Thursday, December 31, 2015

Dead Wood --a pretty short story


Dead Wood

            The grainy smoothness of a planked piece of fresh cut Scottish pine.  The supple strength of  a woman's flesh in her prime.  These are the two things that Chadwick Koslowski loved more than anything else in life.  He learned about handling wood from his carpenter father while growing up in Poland's Mazury forests.  About handling women, his American wife taught him everything.

Chadwick was raised to be a good Catholic like most Poles and he saved himself for marriage. He met his wife in a Chicago bar after moving to America when he was thirty five.  On their wedding night,  she guided him into a world of soft delights just like his father taught him how to take a hard piece of wood and turn it into something pliable, something with potential and utility.

"Are you crying?" she asked him after they made love for the first time.  He had buried his face in the pillow after releasing in her the pent up emotions of a lifetime.  Something inside of him that he didn't even know was broken clicked into place like a knuckle cracking.

"No," he finally said, turning to face her.  She was propped up against the mahogany headboard.  Her soft straight, jet black hair fell down upon her white shoulders that touched the dark  wood behind her.  He nuzzled the nape of her neck and inhaled her slightly musky after scent that mingled with the tangy odor of the headboard.  He felt suspended in time, between boyhood and manhood, between hardness and softness.  Between life and death.

"Don't forget to clean up," she said, pulling away from him and sliding out of  bed.  "You made me dirty.  I'm going to take a shower."

Her words meant nothing to him at the time.  It was only the tight curve of her behind, between back and buttocks that held any significance for him as she walked away.

After that first night with her, the days were different.  He was a specialty cabinet maker and took pride in the skills that his father had taught him. Every time he picked up a piece of wood to work on it, he heard his father's voice guiding him.

Sawing is the most important skill.  The degree of precision you achieve with a saw can make the difference between shoddy and excellent work.  My son, if you know how to make the basic cuts with each of the many types of saws, then you are well on your way to expertise...

Chadwick always watched his father carefully selecting the right piece of Scottish pine or Norway Spruce and handle it lovingly, always running his hand down its length, caressing its girth and placing his face close to its surface to breathe its fragrance.

You have to look at it not as a piece of wood, Chadwick.  You have to see what you are making as being trapped inside the wood.  Your job is to release the new creation like a doctor giving birth.  A carpenter is a midwife in many ways. Don't just work the wood.  Make love to it...

His marriage temporarily cured him of his homesickness.  He missed the forests and lakes of Mazury that were filled with beauty as well as history.  As a boy, he used to sit transfixed for hours on winter nights before crackling fires in their simple cabin home listening to his father and his uncles tell stories from Poland's past.  They fascinated him yet left a bitter ember burning deep within his soul because of what the Germans and Russians had done to his ancestors in the very woods around him.  Massacres.  Brutalities not easily forgotten.

Germans have always coveted Mazury, Chadwick.  They seek beauty not to appreciate it but to conquer it.  Russians just hate us...

Cabinets were Chadwick's specialty.  He made them using Douglas fir, Western hemlock, cedar, pine, hackberry, walnut or oak.   Each type of wood had its own character and meaning for him and he found great pleasure in taking a simple design like a box and turning in to a fine piece of furniture.  When customers marveled at his elegant creations and praised his craftsmanship he simply replied, "I make boxes."

Never boast about your skill because you would have none if it were not for God making trees in the first place...

Each day now that Chadwick spent in the shop was a prelude to a night with his wife.  Every plank that he handled and cut, every joint that he back sawed into existence had to be a perfect fit like the way he fit with his wife.  There was new meaning to his work.  Overlap joints.  Butt joints.  Grooves.  A dowel was no longer simply a round piece of wood that fit into a hole.  It became his penis sliding snugly into an opening that connected two products of nature and made them one.  His semen was the glue that sealed the connection, a strong bonding agent that had a life of its own.

"I'm pregnant," she told him one night after making love.  She said it in a way that reminded him of work.  The way his boss at the shop would say knock off or break time.  I'm pregnant.  There's more work to be done but not right now.  The lovemaking stopped after that.  She grew distant and preferred to be with her girlfriends instead of with him.  Chadwick watched her get big and it bothered him.  He didn't like the idea of a new creation that he started taking shape on its own, hidden behind the fleshy curtain of femininity which he had lived to part almost every night. 

Sometimes the project takes on a life of its own, son.  Sometimes the carpenter just has to do what he can to assist by using his skills and patience.  If you interfere with your will too much, you will ruin it...

