pulling the stuffing out, throwing it across the room. Stuffing was floating around, things were dancing around in my eyes, I was breathing through my mouth.
I finally sat down. I put my face in my hands. When I looked up, the guy was standing there. He didn’t say anything. He took his sample case off the coffee table.
“I’ll put this in the truck,” he said. “We can take the couch out when you’re ready. This is my last call today. You want more water?”
I shook my head.
“Okay,” he said.
He stood there like he was expecting me to say something.
“She’ll see this?” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “She has to.”
He adjusted his sunglasses and went outside. He put the sample case on the front seat of his truck and came back. “I need something to prop the front door open,” he said. I looked around. “Never mind,” he said, wedging a patent leather in the door. “This’ll do. Found these in the trash when my last wife left. Guess they didn’t fit the new guy.”
He motioned me back to the living room.
“Grab an end. We’ll tilt it up at the door.”
We took the couch outside and leaned it on end. He went back for his shoe. Then we put the couch on the truck.
“Just need your signature now, Michael,” he said. “Policy again. Lets everyone know I didn’t walk off with this thing.”
He got his clipboard out of the truck and handed me a pen.
“That’ll do it,” he said when I signed. “We’re done.”
He clicked the pen and went around to the driver’s side.
“Take care, Michael,” he said and got in the truck.
He started the engine and made a salute. I saluted back, then went in the house. There was tacking and fibers all over the living room rug. You could see an exact outline where the couch had been. I went to the hall closet, got the vacuum cleaner, and ran it back and forth. Then I got a clothes brush from the kitchen drawer. I got down low on the rug, going over every inch, running the brush one way, then the other. By the time I finished, you couldn’t tell a couch was ever there.
I started to believe it wasn’t.
“The Story of Patent Leather Shoes” appeared in an anthology: Voices in Today’s Magazines,” by Writer’s Institute Publications, 2010, and originally appeared in Rosebud Magazine, 2008. Published with permission.