By David W. Stowe
Jeff had never known a quilter before or, as Connie was quick to correct, a would-be quilter. Needlework ran in her family, she said, and this was something she’d always wanted to try. All of this had come out during their courtship, which lasted just over a year, after they met in line at a deli. Surprised by how much they had in common, including prickly first marriages, they used to joke that their exes would make a great couple.
Jeff came across the kimono scraps while unpacking a carton from the townhouse that he and his ex-wife, Meredith, had sold. The brilliant silk patches brought back that morning in Osaka, wandering onto the grounds of a Buddhist temple where an enormous flea market was underway. Dealers had laid tarps and tables on the packed gravel, selling crafts, potteries, antiques, jewelry, sweets, tea, clothing new and used.
A young woman with a sleek haircut that curved nicely around her ears had displayed hundreds of fabric samples on an indigo cloth. “From silk kimonos,” she’d said. Postcard sized, more or less, the samples presented a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns: peach and persimmon, ocher and azure, vermillion and magenta. In his mind now, he could still see flower blossoms, autumn leaves, little animals, children in traditional outfits, fish flags flown on Boys’ Day.
When Connie saw them laid out on the bed, afternoon sun striking their iridescent hues, she was dazzled. “These are gorgeous! Where did they come from?”
“I bought them years ago at a street fair in Japan. A Buddhist temple in Osaka, to be precise, on a business trip.” He still remembered: fifty yen each, five for 200. They’d fitted easily into his suitcase.
He had thought they ought to be used for something, but within a year of the trip to Japan, his first marriage had disintegrated, and he’d forgotten about the fabric strips. Now, with Connie, it was cool to see them again.
“Feel free to use them any way you like,” he said. “A quilt might be a good way.”
Connie pondered it: blending them with other fabrics, bits of this and pieces of that. She wanted to know why they were cutting up perfectly good kimonos in Japan; it seemed like desecration. Jeff explained that Japanese lacked storage space for old kimonos worn only for special occasions, like graduations and weddings. Repurposing the scraps was a better fate for old kimonos than the landfill.
Tucked inside the manila envelope along with silk patches was a long-forgotten box of incense. One evening before Connie came over, Jeff lit a stick. The scent instantly brought back the hotel in Osaka, cool in the summer heat, gleaming marble surfaces and large vases of flowers. It had taken a couple of days to register the fragrance whenever he passed through the lobby, a cleaner, drier aroma, almost like a peach cobbler baking in the oven. Coming in late the final night after a farewell banquet, he’d asked at the front desk about it, and had been handed a small box. Only 500 yen for twelve sticks.
“What is that smell?” Connie asked when she came in.
Japanese incense, he explained; did she like it? By the time she’d apologized about not being a big fan of incense because of her allergies—though she admitted this one had an intriguing aroma—Jeff had stuck the little box back in his towel drawer and forgot about it. The quilt was the thing.
As it turned out, though, it wasn’t.
As Jeff and Connie started planning marriage, life reared up. Connie’s mother had a bad fall; Connie was the geographically closest kin and for the better part of a year shuttled to her mom’s duplex. Jeff had his own challenges, dealing with his father’s early-onset dementia.
Despite demands on time and energy, Jeff and Connie pushed ahead toward a wedding. The circumstances that kept getting in the way actually drew them closer together, activating their resolve, adding urgency.
“In case you wondered, I’m not forgetting our quilt,” she told him. She’d laid out the kimono scraps on a ping pong table in the basement, played around with the colorful strips as if constructing a jigsaw puzzle, took a few snapshots, then put them back in the envelope.
As she drove home from visiting her mom later that week, Connie’s left front tire blew out on the highway. She managed to maneuver to the shoulder but while she opened the trunk to see to get the tire jack, a driver whizzing by picked up his cellphone to see whose message had just pinged in. He drifted into the breakdown lane, plowing Connie into her own car. She was killed instantly.
Jeff had never experienced that kind of grief before. He didn’t even know many people who had suffered such a catastrophe. He pushed himself through his professional responsibilities in a dull daze, rushed home to collapse in bed as early as he could. Ambien became a not-altogether-trusted friend.
Despite grief that sometimes left him choking, Jeff managed to perform his duties successfully, even receiving an unexpected promotion. He wondered if his boss felt sorry for him, but when he looked at his metrics he saw the evidence of his performance.
Relations with Meredith, his ex, had improved, and she sent him a thoughtful card, a Japanese print. Though he worked hard not to wallow in the past, Jeff couldn’t help sometimes replaying certain recurring scenes of his life.
