Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Sex, Rugs and Rock & Roll

 

 

Jack Rooney lived like a traveling salesman but looked like an aging rock star. His tours didn’t take him to Madison Square Garden or the Hollywood Bowl; instead, Jack followed the road less traveled, dressed in black and wearing dark sunglasses, to towns and villages all over the map in search of carpets and tapestries that people often knew were valuable. They just didn’t know how valuable.

Was ist los, motherfuckers?” Jack called out as he entered the small Munich antique store, using his standard opening line designed to throw people off his scent by shoving himself in their face. Jack could tell it wasn’t a German-owned store, even if he hadn’t seen the foreign-looking, big-nosed old man and dark and hairy woman seated, sipping Turkish coffee, behind the counter. The shop was a Mickey Mouse crap house of junk, and would offend any self-respecting German. Paintings, clocks, furniture, clothes, classical CDs—it was a thrift shop in disguise, and a shitty one at that.   

He listened for their response, got none, and then pretended not to listen for them to speak as he scanned the room for the object he sought, fiddling along the way with items in which he had no interest, holding them up to catch what little light the room held. The old man, in a gray suit and skinny tie with a dress shirt that used to be white, leaned toward the heavyset woman, in a housedress that also used to be white, and spoke. Armenian. Jack’s ability with foreign languages was such that he could recognize almost any, and knew enough in most to get along (and into trouble). Jack could translate into almost any language:

 Where do the hot chicks hang out?

Where can I find a hot chick to hook up with?

How much to hook up with a hot chick?

How much for you?

A man with deep-set eyes, hollowed cheeks, and a large nose appeared from a hallway and moved to the counter. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, only a couple of years younger than Jack, but came across as older. For Jack there was no mistaking this was the son of the seated man—noses that big didn’t happen by accident, unless it was nuclear.

Guten tag.

Guten tagzys. Ich bin Mr. Jack. Ich liebe Kunst und Frauen und Ich lieben die Frauen Kunst auch.  

Jack laughed hard. Even with his bad German, he could come up with dirty wordplay involving female genitalia.

The son frowned, then twitched. “Was machen sie hier?”

Jack asked the son if he spoke English.

“Yes, I speak English.” 

Sehr gutsy. What’s your name?”

“My name is Garabed. How can I help you?”

“I’m a lover of music, art, and women, and visiting your beautiful town seeking all of the above. Let’s see if you have any art for me; then I’ll see what you can do for women. The music I’ll handle myself.”

Jack bobbed and weaved to an imaginary tune, his long and curly black hair bouncing along, then pointed to Garabed like it was his turn. The Armenian froze like a pimply teenager at a seventh-grade dance, so Jack showed him how to do it, jaggering in his black jeans and black silk shirt across the store while seeking the source of his “funny feeling.” He could almost smell that there was something of historic value hiding here, and it didn’t take him long to find it.

There, in the hallway leading into the part of the building where Garabed had come from, and Jack assumed the family lived, was a glittering and gleaming 5’ x 7’ carpet, practically singing “Stairway to Heaven.” Jack could tell the threads were gold- and silver-covered silk from ten feet away. At five feet, the carpet’s field transformed into gaudy flowers dyed salmon, celery, butterscotch, alabaster, maize, ice blue, too many colors for even him to register. Though it was dirty and well worn, the piece was intact and not a fragment, as he usually found. He’d never seen a Polonaise, or Polish carpet, outside of a book or a museum, but it damn sure looked like one in front of his black shit-kicker boots. Jack slipped his boot under one corner of the carpet, felt the heaviness from the gold, and flipped it over to “look under the hood,” as checking the backside of any textile was the true test. When he spotted the magnificently dense, handwoven knots, the tassels running vertically throughout the foundation, the inconsistent and uneven bindings, he knew the fucker was legit—likely late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, when the royal court of Persia started making these carpets as gifts for the Polish nobility. He kicked the carpet back down like it was a piece of shit, just in case he’d been seen. His appraisal took seconds, and without ever touching the rug with more than his foot, he hustled away from it.

“How much for this table clock?”

