It wasn’t that Bradley Jones was a gambler. He hardly ever took risks. When he ripped the soaking fluorescent green flyer off the telephone pole, he never had any intention of the calling the contact number. He’d been walking home from campus in the February rain, busy hating the world after nearly failing another history midterm, and the flyer’s paper fringe of phone numbers had made the mistake of teasing him. It had wriggled to get his attention then spit at him in the wet wind. He’d torn it off the pole in an angry reflex and stuffed it into the back pocket of his Levis. Even in the depths of his self pitying misery, the thought of littering never crossed Brad’s mind.
He forgot about the flyer until he sat down at the kitchen table to study for the next day’s Canadian History humiliation. An uncomfortable sensation kept interrupting him. He felt like he was sitting on a wet sponge. After much shifting about and muttering, he remembered the flyer. Brad reached back, took out the sodden paper, and laid it on the table beside his textbook. The longer it sat there, the more interesting the flyer seemed compared to the gibberish in his open book. His eyes kept drifting over, trying to decipher the flyer’s rain smeared writing. Only the phone number was still legible.
He really didn’t care who landed in Newfoundland back in eleventh century AD, and the phone number, with it’s glowing fluorescent background, slowly became an irresistible distraction.
Maybe they were selling a bicycle. He needed a bike. Maybe they were selling a computer. He could use the parts. Maybe it was an advertisement for the school’s new anime night. He’d been waiting months to find out who was running it this year. Brad only made it to 1300AD before he couldn’t stand it any longer. He pushed back his chair and reached for the phone.
The line rang three times before Brad realized what a strange thing he was doing. But it was too late. A girl’s soft “hello” sounded in the earpiece just as he was pulling it away. Brad froze.
His roommate, Jason, came into the kitchen for a coke and found his friend paralyzed in front of the fridge with the phone to his ear, looking terrified.
“Chick on the line?” asked Jason, tossing Brad a can.
Brad’s free arm didn’t budge. The pop can hit the edge of the table and rolled across the linoleum.
“Man,” grunted Jason, picking it up, “you’ve gotta learn to talk to women.” “Hello?” the pretty voice said again.
“Uhg,” said Brad. He was furious at himself for letting it get this far.
Jason gave him a thumbs up from the doorway.
“Are you calling about the couch?” Asked the girl.
“Um…” Brad looked over to Jason, who was cheering him on with a mime act that would make the Jackass crew blush.
The girl didn’t wait for his answer. “When do you want to come see it?” She asked.
When Brad got off the phone, he had a nervous smile on his face and the girl’s address in his hand. Jason hooted and punched him in the arm.
“Way to go man! That’s what I’ve been talking about,” he said. “Where’d you meet this chick? What are you gonna do over there?” He gave his roommate a sly wink.
“Buy a couch,” said Brad, rubbing his arm.
It was Jason’s turn to be speechless. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Brad with a date, let alone a furniture level relationship, during the three semesters of college they’d shared the apartment.
“Brad, dude, don’t you think that’s moving a little fast?” He said, after the shock wore off. “I haven’t even met this chick! And you need the J-man stamp of approval before we start talking furniture?”
Brad kept his mouth shut. He still didn’t even know her name.
Less than two hours later, Brad was standing in front of the gray front door at the address the girl had given him. He wiped his clammy hands on his jeans for the hundredth time, took one last deep breath, and rang the bell.
It had stopped raining and a thin layer of ice was freezing over the city’s surfaces. It gave the shabby bungalow at 21 L’Anse-aux-Meadows Cres. a shimmering holiday gleam. Brad gleamed too. He’d showered and shaved. His short black hair was gelled to a peak on his forehead and he’d sprayed, on Jason’s insistence, all the important areas with Jason’s knock-off Calvin Klein body spray.
“Just in case,” Jason had said.
Brad had even worked out what he was going to say to the girl, on the bus ride over. She’d seemed so sweet on the phone. He’d imagined her a beautiful face to match her voice in his mind, and the image was already intimidating him.
