Pebbles in a Stream – Part 7

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part VI.)

PART VII.

“I hate you. I hate you so much.”

She sat on the edge of the bed, crying and mumbling obscurities to the old photograph in her hands. A bright maroon rectangle stood out from the faded ornamented fabric on the wall where she had removed the silver frame above her nightstand. Their bedroom had never been redecorated; though the rest of the house had been kept prim for appearances sake in case businessmen or unexpected guests arrived, the bedroom was just as it had been when they’d first built the house. She liked it that way.

Andrea stared at the bright spot, remembering when she’d picked out the fabric for the wall covering years and years ago, purchased by special order from a textiles shop on the then-outskirts of San Francisco. For her and her new husband, it had been the end of a long week of luncheons, deals, and meetings which were the seed of the profitable business they now operated. The wife of a banker—Andrea had long since forgotten the woman’s name but clearly remembered her round, cheerful face—had invited her to tea one late afternoon. Amid the high-pitched, feminine excitement of conversation about newly wedded bliss, home building, decorating, and the potential for children on the horizon, the banker’s wife referred Andrea to the shop. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” she’d insisted, scratching directions down on a sheet of monogrammed stationary. “No doubt,” she said, “you’ll find what you’re looking for there.”

When the cab stopped outside the old building Andrea had to check the slip of paper to make sure they were at the right place. Certainly it was nothing like she’d ever seen before.

It was a sad looking store; a long, solitary, dreary-grey painted building at the end of a lonely road which had yet to see much development. With its multitude of small windows engraved into its side, Andrea remembered thinking the place looked more like a drafty chicken house than a store. She had almost tapped the driver on the shoulder to have him take her back to the city. But, because the banker’s wife had so insisted, she exited the cab, paid the fare and walked through the wide red door sitting patiently beneath the hand-carved wooden sign reading Le Maison de Fabrique, and stumbled into the most charming little shop she’d ever met.

Fabric glistened everywhere. Though the windows seemed small and insignificant from the outside, they made up for it in numbers, breathing in enough light to put the Legion of Honor to shame, of which Andrea had visited briefly the previous Spring. Rolls and rolls and bolts and bolts of colors and textures and patterns stared expectantly from every wall and shelf and corner. They hung from racks and draped across wide oak tables with scissors atop and nestled recklessly across the backs of chairs in companionship with long strings of yellow tailor’s tape. Exotic samples embroidered with tigers and swirls and cranes had been cut and crafted around plush cushions to make high-backed arm chairs. From the cushy corners of sturdy, claw-footed sofas, pillows of every shape and size beckoned, their frills and tassels splayed over one another like the limbs of a bundle of lazy kittens down for another nap.

Then she saw it.

It was maroon, but in that particular ray of light shooting in through a dingy, chicken coop window the silk shone Christmas red, sparkling and lighting up as if from the inside out with a life of its own. Mesmerized, Andrea stepped closer. Small, almost indistinguishable golden bells were woven into the lustrous background, silently chiming away celebrations which had yet to begin.

“May I help you?” a man’s voice said in strongly accented French.

Andrea turned. He was a handsome fellow, about six-foot, but older. His hair was greyed, though she could tell it had been blond in earlier years, and his skin was pale and lax, yet gentle-looking, the skin of a man who loved to work but who preferred the indoors to the out. He had a strong jaw, a long nose that hooked downward, and a wide mouth which smiled at her in a non-intrusive way.

“My husband and I are building our house,” Andrea said plainly, “and I’m looking for something to cover the walls.”

The man nodded, clasping his hands behind his back, and leaned a little to the side to have a glimpse at the maroon sheet he’d caught his visitor gawking at. “That’s Japanese,” he said, reaching out past her. He pulled the sheet from the rack—a small square yard—and held it out to her. “This is only a sample but you can see how it catches the light.” He carefully leaned the fabric back and forth and allowed the light to reflect off the golden threads. Entranced again by the glitter of the weave, Andrea merely nodded. “Go ahead,” the man said, containing a chuckle, “feel it.” He lifted it a little higher toward her and Andrea gingerly reached out her hand.

