The only thing Heather asks for when we move is a bed. Not a mattress set on skinny metal bars, but an honest-to-God bed with headboard and frame. She says a bed should be made from wood. She points to a magazine and says, Sutter-style panel bed. Then, crown molding, bun feet, mortis-and-tenon joinery.
So I say, I’ll build it.
I’ve got hands for wood and it’s two months before I start a teaching job at Bayside Academy. Heather smiles. She knows I’m serious. We talked about this on our honeymoon at the Grand Hotel just three weeks ago. And I’ve done this before. I built our coffee table to the exact dimensions of a sushi service. I have my grandfather’s lathe. I can handle this. I buy lumber, clear space in the garage, and dig my tools from moving boxes. I drop an old sheet to the floor and lug my work table to the center. I rip the picture from the magazine and tack it to the wall. The measurements are right here on the page.
I’ve got hands for wood. I can handle this.
My brother Graham stops by for coffee on Saturday. We’re in the garage and I’m pointing out modifications to the bed.
“Look here,” I say. I drop a finger on graph paper. “Drawers.”
“Drawers?” he says.
“You’d never think to do it, would you? I could sink two drawers on each side. You know, sweaters, sheets, whatever.”
“So what, you’re going to dig holes in the mattress?”
“No. Come on. The mattress sits on top of beams.”
Graham squints at the plans. “Won’t that be sort of high?”
“A mattress is only ten-inches thick.”
“But the box springs.”
“Yeah. Those too. It won’t be too high.”
“You’ll need a pole vault to get in bed.”
“What about tools?”
“I’m all set. Pop’s lathe, that jigsaw, and my baby here.” I stroke the yellow handle of a circular saw. “It’s a DeWalt. Heavy duty. Carbide-tipped blade.”
“But you’ve got detail work in these plans.”
“A few hand tools. That’s all I need.”
Graham pours the last of the coffee into his cup. The coffee maker turned up in the garage when we moved, and I’ve decided to keep it here for this project. For me, it’s coffee all morning and cokes in the afternoon. I don’t sleep much, so caffeine keeps me moving. For a stretch in college, I felt lucky to get two straight hours. I wake at the faintest sound. If the ceiling fan hums at a higher pitch, I’m up. Heather is just the opposite. She’ll sleep through lightning and thunder.
“Pop built this entire house,” I say. “I can build a bed.”
Graham sits on a stool and scratches stubble on his chin. He can grow a full beard in three days. He readjusts his baseball cap. We talk about the bed, the Grand Hotel, and Alabama’s summer heat. Our mutt dog Blue circles twice, then lies at our feet. Graham finishes his coffee.
“Is Blue fixed?” Graham asks.
“They fix all the dogs at the pound,” I say. “No exceptions.”
“It’s a shame. Blue is a fine dog.”
“Blue was the best man in our wedding.”
“So why don’t you tell me why you really eloped.”
“I just told you,” I say. “Too much stress. Keep things simple. Two people, a waterfront view, a nice sunset. What more could you want?”
“Your family, for starters.”
“I know. I know. But that’s just not us. Heather and I wanted our day to be our day.”
“Give me a fucking break. Weddings aren’t about the bride and groom. It’s the weepy mothers that deserve it. And hell, you’ve done this three times now.”
“Uh huh. But don’t forget the weepy stepmothers and half-sisters and that wanker third cousin who pissed in the azaleas and stole a bottle of bourbon from an open bar.”
I sketch a circle into the headboard and look up. “Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at your wedding. But that’s not what Heather wanted.”
“Fine. But what about you?”
“I wanted the same thing. Just the two of us.”
“Not a one.”
I tap my pencil on the work table and grin. Graham smiles back. Blue twitches oversized paws, chasing rabbits in his sleep.
“Can you believe we both moved back to Alabama?” I ask.
“My new job is worth it,” he says. “But I didn’t think you’d ever come back.”
“And with Heather,” I say. “That’s the hardest part to believe.”
