4.22.2005

Fiction: The Umbrella

I don't typically steal from little old ladies in wheelchairs. As a general rule, I make a special effort to be kind to the elderly, given the bad rap they get these days. In fact, I like to think of myself on the whole as a “good” person. I don't take office supplies from work. I volunteer occasionally at the Special Olympics. On polls or survey questions, I usually tell the truth. So I think we can establish that it would be altogether uncharacteristic of me to accost a sweet old grandmother in her wheelchair, wrest an umbrella from her clutches, and flee.

The woman had no business owning an umbrella like that. A vintage Romanelli 1915 pagoda with paisley print is the Stradivarius of antique umbrellas. Romanelli himself made less than a hundred, each bearing his trademark flair for mother-of-pearl inlay along the shaft, the swirls twisting and looping into the camel-fur handle. The canopy of the pagoda is made of the finest imported Chinese silk, hand-dyed in Romanelli's own painstaking method. At auction, the umbrella can sell for as much as $20,000. Now, I'm not saying that any of this justifies what I did, but hopefully you can understand where I'm coming from.

I work as a computer programmer for a company that builds machinery to feed chickens. Chicken farms are almost fully automated these days, and the machinery that feeds them several times a day needs software so that the farmer can control when and how much he is feeding them. I don't write that program. I write the program that controls the machinery that kills the chickens when they are ready to be eaten. I hate my job.

When people ask me if I'm dating anyone, I don't want to seem pathetic, so I tell them that I just broke up with my girlfriend. It's been three years now since we broke up. We dated for two weeks. They were the best two weeks of my life.

So I collect umbrellas. There are stranger hobbies. Collecting has always appealed to my need to organize things, and umbrellas in particular were a narrow enough specialty that I felt I could become an expert in at least that one area. I come home from work, eat from my cartons of Chinese takeout, listen to music, and study umbrellas. There are probably only a dozen people in the United States with a more thorough knowledge of vintage umbrellas than me. And, after three years of dedicated effort, I've amassed a very respectable collection. I've scoured nearly every antique shop in seven states, and so far, I've found four pieces that are especially good, two original LaDuke ruffled parasols, a jeweled Carver, and a double-layered plaid from the mid-19th century. But the Romanelli is in another league. Most collectors are lucky to see even one in their career, because of the sixteen that are known to still exist, only two are on public display. The discovery of a Romanelli is an epic, life-defining moment, one that will make its owner a minor celebrity among collectors and forever divide his life into two periods, Before Romanelli and After Romanelli.

Which is why, on that overcast day as I walked from work to the bus stop, that little old lady appeared to me not as a ninety-year-old puttering down the sidewalk in her motorized wheelchair with an umbrella on her lap, but as a beautiful shimmering goddess surrounded by hosts of angels singing praises, come to bestow on me her sublime gift. Her name was Ramona.

“Excuse me, what's your name?” I said, my voice quavering.

“Ramona. What do you want? You're in my way,” said Ramona.

“I...couldn't help but notice your umbrella,” I said. I was at a loss for words. My ears were ringing, and I suddenly felt faint.

“Could you please move?' said Ramona. “You're blocking the whole sidewalk.”

I knew I needed to act quickly, or the opportunity would be lost. “Sorry,” I said. “It's just that I collect umbrellas. And if I might be so presumptuous, I'd like to buy yours. I'd be willing to pay quite a lot of money.”

“Not for sale,” said Ramona. She had black, sunken eyes, like pits in a dried apple. “I need it for shade when I'm sitting in my garden.”

My stomach lurched at the thought of the umbrella being exposed to the sun's rays. Fortunately, it appeared undamaged. “No, you misunderstand. That umbrella is worth far more than you might think. I'd be happy to buy you another umbrella if all you use it for is shade.”

Ramona was unmoved. “Well, that would be fine if I wanted another umbrella, but I don't. Now, please move.” She pressed forward on the controls, and her wheelchair bumped against my legs.

I could sense that I was losing control of the situation. “Please,” I said. “Just wait a moment and let me explain. I've been looking for years for an umbrella like yours.”

Immune to my pleas, Ramona managed to maneuver her wheelchair around me, and I jogged at her side to keep up. It moved surprisingly fast. At this juncture, the sense of impending disaster had become almost unbearable. In my mind's eye, I saw myself years later, recounting with bitter regret the story of how I had been so close to obtaining an original Romanelli, and my entire being revolted at the thought. I saw the umbrella sitting on Ramona's lap, and my arm reached out, as if disembodied, and grasped the umbrella. A short struggle ensued, and Ramona's grip proved stronger than her appearance might have indicated. However, I finally managed to pull it free, and at that moment, I did what anyone in my situation would have done, and ran.

