“Making Chairs” by Tim Nalley

The serrated edge of the bread knife left little scars along the baloney. I sliced it thin, not thick like my father used to like it, but as thin as I could get it without making holes. When the skillet was hot, I placed the meat scarred side down and listened to the sizzle and pop as the processed meat started to caramelize. The center rose and made a little dome—the very reason I’d always liked it sliced thin. The thick baloney wouldn’t bubble up in the middle. I poked the center with a knife and watched the cloud of smoke escape then flipped the baloney to the other side and placed a slice of Colby cheese on top of it. I laid two pieces of bread on a Styrofoam plate and slabbed a big glob of mayonnaise on both slices. When the baloney was done—the sweetish smell of the seared meat the indicator—I placed it and the cheese on my sandwich.

Through the window above the sink, I could see the snow beginning to thicken over the back yard. It very rarely snowed in Alabama, but when it did, I always craved fried baloney. I was only about ten in the blizzard of ’93, but I remembered making fried baloney sandwiches with my dad for lunch every day we were snowed in. Every day we would make those sandwiches. Dad would make an extra for mom, and when I’d take it to her, she would smile and say “thank you,” and eat it slowly. I knew she didn’t like baloney, but she didn’t complain at all that week we were snowed in, just smiled and thanked me and ate the sandwich. I think it was because she was happy to have Dad home to make the sandwiches for her.

The day my dad came home from Desert Storm, Mom was antsy. She kept reaching for her neck and playing with her hair in the rearview mirror of the truck on the way to the airport. I’d never seen her obsess so much over her appearance, but every few minutes, she looked in the mirror and ran her hands through her hair. The sky was the color of coal. When we got close to Birmingham, the rain came gushing down. We waited for about an hour for his plane to come in, and every few minutes, she would run over to the window to look at the planes that were arriving like she would be able to see him. If she wasn’t running for the windows, she was fussing over her hair, and cussing the rain for making it fall. When he finally arrived, she ran to him and jumped in his arms. It was like all of those romantic tearjerkers she was always watching. In the truck, Mama wanted to sit in the middle, which I thought was odd, but I didn’t argue because I was usually stuck in the middle and I was happy to be able to sit by the window. All the way home, she sat with her arms around his waist while he drove. I thought he looked uncomfortable, but if he was, he never said a word about it.

Before the war, Daddy had made his living making and selling wooden chairs, and since he’d come home, he was right back at it. He didn’t use processed lumber. Instead he’d wake up early in the morning and forage for twigs and branches in the woods behind our house, then he’d spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon in his shop. We could hear him cutting and hammering all day. Then in the late afternoon, he would make his deliveries. He traveled all over Saint Clair, and Shelby, and Jefferson county, delivering chairs and tables to all manner of people. On Sundays, we’d all pile in his truck to head to church, and then he’d be right back in that shop when he got home. He was always making furniture, always delivering, so I knew he must have been making a good living at it.

Every now and then, Mama would go out and sit on an old stump he’d made for her before the war. She’d go on and on about her day or about the gossip of the town; about so-and-so’s new boyfriend or such-and-such’s financial woes. Before the war she was out there near every day, but since he came home she was sitting on that stump less and less.

He wouldn’t let me come in the shop, but he’d leave the door open so I could watch him work. I would watch him shape the legs, measuring them even, bending and forcing them where he wanted them to be. He’d sand the feet until they were flat. After he got the stretcher on, he’d sit in it to make sure it was all even, and every time it was just about perfect. I never saw him have to cut any off after he’d got it all together.

One Friday after school, Daddy met me in the driveway in his truck. “Hop in,” he said. Mama was standing on the porch waving at me. I waved back and threw my backpack in the back of the truck, climbed in. We drove a piece, crossed over Logan Martin and past a couple of farms that were bunched up together near Vincent until we got to a small trailer on a bunch of land off Highway 25. There were goats out front and a chicken coop off to the side. The trailer looked like it was in need of a good pressure washing, and the yard stunk of chicken and goat shit. “Stay here,” daddy said, and he climbed out of the truck and grabbed the lone chair out of the back. I watched him through the rear window approach the porch and knock. An older black man answered. They talked for a minute, and I noticed the longer they talked the more my daddy started waving his finger and pointing at the guy, stabbing the point of his finger into the guys chest. His voice kept getting louder. The guy held up his hands and waved Daddy off, went to walk back inside, but Daddy grabbed him and pulled him back out. After that, everything went a little crazy.

The guy reached in the back of his pants and pulled out a pistol, went to point it at Daddy, but Daddy grabbed his hand. He pinned him against the wall while he wrestled the pistol away from him. I just sat in the truck, frozen. Daddy moved with a violence I’d never seen before.

