Fiction · 05/03/2017

Future Kings and Sofas

Because his father and his father’s father were both veterinarians, and because he could often be found carrying crickets and cockroaches to the outdoors in the cradle of his palms, all of us, including Mr. Cooper, assumed little Tim was destined to become a veterinarian, and that the state of Kansas’s career aptitude test, if it was at all accurate, would reflect this fate. So when our sixth grade class opened our sealed manila envelopes exactly one month after taking the aptitude test, we were all surprised to find that Tim had been assigned the career of a sectional.

“What’s a sectional?” Tim asked me, less because we were friends and more because I sat directly behind him. Our relationship was shaky at best. In the fourth grade, he’d told me I had a face like a cheeseburger. To retaliate, I’d pressed a booger onto the underside of his desk.

“Maybe it’s a typo,” I said, hoping that it wasn’t. I understood that kids like Timothy Wagner, kids who did not need braces and who came from families that could afford things like horseback riding lessons and plastic book covers, needed a good beating down.

“Oh, that’s no typo,” Mr. Cooper said. He was looming above us, as he sometimes did. “It’s surprising, Tim, but not entirely unusual. Last year, we had a girl get runner.”

“Like an athlete?” Tim asked, his eyes hopeful.

“Afraid not,” Mr. Cooper said. “More like a kind of long, narrow rug you’d put in a hallway.”

Tim frowned. “So what’s a sectional?”

“Sectional sofa,” Mr. Cooper explained, and then, looking at my own papers, which read Oral Surgeon, said, “That’s a nice surprise, Ashley. I’ve always thought you’d do something with mouths.”

Not knowing what this meant, I said, “Thank you,” and made a mental note to start paying more attention to people’s teeth. I started with Tim, who was bearing his perfect choppers at his manila envelop and the dark future it portended.

“How are you supposed to be a sectional?” I asked.

Tim shrugged. It was clear that he had also expected recognition as a budding veterinarian, and that his life was now destined to follow along the bleak prognosis assigned to him by Career Aptitude Testing Services. “I guess I’ll need to get upholstered?”

“Oh, perfect,” I said. “My uncle owns a fabric store downtown.”

“Oh yeah?”

I nodded. “He could cut you a deal.”

Tim thanked me several times, going so far as to kiss the palm of my hand. I blushed, and felt, for the first time in my short life, like the type of person who was capable of extending little kindnesses down the social ladder.

+

In the morning, Tim showed up to class newly upholstered. The fabric was an unflattering burgundy, spotted with haphazard starbursts the color of urine. It was the fabric of a sofa you’d see in a dermatologist’s office, or in the living room of a woman who collects dolls made of cornhusks.

“Did my uncle give you a good deal?” I asked, trying to sound chipper.

Tim’s mouth opened behind the fabric, creating a moist dimple. “He did. 10% off per yard.” He began to squirm inside of the fabric body case, very much unlike an actual sectional. “So do you like it?” he added. “I feel kind of silly. I didn’t want to come to school but my mom made me.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “It looks great. You look great.” I realized I was beginning to sound like my mom when my aunt Hilda wore dresses two sizes two small.

“Would you sit on me?”

“Yes,” I said, forcing a smile. “Definitely.”

+

Several days later, Miss Rimmer, the office secretary, showed up in Mr. Cooper’s classroom. She glanced at a clipboard. “Tim?” she asked. “Timothy Wagner?”

Tim, who was sitting quietly in the corner of the room, next to a side table, perked up. Perhaps he thought she was coming to announce a mistake on his aptitude test.

Miss Rimmer nodded. “Please come with me.”

Tim maneuvered his body until he had partial use of his knees. Crawling, he followed Miss Rimmer out the door.

Later that day, Mr. Cooper explained to the class that Tim had been promoted to the principal’s office. Deciding I needed to see it for myself, I shot an expert spit wad into Allison McAllister’s perfect blonde hair. Like a charm, Mr. Cooper sent me straight to the principal’s office.

The principal was busy in a meeting, and so I was told to wait in the lobby. Sure enough, there was Tim, curved into the best L-shape he could manage.

“Go ahead,” the secretary said, gesturing toward Tim. “That’s what he’s there for.”

Hesitant, I lowered myself onto the spot where Tim’s hipbone gave way to thigh. I noticed that behind him, in the little sliver of space between his spine and the wall, lay a colorful garden of trash — straw wrappers, fingernails, wads of bubble gum.

“Are you comfortable?” Tim asked, his voice strained. I could tell I was crushing his lungs.

“Sure,” I said, although I’d never been more uncomfortable in my life.

Despite the aptitude test, I knew that the order of things was out of whack. The universe had clearly mixed up the envelopes; it should have been me — the girl who once pooped in a sump pump, who didn’t learn to tie her shoes until the 6th grade and was therefore confined to faux leather Velcro loafers — sitting beneath the wealthy, shiny, promising Tim, squashed beneath the weight of his promise. I realized that Tim must be feeling this injustice even more acutely than I was, that he must have felt the entire wrath of the universe’s boot up his ass.

“You know what, Tim?” I said.

“What?” he asked.

“I’m not comfortable. And you’re a bad sectional. The worst.”

He breathed beneath me. In and out. In and out. Everything was a quiet for a moment as the secretary looked at me with her beady, incredulous eyes. Tim continued to breath. “Thank you,” he finally said, the words sounding more like ank oo. He shifted beneath me and we were both quiet, appreciating for the first time just how ugly our lives might become. Nobody could promise us anything.

+++

Becky Mandelbaum is the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2013 Lawrence Art Center’s Langston Hughes Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Juked, South Dakota Review, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Kansas City Voices. Her collection of stories, Bad Kansas, is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press in fall of 2017. Originally from Kansas, she currently care takes a ranch in Colorado.