As his wife grew more distant towards him, Chadwick would take to walking the streets of Chicago alone after work.  It was all steel and smoke to him now.  The world of soft beauty, sawdust, and flesh was gone.  Car exhaust and concrete replaced it.  He often walked for miles at a time down Addison Street from the Polish neighborhood around Harlem, past Wrigley Field and into the Loop where he would stare up at the skyscrapers and imagine them to be the towering pines of Mazury.  As a boy, he used to take his dog for long walks into the forest surrounding his village and spend hours fishing or swimming in the lake nearest his home.  He would stretch out on the summer grass and stare up into the canopy of trees above him, focusing his gaze on the patch of blue sky overhead, imagining what it would be like to be a tree, always reaching upwards towards heaven, immobile, stalwart, oblivious to squirrels, birds, bugs and invading armies that passed at your feet, never seeing how deep and widespread your roots really were, that hidden part of yourself that only worms and God knew.

Chadwick sometimes found solace in a small, city park near his home.  He walked to relieve his pent up physical frustrations but the park helped his soul.  It was no bigger than a city block and lined all around with fenced in bungalows that separated the tiny yards from the park's asphalt jogging track.  When it was warm, he would lean against his favorite oak tree in the center of the park and strain to see what stars he could see through the smog.  The bark was harsh against his back but it didn't bother him at all.  Touching wood never bothered him.  Even when he got splinters in his hands at work he never complained.  To him, it was the dead tree's way of trying to live again, by embedding itself in something alive.

Have respect for wood, Chadwick.  They had life once...

After the girl was born, his wife left him and moved back out West with her parents.  She wrote a note telling him not to follow her or she would kill herself and the child.
Chadwick found it on the kitchen table when he got home from one of his walks and sat down before he collapsed.  He crumpled the paper in his hands and marveled again at the beauty of wood, how something can be so hard but then be crushed to make something so soft.

 The next day he called into work and quit his job.  He packed his woodworking tools and some clothes into his pickup and left Chicago and drove north.  He drove all day up the shoreline of Lake Michigan until he got bored of the scenery and then turned inland through the dairy farms of Wisconsin and up into Michigan's western upper peninsula where the trees of the Ottawa National Forest gently welcomed and enveloped him without fanfare.  Chadwick rolled down the car window and breathed deeply for the first time in months.  The evergreen scent and deepening dusk tranquilized him until he grew tired from driving and had to stop for the night.  He turned into the parking lot of the Adventure Motel in Mass City and got a room for the night.

 He slept like he hadn't slept in a very long time, like he used to after making love to his wife, dreamless and body heavy, the weight of his own existence pulling him down into a bottomless dark cavern.  He would often wake up in the middle of the night with her beside him, snoring softly in satisfaction.  Many times he put his hand on her sleeping breast, gently cupping the contours and then lightly kissing the nipple that tasted spongy.  She would stir and sigh and he would work his way down across her stomach with his fingertips, pausing to probe the indentation of her navel before sliding his hand into the forest of her mons veneris, massaging her love lips until she grew moist and fully awake, pulling him onto and into her once again.

You must give wood time, my son.  Time to grow.  Time to breathe.  Time to age.  Time to take shape...

Chadwick awoke early and walked to Grandma Byrds, the only restaurant in town, for breakfast.  A young. bespectacled waitress with buck teeth opened the door for him. He was the first customer of the day.

"Hi," she said.  "Coffee?"

"Yes, please," answered Chadwick and sat down at a small table by the window.  He ordered breakfast and watched her walk away to the kitchen with a tripping gait and a high, hard ass that made him sad.  Two logging trucks in the gas station parking lot across the street were firing up their deep, diesel engines to begin another day of hauling cut timber to the mills.  The waitress brought him his pancakes and bacon and he smelled the soap that she used to wash her long, golden hair with when she leaned slightly over him.  He had to talk to her.

"Those trucks," he said, nodding out the window.  "Do they carry year round?"

"Pretty much.  What a job, eh?  Hauling dead wood around for a living."

She filled his coffee cup and Chadwick noticed what fine, thin fingers she had and also the diamond ring so he didn't say anything else.  After breakfast, he walked to the hardware store  and bought some plywood, nails, 2 by 8's a coil of 2 inch Manila rope, a stepladder and a local map.  The owner, a tall but rotund man with a football shaped head helped him put the supplies into the back of his pick up.

"What's the project?" he asked but Chadwick just smiled and paid him.

"You from Illinois?" the owner said again after noticing his license plates.

"I'm from Poland."

"No kidding?  We got a lot of polacks around here.  Come over to work the mines and log the forests years ago."

