Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
A THIEF COMES CALLING
Mira cruised up Main Street looking for the parking lot. There it was over on the left. Sure enough, theNew Hope township commissioners had given her her very own parking space.
“The Rug Merchant” read the sign as she backed into the spot, right next to Gerenser’s 48-Flavors Ice Cream.
The lot had been nicely plowed, Mira thought, as she smoothed down her ankle-length skirt, checked herself in the rear-view mirror - she knew she was a beauty – but, at twenty-eight, was the only one of four girls unmarried in her Orthodox Jewish family.
The air in the resort town smelled fresh and clean, with a hint of pine in the breeze. Although statistics said it rained once every three days in neighboring Philadelphia, there were so many good days it didn’t matter. Sort of like her own sales record at the shop. Some days she barely sold a pair of earrings, other days she might make ten or twelve-thousand dollars on her imported carpets.
“Hello, Miss Nessenbaum,” said the postman, who was wheeling his cart on the sidewalk.
“Jack!” she said. “For heaven’s sake, call me Mira.” She repeated it for emphasis. “Mee-ra, Mee-ra, Mee-ra.”
He doffed his cap, repeated her name, and said he’d see her later on in his run.
Oh, if only she would get some orders through the mail instead of all those invoices she had to pay.
With her pocketbook slung over her chest, she walked briskly to her store, refusing to window-shop at the other stores in this famous resort town on the Delaware. The same town, she remembered, where news anchorwoman Jessica Savitch and her date ate at the chic French restaurant Chez Odette – Mira kept kosher and only walked passed it, smelling the “trafe” food – but after the anchorwoman ate a meal, she returned to her car, with her date, and they backed right into the Delaware River. Death by drowning.
So many ways to die, Mira thought, as she jingled the keys to her shop on Bridge Street.
She waved to the cop in the little house that stood before the noisy chain-link bridge from New Hopeto Lambertville, New Jersey. The Delaware was calm today and patches of snow were beginning to melt, showing the newly-freed green grass that lay at the side of her large shop.
A colorful sign “The Rug Merchant” hung high above the store. She oversaw its design, choosing blue and burgundy, didn’t mind if it cost a pretty penny. It was The Rug Merchant’s best advertising tool, along with its online presence. Wealthy people drove down from New York City to look at her stock. Mira’s shop not only contained carpets but imported silk wall hangings, jewelry for men and women, and a new line of suitcases she found at a home show in New York.
Entering the store, the first thing she did was to check to make sure no one had broken in. The holiday season was a dangerous time and the New Hope police personally visited every shopkeeper to warn them not to leave cash in the till and to double-check their locks.
Locking the door behind her, she would open at precisely ten a.m. and not a moment sooner, even if an anxious customer knocked on the door and begged to be let inside.
She went into her inner sanctum, her small windowless office, which smelled of coffee and ripe bananas. She fairly smiled at her Keurig coffee maker, selected a dark-roasted bean, clicked the packet into place, and waited to hear the first drippings of coffee falling into her dark blue mug.
Her eyes swept across her desk. She was OCD-orderly. Neatness, to Mira, meant a sparkling clear mind, ready to do business.
Orthodox Jews were for the most part disciplined. “To everything its season.” To everything, a prayer of gratefulness, including the dark roasted coffee, which Mira sipped on while she turned on her Bose radio to the classical musical station – she recognized Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – and dusted off a few glass shelves.
Five customers were lined up outside the shop. They were bundled up against the cold and a few clapped their hands together to keep warm. The Rug Merchant sold a dozen clocks, most imported fromSwitzerland and Belgium – she refused to carry anything from Germany – and when the silver anniversary clock swirled around, doing its merry little dance, while chiming ten times, she went over to the door and let in her potential customers.
“Good morning, good morning,” she cooed. “Thank you for shopping at The Rug Merchant.”
In filed five customers including a man who did not look like a customer. What was he doing here? A quick wave of fear chilled her stomach. “Gherlin,” she thought. The fear hormone residing in the fundus of the stomach. Mira had dropped out of medical school. She couldn’t stand the curriculum of memorizing everything, the lack of sleep, creating purple puffy bags under her eyes – periorbital puffiness, they called it in med school - and the sorry lack of contemplative Jewish males.
“Let me show you what I just got in from Persia,” she said to a handsome couple. Walking over to her rolled-up carpets on the floor, she pulled out a small red and blue beauty. They oohed and aahed.
“Marvin,” said the handsome woman. “That’s it. That’s exactly what I want for the foyer.”
