CODE -->
Post Road Magazine #34

The Market

Meghan Houlihan

      Fran picked at the paint on the picnic tale as she looked out the corner of her eye at Marianne (of Silverworks) and John (of Herbal Solutions). They were raking spring-sodden leaves together and smiling over something one of them had said. Both vendors had greeted Fran with a hug, as they first arrived at the grounds of the Sutton Lake Farmers’ Market for the annual clean-up day. John, who had shaved off his ten-year beard and was unrecognizable at first, told Fran about the toll the cold January had taken on his lavender crop. Marianne, looking as pretty as she had last fall, took her phone out of her pocketbook and showed Fran a photo of a new cat she had adopted. Fran, in turn, had shared bits of information about plumbing problems, road accidents, and unusual birds at the feeder—tidbits she had identified during the long winter as worthy of sharing on this particular day. But she had seen John’s eyes wander as she spoke, and Marianne had yawned, and now, as she watched the two of them, she had a feeling she couldn’t quite name, like being surprised by a small, sour blueberry in the midst of a bowl of sweet ripened ones.

      Fran rubbed her arms roughly as if to slough off the feeling, and pulled down her visor. Other vendors were dragging brush off the site and spreading gravel along the circular pathway, but there was too much bending and lifting for her; it would only aggravate her sciatica. And anyway, as a senior member of the market, third only after Ray (of Anton’s Orchards) and Elizabeth (of the Gillingham-Baker-Homestead farm), both of whom had joined the market a year before her, twenty-two years ago, she wasn’t expected to work as hard.

      Molly, the market manager, walked over to the picnic table where Fran was sitting. Large sunglasses hid her eyes. She was dressed in black, as usual, and wore a shade of lipstick Fran would have been slapped for wearing in her younger years.

      “Fran, you’re up,” Molly said. She held a clipboard and drummed her fingers as if she were in a hurry, which she generally was. She had bamboozled the board when she was hired three years ago; that was the only explanation for why they would have offered her the job. She was never particularly nice, and held ideas that might have been fine in Chicago but were far too grandiose for a small town in northern Michigan.

      Fran put her handbag over her shoulder and stood up from the table, stumbling a bit from the stiffness in her hip. She walked over to Molly, favoring her right side.

      “I would like to request site ten, please,” she said, with a dignified politeness. Third in the queue, she would be able to get her favorite site—the one near the shady oak, where the breezes from the lake kept her cool on hot days.

      Molly gripped the clipboard in her tanned arms. She directed her sunglasses toward Fran’s legs and then to her face. “Fran, have you thought about retiring from the market? You’ve been doing this for so long. You must be ready for a break.”

      It was unlike Molly to show any interest in Fran’s well-being. She felt a tingle warm her chest. “Oh, I would never do that to my customers,” Fran said. As she saw Molly's forehead wrinkle and her lips purse, Fran’s stomach clenched. She had misinterpreted Molly’s inquiry.

      Molly exhaled loudly. “Can you wait here a minute?” She turned and strode over to the board chair, Angela (of Angela’s Apiary), who was pulling up a tarp filled with leaves with Bruce (of Michigan Woodturners). Molly and Angela spoke for a moment, and walked over to Fran, their steps in sync with one another.

      “Hi, Fran,” Angela said. Angela, at the very least, was friendly, if a bit irregular in her choice of relationships. Angela wore practical clothes, unlike Molly, and had strong arms that were often decorated with taut, red welts, presumably where bees had enacted their vengeance.

      “Hello.” Fran pulled back her shoulders and smoothed her checkered blouse.

      “So,” Angela said. Her eyes flickered to Molly and back. “We just wanted to talk to you about the market. We saw that you only had four hundred dollars in sales last year. After the cost of the booth and commissions, you barely took home any money. It hardly seems worthwhile.”

      Angela looked at her questioningly, although she hadn’t really asked a question.

      “I thought that the sales were confidential,” Fran said. What nerve, to meddle in her business.

      Molly jumped in. “They are, except when there’s an issue. We just don’t believe your products have the appeal they did twenty years ago.”

      Fran felt as though she'd been kicked. She dug her fingernails into her palms and fought the prickly sensation spreading through her body.

      Seeing the look on Fran's face, Angela spoke up. “It’s not necessarily your products, Fran. It’s just that the market’s clientele has changed. People want more upscale crafts. Higher-end crafts, you know?”

