Posted in An Itty-Bitty Romance

This Time Last Year

by Jeannie Yee Davis

This time last year, his trip home to spend Valentine’s Day with his wife was interrupted by an assignment. The assignment to restore the fine wood tables at the Divine Mansion kept him away longer than he expected. He lies in his bed every night and every morning, picturing her smiling, blowing kisses, and saying, ‘I love you,’ as she drifts farther away. He reaches out to her and is encouraged to keep working. 

He stooped over the oblong table like a pool player, his face mere inches from the surface. His eyes fixated on the spot amid opaque shavings that looked like large dandruff flakes. He worked the pointy tip of the toothpick into the varnish. “You have to be careful not to damage the lacquer finish beneath the varnish. You see, if you damage the table, that would mean overtime. They won’t like it. They will make us repair the damage, you see. Quite frankly, I don’t have the time to do that. You see, I have a deadline I’m trying to meet.” He spoke in almost a hypnotic whisper without looking up. He repositioned his arm, tensing his grip in preparation for the rapid strokes needed to graze the top layer. 

When he worked up momentum, the varnish flicked off the table like pieces of rice paper. “Removing the varnish from these fine tables requires a master’s skill. Not just anybody has the knack for this. We’re lucky, we do.” He chuckled. “The whole table can’t be treated the same way, you see. Believe me, I know. I’ve encountered a dozen different surfaces. The varnish comes right off with just a flick of the toothpick in some areas, but others require more persistence. But don’t worry; you see, I have devised ways to get around them.” He continued talking at the table, inhaling the vapor or varnish. A page from the PA system periodically drowned out his voice. Cellophane crumbs covered the surface of the mahogany table, and snowflake shavings dusted the hardwood floor beneath him. 

He scraped each spot with determination, following it farther and farther across the table in steady momentum. “When the momentum is broken, we refocus and work another area for a while. I like to come back to these tough spots later. You see, I get a lot more done that way. I like to finish parts of the table quickly, but tough spots slow me down. I’ve got to hurry, you see.” Just then, he came upon a stubborn spot that wouldn’t budge. He rubbed at it with his fingernail, and it cleared a path right through. He held a finger up to his sweaty lips, “Shh, and that’s the secret to how you do it.”  

“Be careful now. Can’t push too hard. You see, don’t wanna dent the table and don’t wanna break another toothpick.” He let out a breath that blew the flakes about the table. “Supplies are hard to come by depending on the staff. There seems to be a high turnover around here.”   

The body of the toothpick dug into the flesh of his fingers. It didn’t bother him. He has become numb to the pain. “I have to finish this one last table, and then they’ll let me go.” Sweat soaked through his white tee shirt. But he kept going.

He stopped to change hands when he couldn’t press down anymore. He swung his arm to release the toothpick onto the table, but it didn’t fall out of his grip. The toothpick embedded itself into the flesh of his fingers. He had to yank it loose from his right hand before tossing it onto the table. He rubbed at his calloused fingers and massaged one stiff finger at a time. He stood up straight and became aware of the tension in his back. He arched backward and stretched as he surveyed the table. He groaned. He took a deep breath and sucked in the familiar medicinal musky dampness. He rubbed his eyes to refocus, drying the beads of sweat from his lashes.

“Oh God! I’ve still got half the table to go. I’ll never finish in time. Wrong attitude! No choice. I must finish, and then I can go home to my wife. It seems forever since I’ve spoken to her, but she’ll understand. I’ve been busy. She’ll appreciate that I’ve devoted all my efforts to getting home to her. I know she’ll be surprised.”

He wiped his wet hair and face with his already-dampened arms. He licked his salty lips, changed hands, and returned to scraping the varnish.

“Excuse me. Excuse me,” she tapped him on the shoulder. “Could you tell me where the office is?” 

“Oh, you startled me.”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”

“The office is that way.” He pointed down the hall.

“Thanks. What are you working on?”

“I’m refinishing this table. That’s my job.”

“Your job is to refinish this table?”

“Not just this table. All the wood tables here.”

“Really? How many have you already done?”

“I’ve done nine. Once I finish this last table, I get to go home to my wife. Gotta finish this project in the next couple of weeks. I will surprise her when I show up on Valentine’s Day.”

“That’s really sweet. Well then, I’d better let you get back to work.” The young woman walked in the direction he pointed. She padded along so her clogs wouldn’t pound against the wood floor. She reached the office where a heavyset woman wearing a pale blue sweater sat with her back to the door. She knocked even though the door was open. “Excuse me, Mrs. Bennett, is this where I report for duty?”

“You must be Kimberly. Hang your coat over there, and I’ll show you around.” The elderly lady stood up, pointed to the coat rack, and led Kimberly outside the office.

Kimberly heard mumbling coming from the man at the table. She tried but couldn’t make out what he was saying. “Mrs. Bennett, who’s that guy over there?”

“That’s Peter. You give him a box of toothpicks, and he stays out of trouble.”

“He said he was trying to finish that table so he could go home to his wife. That’s so sweet.” Kimberly caught Mrs. Bennett’s frown. “What’s wrong?”

“Tsk, tsk, he’s not going anywhere.”

“Why not?”

“His wife was killed this time last year. Her death sent him here to Divine Hope Sanitarium. He’s been doing that since he got here.”  

Leave a Reply