He found her already seated at the coffee shop.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He held out his hand.
Bethany paused before accepting.
“I’m Keith,” he said once her fingers were wrapped in his, and laughed at himself. “Of course, you know that. I’m sorry. May I?” He gestured to the chair across from her.
Bethany nodded, wondered why he didn’t get himself a cup of coffee first.
“No use in wasting time, so I’ll just ask,” he said. “Have you made a decision?”
Bethany responded honestly. She shook her head.
“Good, then I can still convince you.” Keith scooted his chair forward. “I know it’s a family heirloom, but if you keep it locked away in storage, what difference does it make if you technically own it or someone else does? If you sell it to me, you can visit it. I can loan it to you. We could even agree that you can buy it back at any time.”
Bethany wondered why it mattered so much to him. That he wanted it so very badly made her want to refuse him the satisfaction. “How much are you willing to pay?” she asked.
Keith blinked rapidly. “Well, we discussed fifty thousand dollars.”
Bethany frowned. She had learned to do this during negotiations of any kind.
Keith filled his lungs. “But I’m prepared to go up to seventy-five thousand dollars.” He looked down at her coffee cup now, ready to wait for her response.
“Would you get me a refill?” she asked. She enjoyed this power. She held it tight.
Keith jumped up. “Of course.” She could feel his relief at stepping away. He ushered her mug over to the counter and asked the barista for a cup of his own, as well. She watched him closely as he pulled out a few bills. She examined the repetitive wear of his wallet on his back pocket. She noticed the bevel of the outside heel of his shoes, evidence of uncorrected supination and thriftiness. The money he offered her could be better spent.
When Keith returned, he looked expectant, hopeful the delay might have delivered a verdict.
He sipped his coffee. “I’m happy to answer any questions.” He smiled.
Bethany found the way he forced himself to keep his gaze on her willful. She respected his determination and broke eye contact herself to see his index finger fidget the cuticle of his thumb, torn raw and red.
“Or maybe I can ask you a question,” Keith said. “What’s holding you back? Why not sell it?” He lifted his mug to his lips again.
Something about this query settled it for Bethany. “I’m sorry,” she said. “No deal.”
Keith set his mug down a little too hard. Coffee rushed over the edge of the cup and ran down the tilt of the table into his lap. “Shoot,” he said. He ran to retrieve some napkins, wiping first at the splash on his pants and then mopping at the edges of the mug on the table. Bethany didn’t move or speak. When Keith finally resettled, he said, “Why?”
Bethany looked into Keith’s eyes for the answer, but all she turned up was the realization that she didn’t need to explain it to him. She felt her shoulders flinch, as if the decision mattered little to her, no possibility of reversing it.
“There’s nothing I can do to convince you?”
She shook her head and tightened her lips.
Keith stood, a ball of wet napkins clenched in his fist. “Okay,” he said. “You know where to find me if you change your mind.” Blood swamped her heart. “Have a good afternoon, then.” Keith turned away, but spun back again. “I don’t have it, but if I’d offered a hundred thousand, would that have made a difference?” he asked.
“No,” she said. She held out her hand, hoping to end the conversation as it had begun, before she remembered the wad of napkins. She placed her palm back on the table.
“Then why … All right. Thank you, Joanne.” Adrenaline rushed behind the name Joanne, but Bethany maintained her composure. Keith walked away with purpose. He pulled open the door and Bethany watched through the window as he disappeared right and then crossed back left, changing his mind about where he was headed or unfamiliar with the neighborhood.
Bethany wondered what it was Keith had wanted. She wondered what Joanne had to give. She wondered why she felt like it was her place to decide for both of them, but it had all unfolded so easily. She took a last sip of her coffee and gathered her things.
A woman in a polished pantsuit walked through the door, her eyes looking for someone. She asked at the counter about the man whom she was supposed to meet.
Bethany let her fingers fall on the shoulder of the woman as lightly as possible and leaned in. “Joanne?” The woman’s whole body pursed under Bethany’s touch. “Keep it,” she whispered.
