The Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band
by Mark Sarvas
Harry fiddles nervously with his naked ring finger as the sounds of excavation drift up from behind the counter. A colony of eggshell ring boxes and packing materials accrues piece by piece on the glass counter, passed overhead by a tiny, wizened hand.
"I remember that one. Very nice model. Sold a bunch. Too bad discontinue."
At length, Mai Lin Goldberg sighs and emerges from behind the counter. A tiny Chinese woman of sixty-seven, Mai Lin changed her name to Goldberg a dozen years back in a misguided attempt to secure "street cred" in the jewelry district. And although she didn't fool any of her peers (her sketchy knowledge of the Torah was a source of much unintended mirth), it had an effect on her clientele. "People want Jewish jeweler," she would shrug by way of explanation. "Just like doctor. I do for customers. Make the goyim feel better." Within a week of the name change, sales doubled. The photo of the absent Mr. Goldberg that she kept in the ornate silver-plated Birkat Habayit frame was actually a picture of the Rebbe Avram Moskowitz clipped from an old issue of The Queens Jewish Bulletin.
Harry and Anna have been loyal customers for years, so Mai Lin's gone the extra mile in her search and it's with what appears to be genuine disappointment that she comes up empty. "Sorry," she says, shaking her head. "No more."
Harry clenches his teeth and holds back tears of anger as he kicks himself for this rare, unaccountable burst of individuality. If only he'd opted for the standard issue gold or platinum band, he'd have been home hours ago. Instead, having been seduced by the Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™—a gaudy assemblage of gold and platinum weave with diamonds and "Etruscan inspired engravings"—Harry has spent the last four hours standing before a variety of counters and jewelers, attempting to describe the missing ring to an assortment of shrugs and shaking heads.
"Never heard of it."
"Might have had something like that last year. Didn't sell."
"I need a better description—that could be anything."
The worst ones, though, were the ones who thought they had it.
"Sure. I know the one. Gimme a sec."
The jeweler would reappear with his offering, glittering against a black felt pillow, assuming his best courtier pose. Harry's heart would climb in anticipation, then belly flop back to Earth at the sight of the thing. A sad shake of the head and he'd turn to leave.
"Wait! I can give it to you for a song."
He'd done everything he could to avoid visiting the family jeweler but as the afternoon was running out it became clear to Harry that the call could not be avoided. So he planned his story and hoped he could rely on her discretion. He wasn't disappointed. Mai Lin Goldberg had seen it all.
"It slipped off while I was scrubbing the toilet," Harry had explained, wondering if his pale, sweaty face was betraying him. "It was just an accident but Anna's superstitious, you know. It would really upset her if she knew I lost it."
Mai Lin nodded comfortingly and patted his arm for assurance. "We find you ring," she said with a conspiratorial grin. And for the first time all day, Harry had felt reassured, even had begun to relax. Until this final, catastrophic shrug of defeat.
"I sure I had..." Mai Lin says to the air, performing a mental inventory of possible hiding places. She sighs, disappointed. "I make you copy—take ..." She counts days on her fingertips. "Six days."
Harry slumps onto the stool, and now despite his best efforts, the tears begin to collect. He is going to be found out and there's nothing he can do to save himself. He looks around the bustling mart at deals being struck at the other counters: young couples selecting engagement rings as they struggle to match low budgets with high hopes; grandmothers selling off their courtships, converting memories to food and fuel; indignant divorcees learning the truth about the quality of their testaments; beginnings mingling with endings, hope and desperation all around him, and he can't believe there's no hope to be had for him. But just as he lowers his head into his hands with a whispered "shit," Mai Lin springs to life
"Wait a minute! Have old display. Back in stock. Maybe—no promise. Wait here."
Harry nods glumly as Mai Lin goes off to have a smoke in the stock room, a copy of the Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™ safe in her pocket where she tucked it within seconds of receiving Harry's frantic phone call. As she smokes, she remembers a saying her mother told her: "You don't boil a frog by throwing it into a boiling pot; it will jump right out. Put it in a pot of cold water and slowly turn up the heat."
