Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
The phenomenal Farran Smith Nehme has released a novel today entitled "Missing Reels," and we're honored to present the first chapter. Please head over here to get your own copy and check out the official synopsis below:
The utterly winning, wholly delightful, totally cinematic debut novel of young love, old movies, and an epic search for a long-lost silent film
New York in the late 1980s. Ceinwen Reilly has just moved from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and she’s never going back, minimum wage job (vintage store salesgirl) and shabby apartment (Avenue C walkup) be damned. Who cares about earthly matters when Ceinwen can spend her days and her nights at fading movie houses—and most of the time that’s left trying to look like Jean Harlow?
One day, Ceinwen discovers that her downstairs neighbor may have—just possibly—starred in a forgotten silent film that hasn’t been seen for ages. So naturally, it’s time for a quest. She will track down the film, she will impress her neighbor, and she will become a part of movie history: the archivist as ingénue.
As she embarks on her grand mission, Ceinwen meets a somewhat bumbling, very charming, 100% English math professor named Matthew, who is as rational as she is dreamy. Together, they will or will not discover the missing reels, will or will not fall in love, and will or will not encounter the obsessives that make up the New York silent film nut underworld.
The woman had lived in the building so long that it was her own name, Miriam Gibson, on the buzzer label, and not some forgotten former tenant. She must have been in her seventies, but she was the most beautiful old lady Ceinwen had ever seen. Her face was barely lined, with fine features and pale brown eyes; she wore her hair coiled at the neck. Miriam stood straight. She wore tailored dresses and suits with scarves, everything perfectly pressed and matched. None of the elastic Ceinwen had quietly shuddered over as Granana wheezed around the house.
Miriam lived on the floor below them. Talmadge, Jim, and Ceinwen hated the climb to their place so much that if someone forgot to buy coffee or cigarettes on the way in, it would take half an hour of arguing to decide who had to run to the bodega. Miriam climbed slowly, but when she reached her door, she seemed no more ruffled than if she had just crossed the hall. Their apartment was a sixth-floor walkup, but it had two real bed- rooms and a double living room with a large alcove that could be closed off with screens for another roommate. There were no closets.
Ceinwen had moved in with Jim and Talmadge early that spring. Jim had the side bedroom, Ceinwen the back, and Talmadge was behind the screens. Ceinwen and Talmadge worked at Vintage Visions, an antique clothing store on lower Broadway where Talmadge was the star floor sales- man, and Ceinwen was queen of the accessories counter by default. When they met, Jim had been working there, too, but now he had a better job managing a tiny costume jewelry store on the Upper East Side.
She told herself that living with two men made Avenue C safe, even if Talmadge was short and Jim was skinny. It took only a month to learn which hours were fine and which demanded a cab, which buildings were normal and which should be passed at top speed, which men deserved a greeting as they bought beer in the bodega or sprawled all day on the stoop and which ones were best dealt with by a sudden interest in something twenty yards down the street, no matter how emphatic their cries of “Hey, Blondie!”
Miriam, with her good clothes and comings and goings, worried Ceinwen. Weren’t old people apt to get mugged, especially if they looked well-kept? But after a couple of months, it became clear that the other locals treated Miriam with the same brusque respect she showed Ceinwen.
Ceinwen, though, got less of a greeting from Miriam than the stoop- dwellers did. Every time they passed each other in the dank, cramped lobby, she marveled at Miriam’s ability to stroll by with a nod on a good day and indifference on a bad. “Boy, is it hot out there,” “Could you believe how long the street music went on last night?,” “Great scarf”—all of these were met with “yes,” “no,” and “thank you” as Miriam continued to walk to wherever it was she went.
“Whoever heard of an old lady who doesn’t want to talk?” she wondered to Jim. “At the nursing home the problem was getting them to stop. All you had to do was say ‘Did you see Nightline last night?’ or ‘So when do you think they’ll finally fix that stretch of I-55?’”
