House Beautiful, by Paul Beckman

Herbert sat in his chair, a large mahogany overstuffed leather with matching ottoman, and Sheila sat in hers, a spindle backed rocker with thin pillow pads tied to the seat and chair back. The powder blue pads were interchangeable and washable and had tiny white butterflies as their only design. The cloth strips that tied and looped the pads were white and blue. Herbert’s leather had big nail studs on the face of the arms and also around the base of the ottoman. His chair belonged in a men’s club or a study and hers would have been perfectly content next to a bassinet.

They didn’t go together in their small apartment but since they couldn’t agree on furniture for the first three years of their marriage they finally decided that for their fourth anniversary they should each go out and buy their own chair and interior decorating be damned. “We’ll become eclectic.” Sheila said and Herbert nodded his agreement and repeated, “Eclectic.”

Before they left on their separate shopping safaris they shared a bottle of Chianti and lugged their beat up old couch down the two flights and left it on the curb with a “take me” sign.

“We’ll decorate around our chairs,” Herbert said.

“Eclectic,” Sheila said and Herbert smiled.

“We’ll accessorize the shit out of the place with pictures and tables and the like until we achieve that House Beautiful homogeneous look,” Sheila said.

Herbert looked at her sternly to remind her that he didn’t approve of her street language. They were both fifty years old and in certain things set in our ways. She’d been a widow for seventeen years and Herbert, well Herbert . . . let’s just say that Sheila was his first and let it go at that.

They spent the next six months shopping for end tables and a coffee table to go with their new chairs but ran into the same problem. “Just go pick an end table that matches your chair and I’ll do the same.” Herbert suggested.

Sheila went along with the idea because the TV trays they were using, even though they were the nice wood foldable and stackable ones, still had a first apartment tackiness to them that disturbed her.

She found the perfect end table on sale at Macys. It was maple and had two levels. The lower had a hinge top that allowed her to keep her magazines and knitting out of sight while the upper level was smaller but held her books very well—both the current one she was reading and the next one in line. There was no need for a tabletop reading lamp because she’d replaced the gooseneck with a freestanding lamp with a tasseled shade. The three pieces made a lovely setting.

Herbert got a large Plexiglas cube with one side open so he could stow his magazines and newspapers. Enough said. You get the picture. And speaking of pictures, both their chairs faced the TV which bisected their spaces and rested on an aluminum stand with a shelf of fake wood below. On Herbert’s side of the wall hung a Mondrian poster and on Sheila’s a shelf that held five plates, each commemorating the Queen Mum at different times of her life.

Their attempt at eclectic continued: Sheila purchased a braided throw rug; Herbert countered with art deco sconces and followed those up with a door sized poster of a door which he hung next to the front door. Sheila ordered gingham curtains with little gingham tiebacks and a gingham tablecloth. She had a walnut breakfront delivered and Herbert drove home with a white bookcase from IKEA. Thus it went. Sheila ate on china and Herbert favored the pottery look. They called a time-out when Herbert showed up and proudly displayed a vintage lava lamp and a dogs playing poker framed picture.

“There they go again, Herbert,” Sheila said as the sound of a plate breaking against the common wall with the neighbors shattered their ritual reading silence.

They had fallen into a rut; Sheila would most likely call it a pattern. Herbert would come home from work and Sheila who’d been out of the classroom for several hours would be preparing dinner. They’d peck hello and he’d change out of his suit and return to the kitchen where his apron was waiting and he’d make the salad for their evening meal. They both loved salad and Sheila liked the fact that Herbert threw in lots of ingredients—raisins, croutons, shredded carrots and cukes, roasted peppers and some kind of nuts–pine or walnuts, whatever they had handy. She said he always made her feel that they were at a restaurant salad bar.

Meanwhile, she had whatever he’d be grilling that evening sitting in one of her marinades. Unlike Herbert, she always used a recipe; she had a shoebox of them, mostly out of magazines and saved with some kind of filing system he never understood, but the meat or chicken was always tender and juicy. While he made the salad she told him about her day. Herbert knew about every student in her class as well as the other teachers and the principal too.

While he grilled they sipped a glass of table red and talked current events. Then, during dinner he would tell her about his day. He was a traffic light engineer for the city of New Haven. He worked with timing the traffic lights along stretches of road as well as adding new lights and configuring multi-signal lights for left turn lanes and the like. It was fascinating work, he liked to say.

Afterwards, while he cleaned the grill, Sheila did the dishes. Then they’d retire to their respective chairs and watch the news. He liked CBS, she NBC, so they rotated every day and occasionally added ABC to the mix.

They never fought; but never made love like their neighbors either. The only thing louder than their neighbors fighting was their lovemaking. They had a studio apartment so everything that went on, went on the other side of the living room wall. Sheila and Herbert could’ve gone into their bedroom and closed the door and heard nothing but neither ever suggested it. They just pretended that no one was getting laid like it was the last time before the meteor hit.

They don’t even know their names so he’d taken to calling them Katherine and Spencer. Herbert wanted Sheila to act like Katherine, screaming, moaning and yelling out sexual commands, but Sheila, who was doing her own fantasizing, which was not all that different, was afraid of turning Herbert off and away from her.

“Here we go again,” Herbert took to saying when their noisemaking started. Over time he became more and more resentful and jealous. While Sheila on the other hand, fantasized that she was the woman next door and took to having her own quiet orgasms.

On a particular evening something next door triggered her and she got carried away and she began rocking her chair and moaning, her eyes closed and her hand rubbing herself; while Herbert, not knowing what to do, excused himself and went for a walk while she rocked herself into a screaming multi-orgasmic episode that had the neighbors worried enough to stop what they’re doing and knock on her door to see if she was okay.

Herbert was speechless when Sheila told him that she had invited Spencer and Katherine over for dinner on Friday night but she was firm in her resolve to get to know these people and hopefully have some of their passion rub off on Herbert.

“What do you think?” Herbert asked Katherine as he swept his hand across the living room. She had just told them she was an interior decorator. Spencer was a product photographer.

“We were shooting for eclectic,” Sheila said.

“You shot and missed,” Katherine blurted out.

Herbert and Sheila’s initial reaction was to feel insulted but then with the aid of another bottle of wine Katherine explained eclectic and told them that they had a fight of culture going on and no theme incorporating an item or two to break that theme making their home eclectic.

“What you have here,” Spencer explained, “Is the Addams Family meets Little House on the Prairie.”

After their company had gone and Herbert and Sheila were quietly cleaning up the kitchen she said, “Herbert, be honest and tell me what you think of their comments.”

“Okay, honest is what you want. Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. We’re married and should be honest with each other.”

Herbert left the room and returned naked and began drying dishes. “I would like you to leave and come back dressed as I am,” he said. “I was turned on by Katherine’s revealing clothes and could actually care less about their opinion of our decorating.

Sheila did not leave the room but shed her clothes where she stood and kicked them into a corner.

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Paul Beckman was one of the winners in Queen’s Ferry Best of the Small Fictions (2016). His stories appear frequently in print and online. His flash story collection, “Peek” from Big Table Publishing weighed in at 65 stories and 117 pages and website is www.paulbeckmanstories.com