“Sis won’t come back,” Graham says. “She wouldn’t live in Alabama if they made her queen of Mardi Gras.”
“She left because they tried to make her queen.”
“Do you miss Virginia?” Graham asks.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said. I’m talking about the cabin, the dog, trout streams, cooler weather.”
“Sure. The dog,” I say. “I miss some things. But not others.”
“Audrey wasn’t all bad.”
“But our relationship.” I raise my eyebrows and exhale.
“Things looked good to me.” Graham slips both arms inside his t-shirt and pushes out faux breasts. He stretches the shirt until it tears.
“You’re an idiot,” I say. “That’s not even the right wife.”
“I’m pretty sure that remembering who you were married to was your problem,” he says. “At least you kept the dog this time.”
Blue begins to bark. Not real barks, but quiet, dream barks that sound more like whimpers.
“My only child,” I say.
“I should get back to little Ellie,” he says.
“She’s a sweet one.”
“She is. You know she’s shy of men now. Not sure why.”
“Is that normal?”
“Sarah says it is. She’s read all the books, so I’m sure it’s fine. When are you guys going to step up?”
“Heather doesn’t want kids. We’ve got Blue.”
“You’ve said that.”
“I’m with her.”
“You’ll come around. Both of you.”
“We want what we want,” I say.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Graham flicks a hand out and pats the air between us. He steps under the open garage door and into gauzy mist. “Better work on your bed, Ben. You can fill those drawers with rubbers.”
When Heather wakes up, she rolls off our mattress and walks straight into the garage. She’s in t-shirt and panties and her newly cropped hair stands on end. I can’t get used to the haircut and I double-take when she steps into the light.
“Well?” she asks.
“It’s been a week,” I say. “I’m in the design phase.”
“Just checking.” Heather goes to the coffee pot. She picks it up, then puts it down.
“Graham stopped by. I’ll make more.”
“No. I’ll make a pot in the kitchen. Your mother sent us a giant chrome thing that says it’ll make a latte.”
“Is that what that is?”
“It says it makes espresso. Steams the milk and everything. Push a button and presto, it’s hot and ready.”
I slip my hand between Heather’s thighs.
“Presto,” I say.
“Nope,” she says. “I’m just hot.”
I pull back my hand and shake it. I blow on my fingers.
“This humidity is unreal,” I say.
“I’m sweating just standing here.”
“Fairhope is hot,” I say.
“Hot.” Heather says this through a yawn. She lifts her arms and stretches her back, exposing a pink, dime-sized birthmark below her navel.
“I’ve been designing a carving for the headboard.”
“Yeah. An oak tree. Oaks symbolize love. I looked it up.”
“Love.” Heather raises her eyebrows and snorts.
“Love.” I make a heart with my index fingers and thumbs. “If I add acorns, it could symbolize fertility, but I figure we’ll be good with love.”
“Are you shitting me with this?”
“No ma’am. I am one artsy motherfucker.”
Heather stands close and I wrap an arm around her waist. She still smells of salon chemicals. I kiss the nape of her neck. Her skin is damp with perspiration. The birthmark turns red.
A month later, we throw a dinner party. The boxes are gone, art hangs on the walls, and the to-do-list goes in the garbage. We have power, phone, cable, and water. Heather’s Jeep and my Volvo carry Alabama plates, licenses, and insurance again. We’ve eaten two scoops of crawfish at Judge Roy Bean’s and been out to see the Monday night movie at Red Bluff Theater. I even found a lake behind some soybean fields that I didn’t know existed. There’s a path through the woods and I can walk over without getting caught. When I’m frustrated by our bed, when the measurements don’t match up, or when I ruin yet another bun foot on the lathe, Blue and I sneak out to the lake and fish.
But the house feels settled enough, so we invite three couples to dinner. Graham and Sarah, of course; they come early and help set up. Fred and Maxine arrive with a potted vanilla orchid. Heather swaps out her own centerpiece for the new one. Yellow flowers hang down like trumpets with softly curved openings. Long, thermometer-shaped buds dangle next to the blooms. Buds outnumber blooms four to one.
