Artifacts by Bill Pieper

Josh couldn’t help himself. The chair just leapt out from a garage sale as he drove by, and $70 later it was in the bed of his pickup. But talk about luck! That baby would’ve gone to somebody else in a flash, except the sale had started late, right when he’d cut loose from a donated Saturday morning at work catching up on paper. Mid-Century Modern was a big vogue these days, especially in Davis, where he and Sylvia lived.

When they were in school they’d loved prowling junk shops and flea markets together and had kept at it, scoring a bunch of classic pieces to go with the 1950s, flat-roof Eichler house they now rented on Alice Street. But out of the blue, Sylvia had gotten weird. She’d normally be all over a stylish club chair for the living room, buttercrème fabric with padded, aerodynamic arms that flared from the seat. Now he wasn’t so sure.

She’d even been complaining she was tired of Davis. They were fairly recent UC grads, him with a useless MA in sociology and her, an MS in biomedical science, who’d decided to stick around because it was a nice safe town and they knew the ropes. Some of their friends had done the same, and like them, were living together and pretty much on track for marriage.

Of course, he hadn’t really discussed putting more money into furniture. He still didn’t think she’d hate it, but even if she did, it could always be cleaned up and resold at a profit. He made a low-key hobby of dabbling in the market for used stuff.

On the bright side, though, opposites supposedly attract, and it’d sure been true for them. He had introduced her to college sports, to craft beers and to poking through junk stores, and she had probably doubled his science IQ. Appearance-wise, they were opposites too, with Josh tall, broad-shouldered and blondish, while Sylvia stood barely five-four, a dark, petite, Latina from Bakersfield, whose father ran an auto parts store.

She was also the first in her family to graduate from college, a norm in his Marin County clan. But there had never been any sort of gap between them, never a time he could remember that they hadn’t felt easy with one another until her job seemed to turn sour.

He led her out to the driveway in her jeans and floppy T-shirt the minute he got home. “Ta-ta-ta-taah!”

“Oh, God!” she said. “It’s filthy. What were you thinking?”

“The garage, I suppose,” he answered, trying not to be annoyed, “till I get it cleaned up.”

“Well, clean or not, it isn’t coming in the house.”

“Come on, Syl, it’s exactly the kind of piece we used to buy and keep.”

“Yes, we. This was you alone, and you know I’m pointing toward changes.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know…” But he was talking to her back, because she’d wheeled around and was already on the porch opening the front door.

By the time he followed her in, wondering about apologizing but not actually feeling he’d done much wrong, she was in a corner of the living room hovered over her laptop, as if shielding the screen from his view. Email, he figured, or Facebook or some nerdy scientific journal. So he went to the fridge, grabbed a bottle of Rustaller Red Ale and headed out back. The garage was jammed with other of his projects—wounded lawn flamingoes, a baby-blue breadbox all rusted inside and a Capehart radio/record player console with peeling veneer— plus stacked paint cans, tools and cobwebs. He cleared a space near the front, brought in the chair, and left the door fully tilted up. Plopping onto the stained cushion in the October sun, he took a deep, cold swallow. Not bad, goddamn it, not bad, both the day and the chair, and he still thought she’d end up liking it.

Sylvia drew a better salary than Josh and probably always would, which didn’t bother him, but he was bummed by her recent talk of quitting.  Their whole lifestyle could implode unless she landed somewhere else fairly quick. Yet she refused to say what was going on. Like an abusive boss? Or what about sexual harassment? He had a right to know.

Meanwhile, his job, managing the grocery department at the big Klondike Market on Russell Boulevard, was the next thing to transparent. His office had a glass wall, for God’s sake, and everybody they knew shopped there. He’d stocked shelves part-time his senior year and during his G-school summers, and had stayed on because of the recession, working his way up. For her, no recession. The ink was barely dry on her diploma when she’d hired on as a researcher at the primate lab west of town and had literally danced around the house. The lab was huge, too, amounting to almost a satellite campus, though it had a partly concealed perimeter fence topped by razor wire, guarded entry gates 24-7 and lots of staff with security clearances.

Sylvia didn’t need one, but she’d had to sign multiple non-disclosure agreements and would be fired and nearly unemployable if she violated the fine print. Back then, two and a half years ago, it hadn’t seemed so heavy-duty, but now she could basically hide behind it.

Draining the last of his beer, he put the bottle on the concrete floor and pushed against the armrests to scrooch farther onto the cushion. But something jabbed against his thigh. In the crease between the arm and the cushion, there were protruding corners of stiff paper.

Whoa! Snapshot photos with a crumbled rubber band around them, different scenes, in faded color, of a mom, a dad, and an elementary-school brother and sister, all with short hair, 50s clothes and innocent smiles, like out of Ozzie and Harrriet or Leave it to Beaver. One even showed the kids posed with a new Studebaker.

Like a time-capsule from a lost civilization, with nothing written on the reverse sides, but he kept paging back through them, fascinated. “Hey, Syl,” he called, as he got to his feet. “You have to see this!” He found her in the kitchen, and counted as he dealt nine photographs on the table, like face-up playing cards. “Look! Mom, dad and the kids.”

“Whose mom?” she said, approaching from the sink with a towel in her hand.

“Don’t you get it? The owners of the chair.”

“The chair I don’t want,” she said.

“Wait till I clean it up.”

“No, you wait. I have news. Sit down.”

He did, resentfully, and she put herself opposite him, separated by a bowl of fruit, their turquoise salt and pepper shakers and a resident jar of hot sauce. “I just got the state job. The public health one I took the test for.”

