A PLACE OF BUSINESS
By Bill Schillaci
When I first entered its life, it was a stamp store, or seemed to be. It had no business sign, but there was a storefront window that was so grimy I had to walk up close and squint to see what was behind it. There, lined up on narrow, unfinished pine shelves were stamps, rubber stamps with names and addresses or PAID or DECLINED or MEAT IS MURDER or LOCAL 706 or giraffes or the Taj Mahal. Behind the stamps was darkness. I didn’t need a rubber stamp. But the place called to me. So strange, so small, the size of a one-car garage, the single commercial establishment on the lip of a couple of acres of undeveloped scrubland, like a clapboard general store standing alone on a tiny prairie and otherwise surrounded by suburban homes.
With a slip of paper on which I had carefully signed my name, I took the single stone step and gripped the door handle, feeling like I was about to sneak into someone’s living room. The latch clicked and I entered. An acrid chemical smell streaked up my nostrils. Inside, forming in the shadows there was…nothing. No counter, no desk, no person, just a wall of cracked brown paint with a doorless doorway that was marginally taller than what you would see in a kindergarten playhouse.
“Hello,” I said.
There was a sound, like a chair sliding across the floor, and the doorway filled with a faint reddish light. The figure who came forward had to dip just a bit to pass through the miniature opening. The figure wore a hoodie, hood up, way up so that it covered three-quarters of the face inside. An upward curve of the hood created a narrow aperture surrounding blackness, through which, I supposed, an eye observed me.
“Yes?” the figure said in a genderless whisper.
“I’d like to have a stamp made.”
I advanced the slip of paper into the space between us. A narrow hand with long, bumpy fingers egressed from the sleeve of the hoodie, and I placed my signature on the upturned palm. As the figure examined the slip, my widening pupils noted that the hoodie wasn’t a hoodie at all. It was a cowled cape or a cloak that fell to the figure’s knees and was sealed in front with knots instead of buttons.
“Who is this?” the figure said.
“And why does a young man like you need such a thing?”
“Your name signed. What is the purpose?”
“School art project.”
There was movement inside the garment, a nod maybe.
“Fifteen dollars. In advance.”
“All of it?”
The figure took a step toward the window and waved its creepy hand at the shelves.
“Do you see those?” said the figure. “Each of them never picked up and never paid for.”
Apparent in the somewhat stronger daylight was a spiral design sewn with white thread into the fabric of the cowl.
“Is that Andromeda?” I asked.
“Indeed it is. Are you an astronomer?”
“I have a telescope. Nothing special.”
I had a five and a lot of ones and pocket change, all of which I paid out on the figure’s other upturned palm. It didn’t add up to fifteen.
“Sufficient. Come back in a week.”
The figure faded through the doorway and the red light went out.
That night I lugged my little National Geographic reflector telescope and tripod out behind the garage away from the house lights. I had the book of constellations that came with the scope and a flashlight, and I kept going from the book to the telescope, trying to locate Alpha Andromedae and the other stars in the cluster where the Greek Ptolemy discovered the naked princess chained to a rock waiting to be devoured by a sea serpent. The best I could do was find pieces, maybe a leg, part of an arm, but nothing complete. So I just scanned the sky, which I thought of as layered, the brightest objects the lowest layer, then the middle layer, then the faintest points on the unimaginable other side of the universe. This I did until my mother tracked me down and told me to put out the recycling barrel.
The idea came to me that the stamp person could join me behind the garage and help me find Andromeda. There were only four streets between us, one long one on the main road where the store was and then three short ones up a mild hill. We could wait until darkness and walk together under the clear sky, me and this mysterious being, like an androgynous time traveler from the Carolingian epoch. Crazy, of course, but that didn’t stop the pictures in my mind, all unfolding from what I fantasized was the traveler’s potent magic, undefined but something akin to ET levitating oranges.