“This is New York, honey. Not Yazoo City.”
“Or if you were really desperate, I mean really, you could ask how the nurses were treating them.”
“And yet,” said Jim, shutting his book on his finger to mark his place, “like I said, this is New York. Even the old people have actual lives. That’s the beauty of this town.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. “So Mr. Rodriguez over at the Thrifty Mart wanted to tell me all about getting his mole removed on account of he’s got such a full life.”
“Maybe she’s just a bitch.” Jim opened his book again. “Why do you care?”
“She seems . . . interesting,” she muttered with false hesitation.
“Ever thought,” asked Jim, “that’s she’s got nothing to say?”
Together they had suffered through the summer without air conditioning, the heat drilling through the roof and the fans searching for a breeze that wasn’t there. But the first Saturday in September the heat broke, and the sun no longer fought through the haze. Ceinwen touched up her roots that morning and put on a new dress. Talmadge dated it to the mid-thirties: dark blue silk, ruffles at the hem, and a matching fabric belt. It had cost half a week’s salary and brought her cash supply down to a truly dangerous level, but it was cut on the bias and she thought it was pure Jean Harlow. And she was sick to death of antique dresses with a missing belt.
Talmadge was on the morning shift, Ceinwen didn’t work until the afternoon. Jim was upstairs in the apartment trying to scrape paint off the transoms. Ankle straps adjusted, red lipstick blotted, she clacked down the last flight of steps and into the lobby, where Miriam was getting her mail. The day held too much promise to be marred by courting a snub, so she set her eyes on the street door, which had a busted lock. Her last attempt to discuss this fact with Miriam had produced only, “I have a deadbolt.”
“Young woman.” The voice came just as Ceinwen opened the door. Miriam was locking her mailbox. “I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten your name.” “Ceinwen.” Miriam had, of course, never asked her name, but Ceinwen had gotten used to social lying back in Yazoo City.
“Ceinwen.” Miriam repeated it like she’d said “Mary.” “Would you mind my asking you a question? If it isn’t inconvenient. I can see you’re on your way out.”
“It’s all right, I’m early for work.” Now she was lying, too, but this was important. Miriam speaks! Sentences! And she had a great voice, low-pitched and classy, almost like Audrey Hepburn. She let the door swing shut.
“Forgive me, but I had to ask what you’re wearing.”
“It’s antique.” Miriam liked the dress. It had been worth going broke before payday.
“So it is old,” said Miriam.
What kind of a comment was that? As a matter of fact, lady, this dress is way younger than you. But as usual, Ceinwen’s Southernness emerged when least convenient. Hit by an urge to be rude to an old woman, what she came out with was, “It’s a collector’s item.”
“I see. You collect old clothes.” This was said in the same carefully neutral register that Ceinwen had used when discussing plate collecting with Granana’s pals at the nursing home. Knowing she was being patron- ized stung Ceinwen into her sales spiel.
“I work at a store that sells vintage clothing. I like vintage for the beauty and the style. It’s your own little personal bit of history,” she said. “Depression history. Ah.” Miriam nodded as though this explained everything. Before Ceinwen, whose Mississippi training did have its limits, could reply, Miriam continued, “I was just curious why you always seemed to be in costume.”
“It reminded me of Jean Harlow.” Why did she have to defend 1930s clothing to a woman who’d worn this stuff when it was new? At least for once she didn’t have to explain who Jean Harlow was.
“Did it really. Then I’m afraid the effect’s incomplete.” Miriam was smiling. Sort of. Had she smiled at Ceinwen before? Did she smile at all? She had no smile lines, so maybe not. Ceinwen remembered that her bag was from the sixties and pulled it closer. “She didn’t wear bras,” continued Miriam. “Or slips or underwear. A dress, shoes. That was usually it.”
