I Bought Bernie's Sofa
I bought Bernie’s sofa at the estate sale last Friday; dragged it across his driveway into my garage - my ‘man-cave’ as Joanie called it. My wife waited, ready with her vacuum to suck away remnants of my buddy’s life caught beneath the sofa cushions. When I uncovered the jumble of junk tucked away, I told her to go inside. Said I needed time.
I knelt on the cement floor, picked through what was left of my neighbor and my best friend. I slipped four quarters and eight pennies into my pocket. I scooped up scattered bits and pieces: potato chip crumbs, a loop of pretzel, one gray sock, broken reading glasses, and five discolored Skittles.
I discovered a folded scrap of pink paper—a dry cleaner’s slip with ball gown
scribbled in ink. My friend never married nor involved himself with women.
“Can I come out now?” Joanie yelled from the house. “Or do you need more time with the dear departed?”
“Go to hell,” I answered back, wishing I’d followed Bernie’s lead.
I pushed open the door to Sunshine Cleaners. A skinny sleepy woman shuffled to the counter.
“May I help you?”
I handed her Bernie’s slip and held my breath, hoping she didn’t know him by sight.
She punched in the number. “Already picked up.”
“A few minutes ago,” she said and looked out the window. “By her.” She pointed to a woman climbing into a Jeep with a license plate that read DANCE123.
I ran out hoping to catch her, but she drove off. Her car idled on the hill where she waited for the traffic light to change. I raced to my car, forgot to shift into reverse and almost drove into the dry cleaner’s front window. The skinny chick inside screamed. I backed my tires off the curb to start the chase, but the Jeep was gone.
“Run the plate, Suzy,” I said with a grin. “For old times´ sake?”
I hoped to cash in on our history together. Suzy was my first girlfriend, the first girl I kissed, and the first girl to break my heart. We were eighth graders at Holy Infant grade school. She asked me to a dance. I hesitated to consider whether Suzy was the best I could do, realized she was better than I could do, and accepted her invitation.
Suz and I slow danced to Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven
, a song that was too ungodly long for someone who hated dancing. That night I kissed Suzy outside the gym. We dated exclusively during the rest of eighth grade, but in August she told me she wanted to be free to date older boys in the upper grades and wished me well.
I knew she couldn’t turn me down. She would remember my heartsick notes I stuck in her high school locker until Father Murphy warned me to ‘cease and desist.’ Standing in the DMV, before this girl who broke my heart, I wondered why I suffered through half of ninth grade. The flush of youth no longer lit her cheeks and she got fat. Really fat.
“You’re sure it was a Rhode Island plate?” she asked, staring at her computer screen.
She glanced up, her head tilted to one side as if studying a work of modern art.
“Here it is. Mildred Waters. 245 Market Street. Walpole.”
I scribbled down the name and address.
“Thanks, Suz!” I said, and blew her a kiss for the hell of it.
After locating the red-shuttered ranch behind Walmart, I considered my approach. I could introduce myself as Bernie’s friend, of course, but how to explain tracking her down?
Stalker. Creeper. Arrested.
But I was in the right, I told myself. She took Bernie’s possession. That was theft. Stolen merchandise. She was the one who should worry about an arrest.
I felt emboldened. I left my car, walked to her front door, and pounded my fist. I almost shouted police, open up.
I heard a shuffle before the door opened. An elderly woman with graying s-shaped coils of curls flowing to her shoulders appeared and squinted her eyes from the bright sunlight.
“May I help you?” she asked in a sultry whisper.
I felt unnerved and stuttered, trying to explain my reason for standing on her front steps. When she smiled, my breathing slowed.
“You must be Fred,” she said opening her door wider. “Come inside.”
She ushered me into her airy living room. Black and white photographs of dancers covered the walls. I noticed a glossy photo autographed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The mantelpiece was lined with photos of this woman draped in silky gowns and holding golden trophies.
“I’m afraid the days of winning dance contests are long gone,” she said before sitting on a settee and patting the cushion to join her.
I chose to stand.
“How did you know my name?” I asked, figuring it was as good a start as any to begin a conversation.
“From Bernie, of course. He spoke of you often while we danced,” she said, pointing to the wall.
When I turned in that direction, I noticed a photograph framed in glass and put on my reading glasses for a closer view. Bernie. He was dancing with this woman across a ballroom floor.
“I didn’t know Bernie danced.”
“Oh, where are my manners? I’m Mildred,” she said, extending her hand. Her fingers felt delicate and smooth against my calloused palm. “Bernie asked to keep his dancing between us.
I studied her blue eyes swimming in red-veined milky splendor and discovered kindness.
She added, “We met every Thursday night.”
Bernie played poker with his work buddies that night. He had for years.
“He never said.”
I looked again at the photo of Bernie dancing. He looked…joyous.
“He wasn’t sure what you’d think,” she whispered.
“I miss Bernie,” I admitted. “And I guess, well, you’ve lost your dance partner.”
When she nodded, her curls bounced against her shoulders filling the air with the fragrance of romance.
“I’m not much of a dancer,” I said, unable to ask straight out.
“I’m an excellent teacher.” She smiled coyly like Suzy did during that first dance so long ago.
“Well, I have plenty to learn. But let’s not tell my wife.”