As instructed, I waited until the seventh day after I dropped off my name. Again I looked hard through the window, this time finding that the shelves had been swept clean. On the inside of the glass panel of the front door hung a sign – For Rent and a phone number. It seemed the stamp person – if it was a person – had used me to procure revenge on all those customers who stiffed her or him or it. I tried the doorknob, it didn’t turn. After peering for a time into the interior, trying to will the figure back into the store, I sat on the stone step. Beside me, one on top of the other, were two red bricks, and tucked behind them a small white bag folded shut. On the bag were two images – my signature in basic blue and above it in radiant emerald the Andromeda galaxy – and inside it were the two rubber stamps that made them.
She was two places ahead of me on the line at Starbucks, a line I had not intended to get on until, walking by, I spotted her. She ordered a grande straight and was still doctoring it at the condiment station when I caught up.
Her hair was a helmet of tight orangey cornrows pulled back from her broad umber brown, tied at her neck and cascading down her back. Her sleepy eyes squinted a smile.
“Eddie,” she said, stirring her drink. “Now you know my weakness.”
“You and half the school.”
“All of us teenage caffeine junkies.”
“My mom’s from Utah. Says she didn’t have her first cup of coffee until she was twenty eight.”
“Is she Latter Day Saints?”
“No, but everybody else was. So there was no peer pressure.”
“I started at ten, my sisters earlier than that. In an enlightened society that would be child abuse.”
She was, arguably, the smartest kid in the school. The bot her team built was a finalist in the FIRST Robotics Competition. Someone told me that her senior thesis had something to do with reading Dante’s Inferno – inItalian. She was also the top pitcher on our otherwise pathetic softball team, and one muggy Saturday, after we had slipped into the county tournament because another school, ravaged by the flu, had forfeited, had thrown the entirety of two extra-inning games, nineteen innings all told. I’m tall but she was taller and today she smelled like a lilac bush in May. We joined the procession of lethargic classmates on the quarter-mile walk to the school.
“Do you ever drink tea?” I said.
“When I’m sick.”
“I know a place with incredible tea.”
“I never heard those two words side by side.”
“I know. Do you want to try it?”
She glanced at me.
“Eddie, are you asking me for a date before the first bell?”
“No, no, I just like the tea and thought you might too.”
“Sounds like a date to me.”
Me? Asking Thalia Roberts out was above my pay grade, but it did seem that that’s what I was doing .
“Alright, I’m asking, but only if you say yes.”
“Hmm. I’d better accept. Who knows when I’ll get asked out to tea again.”
The next day after school Thalia rode the bus with me to my side of town. The weathered cedar siding of the shop had been painted a forest green, and the new asphalt shingles on the peaked roof had canted sides forming two sloping fields of linked trapezoids. Above the door, there was now a sign, an oval slab of timber printed with the words “Instant Gratification.”
“Are you taking me to a massage parlor?” Thalia asked.
In the shop there was a single table with a green-veined white marble top the size of a manhole cover surrounded by three wrought iron lawn chairs. Grass paper the color of a subtle forest mist covered the walls, except in a corner of the ceiling where a leak before the roof was finished left a dark stain the shape of holly leaf with a single berry.
“So cute,” said Thalia struggling to demurely fold her WBA legs in the cramped space under the table. She shifted her knees one way, I shifted mine the other, thereby eliminating the risk of contact. Her shoulders were glistening globes of power draped in a sleeveless Cleveland Cavaliers jersey. She surveyed the table.
“Is this the business?”
“They sell in bulk, mostly by mail,” I said, pointing to the price list on a blackboard screwed to the wall. “This is kind of a tasting table.”
“Thirty five bucks for a pound of sencha?” she said, studying the blackboard. “Is that a deal?”
“We don’t have to buy anything. The owner knows me.”
On cue, flashing through the doorway in his brilliant saffron robe, we were joined by Venerable Gyosei.