      Fran put such care into crafting her products—the homemade soaps, molded in the shapes of hearts and butterflies, the handmade greeting cards, the beaded silk bracelets. Her back would ache as she painstakingly mixed the ingredients for the soaps, working vigilantly to obtain the perfect hues, and then prepared the molds, being certain to pour just the right amount of the mixture. When the soaps had hardened, she would shave off the rough edges until the soaps felt perfectly smooth under her fingers. Her cards required hours of precise cutting, and the bracelets—well, those were easier to make, but hand-tying the knots was very tricky, indeed.

      Furthermore, customers had praised her craftsmanship, and they were the ones who mattered, weren’t they? Ruth Dixon bought cards for her grandchildren each year. Steve and Donna Larsen always bought soap for their guest room. Rita Palmeri and that woman from the library each had several of her silk bracelets. While she might have fewer customers than other vendors, her customer base was loyal.

      Fran directed her response to Angela. “My customers expect me to be here. And I happen to know that the market rules do not require vendors to have a certain amount of sales.” Fran lifted her chin as she spoke and wished she were a little less plump.

      Angela ran her hand through her short hair, then smiled brightly.

      “Of course, Fran. No one is making you leave. We just wanted to check in, that’s all.” She glanced at Molly and walked back to resume her work.

      Molly watched Angela leave. She turned to Fran. A vein in her neck pulsed. Fran saw, for a moment, the vein in her deceased husband’s stubbled neck; its throbbing was always a precursor to one of his rages, the kind that had driven away their son many years ago.

      “Well, Fran, we’ll see how you do this season.” Molly pulled a stake out of her bag and put a piece of tape around it. She wrote “Grimes, Site 10” on the tape with a black marker, and pushed the stake into the soil in Fran’s spot.

      “It’s all yours,” she said, without looking at Fran, and went off to find the next vendor on the list, her clipboard swinging turbulently at her side.

 

      Most vendors had their sites by now; it was almost one o’clock and they were returning their tools and tarps to the weatherbeaten shed. Fran had kept the board treasurer company at the picnic table while he took vendors’ payments; she entertained him with stories about barns and sheds collapsing under the weight of the winter’s snow.

      But he had gone home and she was still at the table. Already, the day had been too much for her—John and Marianne and their private laughter, Molly and her horrible comments. She felt overwrought with sentimentality, and thought that she needed to eat something, or rest—anything to settle herself down.

      Fran noticed that several vendors were huddled together looking toward the parking area. A man was rummaging in the trunk of his Honda Fit. This would have been unremarkable if it weren’t for the fact that he must have been seven feet tall, and had such a large frame that he dwarfed his car. He wore yellow suspenders with a white t-shirt underneath and pants that were at least three inches too short.

      He turned around holding a small box and walked toward the market grounds. Fran had almost expected him to be wearing a clown’s nose and makeup—his appearance was so odd—but he wasn’t. He had a broad face with wide-set eyes and thinning gray hair that came to his shoulders.

      Fran walked over to the group of onlookers. “Who’s that man?” she asked.

      John turned toward her and scratched the back of his neck. “I don't recognize him. Do you know if Molly was expecting a new vendor this season?”

      “No,” she said. What if he was the reason Molly wanted her out? Was he here for Fran’s booth space? Fran’s throat tightened.

      The man approached Marianne, who stood a mere five feet tall and had to crane her neck to look at him. Fran saw them converse, and Marianne pointed toward Molly, who was swatting at something around her legs.

      “Where could he have come from?” Julianne (of Wearable Arts) whispered.

      “Maybe Hillsborough,” Bruce said.

      “What’s his product?” Joy (of Thai Hut) asked.

      Fran looked at the box the man was carrying. It was too small for produce or baked goods. She would have guessed he was a spinner who sold hand-spun yarns, alpaca batts, that sort of thing—those men tended to have long hair—but fibers wouldn't have fit in the box. Another jeweler, perhaps.

      The man was now talking to Molly and Angela, and the three of them walked over to the picnic table, where he set down his box and took out the contents.

      The group of onlookers inched its way closer.

      “It’s too late for new vendors, isn’t it?” Fran asked.

      “Manager’s discretion,” Bruce said.

      “Do we have space?” Julianne’s tone was fretful.

      The group had shifted close enough to see the objects the man was laying on the table. They looked like things he had gathered on a beach—sticks, stones, shells, possibly a nest. Molly took off her sunglasses and inspected them with her lips puckered; Fran saw her shake her head. They don't know each other, Fran thought. The man said something and Molly picked up a stick. Her body contorted as if someone had just tickled her in the ribs, and she giggled. For a moment, Fran didn't recognize her.   

      Molly said something to Angela, who picked up a stone. Angela turned it around in her hand, and quickly set it back down on the table. She asked the man a question, and he handed her a shell, which she put to her ear. She cocked her head and grinned like a young girl.