Years ago, he had developed a final day shopping ritual on business trips. Meetings concluded, the city now somewhat familiar, his thoughts turned to the trip home. When he and Meredith were married, gift shopping had felt almost like a devotional practice. Balancing what she might like with what she could use, what was unique about the city he was in, and what he could fit in his suitcase.
In the Osaka temple flea market, Jeff found a couple of simple, slab-like plates finished with a pebbly gray glaze and graceful calligraphy. He would wrap them in his shirts. And a set of antique wooden sake cups, buffed by decades of use, buttery to the touch, still carrying a faint aroma of sandalwood. The set cost only 800 yen. For their son, Max, he had picked out a catchy World Cup tee shirt, with the Chinese characters that fascinated the boy.
In the throes of devotional shopping, Jeff would idealize the moment of homecoming. But he’d learned to temper those expectations. Meredith and Max were always excited to see him, and he looked forward to their long hugs. He tried and usually succeeded in not being disappointed by the fact that they were more interested in catching him up on their lives than in hearing details of his trip. Meredith was understandably glad to have her co-parent back.
But the Osaka homecoming took an unexpected turn.
When the plane touched down in Chicago, Jeff called home but nobody answered. He left a message that he was headed for an on-time arrival at the regional airport. They hadn’t made a firm plan but she often did come, usually with Max. Landing there, he found a text on his phone explaining that she couldn’t meet his flight. She was hosting a play date for two of Max’s friends. So he took the shuttle home.
Letting himself in the front door Jeff found three boys charging around in high spirits. Max let himself be scooped up for a bear hug. Jeff kissed and embraced Meredith. Her shoulders didn’t soften, her arms felt loose around his back, but she claimed everything was fine. So Jeff called his parents to let them know he had survived the long flight and was safely home, and then went out into the backyard to kick around a soccer ball with Max and his friends.
After dinner Jeff opened his suitcase and rummaged for the souvenirs he had picked up in Osaka the day before. Max liked his tee shirt, put it right on. Meredith admired the sake cups, commenting on how soft the wood was.
In the kitchen after dinner Meredith asked about his conversation with his parents, including whether they’d wanted to know if she’d met him.
Jeff recounted the details, including that he’d lied about her being there. “It’s no big deal. You guys were having a play date. I understood.”
“Why didn’t you tell your parents that?”
“I don’t know. The conversation just moved on. I was exhausted from traveling. No harm done.”
They argued that night, and after Max went to bed their argument got a little heated. Meredith said things that took Jeff by surprise. Maybe something had switched off between them. She wasn’t sure they still belonged together. They got into bed feeling like strangers, not sure they even wanted to be next to each other.
Between the quarrel and the jet lag, Jeff couldn’t sleep. He got up, went downstairs, listened to some music on headphones, dozed on the sofa. Next morning after Meredith was out of the bedroom he unpacked the dirty clothes from his suitcase. He found the flat bag of kimono swatches and put them in the bottom of his dresser, along with the little box of incense. After Meredith and Max left, he called some apartment complexes: how much were units renting for, was there a wait list? Just in case.
It hadn’t been the first time they’d argued, like after the business trip to New York where Jeff received the award and, after the fact, Meredith had complained that she would have wanted to go with him. As he finished unpacking from the Osaka trip, Jeff realized this was the end of their marriage. He couldn’t identify an actual beginning of their problems. Instead, it was more like a slow cancer that began in some obscure and nonessential organ.
About a year after Connie’s death Jeff met someone new, a nurse anesthetist named Francine. Her Korean parents had emigrated to the United States after the war. She had a mischievous sense of humor and a boisterous laugh. Francine was divorced with no children. She found her work stimulating, had plenty of friends of both sexes, saw her parents frequently, and didn’t mind being single.
At first Jeff didn’t know quite what to make of Francine’s quick laugh and humor. Before long he kind of liked it. It took a couple of meetings before he could share about Connie. He wasn’t maudlin about it, and Francine listened attentively. She was impressed by his apparent willingness to forge ahead. Their romance had all the necessary elements—fuel, oxygen, and heat—for combustion.
Several months later, Jeff invited her over for dinner. Nothing too ambitious, but since they both loved Korean barbecue, Jeff marinated some short ribs, which he planned to serve with rice and tossed salad with a gingery dressing.
The rich aroma of roasting ribs reminded Jeff of the Japanese incense buried in a drawer. He found the little box and lit a stick. He’d forgotten how much he liked it.
“I didn’t know you burned incense,” Francine said after she took off her boots and came into the living room.
“I usually don’t. It’s something I got on a trip to Japan years ago and forgot about.”
“I’m not normally an incense fan but it’s quite pleasant. Something in there—almost a cinnamon accent. Or maybe it’s the dinner I’m smelling.”
