When three men came into his furniture store on the neglected edge of Multioak’s business district late in the afternoon, Lester could tell right away they were the kind to ask if he sold anything other than coffee tables. Sure enough, after just a few minutes spent wandering up and down the rows of coffee tables and laughing among themselves, one of the men came to the back of the store where Lester sat on his stool behind the counter and said, “Hey, man, you got anything besides these little tables?”
“They’re coffee tables,” said Lester, leaning on the cash register. There was a sign taped to the front of the register that said, “All sales final! No Refunds! All sales are FINAL!”
“I don’t drink coffee,” said the man. “I want a chair or somethin’.” His friends snorted.
“Let me go down in the basement and see if we have anything,” said Lester. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The basement was empty except for a brown easy chair positioned under a bare light bulb that hung from the ceiling by a fraying electrical cord. A thick book rested on the seat of the chair. As he picked up the book, Lester bumped against the bulb. It swayed back and forth and made his shadow lunge up and down on the cinder block wall. He sat down and stretched his feet out in front of him.
The book was called 5,005 Essential Business Tips. Just below the title on the cover, bright yellow text declared, “Eighth Edition! Contains 800 Bonus Tips!” Lester’s wife Gail had given him the book for his fifty-sixth birthday. He had intended to put it away and forget about it, but he had been surprised at how hurt his wife had been when she discovered it resting unread on the bookshelf in the family room. So he took the book to the store and kept it on the easy chair in the basement. Whenever he had some time to kill while pretending to look for furniture that wasn’t a coffee table for difficult customers, he took a few minutes to flip through the book and read little chunks here and there. That way when his wife asked him how it was coming, he could satisfy her with specific details about whatever useless business tips he had recently perused.
As he settled himself in the chair, Lester heard the customers moving around upstairs, the floorboards creaking under their feet. He flipped through the book until he came to a chapter called “Reducing Waste.” He had just started to read about keeping the thermostat at your place of business two degrees cooler than you’re used to when the footsteps overhead quickened. He heard the distant tinkle of the bell over the front door and then silence. Lester stood and dropped the book back onto the chair, turned the light off at the switch on the wall, and went upstairs. There was no one in the store. Lester went outside and saw that except for his own motorcycle, the parking lot was empty too. He stood in the blue shade underneath the awning on the front of the store, his hands on his hips, a satisfied smile on his face.
Then he went back inside and the smile wilted and fell away. The cash register was gone. Lester ran back outside and across the parking lot to the road, looking in both directions down the highway, knowing it was foolish and desperate even as he did it since he had no idea what kind of vehicle the men had been driving.
What did he know about the customers? What could he remember? They had looked arrogant. They had looked gullible. They had looked weak. Lester realized it would take a police sketch artist of exceptional talent to come up with accurate portraits based on such abstractions. One of the men had been wearing a t-shirt with the name of the local strip club on it! Backup Paradise, down by the empty building where the post office used to be! Lester was proud of himself for recalling this detail. But what if the man took the shirt off and destroyed it? Or simply threw it into the Salvation Army donation box in the Diamond Food’s parking lot? And even if he still had the shirt, Lester didn’t want to explain to the cops how he was reading business tips in the basement to humor his wife while three guys strolled out with his cash register. Lester jammed his hands in the pockets of his jeans and trudged back to his store, flipping the “open” sign on the door to “closed,” and returning to his stool behind the counter.
There hadn’t been much money in the register. Not more than a hundred bucks. Probably closer to sixty. But Lester couldn’t tolerate the insult, couldn’t stand the idea that he’d been outsmarted. His hand-crafted coffee tables, arranged around the store according to different types that only he could recognize, didn’t provide the comfort that Lester had grown used to counting on at the end of sub-standard days. He locked up and drove home.
“You’re home early,” said Gail. “Slow day?” She was sitting in front of the muted television with the most recent issue of a teen fashion magazine open on her lap, sewing stylish doll clothes for the neighborhood girls.
“Yeah, kind of slow,” said Lester. He flopped down on the couch next to Gail and propped his feet up on this week’s coffee table. It was one of his experimental three-legged, birch models that he could never quite get balanced right, but he was proud of the varnishing job he’d done on this particular one. He cleared his throat and said, “I think I’m gonna go over to Backup Paradise after dinner. See what all the fuss is about.”
Gail didn’t look up from the miniature sun-dress taking shape in her lap. “It’s so nice of you to take an interest in those girls’ kids and community college educations.”
Lester laughed and stood up. “Business contacts.”
Gail smiled and held up the half-finished sun-dress. “What do you think?”
“It looks a little crooked,” said Lester.
Gail sighed. “You’re right. It does. But this coffee table wobbles.” She tossed her knitting needles aside and said, “Anyone going to a seedy strip club after dinner gets the smaller pork chop.”
Lester had been standing by Backup Paradise’s front entrance, pretending to smoke cigarette after cigarette, and nodding disinterested greetings at everyone who came in for over an hour when two of the guys who had stolen his cash register parked a decked-out, dirty pickup truck at the far edge of the lot and walked toward the door. Lester recognized them by their arrogance. They looked exactly as arrogant as he remembered them. And the guy in the Backup Paradise t-shirt was still wearing it. The third guy, wherever he was, apparently had better ideas for his share of the take than half-hearted lap-dances.
As the two men walked past him on their way into the club, Lester said, “Couldn’t find a chair for you after all. Maybe next time.”
The two men stopped, looked Lester up and down, and the guy in the Backup Paradise t-shirt’s features went rigid. But the other one broke into a smile and as soon as he spoke, Lester knew he was the guy who’d spoken to him in the store. He recognized the condescending tone. “You were down there so long we figured maybe you died, man. Couldn’t wait around all day.”
“You sure I can’t interest you in a coffee table?” asked Lester.
“I told you I don’t drink no coffee.” The man’s smile was replaced with a look of confusion.
“You can put magazines on ‘em too,” said Lester.
The man spat into the bushes through his teeth. “I don’t read magazines either.”
Lester leaned closer as if he was confiding a secret. “You can put anything you want on a coffee table, pal. That’s the beauty. ‘Coffee table’ is kind of what you’d call a ‘misnomer.’ They’re really just little tables.”
The man backed away from Lester. “I’m not buyin’ no coffee table! Find some other sucker!” He turned and hurried into the club. The guy in the Backup Paradise shirt gave Lester one last worried glance and then followed his accomplice inside. Lester was alone. The flat thump of the generic dance music in the club diminished as he wandered across the parking lot to the men’s pickup truck, looked around to make sure no one was watching, and then crawled underneath, pulling a small pair of wire-cutters out of his jeans’ pocket and going to work on every wire, cable, and hose he could reach.
When Lester got home, Gail was asleep. He undressed in the dark and tried to get into bed without waking her, but it didn’t work. “How many new customers you get?” she asked. She was lying on her stomach and her voice was muffled by the comforter.
“Hard to say,” said Lester.
“I’ll bet,” said Gail.
They both laughed. “What’d you read about in Essential Business Tips today?” asked Gail.
“Customer service.” Lester watched the vague silhouette of the back of his wife’s head.
“Oh yeah?” said Gail. “What’d it say?” Her voice was dreamy and distant.
“Nothing I didn’t already know,” whispered Lester.
Gail didn’t say anything. She had drifted back into sleep.
In the morning, Lester would make a coffee table. Maybe even get started on a second one. He could already smell the varnish.