The door swung open and Brad was suddenly face to face with a real live Viking. Brad stood dumb on the stoop. The huge hairy man had a giant’s ribcage and two ship’s masts for legs. His two small dark eyes glared out at Brad fiercely from behind a fringe of shaggy red hair. His stained gray sweat-shorts showed him clearly a giant in other areas. Brad tried not to stare. Three quarters of a honey cruller was hanging out of the Viking’s mouth.
“What do ya want?” growled the man. The cruller stayed put.
For 5 agonizing seconds, Brad had no memory of why he was all polished up and standing in this wild man’s doorway. The Viking’s eyes narrowed. It was enough of a threat to wake Brad up.
“Sorry,” said Brad. “I’m…I’m here about the couch.”
The Viking grunted and motioned Brad inside.
“Ling!” The man bellowed.
Brad ducked under the sonic boom. The Viking swore and pushed past Brad to get at whoever wasn’t answering him at the back of the house. He disappeared through a doorway at the end of the hall, leaving Brad alone to take off his shoes and get his bearings. To his right was dining room full of half-packed cardboard boxes, to his left, a large tangerine painted living room with a wide bay window and two narrow doors leading off the rear wall.
Brad’s first impression was that there was only one piece of furniture in the living room. At least, only one was claiming the territory for its own. All the other living room furniture was crowded against the opposite wall, huddled close together on the beige carpeting. While under the bay window, spreading out from wall to wall and a good ways out into the room, was the biggest ugliest couch Brad had ever seen. It had started out with a high back and pert arms, then, over the years, had bloated out in front of the TV. Its mallard head green velour had faded to a dull (what can only be described as) vomit color. The back had slouched. The arms had sagged. Until, it had finally given up and absorbed the stains deep into its foam. The couch was a hulking misery and Brad hated it instantly.
But he’d come this far already. He had no intentions of buying it, but the least he could do was humor the Viking and try it out. He walked right up to the couch, turned round, and let himself fall backwards. The couch swallowed him. Brad sunk down, deeper and deeper into the velour, till he was sure his shoes were higher than his backside. A musty stink enveloped him and he gagged when the last of his weight squeezed something sour out of the padding. This was so much worse than the bottomless velvet bucket seats of a 90’s cab. Brad groaned.
A door slammed. Brad heard two voices screaming at each from behind one of the two far doors. The other voice was smaller, higher, and something about it sounded familiar. The Viking burst though the door on the right. He was livid.
“You’re the stupid cow kicking a man out of his own house. You deal with the &%^^$* couch!” He yelled back through the doorway.
He was waving the now half cruller over his head. He spun round and fixed his squint on Brad.
“What’re you looking at?” growled the Viking, and in one smooth major league move, wound up and lobbed the donut at Brad’s head.
The cruller arced across the living room and hit a stunned Brad square between the eyes. The sugar glaze burst into a thousand tiny snowflakes and quickly melted into the velour. He was blinded by the sugar flakes burning under his eyelids.
He heard the front door slam and the sound of a large car motor revving up and pulling out of the driveway. The Viking was gone, but Brad could feel another presence in the room from behind his swelling lids. This new feminine presence was crying softly. Brad didn’t want to seem like a jerk, but he had to say something.
“Excuse me, sorry, um, could you please point me towards a sink?”
The crying stopped. And after a sniffle, and a pause, Brad heard a tiny giggle. He tried to open his eyes but the stinging was unbearable.
“That’s the most polite desperation I’ve ever heard,” said a light musical female voice. Brad recognized its hint of an accent instantly from the phone. His pulse nearly doubled.