“The clock is three hundred,” Garabed said, moving to a stuffed table where every clock in the store seemed to have been thrown with no regard to period, style, or type.

“I love table clocks. I love sleeping to the sound. Screw sound machines with rain forests—all anyone needs to get a good night’s sleep is that tick-tock tick-tock sound. I’ll take the clock.” 

Garabed carried the clock to the counter. Jack followed and made a show of pulling out a big wad of bills.

“Hmmm, this ring is nice too. How much?” Jack pointed to the most expensive-looking ring in the cabinet underneath the counter.

“The ring is five hundred.”

“Fuck it, let me get that too. You only live once, and Mr. Jack’s not getting any younger. Okay, that’s good.” Jack started to count out money. “Oh, wait. How much is the rug over there?”

“Which one?

“The one in the hallway.” Jack pointed his thumb without looking.

“That’s not for sale.”

“Everything’s for sale. Suppose I offered you a million Euros. Would you accept?”

“Of course, for one million.”

“See, the rug is for sale. We just have to find a price. How about ten thousand?”

Garabed’s eyes widened at the amount, telling Jack that they hadn’t been offered that kind of money. The old man pushed himself out of his chair at the repeating of the word “rug” and joined his son at the counter, speaking harshly in Armenian. Garabed shrank in size, but rather than cowering he appeared to be coiling himself in order to strike. The mother slammed her demitasse espresso cup down on the small table next to her chair, temporarily disrupting the hostilities. Garabed turned back to Jack, who giddily watched the family drama and the signs their scene had left him.

“The carpet is not for sale,” Garabed said reluctantly. “It came from my father’s grandfather. It’s very valuable.”

“Where did it come from?”

Garabed told the story of the Armenian Christians fleeing the Muslim Turks just before the Armenian holocaust, and of his great-grandfather, a carpet dealer, leaving on foot with his bride for Iran, where they settled. Garabed explained that the carpet was the only remaining possession of his great-grandfather, who had brought it to Iran from Armenia. He told Jack that their family fled to Germany and Munich after the fall of the Shah of Iran. They decided then that as Christians they would never again live in a Muslim country.

“The last thing I want to do is take something that has such personal value to your family. Please translate that.”

Garabed translated and the old man nodded. Jack saw that Garabed would have taken the ten thousand. He had to work on the old man.

“Does your father know what the piece is?”

Garabed was confused. “It is a carpet, no?”

“No, it’s not a carpet. Please translate.”

Garabed did, and the old man looked puzzled now too. They stared at Jack like he was crazy or maybe going to rob them. They were right on both counts.

“Did you know your grandfather?” Jack said, speaking directly to the old man for the first time. Jack didn’t take his eyes off the stooped man, who looked like he’d probably shrunk a foot with age, yet his schnoz had stayed the same size, maybe even grown. Garabed translated and his father shook his head no.

“How do you know he brought it from Armenia and didn’t just buy it in Iran?” 

After his son translated, the old man hesitated in responding, and when he did, he did so slowly without looking up.

“The story my father was told was that the carpet was brought from Armenia, but he does not know this for sure.”

“Come with me,” ordered Jack, walking to the hallway, the entire family following.

“First, this is not a carpet.” He took a long beat, making them wait for his punch line. “It’s a Muslim prayer rug.” Jack had to suppress a smile, as the reaction on Garabed’s face was as priceless as the piece. “It is the same rug used by the Muslims who threw the Armenians out of Iran, and by the Turks who massacred the Armenians. This is what they prayed on when they asked for the strength and blessing to carry out those attacks. Translate.”

Garabed did, and the room went silent except for the table of clocks. Jack waited to see if any alarms went off, but the family was under his ether. Both Armenian men lowered their heads, seeming to pray that what Jack said wasn’t true, couldn’t be true. Only the old woman looked at him.

“Next, it is not from Armenia but from Iran. Your grandfather bought it in Iran and didn’t get to sell it before he died. It is not a family heirloom; it’s a Muslim prayer rug. Translate.”  

Garabed did.

“Finally,” Jack said, “it’s quite valuable. I’ll pay you fifty thousand Euros.”

