by Tom Miller
As part of the eternal quest for the perfect table, Keith parked the car in front of yet another furniture store. His breakfast nook required a table sixty to sixty-six inches long and thirty-six to forty-two inches wide, with a pedestal-style base so that people could easily slide in and out of the charming window seat. Keith and Laura had agreed that they wanted a solid wood table and not some cheap thing made of pressboard and laminate. And of course, the price had to be right.
Yes, their need was specific, but was there really not such a table to be found within a one-hundred mile radius? It felt like they had searched every brand name furniture store, local dealer, antique seller, junk shop and thrift mart in the continental United States. They had combed the Internet for countless hours, searching, clicking, reading and debating late into the night, as if they were a pair of physicists obsessed with discovering a new sub-atomic particle.
Keith’s intrepid wife refused to admit defeat, but Keith himself was made of lesser stuff. He was ready to suspend a piece of plywood from ceiling hooks and call it a day. Laura insisted that success was imminent; stores they had previously visited had now received new shipments of merchandise. Their dream table was sitting on one of those floors right now, on sale and ready to be plucked up by the persistent shopper.
Before opening the car door, Keith reached for the Ace bandage and surgical boot that he kept on the back seat. He took off his left shoe and began to wrap the cloth around his foot and ankle.
“Not again,” said Laura, shaking her head. “Why don’t you just wait in the car? I’ll go in quickly and check if they’ve gotten anything new.”
Keith secured the bandage and slipped his foot into the boot, which he had received after having bunion surgery. The boot was designed so that when Keith walked, the heel of his foot absorbed all the weight. His foot now felt as good as new, but the boot still had its uses.
“I want a Coke,” he said. At this particular furniture store, smiling salespeople met customers at the door and offered them a twelve-ounce bottle of ice cold Coca-Cola from a strategically placed refrigerator.
“Then come inside and get a Coke,” said Laura. “That doesn’t mean you have to go through this charade. I probably won’t be in there more than fifteen minutes anyway.”
The last time Laura had popped into a furniture store, Keith had sent her a text message two hours later to make sure she was okay. “It could be much longer,” he said.
“It could,” admitted Laura. “That doesn’t mean you have to put on a surgical boot when there’s nothing wrong with your foot. You could just sit down and wait for me like a normal, uninjured person.”
“But the salespeople look at you,” said Keith.
Laura pondered this statement as if she were deciphering a sentence in a foreign language. “What are you talking about?” she asked.
“I’ve felt the vibe,” said Keith. “If I go in a furniture store and immediately sit down, the salespeople give me a look that says, ‘Why did you come into my store just to loiter and sit on my merchandise?’ And here, if you accept a Coke, it’s going to be even worse. They’ll have spent actual money on me, and I won’t even be making an effort.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Laura, “and anyway, you’re with me, and I’m shopping. I’m sure husbands come in here all the time and wait for their wives.”
Keith tightened the Velcro straps on his boot and picked up a book to read while he waited. “I hear what you’re saying, and it makes sense, but it’s not reality. In reality, I’m getting hostile glares. You don’t see it because you’re busy looking at tables.”
“Fine,” said Laura, as they both started getting out of the car. “Let’s say for a minute that your vibe is not deranged and one of the salespeople actually thinks you’re a loitering moocher. How is the boot supposed to help this scenario?”
Keith started clomping toward the store entrance. “The boot changes everything. The salespeople want me to sit down and rest. The last time I did this, one guy actually rolled a TV in front of me so I could watch while you shopped.”
Laura just shook her head as they went inside. Immediately, a man with a round head, wide smile, gray blazer, and pink, polka-dotted bow tie greeted them. “Welcome to Majestic Furniture,” he said. “Would you like a Coke?” He stood next to a refrigerator much like the ones at supermarket checkout lines. Through the glass, Keith saw rows upon rows of gleaming bottles.
Laura declined. “Thank you, that sounds great,” said Keith, as if the offer were an unexpected surprise. The salesman grabbed a Coke and removed the top with the refrigerator’s built-in bottle opener.
