It hadn’t looked all that heavy in the sunlit corner of the Golden Bowl Restaurant. But trying to lift the stainless-steel buffet table onto the back of Edgar’s pick-up truck now seemed like a mistake. Jonas wasn’t so young anymore that he could outmuscle a load like this by sheer force of will, and as he watched Edgar straining and contorting, he hoped they both wouldn’t end up in the hospital.
“Lift your end a little higher, Jonas.” There was desperation in Edgar’s voice.
Jonas adjusted his footing and pushed harder, silently reciting a Hail Mary, when like a miracle, the wheels of the table rose up to eye-level. Edgar was guiding it into the bed of the truck, when Jonas recognized the source of the miracle. Wayne was helping, smiling by his side, watching through square-rimmed glasses that Jonas always thought made him look like a scientist.
“Where’d you come from?” said Jonas.
“Yes,” Wayne said, nodding, extending his hand first to Jonas and then to Edgar, who had just hopped down from the truck.
“Johnny on the spot,” said Edgar.
Wayne patted him heartily several times on the side of the arm and walked back to the restaurant.
“I’m gonna miss this place,” said Jonas.
“Don’t you think we all will?”
This surprised Jonas at first. Edgar never ventured far when it came to food—something of a sticking point between them—but the Bowl had developed into a hangout over the years, and Jonas should have realized it meant just as much to Edgar. “Sorry, chum. We’ll get this set up in the garage, and then maybe Wayne will make some of that brown gravy you like.”
“Or his chicken wings.”
“That’s right, or the wings.”
Sometimes Wayne put a little gravy on top of the wings and let them simmer that way on the buffet table until late into the lunch hour. Edgar claimed he liked them best that way, when the water had all but cooked out, and the wings stuck melted to the bottom of the pan. Jonas suspected this had more to do with Wayne letting Edgar eat for free when he was winding down the lunch buffet, but he didn’t dare challenge him on this.
They both stared at the Golden Bowl’s fake temple façade, which made the far corner of the strip mall feel as though from another time and place. It was sad to think it wouldn’t be opening anymore. Jonas thought he might have seen Wayne looking back at them from the other side of the window, but the distance and the reflection of a stone lion obscured the view. Edgar walked to the cab of the truck and came back with bungee cables.
“What do you say we get this thing tied down and back to your place?”
Jonas nodded slowly and grabbed the other end of a cord Edgar was stretching out to him. “Let’s get her home.”
* * *
There was more stuff in the garage than Jonas remembered, and all of it, to his mind, was worth hanging on to. There was no room for any cars in there, of course, and Clara didn’t really have a problem with this. But he had been finding her out in the garage more often, lately, poking around the boxes with a frown on her face. He knew he should have said something to her about this table beforehand, but it was one of those decisions that felt like now or never when he and the rest of the boys were saying their farewells to the Bowl.
It would be a real shame to let all this equipment go to waste, they’d been saying. And Wayne wouldn’t get much of anything if it went to auction. How would he ever start over? It made a lot of sense to Jonas. He could store it for Wayne and then who knows? Maybe when the economy got better Wayne could try again. Besides, Jonas had always thought about opening a restaurant of his own. With this buffet table, he could practice, setting up hot meals for his friends in the garage. That is, if he could find a place for it.
He surveyed the exercise machines and the old furniture, the half cans of paint and busted lawnmowers he planned to fix as Edgar backed the truck up to the garage. He found a corner where the boxes looked stackable at least and began clearing a space. When he noticed Edgar peering at him through a glass pane in the garage door, he set down the box he was carrying and raised the door up on its tracks.
Jonas knew what Edgar was thinking—it was the same thing Clara always thought, though with Edgar it had the luxury of detachment. “Damn, Jonas.” Edgar stood shaking his head.
“Give me a hand with these boxes. I’m making a stack over there.”
Edgar took a deep breath and grabbed the nearest box. By the time they finished, they’d created a buffet-table-sized hole just inside the door.
