I built my first coffin as an eight-year-old, a time when dogs still trotted freely in the street. Sawdust and Timber, my two young beagles, had full reign of our neighborhood. One day Sawdust ran under a speeding Buick Roadmaster. Timber trailed a few steps behind and only heard the thump. My first encounter with death came the next morning when the vet called to tell my father that Sawdust had died.
I cried and cried and was afraid to see Sawdust. The vet had him in a cardboard box and carried him to our car. My father didn’t say much on the way home, but finally asked me what I wanted to do. For the first time in my life, I saw that he was confused, too. I knew we had to bury him in something better than this old produce box that had come from a grocery store. My father was not much of a carpenter, definitely not one who could do finish work. Neither was I as a young boy, but I knew I wanted to make something special to hold Sawdust’s body. I also knew I wanted to bury him in our back yard at the base of the sour cherry tree whose bark I had worn clean and slippery from my many climbs.
I’ve only driven once on the elevated highway where our house used to be. Looking down, I saw none of the front lawn grass I remembered from childhood. Just a smear of asphalt and concrete stretching unevenly, littered by beer cans and plastic bags blowing about. There was no moment of meaning. When our home was destroyed by the city’s wrecking ball years ago to make way for an inner-city freeway, the spot where I buried Sawdust became part of a large rubble pile. I was not there, but for years imagined I had been. I became a young boy again trying to protect my dog or whatever was left of him. The crude coffin I made from a mishmash of scrap lumber scrounged from our neighbor was now part of the debris. Giant earth movers and dump trucks raised clouds of dust where the dogs and I once played in the grass.
My father had an older friend George who helped him get his stationary boiler license. George was a retired engineer and now a craftsman who worked in wood and leather. He specialized in making wallets. When someone at school stole the one he made for me, I went to George to beg his forgiveness for not protecting it more. He smiled and said he could always make a new one. He also liked to tinker with projects in his garage and told me always to think about what I wanted before cutting a scrap of leather or whacking away at a piece of wood “I know your momma bakes the cakes you like, but I want you to start watching how she measures out the ingredients, mixes them, and then puts them in the oven. If you can do that in your head, you can also bake a cake, lay out the leather for a wallet, or cut a board.” George taught me that design should not be by accident. Everything should be well-planned and executed. Being close doesn’t count.
He took me aside after he heard about my attempt to make a coffin for Sawdust. He wanted to know all the details about how I made it. Where did I get the material? What kind of nails did I use? Did I make it large enough? There were no Lowe’s or Home Depots then. My father’s tools stopped at a dull saw, a heavy claw hammer, and various jars of mismatched nails. George had an amazing workshop and so many tools. His chisels were always shiny and sharp. “Watch out you don’t cut your finger,” he warned. He taught me the meaning of tactile. I can hear the distinct click of his tongue when he lingered on the c. “Your fingers are important. You see with them.”
George was a widower. He told me that a coffin was a worthy project, almost as important as a bird house, and far better than just driving nails into wood for the fun of it. “I regret not building a coffin for Marie. I know I had the skill to do it, but I just couldn’t,” he confided. He had no children, but he liked dogs, especially my beagles. He said he was sorry about Sawdust, but told me sternly to keep Timber and all things I loved and cherished safe. “Learn from what happened,” he told me in a rare moment when he took me by the shoulders and looked directly at me. “You’ll have more than a nodding relationship with death in due time.”
Vicki once held my heart in her hand. Way back in junior and senior high school I felt differently around her than I did with other girls. Her willowy figure and auburn hair were all the poetry that my world really needed. Thinking of her now, I am an awkward adolescent again and convinced she is the only woman I ever want to love. She was flame hot and able to scorch me black. She stared me down speechless. Once we were a tangle of arms and legs in a front-seat tango of my father’s Oldsmobile 88. These were the days when bench seats were the norm. We might as well have been on a deep sofa. Before I knew it, I found myself in an awkwardness that might be described as a situation that came to its inevitable conclusion while still clothed. She smiled about that little mishap for some time.
When a childhood friend recently told me that Vicki was dead, I had just heard the news that Jimmy Breslin, the great New York writer, political activist, and endless talker who had an opinion about every social slight, had also died. Another friend and I had both read The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight years ago. When we get together, we reenact the scene where Baccala, one of the haplessly inept mafia guys, crouches under the table after breakfast and sends his wife out to start the car. You can’t be too careful. Someone might have wired your El Dorado overnight.
