The Umbrella Thief

Cheryl Hiers

The enormous foot of an elephant served as an umbrella stand for the shop’s clients. When Anna returned to it, after purchasing her boss’s anniversary gift for his wife, her umbrella had vanished. Two ordinary contraptions remained, flimsy things made of vinyl and plastic. No one could have mistaken her umbrella, with its carved handpiece and long, wooden shaft, for the collapsible pieces aban-doned in the elephant foot. Someone had filched it and it was gone—plundered for the February rain. Anna would never see it again.

As the force of the loss was hitting her, a tiny miracle occurred. Anna spotted the blue dome of her umbrella bobbing along the sidewalk across the street. For a second, she could not breathe. Was it hers? Yes! A gift from her son, he had brought it from Paris and she’d never seen another like it. The bright blueberry color of the dome she knew by heart, and she recognized the braided shoulder cord that connected the top shaft of the umbrella with the handle. It was her umbrella and she meant to get it back.
 
A nimbler Anna would have dashed out of the gift shop and caught up with the thief. The task for the real Anna was more daunting: she pushed against the glass door and lumbered into the sploshy grayness. Anna was a large woman who relied upon a walking cane, a habit that had slipped up on her. The cane had eased her wobbliness during a spell with a bruised knee, but its real value revealed itself when she ventured into public. At the grocery store and then the post office, Anna made a discovery: the world didn’t despise the handicapped as much as it did the obese. Or, at least, it was less fashionable to show you were irked by the pokiness of the disabled. Carrying the cane, she found doors opened for her. Sales-clerks gave her their attention ungrudgingly, even affably. The cane had the power to trump her stoutness, caging her a tolerance she rarely found in the world without it. So, she kept leaning on the walking stick, and on rainy days, she was as balanced as a tree, the cane in one hand steadying her to the ground and the Parisian umbrella in the other, tipping her upward.

Anna jaywalked the street—bringing cars to a respectful and sudden halt in the winter rain. No one honked or yelled for her to get out of the way. She walked as quickly as she could, bracing against the walking stick and toting the bag with the troublesome anni-versary gift. She turned the corner in time to see her umbrella entering an office building.

Out of breath, Anna considered conscripting a passerby in her cause. “I’ll give you ten dollars if you sprint ahead and waylay the person with the blue umbrella,” she’d say. But it would take more than that. By the time she stumbled through the explanations and overcame the person’s reluctance, the umbrella would be on the elevator and swallowed in the belly of the building. No, she’d have to do it herself. Anna picked up her knees and tried to jog. The effort—a dramatic heaving of breasts and stomach—aroused the stares of pedestrians and cost her a grating pain in her good knee, of all things. She gave up jogging but managed to jolt and lurch ahead faster than she had in years. She reached the lobby as the elevator doors were shutting. Anna saw her umbrella, its slender silhouette clutched in the hands of a well dressed businessman. 

“Wait,” she cried. The doors slid shut.

So close—only to miss. Anna stood in front of the elevator and watched the light marking the elevator’s ascent. Up to floors eight and nine, and still it kept climbing. The light came to a rest on the number 10. A long pause, and then it passed the eleventh floor. It halted at the top, on the twelfth. Anna believed she still had a chance. Two floors. Determination ballooned within her. Surely she could track down the man on two floors. Which one should she begin with? Ten or twelve? The man had a distinguished, deliberate air about him. She’d start with the top floor.
 
Anna pushed the button, and the door for the sister elevator slid open immediately. Luck, for a change, seemed on her side. She entered the mirrored elevator and depressed the circle for twelve. The doors closed. She was alone, thank goodness. Some days it was all she could do to tolerate people. Fat, crippled, nearly sixty, and by no means well off, Anna understood that most people automatically lumped her in the category of “little old lady” (although some leeway had to be given in her case for the “little”). It was expected that, as one of these dismissed lumps, she would meekly take what fate dished out. If someone were standing on her foot, she should ask politely for relief, rather than elbowing the dolt. That’s what was expected. Anna looked at her reflection in the mirror: the chase for her umbrella had left her with a wet head and a red face. Her expression, by practice, buried whatever hope she had. She knew she had a better chance if she appeared to want nothing at all.

The elevator came to a stop and a single bright tone sounded. The doors glided apart and a lighted space opened before her. A panoramic window the size of a swimming pool looked over the river and a world of rain. Anna stepped out of the elevator and stood at the window, entranced by the scene. Looking down on things, from a distance, changed the way they appeared. She could see the rain falling on the river and the bridge and the streets below. She could even see umbrellas moving on the sidewalks twelve stories beneath her.

“May I help you?” a woman said.

