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Authors: Philip Galanes

Emma's Table

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Emma's Table

A Novel

Philip Galanes

For Lil' Kim and her perjured testimony,
And Richard Nixon at the Watergate;
For Don Imus and his besmirched coeds,
But mostly, of course, for me.

EMMA SUTTON CLICKED AND CLACKED ALL AROUND
the auction house, her sharp heels tapping just as quietly as she could manage. She was a regal brunette of sixty-odd, who'd parlayed a small career as an interior decorator into an enormous one as media darling; Emma was a household name, in fact. And she had been for fifteen years—thanks to her regular appearances on
Oprah
—with a sea of magazine spreads and a mountain of books, an endless stream of television segments on the best daytime shows, and a petrified forest of Emma-branded furniture, all dedicated to the stylish American home. Her allure had always been easy to see: she was just like you, only better—which was somewhat at odds with the latest feather in her cap, a conviction for tax evasion and lying under oath, complete with a stay in the federal pen.

Yes, she sighed, with a huff of breath—having spied an old woman with her jaw hanging down—
the
Emma Sutton, she thought, coveting the attention and feeling pestered by
it both. She couldn't go
anywhere
without being recognized; she wouldn't have had it any other way.

Emma glared down at her shoes.

She hated making noise when she walked.

“So unladylike,” her father always told her—like whistling out on the street. “Men don't marry girls who whistle, Emmy.” That's what her father said, whether she was whistling or not. He'd never made any secret of his hopes for the girl: an early marriage and a life lived on somebody else's nickel.

Of course, her father was long dead by now, and she herself the mother of a grown-up girl, and there wasn't much to be done for the tapping at FitzCoopers in any event: miles and miles of taupy concrete, all polished smooth, with swirls of darker brown and rusty red mixed in, and not a carpet in sight. Emma knew they'd spent a fortune making the floors like that, but she had no earthly idea why anyone would. It's like a two-car garage in here, she thought—her long back as straight as a mile, and those perilous heels tapping just a little louder than she would have liked.

The people at FitzCoopers had arranged the more important pieces from that morning's auction into a large circle all around the exhibition room.
Treasures of French Modernism
, it was called—like a racetrack made of furniture, every treasure propelling her one step closer to the finish line. The exhibit took up the lion's share of the huge loft space; a stubby little partition on wheels was all that separated the circular display from the tidy grid of gilt chairs that lay beyond it—just lying in wait for the auction to begin, a sturdy oak podium for the auctioneer up front.

Emma looked hard at every piece of furniture she passed on her circular route. She furrowed her brow before each one,
focusing her eyes like the lens of a camera; then she'd blink—closing the shutter, opening it fast—as if she were obliged to memorialize each piece in turn. She would have set up little groupings of furniture, she thought—not at all sure just then, only trying the notion on for size.

Something has to give, she decided—shaking her head at the ugly loop and setting to work on a nicer composition. She pictured the curvy sofa from the corner paired up with the coffee table in front of her; then she tossed in the velvet chairs by the window. Emma nodded her head in approval, floating little arrangements like that all around the room.

From the time she was a girl, Emma had known you couldn't just
expect
people to see the value of a thing. No, she thought, you have to
work
until they see it, and keep working, even then.

She wasn't quite finished with the exhibition space either. She'd add some nice rugs too, she decided. She pictured them soft and worn, old Persians like the kind she used to find at tag sales for a song—back when she didn't have much more than a song to spend. She saw rugs like grassy green lawns over hard-packed earth, rugs like tender skin over skeletons of bone.

She was almost pleased, but tired too.

Emma never stopped working—like a scullery maid practically, even in somebody else's auction house. She was always trying to make things nice, to raise herself up in the world's esteem—only to watch people cheer at her every setback, just like her father had done a million years before.

They used wall-to-wall carpeting before me, she thought, her well-groomed head lifted high.

Emma wasn't overestimating her impact on interior design:
what she said went—whether it was covering a wall in elaborately flocked paper, or assembling a crazy quilt of rugs on the floor. When Emma Sutton spoke, America listened.

