Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. She is currently a visiting writer at The American Academy in Rome. A Dartmouth graduate with a PhD from UPennsylvania, her creative writing also appears in Paper Nautilus, Blue Monday Review, decomP, Fiction Southeast, Noö, Spartan, Jellyfish Review, Conium, James Franco Review, Mulberry Fork, Halfway Down The Stairs, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award.
A Short Story
By Katherine Forbes Riley
Celia’s drinking beer. Darla has wine.
“He’s staying late with her again,” Darla says, sipping it. “They’re dentists, for Christ’s sake. How much paperwork can there be?”
Darla is an anesthesiologist. She looks like a predator, some bird of prey, with her straight black hair cut blunt and her eyes close together, but she lacks the killer instinct. She is forty and Jewish and trying to get pregnant and “for Christ’s sake” is her favorite expression.
“Fucker,” says Celia. “Fucker” is hers. She finishes her beer and goes down the hall to the little fridge she’s installed there for another. Sitting down again, she tops off Darla’s glass as well. It’s a cheap red that stains your teeth; Darla brought it and will wear it home tonight like a badge.
Darla takes a sip without pausing her litany of woes. She’s careful, however, as she sets it down again. The table at which they’re sitting is mahogany, a monster custom-made at the turn of the century, a fortress separating the left wall of the shop, which Celia uses as her office, from the central showroom area. It’s her desk, her sewing table, a place to do bills and inventory, and she even had sex on it once, where that pile of kilims whose selvages need binding are lying now. She and Darla sit against the wall on the long side facing the door. Shane and Harry are on the other side, hunched over a backgammon board. It’s their third game since Harry arrived at five. On Thursday nights the oriental rug shop stays open until nine. It’s six o’clock and no clients yet but from where she sits Celia is watching a car slow as it passes by the front windows. It crawls to a halt and parks. Black Lexus SUV. A woman in a pantsuit steps out. Tall. Thin. Frosted bob sleek. She screams money from heels to handbag. This is what Celia mostly gets on Thursday nights: rich women, their husbands working late, looking to fill an empty place inside. It usually ends up being a couple hundred square feet of dead space with a winding staircase in the middle or patterned flooring she’s supposed to match. Used to be Celia would be out there humping one of a kinds all night, the woman saying, “No dear, that one’s still not quite right, maybe a touch more blue?”
These days Shane does the heavy lifting. But he can’t do the dealing. Puts his foot in it every single time, insults them. WASP or Jew doesn’t matter, all rich people want is for you to make them feel important. They’re attracted to Celia’s shop because the window display is exotic-looking and the owner’s a woman and she’s not. Her hair is the color of winter wheat and curls under her chin when freshly washed. She’s got big eyes and underlines them heavily to make them look even bigger. She fights her weight and wears baggy jeans and lots of flowing black on top. So the men find her sexy but the women aren’t intimated because they dress better and are skinnier than her.
Tonight her window display pairs a finely patterned golden Bidjar with a bold geometric Heriz. It took her all morning and boy was Shane pissed, all those times she made him take things down and put them up again. Fucker. Just look at the woman checking it out as she comes to the door. Celia takes a deep slug from her beer and decides to let Harry handle her. You’d never know it to look at him, hunched over that board with his shirt half out and three ropes of greasy grey plastered over his bald spot, but he knows how to handle rich women. His own wife is rich as sin. He doesn’t have to work—if that’s what you call what he does here on Thursday nights. Celia doesn’t even pay him. Sometimes she thinks he should pay her. He just showed up one night. Kept coming back. Bought a few pieces, not the priciest but still the best, and the ones most people wouldn’t look at twice. It only happened once, after she drank too much of that single malt he always brings. He’s not her type. But he does know his rugs.
“Bitch,” he murmurs now to Shane, who’s just spilled his dice in a double that’s won him the game.
“Pussy.” Shane grins back. He lifts his cigarette to his lips and takes a deep drag, aims the smoke a few inches to the left of Harry. Though not handsome by any means, Shane at nineteen is at least two decades younger than anyone else in the room, and in its canted light his lips look dark and dazzling against his chalky pallor and dyed black hair. He lives above the rug shop with his girlfriend Cheyenne, in the small rear apartment Celia didn’t renovate when she bought the building from the prior owner. Celia lives with her daughter, Anna, in the larger front apartment, which she did. Anna and Shane attended the same high school until Shane, who’s three years older, dropped out. It was Anna who first suggested he come and work at the rug shop. Celia thinks she was probably fucking him at the time, because ever since Cheyenne moved in she’s been keeping her distance. Celia’s just glad she didn’t fuck him herself. That Thursday night is all staccato flashes now of sticky gropes and table legs, but she knows it wasn’t sex because she had her period, and she doesn’t let anyone down there when she has that.
