KR OnlineFiction

The Upholsterer

Enrique looked at his cousin and at the sofa that had just landed in his workshop.

The couch was a sodden mess covered in food stuffs, and Enrique really didn’t want to know about it, nor did he have any expectations of what he would find underneath the fabric. Probably a factory-assembled piece of cheap teakwood with low-grade stuffing and springs.

His cousin had set it down in Enrique’s workspace with a flourish, like he had just delivered some kind of precious cargo or gift, and then started talking some crazy shit about the San Gabriel Valley. Enrique shook his head, ignored Gilbert, and evaluated the piece of crap in front of him. He expected the cushion seat to be landfill when he ripped it up, but he liked the lines of the sofa. He’d make his decision when he slit it open to examine its springs and its bones.

“I don’t know,” Gil insisted. “Thought you could make some money on it, you know? This girl I met was just gonna throw it out.”

Enrique nodded his head, then glanced at Gilbert, whose insistent presence was making him edgy. Enrique’s eyes narrowed. Why was he still here?

“You want a coffee? A beer?”

“Nah, primo, I just wanted to give this to a good home. Maybe you can get a good price for it.”

Enrique, doubting it profoundly, made a sour face, then realized why this young man hovered. “Thank you, Gil,” Enrique said.

Gilbert dipped his head, clambered back into his tow truck, and drove off.

The sofa sat there in a provocative silence.

If he left the wet fabric covering it, even if it had beautiful wood, it could warp. Enrique ran his hands through his hair; he needed to get it trimmed, the gray was overtaking the black, and a sharp razor cut would help convince Javier that he was still a youngish man, not young like Gil, but not an old man, yet.

He reached for his staple remover, started feeling around at the webbing of the base, then the platform, and was pleasantly surprised to find there were no staples. He nodded to himself. Now the odds of finding kiln-fired wood were not certain but better.

He reached for his wooden mallet and his ripping chisel with the shouldered tang. The gentle approach would take much longer, but now he had a sense it would be worth it.

He had wanted to simply strip the fabric, any lining, to ensure that the wood underneath wouldn’t become damaged by the moisture. Instead he found himself pulling off the fabric and removing the stuffing. The springs had been hand-tied, eight times. There was no trace of glue, the wood interlocked beautifully. And the wood was kiln-fired. Enrique was impressed with his cousin’s find. This piece was all show wood and had beautiful bones. It reminded him of Javier.

The stuffing thoroughly removed, the springs inspected, the wood admired, Enrique returned his tools to where they belonged, carried the destroyed fabric to the side of his workshop, and threw it all into the dumpster.

Inside his home he showered off the sweat of exertion and avoided thinking about Javier in Vancouver. Drying himself off with a worn gray towel, he inspected himself in the mirror. He knew what he saw in Javier: the fine bones, the dark, laughing eyes, that sweet scent of his. And what did he have? Gray hair sprouting in alarming places, a face of pouches, eyes that glared red.

He’d have gone to Vancouver if he could.

That evening Enrique lay in his bed and listened to the sounds of the freeway rushing by. He listened until it slowed, faded, and he heard no more.

Enrique’s shop was the garage of his home. The sofa arrived between jobs; Enrique had just finished up the enormous task of recovering an elaborate dining set that would ultimately find its home in a palatial dining room inside a Chatsworth gated community.

He worked only by word of mouth and was never without work for long. Many of his finely crafted pieces could be found throughout Southern California, from Brentwood to Corona Del Mar. His clients had paid for his home here and a home for his mother in another world, for him another planet, Teotitlán del Valle.

Best not to think on that.

Would he have crossed if he knew he wouldn’t be able to return?

Would he have?

Now he spoke more English than Zapotec and less Zapotec than Spanish. Not enough room in his head for everything, and while learning this trade from a Russian born in Minsk, he learned English and Yiddish.

He texted his mother every few days and sent her money every week, spoke to her on Sunday mornings.

Sending the money was his ritual, his belief that she would live forever.

He hated to think of that: she would not live forever, so when would he see her again?

The first time Javier showed him how to Skype with her was a disaster. Something was wrong on her end, and she didn’t have anyone there who could help. The next time one of Enrique’s many nieces, Demetria, made it work, and there they were, all of them, in the concrete home Enrique’s money had built. There was his mother smiling down into the screen, laughing at it all, and Enrique got so choked up he couldn’t speak.