Anna turned. The receptionist was positioned behind a black desk so shiny it glowed like a lacquered music box. The woman was beautiful, with a complexion as pale as a ballerina’s. A single name was etched in a wall of smoked glass behind her. Anna began crossing the polished marble floor toward the desk, considering her strategy. She walked slowly over the pale yellow marble that was blurred with streaks of white, like scrambled eggs.

“I’m looking,” Anna said, “for a gentleman who just came up the elevator. He dropped something of value, I believe, in the lobby, and I want to return it.”

The receptionist smiled. Her lips and fingernails were painted the color of root beer.

“He was tall,” Anna continued, “with silver gray hair. He was carrying, I believe, a blue umbrella.”

“Mr. Cartwright,” the young woman said, “has just returned from lunch.”

Cartwright was the name etched in the smoked glass.

“Can you show me to his office?” Anna asked, keeping her face flat and her voice even. 

The woman nodded.  “He’s in with someone right now, but you may wait.”
 
The chairs in the sitting area were steel frames strung with straps of black leather. Anna opted for a marble bench by the window. The scene of rain soothed her with the sameness it gave the world, a neutrality that withheld judgment on the gloom she felt. She was prepared for a long wait, but within five minutes, a door opened and a woman in a gray cape and a fur hat walked by. The receptionist picked up the phone and spoke a couple of words. Then she nodded to Anna.

“Mr. Cartwright will see you now,” she said.

Anna pushed herself up from the bench and walked steadily with her cane toward the umbrella thief’s office. As soon as she entered the room, she saw it. The blue umbrella was propped, unopened, against a floor to ceiling window. A little pool of water puddled endearingly beneath its tip on the marble floor. Seeing it so near, nearly within reach, Anna forgot herself and the need to muzzle her desire. Her face flushed crimson and she pointed to her possession.

“That is mine,” she said. “My son brought it to me from Paris and I want it back.”

The man had risen when she entered and he remained standing. He turned to look at the umbrella when she pointed. His silver gray hair surprised her. It was cut in a crew cut, and it lent the man a youthfulness that put her off-guard. His slim, well exercised physique and stylish dress were no surprise. A man in his fifties, at the top of his form, he would be certain of his privilege and would think nothing of taking what he liked. Yes, all that she had antici-pated. But his eagerness dismayed her. His face showed a galling mix of innocence and curiosity. 

“Yes. I know the umbrella is from Paris,” he said. “Actually, it’s made in Italy, but it’s sold in Paris. A shop on the Rue de Bac.”

Anna stared at him. Was he claiming that it was his own umbrella?

“My son gave it to me,” Anna countered. “It’s irreplaceable.”

“I’m sorry,” the man said. “But that umbrella is not the one your son gave you. I bought it myself.”

The man’s brazenness stupefied Anna. Before her stood a thief and a liar. If she called the police, it would be her word against his and she would, most assuredly, lose. Who was she, after all, com-pared to this successful man on the top floor of a large building? She had no proof, except the certainty in her heart, that the umbrella belonged to her. Seeing it so close, Anna was overwrought with longing to hold it in her hands.

“It means everything to me,” Anna said, beseechingly, “because my son is dead.”
 
It was hard for her to speak the words, even though her life was defined by them. As soon as she said them, Anna knew she had made a mistake. She had opened herself up to a stranger and a thief. He had no business knowing the most important fact of her life, a grief she kept private, its daily devastation a secret. It was a grief outsized, like her own cumbersome frame, and it admitted no accommodation. How could anyone understand what her son’s death meant to her? And why should she seek sympathy? Nothing anyone could say would return him to her. The loss was final, irremediable, a thing she simply had to shoulder.

The man turned and walked to the window and picked up the umbrella and came back and handed it to Anna. 	

“You may have it,” he said, “but it’s not the one your son gave you.”

The instant her hands were on it, Anna knew the man was telling the truth. The blue umbrella appeared to be hers but was an impostor. The braided carrying cord was twined with a gray thread she did not recognize. There was a nick in the shaft Anna had never seen. The fabric pleated wet in her hands and she turned the umbrella over and over, trying to make it be the right one. But the carved handle did not fit in the familiar way she loved. Anna took a step back and her good knee, not the bad one, gave way. She crumpled sideways, collapsing, with a slight cry, onto clouds of pale yellow scrambled eggs.

She woke gradually, coming to a muffled awareness that she was lying on a sofa in an office. A light wool throw had been draped over her. Anna did not understand why she was there. She had to recall all over again the umbrella chase and the discovery that she was wrong: the man she had pursued was not a thief and his umbrella was not the one her son had given her. Remembering the mistake, she reexperienced the loss—her umbrella was gone for good and the finality of that fact was compounded now by shame. What could she say to the man she had accused? What apology was possible?
 