And it nearly tripled when five tiny warm fingertips brushed over the back of his hand and wrapped around his palm. A sparkling shiver shot up his arm, directly into the pleasure center of his brain. His hand, and his arm up to the elbow, went numb under the girl’s soft touch. He let her lead him off the couch, across the carpet, and through the other door into a small bathroom. She flicked on an overhead light and turned on the taps for Brad, then carefully guided his hands under the flow. He noticed right away the water was his favorite temperature. He washed the sugar out of his swollen eyes an dried his face and hands with the tiny pink washcloth she’d placed on the side of the sink for him.
When he could finally look around, the girl was gone. Brad’s face ached and he hoped desperately he wouldn’t end up with two black eyes. But it had been worth it just to feel the girl’s small hand around his own. He could swear his fingers were still tingling. It had been such a concentrated touch.
Brad found the girl standing with her back to him, facing the couch. She couldn’t have been more than 5 feet tall, only six inches less than Brad. Her straight black hair reached all the way down to the waistband of her tight chinos. Brad could have stared at those chinos all day. He walked across the carpet to stand beside her. Side by side in silence, they stood in front of the horrible couch. Brad snuck a look at the girl’s profile. His vision had cleared. She had perfect Asian features and smooth tinted skin. It was hard to imagine an odder pairing than the Viking and this tiny doll woman. Brad noticed her bottom lip was shaking.
“Are you alright?” Asked Brad.
The girl shrugged.
“Sorry about my husband,” she said.
Brad was shocked. Surely she was too young to be married. But, after sneaking a second look, he could see the shadows under her almond eyes and the beginnings of tiny lines around them. They didn’t make her any less beautiful, but he felt a new surge of hate for the Viking. Her small body carried a great weariness on its narrow shoulders. None of it mattered, though, Brad knew she’d be downright breathtaking if she smiled.
“So?” she asked, nodding towards the couch.
“Well,” said Brad, “it’s a little bigger than I…” He stopped there. He could see her brown eyes were welling up.
Brad tried again. “I’m just not sure if it would fit.”
She let out a sob. Brad panicked.
“How much do you want for it?” he asked.
Her bottom lip momentarily stopped quivering.
“Twenty bucks? (sniffle) Whatever, really. I just can’t look at it anymore.”
Brad didn’t want to look at it anymore either, but he couldn’t bear to see her crying.
“It was the fist piece of furniture we bought for this house. It just reminds how everything…went so…wrong.” She stopped. Brad saw her bottom lip start shaking again.
“I’ll take it,” said Brad. She brightened almost instantly. Brad had been right. She was stunning with a smile. He took out his wallet but only found a ten and two transit tickets. He’d never come to buy a couch.
“Is ten enough?” he asked.
The girl nodded and took the bill. She folded it and put it her back pocket. The repulsive couch was officially his.
“I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get it home,” said Brad.
The only thing he was sure of was that there was no room for it in the apartment even if he ever did manage to get it across town, up the service elevator, and in through the apartment’s cramped entryway.
Brad and the girl stared at the couch for a long time without saying a word, the reality of the transaction slowly sinking in for both of them.
“Maybe it comes apart?” suggested Brad.
Slowly, almost inaudibly at first, the girl began to laugh. At first a giggle, then louder and louder. Her laughter was high and true and undeniably contagious. Brad couldn’t help himself. He joined in, even though he had no clue what was so funny. Their laughter fed off one another, growing stronger and stronger, till Brad’s belly ached and the girl had tears running over her cheeks.
“You can say it,” she said. Her eyes were sparkling now.
Brad couldn’t take his own eyes off her. She really was a completely different person when she laughed. Her posture straitened and her face crinkled up in the cutest way.
“Say what?” He asked, breathless.
“The truth. Excuse my language, but that couch is one ugly piece of shit.”
She laughed harder than ever, and Brad along with her. The girl doubled over with her giggles and collapsed forward into the velour. A cloud of dust puffed up around her.
She gagged dramatically. “It even smells like shit.” She rolled onto her back and swung a sideways punch at the back cushions.
