by Seymour Mayne
presentation by Raluca Tanasescu
click aici pentru versiunea română
Seymour Mayne is one of the most important Canadian contemporary writers, author of numerous poetry and short-story books. His latest prose is The Old Blue Couch and Other Stories [Toronto: Ronald P. Frye & Company], published in 2012, a collection of witty and humorous comic stories with Canadian settings that reflect the social and religious life of some of its Jewish Canadian characters.
SOME PEOPLE GET VERY possessive about their furniture. I don’t. If you could come and visit, you would see. All I have is a collection of hand-me-downs, second-hand stuff, and my old blue couch.
You walk into our house and look around, perhaps expecting the latest in Scandinavian design. Look to your right, be careful there – that’s my daughter’s (yes, you guessed it) second-hand “horse”. Well, it’s not a horse exactly. Looks like one, and once she’s in the seat or saddle, she can move it along on her two little feet. The beige sofa next to it is definitely a new acquisition, some five years old. Marvellous invention. We remove the big beige pillows and it sleeps one, somewhat in comfort. Fold it out and it sleeps two. More than two guests we can’t accommodate unless the third party were willing to sleep underneath the fold-out mattress. The chairs in the living room are the cheap do-it-yourself kind. Assemble, employ an allen key and presto, you have useable additions. The carpet is a family heirloom: made in Belgium some eighty years ago. It is the finest of its kind – imitation Persian and makes me feel totally at home, as if I were once again in my grandparents’ parlour, enjoying some nosh and a glass of tea, Russian-style with a cube of sugar between my teeth as I swallow the hot amber liquid.
In the adjacent dining room we have an old set, courtesy of my aunt who died twenty-five years ago. This part of her house came our way and we are grateful for the leather-seat chairs, the chipped though sturdy table, the credenza that came with it. Imposing. Solid. We’ll probably bequeath it to a nephew so he can think fondly of us as he rises from it after a long and many-coursed meal. We were lucky, the table kind of appeared one year when we were abroad. Not really, but it was released from the estate and was shipped up to the surprise of our tenant. Good-bye, fold-away card tables. Farewell, rickety board-tops.
But the old blue couch – now that’s my prized possession. A long specimen of the species it is, and its cushions and backing continually shed sand. Yes, sand. I have always imagined that it was dug up from the site of a burned-out hotel in the Laurentians. On a full moon in the early fall I even imagine it was once – in a previous incarnation – the divan or daybed of a desert potentate. Somehow it was lifted during the Napoleonic wars, strapped to the largest and strongest camel and taken to Alexandria where a Greco-Egyptian poet later adopted it for a few decades. A Lebanese immigrant to Canada later brought it here on a Canadian Pacific liner and it made its way to Ottawa and the Gatineau via sundry roundabout routes.
That is where I got it. It was the late summer of 1973 and I was helping a friend move some furniture he had borrowed. We took this mountainous heap all the way to Wakefield. They had a covered bridge then. I was sure we were going to sink it. LEASED TRUCK BREAKS THROUGH BRIDGE, FURNITURE LOST AND FLOATING OUT TO ST. LAWRENCE AND GULF – I imagined the tabloid headlines as the overloaded truck lumbered across the straining wooden planks. No, it didn’t exactly happen that way, thank God. We unloaded the stuff at the house of his friend, the professor of economics – is that how he made a living, I wondered? Leasing or lending furniture to former students? He didn’t look very enterprising, the professor, that is. But what could you expect? He taught at the university, had a country house in the Gatineau and had too much furniture because his wife had left him, he had another house in the Glebe etc. And he wanted to get rid of an old couch. In exchange, he smiled, for the furniture we had returned.
Well, before I knew it I was lifting this huge – and what I then thought was an atrociously coloured – blue couch onto the rented truck. Or so I was thinking when I felt a strange, tearing sensation in my right groin. “Aie!” I yelled as I dropped my end of the Trojan couch.
