"Curiosities of the Trade", fiction


Driving home to Delaware last week, I was passing through my hometown when I got caught in a downpour, so I parked in the old neighborhood and waited for the storm to pass. The sky was a bruise. Rain splattered on the asphalt and flowed along the curbstone, swirling into the sewer like lost prosperity, liquid deficits flushed away, as with my company's business. We're indebtedness brokers. We option properties for a consortium of speculators, people who can afford to ride out the recession, and with time, profit from others' misfortune.

I lowered my window just an inch, felt on my forehead raindrops cool as coins, saw again the two adjacent lawns like an open ledger‑book, the spine of the ledger a slate walk leading to the common front porch of the house, a duplex: two doors and two mailboxes, the picture-windows of two living‑rooms, ceilings smearey with television light.

The rain slowed to a drizzle, lightning crackled then WHAM! Hailstones pummeled the hood of my black Mercedes like BBs on a tin hat, so loud, so relentlessly loud that I stopped my ears with my fingers. The dollar-green lawns began to glow milky white. Hail roiled on the roof of the duplex and a slurry of ice cascaded from the rain-gutters.

In the gable-window of the attic stood two kids, transfixed, their hands and foreheads pressed to the glass. A moment went by. Then they returned to their amusements, for no better playhouse exists on a stormy afternoon than an attic full of cardboard boxes and rolled‑up rugs, a steamer trunk, a baby carriage and a set of bicycle learning wheels. The blue suitcase. Such are the items to be found in the common attic of a duplex house where, prompted by curiosity, you can step through the open risers from your side to that of your neighbors to rummage through their unsealed boxes of envelopes fat with pay-stubs and receipts, income-tax returns, neatly folded brown paper grocery bags, a jigsaw puzzle in its picture-box, a collection of Look magazines, a red suitcase. Until boredom sets in you can play Chinese checkers or Canasta with their double-deck. Or Backgammon.

**

The summer before I would be legally old enough to have a job, my cousin Ellen came to stay with us while her mother traveled out of state. Being her namesake, Ellen called my mother “Aunt E.” and for the fun of it, while Ellen was staying with us, so did I. On weekday mornings, while my father appropriated the bathroom, Ellen and I would go up to the attic for a round of our ongoing game of Monopoly and play until both of us had purchased at least one new property, then we’d go down to find Aunt E. at the kitchen table with her coffee and Chesterfield and Newark Star Ledger. I would pour us two half-mugs of coffee, the rest milk, then put English muffins in the toaster while Ellen browsed the front page for interesting stories, such as that of Mrs. Junko Tabel, the first woman to climb Mt. Everest.

“She's Japanese, Aunt E., and she’s thirty‑five. Your age!”

“Plus tax,” Aunt E. said.

“The Women's Bank is opening.. . .”

Ellen read aloud, stressing each financial term because my parents were business people who understood these things. Aunt E. was the manager of a store that sold maternity clothes. ‘I'm in fashion‑smocks,’ she liked to say. Ellen pondered the marketplace: why buy anything to wear if you're pregnant? Just keep your pajamas on for nine months and order in.

We enjoyed hearing Aunt E. talk about the store’s clientele. She would type‑cast the men who came into her store. Some will stand by the dressing room holding clothes hangers and humming a sentimental song. These are the Crooners. Another type will wait in the front of the store with his hands in his pockets, clicking his coins: the Twitcher. Then, there's the Moper: he slouches outside, smoldering cigarette dangling from his lips.

Ellen slapped the table.

“Here's another curiosity of the trade,” Aunt E. said, and she told us about a man who so enjoyed buying maternity clothes that after the baby was born he returned with another pregnant woman, and after that he brought in a third along with the first, who was expecting again, and before she had had her baby he returned with all three of them, all fat. They were his nieces, he said, one of whom was now engaged, and they needed matching dresses for the wedding.

Ellen leaned back as if to down a shot of whiskey.

“Oh, it's a blooming business,” Aunt E. said, “and sales will be good as long as God makes people make people.”

Actually, my mother had important responsibilities at the store. While the owners kept busy with two other stores in New Jersey, Aunt E. did just about everything herself in this one: the buying, the scheduling of salespeople, the placement of newspaper advertising. She talked about starting her own business. A wholesaler had offered her half a year’s grace on enough stock for a start-up.

“Of course,” she told Ellen, “I'm no marketing Veep like my kid sister. Think of it, honey. Right now your mom's company is paying her expenses, hotel suite included, so she can find her own house. Then you’ll be moving to Wilmington!”

Ellen shrugged.

“Wilmington,” I said, “where in the Dell is that?”

They ignored my pun.