Hard Wood

She called it the Napoleon, the massive oak wardrobe that sat in the front room of the house she had just bought with her new husband, sitting there because it was too large and too heavy for them to move by themselves to the master bedroom, the only room spacious enough to accommodate its depth, its height, its width, its literal and metaphorical weight, the only room with enough natural light to not be overcome by its darkness and the long shadows it cast. The Napoleon had been in the family for years, since her grandmother bought it, or inherited it, or had it given—or cast upon her like a spell or a curse—no one knew which. It dominated any room it occupied, towering over anyone standing before it, weighing down one’s very eyes with its age, its history, its overwhelming force. Like a statue of some ancient tyrant, it conveyed authority and power, and while it didn’t have eyes like a statue did, it still felt as though the Napoleon was watching and judging. You felt a sense of awe standing in front of it, a sense of respect and intimidation.  Should you burn it? Rip it apart? You wouldn’t dare. It would haunt you, bearing down upon your soul with two centuries of oppressive guilt.

She had long imagined histories for the Napoleon, tried to remember the legends from her youth, questionable tales her Creole grandmother told her in the dementia years, imagined its construction in the calloused hands of Marseillaise craftsmen—had they been revolutionaries? Jacobins? Were their hands still stained with aristocratic blood?  Her grandmother even said the wardrobe’s rich color was due to having been stained with blood—or had she dreamt that?—but was it ox blood that gave it the rich, mahogany color that the French call marron, or the blood of some doomed Provencal duke collected in a bucket beneath a guillotine at Marseille or Arles?  For she knew, or thought she knew, that the oaken treasure came from France around 1800, arrived in New Orleans, survived the journey, then the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, the Great Depression, countless floods and hurricanes, until it somehow came into her grandmother’s inheritance and now into hers.  How had it survived being tossed on the Atlantic, with stops in Havana—did barrels of rum add to the color? Did it toss side to side in the hold? Did it crush a sailor with its weight as the waves toppled it? She knew, just knew, that there was death in the Napoleon’s past, knew it was haunted by the souls of movers crushed under it, or a drunken reveler stabbed at its feet in a knife fight in a dance hall in Spanish New Orleans. She pictured it in a bar, then imagined it used in a kitchen in a Natchez restaurant, stuffed with china, covered with steam from collard greens and rice, and grease from boiled pigs’ feet. Stained with two centuries blood and lard-steam and rum and the with the sweat of the countless men who had carried it from France to Cuba to Louisiana to Mississippi, nicked and weathered by walls and corners and cobblestones and the various chains and ropes that strapped it to mule-drawn wagons and moving vans, haunted by the manifold ghosts of its victims, all the hazards that marked it and made up its history but never killed it, she couldn’t help being more than a little afraid of it.

The Napoleon had been in a storage unit for the last few years, and moved to the house by a young man named Dee and his moving crew, using straps and a dolly and their prodigious strength to wrestle the wardrobe up a few steps and into the front room. Dee was a young man, college student, who headed up his own moving crew using rented trucks, an entrepreneur who had impressed her with his initiative and intelligence.  After the move she kept his number, and called him back to do various odd jobs for them, some painting, some deck repair. He was a tall, strong man, with a soft voice and a gentleness that was unexpected from his appearance. Now that she and her husband were finished painting, they were ready for Dee and his team to move it the rest of the way into the bedroom.  He told her no, he would just bring his father, which she initially objected to—Are you sure? Is he up to it?—but Dee just chuckled and explained that his father worked out every day, and was even bigger and stronger than Dee.  Dee arrived with his father, and his younger brother, who, like Dee, was oversized and looked strong for his age—she guessed 12—but the father was lean, muscular, and tall.  He was broad, with muscles carved from marble, more than a match for the Napoleon, sharing its stature, a venerable and powerful figure, ready to take it on, to slay the dragon, to tame it and bring it to heel.  He inspired confidence, like a Superman ready to spin the Earth backwards on its axis, turn back time, and save the planet from subjugation by evil forces.

They started right to work, surveyed the scene, and realized that the long route was best, from the front room in a circular motion through the dining room and kitchen and along a straight path down the hallway to the bedroom. They disassembled the Napoleon as best they could.  The brass hinges were original, and they pulled the pin to take the doors off, pulled the loose shelves from the inside, removed the large molding from the top so that the piece would fit under the doorways.  But the first doorway showed that was not enough, and the men had to turn the wardrobe on its side just to get it through the first, wide doorway, and then once on its side—the younger brother’s job was to keep the sliding pads underneath the piece so that it could be scooted along the floors without damaging the piece or the floors themselves—through the doorway and into the kitchen, which required moving the dining table, moving the kitchen table, clearing a broad path. The Napoleon would not be simply pushed along the floors. It had to be tilted, turned, negotiated, argued with, persuaded, fussed at, until reaching a point that only brute force would make it do what was required.