Unloading it was considerably easier than getting the table into the truck, especially since Jonas had been able to fashion a ramp out of some old scrap lumber he kept piled off to one side. “See, that’s what Clara doesn’t understand. This stuff comes in handy a lot of times. It’s always as soon as you’ve taken it to the street, that you realize you needed it.”
Edgar handed the boards back to Jonas and slowly hoisted himself onto the gate of his pick-up. Jonas knew they’d both be stiff and sore tomorrow but felt relieved neither had sustained any serious wear and tear.
“That’s one patient saint of a woman you got there, Jonas. Flora would never put up with something like this.”
Jonas didn’t say anything. He was thinking about how best to break the news to Clara. She’d be home tomorrow. Something would come to him by then, though. He was confident of that. Anyway, those were distant worries in light of the shiny new table parked in front of him. He studied the delicate patterning etched into the sneeze-guard and wondered how he hadn’t noticed this on all those occasions when spooning shrimp fried rice onto his plate. He wondered what else he’d been missing all these years that had literally been right under his nose. Some said starting the buffet was what finally spelled the end for the Bowl. But Jonas really believed that without it, Wayne would have had to call it quits months before. In a way, Jonas saw this table and most everything to do with the Bowl as lucky, and he was feeling profoundly lucky to have it here, safely stored in his garage.
* * *
Now that it was Sunday afternoon, Clara and the girls would be rolling in from their trip any minute. At least once a year, they liked heading down to Biloxi. They gambled a little, but mainly they went to shop. And talk. That’s what worried Jonas. Sue Ann had picked her up the morning before, and he knew she’d have a full two hours there, and another back, to turn Clara against him. Jonas considered it an act of pure good fortune that Wayne had been able to meet him Saturday after they’d already gone. A new buffet table would have been all the ammunition Sue Ann would need to finally deliver the death blow to their relationship. Jonas had never understood why Sue Ann hated him so intensely. It was just one of those cases of instant dislike that happened from time to time. Too bad Sue Ann was Clara’s best friend. He felt it important that he be at home when Clara got back, and so he’d had to turn down Lonnie’s invitation to watch the game at his place.
The game itself was less interesting to Jonas than the ritual of watching it with the boys, and he figured one way of defusing a potentially volatile situation was to meet it head on. He decided to be outside working in the garage when his wife got there. That way he could be up front about the buffet table, but Clara would also see that he was serious about getting things fixed up out there. He set up a portable radio so he could at least keep tabs on the score and set about giving the table a good scrubbing. He knew Clara would be concerned about other people’s germs hitchhiking their way into the garage like hobos on a freight train. Plus, she had the most sensitive sense of smell of any woman he had ever known. So he wanted to make sure that this buffet table was completely sanitized. Jonas decided to keep the garage door closed, though, while he worked. It was important that Clara see him coming out of the garage first, rather than have her seeing inside the garage—there was a big difference between the two. And Sue Ann would have to be kept out at all costs.
* * *
It was already four o’clock and Clara still wasn’t home yet. But Jonas was making headway. The table shined, and it smelled metallic but not dirty, and so he had moved on to sorting through the boxes. He found one whole box with nothing much in it but old credit card receipts, and they were old enough to where the ink had started fading. Jonas took this as a sign to start shredding, so he set up a folding chair and got to work ripping the strips of paper into tiny pieces. He was making good progress, maybe halfway through the box, when he heard the car pull up. He stood and leaned around a tower of boxes until he could see out the window of the garage door. It was them alright. Sue Ann had lifted the door of the hatchback and Clara was reaching for her overnight bag. Jonas watched as the women hugged and Sue Ann kissed his wife on the cheek. He felt relieved to see her getting into her car and backing out of his driveway.
He cracked open the door that led from the garage into the kitchen so that Clara would notice it and catch him working. But when he heard the front door shut, he decided to poke his head out to greet her. “Baby, you’re home!” Jonas smiled, pausing long enough in the doorway for Clara to realize he had been in the garage.