Something had indeed given way. I couldn’t lift anything. The others hoisted it in and I made my painful way to the cab of the truck. I can’t forget the bright autumn foliage up there in Wakefield; it caught my eye as I doubled over; it impressed itself upon my sight as I sat contorted in my seat on the return journey. “You o.k.?” George asked as he steered the lumbering vehicle across the seemingly flimsy covered bridge and headed to Hull. In the back we could hear the couch slide ponderously like a trapped mastodon. “Oh, I’ll be out of commission for months,” I groaned.
Dr. Gorman prodded and poked in a very ungenteel manner. “You sure got done in this time, yes sir,” he said with that irritating hectoring voice of his. “Who did it to you?”
“You really want to know?”
“I have to know. It’s part of the diagnosis.”
“A blue couch. An old blue couch. A great big (and I restrained myself from using a more emphatic earthy adjective) blue couch.” I told him the rest of the story. He could barely conceal his Hippocratic glee.
“Bookin’ you in for next Thursday. Speak to the receptionist about the details. It will take me forty minutes and it’ll be nicely sewn up, and then you’ll be ready again,” and he paused, “for your big blue couch. On top or on the bottom.” He grinned again.
Two days out of hospital I was curled up … well, not exactly … but lying painfully at home on the blue couch, agent of my disaster. That week hobbling and groaning about the house, I grew to like the long blue creature. Four large flat cushions, a strong backing – there was enough room for almost two post-operative groaners. But I was jealous. I allowed no one else to mount, sit or lean on what had become my convalescent couch. If I had to pay the price, then I was going to enjoy it, sharing it with no one else. And that was my undoing. This bond of pain stitched us together in a new fraternity. Man and couch – his next best friend.
I dusted it weekly; vacuumed between the cushions; put rollers under its legs, and watched it fade, fray and shed – no, weep even more sand from its innumerable pores.
“Why you no throw out?” Irena, the cleaning lady, often complained to me when I was unwise enough to remain at home mornings on alternate Fridays, appointed days of her bi-weekly visits.
“It’s a nice couch, Irena. And a new one costs too much. Don’t need it. This one just fits the bill.”
“I no like. I no like vacuum. I no like cushion. Buy a new sofa, good sofa. I look in paper for you. Maybe sale soon.”
But Irena took her time alerting me to a bargain. One spring she announced her summer schedule. She was going off to her cottage in July, so she proposed a deal.
“You buy new couch, I take old couch to country. No one take couch; too big for garbage. I take in brother’s truck.”
By now I was getting stubborn. Her stratagems, entreaties, conspiracies could not move me. The couch and I were bonded by travail and pain. And in any case, who needed a fashionable piece of furniture in my bohemian quarters? For a few years more I would hold onto it, until something drastic would us part.
“How long will we have to put up with this piece of antiquity?” my wife exclaimed. It was the sand again that annoyed her. Since Irena was a name from my distant bachelor past, I didn’t have to tell her about the cleaning lady’s five year campaign against the old blue couch.
“Let’s keep it awhile. Let’s get a sofa in to complement it and then you won’t notice it,” I offered.
So the fold-out showed up. Modern, well upholstered, almost sleek in its cotton hide all scotch-guarded and ready for any kind of spill. I thought that finally my wife’s jealousy would abate somewhat. The last memento of my bachelorhood mutely held its own in the living room. Both of us knew we wouldn’t budge. And the newcomer was getting all the attention.
But blue and beige don’t mix or complement each other. At every party I waited for the expected nudnik to pipe up, “Why don’t you chuck out this eye-sore.” My loyalty was reinforced. If two or three guests patronized my old blue couch, I would step in and rise to its defence. After all, it had been shipped out from Egypt; poets had recited from its cushions whose sand no doubt had been drawn from the holy deserts of the Middle East.