The news of Breslin’s death woke me up. One of his obits portrays him as a writer with “brick-hard words and jagged-glass wit.” I loved the man, especially for being such a big noise. When I arrived home and checked my e-mail, my friend’s news about Vicki startled me more than Breslin’s death. Like Breslin, Vicki also had a wicked tongue and a jagged-glass wit that made you laugh and scared you at the same time. I could see her telling me to go start the car. She lopped the head off one pompous ass who once ridiculed her in class by telling him, “You seem to be a boy who wants two things: danger and play. You fool with me again and I’ll give more than your share of a dangerous plaything.”
Vicki’s death took me back to the last time I saw George. He attended my university graduation, but was an old man by then who needed help walking. He said he had no gift other than to encourage me to keep making things with my hands. He told me to continue studying the grain of the wood and remember that the skin of all furniture is in the wood. It’s what you see first. The construction is invisible. “Choose your wood well and your furniture will shine; choose poorly and you’ll end up with a piece that can’t be saved no matter how crisp and tight the joinery is,” he reminded me. “Be careful, pay attention, plan ahead. Don’t cut yourself. Better yet, don’t even have any close calls,” were the last words I heard from George. He died later that summer.
Over the years I have had shops or access to them wherever I lived. Even in my wanderings through foreign countries I found myself hanging out with crafts people. In Japan I watched how local furniture makers used a Ryoba double-edged razor saw, one with cross-cut teeth on one side and rip teeth on the other, to cut hard or abrasive woods such as maple, oak, teak and exotic hardwoods. The men pulled the blade through the wood rather than pushed it as Western saws are designed to cut. In Austria, Helmut, a well-known craftsman, showed me some of his tricks cutting beautiful dovetails. I paid more than I could afford for one of his walnut desks, and I still have it in my office. I forgot the price long ago. In a village in the New Territories outside Hong Kong, I squatted alongside some men who were building a complicated bedroom suite using only basic tools. They worked with precision and were careful. Some of the Chinese craftsmen had plans lying on work benches, others had the picture in their head.
Some of the best furniture makers I know choose their wood first and then design around it. One man is a musician and says he likes to work with giant slabs. Like an oboe, such wood has its own deep and beautiful voice that he wants to amplify without turning the volume up so loud it screams. He selects wood that stands up to prolonged examination. Your eyes just can’t leave it.
Like anything beautiful, the grain pattern or figure in his furniture flows seamlessly. He looks for highly figured wood such as curly or bird’s-eye maple because of the unique design, texture, color or markings on its surface. He also likes to turn bowls from wood with random swirls of dark patterns caused by infestations of ambrosia beetles. Such colorful streaks of beauty come from the poop left behind by the beetles as they break the wood down into dinner for their larvae. One of his bowls made from a burl of red oak is a crazed roadmap resembling overpasses colliding with overpasses. It stops me every time I see it.
Vicki would have felt quite at home surrounded by exotic and figured wood. Nothing straight-grained, efficient, or too predictable for her.
She was impetuous, I was cautious and well-planned. She liked to open the door and run around the car at stop lights. When she sang off key, she sang louder.
Her father was a banker. He was jailed for embezzlement. She bragged about his daring.
She wore her blouses buttoned to the top, but liked to tease me by crossing and recrossing her legs in a risqué way at any opportunity.
She liked to examine my hands. My fingers were long and thin. Hers were short. She bit her nails. “You have the fingers of a pianist that can stretch over more than an octave. What do they tell you when they grasp a baseball, hold a pencil, or scratch my back?”
She talked me into doing things. Shoplifting small vials of perfume was her favorite pastime. She distracted the saleslady while I pinched what she wanted.
She deliberately threw up on the only occasion she met my parents. Just for the attention. I was invited into her house only one time. Her older sister gave me the once-over and, in her lowly contralto voice, bug-spit out her verdict, “You’re not good enough for Vicki.” Her parents looked up, but said nothing. I was left to wonder if they agreed.
Vicki was daring and had a raw sexiness to her. She introduced me to the taste of concupiscence. Her touch brought me to a rolling boil. A sixteen-year-old male can be faulted for many shortcomings, but certainly not for lack of lust. We were behind the curve of the sexual revolution. Boys and girls didn’t jump into bed on the first date, or most subsequent dates, either. She was daring, but she had boundaries. Kiss and fondle, but no more.
She didn’t care for outdoor sports events. She hated sitting through the rain and cold of football games. Summer picnics with lots of people were her treat. Then she ran about, flitting back and forth between different throngs of kids. I never knew where she was, but I could eventually find her by following her voice. She wasn’t at all shy in a group, but hardly ever volunteered anything in class. She paid attention and took good notes, but didn’t do well on tests. She said they didn’t matter.