“But that was way back. You turned it down.”

“I reactivated, and was still on the list. At the diagnostic lab in Sacramento.”

“How’s the money?”

“Less, but good enough,” she said.

“That’s great, then, and we don’t have to move.”

“But we are. You just haven’t been listening.”

“Why? You can commute.” He tried, but couldn’t evade her frown.

“No, Josh, you can commute. Traffic’s way easier that way, and I want out of here.”

“Davis is home.”

“No it’s not. It’s a college town. Haven’t you noticed how everybody on the street gets younger every year and every new trendy thing immediately takes over? I’ll never feel like a grown-up here, and neither will you.”

“Who says I should!” At this point, he was annoyed and didn’t care if she knew it.

“Well, Sacramento has cool old neighborhoods close in,” she went on. “Maybe I could walk to work. Shari lives in midtown and will show us around anytime we want.”

“Not neighborhoods like this. Mid-century, remember?”

“Try older and classier. I’m tired of mid-century. Look at those pictures! The people all so white and straight. Everything in sight is mass-produced, processed like TV dinners, and bigger was always better. The mindless worship of science and technology.”

“Hold on,” he challenged. “This isn’t about the chair. It’s about the lab.”

She took a long breath. “Yeah. Working there has really opened my eyes.”

“To what? Come on, you have to tell me.”

‘I can’t! You know I can’t! Use your imagination.”

“Apes and chimps would experiment on us if they could.”

Her eyes radiated anger, and she brusquely rose from the table, seeming larger and more powerful than when she’d sat down. “I’m headed over to check out neighborhoods in Sac and I want you to come.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m going to the game.”


“Yeah, rugby…against St. Mary’s. I promised Steve and Mikey.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’ll go to Sac alone.”

“You’re not being fair. We’ll go tomorrow. What’s the rush?”

“Because it takes time to find a place and line things up.”

“Look, Steve mentioned something about a few beers at Sudwerk afterward. You can join us. Then later, you and I catch dinner at a Thai place.” He knew she loved Thai food.

“Let’s have Thai over there instead.”

“All of this,” he said, “just because of something at the lab?”

“Oh, forget it,” she answered and left the room.

With the days getting short, it was dusk and beyond when Josh got home carrying a bag of Thai takeout. No lights in the house, and her car was gone, but he figured Syl would pull in right behind him any moment. Inside, the aura of today’s argument still lingered, but he was over his part. If he had to move to keep her, he would, and Sacramento might be good in ways he didn’t know. Flipping the kitchen lights, he put the bag on the table and saw a note:

I’m staying with Shari tonight. My phone will be off, ’cause we’re going to a movie, but I’ll call later or tomorrow.

Whoa, crap! Worse than he’d thought, but he liked Thai food himself, so might as well hunker down with it and watch Netflix. They could make up when she called and everything would be fine. But he fired off a text anyway, so it would be there the minute she booted her phone: Love you. Miss you, too. Just to check, he went into the bedroom and her overnight case was gone, along with some of her toiletries at the bathroom sink.

Before heading out to rugby, he’d gathered up the 50s snaps and put them on his dresser, but they were gone too, replaced by another note. Maybe the new chair will tell you what I need to say and can’t. It’s not something at the lab, it’s somebody.

His stomach rotated sideways and the beer he’d had with Steve surged up bitter in his throat. When he turned around, all he could really see was Sylvia’s dresser, with a dozen or so of her favorite photos, as always, ranged along the edge of the mirror frame: him, her, the two of them together on Picnic Day, her long deceased childhood cat, and happy ones of her mom and dad and sister.

Christ, he’d be lucky if it only was sexual harassment, and not some scientist guy she’d had a fling with, like a married guy whose wife had found out and was making him break it off. No wonder she wanted to leave Davis. Or what if it was him she was with, not Shari?

Desperate, he went through the utility room and into the driveway, under a rising sliver of moon, where he reopened the garage’s big tilt-up door. She’d mentioned the chair, as though it had some significance, so he reached up and waggled his hand to catch the light cord, nearly tripping on a vintage canister vacuum that he planned to rehab.

Syl had wedged the old snaps in along the armrest, partially visible, complete with a fresh rubber band. The same ones he’d found there before, except for a last pic, somewhat oversized and facing away from the others. In Syl’s writing, a name appeared on the back: Roger. So that was the guy, whoever the fuck he was.

Blood pounding in his head, Josh flipped it over and Roger was a chimp, maybe printed off of Syl’s phone, who was shown from the waist up, laying in a high-tech cradle of some kind. His left arm had apparently been amputated at the shoulder, his face was covered with pocks of vicious-looking eczema, bandages penetrated by tubes and wires wrapped his skull, and his eyes were the bleakest and blankest that Josh had ever seen on a living being.

# # #

Bill Pieper, who lives and writes in Northern California, is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and has studied both creative writing and philosophy at Sacramento State University.
Stories by Bill have appeared in the Blue Lake Review, Red Fez, Farallon Review, Primal Urge and The Scarlet Leaf Review. Links to his 2014 collection Forgive Me, Father and other published work can be found at:

Photo credit:  Larry Thacker,

Your Comments
  • Brilliant story. Loved the slow reveal, the tension too thick to cut, the denial and missed connections ripening in the valley sun until they bloomed wide open. And that rascally ending twisting despair and hope so the reader has to chose which to believe will win… thanks for another brilliant entry!

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