Jack could hear how affected Garabed was by the shaky tone of his voice, as if he was a contestant on a game show seconds from winning the grand prize. Jack fantasized about breaking into an English accent and doing a Richard Dawson hosting Family Feud imitation. “If Garabed’s father answers yes, the Bignoseian family will win the $50,000 prize and finally fucking get to live life. Though I’m not kissing any of these swarthy Armenians!” Jack added a big audience laugh. The old man interrupted his mental monologue by answering in English, head still down:  

“No.”

Jack had expected that, but the son had not. Garabed snapped at his father in Armenian, the language suddenly sounding more guttural. Jack would have bet another 50,000 there was some nasty profanity in there, and contemplated learning a nice Armenian curse word or two for his travels. The old man responded to the son in kind, straightening his back an inch or two with herculean effort, King Lear-like spittle flying from his ground-down yellow teeth. 

“It’s a difficult decision,” Jack interjected, with as much earnestness as he could summon when the two men simultaneously ran out of breath. “Take your time. Though I do leave tomorrow morning for Berlin and would need to arrange a wire today.” Jack hadn’t even planned to visit the Munich antique shop, had only stopped off when he’d had to leave London unexpectedly, and in a hurry, but he’d learned long ago to go with the flow when hunting textiles.

Garabed stormed away from the counter toward the hallway and disappeared into their living quarters. Jack leisurely paid the old woman for the clock and the ring, singing the “whoo whoo” chorus from “Sympathy for the Devil” under his breath, while the old man panted and continued to glare at the hallway for his opponent to return and continue their fight.

The son returned wearing a green army backpack emblazoned with a West German flag patch and clothes sticking out of the top in case his intentions weren’t clear. Jack sidled his way to the store’s foyer, his role as last straw complete, as the men hurled insults and accusations at each other in Armenian. Garabed followed Jack toward the door, as though the Armenian thought they were leaving together, clueless that Jack wasn’t going anywhere without that Polonaise carpet.

Jack knew the couple couldn’t afford to lose their son. Who would run the shop? Who would take care of them as they closed in on the fast-approaching end of their lives? Jack figured Garabed was their only child or at least the only one who cared for them, in spite of his obvious bitterness at having to do so. He could tell by the condition of the shop and lack of customers that Garabed likely had nothing more than a few Euros in his pocket and wasn’t going to get far. No, these people were stuck with each other, and in exactly the type of entanglement Jack spent his life running from.

 

Garabed swept by him to walk out the door, then opened it for Jack to go first, and when Jack moved, the mother broke. Hollering in Armenian, the old woman rumbled to the hallway and grabbed the carpet, almost running with it as she dragged it through the shop, contrails of dust chasing her. She whipped it up into Jack’s chest, with no regard for its value and no translation necessary. Jack appeared to choke on the dirt cloud that engulfed him, but he was actually laughing as the old woman waddled toward the hallway, her shrunk-again husband shuffling behind.

That evening, Jack made two phone calls, one to London and one to New York. By merely describing the piece, he initiated a bidding war, landing him an offer that, even after the crappy exchange rate he’d gotten to pay the Bignoseian family, netted him a million dollar profit.

When he checked out of the hotel the next morning, he left behind the clock. He thought it went well with the room. Jack gave the ring and a wad of cash to the concierge who’d told him about the shop with the shiny rug and had also sent up two very open-minded prostitutes.

Vielen dank, Mr. Jack.”

Vielen dank, motherfucker.”

 

 

Robert Kerbeck’s short fiction has recently appeared in Willow Review, Crack the Spine and the Tower Journal. He was also interviewed as Crack the Spine’s featured wordsmith. Another short story, “Breaststroker,” is forthcoming in upstreet. He has been accepted into the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers Workshop and chosen to work with the author Ben Percy. Robert is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the founder of the Malibu Writers Circle. A member of the Actors Studio, Robert has worked extensively in theater, film, and television, appearing in lead roles in major shows and earning several awards. You can like him (and learn more) at www.facebook.com/robertkerbeck