“Oh, hi, Jonas.” Clara finished putting her keys in her purse and walked toward him.
“How was the trip?”
“Really nice. Sue Ann and I stopped in Bay St. Louis on the way back.”
“That’s great, honey. I’ve just been doing a little work out in the garage.”
“Oh, yeah? Let me see.” Clara started walking toward the door.
“It isn’t much to see just yet . . .” Jonas had left the box of torn credit card receipts on the floor with the cardboard flaps open, and he hoped Clara would notice this first. But when she crossed the threshold and stood just inside with her hands on her hips, he grew anxious, knowing from the direction she was looking that the buffet table would be in her immediate line of sight. Clara didn’t say anything at first.
“Jonas, what is that?” She raised her left hand tentatively to point, as though not wanting to startle the silver hulking buffet table or provoke it in some way.
Jonas felt as though he had been direct about things so far, dealing with the matter up front rather than waiting for a more opportune time that would never be coming, and he believed this was the right thing to do. “It’s a buffet table, honey—from Wayne’s.”
“What’s it doing in our garage?”
“I said I’d keep it for him, just until he gets back on his feet. But in the meantime, we can use it . . . You know, for parties and stuff.” Jonas waited for some kind of reaction. She seemed to be calculating something. It was a look Jonas had seen when she was balancing their checkbooks.
Jonas hesitated. He wasn’t expecting this. “So you like it, then?”
“Not at all.”
Jonas wondered what was happening, if maybe Sue Ann had finally talked her into leaving, and if mentally she’d just taken the first step out the door. “You can keep it, but there are going to be some changes. Some of this other stuff has to go. I’ve got something of my own that needs to be in here, so we’re going to have to make room.”
Jonas tried imagining what could possibly go, but decided he’d better find something before Clara did. “That’s great, Clare. We’ll get this place all tidied up and sharp looking.” He considered pointing out the torn receipts as an indication of his good faith but realized it would take a lot more than that.
“That’s right, Jonas. That’s exactly what needs to happen. I scheduled delivery the weekend after next. I knew we’d need some time to get ready, even before you filled the last inch of space with this thing.”
“I know, baby. I should have talked to you first, but I had to make a decision right then, and I didn’t want you worrying over this in Biloxi.”
“Yes, you should have asked me. But it’s here now, and I’m sure Wayne is grateful. It can stay for a while as long as I get my half of the garage within two weeks.”
“Yes, half. You know how that works, don’t you, Jonas?”
Jonas’s face dropped. He knew Sue Ann had been putting a bug in her ear, but this was the closest she’d come to mentioning a divorce. “I guess that’s right.” Jonas kept his eyes lowered, scraping the toe of his work boot across the concrete. “I’ll get on it.”
* * *
When he told Edgar about what happened, he realized that he’d never asked her exactly what was on the way. “I don’t suppose it really matters,” said Jonas. “The bottom line is I’ve got to clear out half the garage by next Saturday.”
“Well, yeah, but aren’t you just a little bit curious? I mean, she goes off with the girls to the coast, and then the next thing you know, this is happening. She had ordered this whatever-it-is before she even knew about the buffet, right? So what is it? Don’t you see? This was coming anyway.”
Jonas realized what Edgar said made sense, but didn’t want this to escalate any further. “Are you available with the truck on Saturday or not?”
“I’ll help. Sure. But that’s two precious weekends in a row. You owe me, Jonas.”
“I know, I know . . . I owe everybody. I always owe everybody.”
“Just make sure you sort through all that stuff and know exactly what’s going before I get there. I’m not spending my Saturday watching you stand around a pile of junk crying over it.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be ready.”
* * *
The following Saturday, Jonas was not ready. He figured Edgar would be expecting as much, but he really had intended to get his stuff together for once. Jonas could tell just from the way Edgar was looking at him that he was perturbed. The same message came across loud and clear even when Edgar wasn’t looking at him. He realized the only way he’d feel better about any of this would be for Edgar to say something, break the ice, but he was being stubborn about it. Childish, really. Jonas knew he would have to be the adult in the room and confront Edgar head-on.