Vicki loved to drive fast, but was careless and had no sense of direction. When I took her places in our home town, she never remembered how we got there. I gave her hints, but she ignored them and just told me to keep turning right, then left, then straight ahead. She knew she could find a way out of any maze of my making. She wanted me to take her to the airport to watch planes taking off and landing. She didn’t care where they would take her. She just wanted to be a passenger, bound for anywhere.
She was crazy about shoes. She didn’t have a particular flair or interest in her clothes, but her shoes were not of our world. She was delighted when I finally picked up her hint and bought myself a pair of loafers with a little leather-knotted bow where the eyelets usually are. My suede and leather saddle shoes were usually scruffy and seldom polished. She convinced her mother to buy some of the most outlandish styles, always in red. I can still see her toenails painted different hues of scarlet poking out of a pair of open crimson shoes. They were the color of dark wine pouring out of the bottle.
She dumped me me on a warm Sunday spring afternoon. After a school concert, she crammed two other guys into the front seat of her father’s flashy red Fiat 124 Sport Spider. It did not have a back seat. She sped off, stranding me in the parking lot. I called my mother to come get me.
She was about nine months older than all of us, but still in our class. All the boys knew she could talk any of us out of our loose change. I don’t recall if she had any close girlfriends. I think most girls didn’t like her because she had such power over the boys. A look from her was like a grappling hook in your ear. All she had to do was to give you a light tug. Years later I saw Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys sprawled atop that big black piano staring right at me and singing “Making Whoopee.” I immediately thought of Vicki. Knees, stop shaking.
On one of our jaunts, I took her to visit George. He was sitting in an old overstuffed chair in his shop leafing through a woodworker’s magazine. Vicki surprised me by being serious and courteous to George. He liked her right away and eagerly showed her around his shop. He told her he wanted his tools buried with him, since he had a special thing going with them that other people would never understand. “I don’t want them to fall into the hands of some stranger who picks them up in a yard sale. When I see good, old tools lying in a box in the corner of an antique shop, I want to weep.” Then he laughed to break the silence and told her he wanted me to have his tools.
Vicki asked if she could have one, too. She had her eye on a pair of pliers that were lying on a nearby table. George was delighted and told her he would be happy to part with something, but said maybe some other tool other than the pliers since he had never been completely happy with any of them. He never owned a pair that felt good in his hand. He then pointed to the pegboard on one of the walls. All kinds of tools, from screwdrivers to wrenches, hung there in neat order. Under a table were a number of open boxes. They stored wood finishes, turpentine, glues, old and new sandpaper, and dried out rags used for buffing. He even had an assortment of cords that had become separated from their machines. Other boxes held books of directions in English, Japanese, Spanish, and French. George finally pulled out a surprise box and made us guess what was in it. He enjoyed stumping us and then revealed a rich mix of “useless gadgets that seemed like a clever idea when I bought them.”
George guided Vicki toward his collection of hand planes and picked out one that he cherished the most. Beside it was a small box of good chisels wrapped in cloth, several Japanese Ryoba saws, and his favorite screwdriver that never let him down. “I’ve retired it. It’s driven and backed off a legion of new as well as nasty old rusted screws and never failed me. But I don’t want to set it for failure, particularly now that we’re both getting old.” Vicki looked at everything and finally went back to the Japanese saws. George immediately presented her with a short Ryoba.
George was just like the rest of us. Vicki had him under her spell. He would have given her anything. I didn’t know it then, but the two of them were flirting right in front of me. I never knew what became of the saw, which she liked because it surprised her that something as simple as cutting could be done so differently.
I was just a high-school kid when I had my fling with Vicki. Still, I wonder what life might have been like had we married, despite our evident contrasts. We would certainly have been one volatile mash-up. I held this thought just long enough until I burst out laughing. No, no, I reassured myself, the world is a better place because we didn’t continue our strong mix of desire and need for excitement and adventure.
While I make shavings and trim dovetails, I think about how we all pair up and ultimately lose our grips on others in some of the most unlikely ways. I’m still staggered at the thought that Vicki and I could have made some terrible mistake and gotten married right out of high school. With the population of the world stretching into the billions, we found ourselves together at the same school purely by chance. Why her and why me, considering the nearly limitless opportunities for two people to find or lose one another.
The likelihood that many people won’t be at the right spot at the right time to meet their ideal partner is frightening. If Jody had not left the family farm in Wisconsin and followed her first husband to Washington, D.C., I would never have met her. Had I taken that advertising job in Chicago after graduating from university, I might well be living today in a high-rise overlooking Lake Michigan sipping bourbon through a straw with a lady from Illinois.
We all make our choices and wonder about Frost’s road not taken. Marriages, children, careers, friends, and life experiences all seem to balance on coin tosses. Chance always seems to be hovering about.