It is entirely possible that I would have beaten a world-class sprinter that day. My feet seemed light, my legs springy, and my muscles taut, as the city around me blurred to streaks of color. I arrived home a few minutes later, and slumping into my chair, I was able to examine the prize in my hands at length. It was real.




Later that evening, I was watching television. The umbrella was resting on my coffee table, but since I'd brought it home, I had avoided putting it with the rest of my collection. I had as much right to it as Ramona, didn't I? At least I cared about it, which she obviously didn't. A piece like that belongs in the hands of a collector. If she still had it, it would only be a matter of time before it ended up pawned off or sold at a garage sale, neglected and damaged.

I flipped the channels to the local news, and a familiar, shriveled face looked out at me like a dried apple, the sunken black eyes burning into my soul.

“Where were you when your umbrella was stolen?” the correspondent asked.

“I was driving down the sidewalk in my wheelchair,” answered Ramona. “The thief just grabbed it right out of my hands, and ran off.”

Unbelievable, I thought. Don't they have any real news to cover in this town? I thumbed through the latest issue of Umbrella Enthusiast, noticing that there were several display racks that would nicely complement the Romanelli.

The reporter was asking Ramona another question. “Now, why do you think anyone would do that sort of thing?”

“I don't know. That umbrella has been in my family for years, and my mother told me that I was to give it to my daughter. Now, I guess she will never have it.” Ramona's lip quivered, and a tear glistened in her eye.

I rolled my eyes. As if anyone would believe that sob story. She used the umbrella for shade, for God's sake. It was clearly in better hands now.

The program then cut to a shot of Ramona's middle-aged daughter, who went on for another thirty seconds about how society had become hopelessly degenerate lately, and how she was going to apply for a concealed-weapon permit to be able to protect herself. “I know the umbrella was worth a lot of money,” she said, “but what hurts the most is that it meant so much to us as a family.”

This is too ridiculous, I thought. As I was reaching to switch off the television, the newscast cut to a police officer, thickset and mustachioed. “We've got several promising leads,” he said. “You can't just steal something in broad daylight in downtown Newport, in front of several eyewitnesses, and expect to get away with it. Whoever the thief is, he should know: we will find him. There's no question about that.”

I felt sick to my stomach.




I couldn't sleep at all that night, my thoughts full of large uniformed men chasing me down in motorcycles and forcing me to give up my umbrella. The following day, I stayed home from work. At around noon, the phone rang. I hesitated before answering. What if it's the police? I thought. Is that how they do it? Do they just call you up and tell you to come in for some questions? I picked up the phone. It was my mother.

“I'm so glad I caught you at home,” she said. “I just wanted to tell you, I was watching the news last night, and I saw a story about a sweet old lady who had her umbrella stolen! Can you believe it? What kind of person would be so sick? My bridge partner was telling me, she thought he must be some kind of pervert. I can imagine this sort of thing happening in Montpelier, but here in Newport? Unbelievable. Honey, are you still there?”

I gurgled something about being terribly sick and hung up the phone.




A few hours later, my doorbell rang. I managed to pull myself upright and shuffled to the door. Through the obnoxious sunlight, I squinted at a group of children asking for donations.

“We're here representing the Buy a New Umbrella For Ramona fund,” the oldest said.

I closed the door and returned to my spot on the carpet to lie down.




By evening, I had resolved to do something about the umbrella. It was still resting on the coffee table, and its presence had become intolerable. I found myself wishing that I had never seen the Romanelli, that I had been unscathed by its curse. It was with deep regret, but also a certain wistfulness, like hearing a beautiful symphony and knowing that I could never again hear it for the first time, that I slid the umbrella into a garbage bag and put it into the back seat of my car.

I pulled into the museum parking lot. It had begun to drizzle, so I tucked the package underneath my arm to protect the umbrella from the rain. The girl who worked at the front desk had red, spiky hair, and was disarmingly attractive. She was reading a book, Tuesdays With Morrie.

“What's up?” she asked, looking up from her book. She had a pierced eyebrow. Suddenly my previous plan of simply turning the umbrella over to the museum to be properly cared for seemed at best underdeveloped.

“I brought in a...” I said, searching for the right word. “Donation?”

