The Coromandel Armoire


Russell Hatler

Rodney Morrison, MBA, was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Had been ever since the contentious divorce three years back that left him with half his stuff, child support payments of $2,350 a month, spousal support payments of $5,000 a month and an embittered attitude regarding the political and judicial conspiracy he’d helped vote into office. Oh, he loved his country, no doubt about that. But now he was beginning to wonder if his country loved him back.

Not that little Julie Ann wasn’t worth $2,350 a month. She was two months shy of five, had a cherubic grin and got into absolutely everything that wasn’t nailed down. Every other Saturday Natalie brought Julie Ann over for Rodney’s agreed-upon share of parental responsibilities. Rodney usually spent the prior Friday evenings child-proofing the apartment. It didn’t make any difference. Julie Ann was a wizard at hunting down “buried treasure” in Rodney’s armoire. That was Natalie’s favorite joke.

You see, Rodney owned this hideous antique armoire he treasured. He’d purchased the piece in Hong Kong the summer before he and Natalie got married. The doors on the armoire were once the panels from an eighth century coromandel screen. The scene on the original screen depicted several stylized Phoenixes (Phoenices? Rodney didn’t know!) rising from the ashes. You could see the vague outline of each individual Phoenix through the peeling black lacquer that still coated each door. The original coromandel screen must have been spectacular. Rodney knew this for a fact. The antiques dealer on the Hollywood Road had told him so. Rodney even had a Certificate of Authenticity to prove it.

Rodney got the armoire in the divorce settlement. That was only right. He’d paid for it with his own hard-earned cash. It’s true that Natalie had discovered the armoire in a dusty backroom when she was browsing through the shops along the Hollywood Road and had phoned Rodney at the Peninsula Hotel where they were staying, Kowloon side, so he could come take a look at her find. Rodney was at lunch with a client, but he’d promised to meet Natalie at the shop as soon as he and the client concluded their business.

Rodney caught the ferry to Hong Kong Island and hurried up the hill to the address which Natalie had texted. Natalie introduced Rodney to the antiques dealer, Luciano Padillo.

“Welcome to Padillo Antiques,” he said, shaking Rodney’s outstretched hand. “My American friends call me Luca. Your lovely wife went into our backroom by mistake and found this sad example of a cross between an antique English Armoire and a Coromandel Screen. I told her it was in need of much repair, but she insisted I show it to you as it is.”

“Yes, Natalie is famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread,” said Rodney with a quick grin. “But now that I’m here, tell me about the armoire. A piece this, um, interesting surely has a tale to tell.”

The Coromandel Armoire stood some seven feet tall and was a good six feet wide. The original doors on the English Armoire had been replaced by eighteen-inch wide coromandel panels. The doors on either end of the contraption, one of which now dangled from a broken hinge, opened into inner compartments for suits and other hanging garments. Behind the two middle doors reposed shelves for shirts and underwear. The shelves had recently been replaced by an Ikea, white pine chest of drawers. It was an imperfect fit. That’s the state in which Natalie found the forlorn wardrobe. Despite its regal provenance the Coromandel Armoire was not a magnificent period piece, although the scribbled price tag read twenty-five thousand Hong Kong dollars.

“I will recite the story of the Coromandel Armoire as I have myself heard it,” Luca began. “Some of the story is historical fact. Some of the story may be legend. You may decide for yourselves which is which.”

“It seems the original coromandel screen was offered as a tribute to the empress regnant Wu Zetian by a wandering band of Tang Dynasty artisans in the 8th century. According to legend, in addition to stylized Phoenix images on each panel of the screen, the entire screen was festooned with precious gemstones. Once the stones were firmly imbedded in the hard, wooden surface of the screen, thirty layers of gold lacquer were applied, effectively masking the luster of the stones and at the same time providing a ripple effect for the entire montage.”

Luca paused for effect.

“You may well wonder why an artist would choose to hide the natural beauty of jewels beneath thirty layers of lacquer. During the Tang Dynasty it was said that an ostentatious display of wealth and power represented the epitome of poor taste. Understatement was the watch word, cultivation of the inner self was paramount, the iron fist in the velvet glove was the order of the day. As to the truth of the legend, who can say? But it does make a pretty story.”