“Edward,” he said, palm to his heart and bowing slightly. I returned both gestures. “And you must be Thalia.”
“I am,” she said, sitting up straighter. Her knees made contact with mine and there she left them.
Gyosei begged for our patience and withdrew. Thalia cast me a what-the-heck look.
“You told him my name?”
“I made a reservation.”
“Smart. I mean, one table. How do you know, um…?”
“His name is Venerable Gyosei.”
“How do you know Venerable Goysei?”
“It’s more the store than him. I’ve sort of adopted it. Or it’s adopted me.”
That story would need to come later since Venerable Gyosei reappeared with a tray. On the table he precisely placed a steaming blue clay pot inscribed with yellow Japanese characters, two matching cups, a bronze bowl, and a small wooden mallet. Goysei filled the cups with the pot’s smoky contents and then struck the bowl with the mallet. A sound that was less a ringing than the hum of a musical instrument that vibrated the air for several moments. He then began a chant, a guttural recitation that barely escaped his throat. Thalia eyed me as if someone had emptied a tray of ice cubes down her back, but managed to dip her head until Gyosei concluded and once again disappeared.
“What was that?” she whispered, leaning across the table.
“I think it was this,” I said, running my forefinger over the characters on the teapot. “It’s a Buddhist sutra.”
She nodded, and lifting her cup blew across the top of it. A vanilla aroma floated against my face. I would always think of it as the first time Thalia Roberts kissed me.
Smiling mercifully, Venerable Gyosei refused the ten dollar bill I offered. He gave us each two small bags containing samples of the tea we had sipped. On the walk back, Thalia stopped and opened her bag. Inside was a slip of paper with what I told her was the English version of the sutra on the tea pot, the one Gyosei had chanted. Still as a statue, she read it through. Then she slipped her arm through mine and we continued our thoughtful walk to her side of town.
“Fucking A, Eddie,” she said softly. “Fucking A.”
The walls inside the shower in my folks’ bedroom bathroom didn’t need to be replaced. Okay, there was mold, spotty infestations blackening the grout between the tiles. But with a stiff brush, some super-concentrated bleach and a little focused violence, the stains vanished. My father wasn’t convinced. He said the tiles had been there for thirty years, maybe longer, since before we owned the house, and no amount of scrubbing would make them clean. With his toolbox he knelt inside the bathtub and went to work, first with a hammer and cold chisel, then, after a trip to Home Depot, a miniature circular saw that obliterated the grout and allowed him to squeeze the tip of a crowbar behind the tiles and rip them off the wall one shattered piece at a time. Of course some of the plywood to which to tiles were glued was coming off as well, but he seemed unconcerned.
“We can patch that,” he said, and then he’d go to the next tile and claw it off with another chunk of plywood.
We both started off with dust masks, but the sweat inside his mask was getting to him and he let it drop around his neck and was now inhaling the white puffs of porcelain he was creating. His breaths came in gasps at shorter and shorter intervals. He’d been at it since breakfast and had destroyed maybe a square yard of perfectly good tiles, although bits that would also have to be scraped away were still stuck in place.
I stood behind him, sweeping the fallen debris into a contractor’s trash bag. I kept pestering him to take a break and let me take over. When he finally agreed, I had to help him stand because his knees had locked. He was a dead weight, drained of energy, like a sack of dried beans in the shape of a man. He shuffled to the bedroom window and looked to the backyard where he had placed a lounge chair under our great elm tree. There in the speckled August sunlight, my mother reclined, folded up in a thermal blanket, a tartan cancer bandana encasing her hairless head. Her book lay on the grass beside her. My father never exactly voiced a belief that the mold in the bathroom had caused her illness or if he thought removing it would help her get well. But when he told her that was his plan, she smiled and said good idea. Even I, sitting in on this exchange simply out of inertia that rendered me incapable of walking out on another of their exhausting dialogs about what to do next, saw clearly that this had nothing to do with disease. It was just swabbing the deck on a sinking ship.