“This will go faster than you think.”
“Uh-huh,” said Edgar, choosing that moment to inspect the teeth of a chainsaw.
With anyone else, Jonas might have found the gesture menacing, but he and Edgar had grown up together, knew one another about as well as they possibly could without being man and wife. He knew Edgar could just as easily have been studying the writing on a fifty-pound bag of dog food. He was merely trying to get his petty point across.
Now Jonas grew indignant. “Put that thing down and give me a hand. You can start bringing the boxes over here from out of that stack. I’ll bet I can consolidate these to less than half of what’s there currently.”
Edgar didn’t seem convinced, but he went along with the plan. Jonas knew he was a good sport at heart.
Nearly an hour later, though, Jonas had only succeeded in emptying the contents of a single box.
Edgar must have done the math in his head. “I’m not available tomorrow, Jonas. You’ve got to pick up the pace.”
Jonas knew Edgar was right. “All right, look—let’s just start loading up everything that isn’t Clara’s from that side of the garage.” He pointed away from the buffet. “I’m going to to get a storage unit.”
“What’s Clara gonna say about that? Didn’t you tell her you were getting rid of stuff?”
“I never agreed to that, exactly. I just promised to free up half the space.”
“Yeah, but then it will be like you’re paying to store Wayne’s table. Don’t you think Clara will see that as a problem? That might just put her over the edge.”
“Let’s just get stuff out of here. I’ll figure out what to tell Clara later. Who knows? Maybe I won’t even have to bring it up. I mean, if she doesn’t ask.”
Edgar screwed up his face. “Are you out of your mind? She’s gonna ask.”
* * *
Finding a storage unit was no problem at all. They seemed to rise up from every major intersection in Springdale the way supermarkets once did. The last time Jonas had needed to store anything, though, was over ten years ago when he was still a bachelor. The units then were pretty basic—a roof and four walls, a metal roll-up door.
Things had changed. Now all of the places were climate controlled and nicer than his first apartment, and almost as expensive. Everything was video-monitored, and he had to write down a series of security codes for several iron gates and heavy doorways to gain entry. Something about the cinder block walls, the buzzing fluorescent lights that kicked on only when they sensed motion, and the rows and rows of doors to the individual storage units gave Jonas the heebie-jeebies. It reminded him, by turns, of a hospital, a cell block, or some kind of Soviet-era experiment in public housing. For just a minute, he allowed himself to marvel at it all—the thought of so many life stories packed away into these sad little compartments depressed him. But then he snapped out of it when he considered how he himself had only a vague recollection of what was in all these boxes he was stowing away. Could it really be all that sad if he didn’t know what he was missing?
Edgar looked as though he might be picking up on a similar vibe, but Jonas was grateful he kept his thoughts to himself and continued unloading boxes. By the time they were finished, it had taken them two trips in Edgar’s truck. Clara’s half of the garage was clear now, and he’d even managed to empty an aisle all the way around the buffet table so that conceivably, he could run the power cord to the outlet right there in the wall, and keep the metal basins steaming with hot food for his friends next time a big game came on.
Clara had been out with Sue Ann for that day, too. They were only going to the mall and taking care of a few errands, but Jonas was grateful for this stroke of luck since it had made the storage run possible.
Now, with the job done, Jonas was eager for Clara to come home and praise him. In the meantime, he tried fishing for compliments from Edgar. “Looks good, doesn’t it?”
“It’s an improvement. That’s for sure. But sooner or later, you’re gonna have to deal with all that stuff in storage.”
Jonas felt the air leak right out of him. “Damn, Edgar. I was just starting to feel good about everything. Why’d you have to go and say something so damn negative?”
“It’s true, isn’t it? You’re only shifting things around.”
Jonas thought about the long, desolate corridor they’d just walked through together and shuddered when he thought about having to return there, quite likely alone. He needed to change his thinking, be upbeat again. “You were a big help today, buddy. I owe you.”
