by Evan Brown
Reginald sat at the opposite end of the salesman's desk, half-heartedly flipping through a large three ring binder of carpet swatches. Different thicknesses. Different colors. Purple for the adventurous. Beige for the safe. Animal patterns, abstract patterns. Patterns of all kinds. Followed by more colors.
“The thing is,” the salesman said, “it's not about price. No really. At Carpet World, the only thing that matters, is quality. Other guys, they'll sell you a Persian rug for thousands, just because it's thousands.”
“Mm,” Reginald said, still flipping.
Why was he even here? On Monday the kindly hand on his shoulder signaled dismissal. Early retirement from twenty-five years on the job. He'd hoped to get five more years out of the place. Five more years of distraction, to add to the previous five. A full decade of working to keep his mind off poor Greta, rest her soul.
She'd been the thing that had kept him going, and without her, he fell back on the job, pointless as it was. County Control officer. At this point in time, it was all but a token title. There were no counties, let alone states or even countries to control. It was all bundled under one organization, and what did he matter? The dismissal was only a matter of time. At least it had a good pension.
So the first decision he made was to replace the rug. That ugly rug. Long since faded and stained by years of foot traffic. “If I'm spending more time at home,” he thought.
And so here he was at Carpet World. The first store he found.
The salesman kept talking. And Reginald kept flipping. At last he found a plain dark green one that reminded him of storybook forests. It seemed like a good a fit as any.
“A fine choice, sir. We never have to make good on our refunds, but should you require a different rug, for whatever reason, we will replace it within sixty days.”
To Reginald's surprise they installed it the same day. And so there he was, staring at his forest floor. He promptly left to get groceries. The hours had slipped away and it was past nine. He hadn't eaten since last night.
Reginald found the last ripe tomato in the store, or what passed for tomatoes these days. With enough salt and maybe some dried herbs he could fool himself into believing it was a proper tomato sandwich. Greta had loved tomatoes. He used to feed slices of them to her with his fingers when they were ripe.
Just his luck, while cutting the tomato, the juice spilled on his carpet, taking some seeds with it. Reginald swore softly, and did his best to clean up the mess. The carpet seemed to hide any stains. So at least there was that. Satisfied, Reginald finished making his sandwich and ate it. It tasted like nothing. He turned in early.
The next morning he woke up at seven, a force of habit he'd hoped would disappear with time. He walked out to the kitchen and to his surprise, a few stalks of green protruded from the carpet.
Reginald stood there, toes curling in the carpet. He decided not to do anything. He decided to leave and have breakfast at a local café. He was hungry. That was all. A tomato sandwich isn't enough sustenance. A cup of instant coffee, and some instant eggs. A rub of the eyes and all would be well.
Reginald ate his breakfast, popped round the retirement office and filled out forms in quadruplicate. The woman assisting him looked bored. "As long as she filed them correctly," he thought.
He passed by the church where he and Greta had been married, now deconsecrated and turned into living quarters. He wondered what it was like to sleep in the room with the stained glass windows. Reginald shook away the ghosts of memory and went back to his apartment.
He unlocked the door and was greeted with four stalks of green. Fully ripened tomatoes were hanging from the ends. Their skins glossy, the smell intoxicating. He reached out and plucked one. It felt and smelled like tomato, but more so. The absolute tomato. The tomato of his youth. He tiptoed into the kitchen, and carefully sliced it open.
Closing his eyes, half in fear, he took a bite. It was the best tomato he'd ever eaten. He spent the rest of the evening snacking on tomatoes before going to a dreamless deep sleep.
When he woke up the next day Reginald decided to return to Carpet World. Surely there was a mistake. Or perhaps there was a new innovation the salesman had neglected to mention. Regardless, he wanted to find out.
The walk was longer than he remembered, and the streets more deserted than before. He carried the crumpled receipt with the address stamped on it for reference.
When he got to the address, Reginald saw an empty store. No people. No carpet displays. The windows dirty. The only sign a store had been there was the metal desk where he had sat looking at the carpet samples. But it too, was covered with dust. A quick call on his mobile was met with a recording. The number had been disconnected.