He hobbled down the stairs and out to the yard and sunk onto his back on the grass beside her. Wordlessly their hands connected as the leaves above them trembled and whispered in a hot breeze. There would be no more demo today. I cleaned up the rest of the mess, stashed his toolbox in a remote part of the basement and drove down to EnTILEment.
After Venerable Goysei turned in his robe, grew back a head of goldfinch-colored hair and exited the tea business, he converted the little shop into an outlet for wall and flooring tiles. Of course he hadn’t the space for any inventory, and the shop was packed with black flannel display boards mounted with samples. I unlocked the front door and switched on the lights. Goysei had reverted to his birth name of Andy Laemmle, but he let me continue to call him Goysei, and had hired me to work twelve to five on Saturdays so he could drive down Washington Heights where her grew up and play pickup basketball with his cousins. It took him under an hour to teach me everything he knew about tiles, which wasn’t much more than knowing which of the different types – porcelain, stone, glass, terra cotta – were waterproof and which just water resistant and some insights into the cost range, which, for a medium size bathroom went from under five hundred dollars for basic white porcelain to the cost of a small yacht for Italian marble. The prices were on the back of each tile so there wasn’t much to do in that regard. Sometimes people brought in their square footage needs, and I had to work up an estimate on the calculator. When they wanted to negotiate, I told them to call Gyosei on Monday. If there were questions about installation, I pulled up a list of local contractors on the computer.
I stuck a rubber stop under the front door, put in my ear buds and sat under the awning out front to wait for customers. Hours later I was typing up a few notes for Gyosei when a very small European car pulled up in front and out stepped Jennifer Cartelli, my twelfth grade English teacher.
“Um, I’m closing,” I mumbled, my eyes fixed to the computer screen and pretending not to recognize her.
“Hello, Edward,” she said. “I heard you were working here.”
“Yeah, I’m closing. We close at five.”
“I’m not here to buy anything.”
I saved my notes, turned off the computer, put the pencils in a tin can and pocketed my phone. When I looked up she was still there.
“I heard about your mom,” she said. I’m sorry.”
That’s something you say after a person dies, I wanted to tell her.
“Thanks, she’s getting better,” I lied. “I really have to close now.”
She followed me to the door and stood very close. Ms. Cartelli was one of those teachers who had skipped the paragraph in the teacher’s manual about respecting the personal space of students. In the classroom, trying to whip up our interest in Edith Wharton and Robert Penn Warren, she was always on the move, up and down the aisles, bending over a desk and putting her face right up to yours so you could see the micro-freckles between her eyebrows.
“What does the Great Sleep tell us about Jack Burden?” she’d ask quietly as if she and the lucky student were the only people in the room.
Although I knew it was there and told myself not to look, my eyes went straight to the scar on her forehead, the one created after my mother’s Jeep crashed into the driver’s side of Ms. Cartelli’s vintage Mustang when she was picking me up in the high school parking lot. My mother had been on her phone, which she witlessly was still holding when she rushed out. I followed, learning firsthand how much blood courses through the human head. Witnesses had seen my mother chatting on the phone when she backed up. There was a civil trial and Ms. Cartelli won a lot of money. The last I heard she had not returned to teaching.
She had packed on the makeup and there might have been some cosmetic repair, but the scar could not be hidden. It had the contours of Florida, I thought. She saw me looking and touched it.
“Ah,” she said. “My Harry Potter symbol.”
