The Tabriz by Robert Slentz-Kesler

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Cassandra heard Dean rough-housing with the dog upstairs—the barking and clomping were louder than the rumble of the dryer—and when she emerged from the basement with a loaded laundry basket and glanced through the front hall to the living room, her mouth dropped open.

Her fiancé (clothed, thank God) was behind Koshi, their yellow lab, thrusting his pelvis against the animal’s backside while Koshi pitched left and right to try to free himself. Dean laughed and held tight as they lurched together across the carpet.

Dean looked up and saw Cassandra watching. He let go of Koshi, who swirled around with his rear end up and his front legs down, ready for more action.

Dean grinned. “Just trying to teach the guy who’s in charge.”

“You were humping the damn dog!”

“I was only playing,” said Dean. “Gotta talk to him in language he can understand.”

“The dog needs obedience class.”

“Those classes are so harsh.”

“You need therapy, Dean.” Cassandra continued upstairs with the laundry basket. “And don’t screw up my Tabriz rug.” She’d stolen it two months earlier from the carpet store on O Street.

Koshi growled.

Cassandra stopped on the stairs. “Dean!”

“What?”

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes, yes, the Tabriz.”

“And you should be getting ready. It’s almost time.”

“Bah. We have to dress up.”

“Yep.” Cassandra walked up the stairs and dumped the clean laundry onto the bed. She tossed off her t-shirt, stepped out of her sweatpants, and glided into her strapless blue dress.

This would be their second math department fall social since Dean had been hired by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Dr. Lutz and his wife greeted them at the door with smiles and guided them through the vestibule into the swirling fray of bow-tied men and platters of canapés.

As a waiter walked by, Cassandra reached up for a toast triangle topped with brown paste and flecks of red peppers.

“Ah, ah, ah,” said Dean, pushing away Cassandra’s arm. He turned to the server. “Is there any meat in that?”

“It’s goose-liver pâté, sir.”

“Well, none for us, then,” said Dean.

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “Jesus Christ.”

“Honey, we agreed. Oh, it’s Penny. I need to talk to her.” Dean sipped his wine and shuffled across the room.

Cassandra watched Dean walk away and then smiled at the server as she plucked up two of the goose-liver toasts. She stuffed them into her mouth and scooped up three more from the platter as she chewed.

“I’d better hork these down before the Gestapo gets back,” she mumbled to the server. “You’ve got more of these, right?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Later that night, Cassandra sat on the edge of their bed humming and brushing her hair. Dean emerged from the bathroom and leaned against the dresser.

“Honey,” he said. “You didn’t eat any meat tonight, did you?”

Cassandra brushed and smiled. “Why?”

“Oh, just wondering.”

Cassandra stopped brushing and dropped her hands into her lap. “I forgot to flush the toilet, didn’t I?”

“Never mind.”

“Goddammit, Dean, did you sniff my piss? Did you?”

Dean’s face grew red.

“I’ve told you a million fucking times to stop smelling my piss.”

“You ate that goose liver, didn’t you?”

“Jesus.”

“How else am I going to keep you healthy?” said Dean.

“Oh, running my ass off every day isn’t enough?” Cassandra tore off her nightgown and slipped into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. “You know what?” she said. “I’m not even packing. Fuck it.” She stepped into her running shoes and grabbed her purse.

“Cassandra, where—”

“I’m going to Julie’s. I’ll come back for my stuff.”

“But—”

“Save it, Dean. You sniff my piss and you hump the dog. I’m not ready for this.”

“For what? The wedding?”

“For you.” She tromped down the stairs and out the front door.

Cassandra walked along Pawnee Street. She looked at her watch. 9:30. Saturday night. She headed toward Julie’s house but then saw that the CVS was still open.

She walked into the store. She grabbed a packet of crackers and a bottle of soda on her way to the medicine aisle. She scanned the packages of colon-cleansing medicine—$29.95, $34.95. No. Not high enough. The glass case under the shuttered pharmacy window was ajar—the lock hung open. Inside were shelves of smoking-cessation products, Nicorette gum among them. $50 each—that was more like it. She looked over each shoulder, pulled out two of the boxes, shoved them into her coat pocket, and sauntered to the checkout. The cashier rang up her crackers and soda and then looked at her. Cassandra swiped her credit card through the machine.

“Is that all?” said the cashier.

“Um. Yeah, that’s it.”

“You gonna let me scan what’s in your pocket?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Cassandra left the crackers and soda and walked to the exit as the clerk lifted a phone receiver to her ear. She walked out onto 48th street and started running—a lightning sprint around the corner—and then settled into a fast jog. This was good. She’d missed her 15-mile run yesterday. She ran along Van Dorn Street to Holmes Lake and then left onto 60th. She pulled the Nicorette boxes out of her pocket and slam-dunked them as she breezed past a municipal trash can.

Running lightened her load and cleared her mind. In these moments, she knew what she needed—more running, more days of the week pounding the pavement. And she wanted to get back into swimming. It had been ten years since she’d set two records at Miami: 9:38.42 in the 1000-yard freestyle and 1:46.44 in the 200-yard freestyle. More swimming, more running, and less Dean. Fucking Dean.