Hard to say which was more extraordinary, the information or the source. Granana occasionally had brought up the topic of Ceinwen’s underwear, but she would have had a word for a woman who just never wore any. “Well, I don’t want to keep you. Good-bye.”
As Miriam walked away Ceinwen managed to say, “It isn’t a costume. It’s a look.”
Miriam turned and really smiled this time. “It’s very pretty. I’m just not used to seeing young girls in old dresses.” And vanished up the stairs. Ceinwen roared down the streets avenue by avenue, pausing to light her last cigarette in a doorway. It was fifteen minutes past one when she reached the store, and she hotfooted it along the sides to avoid the customers, down the length of the entire sales floor. After clocking in, she checked herself in the wall mirror that hung in the tiny back room. Sweat shone on her forehead, wet patches bloomed under her armpits, and she’d gotten herself into this state in order to stand in a lobby that smelled of urine and converse with an old woman who was insulting her taste.
The store was crowded, and she eased behind the long counter, in search of an activity that might make her look as though she had been there since one o’clock. She opened a case and began to straighten necklaces.
“Ceinwen,” a voice snapped. “Do you just not notice anything?” Lily was inches away. Her eternal black dresses and black hair always made Ceinwen think of the thunderstorms she used to watch rolling in over a field back home. Except you could always see a squall coming from far off. Lily dropped on you like a chicken hawk.
“Notice what?” She scanned the counter quickly; there didn’t seem to be a new shipment.
Lily came closer. Ceinwen hated having her space invaded, and she stepped back. “The note. In the clock room. Go back and look.”
She shut the case and walked to the clock room to check the walls. The only note she saw was the sign-up sheet for time off. She went back to the counter, where Lily was pushing a sale. “Lily,” she said, “I signed up for my vacation slot last week.”
Lily whooshed down about a foot from the customers, just far enough to pretend they weren’t supposed to overhear. “I meant the time card,” she said, loudly. “The note on the fucking time card. Go back right now and look at it.”
She walked to the clock room. At the top of her card, her name was circled in red and an arrow pointed to a note: “See Lily.”
Jesus Christ, she thought. She walked back to the counter. Lily had talked a woman into buying a brooch and was ringing it up. Ceinwen slipped back behind the counter and waited. “Did you see the note?”
“Yes,” said Ceinwen. “You wanted to see me?”
“You’re damn right I wanted to see you. You’re late.”
“I’m sorry. I got a call . . .”
“Don’t you give me your excuses. This is the third time this week.” It was the second time this week, and the time before she had clocked in at two minutes past. Trouble was, Lily was the owner as well as the manager. You took two extra minutes, that was food Lily couldn’t eat and dates Lily couldn’t pay for. “You screw up everyone’s schedule when you come in late. Now here I am filling in for you, and everyone’s lunch hour is off. Not that you care. You seem to think because you sell a lot you can’t be fired. Well, think again. This is your warning. Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” said Ceinwen, holding up a faceted bracelet, as if it were worthy of closer examination.
“Good.” Lily never got a pun or really any joke at all; she was the most humorless person Ceinwen had ever met. It even took the fun out of mocking her to her face. Lily stomped toward the entrance for a cigarette that Ceinwen could only pray would calm her down.
None of the people milling about were asking to see anything yet, and she went back to straightening. The counter was so long there were six different cases to fix. She loved arranging the jewelry, old pieces and new ones done in an old style, but Lily never liked the results. Ceinwen threw in scarves, mixed up styles and periods. Lily wanted everything by decade and designer, lined up so you could see every surface of every item. Cein- wen would get a case looking pretty, and the next morning Lily would redo everything, until it had about as much chic as a drugstore Tampax display. Talmadge waved on his way to the men’s side, which was separated from the women’s by a wide, mirrored passage. She beckoned him over. Before she could say anything he sang out, “Ask-me-how-lunch-went.” He was so happy he didn’t need a rhetorical response: “I saw George.” George was the handyman at the discount clothing place next door. He was dark and muscular, exactly Talmadge’s type. Ceinwen preferred blonds, when she roused herself to prefer anything.