Did the camera distort her face? Or had it sagged and flattened and spread in the time he had last seen her? He could only watch her, he couldn’t touch her or feel her, and for days afterwards there was an ache in his chest as if his ribs were broken. As if he were broken.

“So go visit,” Javier said, with a young man’s ease and the entitlement of a US passport.

He was too old to make that trip north a second time. The first time to the States, nearly forty years ago, at fifteen, had almost killed him.

No, he would not do that again.

“Why don’t you get legal?” Javier had asked him. The depth of ignorance that question betrayed threatened to uncouple his emotions for Javier.

“How?” he had asked, icily.

“Talk to an attorney.”

At which point Enrique coldly laid out the various legal routes for immigration, none of which applied to him, a self-employed single man.

Javier frowned in a way that destroyed Enrique’s anger and said, “I always thought there was a way, dude.”

Too beautiful, too young to realize that not every dream is possible.

The bones of the abandoned sofa tugged at him, like Javier, he thought. Did Javier need furniture? Did his own living room need a piece of folly—to displace the winged armchairs he had so tenderly revived? To guard his meager coffee table and gaze at a blank wall?

The empty days stretched into an empty week, and Enrique filled it with the project of this couch. If he couldn’t find the right home for it, he’d put it in his own living room. He felt the itch of this wood beckon him, and without a client to please or to accommodate, he had his own design in mind.

Had it been forty years since he felt her touch, her breath on his face, her eyes on his face, her light touch on his arm, her love on his skin? Had it been forty years, and as he worked, why could he not stop thinking about her? Was this an omen, a foreshadowing, was she leaving this world? Was she calling him back?

He would call her in the morning. He would talk to her. He would remember that he had been hearing her voice each week, and its gradual descent into the voice of an older woman he had never met. He loved her, it was all right, she knew he loved her. The checks proved that, her home proved that, his work proved that.

A raw ache continued to spread inside him, as if his ribs were shards of glass.

He was getting old. He was getting sentimental. This was stupid.

The price of his home on a rough lot in El Monte would have shocked his family in Teotitlán. They celebrated his success, however, with packages from home filled with food stuffs that made it through: small gifts, carved, woven, painted. But what touched him the most was the tapestry his mother and her sisters had woven, the reds and blues of his childhood, the greens and yellows of his hometown, the vibrant colors of the skirts, and the embroidery on the blouses the women wore.

He rubbed his hand across the fabric. He felt the texture of the weave, the compact threading. He examined the stitching of the embroidery. He examined the structure of the furniture again.

At least this dream was achievable.

A designer texted him, and he ignored it. An upholstered headboard, a dining set, a quien sabe que—he ignored it.

Javier called, and they spoke. Javier had quite a bit of work in Vancouver; he wouldn’t be back as soon as he thought.

Enrique closed his eyes against this. Was it a lie? Was it a gentle dismissal?

He had never been a jealous man; he had navigated his passions with a silent equanimity, a sense that people arrived and people disappeared, just as he had, and inevitably so would they. But now that he was in his fifties, he felt himself grasping for Javier, hoping to hold him close, fast, and for good.

Enrique knew Javier was a young man. How much longer could this last?

The fabric from his hometown would not, of course, be enough for the couch. But he knew what he wanted.

He measured, then ordered online. He adjusted the springs. When the distressed leather arrived, he measured, sewed, then stitched. He double-checked the linings for the distressed leather. Again he measured, cut, and stitched. He spent an entire afternoon adjusting the stuffing, ensuring its firmness to what he had in mind. He embedded the talisman of his hometown in the center of the sofa back, a vibrant contrast with the tanned leather.

When he was done, he paced around it, examining the base, to verify that his handiwork was invisible, admiring the stitching on the leather seams he had added as a decorative element. He sat down and found himself pleased with the firmness; he leaned back and felt the gentle brush of fabric behind his head.

He stood and examined it again with his skeptical, professional eye, and decided he had done well. With the help of a dolly and drop cloths, he wheeled it into his living area, pushing aside the armchairs, moving the stacks of circulars and junk mail into the trash, and gently lowering the new couch to the floor, maneuvering it until Enrique felt it was in its rightful place.

He stood across from it and nodded at the shape, at the vibrancy of the fabric, at the completion of his work. “Good,” he said.

After he showered, he drove a few blocks and picked up a torta with fries and brought it home. He ate in silence at his dining table and admired the back of his new sofa. He texted with his mother; they would talk tomorrow, Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m., as usual.

