Creatures of Découpage
by Hunter and Bettina Gregg
His body sat slumped over her two front steps. Both elbows he had folded across his bald knees, and in one hand he was gripping a small leather carrying case. It was a nice case, perfect for a pair of reading glasses or perhaps a calligraphy pen, with an embossed horseshoe and a string of southwestern colors needle-pointed along the edges.
Dorothy Ulmer stretched her kitchen phone cord as far as it would allow. Her peach blush smudged the handset, her black bouclé trousers pulled at the seams, but still there was no way to tell if the strange man at her door had his eyes open or shut.
“No, he’s not responding,” she affirmed while nudging his backside with the toe of her slip-on shoe. “I hope he’s not sleeping. And I would guess he’s not a drunk.”
This was not how Dorothy envisioned the start of her day. After she hung up the phone she didn’t bother checking on the young man any further. Help would be along shortly and besides, what more could she possibly do? The front door she closed to a crack in the event he should awake and request a glass of water. Just in case, she checked the icebox in the kitchen to make sure it was stocked.
She was on the dining room floor, measuring, when the telephone rang a few minutes later. It was her son, Harold, whose early morning calls over the last year had amounted to little more than a broken marriage and a string of handouts. She told him she couldn’t speak with him because a delivery man would be arriving shortly with the dining room table – any minute now – and she still needed to measure his grandmother’s hand-woven rug to make sure the dimensions were right.
“What table?” Harold had to ask.
“Harold, please!” she shouted into the phone. “It’s the whole reason I went to the estate sale.”
“You bought Cheryl Pinkerton’s dining room table?”
“What choice did I have? You should have seen those vultures. A whole flock of them were hovering over her sterling flatware.”
“So what happened to your old table? You didn’t get rid of it, did you? I hope not. That was a good table. We could use a good table over here.”
Dorothy rechecked herself in the hallway mirror before opening the front door. Her overblouse was wrinkled, her spiked pixie cut had lost its bounce, and the ambulance she could now hear blaring through the neighborhood. Harold could hear the sirens too, but when he asked what was going on, his mother told him the garbage man had passed out on her front stoop – and then she hung up.
Outside, the late morning sun hammered down on the idling truck parked along the curb. Mixed fumes from the exhaust and open tailgate floated a stench that reminded Dorothy of her mother’s spiced chutney.
She waited in the driveway for the ambulance to arrive, and when it did, two emergency technicians hopped out to greet her. They snapped on their latex gloves and asked her a few questions, which she answered in a curt manner she knew didn’t help.
“There was a knock at the door,” she said, “and I was expecting my dining room table. But instead I got him, so that’s when I called you.”
One technician checked for vitals while the other noticed the leather case now resting on the bottom step, under the patient’s unclenched hand. He opened it up and showed the contents to his partner, who nodded and then pointed to one of the man’s tube socks pushed down around his ankle.
“He got stung,” the handsome technician later told Dorothy. Forty-five minutes had passed since their arrival, during which time she had determined that the one, Harlan, was good-looking and the other, Ralph, was not.
Harlan now stood in the arched doorway of her dining room. He had a black ponytail, rimless eyeglasses, and tattoos running up and down both forearms.
“We found one dose of epinephrine on him, which probably wouldn’t have been enough anyway. Poor guy got blitzed. Did you know you have a wasp’s nest in your elm tree? It’s a big mother. I know a guy who’ll climb up there and knock it out, if you want.”
“A wasp’s nest? On my property?” Dorothy got up off the floor with the measuring tape in her hand. Here it was ten o’clock in the morning and already she wished she’d never woken up. The dimensions of her mother’s hand-woven rug were completely wrong for the kind of table being delivered from Cheryl Pinkerton’s house, and if that weren’t enough, a man had died on her front steps. God help me! All because of a gang of garbage-eating wasps who happened to reside in a shady tree that she had long despised for killing most of her grass anyway.
“Oh well,” she huffed. “I do have my chairs.”
She rolled her fingers across the seatback in front of her, as a way of drawing Harlan’s eyes to one of her more exquisite restorations – a set of stenciled 19th Century Sheraton painted fancy chairs, with of course, the original handgrip tops.
“Good enough,” he said, “we won’t be long now. Once Ralph’s finished with the coroner, we’ll be out of your driveway in no time. You did say you were expecting a dining room table to be delivered shortly?”
“That’s right, a Queen Anne, which obviously is not ideal for the kind of chairs I have. But oh well, c’est la vie.”
Harlan looked down, scrunched his nose at the long painted table in front of him. “What’s wrong with this one? I’m no expert, but I’d say it goes pretty good with the rest of your furniture in this room.”
“Thank you, as do I.” With pleasure she now accepted Harlan’s unspoken invitation to join with him in soaking up every ounce of her favorite room, a true one-of-a-kind, with walls papered in pink cherubs and green garlands, crown molding textured by way of gold leaf, and furniture handpicked and shipped from countries most could only read about.