“Was his girlfriend with him?”
“Me-ow. He likes me.”
“Did he show you his supply closet?”
“Not yet.” Talmadge cast a look toward the front register. “I need to get back to my side. Not that anybody’s buying anything. Buncha joyriders today. Show me this, show me that, oh no not for me. And Lily is on the warpath.”
“Tell me about it. Listen, Talmadge—”
“Make it quick.”
“She’s out having a cigarette, I saw her go. Do you think it’s possible Miriam knew Jean Harlow?”
Too abrupt for Talmadge, who still had one eye out for Lily. “Who? Harlow? What?”
“Our neighbor. Miriam. Could she have known Jean Harlow?”
“Ceinwen, you’re obsessed.”
“I’m not. But today she wanted to talk to me about my dress.”
Talmadge was elated. “I told you that was a great dress. I told you to buy it. There you go.”
She diverted the torrent of Talmadge back to the topic. Miriam had said Harlow didn’t wear bras, or even underwear. Was it possible she had known her? Talmadge said Miriam probably just looked at that stuff in the movies more than Ceinwen did; “you made me watch Red Dust and even I noticed she didn’t have on underwear.” Or maybe Miriam read it somewhere. “I don’t see her in Hollywood. She’s way too New York.”
“But fifty years ago who knows what she was like?”
“There’s nothing California about her. You always forget I’m West Coast.”
“You’re from Tacoma.”
“I know what I’m talking about. There’s a whole different vibe out there. Miriam’s too proper.” The front door to the store opened and Lily stepped in, and in the time it took Ceinwen to turn her head back toward Talmadge, he had slipped away to the men’s side.
He’s wrong, she thought. I bet Miriam did know Harlow. Old Hollywood was as good a setting for Miriam as any.
Talmadge was right about the customers, though. Once they realized she was there to show things, they kept her on the hop, wanting to see everything in the case and on the shelves. Then, if they bought anything, it was those thin, jangling metal bangles the store sold three for a dollar.
She had no time to consider her imaginary Miriam biography until her lunch hour, which didn’t happen until five. Lily prized her arbitrary lunch dismissal authority. Breaks were timed according to whether or not Lily liked you at the moment, how many customers were in the store, and whether Lily herself was on a diet and therefore jealous of anyone else’s eating. That made three strikes today, so Ceinwen counted herself lucky to be getting a lunch hour at all. She devoured scrambled eggs at the coffee shop and sucked down a couple of cigarettes to keep her brain going. Miriam had been Jean Harlow’s assistant. Miriam dated someone who dated Jean Harlow. Miriam was childhood friends with Harlow—though that would mean Miriam was from Kansas City, and if it was hard to picture Miriam in California, Kansas City was impossible.
All right, she’d been an actress and she was in a movie with Harlow. Then why had Ceinwen never heard of her? I, she thought, have heard of everyone. And I’ve seen everything of Harlow’s. I’ve even seen Saratoga. Wait, could that be it? Saratoga! What was the name of that lady who stood in for Harlow when she died during filming? The one hiding her face be- hind binoculars and hats.
She couldn’t remember the name, but in any case that didn’t work.
Harlow was tiny, Miriam was tall.
Lily was in such a bad mood that Ceinwen came back five minutes early just to be safe. But Lily wasn’t going to like it when she counted out the register and saw how low the day’s take had been. It was after eight and the sales probably weren’t going to get any higher.
She dreaded the looks of the couple poring over the low-slung case at the end. The woman was wearing a tight leopard-print dress, and leopard- print clothing was a sure sign of a mean disposition. The man was wearing a rumpled, untucked linen shirt that looked expensive but was all wrong for September. But when the woman gave a snappy little wave—I’m not a cab, thought Ceinwen—there was no choice.