He cleaned up after himself, throwing out the leftover scraps of food, the packaging, wiping down his simple table. He washed and dried his hands; he didn’t want greasy finger prints on his new piece of furniture.

He sat down on it, and approved again. He stretched across it, grabbing a cushion he had made, also from his hometown fabric, propped it under his head, and closed his eyes.

He listened to the traffic noise of the highway; to the distant barking of a lonely dog, and its loneliness made him think of Javier and how they had not spoken in a week. He had done this work for him, Enrique realized. He had hoped this would be a gift, like a grand gesture. He was certain that, instead, it would stay in his own living room.

He thought of his brother and sisters with their families in el Valle. He had not wanted their lives. Did he want this one?

You make yourself crazy. In the States, people made themselves crazy, he had noticed. They don’t even know they’re doing it—and now he was turning into one of them, fully American.

The pain in his chest increased. This was his life. This was who he was. This was who he would remain.

That was the refrain that circled in his head, and at the same time he swore he could catch the scent of his mother, the scent of wool across a loom. He closed his eyes.

When he awoke, he lay a moment on the sofa before opening his eyes. He felt an unusual warmth across his body and thought it might be sun streaming in—he heard the familiar squawking of a distant rooster, but the highway was silent. Was it Sunday already? He had to get ready for his call.

He opened his eyes and became immediately disoriented. He was lying on his sofa but no longer in his living room; he was in the bright outdoor sunshine. What kind of prank was this? Had someone moved him in his sleep? Was he drunk? Medicated? Having an attack of the nerves?

He blinked against the light up into an unfamiliar shade of blue sky; glancing around he saw that he and the couch were propped against a building. He inhaled—there was no longer a trace of diesel, a whisper of salt. He inhaled the scent of the earth and something familiar―the grass-like weed at his feet he recognized as pipicha. When was the last time he had eaten this? He grasped a clump, inhaled, and chewed on a stalk: hints of mint and cilantro, this was the taste of home. He stood, a little unevenly, and the view of the valley was like a blow to his sternum: he knew that valley from childhood—although the buildings and acres of fields must have exploded four times at least. He looked around wildly. He knew where he was, and he didn’t care how he had gotten there.

He moved around the building and saw the concrete structure that now replaced the walls of wood he had grown up in.

“Amá, Amá” he said, and strode off in search of her.

From inside the building he heard her welcoming response, “Shiñe, Shiñe.”

 

Javier parked in Enrique’s drive. He was tired from the flight, and a bit irritated that Enrique hadn’t returned his calls. So moody! So emo! Javier had once thought natives were stoic, silent people who never betrayed their emotions. Enrique did. With a tiny movement of his mouth Javier could read the multifaceted range of his emotions: disapproval, need, tenderness, relief.

Enrique adored him, and, in return, Javier found himself, despite the age difference, loving him. With Enrique, Javier at last felt calm, soothed, desired, and loved.

You could love someone and still be annoyed by his moodiness, thought Javier, and he tramped up the steps and rapped sternly on the front door.

Silence.

Javier unhitched his messenger bag from his shoulder, dug around into it, and pulled out his set of keys. Enrique was such a funny old man, the way he had given him a set of keys, as if he had presumed too much.

Javier unlocked the dead bolt, retrieved his bag, and stepped in.

“Enrique?”

Javier spotted a new couch. For a moment Javier admired the furniture; it would have to have been his work to have been elevated into this prominent place in the home. He crept up to it, silently. The leather was a weathered deep tan, as dark as Enrique, with a spectacularly colored swatch of fabric working into it.

“Hey, hey, Enrique,” Javier called out. “Wake up, viejito.” It was, after all, the afternoon. Javier strode into the bedroom, but Enrique was not there either. He walked around the home, went out to the workshop.

Enrique’s car was here, but he was not.

Javier sat down on the new sofa to wait. He rubbed his hands over the smooth, aged leather and the ripple of the textured fabric. He reached over to the throw pillow, to plump it, and out spilled a clump of grass that smelled of mint and cilantro.

Désirée Zamorano
Désirée Zamorano is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Amado Women, Cinco Puntos Press, 2014. A frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, her stories and essays have appeared in Huizache, PANK, Origins, Catapult, and elsewhere. She is the director of Occidental College’s Community Literacy Center. www.desireezamorano.com