The doorbell buzzes, loud and harsh. Immediately all conversation stops. And that particular quiet is rich in a way that Celia relishes more than anything else, full of a power she holds like magic to make the two men sitting opposite her rise and go to open the door without her having to say a word. She keeps it locked since being robbed the year before. It was a Saturday in broad daylight and she knew it was happening the moment they walked in—two black guys in hoodies aren’t her regular clientele. She sat right where she’s sitting now and watched them case the place. Not that they had any idea what they were looking at; they passed over a $20,000 antique 5’x9’ Tabriz and then spent ten minutes in front of a $500 10’x12’ programmed Gabbeh, until finally it dawned on them they weren’t going to be hauling any of her heavy merc out. She gave them two hundred bucks and they left clueless that the nineteenth century Chinese red lacquered peony box she kept it in was worth ten times that. Not that it mattered to her either way. Insurance covered the loss and then some—all her inventory is bought at rug bazaars in Middle East and then marked up a few thousand percent.
Silver bells jangle welcomingly in a tangle of leather down the door as Harry lets the woman in. Darla spends a moment sizing her up before resuming her marital complaints. But Celia’s no longer listening. She’s seeing her shop through this customer’s eyes. The windows, elegantly gated since the robbery, the high ceiling with the pipes left exposed, the enormous Baluch covering the sisal floor, its black field morphing into rainbows where the canned lights strike it directly. Rugs are everywhere, hanging and lying and stacked, the small ones flat, the larger one rolled, creating in all their soft largesse a sense of sinking in so deep you feel like you’ll never come out. Harry has the woman in the center of the room now and she’s spinning slowly, taking it all in, while he tells Shane what to lay out. He’s doing it right, starts with a light brown Kashkuli that’s actually quite striking but whose primitiveness will never appeal to a woman like this. Next he pulls the Azerbaijanis and Persians, will show those until he finds the one that makes her gasp. They’ll share a moment over it before he gives her the price, and then he’ll cover it right back up again and spend the next half hour showing pale comparisons. Once her eyes glaze he’ll slowly flip back and offer the deal. Because that’s all these rich fuckers want. They want to think they forced you. Give them a price and later come down and they’re all over it. But start off with the very same deal they act like you’re trying to pull a fast one. Still some will never bite; they just like the thrill of the hunt. After ten years Celia can usually tell which ones they’re going to be, and tonight she’s right—Harry does everything right but still half an hour later the woman’s out the door and he and Shane are trudging back to the table.
Head down, not looking at her, Harry picks up his scotch and drains it. Sets it down again hard.
“Another?” says Shane.
“Why not? I live to be abused.” Harry sinks into his chair, making it creak. “How’s that girlfriend of yours, anyway?”
Shane refills both their glasses before sitting down too.
“She gave me something,” he says quietly. “Said it was for you.”
Behind his glasses, Harry’s eyes grow enormous. His eyebrows rise into the wasteland of his scalp.
Shane sets up the board again, letting the anticipation build, and then reaches into the leather jacket hanging from the back of his chair. Slides out a photograph and holds it low, aiming it so only Harry sees.
Harry stares. Adjusts his glasses, peers closer.
“She lets you do that?” he murmurs.
“She lets me do anything I want.”
“But that…that’s not even legal.”
A little while later the doorbell buzzes again. This time the door opens of its own accord. The silver bells bang merrily, making a sound like Christmas.
“Heyloo-oo!” calls Ozan.
“Heyloo,” parrots Shane softly.
Harry lifts a hand but doesn’t say anything. He’s still staring at the photograph, resting now on his lap underneath the table.
Ozan smiles widely even as his sharp eyes take it all in: the men with their board and half-empty bottle, the stack of rugs left open on the showroom floor, Darla—who immediately looks away. He goes to Celia, stoops to kiss her cheek, narrowly misses her mouth. “How beautiful you look tonight,” he says wetly. Slipping behind her, he begins kneading her shoulders, casts furtive looks down the neck of her blouse.
“Thank you, Ozan,” Celia says deservedly, and leans forward a little to give him a better view. She’s been waiting for someone to say this all night.
Darla slumps in her chair. She turns sullen now. Harry and Shane go quiet too, starting another game. Ozan tells them a story. In his early sixties, he has an unending supply, all involving a large extended family that includes a long-suffering wife he’ll never desert despite his attention to Celia on Thursday nights. Not that Celia even wants him too. He’s too old for her, and too Turkish besides. A retired rug dealer, he’s a fixture of the place; she’s even given him a key for the nights she can’t manage hers. He’s been coming Thursdays nights since long before she started working here. Back then rug dealers came from all over the Middle East, smoking their bidis and drinking their coffee sludge, looking at her like she was a whore just for wanting to learn the business. It was her first job after divorcing her husband and she did for them what Shane does now. But unlike Shane she didn’t plan to be a schlepper forever. She worked her ass off and so when the owner’s wife got cancer she had no trouble convincing him to sell. Although after all she did for him once his wife no longer would the fucker hadn’t given her much of a deal.