Dean’s militant vegetarianism had been tolerable until three years ago when he’d insisted she stop eating meat too. She’d learned to flush the toilet quickly when she’d been eating beef jerky—her favorite snack—but every so often she’d forget, and Dean would slink in behind her to start puffing and sniffing in the commode, emerging moments later at the bathroom door tightening his mouth and shaking his head.

Cassandra ran. Newton Street, 56th Street, South Street. Three more miles to Julie’s house.

Julie came to the door after Cassandra rang the second time.

“Come on in,” said Julie. “Dean’s been calling.”

“I can’t do it, Julie. I’ve tried and tried, but this time I think it’s really over.”

“Come in, sweetie,” said Julie. She took off Cassandra’s jacket.

“What did you tell him?” said Cassandra.

“I told him the truth. I didn’t know where you were.”

Cassandra slumped on the couch. “I don’t want to go back.”

“You can stay here as long as you need to,” said Julie.

“I need to get out. I want to go. San Francisco. I can stay with my parents for a while.”

“Whatever I can do,” said Julie.

“I want to fly out tomorrow. Are there flights on Sunday?”

Julie opened the laptop and surfed for ticket prices. She clicked the mouse, her eyes flicking left and right across the screen. “What time do you want to leave?”

“As early as possible.”

“Here’s one leaving Lincoln tomorrow morning at eight. Delta flight 33—”

“I’ll take it. Do it.” Cassandra fumbled in her purse for the credit card. “Here.”

“One way?”

“Yes! Good God, yes.”

“Okay, 194 dollars.”

“Good. Fine.”

In minutes it was done. Julie dug out a bag and some clothes and they packed together. They sipped tea and then slept, Cassandra on the couch.

The doorbell rang at six o’clock Sunday morning. Julie skipped down the hallway. “I’ll bet I know who it is.” She opened the door.

“Is she here?”

“She’s leaving, Dean.”

“Just let me talk to her.”

“She doesn’t want to talk.”

Dean shook his head and looked at his feet.

“She has a plane ticket to San Francisco,” said Julie. “She’s leaving in half an hour.”

“Can I just talk to her?”

“Talk?” said Julie. “You think that’ll work this time? What will you do, Dean?”

“Do?”

“She’s tired of your shit, Dean. What will you do to change your bullshit?”

He stared at his feet again.

Cassandra’s head appeared over Julie’s shoulder.

Dean looked up and blurted, “I’m going to take Koshi to obedience class!”

Cassandra raised her eyebrows.

“And I’ll stop smelling your piss. I’m sorry. It’s rude. I have no right.”

Julie folded her arms.

“It’s your piss,” said Dean.

Cassandra smiled. Julie sighed and walked away.

Cassandra stood in the doorway looking at Dean.

“I’m sorry.” Dean was shaking his head.

“Obedience class? Are you serious?”

Dean nodded.

“Wow. You’re really scared, aren’t you?”

Dean looked up. His eyes were wet.

Cassandra grabbed him and hugged him.

They drove back home together in silence. Sunday afternoon, Dean went grocery shopping. Cassandra ran twelve miles. When she came home, Dean was in the kitchen chopping. Cassandra showered. She stepped out of the bathroom to the aroma of warm food. She dressed and went downstairs.

“What is that amazing smell?”

“Dinner,” said Dean as he pulled the cork out of a bottle of wine.

Cassandra leaned down and peered into the oven. The warm oven light gleamed off the top of the blue covered casserole dish.

“What is it?” said Cassandra.

“Braised 7-bone beef. And potatoes and carrots and celery.”

Cassandra stood up and faced Dean. “But— It’s meat. I don’t—”

“I should have done this sooner.” Dean poured her a glass of red wine.

Cassandra beamed as they stood at the dining room table. Dean had set out a tablecloth and candles. He held her chair as she sat down. He served her two slices of roast and spooned on the gravy.

“What are you eating?” said Cassandra.

“I’ve got some stuffed shells and marinara. Want some?”

“Sure,” she said. She refilled Dean’s wine glass. “Bottle’s empty already. Goodness.” She giggled.

“I should get another one,” said Dean. “More red?”
“Yes, please.”
Dean ambled to the dining room rack and spent a minute inspecting labels. He pulled out a bottle of Jelu Pinot Noir and returned to his seat.

The doorbell rang. Dean got up and answered.

Cassandra stopped chewing. She strained to hear. “…report of shoplifting…CVS…credit card receipt…”

Dean turned back into the house. “Cassandra? Could you come here for a minute?”

Shit. Cassandra got up from the table and straggled like a zombie to the front door.

“Sorry ma’am,” said the police officer. “Just a few questions.”

“They said they’re following up,” said Dean.

“On what?” said Cassandra.

“Shoplifting,” said Dean. “Can you believe that?”

The police officer turned to the CVS cashier. “Is this her?”

The cashier stared.