Its softness was something to behold, like the tender cheek of an infant. Andrea looked from the fabric to the salesman and back to the fabric again. “It’s perfect,” she said. “How much?”

“Oh,” the man hesitated, tapping his pursed lips with an arthritic finger and nodding his head, “it’s much more than the domestic fabrics.” As he laid it down, draping it across a nearby high-backed chair and being careful to achieve the right angle of show, he clicked his tongue. Andrea imagined it as the sounds of his mental register having a heyday, adding up the bolts she’d order and the dollars she might spend. “Buuuut,” he dragged out, “I’m sure I can make a good deal for a beautiful new married couple.” He stood up straight and rolled his shoulders back, his face in full grin. Andrea returned to him her own endearingly crooked smile. In her mind Henry’s gallant voice kept repeating what he’d said to her that morning when she’d announced she wanted to do some shopping for the house. ‘My new wife shall spare no expense in building the home of her dreams!’ he’d declared, kissing her on the mouth with the quick zest of a frisky sailor. ‘A happy, young wife is the delight of any new husband.’

Andrea stuck out her hand at the Frenchman. “I’ll take it,” she said.

The salesman was taken aback and hesitated at reaching out for the smartly manicured fingers. He had expected to haggle a little bit more with this modestly dressed young lady, or at least declare a price, before agreeing upon a sale. Her eagerness first surprised him, then got him excited, then thrust him into wariness, for who would be so confident in ordering a specialty fabric without first checking on the cost? As she had her back turned toward him, examining a rope of golden tassel trim, he eyeballed her diligently, wondering if she were a city commerce agent gone undercover who was out to test him and assure he would charge fair market for an extravagant order. He couldn’t afford another incident like that.

He walked her to his register—a heavy brass mechanism standing solidly on a nearby workbench—and in short time they’d ironed out the details of the order: how much yardage, where and whom to deliver the goods to, if the lady would require a reference to an interior craftsman to hang the coverings? Andrea left the little fabric house with a receipt in her coat pocket and the glow of a childhood Christmas on her face. ‘Henry,’ she thought, ‘will be so pleased.’

 

It was the first argument they had ever had.

“When I said ‘spare no expense’ I didn’t think you’d take me so seriously!” he shouted. Henry threw up his hands and paced the bare, unpainted wood of their new deck. He wore his usual black boots—Andrea had never seen him wear a different pair of shoes; she didn’t think he owned another—and the thick heels shook the wooden planks with each stride, humiliating the firm foundation underneath. She could see the dents left in his wake, bruises on the wood that would never heal.

It was a Sunday; the workers were absent. The newlyweds had decided to stop by the house together after church services for an afternoon out in the country and to see, firsthand, what progress had been made. The walls were up, the floors were down, all the framework was complete. Henry had been gaily chattering about how wonderful the house would be when it was done—“We’ll hang a chandelier here, over the dining table,” he’d said, looking upward and spreading his arms like a young boy at the sparkling night sky, “and the fireplace, which will be here,” he’d said, skipping toward a far corner of the room, “will be tall—all the way to the ceiling!—and made of that gorgeous slate I showed you at the quarryman’s shop.”—when Andrea brought up the fabric on its way from Le Maison and the fair price for which she’d purchased it.

When he spun around to her she was paralyzed by the vicious alarm on his face. The color at first was completely flushed out, his jaw gone slack and eyes wide as if he’d had a vision of his own death. (Perhaps, she later thought, to him it had seemed that way.) Upon realizing his darling wife wasn’t making fun the color came back to his face in a flood of scarlet, rushing up quickly from the depths of his gut like a spewing geyser. It seemed even the whites of his eyes had filled with boiling hate, turning them to vacuous hollows leading unwary souls to hellfire. Andrea could not look into them and swiftly cast her own eyes to the shine on the toes of her husband’s boots. Unbeknownst to her then—oh, how she would later cry for her young self—she would soon come to know those Devil’s eyes so well.