When the first printer showed up, we almost refused delivery, so certain were we it was a mistake. We opened the box to find a receipt from the shopping channel that plainly displayed Mother’s name. “I didn’t order this!” she exclaimed, and we believed her. She didn’t even know how to turn on the computer, so why would she order a printer? In the payment field of the bill, we saw that the QVC charge had been submitted through our cable provider. We wound up our faces in confusion, ready to retape the box shut, when we thought to check with Dad just in case.
* * *
Pausing at the bottom of the basement stairs, we said, “Dad, did you order this?”
The blank look in his eyes said a lot, but we read it as a distracter, not the answer itself. “I might have,” he said, taking the receipt from us. “That’s a good deal.” He pointed at the old linoleum table, recently relegated to the basement because of its solid wood successor now looming in the kitchen. We placed the box on its surface.
* * *
When the video game system showed up the next week, we went to Dad first. “You ordered a Wii?” the two of us asked. He had been an early adopter of Atari back in the seventies, but he’d abstained from purchasing another system since then, sticking instead to his collection of board games and then moving on to SimCity, Doom, Myst, before settling into the mundane game suite included with most PCs. We did not think of him as a video game kind of guy. “A wee bit of what?” he said, laughing at his own dad joke.
“A Nintendo Wii,” we said, and recognition blinked onto his face. He confirmed and went about plugging in wires and scanning through options on the screen, and for the next week we heard the sounds of synthetic bowling rumble in the basement below us, until the day we brought down another box, and saw that the system had been dismantled, its cords and plastic casings piled haphazardly back into the box in which it had been delivered. “Why did you take it down?” we asked, but he shrugged, eyeing the new box in our hands. We hadn’t opened it this time. We recognized the name of the warehouse on the return label, and ushered it to him directly. “What’s in this one?” we asked.
“Let’s see,” he said with a coy smile. When we lifted out the twenty-one-inch flat-screen, it didn’t seem like an unreasonable purchase considering he’d set up the video game system on a tiny ten-inch box set.
“Will you set up the Wii again now?” we asked, but he went back to his computer without answering us. He had never been talkative, and we saw a lack of response as advice that we should do away with our own verbal excesses. We told ourselves to mind our own business, so he didn’t have to. He had trained us well.
* * *
When the set of reading glasses showed up, he said they were a birthday gift for our mother and we wrote off the weak prescription and the fact that her birthday was still months away as sweet mistakes. When the laptop came, we considered how old his desktop computer was and how easy this would be to carry from room to room. When the flip cam arrived, his first grandson was about to be born to the sister who had moved away, and so we could understand that, too.
* * *
“You caught the shopping bug, huh?” we joked with him, and he’d smirk like he had a secret. In reality, we blamed the purchases on his boredom. Newly retired, at a loss for how to fill his time, he had developed an interest in electronics.
* * *
In the beginning, Mother embraced his shopping. “Let him do what he wants,” she said, recognizing that he’d worked long and hard on his end of their partnership, the breadwinning.
When it didn’t stop after a few weeks, though, she saw her spending power threatened by his advancing proclivities. When coin sets started showing up with retail values listed high above their denomination, she asked him to explain what made them special. He turned away, as if he didn’t owe her an explanation and she knew it. She had always been the shopper in the family, and for every one package delivered to him, three others waited on the front porch addressed to her: a new dust ruffle, a fresh white jean jacket, a glass seashell with a bronze mermaid perched on the edge—each item decorative rather than functional. She paid the ever-expanding cable bill each month with a wince, but penned the check to Mastercard with a righteously smooth hand.
* * *
The shape of the next box seemed familiar, but there had been so many boxes, who could remember for sure? When he opened it up, we said, “Another printer?” It was a duplicate of the one he’d purchased just weeks before. “It must be a mistake,” we said. “We’ll send it back.”
“No,” he said, “I ordered it. Don’t take it away.”
“Why would you order a second, identical printer?” we asked.
“None of your business,” he said.
“What will you do with it?” we persisted, but he turned back to his game of Spider Solitaire on the old desktop computer, the laptop still untouched in its box.
