The subway seat looks clean when Cliff Hobart sits down on it, but when he stands up for his stop on 14th, the back of his camelhair coat is almost stuck to it. He makes his way off the train, turns around on the platform and pulls the coat out flat. There on the back of it is a patch of something clear and shiny, but sticky-looking; like half-dried shellac.
Cliff is repulsed to touch it. What’s clear and sticky and likely to be on a New York City subway seat? He doesn’t want to know.
He drops the coat off at the cleaners on Irving Place and walks to his office with the lapels of his suit pulled up to his ears against the snow and wind.
Unlike many therapists’, the walls of Cliff’s office are not covered with artwork or primitive African masks. There are no bookshelves of psychology texts; no plants sucking up the sunlight coming through the windows. There’re no pillows on the couch. There’s nothing in his office to distract his clients from the matter at hand — The Session.
His last client of the day is Tim Sporran, a reporter for the Post. He’s been anxious lately; it’s hard for him to sleep. When he finally does begin to doze, he jerks awake from nightmares about being pushed off a tall building.
After listening to him for 40 minutes, Cliff offers his advice: “Go home and clean out your sock drawer.”
“My sock drawer?” says Tim.
“Exactly. You don’t have any control over your unconscious — none of us does, but you have control over your sock drawer. Throw out all the socks with holes in them and the ones that have lost their mates. You won’t miss them, but you’ll gain a little more control over your life.” Cliff looks at his watch. “Same time next week?” he asks.
“Sure,” says Tim.
By the time Cliff leaves his office, the snow has turned to slush. There’s now a pathway of soggy, broken-down cardboard boxes leading up to the counter of the dry cleaner where he left his coat. The woman who had been there in the morning brings it out to him sheathed in a plastic bag reading, ‘This Is NOT a Toy.’
Cliff turns it around and lifts up the plastic. The clear, sticky patch is now black, hard and puffed up, like a piece of burnt piecrust.
“This is worse than it was before,” he says.
“We did what we could.” The woman has large rimless glasses that magnify her eyes, making her look like an insect. “Whatever’s on there isn’t coming out. I’m sorry. We’ll only charge you half.”
“I’m not paying anything.” Cliff throws the coat on the counter. “You’re crazy if you think I’m going to pay for that. You can keep the damn thing.”
He storms out over the cardboard pathway and hails a cab home.
There’s a Post-it from his wife on the dining room table when he gets there. She’s had to run over to Bed of Roses, the floral shop she owns; there’s chicken in the fridge. The note is signed, ‘Love, Gail’ and ‘love’ is underlined twice.
Cliff orders Thai instead and looks out the window while he’s on the phone with the restaurant. It’s snowing again. The buildings on the other side of 80th Street are fuzzy and blurred in the white gusts that seem to blow in several directions at once. It’ll be cold in the morning and he has no coat.
While he waits for his food to come, he pokes around in the hall closet to see if there’s anything warm for him to wear. In the very back, is a parka that he wore when he and Gail had rented a cabin in Rockland County on the weekends. We haven’t done that in years, he thinks. Funny, she saved this. The standing rule in the household was if something hadn’t been worn in eighteen months, it was donated to the homeless.
Cliff drapes the parka over the back of the sofa and eats his dinner while watching a documentary about the czars of Russia on the History Channel; the snowy, night sky a backdrop through the window behind the TV.
After his meal, he throws the takeout containers into the trash, goes back to the sofa and sits down with the parka folded up on his lap. He starts thinking about the weekends he and Gail had spent in Rockland County. They always rented the same cabin from a man named Peters, who was a taxidermist. The cabin had a stuffed moose on the wall over the fireplace and other smaller animals throughout. He and Gail had given them all names. They’d called the moose Marty, but sitting there on the sofa, Cliff can’t remember any of the other animals’ names.
It suddenly seems very important for him to remember them. He spreads the parka out over his lap. They’d been trying to have a child back then. They were name obsessed.
Was there a stuffed rabbit named Otis? Or was that the name of Gail’s Basal thermometer? Everything had a name, and they made love by the clock and by charts and graphs, and Gail would hold her knees up to her chest afterwards, tilting her pelvis to give his sperm an extra advantage while she chanted possible names for a baby they never ended up having.
Charles. Oscar. Maggie. Philip. Elizabeth. Samantha. Alice. Robert. Dawn.
Heather Holland Wheaton is the author of two short story collections: Eight Million Stories in a New York Minute and Wet Paint. Eight Million Stories has sold nearly 2000 copies and has been listed in the annual Time Out Guide New York as “Suggested Further Reading” since 2005. Besides Every Day Fiction, her work has also appeared in P.I.M., The Morning News, Common Ground and Slipstream. Her new collection, You Are Here, is coming in April 2011.