“I want to see that,” said the woman, tapping one brown-polished nail against the top of the counter. Oh goody, a glass tapper.
“Earrings? Bracelet? Necklace? Pin?” She forced a smile.
“The earrings,” said the woman, in some sort of accent. “No, not those.” Tap, tap. “Those. No, in the back. The back.”
“The blue ones,” said the man.
She whipped out the velvet tray and set the earrings down. The woman picked up an earring, said something to the man in whatever language she spoke, and put it down. “No, I don’t like those at all. They look cheap.”
“Maybe,” said Ceinwen, “if you told me what you’re looking for, I could suggest something.”
“I’m going back to Italy tomorrow,” said the woman. “I’m going to a party this week and I want something new.”
La. Dee. Da. “That sounds wonderful. Where in Italy?”
“Modena.” Spoken in a slow, bored drawl that meant, of course, you’ve never heard of it. This was basically a dare.
“Oh, just like Mary of Modena.”
The man took his eyes away from the case and looked at Ceinwen. The woman said, “Who?”
“James II’s wife. He was king of England. Mary was a princess from Modena.”
“I know James II.” She sounded irritated. “I don’t know his personal life.” “She was Catholic,” said the man, “just like James.” He had an accent too, British from the sound of it. “Bedwarmer affair. Mary helped get him chucked out.” Definitely English. He was looking at Ceinwen in that annoyingly surprised way English people always did when an American said something intelligent.
“The English,” said the woman, suddenly flirtatious. “Always persecuting the Catholics. Even the English Catholics.”
“Oh yes. We’ve suffered.”
Oh please. The man kept glancing at her, maybe wondering if an American who’d heard of Mary of Modena should be a museum exhibit, so she couldn’t check her watch to see how much longer she had to suffer along with the downtrodden Catholics. “Let’s move down here and see what we’ve got.”
Another case, more tapping, more picking up and discarding, more Italian, more opinions—too old-woman, too flimsy, too heavy. One more case and one more set of taps. “Those.”
“She needs a little more info, love,” he said softly. Maybe he was trying to be nice. Longish hair and some lines on his face. Probably too much sun. English people were bad about that.
“I’m pointing at them.” If nice was the idea, what was he doing with this woman? She was tapping at the back of the case. Ceinwen’s eyes fol- lowed the nail. Oh no. Not those. Please not those.
“The silver, with the enamel.” Those. Goddamnit. She had put them on hold two weeks ago, waiting until she had the money, and in two more weeks they could have been hers. Lily had put them back in the case, and she’d been running around so much, she hadn’t noticed.
“They’re a hundred.” They were more expensive than most of the other jewelry, and sometimes people recoiled from paying that much in a store that sold old clothes.
The woman rolled her eyes, said something in Italian, and then, “We don’t care about the price.” Ceinwen took the earrings out slowly and set them on the counter. No velvet. Maybe they’d look worse that way. And they wouldn’t look good on this woman, either, not with that olive skin and long narrow face.
“Now those I like,” said the Englishman, and Ceinwen was back to hating him.
“Miss.” There was a pair of women at the other end of the counter. “Can we see that?” One was pointing at the back wall. She checked her watch as she walked over. 8:25. They wanted to see a hat, the black one with the net veil. Hats were a pain in the neck. People tried them on, giggled a lot, and never bought them. She took it down. Yes, it was wonderful that people used to wear hats. No, nobody knew how to wear them any- more. This one looks better if you tilt it forward a bit . . .
A hand closed on her elbow. Once again Lily was dragging her away, so that all parties could pretend that this exchange wouldn’t be noticed. “What are you doing?”
“I’m showing a hat.”
“Not them.” Lily jerked Ceinwen’s elbow so she turned to face the couple. “Them.” The woman had put on the earrings and was absorbed in her reflection in the countertop mirror, angling her face this way and that. “What’s happening there?”
“She’s trying on the earrings.” The Englishman was standing back, observing his girlfriend’s varied pouts. Maybe he’d have the grace not to listen in.