      More words were exchanged, the man nodded his giant head, and he put his things back in his box. He followed Molly over to site nineteen, the last available site. It had ten feet of frontage, which was substantial, but it was bifurcated by an old cherry tree with a large branch that hovered about six feet off the ground. Short vendors could usually manage the space, as they could pass underneath, but someone on the tall side—and the man was beyond tall—would have to hunch over.

      That fact didn’t seem to bother the man, however, who nodded, as Molly wrote a name on a stake and plunged it into the ground. They spoke for a moment, and the man walked back to his car with his box, placed it in the trunk, and drove away.

      “Well, what was all that about?” Julianne asked.

      “I guess Molly accepted his product.”

      “But why?”
            “Sticks and stones?”

      “Maybe they were painted with tiny drawings we couldn’t see.”

      “Maybe they were scented with some kind of fragrance.”

      “Maybe he uses plastic molds to make natural looking objects.”

      This, to Fran, seemed the most plausible.

      Molly walked over to the group. “We have a new vendor, folks. His name is Claude, and he’ll join us for the season.”

      “What’s his business name?” Julianne asked.

      “It’s just Claude,” Molly said, shrugging.

      “But what does he make?”

      Molly gazed out at the lake. “It’s hard to explain,” she finally said. “You’ll have to see for yourselves.”

      So that was it. Fran would just have to wait until Saturday to meet Claude (of Claude) for herself.

 

      The second bedroom in Fran’s house hadn't been used as a bedroom since her son, Paul, left home twenty-five years ago. When Fran had given up on the prospect of ever coaxing him back, even after his father had passed, she had taken out the bed and replaced it with her craft table, which was covered with decorative papers and card stock, vials of glitter and other embellishments, and a variety of ribbons and beads. Tubs filled with soap-making supplies occupied one corner of the room, and a tall pile of VHS tapes leaned against a television with a built-in VCR player sat on a chair across from her crafting table. Most of the tapes were Agatha Christie mysteries, which Fran would watch over and over as she worked on her crafts.

      She stood in the doorway of the room and tried to decide whether to add to her inventory. She had a lot left over from last season and had not planned on making more until June, when business picked up at the market, but given the day’s unpleasant events, it might be time to try out a new idea. She had found some paper with a gold sheen to it, and intended to cut out small scrolls, which she would adhere to the edges of her greeting cards to make a border. She would have to charge more for the cards, because of the extra work, but she had long thought that a border would give her cards a more sophisticated look.

      Fran’s stomach rumbled. She was worn out from the day, and had a large can of potato soup she’d been saving for when she needed a quick meal. She found the soup in the pantry and transferred it to a bowl, and then to the microwave, where she warmed it just slightly.

      She sat at her small kitchen table, tasting salt and butter as the potatoes dissolved in her mouth. Fran thought about John and Marianne, and how Molly had accepted Claude and his products, just like that. Fran had been a member of the market for over twenty years. For over twenty years she had completed her annual work hours, joined committees, and even served time on the board. She considered the other vendors her friends. They had offered her support when her husband passed and Paul refused to come home for the service. They had brought her meals and drove her to appointments the winter she was ill with pneumonia. She listened to them tell of their marriages and divorces, deaths and births, and the details of their lives that friends share. And now she was being abandoned.

      Stop it, Fran. She was fatigued and was allowing herself to become sentimental again. She needed a good movie and a good night’s sleep.

      Fran placed her empty bowl in the sink—she would wash it later—and walked into the living room. She held the remote control as she slowly lowered her body into the faded blue armchair. An image of Claude passed through her mind—what a strange-looking man—and she made a note to herself to visit his booth first thing on Saturday.

 

      Opening day at the market was usually slow; the tourists hadn’t yet descended, and the locals were inclined to shop with a specific item in mind and leave promptly. Fran’s customers tended to spend a lot of time at her booth, flipping through cards while Fran talked about snowfall amounts from previous winters and road issues—the kinds of things tourists unfamiliar with northern Michigan enjoyed hearing about. But today customers only glanced over and walked past. Fran had expected as much, so she had come prepared with yarn she had bought at Jo-Ann’s and a pattern for a crocheted circular rug. The folding chair she had used at the market for years felt particularly hard on her bottom today; she would need to bring a pillow next week.

      Claude's booth had been busier than most, and Fran glanced over every few minutes to see Claude bending over his table to help a customer. Finally, toward the end of the market, when vendors were beginning to pack up their products and Claude was alone at his booth, Fran walked over to him to determine who, exactly, this Claude person was.