“I’m Scott,” said the salesman, handing the bottle to Keith and looking down at the booted foot. “What happened to your foot?”
Keith enjoyed the feel of cold glass in his palm. “Just bunion surgery,” he said. “The foot feels fine now, but it’s just hard to stand and walk around in this boot. Mind if I sit down while my wife checks out your tables?”
“Not in the least,” said Scott. “We’ve got plenty of seating.” He motioned out into the spacious showroom which reminded Keith of an ancient amphitheater. He was on a stage looking at a front row of plush, leather sectionals. Behind these sat the recliners and wing chairs, as vast in their variety as the middle tier of an audience. Dinette sets and bedding occupied the cheap seats, and china cabinets lined the walls as if in standing room only.
Laura rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sorry that my husband is impaired,” she said. As she and Scott headed into the depths of the store, she began to describe her dream table.
With a Coke in one hand and a book in the other, Keith hobbled through the maze of furniture to a remote recliner that also had a cup holder. He settled into velvety gray microfiber and began to read. After a couple of pages he looked up, took a sip of his Coke, and spotted Laura hovering over a table as Scott the salesman checked its dimensions with a measuring tape. Convinced that they would be there a while, Keith returned to his novel.
Just as Keith felt himself falling into another world, a shrill female voice shattered the magic. “No means no, Stevie! If I let you have a Coke you’re going to be bouncing off the walls for the next eight hours! Now stay with Mommy!” Keith looked up at the new customers who had just entered the store. The thin, young mother looked like she had just graduated from high school. She held a baby in her left arm. Stevie, with his thick, unruly mop of brown hair, looked to be about seven or eight.
With a vice-like grip on Stevie’s lower arm, the mother followed a saleswoman into the table section where Laura stood talking with Scott. Keith imagined his wife debating whether a particular table could work in their breakfast nook. A patient shopper, Laura was almost ready to settle for the “good enough” solution that Keith had suggested thirty minutes into their search.
Keith watched the young mother wrestle Stevie into a sturdy wooden chair. She crouched down, pointed at Stevie and spoke to him sternly. Stevie avoided his mother’s eyes, but he also nodded his head in assent. By the time the mother stood up and turned to face the saleswoman, she was all smiles. Mother, baby, and saleswoman began to browse the tables while Stevie remained behind in the chair.
Keith tried to return to his novel. But after two paragraphs, he found himself wondering what Stevie would do. When Keith was eight, he would have never disobeyed a maternal commandment, but kids these days did not have the same level of respect. He looked up from his book. Stevie was on the edge of the chair, studying the surrounding territory and poised to escape. With her back to Stevie, the young mother listened to the saleswoman describe furniture. Five seconds later, like a soldier advancing under sniper fire, Stevie bounded from the chair and took up a position beneath a dining room table large enough to seat eight.
Keith found himself engrossed in the mystery of Stevie. He needed to know what happened when the mother looked back and found Stevie gone from his assigned seat. Keith was not disappointed as the plot took an unexpected twist.
Stevie’s mother never looked behind her. The main character slowly rose from his hiding place until his eyes were just above the level of the table top. The table itself had a rich, deep-brown finish and thick, ornately carved legs. It was set for dinner with eight elegant place settings of fine china, polished flatware, and crystal glasses. While Stevie’s eyes shifted from one side to the other, a small hand reached out from under a table and grabbed a fork. The young ruffian then abandoned his current position. With the fork secured in his clenched fist and his back crouched low, Stevie dashed from under the table and found another safe haven behind a puffy leather recliner. Stevie caught his breath and looked around to see if anybody was watching. Keith quickly put his head back in his book to avoid eye contact.
After several seconds, Keith returned his attention to the boy. Stevie was now working the fork into one of his pants pockets. The kid was not just rambunctious; he was a thief, a shoplifter. And this place was no mini mart where the clerk was hypersensitive about young kleptomaniacs stealing candy bars. Furniture stores did not have to worry about customers palming china cabinets. Stevie was going to get away free and clean unless Keith himself became involved. All he had to do was alert one of the salespeople.