At seven o’clock the front door opens again, jangling the bells so hard it sounds like glass breaks.
“Celia have you seen my keys?” In his early thirties, Matthew looks like he could be in college still, except for the laugh lines around his eyes, which are a perfect cornflower blue. His black curls lay long on his neck, glistening from a rain that has just started to fall.
Darla straightens at once, grips her wine stem, forgets to breathe. Her eyes go wide and childlike, and remain locked on him as he crosses the showroom floor. This is the real reason she keeps coming Thursday nights—not for Celia, whom she despises, but for a chance to see Matthew, if only for a minute, a second. All week long she waits, the anticipation making her heart race while she’s frying her husband’s eggs, administering drugs to her patients, even wiping her own urine away.
Matthew doesn’t acknowledge her, tucked away behind the great table beneath the Oushak runner-draped wall. He doesn’t acknowledge Ozan either, or his fingers, which tighten briefly on Celia’s shoulders before dropping away.
Celia traps them with her own before they fall. She wants to be caught, but Matthew doesn’t notice that either.
“Haven’t seen ‘em,” she says, her voice betraying her anger as he wanders the perimeter of the table moving her papers, her empty bottles, her skeins of wool in a futile search for his keys.
“Are you sure you left them down here?”
“I couldn’t find them upstairs.”
“You want me to come up and help you look?” Now there’s something in her voice, something excited, greedy even, that makes him turn away.
“What’s that you’re hiding?” he asks Harry, coming around the table. Harry covers the photograph, almost crushing it in his haste. But it’s too late. Matthew’s already seen it, or at least enough of it to get the idea.
“You okay with that?” he asks Shane, and there’s something in his voice that mirrors what was just in Celia’s.
Harry bristles, but Shane only shrugs and begins setting up the backgammon board again.
An hour later all the scotch is gone and the stakes are up to fifty dollars a point. Shane has won most of the games, but Harry has beaten Matthew at least, and now is slumped in his chair with his hands on his belly and his eyes half-closed watching the other two play. Matthew’s losing again, has lost all night but doesn’t seem to care. He found his keys in his pocket as soon as he sat down, and right now has Shane in stitches with a story he’s been telling too softly for anyone else to hear.
It’s close to nine when the door opens again. This time the bell jangle sounds as erotic as a belly dance.
“Hey y’all.” Cheyenne is not from the South, but she has come straight from night school—art school. She is dressed head to toe in black. Her short spiky hair is Marilyn-white, her red lips a beacon, a call.
Celia frowns, although by now she can’t feel it; her face has gone numb. You have a key? is what she means to say, but before she can the thought is gone; only the feeling remains, like she’s been stung in a place she can’t reach. And then it spreads, becomes a dull throbbing ache, because Matthew is smiling, has gotten to his feet. All she can see is his tight blue-jeaned ass and Cheyenne’s one leg, swathed to the knee in black leather and then miles of stockinged thigh. Something passes between them, as physical as a kiss, and then he’s past her and the bells are reflecting back Celia’s own anger and ugliness and loss. Unknowingly she’s rising, wondering where he’s going, her initial fear that it would be with Cheyenne morphing into a feeling far worse, because the devil you know is far better than the one you don’t.
Ozan is rising too, feeling old and blindsided by the sight of Celia wilting in the wake of another man’s departure, a man who is no one, nothing, a common thief. It is he, Ozan, who’s there to guide her when she lists, his hand massaging the wide soft side of her ass as she staggers out the door.
Now Darla is rising, spinning from the wine as she puts on her coat. All she can think of is that smile. She can still feel it’s white blinding super-heat, as if Matthew had turned it on her instead of Cheyenne. Tonight she will lie cocooned in it, masturbating with silent joy while her husband snores beside her smelling of mint and other people’s mouths.
No one says goodbye but Shane knows where they’re going—even Matthew, who has just been telling him all about how he gets his dick sucked on Thursday nights by high priced call girls in Hilton hotel rooms.
Harry doesn’t even realize Matthew is gone. Or Celia. Or Darla. Or Ozan. He’s too busy staring at Cheyenne. Cheyenne who’s now stalking him like a cat, staring right back until she’s standing in front of him. Without looking away, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a cigarette. Lights it. “Hi, Harry,” she says, and blows a smoke ring at him. It wobbles in the air, growing larger and larger, until it breaks.