Everything old, homely, out of taste and fashion became dearer to me. I began to take to roaming the streets early mornings on garbage days, especially in the spring and fall. I was seen at garage sales carefully examining battered and abused furniture. And I began to collect. A few restaurant chairs from the thirties; a mutilated credenza and drawer; stools of dubious provenance; even wooden coat hangers and spittoon pots of bygone eras. The dark garage began to fill up.
Victoria Day, you see, often coincides with my birthday. Ever since my youth I sensed the unique coincidence of my birth. If the Queen was presiding at festivities on this weekend, more than likely we were near partners in joy, even though she was observing only the official date and I was joyously celebrating my actual birthday. But Victoria Day began to usher in another important tradition. I haven’t mentioned it yet but I had to give in and make a tactical retreat two years ago. My wife had her way and the blue couch was banished – but only to the garage. There it languished from Thanksgiving through fickle November, moody December, and continued to lie low through frosty January, frigid February, all the way to damp April and near-humid May. Victoria Day was the day of its annual release. Like a joyous jailer sympathetic to the plight of his prized prisoner, I would pull open the doors of the garage and get a neighbour to help me lug the blue couch to the front porch where it would stand undaunted for months. That was the concordat. Mornings I would sit on it and read the newspaper as the street stirred into daytime action. Afternoons, in the full glare of the sun, I would read again pleasantly ensconced on the proud couch. And in the evenings, sitting in the shadows like a chameleon melded into a background of nightly blue, I would survey the goings and comings.
And then the unthinkable happened, the unexpected. The infamous day has been registered forever on my calendar of catastrophes. On the evening of Friday, June 6, 1986, I sat on the couch until late. It was a mild evening; a few obnoxious insects buzzed round, the neighbours were uncommonly quiet – nothing indicated the unusual or ominous.
I was up the next morning, an hour or two after sunrise. When I went out on the front porch, the empty space to my left suddenly assaulted me with the surprise of absence. The couch was gone! Stolen, no doubt, and a caster lay on the front porch, another on the second stair. I followed like a bloodhound, down the walk and there, southwards on the block, I spied another caster. The thieves were heading to the nearest corner. But when I got there, no couch was to be seen. Could I expect them to take half the night to run off with their ill-gotten booty? What to do? Halfway down the block to the left I noticed an open truck with furniture. I raced over. Two students were coming out of the house to fetch more stuff.
“You haven’t seen an old blue couch?” I queried suspiciously. What did I expect, that they would own up, lead me in and show me their new acquisition propped up next to the large colour tv?
I told them the story. They seemed innocent enough as they heard me out. They could not have taken it, I thought.
“Sorry about your couch, mister. Must have been taken late last night. We’ve been moving in since 7 a.m. and we’ve seen no one else out here hauling furniture.”
I retraced my steps, looking for more tell-tale signs, clues … anything? There were a number of rooming houses in the area. But when I reported the theft, the police dispatcher seemed to hold out little hope.
“We can’t very well search every house in your neighbourhood,” she said on the phone. Her cheery consolation irked me even more. I was almost ready to blurt out, “Why not?” but instead like a dutiful citizen I took down the number of my file – the computer recorded everything – and considered her advice to call my insurance agent.
What was I to tell Mr. Mappin? An old blue couch. Real commercial value – impossible to determine. Depreciated value – probably negligible. Replacement price – emphatically nil, I would have to concede to the hard-nosed adjuster he would send. Sentimental value, however – priceless.
“Right,” Mappin would say with a customary quick-witted retort, “priceless! Simply price … less. Now if the Prime Minister had been conceived on that couch, well maybe we could get a museum to evaluate it as important cultural property. Naw. Sorry. Wish I could help. Go around and talk to the neighbours. Let everyone know. Flush out the miserable little thief.”