“But,” she said with pouty lips, “this room and the objects inside it wouldn’t be worth all the tea in China without the love and admiration of those closest to me. And Cheryl Pinkerton, as you can imagine, was a dear, dear friend.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss.”
“If it’s any consolation, I think you got awesome taste.” He smiled, then turned to leave.
“Just one more question, Harlan?” Dorothy directed his eyes to the giant bureau parked beyond the head of the table. “Do you think you could help an old lady move a piece of furniture?”
“I’d be happy to.” He took off his glasses. “Where do you want it?”
The Italian secretary, as she called it, was much too large and cumbersome for anyplace other than one of the sidewalls, especially since Cheryl Pinkerton’s table was exactly three inches longer than the existing one and would thus encroach on the already limited backspace at the head of the table.
“Yeah, that’s no good,” Harlan agreed.
“Which brings us to the million dollar question,” she said. “Where is the perfect spot?”
Dorothy folded both arms and Harlan rocked on his heels, both surveying the entire room. Limited wall space, Harlan felt confident enough to say, narrowed their choices considerably.
“Either we put it here… or over there,” he said. And then, taking a step back, he scratched at his chin. “I think we should put it over there.”
“Agreed,” said Dorothy after some deliberation.
“Now for the heavy lifting part.” Harlan took a deep breath, squatted low to protect his back and to maintain his balance. Then, slowly, delicately, he pulled the secretary toward his body, away from the wall.
“This is one heavy mother,” he grunted.
“I could empty the drawers, if you’d like.”
“Nah, nah…” he said, holding back his breath, until the weight of the entire piece travelled down to his thighs and forced him to wheeze.
Across the room Harlan squat-walked with half his face and chest pressed against the wooden drawers. His eyes were pointed, his cheeks were flush, specks of drool, casting upon every breath, sprayed the découpage drawers. When at last he dropped the monster cabinet and pushed it into position, he let out a loud gratified groan.
“Yikes, that was heavier than I thought.” He massaged the hurt in his hands, admiring the distance he had just travelled, during which point he noticed the picture on the floor, leaning against the wall.
“What’s this?” he said to Dorothy. “Did you know this was behind here?”
Dorothy turned to where he was pointing, to where the secretary had been, and winced. “Oh, I hate that photograph. Pure exploitation… It was a retirement gift to my husband from a colleague at the Associated Press.”
Harlan tucked his chin and chewed his bottom lip. He picked up the frame for a closer look. “I think I’ve seen it before. An original print, eh?”
“Oh yes, and quite famous. My husband knew the photographer. On occasion they would cross paths in their coverage of the Vietnam War. There was much speculation as to whether the photographer had been tipped off, but Harry said that was ludicrous. Every protest by suicide, he’d declare, has to be a matter of timing.”
“The man’s just sitting there…” said Harlan.
“And look at everybody around him…”
“They’re all watching, I know.” Dorothy turned back to the secretary and pulled out a drawer. She checked the contents inside, reorganized them, then pushed the drawer shut.
She took the frame from Harlan. “Why do you suppose they’ve never attacked me? Clearly, the nest has been there for a while. I walk back and forth under that tree every day to fetch the newspaper, to retrieve the mail.”
“Oh, it could be any number of things,” Harlan said. “He could’ve stirred them up by accident. It might’ve been the dark uniform or the coconut sunscreen he was wearing. To be honest, he could’ve picked a more suitable job for his condition. Can’t say I’ve ever run across a garbage man with a bee allergy before.”
The room fell silent until Harlan clapped his hands. “Guess I’d better go check on things.” Backing up, however, he closed one eye and stretched his hands in front of him – much like how Harry would frame a shot.
“You know what you need,” he said to Dorothy. “What you need is a nice custom mirror. One that accentuates the details of this room and draws you in.”
He nodded, she smiled, and then he walked away.
Dorothy sat down in one of the Sheratons and stayed there until well into the afternoon. Around four o’clock, while she was enjoying a glass of Drambuie, the delivery man phoned to say he was running a few hours late. By the time he did arrive at the house, the ambulance had left, the sun had dropped beyond the neighborhood pines, and the wasps in the elm tree had retreated for the night.
“I’m so sorry,” he said when she answered the door. “They’ve been running my tail since the crack of dawn. But I’m here now, and I’ve got your table in the back of my truck. Just tell me where you want it.”
The man looked exhausted, dead tired. He hiked up his pants and fixed his hat that was crooked.
“Oh dear,” Dorothy said. She glanced down at the clipboard he was holding. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake, a terrible slip-up.”
“I specifically told the woman at the estate sale that the table was meant as a surprise for my son. What on earth would I do with another dining room table? I apologize for the misunderstanding. Wait here a moment while I get you his address.”
She closed the door to a crack, and went to the kitchen to fetch a pen and paper. On her way past the hallway she caught glimpse of her profile in the dining room mirror.
© 2010 Hunter and Bettina Gregg