By the time they reached the long hallway to the master bedroom, the men were out of breath and drenched in sweat, and they realized that the Napoleon was not oriented properly to make its way down the hall.  They extracted it back down the hall and back into the den, where they could turn it around and try to push it up the hall in the opposite orientation, but even this exercise was a challenge. They moved it back to the den, hoisted it up on its base, turned it, gently lowered it again, and moved it back down the hall, until they were finally at the entrance to the bedroom.  To put it simply, it wouldn’t go. The hallway wasn’t wide enough to allow the piece to swing around into the doorway and into the bedroom.  Walls would have to be removed—obviously not a realistic suggestion, but the men realized that if one end were lifted, while the other end were turned, the turning and lifting motion at the same time might push the wardrobe into the bedroom.  Her husband had joined the effort by this time, seeing that getting the Napoleon through this final stage would require all three of them. The husband and Dee took the end by the bedroom door while the father held on at the bottom—actually the top now, as they had oriented the piece upside down, negotiating the legs around the top of the door to stagger the movements into the room.  They applied all their strength and fought the Napoleon, straining against it to make it fit, the father at the bottom end, seemingly about to be crushed by its weight and become one more ghost living inside its wooden walls.

Dee and his father were not about to give up, even if the husband was.  The father asked for a handsaw.  If they could just cut an inch off the feet of the piece, they might be able to get it in.  Everyone agreed that this was a good idea.  The husband fetched a saw from the garage, handed it to the father, while the Napoleon rested upside down with its feet in the air like a defeated wild animal with rigor mortis. The husband brought a step ladder next, and the father set about to trim the feet.  But the old, haunted lumber seemed impervious to the saw’s blade, like cutting concrete with a saw meant for wood. The old bastard wasn’t going to give in easily.  It fought back like its life depended on it. The father pressed the saw with all his might, the wood fighting back but slowly losing the fight, sawdust 200 years old flying off the feet, covering them all, its DNA of blood and sweat and ancient oak scattered on the engineered floors of the house and the sweat-soaked cotton shirts of the men.  The beads of sweat collected on the bald, brown scalp of Dee’s muscular father, who took a moment to catch his breath while the veins bulged in his forearms, and he looked down at the husband and said, “That’s some hard wood.”

Finally, the first foot was cut down by about an inch, and the process repeated on the other three, with no thought to leveling or measuring, just getting the God forsaken thing cut and putting the monstrous task behind them.  Ever few minutes the father, soft spoken like Dee and a man of fewer words, would pause to wipe the sweat from his brow again, and repeat the same thing, in astonishment: “That’s some hard wood.” Yes, the husband thought, it’s 200 years old, and full of evil and spirits. It’s as hard as hell, with a molecular resistance to change.  The father pulled the saw through the last foot and the final chunk of scrap was liberated as they watched it fall and clatter on the floor.  “I thought we’d never make it,” Dee said, and they stopped and caught their breath one last time.  There was a moment of optimism, a feeling that we had made it, that in just a moment the Napoleon would be conquered, tamed, and they could celebrate their liberation.  And they again strained against the piece, heaving it up towards the sky only to be blocked once more by the top of the door frame, the optimism dying in a sudden realization that they had hit the upper limit, the piece wedged in the door and would move no further, which was all the men needed to see to know they had been defeated.  There was no other angle to try, no other act of will could make the impossible possible, just the girth and height of the piece were too much for the space they had designed for it.  This monument had survived 200 years by not giving in to the whims of men, the designs of fate, not even the accidents of nature, and now it seemed that it would even resist the saw blade or flame, having very nearly been petrified over time, some supernatural effect of the blood, the stormwater, the various liquors that had soaked into the oak over the years, making it impervious to human intervention or even will.

The Napoleon forced the men to take it back to the front room, and then they left it on the porch, in exile like its namesake, until she decided whether it would make its way back to storage, or who knows where. It had a mind of its own. The men recovered from the exertion with bottles of beer on the front porch sitting next to their nemesis. They sat in silence, gazing up at the pines which reached up into the night, stretching their tops to the stars, but still younger than the Napoleon which would now have to find another home. Although it was humid, the porch had the benefit of not having the confining walls or the memory of having been defeated. Out here in the wide-open space, the Napoleon could no longer impose its will. It sat quietly with its ghosts—waiting for its next encounter with history. She indulged the boy with an ice cream bar, and then another, and she paid Dee what she owed him, in spite of their collective failure, and quite a bit extra, as they had worked far harder and longer than any of them could have imagined.  It was nearly midnight when they all shook hands and parted ways, the Mississippi moon shining down on the pines and them, and the Napoleon silently crouching on the porch, victorious, its midnight shadow merely an inch shorter than it was before.