After he got the pistol away, he flung the guy down on the chair. When he hit it, I noticed a wrapped up package fell from the bottom of the chair on top of him. Daddy mounted him and kept punching him over and over in the face. I opened the door of the truck, and it made a loud squeak. He looked over at me, blood spattered on his chin, his eyes wild like I’d never seen them. It scared me. He still had that pistol in his hand. I wondered for a second if he was going to shoot that man, but he didn’t. He threw it at him, but the guy didn’t move. I wondered if he was dead.

Daddy didn’t say anything when he got back in the truck. He grabbed a towel from behind his seat and wiped the blood off his hands and his face. I watched the black man lying there on the porch through the rear window as we pulled out of the driveway. He never moved in the time it took us to get from the house to 25. When we got far enough away I couldn’t see him anymore, I turned back around. “Is he dead,” I asked him.

“Nah. He ain’t dead.” He looked at me for a minute and his face started to soften.

One night before he went to Iraq—I couldn’t have been more than six—we were sitting down to dinner and everything was real quiet, and he said, “Did y’all hear about that fight at the Captain D’s last night?” Mama and I both shook our heads. “I don’t know if it was a biker gang or what, but it was brutal.” He paused for a minute, waiting for the perfect time to deliver his punchline. Whenever the joke was especially corny, his lip would always curl up on the right side in a sort of half-smile, trying not to give it away. “Every single fish in that place was battered,” he said, and then he was banging on the table laughing while Mama and I shook our heads and groaned. “Every fish was battered, Eamon,” he yelled.

Me and Mama couldn’t help but laugh after that. Since he came home, though, I couldn’t even remember seeing him so much as cracking a smile.

We got back into town and he pulled off at Smith’s and came out a few minutes later with a six-pack of Coors. He drank a few of them there in the truck and tucked the other two behind the seat. “You ever been in a fight?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Don’t ever start a fight, but if somebody comes at you, you by God defend yourself. You understand?”

I nodded and he grabbed me by the neck and pulled me over to him and gave me a rough hug. “Maybe tomorrow I can teach you to scrap.” He laughed and started the truck up. For a second, that laugh reminded me of the way he was before the war, those corny dad jokes and that big guffaw. When we pulled up in the driveway a few minutes later, though, it was gone. I went to get out of the truck and he grabbed me by my shirt. “Best your mama doesn’t hear about this.”

“Yes sir,” I said.

Mama and I were sitting on the couch watching Tom and Jerry the next morning when Daddy came in. As soon as he walked in the room, Mama moved to the kitchen, grabbed a rag off the sink, and started wiping the counters. Daddy didn’t say anything to her. He just watched her. They were like that more and more the longer he’d been home. She seemed like a completely different person from the woman who held on to him all the way home from the airport just a couple of weeks before. Now they were like ghosts haunting the same house, moving from room to room, and never meeting in between. After a few seconds, he looked back at me. “Come on. I wanna show you something,” he said.

I followed him out to the shop where he pointed at Mama’s stump. “Sit,” he said. He grabbed a clamp off his table. His workspace was even emptier and cleaner than our dinner table. He held the clamp up, spun the handle. “Know what this is he asked.

“It’s a clamp,” I said.

“C-clamp.” He grabbed a few twigs and used the c-clamp to hold them together.

I looked around the shop. Everything had a place, and everything was exactly where it should have been. On the wall behind him hung peg-board with tools—hammers, clamps, pliers, and saws—in various shapes and sizes. One spot sat empty with the shape of the clamp Daddy was holding drawn perfectly in permanent marker. What I loved the most, though, was the smell, like what I would imagine a Christmas tree farm to smell like; the smell of whittling a point on the end of a stick, but multiplied by a hundred.

He grabbed a piece of twine and used it to bind the twigs together. “Watch everything I do,” he said. As he hammered a nail into the branches, he kept moving his fingers farther and farther from the impact point. He seemed almost afraid of the hammer coming down on his finger. I’d never seen him like that. Afraid. He was always a little wild and never really showed fear of anything. Once, when we were fishing, I saw him grab a moccasin by the tail without even flinching. He was always doing stuff like that. But that day in his shop he looked vulnerable. Like he was thinking of all the crazy things he’d done over his life and wondering how he hadn’t died and what crazy thing he might do that would finally beat him. He wouldn’t let me touch any of the saws or clippers. He was even a little timid with them. More than anything, though, he wanted me to watch. He just kept saying, “I’m not always going to be around.” And I remember his eyes were wide. Wider than I’d ever seen anyone’s eyes, and he kept looking all around like he was afraid that at any time, someone or something might come out from under a table or something.

After he put a chair together, he made me follow him outside. In the driveway, he squatted down. “I want you to punch me,” he said.

I just stared at him. I didn’t want to hit him. Hell, I didn’t want to hit anybody. There were boys at school that would sooner hit you than look at you, but those boys were the kind of boys I didn’t want anything to do with. One of them, Rex, was always trying to pick a fight with me when I was minding my own business reading a book in the lunchroom. Just a couple of days before he’d come over and knocked my tray to the floor and when I bent to pick it up, he drove his knee into the back of my head.