“That's great,” said the spiky-haired girl. “And what are we going to do with your bag of trash?” She looked up at me, bemused. She wore a black zippered jacket.

“This isn't really trash,” I said. “Rather, it's an umbrella.” I could tell by her squinting eyes that my explanation was not achieving its desired effect. “Well,” I said, “it's really a very valuable piece, and I thought you might want to display it here or something.” I held the bagged umbrella out at arm's length, hoping she would take it.

Brow furrowed, her arm rose to receive the umbrella I was handing to her. She stopped. A look of dawning comprehension came over her face. Her eyes widened, and she smiled and shouted, “Ha! You're totally the umbrella thief! You're the one who stole the umbrella from that old lady in the wheelchair.”

I stammered. “That's preposterous,” I said. “I...don't know what you're talking about.” I looked around, wary of any museum patrons who might be passing by.

The girl burst into a fit of uncontrolled laughter. She was beside herself. She rolled off her chair onto the floor, her giggles echoing off the cavernous halls of the museum. This was not at all what I had intended to happen. I was relieved that she hadn't called the police, but this turn of events did not exactly put me at ease.

“Shhh,” I told her. “People are trying to look at art.” An older man looked around a corner to see what was happening. The girl had tears streaming out of her eyes. After a few minutes, she managed to compose herself enough to return to her chair. She wiped the tears from her face with her jacket sleeve.

“So,” she said. “Let me get this straight. You stole an antique umbrella from an eighty-year-old woman in a wheelchair, and now you're trying to give it back? To a museum? By just walking in and handing it to me? You, my friend, have serious problems.” She settled back into her chair and looked up at me, smiling, one finger playing with the bright red hair behind her ear.

I was unsure of how to proceed. “So...does that mean you'll take the umbrella?”

“No, we won't take it! Do you think I'm an idiot?” She leaned forward in her chair. “But they say this thing's worth thousands. Can I see it?”

I soon learned that by “see,” she meant “hold,” as she opened and closed it vigorously, testing its mettle. I pointed out that the umbrella was not a thing to be manhandled.

“What makes this umbrella so great?' she asked. “I've got my own right here, and it works for me.” She held up a common black umbrella. “By the way, my name's Samantha.”

“Samantha,” I repeated, conscious of her brown eyes looking directly into mine. “Well, there are a number of details, starting with the handle. If you look here along the inside of the curve, you'll see where Romanelli personally signed and numbered it.” But Samantha was no longer listening. She was rummaging around in the desk drawer, and pulled out a large magic marker.

“The Unicorns are going to be in town tomorrow night,” she said, taking my arm and using her teeth to pull the lid off the marker. She leaned over the desk and began writing large, black numbers on my skin. “This is my cell phone number.” Her hair smelled like fruity shampoo. “Call me, and we'll go.”

“I...” I began, but found myself unable to complete the thought with Samantha standing so close to me.

“Here's your umbrella,” she said, handing me the garbage bag. She smiled. “Now get out of here before I call the police.”




I stepped out of the museum's front door and hurried through the rain to my car, umbrella in hand. Putting the key into the ignition, I tried to gather my thoughts. I still hadn't managed to dispose of the umbrella, but I remained optimistic. And Samantha was certainly intriguing. I glanced again at the phone number she'd written on my arm. Maybe I would call her. It would be good for me to get out of the house for a change.

I lifted an edge of the garbage bag to look at the umbrella, at which point I discovered that it was no longer a Romanelli. That is, sitting in the bag on the seat next to mine, there was not the vintage masterpiece of a brilliant craftsman, but an ordinary black umbrella. The rain surged, thudding against the roof of my car. I wondered if Samantha still wanted to meet me for the concert.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Call me "J" said...

I am curious as to what your inspiration was for this story. I always wonder, especially in the case of short stories about umbrellas, what the author was thinking of when the story idea hit. Was it a rainy day? Or did you see an umbrella that you thought was supreme above all other umbrellas, so great in fact, that you thought somebody who owns such an umbrella must be a collector?

14.6.05  
Anonymous Dave said...

I remember that I thought of the first line, "I don't typically steal from little old ladies," and felt like there was somewhere to go with that, so I had to make up the whole umbrella thing for that to make sense. But then it kind of took on a life of its own, and as I wrote it, the umbrella became more of the focus of the story. It really just came out of nowhere. I did a lot of research on umbrellas to try to make my details more convincing, which was fun, but in the end I mostly just made that stuff up.

15.6.05  

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