      He was nearly doubled over under the cherry tree branch as he picked an assortment of sticks and stones off the table and put them in a cardboard box that looked as though it had been reused a few too many times.

      “Hello,” Fran called out.

      Claude peered up at her from under the branch. “Hello.” His voice was higher than Fran had expected.

      She straightened her shoulders. “I’m Fran—the booth down there.” She pointed. “I just wanted to welcome you to the market and find out about your product.” She saw a small collection of sticks next to some zebra mussel shells and a piece of driftwood. They looked normal—no tiny etchings on them, nor did they appear to be made of anything other than what their forms suggested.

      “Pick one up,” he offered. A strand of stringy grey hair fell over his eyes.

      She picked up a small stick. A curious feeling came over her, as if she were having a conversation with someone who had just said something completely surprising and funny. She laughed out loud. As soon as she laughed, the feeling passed, and she had no real recollection as to what had been funny in the first place.

      She quickly set the stick down on the table and wrapped her arms around her chest. “That was odd.” She bent her head to chew on a thumbnail.

      Claude inched out from under the tree branch and unfolded himself. His dark, sloped eyes were warm and kind. Something about them gave her a very strange feeling. “Was it?” he asked.

      She stumbled over her words. “Something was funny. But I can’t remember what it was.”

      “Here, try another one.” He extended his gargantuan fingers and handed her a smooth, nondescript beach stone. She reached for it, suddenly self-conscious of her baggy button-down shirt and freckled hands.

      As she took the stone, she had a feeling of immense relief, that all of her worries had been assuaged, the kind of feeling she’d had only once in her life, when she had opened her mail and found an unexpected check with significant numbers from her husband's life insurance policy. She had joked with her fellow vendor John—not really joking—that it was the only good thing that had come out of her marriage.

      She let the stone linger in her hand before giving it back to Claude. “This is very confusing,” she said, shaking her head.

      He smiled. His dry lips stretched tight over his teeth. “Yes,” he agreed. “Until you recognize that there are human feelings in each object, it is confusing.”

      Fran bit her lip. She looked at the neighboring booths to see if anyone else was listening, but the other vendors were loading their vehicles and folding their tables.

      Claude’s voice was soothing, and he spoke as if he were reciting something he had said many times. “Each time we perceive an object, we imbue it with human emotion. I release those emotions and enable others to experience them.”

      Fran nodded, but could not erase the frown from her brow.

      Claude handed her a stick, longer than the first one. “Hold this in your hand, and then think about the sensation you have. Don’t worry about what caused it, just think of the feeling.”

      As she took the stick, she had a feeling that she was living in a most beautiful moment, one made all the more poignant for the fact that it would never be repeated, like the way she had felt when her husband had proposed to her so many years ago, on the stoop of her childhood home while autumn leaves rustled on the street behind them. Fran blinked quickly, her memory of the moment becoming soured as she remembered his false promise of love, his erratic temper and her constant knot of fear, and her guilty relief when, at last, he passed.

      Claude's tone was gentle. “That’s a complicated one, isn’t it? Happy, but sad, too.”

      She found she couldn’t speak. She bobbed her head once.

      “That's the human feeling embedded in the object.”

      Fran looked at the stick, seeking some sign of its power, and felt her chest ache. She handed the stick back to Claude. She needed to rest, to settle herself down, to stop this sentimentality that was spreading through her body. It was too much, too much.

      “Well, thank you,” she said. She turned to return to her booth.

      “I’m Claude,” she heard.

      Fran's distress slipped away as she blushed for the first time in over twenty years. “Fran,” she called out over her shoulder, remembering, too late, that she had already introduced herself.

 

      Fran usually set up at nine thirty, for her display didn't take long to arrange and her booth had been erected since opening today. Today she arrived at nine fifteen, however, because it had occurred to her the night before, as she lay awake in bed, unable to sleep for reasons she couldn’t fathom, that Claude might have questions about the market that a veteran such as herself could answer.

      Claude was setting up his table as she walked over. He was reaching over the cherry tree branch with one arm and underneath with the other to arrange his items on his table, and appeared as though he was embracing the tree. It was a terribly awkward site for him, to be sure.

      “Good morning,” she said. She felt her cheeks flush.

      Claude turned his head to look at her. “Hello,” he said brusquely. He was wearing the same clothes he’d worn last week, suspenders and all, but something was different about him today.

      Fran cleared her throat and waited while he untangled his arms. “How are you settling in at the market?” She picked at a string that hung off a button on her shirt. She had thought briefly about wearing her yellow blouse this morning, which she usually saved for special occasions, but chose her denim one instead, when she realized she was being silly.