“You’ve got that right—I’ll see you later, Jonas.”
* * *
With Edgar gone, and Clara out, and so much empty space in the garage, Jonas felt unsettled and anxious. All those hard, sterile surfaces . . . Never at Wayne’s had it looked quite like this. It was as though something foreign and metallic—otherworldly, even, like a UFO—had docked itself in his garage. He found all that gleaming stainless steel so overwhelming and hollow, and a sense of panic was starting to set in.
He went inside and locked the door to the garage. What was taking Clara so long at the store? He knew he’d feel better again once she got home.
He fixed himself a toddy to take the edge off. It worked. Within minutes, he began to relax and by the time he heard Clara’s key in the door, he’d forgotten all about the garage and Wayne’s buffet table.
Clara carried a couple of large shopping bags inside. They’d been on quite a spree from the looks of it. Something spilled out of one of the bags as she struggled to close the door. From the distance where he sat on the couch, he couldn’t be sure, but it looked sort of like a leather aviator’s helmet. Whatever it was, Clara quickly scooped it up and returned it to the bag.
He remembered fondly how Clara used to spread out all of her purchases on the table when she got home from shopping, to show him and share with him her treasures. Today, though, she just smiled and said hello, and then carried the bags straightaway into the back of the house toward their bedroom.
Moments later, she returned to the living room, empty-handed. “So, how’d the cleaning go?”
Jonas grinned. He couldn’t contain himself. “Have a look for yourself.”
Clara seemed skeptical, but made her way through the kitchen and into the garage. She closed the door behind her.
Jonas had expected her to come right back inside, ecstatic, but she was taking a lot longer than he thought reasonable. “What could she possibly be doing?” he wondered. He was determined to wait her out.
When she finally did come in, she wasn’t smiling anymore. “Jonas, where’s all the stuff?”
Jonas knew he had to choose his words carefully. “I got it out of there, Hun. Just like you wanted. Edgar helped me.”
“Yes, but what did you do with it? I don’t see any boxes at the street, and the trash can is empty.”
“You looked in the trash can?”
“Yes. I had to throw something away.”
Jonas hadn’t wanted to bring up the storage unit just yet, but Clara was forcing his hand. He knew she wouldn’t approve. Why couldn’t she just let him enjoy the moment? Now he was second-guessing the whole day. “Edgar hauled it off in his truck.”
It wasn’t a lie exactly. But it didn’t feel quite like the truth, either, and Jonas immediately regretted saying it.
Clara pressed on. “And what was Edgar going to do with it?”
“Okay, okay—we took it to storage.”
“You mean you rented a place?”
“That’s right. A couple of miles from here.”
“Oh, Jonas . . .” Clara stormed past him and disappeared once more into the back of the house.
Suddenly, the whole day felt like one big mistake. Jonas knew Clara would need some time to calm down, and he wondered what he dreaded more—facing her, or the prospect of having to do something else with those boxes. At this point, maybe just paying Edgar to take them to the dump wasn’t such a bad idea. But he knew Edgar had grown just as sick of his boxes as he was. It was a no-win situation.
Within a couple of hours, Clara reappeared from the bedroom, as though nothing had happened or else her entire memory had been erased. He wondered if she had been talking to Sue Ann on the phone. She smiled pleasantly and went straight into the kitchen to start dinner.
This drastic change in her demeanor unsettled Jonas. He knew his wife, and this was not normal. But he gathered up his courage and offered to chop vegetables. She accepted politely. Too politely, but what could he do?
* * *
The next week proceeded similarly, with Clara wielding the manners of a debutante, and remaining remote. But by Tuesday, she seemed to soften. At bedtime, she roused Jonas, who had already started to doze.
“What is it, honey?”
Jonas watched as she removed a silver chain from around her neck and presented it to him in the palm of her hand. He sat up and wiped his eyes to get a better look. At the end of the chain, there was a small medallion of some kind.