“You’re right, there’s something delicious about it, like good pipe tobacco. A little manly compared to a lot of what you usually get in this country.”
“The Old Spice of incense,” she said, and they both laughed.
The dinner turned out very well. Francine pointed out that it was the half-anniversary of their first date. They curled up together, then went for a walk. The early spring air was balmy, a little misty. When they came back inside the incense aroma lingered. They thought about watching a movie but went to bed instead.
Next day, wiping up the delicate string of incense ash, Jeff thought of the kimono scraps he’d shoved into a filing cabinet after Connie’s death. Seeing them then had triggered an almost nauseating flood of memories. Choked as they were with memory, their luminous hues made him reconsider.
Jeff decided to have them made into a birthday quilt for Francine. A decorative quilt she could hang in her small house. Or maybe the patches could be transformed into a wedding quilt for the two of them. But who would quilt? He turned to Google.
Over the weekend he decided on a professional quilter as much for her name, Julie Garnet, as for the samples that popped up on her website. Her style was geometric, abstract in a way he could relate to. She told Jeff she had a short wait-list but worked quickly and would likely have it finished in eight weeks. Perfect, he thought; Francine’s birthday was three months off.
Julie Garnet had come through on the quilt. Like a cubist painter, Julie had cut up the swatches into smaller fragments which she had reassembled into what she imagined was a classic Japanese scene: temple in the foreground, Fuji-like peak rising behind. The quilt was about three feet square, not too big for a wall hanging. Jeff was sure Francine would love it. They had gone to enough museums together that he knew she had a thing for primary colors and abstract design.
Jeff found a good-sized box that had held a bulky bathrobe. He carefully wrapped the quilt and other gifts, placed them in a large shopping bag, and carried them down to his car. Then he drove off to pick up Francine to take her to a favorite restaurant. Finding a parking spot was unusually difficult but they finally found one on a back street.
Their waiter took especially good care of them when she learned it was Francine’s birthday, letting them sample a range of red wines before they selected a nice Chianti. It was so easy to be together, Jeff thought. He never wanted to be sitting in a restaurant with anyone else. He wished he’d thought of getting a ring and making this a proposal dinner; he felt ready, and Francine seemed more than ready.
“I’ve got a few things, in honor of the day,” Jeff said as they shared a crème brûlée and espresso.
“For moi? How sweet. I wasn’t expecting that,” Francine said, not quite convincingly.
Jeff shot her a quizzical look. “How about we go to my house, though?”
They took the long route back to the car, enjoying the luxury of walking in early summer air, the sidewalks not as congested as they would be on a weekend.
Because of their meandering route they had some trouble finding the vehicle. When they found it parked a street over, Jeff realized something was awry. His CDs were gone, along with the change he kept in the cup holder. “I think someone got into the car, Francine.” He scanned the interior. The shopping bag was gone.
By the time the patrol car arrived they had figured out what happened. Jeff had left the back window open a couple of inches when they parked. The fresh air had felt good in the afternoon sun, and he hadn’t remembered the window. The cop told them that downtown had seen a rash of break-ins.
Francine was a good sport, of course. On the drive home, Jeff told her what some New Yorkers did during a sanitation strike back in the day: gift-wrapped their garbage and left it in their car with the doors unlocked. She laughed. Francine never asked him about the gifts, and he didn’t have the heart to tell her about the quilt.
Back home the next day, Jeff went to light the last stub of incense from the hotel in Osaka. He had tucked it in the spikes of a toy stegosaurus he kept on the toilet. The cleaning lady had been thorough and the stub was gone. She must have swept it up. He got on his hands and knees for a quick look under the toilet, ran his hands over the mat to see if it had landed there. Jeff scooched to rest his head on the bath mat for a minute, then slammed both hands down hard on the floor. He bellowed an epithet at the top of his lungs, then took some deep breaths, feeling the ache in his hands. A sob welled up, then another. What the hell! he thought. Over a crumb of incense?
Later that week, padding barefoot into the bathroom, he felt something hard under the ball of his foot. The incense cinder had landed in a crack in the tile. He cradled it in his hands, briefly tearing up at having another chance to savor the aroma.
He burned the last ember the next time Francine came over. “Would you like to go to Japan, sweetheart?” Jeff asked, as they ate take-out sushi. “I’ve got a business trip coming up in a couple of months.”
“Japan…hmm…. That would be kind of fun. I’ve never been.” She paused. “We could go to Korea too, maybe visit where my parents grew up. I’ve never been there either.” They got out their calendars.
David Stowe has published nonfiction books on American music and religion. His story, “Time Capsule,” appeared in Faith Hope & Fiction earlier this year. His first novel, Learning from Loons, was published in 2021 by Mighty Mitten Books.