“Thank you so much,” Heather says. “It looks like this will flower for weeks.”
“We love them,” Maxine says.
“Yeah,” Fred says. “But get this. The flowers on these guys can only be pollinated in a single day. If the greenhouse man isn’t there to hand-pollinate on that day, and just that one day, the vanilla bean won’t form.
“This thing makes beans?” I ask.
“That makes me sad,” Heather says. “How does it work in the wild?”
“I think there’s a Mexican insect that does the dirty work,” Fred says.
“The orchid pimp,” Graham says, turning his hat sideways.
“Only one bottle of wine down and we’ve moved right into pimps,” Maxine says. She lifts a glass of club soda on ice. “Cheers.”
“Take your hat off,” Sarah says. “This isn’t fight night.”
Graham works a combination of upper-cuts in the air.
Shane and Delia let themselves in the front door, red-faced and carrying four bottles of wine. Blue barks and wags his thick brown tail. Shane lets Blue lick his face.
“Sorry we’re late,” Delia says. “Traffic.”
“Sex,” Shane says. He’s got a thick red beard and perfect teeth.
“Pimps and sex,” Sarah says. “Delightful.”
Maxine and Sarah clink glasses.
“Welcome, welcome,” I say. Heather and I take the wine bottles and put them on the sideboard.
“Wine, beer, or booze before dinner?” Heather asks.
“Two wines,” Delia makes a peace sign with her hand and Shane grabs it. He bends down her middle finger. “One wine, one whisky.”
Delia frowns and points her index finger at Shane. “Be good.”
“Okay,” I say. “Everybody knows everybody, right?”
“Maxine and Delia haven’t met,” Heather says, handing Delia her wine. I pour the scotch for Shane and hand it across the table.
“Maxine, Delia. Delia, Maxine,” I say. Maxine stands a foot taller than Delia and when they shake hands, it looks as if Delia is in mid-curtsy.
“Shane, you remember Fred from Graham’s wedding.”
“You bet,” Shane says. “Fred and I conspired to throw Graham in the Bay.”
“Fuckers,” Graham says. “I had to ride in the limo like that. They charged us extra. I got a rash in my crotch.”
Shane and Fred high five.
“I love the house,” Delia says. “Beautiful.”
“We love it too,” Heather says, then looks to me. “Just one last project and we’re all set.”
“It’ll be done in three weeks,” I say.
“What’s all this?” Maxine asks.
“The pole-vault bed.” Graham raises his glass.
“Shut up,” I say. “It’s going to be perfect.”
“What, what, what?” Maxine says.
“Ben has decided to build a bed for us,” Heather says. “Ben does great work. You’ve seen the coffee table.”
“Sushi night!” Fred says. He squeezes his eyes shut and bows. Shane plays along and bows back.
“But this is a big project,” Heather says.
“A bed should be rock solid,” Shane says.
“It’s fine,” I say. “I’ve got it under control.”
I turn to face the sideboard and pour fresh drinks.
After dinner, we step out onto the back porch so Shane can smoke. Blue runs into the yard and disappears into shadow. The Childress River slinks past, slow and bright with reflected moonlight.
“Why don’t you ever fish the river?” Graham asks.
“I’m not sure anything’s alive in there,” I say. “Besides, I found a lake full of bluegill.”
I look at my feet and whistle.
“Is it a fucking secret?” Graham asks.
As Shane lights his cigarette, Fred pulls out a handful of cigars.
“I’ve got a secret,” Fred says.
“No you don’t,” Maxine says.
“Come on Max, it’ll be fine.” Fred see-saws one cigar between his fingers. “Anyone join me?”
“Sure,” I say. “What’s the occasion?”
“Fred,” Maxine says.
“Max here—” Fred begins.
“Fred.” Maxine cuts him off and glares.
“We got one in the hopper!” With closed eyes, Fred lifts his chin up, bends his knees and thrusts his pelvis.
