Mervin Trumble watched the miniature clock over his television screen: Seven fifty-four. Six minutes more, and then Charlotte would be on-air for their weekly visit. She was easily his preferred shopping channel presenter now that Naomi had departed for parts unknown. That was the pattern with these women, here today, then off to who knew where for reasons they never divulged. But he enjoyed Charlotte’s company, the way she was always smiling directly at him through the television screen and offering him not a commercial transaction, but something more meaningful: perhaps an intuitive awareness of his innate loyalty, or a kindness for his silent yearnings. Though he welcomed these detached encounters, he would quietly cherish a personal meeting if it came to that.
He bristled at the thought that before Charlotte’s entrance he’d first have to endure several minutes of blather from that twiggy hostess about Vasili’s artistry: his fabulous gold necklace… hand crafted… 14 carat luxury. Always the same spiel, same rote enthusiasm. He could write a better blurb himself if he chose to.
He eased his thick body into the soiled fabric of his La-Z-Boy. The pudgy fingers of his left hand adjusted an arm cover swirled with ingrained dirt. A gold ring on his middle finger nudged against a fleshy knuckle.
A favourite purchase from the shopping channel, the ring featured a small bird set into what the hostess had called an Egyptian style cartouche. When he looked up that strange word, cartouche, in the library and learned it dealt with royalty, he’d been doubly enthused. What his first point of interest was, and he’d admit this to anybody who asked about the ring, although nobody ever had, was the elegance of the model, Naomi: upright posture, steady smile, even white teeth. For three easy payments of $41.90 he had gained a ring and a brief, joyous intimacy with Naomi. That same feeling had driven him to purchase an elegant Carole Logan gold watch embossed with a CL logo in simulated diamonds: for a female friend, when he soon enough found one.
None of that closeness had lasted, of course. It never did. Naomi had departed the show with no explanation, no hint of future modelling engagements, nothing. For a time, her absence reinforced his bouts of dejection. Any good feelings he had with women too easily swirled away in suspicion or misunderstanding. Even with his landlady, though he did try often enough to raise a smile with a compliment: “Your sweater flatters you, Eileen. Perfect colour,” when in reality it looked frumpy and was clearly a recent thrift shop purchase.
He recalled her mercenary resolve from a couple of months back. She knocked three times on his door, then blew in like a fixated tax collector.
“Mervin. Did you come round this morning while I was out?”
“No, Eileen. Though I had a mind to.”
“I won’t be chasing you down, not in this heat.” She dabbed at her brow with a crumpled tissue. “Your late rent payment is a habit needs breaking.”
He shifted in his chair. A flash of light over his gold ring calmed him.
“You’re right, Eileen. I’ll set it straight. Soon, I promise.”
She hovered over him, and then picked up his Frieda Mayer ceramic spaniel, (a viewers’ Loyalty Premium offer, $58) her dark eyes bored into his family of papier mache peasants: woman and tinker and two rosy cheeked children.
Some days he conceded that, for all her stiffness and insensitivity, Mrs. Ambrose was right. He really should be more selective in his purchase of these adornments, baubles, whatever term of inventory you applied to them.
But hadn’t that same enthusiasm for ornament spurred his initial acquaintance with Charlotte? Four months ago she had come on the show to present diamond earrings, inspired by the collection of Catherine the Great. Their sparkle made him catch his breath. Or was it Charlotte’s silky voice that enchanted him?
His mantle clock tinged eight times. He half listened as the hostess introduced Vasili’s pendant. But her surprise special announcement for our loyal clients alerted him. Then he wondered, had he heard correctly? Ms. Charlotte will be appearing in person at the Bedford Mall: To show our stunning collection of Verde handbags…
He leaned toward the television. So join us, October 28th, at 2 pm for an hour of glamorous display.
So, it was true. Date and time. And place. He stretched into his La-Z-Boy. A myriad of possibilities swirled in his head. He must be calm to juggle them profitably. First, the mall was nearby; he could take the bus. He had to remember to mark the date on his calendar, and perhaps a prior call to the TV station to request an introduction with Charlotte. They would deepen their acquaintance through a personal meeting, perhaps mold a firm relationship. He could move into a world of active, creative people. This close, dumpy flat would no longer hold him hostage. He tried to settle in to watch her presentation of Vasili’s pendant. His heart and mind tumbled with rainbow hopes.
