Back to Archive "The Stain" by Paula Marantz Cohen


David entered the house through the garage. “What the hell did you do to the car?” he shouted at Linda, who was standing at the kitchen counter making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Melissa.

“What do you mean?” Linda asked, as she spread the jelly on the sandwich.

“What do you think I mean! There’s a big red stain on the passenger seat!”

“Oh, that.” Linda shrugged.

“Oh that!” David’s voice had gotten louder. “It’s a big red stain! What did you do? Fucking kill someone?”

“David!” Linda said, glancing at Melissa, who was coloring at the table—“please watch your language!”

“I—want—to—know,” David spoke with exaggerated slowness, “what—happened—to—the—car—seat.”

Linda finished making the sandwich, handed it to Melissa, and wiped her hands on the kitchen towel “The cranberry sauce leaked,” she said.

“The cranberry sauce!”

“Yes. For Melissa’s Thanksgiving review. Mrs. Keller is a very creative teacher. She likes to celebrate holidays after they happen. She calls it a re-enactment.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”


“I’m not asking you about Melissa’s teacher!”

“I was explaining about the cranberry sauce.”

“Tell me,” David said, his voice even, “why you would put cranberry sauce on the seat.”

“I didn’t put cranberry sauce on the seat,” Linda snapped, “I put a container of cranberry sauce on the seat.”

“But why,” David asked, struggling to keep his voice calm, “would you put a container of cranberry sauce on the seat?”

“Where else should I put it?”

“How about the floor!” David’s voice grew strident again. “Any moron would know that it would be better to put cranberry sauce on the floor than on the seat!”

“Are you calling me a moron?”

“Yes, I am!”

“Well, I resent that.”

“And I resent having a big red stain on my new leather car seat!”

“I thought the container was sealed.”

“But why would you risk putting it on the seat?”

“It wasn’t a risk!”

“OK,” David said through clenched teeth, “you have the floor, which has some cheap carpeting on it, and you have the seat that has expensive leather on it. Which one is better to put a container of cranberry sauce on?”

“You don’t have to speak that way.”

“I’m asking you, which is better: the floor or the seat?”

“You’re being condescending.”

“It’s a simple question: floor or seat?”

“The stain is hardly noticeable.”

“Are you kidding? It’s a huge red stain!”

“It’s small and pink.”

“It’s huge and red!”

“I think you’re overreacting.”

“I’m not overreacting! You’re a moron! You ruined our beige leather car seat!”

“It’s just a car seat!”

“There you go. You want to make me look small and money-grubbing like you always do. It’s just a car seat! Yes, it’s a fucking leather car seat! It cost a lot of money! And you don’t give a shit about it!”

“David!” Linda glanced with concern at Melissa, who was eating her peanut butter and jelly sandwich, unperturbed. “It was an accident, OK? I’m sorry! I don’t see why you have to make such a big deal out of it.”

“Because it is a big deal! How can I drive that car again? It’s ruined! I can’t look at the seat!”

“So don’t look at it.”

“There you go. That’s typical of your attitude. It’s broken, it’s stained; don’t look at it. You have no respect for our possessions. I can’t drive a car with a huge red stain on the seat!”

“It’s not a huge red stain. It’s a small pink stain.” She paused. “And I’m sure it will come out.”

David was silent for a moment. “OK,” he said, “how are you going to get it out?”

“I’ll take the car and speak to John.”

“John doesn’t know anything about stains! He’s a mechanic.”

Linda had begun rummaging under the sink. “Here’s something, ‘removes toughest stains from . . .’”

“Does it say leather?”

“It says, ‘most all surfaces.’”

“But it has to say leather.”

“OK, here it says, ‘fabric and leather.’”

“Let me see that.” David grabbed the can.

“Give it to me. I’ll do it.”

“Be careful.”

“I need a toothbrush. It says here, ‘Apply with toothbrush and let stand for three minutes. Apply again if stain is not fully removed.’”

David ran upstairs and came down with a toothbrush.

“That’s your toothbrush,” Linda said.

“I’ll buy another one.”

She took the can and the toothbrush and went out to the garage. David stood in the kitchen while Melissa continued to eat her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“You didn’t ask me about my day,” Melissa said.

“Daddy was distracted,” David said. “How was your day?”

“Good. We had Thanksgiving. It was a re-enactment.”


Linda returned from the garage. “It’s supposed to stay on three minutes.”

“Don’t you think you should be out there?”


“Because it’s probably three minutes already.”

“Not quite.”

“Now it is.”

Linda went back out to the garage and came back a minute later. “I think it’s a little better.”

David ran out to the garage. He was there awhile. When he came back he seemed calmer. “It’s getting there,” he said. “I applied it four times, and it’s beginning to fade a little.”

In the days that followed, David continued to work on the stain.

One night, Linda and David were lying in bed watching Letterman. “I think you got it all out,” Linda said. “I can’t see it.”

"It’s getting there,” he said. “Shh. I want to hear the end of Letterman’s monologue.”

“I mean it. You can’t see it. We can take that stuff out of the car now. Melissa’s allergic.”

“No,” David said, his eyes still on the screen, “the stain isn’t gone yet.”

“It is. I asked Cindy—she said she didn’t see anything.”

“That’s because she didn’t know it was there.”

“But that’s the point. If you can’t see it, why should you keep trying to get it out?”

“Because I can see it!” His voice grew louder.

“But no one else can. It’s in your imagination. You knew where it was, so you think you see it.”

“No, I want to do a complete job! Unlike other people who are sloppy and don’t care about doing things thoroughly.”

“I think you should stop.”

“Not until the stain is gone.”

“And when will that be?”

“I don’t know,” David said. “You made the stain. I get to decide when it’s gone.”