“The coromandel screen was severely damaged during a fierce storm in the 13th century (Ming Dynasty) and placed in storage beneath the palace. At some point in time the mud-caked, dilapidated screen made its way to a small museum in Hong Kong where it was stored in a dusty warehouse. The remnants of the screen were discovered by a British Colonel in 1860 who managed to salvage four of the ten panels, had them cleaned, sealed, and coated with several new layers of black lacquer. Then he had the four panels installed to replace the original doors on his personal armoire. The other six panels were too far gone to be repaired, so he ordered them burned.”

“Alas, the coating process was flawed. During the ensuing decades, the lacquer dried and separated from the surface of panels, cracking in places and peeling in others. A subsequent owner of the Coromandel Armoire had the black lacquer exterior painted over with an enamel-based interior wall paint. I purchased the unfortunate result at an estate sale. I have not had the heart to attempt to restore the Coromandel Armoire to its former glory.”

“I’ll give you twelve hundred and fifty bucks, American, for the whole kit and caboodle if you fix the hinge and slap on another coat of black paint,” said Rodney.

Luca agreed, having owned the Coromandel Armoire for thirteen years and counting and seeing no end in sight.

Rodney forked over his American Express Platinum card and arranged for the armoire to be shipped home to Los Angeles where he and Natalie shared an apartment in Pacific Palisades. The entire transaction cost a small fortune, but Rodney didn’t care. He was smitten. With the armoire. With the legend. And with Natalie.

Three days after they got home from Hong Kong, Rodney received an email from DHL that the Coromandel Armoire would be delivered the following Saturday.

“I think we need to make a plan,” said Natalie. “If there really are precious jewels hidden under all that paint, we need to figure out the best way to dig them out. I favor the approach Alexander the Great took with the Gordian knot. Brute force.”

“Hold on a second, sweetheart,” said Rodney. “I’m not sure we want to do that. In the first place if there really was a fortune in gemstones hidden beneath all that lacquer don’t you think somebody would have harvested them before this? I mean, it’s been over thirteen hundred years. In the second place I don’t want to dismantle the armoire on the off chance the legend is true. Once we strip the lacquer off there’s no way to put it back on. But most importantly, regardless of whether we find any hidden treasure, our effort would effectively destroy the legend. I think that’s the innate beauty of the armoire. Come to think of it, that may be its only saving grace. The Coromandel Armoire is truly an ugly mishmash of furniture, even with its mystique of legend intact. Without the legend, it’s just another stack of firewood.”

“Are you telling me you don’t even want us to even try?” asked Natalie.

“Well, that’s the fourth point,” said Rodney. “It is, after all, my armoire and my decision.”

Fast forward seven years to the first weekend following the final decree. Both Rodney and Natalie were still smarting from the pangs of separation, division, and combat fatigue. Natalie figured she had as much right to the armoire as Rodney did. Maybe more. She’d discovered it after all. But he’d produced the receipt to prove his proprietorship. Natalie was furious, as much about the judge’s decision as she was about the fact that Rodney had kept the receipt hidden in a manilla folder all these years after she had specifically insisted that Rodney throw out anything he hadn’t used for two years, and that certainly was the case with that damned receipt.

Natalie drove Julie Ann to visit her father as instructed in the divorce settlement. Rodney answered the door in his pajama bottoms and a ratty t-shirt. He’d had a rough night.

“Go find the hidden treasure in Daddy’s armoire,” she said to Julie Ann as soon as they were inside the apartment.

“What hidden treasure, Mommy?” asked the bright-eyed Julie Ann.

“Candy,” smiled Natalie sweetly. “Lots of candy!”

Julie Ann ran screaming through Rodney’s one bedroom apartment in downtown El Segundo (adult living, no children allowed under any circumstances!) and proceeded to tear open the middle two coromandel doors where she pawed through the contents of Rodney’s drawers, searching in vain for hidden treasure.

“No hidden treasure here,” sniffed Julie Ann sadly, peering up at her father through dampened lashes. “Where is the treasure hiding, Daddy?”