“I know that. I see that. They’re pierced. Pierced earrings.” Her voice was rising. Answering Lily’s questions was always like this. She got mad if you said nothing, because the answer was in front of your face, and she got mad if you responded, because you were stating the obvious.
“I was helping those ladies with the hats.”
“And did you not tell her before you handed them over? Did you mention that there’s a regulation, a fucking health regulation that says she can’t try on the pierced earrings?”
The Englishman had turned and was easing closer. Yeah, your girlfriend got me yelled at. Now drop dead.
“Who are we supposed to sell them to now? Do we even have any peroxide or anything back there? I don’t know what is going on with you, but what I do know—”
“Excuse me.” The Englishman was in front of them.
“We’ll be with you in a moment, sir.” Back to Ceinwen. “You are in charge of what goes on behind this counter, and I should be able to trust—”
“I’m sorry, but it seems there’s a misunderstanding.” He wasn’t going away.
“If you just give us a minute sir—”
“I wanted,” he interrupted again—kind of nice to have someone interrupt Lily for a change—“to explain about the earrings. You see Seen When said—”
“Seen When,” he said, affably, “isn’t that the name on her tag?” Ceinwen hated her name tag for that very reason. “It’s KINE-wen,” she said.
A chuckle. “Sorry. Ceinwen.” Awfully glad you think my name’s funny, old bean. The woman hadn’t glanced their way once. She was still at the other end of the counter, checking out the way the earrings laid against her neck. He lowered his voice. “Ceinwen did in fact tell my girlfriend she couldn’t try on the earrings.”
Lily rounded on Ceinwen and demanded to know why she hadn’t explained. “I was trying to,” said Ceinwen. Before Lily could go into why Ceinwen needed to try harder, the Englishman leaned in and spoke lower still. “Anna’s Italian,” he said, with an apologetic little grimace. “Bit of a language barrier. And when I tried to tell her, she said I must be wrong be- cause she couldn’t see how they looked without trying them on.” This, she thought, is one smooth liar. “Anyway, no harm done. I think Anna’s going to take them.”
Ah-nuh, he pronounced it. She even hated his vowels.
“All right then,” said Lily. “We’re always glad when people find what they need. Ceinwen will ring you up.” She walked past Anna and paused to check out the earrings. “Those are lovely. Art Nouveau. Very Mucha.” You bitch, thought Ceinwen helplessly, as Lily left to harass the men’s side. She ran his credit card and gave the earrings a last pat as she put them in a box. Anna was still browsing the case, but the Englishman was watching Ceinwen as she twisted the tissue paper around the box and handed over the bag.
“Have a good evening.” She couldn’t bring herself to say thank you. “You too,” he said, then, lower, “and good luck.” Ceinwen twitched her mouth into a half-smile and turned her back as they walked out.
Granana would have made her say thank you. The longer she stayed in New York, the worse her manners got. Then again, he’d stood right there while his girlfriend hadn’t bothered to say thank you or please or anything else. Maybe in Mississippi she’d have been grateful. In Manhattan she’d had it with people who could act like that and worse, buy her earrings at full price.
The hat women had left during the earring episode. At least they hadn’t taken the hats, which would have given Lily a reason to yell about security, along with punctuality and hygiene.
There were no more customers after that. They counted out the register in Lily’s office downstairs, Lily remarking that the last sale of the night certainly helped. Ceinwen clocked out and walked home, wondering if whoever wore her dress before had had the same kind of luck with it.
The winding stone stairs to the sixth floor might once have looked like marble before years of pounding feet had worn a slope into the middle of each. They weren’t that narrow, but they were steep even for the Lower East Side, and on a night like this she had to concentrate on not tripping. She was winded by the time she reached the top.
Jim was in the kitchen, cigarette dangling and coffeemaker going. How he could drink coffee all day and night mystified Ceinwen. She reached into a cabinet and grabbed a half-finished bag of Dipsy Doodles.