She tried her best not to hear the soft clickings of her shoes—the very way she'd tried shrugging off the sting of her father's low regard: without much success, it turned out.

It was only half a year since her “difficulties” had passed. That was how she thought of them: the bruising trial and the prison stretch, those humiliating months of home confinement, and a waterfall of wretched press—all for some stupid little tax return that shouldn't have made a jot of difference in the world. And even after her confinement, Emma still wasn't entitled to take back the reins of her company. That was part of her punishment too. Emma Sutton couldn't run Emma Sutton, not for the time being anyway. Her lawyers didn't think she'd be able to for five more years, at least. She just worked there now, like any other employee—assuming any other employee could make everyone in the building tremble in their boots.

Emma looked up—a little warily—as a fat young woman in a flower-printed coat jumped out from behind a Prouvé cabinet, walking straight up to her. “I love your dining table for Target,” the woman sang, clasping chubby hands before an outsized bosom, like an old-time soprano on an opera stage.

So I see, Emma thought to herself.

She smiled at the young woman and thanked her, waiting just a beat longer before she walked quickly off. Emma needed her fans—especially lately—but she liked them better at a distance.

In truth, she wasn't entirely sure she wanted the reins of her company back again. She'd never admit it, of course, not
under sodium pentothal even, but it was true. The company she'd slaved over for twenty-five years—birthing it first, then raising it right, her very lifeblood in former days—didn't seem
enough
to her anymore, not the way it used to. It spun like a top now, even without her—throwing off more cash than she could spend in ten lifetimes. It crossed her mind that that might be the problem. The only thing they really needed her for these days were the “photo opportunities”: Emma posing on one of her freshly minted sofas, Emma splashing her hands in one of her new stainless sinks, not a drop of water on her silken blouse. She only smiled for the cameras now, for the magazine covers and the more important inside spreads, those endless television segments on the best daytime shows.

She'd reclaimed her regular spot on
Oprah
.

Still, Emma thought it might be time for a change. She knew it was, in fact, but only in flashes—the way that sun dappled leaves in the country, shooting gold straight through the green, but only when everything came together just right, the sun and the branch and the pale green leaves.

There's more to me than this
.

It had come to her first in her awful prison bed, that scratchy gray blanket up around her ears. At the time, she'd put it down to stress. But the feeling echoed for her still, and more and more often, lately. It had that morning even, as she was gadding down Park Avenue in a chauffeur-driven Town Car, all the colored stop-and-go lights flashing. There may well have been “something more,” but Emma hadn't a clue in the world what it was. Still, she'd reinvented herself more than once, and she had every faith that she could do it again—or if not faith, then no alternative, which Emma knew was often better.

“You can't keep a good girl down, Emmy,” that's what her father always said—though it seemed to her, frankly, he spent a great deal of time trying.

She walked by the Nakashima table then, the piece that had drawn her all the way downtown that morning. Two long slabs of honeyed English walnut, with fluid edges—not all squared off—and a swirling grain pattern, like so many drops of motor oil on a rain puddle, a whirling taffeta made of wood. The planks were joined together with three small butterflies of much darker hue—rosewood probably, she thought—the grain of the butterflies running perpendicular to the longer planks.

It looked like a ten-foot gentleman to her.

The table seemed to stand back almost—disappear—letting the wood itself take center stage. Emma bent down low, as if to inspect its trestle base, but her objectivity was long gone by then. She was already in love.

It was perfect for the dining room.

She'd passed it twice already that morning. She stopped before it once again, but not for a second longer than she'd paused in front of the old Hermès desk, just before it on her circular route. Emma was careful not to spend much time looking at the pieces she was actually interested in.

She didn't like to tip the competition off.