      Claude stood up straight. “Just fine,” he said. He looked past her, and Fran had the feeling she was not there at all. The warmth of his eyes was gone; today they were empty and set.

      Fran suddenly felt chilled, and she clasped her hands together to warm them. “I’m sorry, I interrupted you. I... I just wanted to make sure you were familiar with the work hours requirement.”

      “Yes,” he said. His voice had no feeling; it was flat and automatic. He seemed to be looking at something over her shoulder. Fran pivoted slightly and looked behind her, trying to be discreet. The only thing she noticed was John bending over behind his booth as he picked up something from the ground.

      “Well then, good, good. Goodbye.” The words tumbled from her mouth, and she hustled back to her booth. She pulled her visor low over her eyes and rubbed her arms.

      As Fran sat in the chair at her booth, safely ensconced behind her display, she saw the way that her stomach pillowed out over her thighs. She had always been a reasonably pretty woman, with fair skin and blue eyes, but it had been decades since she had considered her attractiveness to potential suitors. She was now forced to accept that she was a sixty-five-year-old woman, long past an age when a man would even consider her company, who had most certainly gotten the wrong impression about Claude the previous week. Fran felt a vague pang somewhere deep in her body, and quickly reprimanded herself. Oh, stop it, Fran.

      She opened the bag at her feet and pulled out her crochet project, comforting herself with the familiar movements of yarn and hook.

      People came and went; she had a few sales, and toward the last thirty minutes of the market, her mood improved when Brenda, one of her best customers, appeared.

      Brenda raised her sunglasses. “Hi, Fran. I’m looking for a graduation card for my nephew. Do you have something?”

      “Brenda—how nice to see you.” Fran hurried over to the cards and began pulling out the ones with the new ornate borders; she knew Brenda would appreciate the extra touch. She held up a few with muted colors. “I think boys tend to like neutral shades. What about these?” she asked, passing Brenda the cards. Brenda murmured appreciatively. She looked up.

      “How has your health been, Fran? Rough winter, wasn’t it?”

      “Oh, yes,” she gushed, and proceeded to tell Brenda, who was a good ten years younger at least, about her stiffness and aches, her ongoing back pain, and the various colds she’d had over the winter.

      She paused to remember what she had left out. This would be a perfect time for Molly to walk past, she thought. This was what the sales didn't show—the years of relationships, the connection between a vendor and her customers.

      Brenda checked her watch. “Oh, I’m sorry, Fran, but I’m supposed to get back to the office. Why don’t I take this one.” Brenda pulled a card from the bunch she was holding and passed it to Fran. She set the others on the table.

      “Certainly,” Fran said. She took the bill from Brenda’s outstretched hand and placed the card in a flat paper bag. She took extra care to fold down the top of the brown bag with a perfectly straight crease. Fran thanked her warmly, and Brenda called out a hasty “Good to see you” as she shoved the card into her purse and hurried back to the parking lot.

      Humming to herself, Fran had just begun to reorganize her cards when she saw Claude walking toward her. She ducked her head and began moving bracelets around on their rack.

      “Hello,” she heard.

      She mustered a tone that was civil and cool. “Hello.” Her eyes flickered up, and she resumed her work with the bracelets, though she found that she was more attentive to the hulking form in front of her than to the organization of her products.

      Claude stood there for a moment, not saying anything. She finally looked up at him to see if something was the matter.

      The kind, gentle eyes were back. “I’m sorry I wasn’t friendlier earlier,” he said. “It was nice of you to check on me.”

      Fran’s face warmed. She straightened herself and nodded.

      “I nearly sold out of inventory last week and was up late last night making more,” Claude explained. “It’s...” He looked away for a moment. “Tiring.”

      Years ago, Fran had begun packing for the market on a Friday evening and discovered that her soaps had begun to melt from the heat. She spent hours trying to salvage them, and had been entirely out of sorts at market the next day.

      Claude stepped up to her counter and passed his fingers through her cards. Fran felt dwarfed by his large frame. She steadied her legs by discreetly setting a hand on the table for support.

      “These are lovely,” he said, and smiled at her. Fran had never heard that word come out of a man’s mouth before.

      “Thank you.” She turned so that Claude couldn’t see the heat of her face. She fumbled with a button on her shirt.

      “You must spend a lot of time on these,” he said.

      She cleared her throat, her eyes still lowered. “Yes, I live alone. I have time.”

      “I live alone, too.”