“The treasure ran off and hid somewhere else when it heard your mother was on the way,” said Rodney, turning to Natalie. “I’ll bring Julie Ann back tomorrow at noon as agreed. Have you had your little fun?”

But Natalie was already out the door.

So, you can’t blame Rodney for being a smidgen wary of the wiles of the weaker sex. Once bitten twice shy. Natalie had remarried a year ago.

“Didn’t take her long to shake off the shame of divorce,” thought Rodney.

Rodney, on the other hand, had just started to consider the possibility of dating again. Internet porn was losing its appeal. Besides, Julie Ann played with Rodney’s iPad when she came over and Rodney didn’t want her to accidentally stumble across a tainted URL that might happen to be recalled through inadvertent access to some salacious cookies stored by a late-night browser session. How could he explain that to Natalie?

It was 10:30 on a Tuesday night. Rodney had just tossed out the leftovers from a P. F. Chang microwaveable dinner when his iPhone pinged.

How are you?

Rodney checked the caller id of the texter. No name. Only a phone number. Area code 385.

Fine. Who is this?

No response. Rodney put down his iPhone, went into the kitchen and opened a beer. His iPhone pinged again.

Is this the number, Doctor Michael?


Apparently not.

Another pause.

Oh really, sorry, maybe I entered the wrong number

Rodney shook his head.

Good luck

Another pause.

I feel that you are a kind person. Where do you come from? If you don’t mind.

Rodney’s Spidey Sense began to tingle but he hadn’t entirely lost his enthusiasm for the chase. On the other hand, he wasn’t gonna fork over a credit card or his Social Security Number.


Which was a lie, but Rodney wasn’t about to give out his home address either. Rodney Morrison, MBA, wasn’t born yesterday.

Nice. Nice city. I’m in New York. If you don’t mind, we can be friends. My name is Nina.

To which Rodney replied

I think I’d like that. Got a selfie? Preferably naughty

Rodney was not above indulging himself in the occasional snatch of voyeuristic pleasure. Besides, what would it cost? A little bandwidth, a little storage. A moment or two spent in contemplation of the female form. If she was particularly repulsive or otherwise lacking in succulent physical features, he could always hit the delete key. More to the point, Rodney wanted to show the elusive Nina it was time to fish or cut bait. He needed to take the wheel of this textual discourse. And Nina needed to put a little skin of her own in the game. Literally.

I’ll send you one tomorrow. I hope you like what you see. Good night, Rodney.

Which was funny because he didn’t remember giving her his name. Not a problem. He had the hook set and the fish on the line. Rodney went to bed with visions of nubile sugar babies dancing in his fevered brain. Anticipation makes for lovely dreams. And reality is way overrated.

The next morning Rodney’s iPhone displayed an alert that there was a text waiting for him. Rodney rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and toggled over to his texts. At the head of Rodney’s text threads was Nina’s response with an attachment. Wow! Remember the face that launched a thousand ships? Same thing only farther down!! With a note.

I hope you do me the favor of sending a response in kind. Not a dick pic. Well, not merely a dick pic. LOL. Nina

Rodney was hard before he hit the shower. Jackpot!

When he’d dried off after a hasty rinse Rodney snapped a full-length frontal selfie of his ripped and naked corpus. Not so bad for a sedentary dude going on forty. He texted the pic to Nina and waited for her response.

Oh my I’d hoped you were buff but I didn’t expect to be treated to a complete denouement so soon. Do you FaceTime?

Watch me!

The next two days were filled with cellphone fun, increasingly intimate exchanges, FaceTime sessions in various states of dress and undress, and superficial tingles in some pretty special places. Rodney saved the naughty pic to his Photos Folder and called it up to ponder when he wasn’t online with Nina. The bed went unmade, the sink was full of dirty dishes, work was suffering, and Rodney didn’t give a rip. He hadn’t had this much fun in years. On Friday morning Rodney got a wakeup ping.

Good morning, Rodney. Don’t you have Julie Ann tomorrow?

Which was kind of a surprise because Rodney couldn’t recall having discussed his personal life with Nina.

