Durant’s by Kathleen Quinn

In 2012 fooled myself into thinking that I could start a catering business. My friend and I worked at a bar together and we loved to cook and plan parties. I figured that was all it took. She had grown up in a particularly wealthy town on Long Island, which meant lots of people with much to celebrate but no interest in washing the dishes. Enter us: ‘Stir’.

A fear of mine at the time, apart from people, failing, succeeding, being alone, not fitting in, losing my identity, the future, repeating the past, change, and staying the same, included taking responsibility for my actions. It doesn’t sound like a real fear, it sounds like something that terrible people say so they can continue being terrible. But that was me. I did bad things and didn’t want to talk about them afterwards. If you were interested in an apology or an explanation, you wouldn’t get one. You were lucky if I remembered what I had done.

Our company, Stir, had its first (and only) event that April. It was an engagement party for a friend of my business partner’s parents. We hoped to gain new clients from that event, and I told her I’d have business cards made by that day, but I never ordered them.

We spent weeks getting together to plan menus, design table layouts, and drive through Queens on the LIE to meet with the host of the party, the mother of the newly engaged. I make it sound like I was organized, but I mostly scratched notes in a binder over cocktails and showed up half-prepared, hoping my charm would win over the rich mother of the pre-bride. I painted bowls for candy, hot-glued twine to mason jars, and wrote the words “pulled pork” and “mashed potato bar” with paint markers on black signs. My most important job was ordering tables, chairs, and their corresponding covers.

Back then, if I made a mistake, I would have told you that others were not deserving of my contrition, that they had made me do it, or that they had started it, na na na poo poo. But that’s not what kept me from taking responsibility for myself. The real issue was my fear that anyone, ever, would see how imperfect I was. If I admitted fault, then it would be there with me, and I couldn’t have reality disrupting my inaccurate ideas about myself.

For the tablecloths, I’m sure I researched, or at least claimed to research vendors to find the best cost per chair, and I landed on a company called Durant’s Party Rentals. I was living in the city but going through a breakup, so I was spending a lot of time upstate with my family, and I drove past this place often on my way up, so that’s the more likely reason I used them.

I ordered hundreds of rental chairs and some tables to be delivered and picked up at the party venue by Durant’s. Their capes, though, would be transported down to Long Island by me in my newly acquired silver Nissan Versa. I’d pick them up on the day of the event and haul them back upstate after. I remember signing something that said I was responsible for the retail value of all the merchandise, and that if I didn’t return it within a day, interest would accrue, and my unborn children and their descendants would be liable thereafter. Or something.

At this time in my life, I did not make phone calls to tell people I was running late, or ask for extensions if I was sick, or tell a party supply store that I would return their goods within forty-eight instead of twenty-four hours. I ignored these problems, hoping that they would vanish.

So, the day came and went, with a surprisingly small number of glitches. The tables held trays, and the seats held humans. The covers served their purpose, so back into their giant plastic bags they went. I filled up most of the space in my trunk with the two bundles, and drove back upstate around 2am.

The next morning, I slept in. This gave me only a few hours to get to Durant’s to make it by my deadline, but I did something else. I don’t know what I did, and it probably wasn’t important, but I did not return the bundles.

At this time in my life, I did not make phone calls to tell people I was running late, or ask for extensions if I was sick, or tell a party supply store that I would return their goods within forty-eight instead of twenty-four hours. I ignored these problems, hoping that they would vanish. And once I passed that twenty-four-hour mark, the cloth covers tumbled into a place in my mind I like to call No Man’s Land.

I became paralyzed about the whole thing. I kept the tablecloths in my trunk for days, weeks, months. They became a part of my life. You’d think their presence would cause stress, that they would serve as a daily reminder of my breached contract and my failure as an entrepreneur, but you’d be underestimating my penchant for delusion. I had myself convinced that I was going to return them. I believed that, any day now, me and my heaping sacks of shame would make their way into Durant’s Party Rentals like nothing had happened. The Durant family would greet me with open arms, praising my dedication and begging me to work with them again. I’d sashay out, confetti flying, crowds cheering, one ton of white fabric lighter. Obviously, this day never came.

The main reason that this party was both Stir’s maiden and concluding event, is that a few months later I decided to move across the country. I wish it wasn’t as impulsive as it sounds, but it was. I moved to Park City, Utah, to be with a guy I had known for three months, but that’s not the best part: I brought the tablecloths with me.

I left behind a television, a hookah, and a brand-new toaster oven in its box, but I made sure we shoved those bags into the U-Haul. I needed to believe that I was the kind of person that wouldn’t throw away hundreds of tablecloths and chair covers that didn’t belong to me. I clung to the idea that someday, somehow, I would get them back to their rightful owner.

This list was a requirement of a program I had entered to make the changes I desperately needed. The people on it were owed something from me – honesty, money, time, usually money. I would face them all, one by one, and Durant’s came fourth after my mom, sister, and dead dad.

Four years and a pending divorce later, I shuffled back to New York with my head hung low and almost none of my stuff. The tablecloths had long since been forgotten, tucked away in the storage closet of a tree-house style apartment that it took me only two months to be evicted from. Shortly after moving back across the country and onto my mom’s couch, the reality of my life began to settle in. I had a negative bank account, one suitcase full of dirty clothes, and a botched bleach job that I had thought would fix my problems. I needed to make changes.