After she drove off I carried the two cartons of bathroom tiles to the trunk of the car. When I told Gyosei what my father was up to, he wanted to give them to us for nothing, but my father resisted and they settled on at-cost. The tiles were a muted salmon color although after I told Gyosei my mother was an Aquarian, he included a few of the water bearer, a draped maiden with luxuriant purple hair and a jug on her shoulder. The blank envelope Ms. Cartelli had given me was on the passenger seat. In the shop she told me that she had been talked into suing by a lawyer and now regretted it. She knew that what was in the envelope wouldn’t change anything, and she expected that my mother would likely not accept it. Before she got in her car, she said I could open the envelope if I wanted. It was for all of us really, she said, because she knew it was all of us she had wounded. But when I pulled into our driveway, I still hadn’t lifted the flap. There I sat, unable to move, until my father opened the front door and squinted at me.
It was my father’s special look. Drooping jaw, heavy eyelids, exhausted inclination of his head, everything dipping south. The look signaled disapproval, all-purpose, suitable for any occasion or subject, the weather, the time, the stock market, the government, the Yankees, me. Here, it was the condo. He told the agent to give us a minute and gestured for me to follow him into one of the bedrooms. Through double windows the size of two placemats side-to-side there was a view of a brook that after a short run sunk out of sight into a culvert under the developmment’s blacktop parking lot. A duck couple serenely paddling with the current disappeared under the parking lot as well.
“What?” I said.
“It’s too small.”
“Four rooms, a full bathroom, and a parking spot. What more do you need?”
“What about my tools?
“When was the last time you did anything with your tools?”
“That’s not the point.”
“What’s the point?”
He slid aside the door to the clothes closet and the shallow space within received the look. It was the fifth Sunday running I’d taken the train up from New Brunswick because he wanted my input on living options. The condo was overpriced, probably more than he could get for the house, an observation I kept to myself. But money wasn’t the obstacle. Following a month of bereavement leave, he was back in the village commercial district ably selling Dux beds on commission. Also, there was my mother’s life insurance, and there was the mythical gesture from Ms. Cartelli. As she predicted, my mother wanted no part of it, but my father felt differently. Their disagreement proved to be the type of problem everyone should have, prompting several weeks of lively ethical discussion that distracted us from the clock ticking down the hours on my mother’s life. The day before they powered off the ventilator, she whispered in my father’s ear that he should do what he wanted. My father never voiced a reason for selling the house. After the funeral, he just said he that’s what he was going to do. In the fog of loss it seemed perfectly reasonable, and there was no further discussion about it. But having made the decision, he promptly lapsed into homeowner paralysis, not lifting a finger to make the house sale-ready or even do daily cleanup. Old food stains on the kitchen counters had so darkened they looked like tire skid marks; everything that fell on the floor stayed on the floor, including on the stairs a baseball cap and one slipper that were filigreed with spider webs; paint in tiny scallop formations peeled off the dining room walls; and only half the raw space in the second-floor bathroom had been filled in with Gyosei’s tiles, the entire disastrous enterprise now covered with a plastic drop cloth held in place with duct tape. On each of my visits, the place looked more and more like a crack den. My father seemed oblivious to it all, drifting though the rooms like a ghost trying to remember what he was looking for.
This complex was new, not even complete. Construction of the road winding through the grounds was ongoing and landscaping had not been started, the fresh four-unit structures surrounded by hillocks of top soil and gravel. No unit in the building the agent showed us had been sold, so we had our pick. The two apartments on one side were mirror images of the two on the other side except for the different views through the windows. She walked us through each one, and right away, at the end of the tour, it was obvious the fourth had impressed my father no more than the first three.
“What’s the point?” I persisted.
“The point is they’re my tools.”
The agent, a young, moderately aggressive woman with a shoulder bag stuffed with blank contract forms and brochures, cleared her throat at the door and said she had another appointment and had to lock up. She gave us her card and said we were free to explore the grounds. Outside my father virtually ran for the front gate that halved the patch of land, now the beginning of the main driveway, where the store had stood. Gyoshi had accepted the developer’s offer to break his lease, bought a canoe and a camper and moved to the Adirondacks. It was left to me to watch from across the road as the CAT dozer flattened the store as if it was a paper cup. The scene was pure The Grapes of Wrath complete with a perfectly timed breeze blowing demolition dust into my face.
