“I never figured I’d be the last to go.”
Carl Johnson sat at the head of the dining room table, his age-stained and wrinkled hand fondly caressing the solid white oak top. Each piece had been carefully jointed and planed from wood that he’d salvaged from the old burned out and abandoned Baptist church. He’d cut the tongue and grooves for strength then glued, clamped, and weighted the table. A week later he rounded the corners, cut away the sharpness of the edges with a small curved pocket plane, and hand-sanded it until the wood was clear of imperfections. He then hand-rubbed boiled linseed oil into the wood so that the warmness of his hands would push the oil deeply into the oak. Finally, he polished it with sharkskin and cloth until the surface was as smooth as glass. The alternating grains of the top boards were not only pleasing to look at but had kept the table straight and true for more than thirty years.
“Do you remember when I made it for you? Emma, do you remember?”
Carl closed his eyes feigning to remember the exact moment of the presentation. Emma was out and he had the neighbors help him carry it and the matching chairs from his workshop into the dining room. The old table and chairs he and Emma had bought second hand for two dollars were put out back in the alley for someone else to claim. The re-painted baby-blue pine pieces had never been much to look at but they lasted those first two years in the city.
“Jimmy was only six then. It was our eighth wedding anniversary. You and Julie went to pick him up from school. You sure were happy with this table.”
Carl smiled as he recalled her joy at the gift and the many happy meals that followed; meals full of laughter, stories, report cards, and rusty dreams. The table spawned uncountable memories that would be recalled and relived as the years went by. He grinned as he recalled the first time Jimmy had invited a girl home for Sunday supper. He was just a freshman at the high school and Julie had teased him outrageously but he’d taken it so well, smiling and enduring the taunts from his beloved little sister. After supper he and Emma left the three of them alone in the parlor listening to the radio while they sat on the porch discussing Jimmy’s coming of age. After the first supper the young lady had come to have dinner with them several more times and then one day, just after Easter, Jimmy came home from school heartbroken because she’d gotten interested in an older boy on the varsity baseball team. There wouldn’t be another girl that he’d ask to dinner until the end of his junior year and she’d stay with him until the end.
Carl turned his head and gazed across the dining room at the matching oak china cabinet he’d started the weekend after he’d presented his wife with the table. It took him a full year and a half to build it but it was ready in time for her twenty-eighth birthday. It was a secret project for the entire eighteen months. Each piece was covered and hidden away as he completed it. He continued to produce other projects hoping Emma wouldn’t guess what he’d been working on; a cherry jewelry box for her Christmas, oak picture frames for her family gallery, a walnut keeping trunk for Julie, and even a new chest of drawers for Jimmy made from salvaged maple.
Two weeks before her birthday he forbade Emma from entering the workshop because he would be working on her secret birthday present. She’d laughed at him, gave him a hug, and said as she batted her dark brown eyes; “I bet it’s something wonderful.”
He wondered if she’d already knew what he was planning but for those two weeks she stayed away from the workshop while he carefully assembled, sanded, and finished the base and top cabinet to match the dining table and chairs.
On her birthday they walked downtown to see Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in the film It Happened One Night while their friends and neighbors looked after Jimmy and Julie, carried the pieces into the house, and stacked them together using the already prepared dowels to keep the cabinet securely attached to the base. When they returned home after the movie he sent her to the dining room to fetch his glasses. When she returned the tears were streaming down her face but her eyes were shining bright as she gave him a battery of hugs and kisses he would remember for a lifetime.
Carl smiled as he studied the cabinet; “I milled every piece myself. Glued every panel up. Cut all of the dovetails by hand. Even made the leaded glass panels myself. There just ain’t a finer cabinet around. Is there Emma?”
Carl had always fancied himself almost as much in love with the American hardwoods as he was with Emma. His father had been an esteemed craftsman in a small Ozark Mountain village where Carl learned the art of making fine heirloom furniture and had taken over the workshops when his father collapsed one hot August afternoon in 1918 while turning chair legs. They had carried him home, unconscious, where he died in his bed later that evening attended by his family and the town doctor. Eighteen year-old Carl ran the workshops with his mother as the Great War in Europe ended and then alone when the flu took his mother early the following year. He had many prosperous years during the boom of the 1920’s, married Emily Anne Gretchner, had two-children, and planned expansions until the depression forced him to let go of the other craftsman and then drove him and his family from the mountains during the summer of 1930. There just weren’t enough customers left who could afford, or seemingly even wanted, the high-quality furniture he loved to make so they reluctantly boarded-up their treasured mountain home and workshops for an offer of work in the city and the promise that they would return as soon as possible. Carl had considered himself very lucky being able to work as a journeyman machinist milling and turning spare parts for industrial equipment. Just a few years later he machined parts for the heavy equipment used in Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and he was able to provide for his family throughout the entire depression years.
Carl hunched forward over the table spreading his arms and fingers out towards Emma’s chair; “Used to be that people would buy furniture that would last several generations. Now it’s just a few years at best. Emma,” he added sadly, shaking his head from side to side, “I just don’t understand.”
He leaned back, pushing his thin longish white hair away from his gray-stained eyes, then rose from the table and carefully pushed the chair in to join the other five. Six oak chairs he made to match the table – one for each member of the family plus two more for their cherished guests. The legs and rungs were turned on the homemade lathe he’d fashioned mostly from scrap discarded by the machine shop where he machined spare parts, then parts for heavy equipment, and then airplane parts when the war began. The crest rails were hand carved with different scenes from their beloved mountains. He ran his hand longingly over the carving of their Ozark Mountain home surrounded by the Ponderosa Pines and recalled how they always planned on returning.
