Samuel Cole

Posted on June 5, 2017

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The Governor’s Table

It was a magnificent table. Which is why I hated it, and chose to make it suffer.

My father built it from a large maple tree that his father-in-law, my grandpa, the scariest man I’ve ever encountered, dropped off in the backyard during the night. Much like my mother, my grandpa came and went as he pleased.

My father sliced with speed and fury the scary looking branches with a scary sounding chainsaw: safety goggles magnifying the size of his eyes, hairy arms covered in wood shavings, customary red and orange plaid shirt and coveralls, and brown-scuffed boots. Working-class distillation.

“Everything has a purpose,” he said, dragging the branches through thick snow to the woodshop’s front door. “Even skinny things.”

But he couldn’t lift the log. “Goddamn it.” His neck and forehead veins bulged. I’d never before heard him cuss. Perhaps my mother’s assessment of him was true. Perhaps he was weak, profane, and filthy. Perhaps he couldn’t move anything of importance, regardless how hard he tried. Perhaps he was in permanent trouble.

Two days later, two bigger, stronger men came to the house and tossed like a plastic toy the log into the back of a big, yellow pickup truck. My father referenced having a bad back and some messed up knees, but I knew he was lying. He’d have told me, as I was his sounding board and he was my learning curve. We jumped into our blue pickup truck and followed the yellow pickup truck to a sawmill where two bigger, stronger men lifted and stuffed the log into a gigantic, gray machine that gurgled and steamed and coughed and moaned until eight flat boards popped out in a cloud of haze. Then the men loaded the boards into a commercial dryer and pushed a big, green ON button. It was the greatest movie ever made.

“Three days should dry ‘em out,” the biggest man said, lifting me until he and I were face to face. “As for this one.” He smiled, exposing chipped yellow and brown teeth. “He looks pretty dry already.” His breath reeked of sour cream potato chips and cherry soda pop. “You don’t say much do you?”

I didn’t say a word. Neither than nor during the drive home, wondering if being dry was the same thing as being weak, profane, and filthy. As often as my mother compared me to my father, I couldn’t shake the notion of inseparability, nor the familial DNA careening through my (and his) limbs and brain.

Over the next three days my father and I stirred inside the small woodshop which sat in its saggy metal skin forty small hops behind the house. I played tag with a stuffed rabbit, Woody Woodshop, a birthday gift from my mother, while my father worked on projects already in progress: a birdhouse with a tin roof; a chair that became a step stool when flipped over; a fireplace mantel; a tall curio cabinet with six windowless window slots waiting for windows. My father never asked for my help and I never volunteered a finger, content to watch (or not) from any distance of my choosing.

Two days later, back at the Sawmill, my father slid with his own hands the eight boards into the back of the pickup truck. “I’m not weak,” he whispered (over and over) on the drive home. I kept quiet, trying to guess what he was going to build. Something for me? Or better yet, a welcome home gift for mother.

“When you’re making a table for someone important,” he said, stacking the boards like a pack of gum, “You can’t just shove things together and start gluing. You have to do first things first.”

First, he ran each board through a metal plainer, twice. Burnt woodchips twirled and swirled the air like confetti on New Year’s Eve. So fun, until he swept every last chip into a brown dustpan and tossed it into the woodstove which I’d named, Belly of the Beast, an evil wizard who took great pleasure in luring poor, harmless creatures inside only to eradicate them by fire to ash. “A clean room is a wise house.” He looked directly into my eyes. “You got that?” As young as I was, I got it.

The next day, he switched one board with another until a rough tabletop took shape. “I gotta get this one just right,” he whispered. “It’s gotta be magnificent.”

Over the next week, he wielded with agility hand saws, power drills, and various size electric belt sanders. Back then, mechanical noise was the one constant reminder of where, how, and who I was.

“Edge-to-edge you need to use eight clamps to get it good and tight.” He sat beside me and watched glue dry. We shared a few slivers from a cube of white cheddar cheese and a warm A&W root beer. Then he stood and sat at a small metal desk beside the woodstove, where he shook woodchips from his hair and shuffled papers.

The next morning, in between sanding and re-sanding, he said, “Always go with the grain so you don’t ruin her natural beauty.” His hands moved forward and backward in a steady dance of determination. “Smooth as a flower pedal,” he whispered. “Soft as silk.”

The following afternoon he became entranced by a lathe, creating an edged lattice design that upon completion smelled as scorched as it felt divine. With a fresh, white cloth he applied a thin coat of varnish and then, once again, sat beside me to watch glue dry. This time, we shared a turkey sandwich and a semi-cold Pepsi. “Just two more coats and the business of the legs and then she’ll be ready to go on her way.”

“On her way,” I said, wondering if all wood is female, or is it just female in a male’s hands. “To where?” He didn’t respond.