I have forgotten to mention that it was a wonderful late spring morning. Soon the neighbourhood annual parade would be coming by on the way to StrathconaPark. Perhaps someone had taken the couch on a lark and it was going to appear on a flotilla platform – some practical joke? Immediately I suspected Frank or James, two acquaintances on the block. Frank worked at an electronics store, but after knocking on the door of his flat I surmised he had set off for work. James and his family were probably still asleep. And James, I reasoned, was too lethargic and phlegmatic to take such initiative. I returned to my empty porch, went in, made some coffee and went out again with a lawn chair so I could continue to survey the scene of the crime. Somewhere nearby a thief was gloating over his booty, or perhaps lay asleep on it, a hint of criminal triumph etched out on his comatose lips.
The parade came by, as announced, an hour later. Fred Cundell’s horse and wagon was loaded down with neighbourhood urchins but not with the couch. I joined the crowd and inquired about the couch; spoke to James and his wife when they finally appeared on the tail end of the procession. So they were up early for a change. I thought of the thief again with that insouciant look on his sleeping face. He was probably still deep in corrupt and criminal dreams but was just about to stir and wake up. I secretly hoped the noise of the parade had disturbed him. He was stretching and rising. But no, he lay back down upon the old blue couch and was pleased with himself. He would lie there a little longer.
May you lie on it
with a splitting headache
I intoned to myself as I imagined him reclining on his ill-gotten gain, my cherished couch. Another malediction came to mind following on the first, the Muse of outrage goaded me on:
May you moan upon it
with a migraine throbbing
into full strength
Let him lie there and suffer, I thought. But if he was going to have a headache, let it be a real lulu:
May your veins bulge
and your vessels swell
behind your brigand’s brow
That’s it; that’s it, I muttered:
May you toss and turn
in excruciating torment
Ah, twisting and full of pain, he would be rolling over on his side, precariously close to the edge:
May you fall off
and break your arms
and legs in a dozen places
Serves him right. Let them bring him home, then:
May you groan upon the old blue couch,
with aching wounds
and bruises and plaster casts
I was getting carried away – not unlike my couch:
May you finally expire on it
May you be stretched out
on it as upon your bier
May you be buried with it
– the blue couch on top –
so you will never crawl out
to steal any other treasure
The right strategy came to mind immediately. I would have the imprecations written out in gothic script, then photocopied poster-size so that they could be stapled to all the telephone poles in our neighbourhood:
Curses upon the thief or thieves who stole the old blue couch from my front porch during the early hours of June 7, 1986
No doubt the thief or thieves would pick out the poster with their eyes; perhaps it would shock or frighten them into contrition? Perhaps the maledictions would hang over them like the proverbial swords dangling dangerously from shredded thread?
But I tarried. By Sunday I was so taken by my delicious maledictions that I took to reciting them to all who came by. Monday I was back at work. Since I had the afternoon off on Tuesday I planned to have it typed up in bold large characters and photocopied on poster-size light blue sheets.
I had finished lunch and I was getting ready to phone a type setting service when I heard a small commotion on the front porch. I could hardly believe my eyes. There it was! The old blue couch! My favoured favourite was being lugged up the stairs by two young strangers.
“Hey, hey, what’s this? So you’ve brought it back, you scoundrels!”
The long-haired one hesitantly spoke up. “Ye … yes, we brought it back.”
“Why did you take it?”
“Well, we’ve seen it for weeks. Didn’t look like much.”
“What do you mean, didn’t look like much?”
“Well, sir, we needed some furniture and we thought no one would really miss it.”
“What do you mean, no one would miss it? Why’d you bring it back?”
“To tell the truth, sir, soon as we woke early in the morning on Saturday I felt funny. Then lying on it I felt strange; kinda felt something bad or terrible was going to happen. Didn’t want any trouble so … ” and he backed off down the stairs. And I hadn’t even posted the poem on the telephone poles.
I don’t take any chances now. I no longer haul my couch out of its shelter on Victoria Day. It is safe there in the protective gloom of the garage, double-locked and out of sight. And on summer evenings I survey the street from the vantage point of my plastic lawn chair, secure in the knowledge that my old blue couch is safe and sound, weathering the seasons away from the eyes of covetous thieves and the blanching rays of the sun.