“We never did get to go home. The depression lasted so long then the war came. Emma, I’m so sorry I couldn’t keep my promise.”
Carl picked up the hand-carved walnut cane, his last project to help with the arthritis in his knee, and walked slowly past the picture gallery towards the living room, but stopping in front of the shrine Emma had set up. He picked up the picture of Julie when she was thirteen; the year the polio had taken her from them.
How she cried with the fear and pain; “Daddy, it hurts so bad. Can’t you make it better?”
Carl shook his head, tears welling behind the wire-framed glasses as he remembered her gasping while they all held her hands as the paralysis took over her lungs; “It broke our hearts when we lost you.” He held the picture to his chest and let the tears fall until the reservoir of grief was emptied of its guarded reserves. He raised her picture and pressed the glass to his face, kissing her on the forehead, as he did for nearly every night of her brief life, and as he did beside the grave before they closed the casket for the last time and lowered it into the ground. He, Emma, and Jimmy each picked up a handful of dirt, dropped it on Julie’s coffin then stood beside the grave until the last shovel full of dirt was returned to the pit and the grass had been swept clean.
He sat Julie’s picture down and turned to the one of Jimmy; taken just after his high school graduation. He was so handsome in his shirt and tie, so proud, and he was still only eighteen when the army took him. Emma and his girlfriend both cried their eyes out on the front porch as they took him away.
“But we’re Quakers Jimmy, you can’t go to war. We don’t kill.”
“I have to go pops. They’re drafting everybody.”
“There was so much anger then, so much hatred. They called our Society cowards. Do you remember Emma? Even our own friends and neighbors shunned us and called us cowards. I guess Jimmy felt he had to prove them wrong.”
Jimmy was assigned to the 36th Infantry Division and wrote his last letter home on the 4th of September. It wouldn’t arrive home until long after he was killed, just five days later, during an artillery barrage on the beaches of Salerno. His body was never recovered. Emma never smiled again, never fixed another meal, never washed a load of laundry, nor did any other household chore, preferring to be left alone in the bird’s-eye maple rocker he made for her while they were still in their mountain home. It was the rocker where she first nursed and comforted Jimmy, then two years later Julie, and finally where she sat day after day holding her mother’s bible and searching its pages for the comfort she never found.
“Your heart died when we got the telegram. Didn’t it Emma? It just died and you waited those five long years for your body to die too.”
Carl looked at the picture of his wife that he’d added to the shrine nearly seventeen years before, “We had some hard times. Didn’t we Emma?”
Carl continued into the living room and looked regretfully at the oak furniture from his Mission period. It was an obsession that kept him going after Emma’s death, through Truman’s purges, a new war in Asia, the dawn of the Space Age, the terror of the Atomic Age, and the dawn of yet another Asian war. He had continued to machine more precise parts for ever faster and more complex aircraft but the nights and weekends were spent in his workshop trying to forget the never-ending pain. Carl sat down on his own inspired interpretation of a mission couch and looked around at the mission style chairs, coffee table, lamps, radio cabinet, and bookcase. The projects had consumed the rest of the oak salvaged from the old church. When he finished the last mission piece the X-15 had been out of the atmosphere, he was machining parts for the Project Mercury, and had lost all desire for woodworking. He sold and gave away all of his tools, dismantled the workshop, and planted roses in its place.
Throughout the Johnson house were his furniture projects, a lifetime of love, each as beautiful as the day he polished the last coat of oil or varnish. Every room in the house hosted some token of his old love for the American hardwoods and that now held both the memories that had brought them so much joy and the ones that had brought them so much grief.
“Do you hear that, Emma? They’re calling me now. I guess it’s time.”
Carl slowly edged himself off the couch using its arm to push himself up and limped towards the front door of the house. He leaned the cane against the wall and picked up the rusty old Parker Breech Loader his father had ordered from the Sears’ Catalog when he was only five. He opened the door, stepped forward and lifted the shotgun, and was immediately thrown backwards by three little cowards that burned their way through his chest staining the far wall and wetting the area rug covering the red oak floor.
Outside the house the great bulldozer waited silently, uncaring, while the neighbors gossiped about the crazy old man who talked to dead people. One policeman used his radio. No pictures were taken. No yellow tape was tied in place.
Six dump trucks watched from the boulevard as the unwanted baggage was loaded into the white panel truck and driven away. Everybody turned and watched as the gasoline ignited in the heart of the great bulldozer, which moaned and shuddered and then roared as it lurched forward advancing on and finally crushing the breath from the old wood frame house. They watched as the skip loaders shoveled the debris into the waiting dump trucks. Shortly, when the last dump truck carried it’s load away to the landfill, and the skip loaders were loaded on their trailers and taken away, and there was nothing left to see but an empty lot, the neighbors returned to their homes.
Across the street, shaded under a weeping willow, where nobody cared to notice, sat a barefoot boy, cross-legged and crying, who did not understand why his best friend had to be taken away.
* * *
Twenty years later a young man stopped at the treeless intersection of the two busy boulevards that hosted a bloated gasoline station, replete with convenience marts, on every corner. His clouded eyes stared beyond the filling station to the time when a small frame house, shaded by elms and filled with the most wondrous creations, was a regular stop on his way home from the junior high school for stories of other times, people, and places.
The little girl holding his hand looked up and asked; “Why are you crying daddy?”
Without answering the young man bent down, kissed her on the forehead, then picked her up letting her rest on his folded left arm as he turned and walked down the sidewalk.
“Just because, Julie. Just because.”
My short story Museum Pieces was featured in the Winter 2012/13 Literary Review, a publication of The California Writers Club.