Following twenty feet behind my father, I called, “I’m not doing this with you anymore.”
“You don’t want to move.”
He glanced back at me, looking surprised, as if this thought had never occurred to him.
“Yes I do.”
“You haven’t even put the house on the market.”
“It needs work.”
“I can help with that instead of wasting time like this.”
He had gotten so far ahead that he didn’t hear my offer or pretended not to. The faster he walked the slower I went. Without looking back, he cut into our street and out of sight. I groaned and threw my hands heavenward. Above me the street’s lone metal halide lamp on a wooden post was warming up in the November sunset, surrounding itself with an incipient pale halo. Eleven days to Thanksgiving, the first my father and I would have alone, and neither of had the balls to say a word about it or how we would get through it. The image that came to me was brutal – the two of us sitting down across from each other over microwaved stuffing and sweet potatoes in the mausoleum our home had become. Since Halloween, I’d been working on excuses for staying at school, all transparent, all feeble. Of course I would show up and my only hope was that the Lions would put up a fight so for three hours at least we wouldn’t have to talk about condos or how my mother used to fill the house with her sister’s blaring brood, who drove up from Dover for the entire four-day weekend.
When I reached the corner, I saw my father speaking with a person who was standing, oddly, in the middle the azalea bushes on our front lawn. As I approached my father turned toward me and so did the person. They spoke a little more and then my father walked up the path and into the house. The figure bent down between the bushes. Even in the fading light, I recognized her at once, but recognition was not accompanied by comprehension. My mother was not much of a gardener, but she had a fondness for the azaleas, which, she said, enhanced the house’s curb appeal, and which she dutifully pruned and fertilized. That’s what Jennifer Cartelli seemed to be doing, on her knees, wearing a beat up pair of gardening gloves and clipping excess growth in early winter preparation for spring growth. She sat back on her heels when I reached her.
“I thought I would tidy up your yard a bit,” she said to me.
I shrugged, which I realized was impolite, and quickly added an encouraging nod.
“I wanted to work on the inside,” she said. “But your dad didn’t think I should without you agreeing first.”
“Yes, inside your house, straighten up, a little vacuuming.”
“Yes, would that be alright with you?”
Making no effort to conceal himself, my father stood at a window, watching us. Ms. Cartelli followed my glance. She placed both hands to the ground and pushed herself to her feet.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
She took off the gloves – I wondered if they were hers or my mother’s – and swiped at the front of her jeans.
“Well, here’s what went down,” she said. “Your father gave me a terrific deal on a mattress. Really hard for a girl to resist after that.”
This has to be a joke, I thought. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t get any of it. In fact, I had the sense that Ms. Cartelli was observing my face melting from a phenomenal excess of stupidity.
She packed her gardening gear into a Whole Foods canvas bag, smiled, said goodbye, Edward and departed on foot. Down the road, her form coalesced with the thickening darkness. My father was still at the window. Watching her? Watching me? I couldn’t tell. In the house we didn’t speak, and the silence had yet to be broken as he drove me to the train station parking lot.
“See ya,” I said, but just sat, unable to open the car door.
“Are you coming next week?” he said.
The train was already pulling into the elevated platform. I felt no urgency.
“Only if I don’t have to look at condos.”
“Deal,” he said.
I sprinted up the stairs to the platform. The conductor had spotted me running and waited until I was on board before closing the doors.
About the Authors:
Bill Schillaci was a busy writer of short stories in the 1980s. After a hiatus of 25 years, he resumed story writing in 2014. Since then his work has appeared in Printers Row, 34th Parallel Magazine, Palooka, East Bay Review, Poydras, and others. Bill was born in the Bronx and attended New York University. He was a technical writer for engineering firms in San Francisco and New York and is currently a freelance environmental writer. He enjoys building furniture and fixing up his old house in Ridgewood, New Jersey.