The Return of Everything
By B.L. Makiefsky
I’m in the city to see family and pick up supplies at Brodsky’s General Store. An older woman is returning an outdoor lounge chair. “I have one at home just like it,” she tells each of us in the checkout line. “I don’t need two of them.”
Eyebrows rise like a curtain. She is looked at with suspicion; it’s already fall, and the days left for outdoor gatherings are few. Another customer—I don’t see who—tells her to keep it for company anyway.
“I don’t get any,” the old woman answers.
A man, thin like a stick of gum and wearing a stylish suit, scarf, and fedora joins the line and greets her.
“Hello, Mrs. Goldberg! Danny, Gertrude’s son. Remember me?”
“No!” the old woman shouts. “And not that slut mother of yours, either.”
There is an audible shuffling of feet. The line of customers lengthens, but not with more shoppers; she is being given space. In the quiet that follows, perhaps only seconds, I hear Elvis Costello on the PA. Traffic outside. A large truck. A horn. A siren in the distance.
Danny laughs, wishes her well, and busies himself rearranging the items in his cart.
“Nu?” the old woman says to the ten or so of us waiting. “How well is that, shlepping this?” She adds that she’s tired and has a bus to catch.
“Why don’t you sit down on that thing and rest?” suggests another man at the front of the lin
“I don’t want to use it,” she answers, and grips the chair with both hands, holding it erect.
“Bubeleh,” the man says, studying her and the chair. “It looks used to me.” He grabs his purchase and exits.
The woman then turns to me for an opinion. I start to look away, but not before I see a small burn hole in its orange webbing where the chair folds. I also see Judi Soberman standing in line a few places behind me, her back slightly turned. I want to hide. A large man buying lighter fluid and a jumbo package of white socks stands between us. I make myself small.
“It’s like new,” the old woman says, watching me.
Judi sees me, and half-smiles. “Mark Silver,” she says. “I didn’t know you were here.” She’s been crying. Her father is sick, she adds quietly. She needs me, I think. Seven years since I last saw her, at the time of my own father’s death. She held me tight then, but when I called her over the weeks that followed—nothing.
I tell her that I’m sorry, and we turn to our places in line.
Before coming shopping, I visited my mother. She claimed Brodsky’s went out of business. “I’m certain of it. It was in the Jewish News,” she said, shaking her head. “Old man Brodsky died. None of the kids had any interest in the place. Stock was piled everywhere like garbage. All of it a mishmash of times gone by.”
“Or of times to come,” I said, and she laughed.
My mother laughed often, yet rarely smiled. I took off my jacket. The slider to the balcony of her second story apartment was open, yet the heat was on. I knew these things were connected: her razor-thin comfort zone, and her abiding effort to not tip the scale one way or the other. Her habit of demanding a restraint from others that she rarely heeded herself. The head-back, deep-throated laughter, and the singular inability to smile freely. The draft, and the furnace.
“The store isn’t safe,” she told me, which seemed preposterous. “They don’t sell things. They loan them, they break, and you bring them back.” She started to discuss her will, determined not to leave one cent more to one child than the other. I said that I hadn’t come to discuss her will.
“You want it should go away?”
I didn’t answer. Our conversations were often like that: long pauses surrounding a few words left exposed, like bits of land in open water. Neither of us was ever in a rush to jump in.
“You do not get things back in this world,” she finally said, touching my wrist. “You just move on.” Then she added, “That place has gone to the dogs. You’ll end up with something you didn’t ask for.”
But I’ve wanted Judi since high school.
The cashier asks the old woman if anything is wrong with the chair. “It’s like new,” she says, handing him a crumpled receipt. He counts out the refund into her right hand. She tries to fold the bills, but is resigned to stuffing them in a pocket. She then lingers, clinging to the chair with hands like gnarled roots of a tree. “I know you’re busy,” she tells the cashier, “while I have nothing to do but wait for the bus. I’ll put the chair back. Aisle eleven, below the cat food.”
She seems friendless and lost. I’d like to put the chair back for her but don’t want her to bite my head off, like she did to Danny. At least she has bus fare, I think.
“You have a nice day,” she says to me, carrying the chair away.
“Don’t miss your bus,” I tell her.
I’m at the front of the line now. The man with the lighter fluid and white socks has disappeared, and Judi is behind me. In eleventh grade journalism class, I watched her dot the i in her name with a small heart, and mine about stopped. We went on a date my senior year. I remember nosing my father’s Olds into the theater parking lot, and the relief I felt taking up only one space. I remember how frightened I was when Judi leaned in close, the popcorn spilling. I remember the movie we saw. But not the perfume she wore, or the taste of her lips. Needing someone was a fearsome thing in my family, so I kept my business, my loneliness, to myself, and tried to become self-sufficient. And this is where that’s gotten me: to Brodsky’s, shopping for needs I cannot fill. To whispering sweet nothings alone into my bathroom mirror at night, and reaching for whatever pills are within. When I can’t sleep, I go outside—I live in the country, in the middle of nowhere—to watch the stars, and when I see one fall, I think That’s the life for me. Something more, even if it must fall from the sky.
“Is there anything else?” the cashier asks as he rings up my orange juice, pasta, new frisbee, band-aids, and flannel pajama bottoms (the package was open, and discounted).
Plenty, I think. I pay and wait for Judi outside. The autumn sun, low and harsh, reflects off a signpost at the curb making it difficult to see ahead as we walk in silence toward her car.
At the stop sign, a bus stop, the old woman is sitting and smoking a cigarette in the chair I thought she had returned. “The Silver Line,” she says to us, without looking up. Does she know me? I’m confused, until Judi points to the signpost. It’s the name of the bus route. Just then the wind catches Judi’s hair, makes it swirl upward like an eddy of leaves. Her car is close and there is little time. The bus approaches.
I’m standing with a bag of goods, and a shopping list of regrets. I tell Judi of our imagined lives together. “All these years apart,” I blurt, “empty like those black spaces between the stars.”
“Remember the spilled popcorn?” I ask, as I go down my list. “We saw each other in college, too, almost by accident. You were visiting friends. We went out that night. Remember?”
“You held me when my father died,” I add.
She looks for her car; we both know where it is.
For an instant I hope that her father dies, so I might hold her again. I look away, ashamed, and then into my bag and see the box of band-aids. We’re all bleeding, I want to tell her. Saying it is at the top of my list.
The bus squeals to a stop. Doors hiss open. The old woman grinds her cigarette into the pavement, and boards, toting her chair.
“Thief,” I call out to her, with satisfaction.
She turns to face me from the top step. “This one’s like new,” she says from her perch.
I’m struck by how normal she looks. Not mean, or ill. Tender. She reminds me of my grandmother, who lost much of her family in the Holocaust. In America, all of her possessions—no matter how tattered—were like new to her, as if a thing’s real history was too troubling to consider. Maybe Judi is reminded of her grandmother, too; we’re all peas in a pod here. The doors fold closed. The woman and her chair disappear. The bus lurches forward, and as it passes us, broken windows pull its thousand suns along.