At the moment, the floor staff was busy helping customers. In the back of the store, three women sat behind a long table working the phones or doing paperwork. Keith considered going to the table, reporting the incident, and completing his civic duty, but he really did not feel like hobbling around in his surgical boot. Of course, he could take the boot off and walk to the desk, but that would expose him as a fraud and imposter.
As Keith contemplated his next move, Stevie army crawled to a new location behind a sumptuous beige sectional. Keith decided there was no need for him to get involved. Stevie had not stolen anything yet because he had not left the store. Anyway, it was just a fork. The store used the flatware only for decorative purposes. The utensil may have cost less than the bottles of Coke the store gave out for free. Moreover, Stevie was not his child. A lot of parents resented other adults saying anything that cast a negative light on their child, even if the comment was justified and made in the spirit of helpfulness. Keith was wasting valuable reading time.
Despite his reasoned decision, Keith could not stop watching Stevie. The boy slithered from behind the sectional to the Coca Cola refrigerator. Keith recognized the unfolding story: child wants Coke, child is denied Coke by parent, child ignores parent and takes Coke anyway. All salespeople were occupied at the moment. Nobody stood ready to provide welcome and refreshment to a new customer entering the store. Stevie could grab as many Cokes as he wanted.
The story took an unexpected twist. Stevie dashed for the front door and escaped into the world beyond.
Keith felt a jolt of panic as the situation evolved to a new level. By remaining silent, Keith was not just abandoning a cheap fork; he was endangering a child. Abduction was a common occurrence on the nation’s streets. Even if Stevie avoided this fate, he could be struck by a car, or wander off and get lost.
Stevie’s mother was chatting with the saleswoman, who was making funny faces at the baby. Nobody had noticed a small boy’s escape into a dangerous world.
Keith looked out the front window and found Stevie jogging around the edges of the parking lot. The boy was on the far end of the lot when a car pulled out of its space and left.
“What happened to the other guy?”
Keith turned to see a sixtyish, rotund man examining his booted foot. The man wore a charcoal suit and had a nametag pinned to his lapel that read “Ted.”
“It’s nothing like that,” said Keith. “Just bunion surgery.”
Now would be a perfect time for Keith to sound the alarm. He could tell Ted about the wayward child, and Ted could either corral Stevie himself, or alert Stevie’s mother immediately. Keith considered the aftermath of such a decision. The young mother would glare at him with recriminations. Why did he not cry out when he saw a small boy go out the door? Was he such an impotent slug that he could not summon the energy to help a child in danger? Laura would see him in a different light. Could she continue to stay married to a man for whom she had lost all respect?
“I have a friend who used to have a hammer toe,” said Ted. “He could have had surgery and been in one of those boots for like, six weeks.”
Keith concocted a plan. He would wait until Stevie ran right in front of the store. He would pretend to notice Stevie for the first time and urge Ted to act. The young mother would thank him. Laura would grudgingly admit that his powers of observation impressed her.
“So is his toe all better now?” asked Keith, as he watched Stevie round the back corner.
“Well, he’s all better,” said Ted. “He just had it cut off.”
Keith looked at Ted. “What?”
“He had it removed,” said Ted. “He’s only got four toes now.”
Keith imagined having a gaping hole where a toe had once flourished. “The doctor cut it off?”
“Yep,” said Ted, “lopped it right off. The guy’s even got the toe in a jar of formaldehyde at his house.” Ted smiled. Keith could see that the salesman enjoyed telling this story and shocking his listener. Keith did not disappoint him.
“A podiatrist did this?” asked Keith.
“I assume so,” said Ted. “My friend couldn’t afford to take time off of work. It would have taken six to eight weeks to correct it, but by having it removed, he was back to work in two.”
