Friday, October 2, 2009

"Dead King Furniture" By Landis Lane from "Journeys of Love Voices of The Heart"

"In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month"

When my Aunt Ruby died several years ago, I was stuck with her furniture. I can’t tell you why, it just happened. After a long, fruitless battle with breast cancer, which ravaged her once luscious curves and ended her life; all that remained was her furniture.

She didn’t just die…she faded away. She breathed slowly then drifted off on a wave of painkilling morphine. We all sat around the bed, not quite realizing that it was over. Finally, we shook ourselves out of the stupor of what seemed like an endless vigil. After all the arrangements had been made, we read the will.
She left the furniture to her son, Leon. He took one last look at the ornate carved curls and gilded wood amidst the satin embroidered seat cushions and said, “I couldn’t sit on that “crap” when I was a kid so why would I want to sit on it now? You can have it.”

I still don’t know why he looked directly at me when he made that comment. I should have said, “No, you keep it, I really don’t like gold-painted wood and aquamarine satin.” I thought about that all the way to the U-haul company where Leon and a few of my other cousins cheerfully loaded the sheet-laden couch, chair and glass-top table into the truck. The table was heavy and it took three grunting, sweaty cousins to hoist it into the trailer. They stopped for a beer break in between grunts and back strain. Then suddenly, I opened my mouth to tell them that I didn’t want this “crap”, but the words stuck in my throat as though some unseen hand reached up to choke me, preventing me from breathing. They didn’t look too pleased with my expression.

“But—but,” I stuttered.

Their narrowed eyes and perched lips indicated that unloading all that heavy furniture was not going to happen. The blood-red-and white-trimmed crystal lamp was to ride in the back of my car, cushioned by blankets and down comforters to keep the crystals from shattering. Each crystal had been lovingly wrapped in tissue paper by my cousin’s wife, Portia. She was probably on her knees thanking God that she wasn’t going to be shamed into keeping this monstrous stuff. What had I ever done to Aunt Ruby to be saddled with her furniture?

I was a dutiful niece. I visited and often read to her. I smiled at her, told her jokes and ignored her grimaces of laughing pain. I even combed and styled her sparse hair until it fell out and then bought her flamboyant wigs to cover her smooth pate.
She didn’t even leave it to me, I wailed inwardly, as I watched the chair, tables and finally the couch being wrestled into my living room. Leon transported the crystal lamp to the marble-top table and with a jaunty salute, a quick kiss on my forehead, and a military about-face, he and my cousins left me to contemplate my fate.

I sank into the chair and pouted. Then suddenly, a vision of my once beautiful Aunt Ruby raised itself from the couch and said, “Hi baby, you remember when I got this couch? I was so proud of myself.” She smiled at me with that flirtatious smile that used to allow her to get her way with everybody in the family.

“But Ruby,” I said, “This…this Louis the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, whatever, it’s just so… so…”

“Beautiful,” she finished, rubbing a ghostly hand over the satin seat cushions.

“I had to work really hard to get this, baby. I know you probably don’t remember that I used to work in that old white couple’s house. I
used to work my fingers to the bone for them.”

I remembered that they were an “old money” rich couple that Ruby worked for. My aunt sure could clean. Her own house was always so spotless that we were afraid to sit on the floor. And we never dreamed of sitting on her furniture.

“Yes, Ruby,” I said, “I do remember them.” She smiled a little sadly, perhaps reminiscing about the past.
And then I thought to myself, “Ruby, if it’s the last thing you do, you are going to get this couch,” but then she floated up from it, grabbed the back of the gilt and steadied herself.
“I guess I haven’t gotten the hang of this ghostly visitation stuff yet,” she said and giggled.
I laughed out loud then suddenly remembered just how much I missed her famous laugh.

“I had to clean day and night for years to get this furniture,” she said. “I sacrificed and ate beans, just so I could get it. I looked in the store window and gazed at that furniture every day while I waited for the bus to take me home. I always knew that I was going to be “high-class folk” when I finally got it in my house. I scrubbed a lot of floors for this couch. And it’s Louis the Fourteenth, by the way. He was French.”

“Aunt Ruby, you were always high-class people, but it’s still dead-king furniture,” I said stubbornly.

“Just sit on it for me, baby,” she said, fading just a little in her sweet soprano voice. “My biggest regret is that I didn’t sit on my furniture when I had the chance. I always thought that it was too pretty to sit on.”

“You were prettier than the furniture, Aunt Ruby,” I said, remembering all of the beautiful gifts she’d ever given me and now realizing just how hard she had to clean to buy them for me. To this day, I see her twisting her fine hips and popping her long bleach chapped fingers, teaching me how to dance the Four Corners and the Mashed Potato. I also see us sitting in her kitchen while she pressed and curled my hair on a sunny Easter day. I can still smell the scent of singed hair. She always told me that the path to beauty was slicked with hair grease and Marcel curling irons. Tears clogged my eyes as she smiled at me one last time, with that fabulous gap-toothed grin that I had seen in all of her younger pictures. I blew her a kiss as she disappeared like spray mist from a perfume bottle. I got up from the chair and finally sat on the couch.

“I guess from now on, I’ll consider this dead queen furniture. And I’ll sit on it every day in your honor,” I said. As the sun sparkled on the ruby crystals of the lamp, I rested on the couch made for a king but fit for a queen.

From the love anthology, "Journeys of Love Voices of The Heart," Coauthors Hillary Roy and Rose Mitchell