“It’s yours, my love,” he said.
What an easy sale that was. Some customers hung around for an hour or more and Mira got an ache in her back and chapped hands from rolling out the heavy carpets over and over, while they tried to decide.
At last, she was alone with the stranger.
“How can I help you, sir?” she asked.
He was tall with thick gray stubble on his face.
The soprano was singing on the radio and Mira snapped her fingers to the rhythm.
“You ain’t gonna believe this,” he said. “But my whole life I’ve wanted a beautiful rug for my apartment.”
“Your name, sir?”
“Jimmy,” he said.
She thrust out her hand which he took with both of his.
“I’m so happy you let me in,” he said. He was missing some side teeth.
“What can I show you, Jimmy?”
They spent the next two hours together. Mira brought him a mug of coffee and they sat on a rug-covered bench, which was really a piano stool, and talked.
Jimmy had just gotten out of prison. He was a thief.
“I been to just about every goddamn prison, ‘scuse my French, in the state of Pennsylvania,” he grinned. “Don’t like it none and that’s why I swear to God,” he said, raising his right hand, “I’m gonna try to never steal again. But it ain’t gonna be easy, I’ll tell you that.”
“Don’t try not to steal. Just make a promise to yourself and your God.”
“You’re a good woman,” he said.
He told her a story. Years ago, he went to a party, got stinking drunk and had a fling with a beautiful Jewish woman who was attracted to him. The woman, whose name was Anna Schwartz, was now the head of the American Jewish Foundation of Philadelphia.
“My bad seed turned to gold,” smiled Jimmy.
Mira smiled and had a fantasy of going to bed with him. It was not unpleasant.
“A penny for your thoughts,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Let’s take a look at the rugs. Pick out what you’d like.”
They went to the middle of the store where rugs hung on heavy metal hangers. Jimmy, who smelled of cigarettes and sweat, fondled every rug he saw, feeling the fine woven contents, then swinging over to another rug.
“These are just bee-you-ti-ful,” he said. “But I know what I want. I knew it the first time I saw it.”
She looked at him.
“I want you,” he said, laughing. “Not really. Well, a’course I do, but I know I can’t have you. I’ll take this here yeller rug in your place.”
He turned to the first rug they looked at.
“I’ll say one thing, Jimmy. You have exquisite taste.”
Mira told him about the ten-thousand dollar rug he selected. Told him it was made of one-hundred percent silk, which, although made by the tiny silkworm, was the strongest natural fiber in the world.
“If you let me pay in installments, I can get it.”
“We’ll work something out,” she said.
The chimes jingled on the front door and in walked the mailman.
“Should I leave it on the counter?” he called to her.
“I’ll take it,” she said, walking over to him.
“Thanks, Jack. What’s going on in town? Good holiday traffic?”
“Well, if having the cars at a standstill is any sign, then the merchants are doing gangbusters.”
“That’s what we like to hear,” she said.
“You all right?” he asked in a sort of whisper.
“Just fine. Meet Jimmy. He wants the finest rug in my collection.”
Jack nodded his head and said he must be going.
“Merry Christmas,” he called while Bach’s Oratorio filled up the now-empty store.
Mira excused herself and opened the door to her office. She refilled her cup of coffee and sat down at her desk to relax and look over the mail. Three catalogs had come in. She turned to the back cover and caressed a shiny carpet from Pakistan, then put it in her stack of catalogs. She went through the fun things first before seeing if any invoices had arrived or, more importantly, new orders.
Fancy stationery heralded a possible buyer from Connecticut, the rich bedroom city of New York. Opening the envelope with her pink-colored nails, she gasped. A man named Henri La Vin had ordered a twenty-thousand dollar Persian from her online catalog.
“Thank you, Lord,” she said, looking up at the ceiling. Looks like I can stay in business another year.
“More coffee, Jimmy?” she called out.
She heard the coffee dripping, and walked out into the store.
Where had Jimmy gone? He was nowhere to be found.
His blue cup of coffee had an inch left of coffee. She went to the front door, opened it, and walked outside.
He had utterly vanished.
Mira forgot about him as the day wore on. The Lord was good to her. Her sales surpassed anything she had ever known before. She began to dream. She had a condo at Summerhill Farms three miles away in New Hope where she lived with her cat, Miss Suze. Maybe she could buy that red leather recliner she saw in the window of Harold’s Modern Designs on Main Street. Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to sit there, with Miss Suze in her lap, and put her tired aching feet up at the end of the day?