Keith tried to process this information. Three years ago, the dentist had located significant decay in one of his back teeth. She had given Keith the option of having the tooth extracted or doing a root canal. She recommended the root canal. She was always in favor of saving the tooth, but she realized that not everybody could afford that option. Fortunately, Keith had adequate financial means, and today he still had all his teeth.
A toe, though, seemed more significant that a tooth. One toe represented ten percent of a person’s toes. Would a missing toe have a negative effect on a person’s balance? “So does he get around okay?” asked Keith.
“Oh, sure,” said Ted. “He works for UPS, and I see him out and about, zipping around no problem. A couple of months ago he even ran a marathon.”
“I’m glad it all worked out for him,” said Keith.
A young couple walked through the front door. “Take care,” said Ted as he sprung into action.
Having recovered from Ted’s story, Keith looked out the window to locate Stevie.
The boy was gone.
Keith carefully scanned the entire parking lot from one side to another, but no Stevie. Maybe he had tired of his run and was now catching his breath on pristine furniture. Keith searched as much as the store as he could from his chair, but Stevie was nowhere to be seen.
Though Keith never really thought anything bad would happen to Stevie, there was little question that the boy was now gone and that Keith was the only person who knew about it. Stevie’s mother was watching the saleswoman add a leaf to a table. Laura was sitting and looking at catalogs, the last resort of the desperate and frustrated furniture shopper.
“Stevie, get back here right now,” said the young mother. She had finally looked behind her to find Stevie’s chair empty. The voice increased in volume and seriousness. “Steven Andrew Jorgensen, don’t make me come after you.”
Keith knew that this was his moment of truth. He could remain silent. He could pretend to be as concerned and puzzled about Stevie’s disappearance as everybody else. Nobody would think badly of him for reading his book instead of tracking somebody else’s wandering child.
Whenever he saw Stevie’s sweet, smiling face in the local paper or on a piece of bulk mail, though, he would remember what a selfish coward he had been on the day of the boy’s disappearance.
Keith got a taste of the guilt just by thinking about it. He knew that he would not be able to endure this crushing weight.
He gathered his resolve to shout at the top of his lungs. Everybody in the store would flock to the emergency, and he would tell the entire story. He would even admit that he faked an injured foot. He would make himself look like a self-centered idiot, and maybe—just maybe—Stevie could be returned unharmed to his mother’s loving embrace. Keith had read enough thrillers to know that the longer he waited to sound the alarm, the greater the chance that Stevie would never again be seen alive. The press would revile him for his indecision. Laura would either leave him or stick it out in a cold, loveless marriage. Neighbors would throw raw eggs at his front windows. There would still be regret and self-flagellation, but he just might be able to look at his unshaven, haggard face in the mirror every morning.
“Stevie, come here now!” shouted the mother. Keith thought detected a hint of distress in the voice. In the next few minutes, her fear would begin to outweigh her annoyance.
Stevie did not appear.
Keith cleared his throat.
“That’s it, Stevie,” called the mother. “We’re going home and I’m taking away your video games for a week.”
“Hey!” shouted Keith as he raised his hands.
With the baby in one arm, the woman strode past the bedding and walked right up to a white china cabinet that stood along the side wall. She opened the door, reached inside, and pulled Stevie from his hiding place. “When I say come, you need to come,” she said. With a firm grip around Stevie’s upper arm, she marched the boy to the front of the store.
Ted and his new customers were standing by the refrigerator watching the mother approach with her children. “And give the nice man back his fork,” she said. Stevie reached into his pocket, pulled out the utensil, and handed it to Ted. Ted took the fork and, seeing that the mother had her hands full, held the front door open for her. The mother thanked Ted and left.
Laura had heard Keith’s cry and looked up from her catalog. “What?” she mouthed.
Keith pointed outside and placed his head against his folded hands. Laura waved him off and returned to her table search. Then Keith finished his Coke, stood up, and headed back to the car to take a nap.
Tom W. Miller lives an ordinary life yet finds insight and entertainment from his everyday experiences. He has published a previous story in Red Fez and lives in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with his family.