Despite my droll sense of whimsy about what disaster Vicki and I would have made as a married couple, I confess her death threw me. When I read the news, I felt as though a light on the stage had gone dark. Some guy walks out from behind the curtain to say, “Sorry for the interruption, folks, but . . .” I am still short of breath, wondering what the hell happened. I regret losing so many friends from former lives over the past couple of years. We’re supposed to say that’s all so sad, but life goes on. We’re supposed to think of rebirth, especially at this time of year, when spring encourages us to look forward to the future. Such thoughts aren’t working. Even though I hadn’t seen Vicki for years, she must have meant more to me than I imagined.
At the same time, I’m somewhat embarrassed that all this thinking about Vicki sent me into the arms of humor rather than sadness. What comes to mind are the absurd adolescent somersaults I turned to grab Vicki’s attention way back when every boy in high school competed over her. I have to make her like me, no matter what. Look at me, look at me! Just one glance will suffice. All my energy focuses on her. I wonder why I went to such efforts. My simple explanation is that I couldn’t control the Walter Mitty inside me. My imagination took me to crazy possibilities. One persistent fantasy has me picking her up by the waist, thrusting my face into her oversized bright red sweater, and running up the school steps with her over my shoulder. I take her to some nearby deserted hallway, set her fashionably-shoed small feet firmly on the floor, and kiss her. I now smile dreamily and shake my head.
Now that spring is supposedly upon us, we’re not sure if we can put our sweaters away quite yet. Spring has been such a flirt these past couple of weeks. It brings out our dormant coquetry. Hey, look over here! See me, your large King Alfred daffodil, heralding in the change of season. The little yellow colt’s feet paw about in the leaf duff, looking up and winking as we pass. They pop up earlier than the dandelions because they know they’re cuter and will get our attention. I pass the big prize boulder in the driveway several days in a row and never notice the solitary pure white snowdrop tucked away as though she doesn’t believe in making the first move. But I spot her, move in, make over her, tell her she’s the beauty of the Western world, where’s she been for so long? So close to love. The next morning the world of wet snow falls on top of her. I’m as crushed as she is.
At my front door where it’s supposed to be spring, I think of Vicki but am also worried about all the little frogs in the small pond off the porch who are busy singing courtly frog-songs of love. Jody thought a flock of turkeys were nearby when she first heard their joyous ode to spring. We both gathered as close to the frog croaking as we could get, spellbound as though we were listening to Stravinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps.” The noise was such a roar and so different from the winter quiet that we were near riotous in our excitement.
A few years back I built a pergola with an open spot in the flooring where I dug this pond which the frogs call home. Since the structure is only partly enclosed, leaves and other debris from winter barge in. On an unusually warm spring day, I cleaned a windstorm of last fall’s leaves from the pond to give the amorous frog couples some room to dance. The warm day brought out the frog in me as I coaxed Jody into doing a little two-step. By next morning a jellyfish glob of tadpoles-to-be floated and warmed themselves in the the sun. Sadly, frost and snow came to the pond that night. I saw one little frozen amphibian minstrel the next morning with his head poking out of the fickle snow that fell after a day of temperatures pushing seventy. He seemed to have a startled look on his face which reminded me of what I’d read about the poor souls of Pompeii, surprised by the swift run of Vesuvian lava on a warm August day many years ago. My little Kermit’s expression is one of astonishment, as though to say he knew he should have been more careful and slept late that morning, deep within his mud bed. He was not spared by just a close call. Now he is frozen in time.
I know I will continue to have trouble knowing Vicki’s dead. I see her turning her head and throwing me a wink. But Vicki is gone, felled by illness and a surgeon’s misplaced scalpel. I have moved back and forth in time over the past few days trying to remember who she was and who she became over all these years. And who I became. Try as I might, I’m still not able to touch her, to grasp why she has a hold on me still. A friend told me I was trying to snatch pollen in a net. He is a poet and quoted me a line from Heather Allen’s poem, Night In The Mountains: “all things exchange their light for darkness.” I only hope she was somewhat aware of the sway she held over me and a tribe of boys and at least one old man who were so willing to lose everything, probably even their immortal souls, for a moment of her company.
Our lives went their separate ways, but I still heard about her, but never from her. She lived an unconventional life on her own terms, a life that might sound strange to some but was so extravagant and full of joy and mischief that she forever broke the monotony of any decorous restraint expected of her.