“Fred.” Maxine crosses her arms. “We are supposed to wait until the doctors tell us it’s safe.”
Fred shrugs. Then he hands out cigars. Maxine and Sarah pass. As we light cigars and make toasts, I listen to Blue snuffling through the shrubs. He barks once, then growls, and something unseen scrambles over the fence. Blue stands on hind legs and sniffs the fence post, a patch of light falling across his uneven ears.
“You know it’s a miracle we’re pregnant,” Maxine says.
“Max,” Fred says.
“What with Fred’s, well, limitation.” Maxine winks at Fred. Fred doesn’t wink back.
“Give it up, Freddie,” Graham says, lifting his fists.
“Slow swimmers?” Delia asks. “Cigars will do it.”
“Raw oysters cancel those out,” Shane says. “I eat them everyday.”
“Thanks, Max,” Fred says. His face goes slack. “I played rugby in college.”
“Oh hell,” I say. “I don’t think I want to hear the rest of this.”
“I do,” Heather says.
Fred looks at his shoes. “We were in a pile up and a guy stomped my balls with his cleat.”
We all groan.
“They removed one and fixed up the other. They said I’d function fine, but they didn’t sound optimistic about fertility.”
“Uniball,” I say.
“Uniball hits a homerun,” Graham adds.
“Freddie one nut,” Shane says, extending a hand. “Congratulations on your baby.” They shake in earnest. Maxine giggles and pats a hand on her stomach.
“I can’t believe you’ve kept this a secret all these years,” Heather says.
“Would you tell that story?” Fred asks.
“I think it’s sweet,” Delia says. “One little ball triumphs over adversity.”
At this, everyone laughs. Shane squeezes Delia and kisses the top of her head. Fred scrunches up his face and lifts a fist into the air. He makes like he’s banging a door with the fist and marches in place. Blue squeezes under Heather’s chair and barks. I go inside for more wine and scotch.
On the path to the lake, Blue chases rabbits. They’re small and fast and Blue has trouble deciding which one to hunt. If a rabbit darts across the path, left to right, Blue runs hard through low brush until the second rabbit shoots under his nose heading left. Blue brakes, sliding in pine straw, and reroutes with his nose to the ground. By the time the third rabbit jumps across the path, Blue freezes, turning his head side to side, then looks at me. I shrug.
At the lake, Blue jumps in first thing. He swims out fifteen or twenty yards, sniffing and lapping at the surface. Then, as if suddenly realizing the ground has left his feet, Blue jerks a U-turn and paddles fast to shore. He shakes, pants, and lies at my feet. We do this every time.
I fish with a cheap Zebco I bought in town. It’s short and light and easy to carry. There’s a cartoon picture of Snoopy on the reel. I tie cork, sinker, and hook to the end of the line and dig up worms on the way. The underside of one rock can have enough for an hour. If not, I keep a minnow lure in a box in my pocket. The minnow, red and yellow with reflective stripes, makes a noise like a rattlesnake when I shake it. The googley eyes on his face spin. But the minnow never works. I’ve only caught fish with worms.
Today, the sun sits fat and hot at the top of the sky. I’m soaked in sweat and hang my shirt from a branch. I wade in knee-deep and cast into the crooks of a fallen tree. Blue rolls on his back at the grassy edge of the shore. I’m watching him when the fish bites. The Snoopy rod doubles over. Line pulls from the reel, singing high and fast. I grab hold and start the fight. But a few seconds and it’s done. The fish loops the tree and my hook snags mossy wood. The fish shakes loose and flicks a tail at the surface. Blue runs for the splash. Usually, Blue jumps right in and bites at the water as if the fish is still there. But today, Blue stops short of the fallen tree. He dips his head and sniffs. He begins to whine.
I reel in my line as I walk to the tree. When I get the hook sorted out, I see what Blue sees. A small raccoon, wet and motionless, lies curled up at the waterline. Blue turns a circle and whines.
“Hush, Blue,” I say. “No need to cry.”