      Fran looked up to see his expression. Slightly sad, perhaps, but mostly matter-of-fact; they were simply exchanging pleasantries, and getting to know each other in the way that she had gotten to know John and Marianne and all the others. She was just becoming confused by his height and those kind eyes.

      “It’s not so bad,” Fran said.

      Claude appeared to be thinking about that.

      “Would you like to come over sometime and learn my craft? I enjoy doing it with others.”

      Fran removed the fingernail she didn’t know she had been chewing from her mouth. “Me? Learn—well, what, exactly?”

      “Learn to release the emotions in objects.”

      Fran recalled the feeling of the stone in her hand, and that fleeting sensation of having no worries in the world.

      She swallowed. “Is it hard? I can’t stay on my feet for long, and bending hurts my back.”

      “No, I do it sitting. I have a bad back, too.”

      Fran wanted an interruption more than anything else. But most customers had left the market, and vendors were boxing up their products and folding their tables. She glanced at the sky, but there was no thunderstorm in sight.

      “Why don’t you come to my house? Tomorrow evening, perhaps?” he said.

      She felt dizzy at the thought of being in the same house with this extraordinary giant. “I don’t know. I might not have time.” Her voice was barely louder than a whisper.

      Claude lowered his head. “Okay. Let me know if you change your mind,” he said, and turned away.

      Fran exhaled as she watched Claude retreat. She chewed on her lower lip. He seemed slightly hunched, and packed up his products slowly. What was wrong with her? She was being given an opportunity to learn about Claude’s remarkable art. He was generous in offering to show her, and was reaching out as a new friend at the market. She had the vague notion that there was some risk involved, but she chastised herself for being silly.

      She decided this: if she packed up and was all ready to go, and Claude was still at his booth, she would take him up on his offer. If he had already left by the time she packed up, she would take it as a sign that she had made the right decision.

      Fran grabbed all the cards on her table and threw them haphazardly into a box. With her forearm, she swiped the soaps into their plastic bin. She took the jewelry stand, and leaving it assembled, tossed it into the back of her car. Table and chair folded and propped up against the tent frame, and she was done.

      Claude was heading toward his car with his box in his arms. Fran walked toward him, feeling her heart pound from her brisk pace. She was out of breath when she reached him.

      “I was just thinking about you,” he said. He pulled a smooth, salmon-colored shell out of his box and handed it to her. “Here, see what you think of this one.”

      Trying to conceal her labored breathing, Fran took the shell. She had the sensation of feeling deeply touched by someone else’s compassion, as if she had just received a phone call from a long-forgotten friend on her birthday. Fran sighed with contentment, and then the feeling was gone.

      “That was... Well, it was lovely.”

      “I thought you would like that one,” Claude said, averting his eyes.

 

      Claude lived up a pitted, winding driveway surrounded by conifers. Fran thought about turning around as she drove to the top of the hill. She had never been to a man’s house alone before; she wasn’t the type to entertain men—nor anyone else, for that matter. It was completely unlike her to do something this reckless. She wondered whether she was developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. She knew those could make you do things that were uncharacteristic.

      Claude’s house was small and brick, and reminded her of the house built by the third little pig to keep out the wolf. It was odd but unthreatening; square-shaped, with a single chimney stuck through the middle of the roof.

      She got out of the car and straightened her blouse—the yellow one—which had become rumpled. She smoothed her greying hair back behind her ears, regretting, for a moment, the haphazard cut she had given herself a few weeks ago.

      Claude opened the door as she stepped onto the stoop, his head barely visible through the door frame. He smiled warmly—one of his front teeth overlapped the other, she noticed—and ushered her inside. The house was essentially a square, with a small kitchen area on one side, a couch on the other, and stairs to a loft area that must be for sleeping. She had never been in a house so tiny, one made even smaller by the astonishing height of its inhabitant.

      Claude had damp hair and was barefoot, and he wore his yellow suspenders with a white t-shirt underneath, his usual market attire. Fran felt comforted by his familiar ensemble. The table near his couch was covered with stuff—buttons, nails, rubber bands, washers, and a few batteries.’

      “Did you have trouble finding it?” he asked.

      Fran shook her head. “You’re way out here, though. I wasn’t sure my car would make it up your road.”

      “I don’t get many visitors,” Claude said.

      Neither did Fran. Her shoulders relaxed.

      “Can I get you something to drink? A cup of tea? Or a glass of wine?”

      Wine? Wine was so... intimate. Her stomach jumped, and she bit hard into the skin on the side of her thumbnail. “No, thank you.”

      “Shall we sit?” Claude gestured toward the worn leather couch.