“I need to know what I’m working with, boy. Punch me.”

I knew he wouldn’t stop until I did what he said, so I balled my fist up and tried to put my full force behind the punch. Daddy staggered back a bit, but he didn’t fall. He shook his head. “Shit,” he said. “Hit me, dammit.”

It was cold that day. One of the coldest of the winter. He made me stay out there with him until I could hit him hard enough to knock him back. He taught me to go for the knees and try to take the guy down. I remember leaning over him after he’d showed me how to take him down feeling his heavy breath in my face, smelling the beer on his breath. “If you get a guy on the ground,” he said. “You can pound on his face as much as you want. It don’t matter how wimpy your punches are then. But if all else fails, you need to know how to shoot.” He pulled a pistol out of his waistband. “This here’s a Beretta 92FS,” he said. “Just like the M9 I carried in the war.’

I stared at the gun. I knew he carried. He used to take me down to South Sandy to shoot before the war, but it still scared me seeing him with it. He held it out to me. “Take it,” he said. I hesitated for a second, but took it from him. I tried to remember everything he had taught me about holding it. Finger on the guard, never on the trigger, pointed at the ground. “You handle that thing pretty good,” he said. “I want you to point it at me.”

I held the gun at my side and stared at him, dumbfounded by what he’d just said.

“Now it’s loaded, so you keep your finger off the trigger, but I want you to get the feel for what it’s like to point a gun at somebody.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Don’t be a pussy, Eamon. You hit like a god damn vegetarian, and I need to know you can defend yourself if it comes down to it.”

I held it at my side for a little longer, feeling the weight of it in my hands, then I lifted it to his chest for half a second and quickly let it drop back to my side.

“Not like that,” he said. “Hold it like I taught you. Like you aim to let that bullet fly.”

“I can’t, Daddy,” I said.

“Goddammit, son. Do what I say.” I jumped when he raised his voice. I’d never heard that tone from him before. “Obey me,” he said.

I moved my feet to stand in the isosceles stance like he’d shown me, held the gun up to his chest. I lined the sights up right in the middle.

“Good,” he said. “Hold it there for a minute. Get a feel for it. I want you to tell yourself you could pull that trigger if you ever had to. Let me hear you say it.”

I said nothing. Just stood there barely able to keep the gun up from trembling.

“Say it, boy.”

“I could pull the trigger,” I said.

“Say it again.”

“I could pull the trigger.”

He moved off to the side and came over and took the gun from me. I was shaking, but I didn’t know if it was more from the cold or from pointing a loaded pistol at my father. My toes and fingers stung with frostbite, but I barely even noticed the pain.

Mama was sitting on the sofa when we got back inside. I sat next to her, still shivering. She grabbed my hand, shook her head at Daddy when she saw the red of my knuckles, but other than that she didn’t raise any objections. “I’ve done ate,” she said. “Y’all can make yourselves a baloney.” She didn’t look at either of us when she said it. She just kept watching some show about wedding dresses.

A few nights after that, Daddy came stumbling into my room in the middle of the night. He’d been out delivering when I came home from school. His eyes were bloodshot and he was shaking. He looked like a different man, a man I didn’t recognize. He didn’t say anything when he walked in. He just sat in the floor next to my bed for a while, staring out the window.

I woke the next morning to sirens blaring coming up our driveway. I ran outside to see them cuffing him and loading him in the back of the car. Mama was screaming and trying to get away from one of the officers holding her back. I just stared at him. I couldn’t stop thinking about him making me point that gun at him.

After they left, Mama just sat on the porch screaming and begging for him to come back.

At school the next day, Rex came up and tripped me. He stood over me, holding me down with his foot “Your daddy’s a coward,” he said. “And a fucking psycho killer.”

“Get off me, asshole,” I shot back.

“What you gonna do,” he said. “Shoot me like your daddy did that old man?”

“Shut up.”

“Or you gonna run away like your daddy did from the war.”

Before I even knew what was happening, I tackled him at the knees, pinning him to the ground. I dropped my fist on his nose, putting every bit of my weight behind it that I could muster. I punched him two or three times before the blood started trickling out. Seeing it, I froze there, suddenly afraid of how easy it had been for me to make another boy bleed. I let him up and he ran away.

“How was your day,” Mama asked when I got home.

“Good,” I said. I knew I didn’t need to tell her about the fight. The school would call her if they hadn’t already and I knew she was still too hung up on Daddy to even care. I walked out to the shop, pulled the c-clamp off the wall, and sat on the stump, staring at everything in its place, just as he left it, and just as he would have wanted it to stay. Then I threw the clamp against the pegboard wall, watched the tools scatter and fall to the floor, and walked inside to make myself a fried baloney.

I sliced it thin, not thick like my father liked it, but as thin as I could get it without making holes.

TimTim Nalley is a recent graduate in creative writing at The University of Alabama in Birmingham. His work has appeared in Aura and Wingspan. He lives in Odenville, Alabama with his family.