Yes, I do. How did you know?

We know a lot about you, Rodney.

Rodney’s palms got all sweaty.

Who’s we?

There was a long pause.

We are Nina.

Rodney was tempted to throw the iPhone against the wall, but he pulled himself together.

I don’t understand. The naughty picture. It was a fake?

A fanciful emoticon popped up on Rodney’s screen. It was a kissy face.

Of course, the picture was real. The picture is Nina. Nina loves you, Rodney. Nina wants you. That’s why we have been so careful.

At this point Rodney should have powered off his iPhone, changed his SIM card and written off the whole three-day experience as a frivolous hike down a forbidden trail. Instead, Rodney replied

What do you want with me, Nina?

Another long pause

The nest needs someone to handle our financial affairs. We have been watching you for many years. We believe you to be out most highly qualified candidate. At first it was not possible that you should inhabit the nest. You were in contract to another. When the divorce became final it was no longer an issue. We have waited this period for you to become accustomed to your singularity. Do you understand?

Rodney shook his head. Something was desperately wrong.

What’s in it for me?

Again, the pause. Rodney almost heard an audible sigh.

Do you remember how it was when you made love to Natalie? When you make love to Nina you make love to the nest. The experience is one of complete immersion in an explosion of pure ecstasy. In your singular existence it’s simply not possible to feel such a belonging, such an infusion of vigorous emotion, such a sense of supreme pleasure.

Now Rodney was getting scared.

You make it sound like I have to die before I can join the nest. Hey, Nina, I have responsibilities.

The naughty picture of Nina popped back up on Rodney’s screen. She was smiling.

First things first, Rodney my darling. You don’t join the nest. You inhabit the nest, and the nest inhabits you. It’s not a death. It’s an evolution. You retain your normal body and perform your normal tasks. The difference is commitment. You become totally committed to the nest and the nest in turn becomes totally committed to you. Do you understand?

The naughty picture of Nina became animated. Nina started doing things to herself. Rodney was getting hard. Dang.

Are you people aliens? Something sure sounds fishy to me.

The naughty picture was becoming increasingly aroused. So was Rodney.

Do I look like an alien, sweetheart? I’m flesh and blood same as you. The difference is I experience pleasure at a level an order of magnitude more intense than you do right now. Can you imagine how good it’s gonna feel, Rodney? You really have no idea, do you? But I think you want to. I think you want to explode inside your Nina.

Rodney thought Nina might have a very good point there. It was like she could read his mind.

But you’re in New York. You said so. And I’m in El Segundo.

I can be there on the next flight, Rodney. Trust me. I desperately want to. But the decision is yours. You first must convince us that you’re committed.

Oops, here comes the deal breaker.

Okay, so who do I have to kill?

There was a pause.

Who said anything about killing? All you have to do is prove you love Nina more than you love your possessions. Like that ugly armoire, for instance. Give us the armoire. A small gesture, perhaps, but that’s our price.

And then Rodney really did throw his iPhone against the wall. Well, against the armoire anyhow. That was a bridge too far. The Coromandel Armoire was Rodney’s baby. He loved his imperfect mash-up. The iPhone hit smack in the middle of one of the Phoenix images and shattered on impact. He gathered the pieces up and stuffed them in a plastic grocery sack. Then he stomped on the grocery sack for good measure and dumped it in the trash.

When he returned to the bedroom and examined the area of impact more closely, he noticed several pebbles of what looked like gravel imbedded in the facade of the Phoenix. Upon closer inspection the “gravel” looked like it might just turn out to be a cluster of uncut diamonds. He wasn’t sure.

Rodney sat back down on the bed and weighed his options. Then he got up and walked slowly into the utility room, opened the cabinet over the washing machine and took out a can of black spray paint.

There’s an outside chance Natalie had been inadvertently correct. God bless her crafty soul. But sometimes hidden treasure should stay hidden and sometimes mysteries should remain unsolved. Rodney remembered reading, long ago in his romantic youth. A quotation from the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

Rodney went back into the bedroom and repaired the damaged area on the Coromandel Armoire. Then he sat back down to wait for the paint to dry.