      Fran sat on the couch’s far end, which was surprisingly firm and felt good on her back. She always worried about sinking into soft cushions and being unable to pull herself out. How mortifying it would be to have to ask for Claude’s hand to help her get up.

      Claude sat down next to her, close, but not too close.

      “I thought we could start with some easier objects,” he said, pointing to the display of items on the table.

      “I liked the sticks and stones,” Fran said. “Won’t those work?”

      “Manmade objects are a little easier to start with. There’s more feeling that goes into making them.”

      “Okay.” She suspected that any further explanation would confuse her.

      Claude turned toward her and hesitated. He cleared his throat slightly. “Is it okay if I reach over you to get a book in the corner?” He pointed with his index finger, which was the size of her hand, to the area between her side of the couch and the wall. She nodded, and held her breath as he reached over her, his shoulder so close to her face that she could smell his laundered shirt. His arm was large and paler than she would have thought, and the dark hair on his forearm stood out. She wondered what it would be like to touch it.

      She shrank back into the couch as he pulled a large book up from the gap and set it on his lap. Once his arms were back on his side of the couch, she exhaled. She couldn’t be certain, but it felt as though the arm nearest Claude was tingling slightly.

      The book on Claude’s lap was in some kind of protective casing. When Claude opened the case and took out the book, Fran peered at it. It seemed not to be made of paper, but, rather, of something very thick and yellowed.

      “I’m not sure I’ll be any good at this,” she said.

      “It’s easier than you think.” He opened the book.

 

      They had spent nearly two hours going through the book together. Claude had coached her as she picked up the various objects from the table. She felt none of the things she was supposed to feel, and was about to give up and say goodnight, when, miraculously, it worked. She was holding a nondescript tan button in her hand, visualizing the atoms that made up its existence, the network of elements that joined together to create its form, when she felt, just for a moment, as if she were about to be bludgeoned on the side of her head with a large object.

      She gasped, and flung the button onto the table. She looked at its inert form, convinced that the sensation she had just experienced was something her tired mind had made up.

      Claude picked up the button, blinked once, and looked at her with his eyes crinkled. “You did it.” He touched her on the shoulder with his other hand.

      Fran had not been touched by a man in over ten years. But she felt oddly cool, and recognized that the sensation of their skin interacting was simply a particular configuration of atoms moving through space and time.

      “Maybe.”

      Claude offered her the button. “You did. I can feel it.”

      “I didn’t like it.”

      “Some objects are like that. I don’t sell those generally, because most people don’t like to feel angry or scared or sad. Psychiatrists use them sometimes, though, so I hang onto them.” He pointed to a large plastic bucket in the corner of the room that appeared nearly full with quotidian objects.

      Fran listened, but he was like a character in a film she was watching. It was as if she were in shock, stunned into numbness. Something had been turned off.

      “I’m tired,” she said. “I’m going home now.” She looked at her watch. It was nine thirty.

      Fran stood up. Her legs wobbled from sitting in one position for so long.

      Claude stood up, too. “Fran,” he said. “Are you feeling okay?”

      “I don’t know,” she said.

      His eyes looked directly into hers. He didn’t blink. “It happens to me, too. But it passes.” He touched her shoulder again. She looked at his giant hand on her blouse.

      “Goodnight.” She picked up her purse from the floor and began walking in the direction of the door.

      Claude remained standing near the couch. Her hand touched the doorknob.

      “Fran, it can do strange things to you. But the sensation will pass if you want it to,” he said.

      She listened, and passed through the door.

           

      Fran was resting in her armchair the next day when Claude called. The only calls she received were from telemarketers, and when she heard Claude’s voice on the other end, she held the receiver away from her mouth so that he wouldn’t hear her heart pounding. She pressed down hard on her thigh as if it would make the thumping subside.

      “I just wanted to make sure you got home okay last night, and that you’re not feeling the effects anymore.” He enunciated very clearly. Fran wondered whether he had been a teacher at some point. Someone who worked with people, certainly.

      “Yes, I did. I’m fine, thank you.” She was too embarrassed to talk about how she had felt when she left his house last night. It was as if all feeling inside her had been stripped away, and she felt no connection, no attachment, to anything. It had been a most unusual experience.

      “Oh, good,” he said. “I don’t know why it happens, but I’m always relieved when I’m back to normal.”

      Fran wasn't so sure. “I’m sorry I left so soon. So abruptly, I mean. Without, well...it was nice of you to invite me.”

      “It’s fine, really.” He paused. “Say, I wondered if you would like to have an early supper with me on Friday. I know it’s the night before market, but I thought I’d make some soup. I could make minestrone, if you would like that.”