There was nothing to do but turn around and walk back home. Greta would have loved this story though. “It was the darndest thing,” he imagined telling her. How many times had he started a sentence with “It was the darndest thing,” to her. And how many more times since he did the same in his head, his conversations still going, even though the stories were less funny without her ear to listen.
It looked like rain, and he wasn't inclined to go back out when rain carried with it the yellow fallout. Reginald passed by the super market and bought in food for the week. Milk, grapes, some potatoes that looked halfway decent, and the last of this seasons' cucumbers. At the checkout counter, he decided on a bottle of shiraz. It was Thursday. The day he used to have wine, after a long day at work. It seemed so much more fulfilling than waiting for the weekend. Some old habits die hard, and others don't die at all, he thought.
At home, Reginald washed some grapes and sat munching them in front of the television. They had seeds, and he hated seeds because they always got stuck in his dentures. Tonight was no exception.
He grimaced and removed his dentures with a feeling of shame and annoyance. He plucked the seeds from his mouth, tossed them behind the couch with abandon and thought nothing more of it.
The next morning, his walls were covered with grape leaves.
Reginald now had tomatoes and grapes springing forth from his carpet. Sure enough, the grapes tasted as good as the tomatoes. If this kept up, he could open a farmer's market in his apartment. No doubt that would have gone over well with his fellow county control employees.
“Oh Greta, what to make of this.”
Her name was a exclamation, a love letter, a wish and a mournful sigh. Her name was everything still.
Reginald tried to block out the crops and watched TV the entire day. Game shows, shopping shows, shows about genetic mutants and soap operas. He sat through everything until the eleven o-clock news came on. All the while the images flickered past his head, while he did his best not to think about grapes and tomatoes, come and go carpet stores and Greta, always Greta.
With a decisive snap, Reginald shut the TV off at eleven thirty, walked into his bedroom and opened the closet door. The overhead lightbulb was a 45 watt, barely enough to see. But he knew what he looked for.
Reginald grabbed a desk chair and stepped on it, holding the closet walls for support.
On top of the closet was a shelf. And on that shelf were rows of boxes. Reginald chose the small white one, so old it had long since yellowed. He carefully stepped down and made his way back into the living room.
On the couch, he opened the box. In the box, was another box. And inside it were two silver necklaces. One heart shaped, one key shaped. Reginald sat looking at them for a long time. He hadn't seen them in years, couldn't bear to look at them.
He remembered when they were young and broke. Sharing dinners in fancy restaurants for splurges. Scraping together money for near-free dates. They never cared though. Who had money anyway? Not at that age. Later of course, when they were more well off it was different. But they never forgot the necklaces.
Those cheap necklaces he bought from the jeweler who took pity on him because it was all he could afford. The dealer sold him two for one. It was their gift of the magi moment. The most inexpensive gift meant the world to them both. Because it was for them both.
Reginald poured himself a glass of wine, and allowed the memories to wash over him. The tears didn't flow. Instead, a smile formed on his lips. He went into the kitchen, and pulled down another wine glass from the cupboard.
He filled it and set it on the table next to his own. Then he opened Greta's heart-shaped necklace and his key shaped necklace. Inside both were the gifts they'd given each other. The true gifts. The ones with meaning. The ones that made the world spin faster. The ones that meant love. Inside each one, in tiny ziplock bags, were locks of each others' hair.
Trite, yes. Naïve, yes. And still more beautiful than each could ever have imagined.
With a thumbnail, Reginald opened his ziplock. For the first time in more years than he could imagine, his fingers felt Greta's hair. Still soft. Still smelling incredibly of her shampoo.
Reginald thought about quality and what the carpet salesman said. He thought of what had happened in the past two days. And then he stopped thinking.
He took Greta's hair, sprinkled it on the carpet, and then lay back with is eyes closed. Smiling, he fell back against the sofa to sleep, hoping he would need all the sleep he could get that night.