I wrote ‘Durant’s Party Rentals’ on a list of people whom I felt I had harmed. This list was a requirement of a program I had entered to make the changes I desperately needed. The people on it were owed something from me – honesty, money, time, usually money. I would face them all, one by one, and Durant’s came fourth after my mom, sister, and dead dad. The first three met me with grace and little criticism (especially my dad), which was to be expected. But Durant’s was different. They weren’t family, so they didn’t have to love me. This meeting had the potential to bring about my least favorite experience: humility.

I procrastinated. I passed the building hundreds of times before going in. I swear they purchased a new fleet of box trucks to torture me because, for weeks, one of them would be idling next to my car every time I sat at a red light.

One day I had enough. Instead of passing by the showroom, I flicked on my blinker and turned right. I can’t tell you what changed, only that the thought of passing that white and blue sign one more time without going in made me nauseas. Sitting in the parking space facing the door, I noticed how ugly the dark brown siding was. I sat and stared at it for a while, wishing that my parking lot presence alone would suffice, but knowing it would not. I took a few short breaths and got out of the car.

It’s likely that I waited, consciously or unconsciously, until the end of their business day to visit Durant’s. When I opened the glass door, the entire showroom floor was empty of people. I remember the room being all white, but that can’t be true because it’s a party supply store. There must have been displays with towering glass centerpieces and big bowls of fluffy stuff surrounding me, and fake flowers filled vases on tables draped with tablecloths. White tablecloths.

I darted my eyes around in panic and secret hope that I was too late to meet anyone. Along the right wall, the one facing the parking lot, was a row of desks, one after the other, with no Durant’s employees in them. But at the end of the line, in the farthest corner of the room, at the very last desk, sat a man, the only other person in the store.

It was like a movie: The man looked up from his desk and I smiled, though I doubt he could read it from that far away. I felt my hands sweat as I began the thirty mile walk toward him, each step echoing in my hears, my heart pumping blood into my temples at an alarming decibel. I think I had sweated through my shirt by the time I reached him.

‘Hi,’ I croaked.

‘Hello,’ he said.

‘I am here for a weird reason,’ I said. ‘Is there someone I can speak to about an issue with a rental from 2012?’

His face didn’t change much.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I suppose you could talk to me. I’m Glenn, the owner.’

The owner. Come on, karma. I kept sweating while I explained to him why I was there, what I had done, and that I no longer had his merchandise. I told him that this was an attempt at righting my wrong, and that I was prepared to pay whatever I needed to balance the scales. He listened to everything I said. I waited for him to speak.

‘I’m sorry, what is it you’re here to do?’ He had a kind face. He was probably trying to decide whether I was in the middle of a manic episode.

I breathed. ‘I need to repay this debt,’ I said, calmer now, the sweat drying. My heartbeat was almost normal. I could hear my thoughts.

Glenn looked from me to his computer screen, back and forth. He told me he had no idea how to find out how much I owed him. It’s important to note that I had fully expected to pay this company thousands of dollars. I pictured payment plans, garnisheed wages, the whole nine. And that was fine, it wasn’t my money, it was Glenn’s, but with interest. I was convinced he was going to own my Versa. He searched my name in his data base and, to his surprise and mine, found the account. He squinted closer at the screen.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it looks like this was a rental for three hundred people. Does that sound right?’

I nodded.

‘I don’t see a price here…’ He scanned his computer for a moment before he turned to me. ‘How much would you like to pay?’

My cheeks flushed like they do when I don’t know what to say. I attempted ‘No’ and ‘Wow’ and ‘I have to pay you what I owe you because that’s how this works’, but instead stuttered and gurgled a series of sounds. A quick regroup and I explained that he needed to be the one to set the price.

Glenn looked down at his keyboard as if the right number would appear. He then looked up at me and said, ‘Twenty dollars?’

The warmth that spread through my chest at the mention of this number was a mixture of a few emotions. First and foremost, I’m ashamed to say, was relief. I did not have thousands of dollars in tablecloth money to hand over to this man, and I really liked my car. Next, I felt concern. Would this still count if I paid him such a low number? Could this be considered adequate recompense if I didn’t account for every single stich of fabric I had abandoned in Utah? Finally, gratitude. I had known, going into this, that I was going to be mocked, shamed, and ridiculed. It was part of why I had waited so long to do it. There was only one way that people like me deserved to be treated, and it involved tar and feathers. Yet here sat a middle-aged man, nerdy by all accounts in a button-up and khakis, offering me a pardon.

After many assurances from him that twenty dollars would cover it, I handed over the cash and, with it, years’ worth of self-hate. He printed out a scratchy black and white invoice and wrote PAID in blue ink at the bottom, then underlined it, in case I was still doubtful.

Glenn’s face brightened and, for the first time, I saw that he wasn’t judging me, he was astonished by my actions. He told me that he had never experienced anything like it, that when people owed him money, they simply disappeared. He said that I had made his day, that he couldn’t wait to go home and tell his family. He was inspired. Inspired. By me, the cloth-bandit.

It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment that taking responsibility for my actions could have a positive effect on someone else. Glenn showed me that it affected not only me when I didn’t show up for my mistakes. Making amends could heal the wounds in me, but might also offer the other party the opportunity to soften, to forgive. To love.

I sat through many meetings like this one until each name had been crossed off my list, but none ever felt as meaningful. The kindness shown to me that day now impacts the way I move through the world. I’ve never again needed to rent tablecloths or chair covers or arrange any kind of catering, but if I do, I know just where to go. And I like to think that they’d be happy to see me.

Kathleen is a creative nonfiction writer from New York who focuses on using humor to connect her audience to otherwise dark personal experiences. She is a graduate of the Master of Arts in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University and is currently working on a series of personal essays. She still resides in New York with her dog, Sauce. www.Quinnwriting.com
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