“I bought this in Biloxi. At a gift shop near Keesler, but I think I want you to have it.”
He took the medal in his own hand and examined it. His vision remained a little blurry.
He couldn’t quite make out the writing, and wasn’t altogether certain what he was seeing. On one side, a man in a robe appeared to be leaping through the air, holding on to a cross. He turned it gently over and saw a jet plane soaring on the other side. “That’s kind of different. What is this?”
“It’s for you to wear, Jonas. It’s a devotional medal to St. Joseph of Cupertino. I thought I might want it for myself, but I know now it’s yours.”
Jonas didn’t understand, but he raised it over his head, then felt the chill of the silver as it touched his neck and chest. It smelled faintly of roses—Clara’s perfume—and this brought him comfort. Before he knew it, he had fallen asleep again, though remained vaguely aware that she hadn’t yet joined him in their bed.
As the week continued, his perplexity had given way to a sense of acceptance, and then anticipation. His own curiosity became almost unbearable anytime he thought about how whatever she had ordered would be arriving in just a few more days, but Clara for her part acted as though she wasn’t expecting anything at all.
Sometimes he wanted so desperately to speak with her. He wondered what could possibly be on its way that would take up half of their garage. Then it occurred to him. Maybe she had simply wanted to assert herself. Half of the space was rightly hers after all—maybe she just wanted it back on principle. So he decided to hold his tongue, and then he held the medal he remembered suspended from his neck, and he reminded himself once more that he would have to find out about St. Joseph of Cupertino.
* * *
When Saturday rolled around, he was awakened by the rumble of a diesel engine and the backup alarm of what sounded like a good-sized truck. As he regained his senses, he realized Clara’s side of the bed was once again empty. He dragged himself up and over to the window.
Parting the curtain, Jonas confirmed the source of the sounds, though he wasn’t quite sure what the men in his driveway were carrying out of the truck. It was quite large and strangely reminded him of an enormous woven nest—or the kind of thing from which a snake charmer might coax out a cobra. And then there was Clara directing the men toward the garage.
They were wheeling the object on a dolly when Jonas left the window to throw on some clothes and find out what was going on.
The men were already back in the truck and leaving when he reached the garage.
Jonas stared at the huge basket now taking up a significant portion of his wife’s half. He felt it was almost something he could name, but remained confused and couldn’t put the right words together to go with what he saw in front of him. Suddenly, he brightened. “Is that a bassinet? Like for a baby? Clara, are you pregnant?”
Clara looked overcome with weariness. She shook her head without making eye contact. “No, Jonas. It’s a basket. For a hot air balloon. The rest of it will be here soon. Sue and I are taking up flying. Of a sort, anyway.”
He recognized it now. A balloon. Of course. But why? It all seemed so unlikely to him. He’d never heard of anyone keeping something like that in their garage. A hot air balloon? What was Clara even talking about, she and Sue Ann going flying? She had never mentioned anything like this before. It was all too much, way more than he could possibly process first thing on a Saturday morning.
But before he could even respond, a car was pulling up into the driveway. It was Sue Ann’s, and now she was getting out. He saw on her head a leather aviator’s helmet, identical to the one he’d seen fall on the floor a week ago. Beneath it, her long blond hair flowed out, draping over the shoulders of a brown leather jacket. She strode with purpose toward them.
Clara and Sue Ann didn’t even have the balloon yet—the envelope, she called it—or the fuel they would need to leave him behind. But in his mind’s eye, Jonas could already see the woman he once knew as his wife, drifting up and away from him, amidst a roar of flames and hot air, until nothing remained of their marriage but an after-image, the last thing he would ever remember—a patchwork quilt of color, aloft and slowly fading.
Daniel Webre received an MFA in fiction from McNeese State and a PhD in English with creative writing concentration from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Arkansas Review, Cottonwood, The William & Mary Review, Pembroke Magazine, Willow Review, and other places. Watershed Review recently nominated one of his stories for a Pushcart Prize.