Cassandra met the cashier’s eyes and froze. She couldn’t look away with the police officers watching, and she could not look guilty, whatever that meant. So she tried to use her eyes to plead with the cashier, no eyebrow raising and no eye widening, just locking in and trying to convey—what? She thought of those TV interview shows where they discussed how an actor can broadcast a lifetime of feeling and experience in his motionless gaze, and Cassandra tried to do that now, funneling every “please God no please please” she could into the eyes of the cashier.

The cashier folded her arms. “Naw, I don’t think that’s her.”
The officer faced Cassandra. “Ma’am, did you shop at the CVS yesterday evening?”

“Um, maybe.” said Cassandra. “Oh, I was going to buy some things, but I changed my mind.”

The other officer spoke. “Can you tell us what you did last night?”

“We were at a party.”

“That’s right,” said Dean. “The math department social.”

“And what time was that?” said the officer.

Dean said, “Well, we were there until—”

“Sir, we’d like the lady to answer.”

Cassandra said, “Oh, um, we were there from about, I’d say, 6:30 to 8 or something.”

“And after that?” said the officer.

“Then we came home.”

“But she did go to her friend Julie’s house later,” said Dean.

The policeman scribbled on a pad.

“Right,” said Cassandra. “I was with Julie from about 9 until, well, I stayed the night.”

The policeman looked up from his pad at Cassandra. Then at Dean. Dean looked away.

“Your credit card account shows a swipe at the CVS at 8:46 p.m.,” said the officer. “Does that sound about right?”
“I guess so,” said Cassandra.

The officer turned again to the cashier. “You’re sure this isn’t the one?”

“No,” said the cashier. “My mistake.”

“And anyway,” said Dean, “don’t they have surveillance cameras?”

Cassandra felt her shoulders tighten. Shit, Dean, shut the hell up.

“Well, that’s the problem,” said the cop. “Their system was down last night.”

Cassandra’s knees buckled. She steadied herself on the door frame.

The policeman reached for her arm. “You okay?”

“Yes, yes,” said Cassandra. “Bit too much wine.”

The cop scribbled some more on his pad. “Well, folks, I think we’re done here. Sorry to bother you.”

The cashier stood facing the street with her arms folded.

The other policeman stared a while at Cassandra and then said. “We’ll be back if we have any more questions.”

“Okay,” said Dean. “Thanks.” He closed the door. “Can you believe that? Shoplifting at the CVS.”

“Yeah,” said Cassandra.

Back at the table, Dean tucked into his manicotti. He opened the second bottle and poured himself more wine. “You, shoplifting.” He shook his head.

Cassandra looked down at her plate and steadied her hands with the fork and knife by carving slowly.

“How’s the beef, sweetie?” said Dean.

She looked up. “What?”

“The food. How is it?”

“Oh,” said Cassandra. “It’s good.”

“I haven’t cooked meat in fifteen years. Did I do okay?”

Cassandra smiled. “You did. It’s amazing. It’s so tender. And the flavor.”

Dean gazed at Cassandra’s plate. “I used to cook a lot of meat.” He looked at her glass. “Do you need more wine?”

“No, thank you.” Cassandra stared at her dark, red wine. The round glass caught the yellow candlelight. She looked up at Dean. She sighed.

“What?” said Dean.

She thought of the goose-liver pâté and the Nicorette and the CVS. Had the checkout lady watched her, or did she notice Cassandra’s bulging jacket pocket? The security camera system was down—remarkable. Those weren’t as widespread ten years earlier when Cassandra had started.

“What is it?” said Dean.

“There’s so much I want to say. I’m sorry. I—”

“It’s okay,” said Dean. “But you scared me this time. The plane ticket.”

“Yeah,” said Cassandra.

“I can do better,” said Dean. “I will. I promise.” He raised his glass across the table with a half-smile. “I don’t want you to leave anymore.”

Cassandra pulled in a mouthful of wine and closed her eyes as it flowed down her throat. She glanced into the living room at that gorgeous Tabriz carpet. The blue and white and gold of the center floral medallion burst out from the deep red background. It was her finest work. There’d been no pocketing the carpet—that job had required planning. She had taken quick and quiet advantage of an opportunity to lift an employee’s key ring for a few hours on a Tuesday to make a copy, and then she’d cased the store to learn schedules and routines. Her midnight execution had been flawless and exhilarating. She knew then that she’d never be caught in the future. If she were ever going to go down, it would have been for that job, not for boxes of fucking Nicorette from the CVS.

Cassandra smiled back at Dean and lifted her glass too.

“I promise I won’t do it again.”

glasses

Robert Slentz-Kesler

Robert Slentz-Kesler is a former librarian and public school teacher who grew up in Belgium, Turkey, the United States, and Germany. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Blotter, Toad the Journal, the Rappahannock Review, and Litro Magazine. He resides in Durham, North Carolina.

Twitter
https://twitter.com/rslentzkesler

Instagram
https://www.instagram.com/rslentzkesler

Sylvia, Rachel, Meredith, Anna, a novel :: available as e-book:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004EYTBFI

Recent short story: “Waterman Hemisphere”
https://rappahannockreview.com/issue-8-1/contents/fiction/robert-slentz-kesler

Image by Prettysleepy on Pixabay

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