This walking in careful circles was something she'd always done, like turning up at the auction houses in person. She'd continue to do it too, for good reason: it worked. Emma knew the flighty girls who were drawn to employment at places like these—little scraps of paper in a brisk wind. She'd employed more than a few of them in her day, watching them forget to execute bids that were sent in absentia, or neglecting
to call people who'd arranged to bid over the phone until it was too late. Those girls were already fully engaged, scouting the room for eligible men—like buzzards in Fair Isle sweaters. Emma was far too efficient to depend on girls like those for her success. She'd bid in person, thank you very much, but she had a new plan up her sleeve this morning.

If Benjamin ever gets here, she thought, walking to the complimentary coffee buffet. She'd seen enough of the Nakashima table. She didn't need to look at it again, wouldn't.

Her assistant wasn't even late yet, but Emma was already mildly annoyed with him. She tried shaking it off. She picked up one of those ugly brown undercups from the long table—plastic and reusable—and slipped a papery white cone inside it. He's probably lazing around with that hippie girlfriend of his, she imagined, pouring herself a coffee. She skipped the iced bowl of single-serving half-and-halfs and the artificial sweeteners. She took a sip from the cup and put it right back down on the table.

It was terrible.

She didn't dwell on it though. She felt her attention turning to a nicely tailored suit on the far side of the room. It's not
that
nice, she thought, slightly annoyed at her own keen interest. Then she noticed the man who wore it, a tiny Asian with salt-and-pepper hair—like a full-grown adult who'd been photo-reduced to just seventy-five percent of full-grown adulthood.

He was studying the Nakashima table,
her
Nakashima table.

Emma felt a terrible seizing in her chest—giving the lie, she knew, to so much of her bluster. She was as prone to fear as anyone else in the world. Maybe more so, she hated to
admit. She refused to give in to it, wouldn't dream of letting it show. Emma picked up that plastic cup again and straightened her back. She took another gruesome sip of coffee.

It's not fatal, she thought. He might just be looking.

But she didn't believe that, not for a second.

She studied the man breathlessly, fluttering with nerves like a hummingbird at the end of a leafy branch. She felt her composure deserting her entirely, and all for some silly table she didn't even need. She couldn't shake the feeling either.

The tiny man was engrossed in the table, circling it slowly and peering from every angle.

Oh, yes, she thought, he's definitely a bidder.

Emma could picture them in mortal combat—bidding paddles lifted high, like dueling pistols made of wood. She abandoned her coffee for good and consulted her wristwatch one more time. She forced herself to admit that Benjamin had four minutes still before he'd be late.

She tried to forgive him.

 

BENJAMIN BLACKMAN MOONLIGHTED FOR EMMA
on the weekends. He was her Saturday/Sunday assistant. He came on duty Fridays at five and stayed the course with her until Monday morning. He'd never heard of such a thing before he came to New York. Back home—on the Cape—people took the weekends off; but here, apparently, all the moguls had their Sunday help.

He was walking in front of the big discount store on Astor Place.

He paused on the sidewalk, and gazed in through the dusty plate glass that ran the length of the block. He craved a shot
of its swarming life, but all he saw that morning was a jumbly mountain of cheap white socks, and a tower of suitcases that looked like flimsy cardboard boxes painted black.

Where is everyone, he wondered?

He let his eye follow a narrow passage deep into the store, like a footpath through the forest. He saw merchandise looming tall as silver birches, their cellophane leaves glistening in the air-conditioned wind. Benjamin realized the store was closed. It was before nine still, all that screaming fluorescence notwithstanding.

Good thing too, he thought. He didn't want to be late for Emma.

He'd been working for her for nearly two years now—from before she went away to prison—and his tenure in the organization made him something of a veteran there. Emma tended to swat people away like flies. It wasn't so complicated for Benjamin though. He simply reached back into his boyhood—toward that fly-swatting mother of his own. He only needed to remember who came first—
always
: his mother, back then, and now, Emma.

Benjamin needed the money too.

He had to supplement his tiny salary as a social worker at Public School 431 in Forest Hills, and the only person, he'd found, who was terribly interested in a thirty-three-year-old English major from Williams College with a long string of brief job experiences under his belt, and a quick master's in social work, was she: Emma Sutton, the she-devil of home design.

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