The raccoon looks to be a pound, maybe less. His eyes sit open, unblinking as I nudge him with the tip of my sandal.
“Easy, Blue, I think this one’s dead.”
Blue lies down with his nose to the raccoon. I can’t stop staring either. The glassy eyes and black nose remind me of Blue as a puppy. But it’s the paws that get me. I go to my knees and take one between my finger and thumb. It’s too much, so I stand up and look at the lake. Three teenage girls walk along the opposite side with lawn chairs and beach towels.
“Sorry, buddy,” I say.
But it won’t leave me and I sling the fishing pole into the lake. The girls are setting up their chairs and stripping down to bathing suits. They look up, suddenly embarrassed, and clutch towels to their chests. I jump back from the water and run with Blue to the trail.
I wake up at two a.m., cold with night sweats. Heather sleeps on her back, her head ticking side to side and her lips mouthing words I can’t understand. I slip out and walk downstairs. Blue stays put, curled in a ball at the foot of the bed. His eyes follow me as I go. In the kitchen, I take a Coke from the fridge and carry it to the garage. Thin squares of moonshine slant through the garage door windows, and in this indigo light, the bed looks finished. The beams and bun feet seem evenly spaced, correctly sized, and precisely joined. The stain seems rich and consistent. The headboard, tall and wide and topped with crown molding, almost looks like the wall of an English billiards room. There are no drawers, and even if there were, there are no rubbers to fill them with. I never started the carving. I knew I would fail.
But right now, in this light, the bed is beautiful. I pad along the edge of the room, toeing boxes and stepping on screws. I retrieve a bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch from under the top tray of my tool box. Then I pull the magazine page from the wall. I backtrack to the kitchen for the phone and sit at the dining room table. I don’t even open the Coke. Instead, I take a shot of scotch from the bottle and read the bottom margin: To place an order, call 1-800-762-1005, 24 hrs/day, 7 days/wk. So I call. I’m given an automated greeting and put on hold. Your call will be taken in the order in which it was received. I wonder who else finds themselves in need of Sutter-style furniture at two o’clock in the morning. I stare at the vanilla orchid, noticing that more blooms have opened, and think that maybe two o’clock in the morning is exactly the time at which a person finds himself in need of a good bed.
Blue appears in the kitchen, and it’s his clicking paws that remind me of a dog I used to know. A dog who slept under the bed when I lived in Virginia. My dead father’s bed. It was a mahogany Hepplewhite with slender posts, hand-carved rosettes and beading. I could have sold it for five thousand dollars, but the thought of taking money made me sick. It looked ridiculous even after I tore off the drapery. Nothing felt right about sleeping in it, if I could sleep at all. And then there’s the girl who became my wife, who became my ex-wife, who slept in that bed. Not to mention the bastard who bought it. So when I packed my bags, I left the bed where it stood.
Blue licks my hand. A cool draft floats in from the garage, sending chills down my back. I spill drops of scotch on the table, beading up like dew. I take another swallow. It won’t be long now before summer is over.
A bright-voiced woman clicks on the line.
“How can I help you this evening?”
“I want a bed,” I say. I pluck an open flower from the orchid and hold it to my nose. I am stupidly surprised to discover the bloom does, in fact, smell like vanilla. I wipe my eyes.
“Is there a particular style I can help you with?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say. “Sutter-style panel bed. Crown molding, bun feet, mortis-and-tenon joinery.”
“Queen. No, wait. King.”
“Excellent choice. How will you be paying this evening?”
“That’ll be fine, sir. I just need to take down some information.”
“Of course,” I say.
Then I tell her everything.
Murray Dunlap’s work has appeared in about fifty magazines and journals. His most recent book Fires will be published by Ardent Writer Press on June 7th, 2015 (the seven-year anniversary of a car wreck that very nearly killed him). His first book, Bastard Blue, was published on the same date in 2011. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times, as well as to Best New American Voices. The story “Race Day” was a finalist for the American Fiction Short Story award, 2014. You can read more of his work at www.murraydunlap.com.