He gave himself over to this promising turn of events. He placed an ad in his local community paper to sell a couple of bronze figurines. He presented this ‘found money’ as he called it, to Mrs. Ambrose. “We’ll be square on the rent now, Eileen. I won’t be tardy again.” Mrs. Ambrose nodded. “I didn’t doubt you, Mervin.”
Nearly three weeks passed. Mrs. Ambrose welcomed a new tenant in the upstairs apartment, and shortly confided to Mervin: “This one may not last. Short on cash, long on party time.” Mervin sold a couple more objets d’art, a brass sunburst and a Holly Madison vase. The growing pile of bills in his small ebony box in his dressing table made him feel unburdened and bountiful. Perhaps, if things worked out, he would use some of the cash to buy Charlotte a present from a trendy downtown shop. Yes, she would commend his resourcefulness.
He cut back his shopping channel viewing time. Yet he followed Charlotte’s offerings, every Monday evening. “Remember, viewers. One week today, and you can see our darling Charlotte in person, with her very special handbags…”
To prepare for this meaningful day he rode the local bus, number 17, from the stop near his apartment, to the Mall. Surely the dry nausea that turned his stomach on this practice run would dissipate on his real journey. He drove away any thoughts of phoning the television studio. It would be too intrusive, too disrespectful. After all, he wouldn’t want people calling him out of the blue for an intimate meeting.
Later, he sat in his La-Z-Boy and tapped his pudgy fingers along the arm. The delicate bird in his ring seemed ready to spring toward the outside light.
On the appointed day he boarded bus #17 again, at the corner stop. He was wearing his tan suit and polished leather shoes. He could not remember when he had last dressed with such ceremony.
As the bus eased through the downtown core, he looked on the young couples strolling inquisitively past shop windows. He wanted that leisurely outdoors shopping method, with Charlotte on his arm, and he would listen to her suggestions on cost and materials while time flew by. He smiled at the notion.
The bus turned into the west entrance of the Bedford Mall, and slowed to its first stop in front of Cooper’s Fine Clothing store. He could see a white Ford van parked at the next stop, a hundred yards on. The shopping channel’s red and gold logo covered the van’s side panels. Nearing showtime, he thought. Cameras, lights, microphones. And her: black gown, welcoming smile, gleaming hair. The ordered formality of it all knotted his stomach.
He stood on the edge of the gathered crowd, held by some formless dread hovering over him. The tv lights and media crowd swirled into a gyrating haze. He lost sight of Charlotte. He felt disoriented and vulnerable. He gripped a cold fence stanchion for support and prayed silently for the quick return of the bus.
He walked into the shadowy coolness of his room. His breathing was rapid and shallow, but he felt a comfortable welcome here. Safe and reassured. The day’s events swirled in his head, scrambled in meaning. He reached into the inner breast pocket of his jacket and lifted out the television remote. He had carried it with him on the bus ride. It was his talisman, a lucky charm that, had it worked for him, might have spurred his courage in presenting himself to Charlotte. Now its impotence disappointed and annoyed him.
He fingered the ON button. He could watch her show live from the mall, and in a way atone for their ill-timed appointment. But he left the screen blank. The brittle voice of Mrs. Ambrose echoed along the hallway: “… take your garbage to the bins provided… not clog up here…”
He sat down and looked at the dark television screen. His mind was emptying itself of his show of cowardice at the mall. He had misjudged to think the station’s invitation could serve him directly and bring him into the company of a beautiful woman. He had no business to make himself a beneficiary, to imagine his loyal viewership would translate into an immediate, meaningful relationship with these presenters, Naomi or Charlotte.
Then he regarded his prizes: the watch with the showy logo; the ageless peasants who smiled on him in patient approval. He would leave off their disposal, for a time at least. “You should never give up on the things that anchor your life, give it stability,” he said aloud. A new hope warmed his chest and throat. He couldn’t quit on himself, not now, after his exhausting effort to move into outside company. He would further prepare himself for some better day when he would meet Charlotte, or someone like her, and he would slough away his timidity for what it had been, just a mistake of timing.
He felt better now. Starting today he would study the home shopper’s headlines more carefully. They often had Encore Show Stoppers: in all likelihood Vasili’s work would feature again, a lovely bracelet perhaps, or another stylish pendant that he would buy. For a special woman. At some favourable time.