The air on the tenth floor seemed suddenly thin. My nose was running, but when I felt in my pocket for a handkerchief, for anything that could cover me, I came up empty. "And, and now," I sputtered, "you're selling it?"
"Absolutely not." She tilted her head. She was so elegant. Smooth-skinned. Perhaps in her middle fifties. She had a way of pressing her lips together that also hemmed the corners of her eyes, as if to keep the light out. "We put it here to remind people. As a kind of private memorial. More intimate than the museums. I can show you," she offered.
And now she did what she should not, in a just world, have been able to do. She leaned the surface of my mother's clumsy little sewing table over by slipping her elegant, manicured and ringed fingers into the holes, so like weevil bores, that still stippled the top if it; and kneeling down inside her skirt and against a pair of elegant black leather heels, balanced herself perfectly, steadily, against strong white calves, gesturing to me to come down with her, and look, and see what was written underneath. And pointed up to the faded imprint and read aloud:
"Als de Joden weg zijn is het onze beurt."
I swallowed and stood and said as quickly as I could, "What does that signify?"
She set the table to rights, pausing to wipe its surface, as though we had sullied it, before answering me. "The translation goes, 'When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones.' It's Dutch. In a child's handwriting. That's all we know. It's been traced, childishly, twice."
"My God." I blushed. "How...horrible."
"You think so? I don't. I find it's almost beautiful. Like Niemöller. 'They came for the Jews, but I wasn't a Jew, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for the Catholics, but I was a Protestant, so I didn't speak up. Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up.' Clear and honest. A child's warning."
But I felt the creases in my neck burning as if a collar of hot coals had been laid across me. I closed my eyes and glimpsed the table as I had seen it last, wheeling over my head, being carried away by a mob. Then I grew tight, defensive. As if I could have known my mother's sewing table would return, all these years later, to promulgate lies. That it would come and sit here, inviting misinterpretation, misunderstanding, in this way, lying in wait in a corner, like a frog mimicking a stone. I ducked my head away from it. But heat still radiated down my chest.
The manager was now watching me closely, so sharply that I had to think of something to say, to appear sensible. So I cleared my throat and asked, politely, why, well, why she would keep such a table--since it was, in fact, such an unusual table--simply standing out, unremarked, with all the rest of her merchandise.
"And why not?" She opened her eyes wide. Challenging me. "I'd say it belongs in situ, anywhere--or nowhere--or everywhere. Wouldn't you agree?" She went on to insist--though it looked to me that something, maybe the light, pained her slightly--that, to her, there seemed to be no better place for it than here, in public, in this showroom, sitting out with so many expensive, optional luxuries; and so she had set it down, right there, on that spot, where it filled out the end of the aisle, and caught the eye, and also made the other pieces look, by comparison, more distinctive.
"And then it's nice also," she acknowledged me, gracious again, "to have something important to talk about, with observant customers."
"But are people," I said anxiously, suddenly desperate to get away, yet trying to appear normal and calm, turning around to the Louis XVI buffet to pick up my shopping bag filled with herring tins and bananas and Pepto-Bismol, "are some of the people who take the time to ask, and get down, and look under this little table, which you say--absolutely--isn't for sale, are, are some of these people, then, sometimes"--I challenged back--"more inclined to buy your other furniture?"
From The Deadwood Beetle, by Mylene Dressler. (c) September 2001, G. P. Putnam & Sons, used by permission.
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