“You know, I should be paying you to take it!” She said, coughing. “I’d ask my husband to drop it off for you, but…”
Neither of them needed her to finish. It was just the three of them in the room. There was no need to bring the Viking back into it. She held out her two small hands to Brad. He jumped forward to grab them. He pulled her free of the couch’s belly. She was so light he worried he might launch her across the room.
“You know,” she said, catching her breath, with both feet firmly on the carpet, “I never even thought of taking it apart. What kind of car do you drive? You could always take a couple of trips.”
“I…actually took the bus,” Brad confessed.
She furrowed her brows and gave him a strange look. “How were you planning on getting a couch home?”
Brad felt his already swollen face turn three shades redder. His pulse throbbed in his ears. He couldn’t tell her the real reason he’d come, that he’d been lured by her lovely siren song over the phone.
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” said Brad truthfully.
The furrow between her eyebrows deepened..
“If we can take it apart, we can always just leave it out on the curb,” said Brad.
“I suppose we could,” said the girl. Her eyes were still fixed on Brad’s flushed face. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I completely forgot about your eyes. I’ll be right back with some ice.”
She darted into the kitchen on her mission, leaving Brad to investigate the dissection.
“You should be fine,” she called from behind the tangerine door. “It was only a donut.”
It had been one bullet of a donut, thought Brad. He still wouldn’t be surprised if he woke up with two shiners.
“Any luck?” she asked, pushing open the door and skipping back across the carpet. She tossed Brad a bag of frozen peas for his face. He pressed it against his face. The relief was instantaneous.
He’d taken all the cushions off the couch and had found no screws to unscrew or nails to pull out. The couch’s construction baffled him, but he wasn’t about to be conquered by a couch. At least not in front of (what had the Viking called her?) Ling? What a beautiful chime of a name.
“Do you have a crowbar?” Asked Brad from behind the peas.
While she ran off to check the garage, Brad sat on one arm of the couch and sang the name over and over in his head. She came back quickly with a heavy-duty yellow steel crowbar.
Brad threw aside the peas and got to work. He wedged the sharp steel tip into the seam between the arm he’d been sitting on and the body of the couch.
“OK, let’s see what you’ve got,” challenged the girl. He turned just in time to catch her winking at him. He blushed again and turned his head so she wouldn’t notice. He leaned on the bar and slowly increased the pressure. For a long time nothing happened. He heard her giggle behind him.
“Common, is that all you’ve got?” she teased.
“I’m not a Viking,” grunted Brad without thinking. She gave him a funny look, but didn’t say a word.
He straddled the arm to get better leverage and threw the full weight of his body and pride into the job. There was a sudden loud crack. The velour arm shot up and hammered Brad between his spread legs. His world went white with pain. The couch didn’t matter. The Viking didn’t matter. Not even the girl mattered, only the pain. It squeezed everything else out to the far corners of his brain. He rolled on the floor in absolute agony.
“Do you want more peas?” She asked.
Brad groaned. He’d take a hundred honey crullers before another hit like that.
“Sledgehammer,” he managed to say, fighting back the nausea.
“Do you have a sledgehammer?”
“I’ll go check.” The girl ran off to the garage again.
By the time she got back, Brad’s fog had begun to clear. The pain and nausea were being replaced by a new sensation, an unstoppable urge for revenge. The girl came back with a mammoth of a sledge. She waddled over to him with the heavy metal head hanging between her ankles. Brad could see the thin muscles of her arms straining with the heavy load.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she asked.
“I’m sure,” said Brad, as if he’d never been so sure of anything in his life. The awful decomposing beached whale of a couch was going down. It had started the fight, and now, by golly, Brad was going to finish it. He grabbed hold of the thick wooden handle with both hands and heaved the giant sledgehammer over his shoulder, readying it for the first blow.
“Watch out for the walls, and oh, the floor,” she said.
Brad grunted. His first down-stroke shattered the dislocated velour arm. Its wood skeleton turned to splinters under its sagging green skin. It made a wonderful snapping, cracking sound. The couch was not invincible.