Chadwick looked at the man for a minute.

"Are you German?" he asked him.

"That's right.  How could you tell?"

"A polack can always recognize a blockhead," he answered and then climbed into his vehicle, slammed the door shut and drove off, leaving the owner standing and staring at his exhaust.

Chadwick used his map to find a dead end forest road that cut deep into the heart of the Ottawa.  The sun was climbing the morning sky but the forest was still thick with dew and shadows that never really faded even at noon.  Chicago no longer existed.  His wife and child no longer mattered.  All that was important now was the project.

Creation begins in the mind.  You must see what the wood is hiding before you can reveal it with your tools...

Chadwick turned off the forest road down a rutted two track that climbed and winded its way up into the Trap Hills of the Copper Country.  This deep in the woods, some paths never completely dry up from the spring thaw and he found himself nearly getting stuck in the mud more than once.  He crossed a thin stream and his front end sunk into a hidden soft spot under the water.   He gunned the engine, stepping down on the gas and slamming from drive to reverse until the vehicle rocked violently and mud shot up everywhere, splattering the windshield and windows in dirty defiance.   Finally, he heard a snap and the truck lurched ahead across the stream.  Chadwick got out to look and saw his front fender hanging by a single bolt so he ripped it off with his bare hands, cursed and threw it as far as he could.

He followed the two track as it wound and climbed through thick branches that scratched the paint surface of the truck.  Sometimes he had to get out and move a log that had fallen across his path. The forest was turning against him.   He found a slight clearing at the top of a hill that overlooked the forest below as far as the eye could see.  It was already noon and the sun was hot and high so he wasted no time in getting to work.  He laid out his tools on the ground and made a square with the four 2 by 8's at the base of a sturdy American elm and nailed them together.   He never cared much for rough carpentry work so he didn't waste a lot of time with precise measurements.

Any monkey can be trained to do rough carpentry, son.  An artist requires a soul..

 After the mudsill was in place, he cut a center girder to fit across the base and block joisted it for added strength.  He then framed the walls and squared them so that the plywood platform would not collapse.  He worked quickly, putting aside all pretenses of craftsmanship.

Form follows function...

 Before lifting the plywood onto the wall frames, he cut a 3 by 3 hole in the center. Chadwick then staggered the remaining 2 by 8's across the top of the wall joists in order to leave enough space in the middle.  He nailed them in place and then lifted the plywood on top of the frame.

Don't make love to a nail with your hammer, son.  Show it who's boss...

Satisfied,  he double checked each of the nails by giving them one last firm tap with his hammer.

Let the wood know it has served its purpose well when you are finished with it. Touch it in some way like you would a lover you are meeting for the last time...

Chadwick then set the stepladder next to the project and climbed on it to test its strength.  He jumped on the plywood a couple of times.

In the strong woods, there is no room for weakness or hesitation.  Many good men have died in the Mazury defending Poland.  Their bones are buried beneath the trees, their flesh fertilizes the mother land...

A slight wind rustled the branches above him.  Chadwick was sweating, not the after sweat of making love that used to cover his body, not the unique mixture of two passionate people done with each other.  It was the sweat of labor, the byproduct of struggling with wood.

The wood should take something out of you just as you take something out of it.  Your countrymen have gone before you, sacrificing and spilling their blood for a purpose...

Chadwick gazed out across the endless Ottawa National Forest below him, a million acres of heaven on earth, a world of living wood, and shouted:

"TAKE ME JESUS, THE TREE OF LIFE..."

The forest hollered back at him, his voice echoing and returning from the sky, the hills, the trees, reshaping his own voice into something new, some sound that never before existed and never will again.

Trees are like women, son.  There are an infinite variety of them and some you can only recognize them by the fruit that hangs from their branches...

Chadwick tossed the Manila line over the lowest elm branch above him and the tree grabbed it like a man reaching for a handshake. He tied the end of the rope around his neck and stepped through the hole in the plywood.

Two months later, the waitress at Grandma Byrd's was reading the local paper when the hardware store owner walked in for a cup of coffee.

"What's in the news?" he asked.

"Not much," she said.  "Says here the last surviving leader, Marek Edelman, of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising died today at the age of 90."

"Dumb polacks.  Ya know they fought back against Hitler's tanks with horses?'

"Hey!  Remember that guy who stopped here from Illinois some time back and bought all that carpentry stuff from you?"

"Yeah.  Real jack ass.  What about him?"

"Says they found him up on the old Norwich outcrop.  Hung himself.  Looks like he had some marriage problems or something."

"Dumb polacks."