When she returns, Harry fails to notice that she smells of stale cigarette smoke. He fails to notice that she's been gone a relatively short time, and that not a hair is out of place—in short, there are no visible signs of an exhaustive search through a stock room. But noticing things is not where Harry excels. He regards her indifferently. For the first time today, he has not allowed himself to feel any hope, so it's a near body blow when Mai Lin reverently places the Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™ on the counter, gleaming against a wine dark sea of felt.
Harry doesn't leap or shout out.
Harry doesn't burst into tears.
What Harry does instead is this:
- - -
Harry opens his eyes to find a dozen men in yarmulkes standing over him. He blinks his eyes clear and warily nods hello. A relieved smile is relayed across a dozen pair of lips like a stadium wave. The men promptly disperse like a football huddle—all that's missing is a quarterback's cry of "BREAK!" Mai Lin helps a nonplussed Harry to his feet.
"They afraid you sue. But you OK. Yes?"
Harry nods uncertainly but now he's remembered the ring.
"My ring! You have it!"
"Yes. Good news, no?"
Impulsively, Harry hugs the little woman. "Great news!" Mai Lin wriggles free and returns to the business end of the counter. As Harry pulls out his wallet, Mai Lin prepares an invoice that is triple the original cost of the ring. She presents it to Harry, who is genuinely startled. Harry, after all, is unaccustomed to being at the mercy of another. Although he's something of a naïf in the ways of the world, he's generally managed to keep himself out of the clutches of those who would do him harm. But like many other comfortable trends in his life, this one is coming to sudden end.
"Um. Wow. That's a little expensive, isn't it?"
Mai Lin does a credible impersonation of surprise, takes the bill from Harry and glances it over. "No. Looks OK." She hands him back the invoice and smiles.
"Well, it's almost—what—triple what I paid for it."
Mai Lin offers up an understanding, sympathetic head bob. "Inflation. That was eight years ago."
"Three hundred percent inflation?!" And then, ever so slowly, it dawns on Harry. He's being worked. She has him dead to rights and that fact that he deserves it, that he's earned it, doesn't make it go down any easier. He scowls as he hands over his credit card.
"Shame on you, Mrs. Goldberg. I thought we were friends."
These will turn out to be among the most expensive words Harry has ever uttered.
Mai Lin looks at Harry with disbelief and swipes the Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™ from view. Harry, clearly, doesn't know the rules of the game. You take your hiding with good grace. You never—ever—put your benefactor on the spot. It's messy, ugly, it wounds the pride. And what is a Chinese Goldberg, after all, if she hasn't got her pride?
"Shame on me? Shame on you, Mr. Rent." She does a mincing impersonation of Harry. "'I lost in toilet.' That some kind of bullshit. I bet I know where you lose it. Shame on you." She drops the ring into her pocket. "Not for sale."
It's a performance worthy of our admiration, scaling heights of indignation that she doesn't really feel, even as she totals up the mental adding machine tape—here's a chance to move those horrible platinum eggplant earrings and that glittering monstrosity of a charm bracelet that have been languishing in the case since last holiday season. Before Harry finishes his round of abject mea culpas he's saddled with an additional five figures worth of inventory that Mai Lin had despaired of ever moving. "Make nice gift for Anna," she says as she wraps the numerous purchases. Harry's been flayed and she's done an expert job, almost admirable in its bloodless efficiency, leaving little more than bone and tendon to hold him together. But as he leaves burdened with his loot, the Everhappy Eterna Comfort Band™ is safely restored to its rightful place albeit loosely, the ring being a half-size too large and the remains of the day being too short to size it properly. For the entire drive home, he rubs his thumb reassuringly across the bottom of the band, the metallurgical equivalent of pinching himself to make sure he's awake.
Harry is awake. He's done it. Never again, he swears to himself, believing that this time he means it.
About the author:
Mark Sarvas lives the quiet life in Los Angeles, where he has been a newspaper editor, travel agent and bass player. He has written episodic comedy for HBO and Showtime as well as screenplays for Warner Brothers, producer David Foster, and the World Entertainment and Business Network. Most recently, his fiction has appeared in Troika Magazine, The Wisconsin Review, Apostrophe, Thought Magazine and as part of the Spoken Interludes reading series in Los Angeles. He is currently at work on his first novel, a black comedy entitled Obiter Dicta (from which this story is excerpted). He hosts the literary weblog "The Elegant Variation" at www.elegvar.com.