Suburban White Women

Dog Beach, Huntington Beach, California

Torrey was confused. As she stood with her husband in the line at The Home Depot where they were buying paint samples so that they could decide whether they wanted to paint the bathroom Dove White, Eggshell, or Capistrano Cream, she noticed the ever so slight lift in Josh’s khaki shorts, which she noticed from time to time, if she touched him in the right way, if she bit his ear, the little things that she as a wife knew made him slightly aroused, or when Dena came over to the house, because she was gorgeous and Torrey really couldn’t even blame Josh. But she had never noticed it before with a, well, she couldn’t even say it in her mind. She would not allow herself to admit it or say it. She was not racist. The cashier was just a girl smacking her gum and looking blankly towards the tool department while she tore the receipt and handed it to him without eye contact. She gave a fake smile when Josh told her not too work to hard now and just then Torrey noticed that she had been touching him, hip to hip, and she pulled away, but they were walking away now with their blue plastic bag of canned-vegetable sized paint sample cans. Sometimes just leaning into him did it, she had noticed before, but by now they were walking back to the Pathfinder and it was too late to know for sure if it was the check out girl or Torrey’s hip that made him this way.

When they got in the car she said, “Josh, did you think that girl was pretty?” He practically snorted at the question. It seemed to Torrey that it was a little forced. 

“Don’t be stupid.” 

She hated when he said that. “It’s not stupid. Don’t speak to me that way.”

“I’m sorry, honey. No, I did not find her attractive.” He said it emphatically, slowly, as if to repeat that he thought the question was stupid. But she knew he had a black girlfriend in college. She was a lawyer now in Atlanta.  She was on Facebook.  That was how she knew Josh was not racist. Sometimes people would say if you liked the president you were racist but she knew that Josh wasn’t because he dated her in college. It was stupid to say they were racist and it made her angry when someone said it. They had talked about it at church and it made her feel better.

He had promised her lunch. “Do you want Desi’s or the Diner?” She shrugged.  He drove to Desi’s. There was a short wait. She leaned on him and he held her while he leaned against the wall by the door. She was tired. She felt herself beginning to weaken but she locked her knees.  A few more minutes and she would have her mimosa. Or maybe she would get that thing with the mint leaves. She couldn’t remember the name of it. “Are you feeling ok?” he asked. She shrugged. “Do you want to go home?” She shook her head no. 

The hostess said, “Morales”, and she started to move when she heard the “m” come out of her mouth, thinking it would be their turn. Then she wanted to see who the “Morales” were.  It was an older couple.

When it was their turn, the hostess walked them to their table at the far end of the restaurant by garage door openings that looked out onto the street where it was raining now.  Josh read his menu but Torrey didn’t need to. She sipped her water and looked out the garage door windows. The streets were wet now and the tires were making the whooshing noise on the street. She was trying not to listen to the conversation at the next table about the immigration raids at the chicken plant in Morton. “As long as they come here legally,” someone was saying.  He said “legally” like a child would say please, almost like he was begging. Emphasis on the “le”.  He wasn’t racist. He just wanted it all to be legal. All she could think about was the idea of a factory where they did whatever they did to chickens to make the chicken meat that people eat. It revulsed her. She didn’t want to think about it.

Their server was a young man. She was grateful. His hair was short on the sides and spikey on the top.  She tried to think what it was like. It was like a tossed salad or a bouquet of flowers bouncing around on his head. She liked it.  Was he black? She wasn’t sure. The owners were Cuban. He had a Spanish name that she couldn’t pronounce. He had big teeth and a big smile.  He was friendly and he actually looked them in the eye unlike the hostess or the cashier at The Home Depot in her orange smock. She ordered a mimosa but Josh said “Go light on the champagne, please.” The server looked at her as though for permission and she just turned her head back to the street, ashamed. “Yes, sir, coming right up” the server said. Just then she needed to get away from her husband.

“I am going to the restroom.” She stood up too quickly, maybe, and the room began to spin. There was a piercing noise like a long tone that got louder each moment until it was unbearable. The edges of her sight got fuzzy and then black.  She saw the girl in the orange smock in her mind and the Pathfinder and the wet street getting louder and louder and louder.  She was sweating and then the world came back to her. Her head hurt. She was looking at Josh who was saying her name. “Are you ok?” She nodded.  “Just rest for second,” Josh said.

She was suddenly aware that a crowd of people were around her and she was on the floor. “It’s ok,” Josh said, “She’ll be ok. She’s pregnant. Don’t call 911. It’s ok, really.”  Her dress felt soaking wet with sweat and she was suddenly embarrassed and felt the need to apologize. “I’m sorry,” she said. Josh was trying not to cry.  “Can you stand up? Let me take you home.” The server helped Josh pick her up from the floor.  He was tender and gentle. She attempted a smile. Josh handed the server a twenty but he said, “don’t worry about it, we didn’t even make the drinks yet. Come back another time, ok?” Josh put his arm around her waist and they walked back to the car.  He leaned her seat back, went to the driver’s side, started the car and backed out. The sun was coming back out around the clouds and the brightness against the shade on the sunroof relaxed her.  She was coming back to life.  She had stopped sweating and the air conditioning felt cold on her skin.  She turned her head to Josh as he drove down Fortification Street.

“Can we try the Eggshell first?”