      Minestrone was one of Fran's favorites. But there was no question that this was an invitation beyond the kind of invitation one vendor would offer another out of a desire for friendly companionship. Fran tried to imagine that Claude had questions about the market, or wanted to share more of his craft-making, but he had invited her over on a Friday. Friday nights were for dates, romantic entanglements. A Tuesday or Wednesday would be quite different. But he had asked about Friday.

      “Okay.” She meant to say something else.

      “Great.” Claude’s voice had a lilt. “Is five thirty good for you?”

      “Okay.”

      “Great. See you then.”

      “Goodbye.” She hung up. She set down the receiver and pressed her fingers hard into her head. What have I done?

 

      By Friday morning, Fran was pale from lack of sleep. In the three days since she and Claude had spoken, Fran had investigated nearly every part of her body—the ripples of fat on her thighs, the fold of her stomach, the droop of her breasts. She had an old body; her husband had told her as much numerous times. Even if Claude were interested in her romantically, which Fran was beginning to doubt—perhaps he was affected from making his crafts—all he would have to do is place a hand on her thick waist, and he would realize his error.

      And if he were, for some mysterious reason, blind to these defects, then what guarantee did she have that he would not turn on her, realize his disdain of her when it was too late to turn back? She had been fooled by her husband, taking his reticence for a thoughtful mind and not for the vault of rage that it really was. Claude seemed so different, but how could she know? The risk seemed monumental.

      Fran sat in her armchair and put up her legs, although she had not yet had breakfast. She put her palms to her cheeks. It was too much. She had done everything she could to fight the panic from taking over, but she was dizzy and overcome. She was in no state to see Claude, and needed to put an end to this. But here it was Friday morning already, and he could already be making the soup, or shopping for ingredients. She checked her watch. It was nine o’clock. Surely it wasn’t like a doctor’s appointment, when she needed to give twenty-four hours’ notice for a cancellation. She could explain that she wasn’t well, which was quite truthful.

      Her fingers trembled as she dialed the number he had given her at the market. The phone rang. After four rings, a generic greeting came on. Her voice was whispery as she explained that she wasn’t well, and that, unfortunately, she would have to cancel their dinner tonight. She said goodbye and hung up.

      The phone rang shortly afterward, and then again, early in the afternoon. Fran didn’t answer.

 

      Fran stood in her craft room. She should pack for the market. She thought that canceling her dinner with Claude would make her feel better, but now she felt carried away with sentimentality. She was beginning to think she had not taken Molly’s threat seriously enough. What if she lost the market? She would have nothing—no happy prospect to sustain her during the winter, no opportunity to engage with customers and be respected for her work. She would be completely alone. She felt herself on the precipice of something that threatened to wholly overpower her.

      Fran picked up a card from the craft table and studied it. She bit her lip as she tried to calm herself. She did good work. Her designs were detailed, and she had a good eye for color. But perhaps there was something else she could do. Inside, she felt a surge of something—a spark of spirit, a resistance to whatever malady was incapacitating her. An inner creature, like a small bird, began to flap its wings, looking for release. She picked up a bracelet from a box on the floor. The bird beat its wings harder.

      Fran clasped the bracelet in her hand and concentrated very, very hard.

 

      Claude appeared at her booth before the first customers showed up.

      “I’m sorry you weren’t feeling well yesterday. I tried calling, but you must have been resting.”

           ;  “Yes,” she said. She heard the way the sound waves coming from his mouth altered in frequency, his voice changing from one pitch to another.

      “Would you like to try again?” he said.

      She didn’t know how to answer the question. She felt a fly land on her leg. His face changed, and he walked away.

      Customers came and went. They exclaimed when they examined her products, and gave her money. Her cash box filled. The only bracelets, cards, and soaps she had left were the ones that made people frown, or cry, or look around shamefaced.

      She ate her sandwich when she got hungry, and pulled her visor lower over her face when the sun burned her head. She answered questions, took money, gave change.

      Molly came to her booth. “You’re busy today.” She picked up one of Fran’s cards, drew in a quick breath, and said “Ah.” She nodded. Then she was gone.

      The sun moved through the sky, unchanging.

      Fran was packing her car when Claude came back. His eyes looked different. “You have to want the sensation to pass,” he said.

      Fran felt her heart beat, her lungs expand and contract. She thought she had heard the words before, but she didn’t understand them, nor did she feel a desire to. She saw white clouds move against the blue sky, and felt a breeze on her face.



 Copyright © 2018 | Post Road Magazine | All Rights Reserved