The next day, he shaped, glued, clamped, and lathed four 1×4 pieces of wood into four uniform table legs. “Great legs should complement a table. They should never be the focal point. Amateur carpenters worry about the legs and end up losing their mind.”

A week later, he stood in the middle of the room and waved a hand over the table like a magician. “Magnificent, yeah?”

I nodded.

“It’s crazy what the earth gives up for creation,” he said, patting me on the head. “I do hope she’s going to a good home.” At the desk, he scribbled on a yellow piece of paper: INVOICE. His cursive was as bad as mine. Benjamin Tressell. Raleigh, North Carolina. February 4, 1985.

“Who’s Benjamin Tressell?” I had come to believe the table was ours. The small, round table inside the house was old, wobbly, and plastic. Not one uniform chair. Not one ornate design. We needed a new table. We deserved a new table. Mother would love a new table.

“A customer.” My father folded the yellow invoice and stuffed it inside a purple folder. “A governor to be exact.”

“What’s a customer?”

“Someone who pays cash for a job well done.”

“What’s a governor?”

“An important man who can afford to buy nice things.”

“Is Raleigh close to us?”

“No. It’s more than a thousand miles away.”

“Why can’t he get one there?”

My father took Woody Woodshop from my hands and placed the stuffed animal on his right knee. Then he lifted and set me on his left knee. And bounced. “Because I’m the best at what I do and some people in this world are smart enough to understand, and want, that.” We sat quiet and stared at the table as the rain came, all of us trembling in our own way.

“Why can’t we keep it?” I asked.

“Because that’s not who we are.”

“Who are we?”

“Some say easy to forget but I say well on our way…up.”

Later that night, after my father had fallen asleep on the coach with a toothpick in his mouth, I took Woody to the woodshop to say goodbye to the table. I rubbed the table’s intricate designs and caressed the four legs, top to bottom, thinking about my mother’s legs and floral dresses and raspy voice and reddish-pink lipstick and cold-fingertip-touch. Perhaps she’d come back (and stick around) if he made for her a magnificent table. “Fuck Benjamin Tressell,” I yelled over and over (and over).

I set Woody beside the woodshop door and grabbed from a shelf a piece of 300-grit sandpaper. Rough and raw in my hands, it begged me to be mischievous. I surrendered to the impulse and climbed atop the table and began to sand, turning light and dull with friction the polish and grit of my father’s skillful handiwork. “This one’s staying put,” I said, painfully aware that sanding wasn’t enough. I needed to do more. I jumped off the table and tried to push it over, but my puny arms and legs were no match for the table’s power. I wasn’t meant to move it. I wasn’t meant to touch it. I wasn’t meant to understand its worth. Or was I?

I held things I had only seen my father hold. Handsaws. Screwdrivers. Hammers. A gallon of varnish. Then I saw it hiding on a bottom shelf behind The Belly of the Beast. A cordless drill. I grabbed its weight and pushed the green ON button. Tiny curlicue wood bits spun off the metal bit. I stood atop the table and drilled holes in the air, testing things, cursing Benjamin Tressell. Then I got busy marking up the table. Forward and backward. My own steady dance of determination. Rebellious exhilaration washed over me. I was possessed. Obsessed. Repressed. And on fire.

After I’d finished leaving my mark, I took to my knees, not to pray for forgiveness but to split with a hammer the drill into three hot, metallic pieces. I jumped down, grabbed Woody, and laid face up on the table. Woody sat on my chest as I sucked my thumb, until my eyes, and mind, went blank.

I awoke the next morning to my father’s roar. I tried to squeeze Woody for comfort, but he’d fallen overnight onto the floor.

“What have you done?” My father brought me face to face. His voice, like his grip, grew tighter. “This is how we eat. This is how we survive. This is how we prove.” He paused. “Her wrong.”

He set me down and snatched the piece of sandpaper and the drill’s broken pieces, tossing each into the trashcan. Then he lit a match and a corner page of newspaper, which he threw into The Belly of The Beast. Things quickly began to snap, crackle and pop; the evil wizard blazing with red heat. Then my father snatched Woody from the floor and threw him into the stove, leaving the woodstove door wide open. Watching Woody disintegrated into soot, something inside me shifted, replacing the last traces of naivety with profound, disturbing maturation. “Now we’re even,” my father yelled. “Now we’re the same.”

That night, I went to bed hungry, the first of many hungry nights. I didn’t scream or cry or apologize. I simply buried my face in a pillowcase and pounded my fists on the mattress. And then I made two vows. One, to never speak to my father, or my mother, again. Which I didn’t keep. And two, to never enter the woodshop again. Which I did keep. Losing all interest in my father’s world while he lost all interest in mine.

****

Samuel Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, will be published in May/June 2017. He is also an award-winning card maker and scrapbooker.

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