But there, at that moment, in the middle of a framed but wall-less room which smelt of cedar, in the middle of what would soon be their foyer, Andrea stood stark still, mind in a fog and barely hearing Henry as he lashed out verbal punishment. Never had she seen a man go from glee to rage in such a blink. He inched closer as he yelled, arms up, flailing, the air of his abuse rushing by her face, yet not touching her, though coming excruciatingly close. She clenched her jaw and closed her eyes, preparing for a strike, but he marched past, slowing at her shoulder just long enough to exhale hot anger at his wife, then stomped out from whence they’d come.

“What were you thinking?” He muttered it, a whisper in comparison, but that utterance was more powerful a finale than all the insults he’d screamed at her in the eternal minute prior. Trembling, Andrea followed her husband back out onto the unfinished deck. There was no railing yet. Standing there the world felt strangely open; she felt oddly vulnerable. She watched Henry stomp down the three steps to the dirt drive. She stopped at the edge of the floor, not yet ready to leave. Her heels planted themselves on the last floor board, the toes of her shoes hanging over open air. She looked down at them and felt peace.

“All that money—”She looked up. He spoke to nothing, to himself, and she was certain he’d forgotten she existed at all. “—on damn wall coverings.

He was halfway to the car when she marshalled the courage to speak. “But, darling,” she tried in her most pacifying voice, “you said ‘a happy wife is the delight of any new husband.’ Didn’t you mean it? Surely,” she imitated the best girlish giggle and faked the sweetest smile she could, a smile that had always charmed him, “you’re a man of your word?”

At the sound of her plea Henry remembered her. He turned on his heel and seemed to appear before her in less than a stride. She flinched backward, startled. He leaned forward, backing her against a post she didn’t know was there and, through gritted teeth, did worse damage to her than he would have with all the blows he could’ve dealt. “Perhaps this will teach me to mind more what I say around mindless, money-whoring women.”

It was then she realized that when he’d told her to spare no expense to build the home of her dreams, what he meant was to spare no expense in building the home of his dreams, and that the man she’d loved really didn’t exist at all. Somewhere between his dreams and her first mistake, that man, the man she’d married, had evaporated into thin air.

 

Andrea kept quiet during the drive to their downtown apartment, their home for only a few more weeks. She stayed quiet through dinner and during evening tea as they listened to the radio and Henry read the paper; she didn’t make a sound as he forced her beneath him that night; even when the lantern was blown out and she had her back turned to him as he snored, she kept her whimpers and tears to a mouse’s whisper.

She was hardened by morning. She hadn’t slept at all, but had spent the hours contemplating her situation and watching the full moon crest up across the window and disappear, leaving a sideways beam of vivid blue moonlight cast across the room as the only evidence of its lonesome expedition. As the rising daylight burned off the night and her husband rolled, tossed, and moaned his way slowly toward wakefulness, Andrea crept out of bed and tip-toed into the kitchen to prepare his usual breakfast.

She sat at the table, clutching a mug of black coffee between her slender hands, warming them, glad her trembling had finally subsided, as she watched Henry eat. He gorged with haste but said nothing as he slapped his mouth full of the sloppy eggs over-easy and the thick-cut bacon she’d fried. She ignored the desire to wince as he scraped his fork across the ceramic plate and spooned as best he could into his facial cavity the ugly yellow that had pooled at its center. For the first time since they’d met, for the first time since she could ever remember, she was truly disgusted.

She sipped at her coffee and said, evenly, plainly, “I’m keeping the fabric. Do what you will for the rest of the house.”

He raised his eyes, fork halfway to his open mouth and dripping yolk, and stared at her. She saw some of the rage from the previous day return, but it quickly receded, the animal too busy with its meal to bother with a fight. “Fine,” he barked. He gave the fork a final lick, dropped it onto his plate, wiped his face, and strode out the front door, the black boots echoing their telltale song off and away down the hall of the apartment building.

Thus it began.


Ready for more? Read Part VIII.

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