“You materialist!” she chastised herself, laughing. “Is it so terrible, Lord, to want a few pretty things?”
Sitting down at her desk to get ready to close for the day, she held out her small hands, and looped a finger around her ring finger, pretending she was engaged to be married.
“Silly! You silly silly gir!” she laughed, as she gathered up her pocketbook, stuffing it with checks and bundles of cash. After locking up the shop, she looked up and down Bridge Street to make sure she wasn’t being followed.
She closed at six, while other stores closed later, a hedge, she believed, against getting mugged.
Okay, she thought, I’ll look at the red recliner in the window and imagine. As she walked down Bridge Street, she cast her eyes to the corner shop. The owner, Harold Lerner, was a nice elderly gentleman, widowed last year, and slightly senile. His daughter had just come to work with him, letting him believe he was still in charge.
There it was in all its magnificence. How nice it would look on her turquoise and yellow silk carpet. Miss Suze would love it, too. She loved soft material to rub herself on.
As she stood entranced by the recliner, she thought she was imagining someone’s arms around her chest. But, no, someone was tugging at her pocketbook, which was slung across her chest. She was prepared for this. Once, when she was at med school, she was going down a back stairway, and a neighborhood kid, wearing a sweatshirt and hood, grabbed at her backpack.
She had given out a galloping scream that sent the young man running.
Now, in the darkness of the winter’s early evening, in front of the recliner of her dreams, she opened her mouth to scream.
A hand stopped her and pushed her to the ground. She could not see his face as he pried the pocketbook from underneath her. He struck her hard on the head with his fist so she passed out for a few seconds. When she awoke, she lay sobbing on the sidewalk, humiliated, her head throbbing with pain.
Where were the pedestrians to help her? Why hadn’t anyone come to her rescue? This was the Kitty Genovese story all over again, she thought as she forced herself off the sidewalk, Kitty, the woman inBrooklyn who was stabbed to death while the whole neighborhood witnessed the murder from their windows.
She knew where Jimmy lived. And she was going to find him. She began to trot down the street. She trotted past her new parking spot, then kept on going to the motel at the end of the town. That was his apartment house, he had told her. The Sunrise Family Motel was all lit up with Christmas lights. In front was the Nativity Scene, all in white. The office was closed but she rang the bell and a woman answered.
“What happened to you, Miss? You’re a bloody mess,” she said.
“I’m fine,” said Mira. “Which room is Jimmy’s? I don’t know his last name.”
“Jimmy Reilly, that would be.”
She pointed across the courtyard and sent her to apartment nine.
His old Chevrolet was parked in front of his blinds-covered window. Mira walked across the sidewalk, heart pounding, and knocked on the door. She tried to peek into the blinds to see if her red pocketbook was there.
There was no answer.
“Jimmy, I know you’re in there,” she said. “Open up!”
There was still no answer. She decided to wait for him if it took all night. Suddenly she saw him walking outdoors, a tall man in a warm navy peacoat – was it prison issue? He didn’t see her.
Where was he going? She began to follow him. His hands were stuffed in his pockets and he was mumbling to himself.
She was taken aback when he abruptly turned around and saw her.
“Why, miss?” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I want to come into your apartment,” she said.
“Impossible,” he said. “Impossible.”
“I insist,” she said, following him to number nine.
He was blowing on his hands he was so cold. She stood in front of the door. Finally, he took out his key and opened the door.
She rushed inside, right behind him. The room was neat as a pin. Nothing was out of place. Two chairs, a desk, a bureau with a mirror and a television set. A bathroom was in the corner. Mira walked through all the rooms, searching. She looked in all the drawers and under the bed.
Jimmy laughed. “No, ma’am,” he said. “I didn’t steal none of your rugs. Got out of the shop before temptation took a hold of me.”
She sat down on his bed.
“I was friggin’ mugged, Jimmy. My pocketbook was stolen.” She began to cry.
Jimmy went into the bathroom and she heard him running the water. He returned with a hot washcloth.
“Reminds me, miss, of all the fights I got into,” he said, as he lay the hot cloth gently across her face. She saw all the blood on the washcloth.
“I’ll tell you something, miss. If I had seen that bastard touching you, I’d have beaten the crap out of him.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, lying down on the white bedspread. “I know.”
Jimmy came over and lay down beside her. “I ain’t gonna touch you now, miss. Not unless you want me to.”
She reached up and put her hands on his cheeks.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like you to touch me. I need you right now, Jimmy, just like that other Jewish girl did.”