I saw her at my tenth and twentieth high school reunions. She had a different husband in tow at each of them. She pecked me on the cheek and introduced me first to Joe. “You got away, but Joey got lucky!” she winked. Lucky boy, indeed. I didn’t disagree. At another reunion I met Mike who was trailing behind her. She told him I was her first serious boyfriend and then squeezed my hand. Her facial skin was tight. Maybe more than one face lift already. I still carried my adolescent crush.
She became a serious student after high school and eventually made a good reputation for herself as an emergency room nurse. Unfortunately, she ended up seducing a married doctor. His wife found out about the affair and came down on Vicki in a fury. Rammed her off a highway. My lovely young girlfriend had a close call with death and underwent a number of operations to make her face somewhat right again.
Vicki must have known she was going to die young, since she wrote her own obituary which was brief and with few details. No children, even after six marriages. She last lived in Omaha with her final husband, an oil man named Ralph. I can’t imagine a sexy babe like Vicki marrying anyone with a name like Ralph. She became involved with the arts and was chairperson of the local symphony which made me smile. She always liked receptions, so I can imagine how easily she mingled with wealthy people and enticed them into donating to artistic causes. There she is in a new symphony hall, surrounded by glass in the foyer on a cold night on the midwest plains, under a chandelier, with a champagne glass in hand. As she nibbles her hors d’oeuvres, she’s scanning the room for where she wants to light next.
A couple of husbands died young. The others were left behind, I guess kind of like I was when she no longer had any room in her father’s sports car. Another classmate who kept in touch said Frank drowned in the family pool. Mike must have been in the mold of her father. He embezzled from a bank and parted with her forever the day the judge gave him a long sentence.
She never drank or fooled with drugs when I knew her. As a kid, she said she was on her own perpetual high. I read the obituary slowly several times and tried to divine the message at the end. She wrote it in the first person and concluded with an appeal, echoing the words of a fundraiser. “I will be delighted if you send money to whatever AA gathering you choose.” I love her usage of the future tense.
I don’t know if her interest in AA means she was also an alcoholic. I still read the words over and over and entertain many possibilities. I can see her at some public event sipping champagne, but not opening a bottle of vodka at ten in the morning. As I sit here writing about her, I feel her cadence, the rhythm of her speech. She had a distinct Ohio pronunciation. She said “boosh” rather than “bush.” She never heard the difference. She was good with song lyrics, but her timing was off. If she had been in the band, she would have tooted when she should have rested.
I wonder whether the Vicki I knew over fifty years ago would be happy to hear the frogs in my little pond singing. Would she prefer them to the Omaha symphony? Would she listen to the frogs, toss off her red slippers, and dance about as a pagan spirit skipping barefoot over the lawn calling for spring to return?
Summer and its indolence seem far away right now. I suspect my frog population in August will be at its peak. The survivors will have forgotten the early death of one of their own. Maybe they, too, will become lost in their croaking ecstasy and will perish because of carelessness and lack of attention. A tasty meal for raccoons or black snakes. I suppose a small pond and its surrounding little weedy patch of mortality can only support so many hungry mouths and ardent troubadours once so impassioned by the fire of spring.
When I was a young man, I was slim, not unattractive, and finely built. I didn’t have a beard then. I dressed well, kept my shoes shined, and didn’t miss haircuts. I was blissfully unaware of the many decisions ahead of me. These decisions would eventually take me in directions I could not imagine when I was a high-schooler who thought he was in love. Other women would slowly enter my life, mature people who accompanied me down different roads in their own versions of little red sports cars.
But now I remember one evening I walked with Vicki on our second or third date. She holds my hand as we circle a small lake at an arboretum. It is spring and we hear frogs croaking. We walk slowly over a wooden bridge with elegantly constructed joinery. Its curve is reflected on the pond’s surface and captures the sensuous flow of the water moving slowly under it. I have no pictures of us, but can imagine how startled I would be now to see how young we as a couple appeared then.
I wish I had reminded Vicki of that walk when I saw her at one of the high school reunions. I like to think she remembered it. She probably considered it a fun stroll and then promptly forgot all about it. We were so young and without a clue what would happen to us, just a couple of kids with no experience of late snows, so unprepared for the killing frost. Unlike Breslin’s character Baccala, we didn’t have sense enough to be careful and avoid close calls. We were too involved in red shoes and furtive kisses.
She drove me home that night in her father’s little red sports car. This time I sat where two boys would one day be crammed together after a concert.
I think George and I could have made a good coffin for Vicki. George’s words sound in my ear. “Think carefully before you select each board from the pile. Their color and grain should smile back at you. Be attentive. Choose wisely and not in haste.” I have my ideas and can imagine what that teak wood I choose will look like when I shape it my way. But George also taught me that the wood will shape and transform me, too. I will remain open to possibility and even leave some room for chance.