Anna sensed the man was sitting in a chair nearby. How he had maneuvered her to the sofa, she didn’t know, and it embarrassed her to think of the scene—her large, recumbent body and the attractive man grappling with it. Had he enlisted the aid of his colleagues? Had the beautiful woman with the root-beer colored lips helped hoist her by the ankles? Anna imagined herself fallen immodestly, her dress and slip hiking over her knees, revealing the thickness of her thighs. She moaned at her humiliation and her ignorance of how far it went.

“Don’t move,” he said.

Anna remained still and kept her eyes closed.

“I’m sorry,” she said. 

“You just lost your balance and went down.”

“I mean I’m sorry for thinking you had stolen my umbrella.”

“It’s not important,” he said. 

Anna kept her eyes closed, trying to postpone the moment when she’d have to gather herself up and leave. When it must have seemed that she would never stir, the man cleared his throat and asked if he could get her anything or call someone. Anna propped herself on her arm and shifted the heft of her weight to the back so she could bring her legs around. She sat up and lay the wool throw aside. She faced the man but could not look him in the eyes. She focused on his shoes, fawn colored leather wingtips. Overcome with embarrassment and misery, Anna wished she could dissolve out of the room and the building without another word.

“Do you think you need to see a doctor?” the man asked.

Anna shook her head no.

Rain was brushing in a misted, blurred way against the large window where the umbrella had been propped. It was still coming down and it had grown late. Her boss would be anxious about the anniversary gift for his wife.

“I need to go,” she said.

Anna reached for the cane the man had placed by the sofa. The shopping bag was there as well. She carried no purse, just a wallet in her pocket. She stood and smoothed her coat. The man passed a folded handkerchief to her and she realized then that she was crying. It was the final, last revealing thing she could do and she was doing it.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, “I’m just a business-man.”

What he did was accompany her to the elevator, walking with Anna past the beautiful woman at the music-box desk and past the panoramic window showing so much rain. He waited for the elevator to arrive and he saw Anna onto it. One last awkwardness came with the handkerchief—it was too soggy for her to return.
 
“I’ll mail it back to you,” she said, waving it at him in the silly fashion of someone on a ship about to set sail. Mercifully, the elevator doors finally closed and she was by herself once more.

Leaning on her cane, Anna emerged onto the street and trudged into the steady drizzle. The pursuit of her umbrella had distracted her temporarily from the weight of her grief. The sorrow returned now, magnified and unyielding—its force made sharper by the loss of one more tie to her son. Losing him, she had told herself, was the worst that could happen, a calamity that negated all others and earned her an invulnerability to new sadness. How much could one person bear? She saw now that there was no end to her grief and no solace in believing that her life was over.

Her steps grew smaller and slower until she found herself at a standstill on the sidewalk, the other pedestrians streaming around her. One or two strangers glanced toward her, brushing her with looks of curiosity. But their faces passed and were quickly absorbed back into the flow. Anna was alone in the crowd, holding her place like a stone in moving water, when the silver haired man caught up to her. He touched her arm and she turned to him. She could see from the color in his face that he had been running. The flat top of his crew cut glistened with beads of rain.

“Look,” he said, “if you really want to apologize to me, you’ll accept this.”

For the second time that day, he presented the blue umbrella to Anna. His offer, delivered with a matter of fact gladness, took her off-guard. The unexpectedness of his appearance—and his gift— wedged a small crack in the dimness surrounding Anna.

“Shall I open it for you?” he asked.

Turning aside, he pushed the spring and slid the metal runner up the shank of the umbrella, opening the ribbed fabric in a burst. A star map of constellations bloomed on the interior of the dome—a frostwork of stars against dark blue. Like the umbrella her son had given her, this one kept its prettiest feature in reserve, a surprise waiting to be opened.

Anna, though she knew the secret well, smiled at seeing it afresh.

The man handed the umbrella to her and was gone—just like that—jogging back the way he had come.
 
Anna looked at the map of the night sky, close and familiar. The constellations on the umbrella were named in Italian, little words in white print that Anna had never heard spoken but that she recognized from her old umbrella. Leone and Lira, Scorpione and Ercole. It comforted her to see the same words, alien though they were, marking the patterns of stars she had come to know.

The gray afternoon was closing down on her, as it did every day, the dimness moving out from the doorways and alleys into the streets. The headlights of the cars moved in wavery reflections on the wet asphalt. Anna could hear a new sound in the wind—the clanging of a flagpole lashing its empty tackle against a metal staff. People on the sidewalks shivered in their coats and moved along briskly, seeking shelter. With the temperature dropping, there would be ice on the roads by nightfall and perhaps even snow. Anna walked as quickly as she dared, keeping pace with the blue dome of the umbrella above her.
© 2007 University of North Carolina Greensboro
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CHERYL HIERS lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she works as editor of BlueShoe Nashville, an online city guide. Her stories have been published in Southern Exposure, The Nashville Scene, Crescent Review, and Southern Living.

This story received The Greensboro Review’s 2005 Literary Award for short fiction.