“Is that dinner?”
“Yep.” She reached into the fridge for some seltzer. “I can’t help it. Lily’s been killing my appetite.”
“You smoke too much and you don’t eat enough.” He ran his cigarette under the faucet and tossed it in the trash. “And what happened to your dress?”
He pulled at a side seam. It had ripped about two inches straight up, showing Ceinwen’s torso almost to the edge of her bra. She didn’t know when it had happened or how long she’d been flashing skin. For all she knew, this was why the Englishman felt sorry enough to lie for her. The little match salesgirl.
“Shit.” She was almost in tears. Jim looked alarmed.
“It’s not that big a deal, honey. That’s what happens with these old clothes. The fabric holds up but the thread gets weak.” He patted her shoulder. “Take it off.”
She thrust a hip forward and said huskily, “What are you saying?”
“Take it all off, baby,” purred Jim. He examined the dress again. “I can fix this. It’s right on the seam. I’ll do it now.”
“Thank you, Jim.” She undid the belt and the hooks on the side. Jim had seen her in her underwear or stark naked so many times that she didn’t bother with formalities. Dress halfway over her head she said, “Want to watch a movie with me while you sew?”
A sigh. “Oh, all right. I’ll mostly be looking at the needle anyway.” He took the dress from her and turned it inside out. “I might stitch up this whole side.”
“The Ox-Bow Incident? I just got it.”
He looked suspicious. “I read that in high school. It’s a Western, right?”
“More of a morality tale. Only,” she admitted, “with cowboys.”
“So a Western. You know I don’t like Westerns. Neither does Talmadge. And wait, it’s got lynching, doesn’t it?”
“Talmadge would like Anthony Quinn.” “No.”
“Dana Andrews was handsome.”
“I’m not watching a lynching Western and that’s final.”
“How about The Old Maid?” He wanted to know the plot. Told that it involved Bette Davis’ sacrificial mother love, he demanded to look at her video stash himself.
Ceinwen followed Jim through the living room where Talmadge was realigning the couch. It was a low-slung, high-backed, mauve-brocade affair that Jim had found in the street one Sunday night. The couch was beautiful, in a Victorian whorehouse sort of way, but it was missing a leg, which was how it ended up in the junk pile. After the three of them had pushed it upstairs—an operation that took nearly an hour and pissed off every neighbor they had, except Miriam, who was out—Jim positioned two cinder blocks where the leg should have been. This worked, but the couch was a touch shy of level. When they sat on it—and it was the only sitting option in the living room, aside from some floor cushions—the couch slipped a bit on the blocks. Every day it had to be moved back, and Talmadge had taken over this task.
Pushing the couch into perfect harmony with the blocks had become one of his rituals. Talmadge had a lot of rituals.
“Oh looky, it’s another Ceinwen lingerie show.” Jim didn’t care if she wasn’t dressed, but Talmadge kind of did.
“I’m getting my nightgown. And a movie.” “Which one?”
“I’m picking,” called Jim, who was already in her bedroom running his finger down the rows. “Ceinwen wants all the depressing stuff. Because she obviously had a great day and she wants to make it even better.”
“It’s called perspective,” said Ceinwen, grabbing the slip she wore as a nightie.
“It’s called masochism.” Jim pulled out a tape. “All right. How about this?”
“Yes!” hooted Talmadge from the doorway. “Marlene!”
She always sat in the middle of the couch where the back was highest; she pulled over an ashtray and propped her feet on the coffee table. Talmadge put in the tape and sat down with a pint of ice cream and a spoon. Jim went to work on the dress.
Ten minutes in, Ceinwen was blowing smoke at the ceiling and wishing she were on a train, reeling in the suckers with Anna May Wong. She felt so much better that she didn’t even mind when she remembered Marlene Dietrich’s name in Shanghai Express was Lily.
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