He brought the sledge down from over his head onto the center of the backrest. The frame cracked in half and the whole horrible thing collapsed in on itself, leaving a stinking green velour mess of upholstery. The girl cheered him on. She was on her tip toes watching the fight from the edge of the beige carpet. The remains of the couch turned to pulp under Brad’s blows.
He’d never let it all out like that, never destroyed something so completely. Brad let out a glorious battle cry as he brought the sledge crashing down over and over. The girl was jumping up and down now, hooting and clapping her tiny hands. Pieces of couch shot out like shrapnel into the room. He forgot about the floor and the walls. He forgot about being careful. He was winning, and the beautiful girl behind him was loving it. Brad had never been so alive. Then, all of a sudden, he was bleeding.
He looked down and saw an ugly gash on his forearm. A long piece of splintered wood was still in the wound. He had no idea how it had happened, and the girl rushed him into the bathroom before he could try and figure it out.
Brad sat on the edge of the toilet while she gathered her supplies from the medicine cabinet. She knelt down on the bathmat to nurse him. He held out his arm for her. She dabbed at the wound with another one those pink facecloths. She seemed to have an endless supply.
“It’s not going to need stitches,” she said, “but I’ll have to get that splinter out. I’ll be gentle, don’t worry.”
Brad wasn’t worried about the pain. He was more concerned with how much his arm was shaking. It was so embarrassing. Every time one of her soft fingers touched his skin, his whole arm convulsed. He tried holding it down with his other hand, but that one was shaking just as badly from all the excitement out on the beige battlefield.
She smiled up at him. He winced at her loveliness. She took hold of his wrist firmly. Brad let his arm go dead in her hand. She dug at the splinter with her tweezers until no trace of wood remained. Brad felt no pain.
“There,” she said, as she bandaged him up, “that wasn’t so bad.”
She could have poked at him for hours and he wouldn’t have complained. He would actually have enjoyed it. Brad was in no way a masochist, but the girl’s touch was so careful and he loved being so close to her. He could smell a hint of citrus shampoo off her hair. And he loved with the way her mouth relaxed when she concentrated, her lower lip collecting a glistening gloss of saliva. She’d suck it back each time before it could form a droplet.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
A million x-rated images flooded Brad’s brain. His heart nearly stopped.
“Ready for what?”
“To help me get that pile of garbage out my living room?”
Brad came back to reality.
They bagged the smaller pieces and Brad hauled the garbage bags out to the curb. The bigger pieces were more fun. Brad and the girl took turns lobbing them out the front door onto the lawn. She whooped and laughed the whole time. They turned it into a game of target practice using the Viking’s trailer in the driveway. Five points for a clean dunk. Twenty points for taking a chunk of trailer with it. By the time the last of it was out the door, Brad and the girl were both perspiring and out of breath.
“That was the most fun I’ve had in, well, years,” she said after her last throw, a Twenty Pointer. Her cheeks were flushed and her mouth had turned an incredible shade of crimson. Brad couldn’t take his eyes off those lips, even as he laced up his boots and put on his coat. He stood stalling on the threshold. His heart was beating fast and hard in his chest. The girl reached into her back pocket and took out Brad’s folded ten. He’d completely forgotten about the money.
“I should really be paying you,” she said.
“No way,” said Brad, “I had a great time.”
“You barely made it through alive.”
She laughed her wonderful true laugh and Brad couldn’t help but join in. She pressed the bill into his hand. Brad squeezed back. His fingers were sweaty, but he didn’t care. It was now or never. He took her hand in both of his. She didn’t pull away.
“I was thinking,” he said, “maybe we could use that ten to get some coffee sometime?”
She gave the boy on her doorstep a quizzical look, then the smile on her face started to grow again.
“I think I’d like that,” she said. “You have my number.”
She leaned in and stood on her tip toes and gave him a light kiss on the lips. Brad kissed back, harder and longer anyone should ever kiss someone else’s wife, especially a Viking’s.