* * *
When the second video game system appeared, we considered not showing it to him at all. “Did you order a second Wii?” we asked from the top of the stairs.
“What?” he called.
“There’s another Nintendo Wii here,” we said, but he didn’t answer, and one of us was tasked with taking it back to the post office.
When the third Wii showed up, we grew concerned. We called QVC and while we were on hold Dad walked through the kitchen, saw the open box, and carried it downstairs without comment. The customer service representative came back on the line and said each system had been ordered through the cable box on different dates. It was as simple as pressing some buttons. We asked the cable company to disable this feature, and waited for Dad to realize and complain, but he never mentioned it.
“Is he getting drunk and forgetting?” we asked Mom, but we found no empty liquor bottles in the trash cans. The beer fridge remained stocked with the same twelve-pack of lager that tasted flat and flavorless when we poured them into pint glasses for visitors.
* * *
It was around this time that he started disappearing behind the wood panels in the walls of the basement. He pitched out our old Fisher-Price playhouses and trash bags full of stuffed animals, all frosted with mold and the singed yellow of cigarette smoke. We balked, but we also knew we were too old to put up a fight.
We had a yard sale, sure someone would love the three-legged cat toy or the Lego sets with pieces missing, but the only profit we turned was from the Country Time lemonade we portioned out into Dixie cups, the pine cones we idly plucked from beneath the jagged skirt of our yard’s only shade, and the complete collection of our childhood ceramics sold to a suspicious young man with a neck tattoo who we speculated might take a sledgehammer to them on YouTube.
We dropped the rest off at the Goodwill, but we noted the look on the face of the volunteer taking the donation, resigned to hauling the bags out of sight until our car pulled away, and then pitching them into the dumpster out back, an act of generosity we felt guilty to require of him.
* * *
After the secret storage compartments were emptied out, we found Dad setting up facsimiles of the basement in the cramped closets behind the wall panels. The first duplicate bore a modest resemblance to the rest of the basement: A rolling filing cabinet held a TV and the third Wii Dad had spirited away. A small TV tray table hosted the coins of which he’d purchased two sets. A canvas director’s chair stood in for his recliner. He’d found older versions of our school pictures that hung on the walls beside his desk, and tacked those into the drywall. The light of the closet’s single bulb burned warmer than the cold fluorescent fixture installed in the main room.
In the second compartment, the old cathode TV and a fourth Wii we hadn’t even seen arrive sat propped on an old fruit crate in front of a dented metal folding chair. On a cardboard box turned on its end, a single Wisconsin quarter, the third he’d purchased, shined with its erroneous extra leaf stamped onto the tails side. Instead of photos on the walls, he’d sketched our likeness onto pages of the free notepads he’d accumulated from banks and auto repair shops—our faces misshapen, optimistic, unaware of our forced endorsement.
“You might be losing it,” we joked, but alone, in our rooms, we thought of the way he’d imposed our faces on the paper, about what possessed him.
* * *
One summer afternoon, checking our email on his old desktop machine, we noticed his checkbook left out beside the computer, flipped open to a random page. We eyed the numbers casually, surprised to see as much money at the ready as there was, but then our eyes caught: two checks to the gas company for the same amount, written a day apart. We paged down and saw three debits to cover the property taxes and four equal payments made in the same day for our technologically spiked electricity.
We were afraid of embarrassing Dad, and so we took the checkbook quietly up to Mother, while Dad dozed in the family room.
“What’s the meaning of this?” she hollered, waving the register in Dad’s face. “Why on earth are you paying bills more than once? Quit it, would you?”
We offered to write the checks for a while. It would be good practice for us before we went away to school. Mother could even proofread our work, but she waved us off.
“You’re going soft in retirement,” Mom said to Dad. “You need to keep better track of this stuff.”
We were starting to get the idea that maybe he wasn’t aware of what he was doing, but our mother thought he was doing it on purpose, running down their accounts to teach her a lesson about her own spending.
Copyright © 2019 by Jac Jemc