By Adelaide Shaw
Maggie’s worries were not about the hot, dry Santa Ana winds that blew into Los Angeles raising temperatures and tempers and creating a high fire danger. Her worries were of a different nature.
It was day two of the second Santa Ana in a month. Maggie stepped out the front door of her craftsman bungalow and sucked in her breath. If you owned a house in the hills or canyons you checked the local news often and kept your family and pets and important documents near-by, ready to flee, perhaps for a few hours, perhaps forever. It was sad for the families who lost their homes in the current fires, but they knew the dangers when they built their homes and accepted the risk. She lived in a built-up, family friendly neighborhood with small house lots and no open areas of unchecked vegetation.
As she walked to the bus stop, the hot wind caught the brim of her straw hat, nearly blowing it away.
“Damn,” she muttered. Useless in a Santa Ana without being tied on, she carried the hat in her hand. Today she would be set free, severed from her job of 40 years, her position, terminated. It was she who was terminated. She was redundant, not needed, surplus, outmoded. Whatever term that was used, she was out.
She walked with a hunch to her shoulders and slowed her steps. It mattered little if she missed the bus and came in late or not at all. It mattered little what she did. The heat exacerbated her feelings of uselessness and helplessness. Financially, she would manage, but what would she do?
She had begun right out of high school working for a pittance and had slowly learned the business and the craft of restoring furniture. A friend of her father’s gave her the job, something to do before deciding what she really wanted to do. Grubby work, not for the fastidious who didn’t want to get their hands or clothes dirty, who wrinkled their noses at the smell of turpentine and paint, who coughed and sneezed at the slightest sprinkling of dust., who shied away from any product with safety and cautionary warnings, who were afraid of personal injury when using a hammer or saw. Maggie loved the work, transforming a dilapidated couch or chair with stains, broken legs and leaky stuffing to a sturdy and attractive addition to anyone’s home. The temporary job became permanent.
Without her work she was a nobody. Some older customers came back again and again with their worn but loved pieces and asked for her.
“Maggie, you’re an artist, a genius. My mother loved this chest. Now it’s gorgeous again.”
“My daughter will shed tears of joy with my restored baby cradle.”
For the past several years Miguel’s Makeover Shop had been losing business. Buy New was the mantra of the current culture. Why spend a couple hundred dollars on Grandma’s old rocker when a new one is much less? People didn’t care that it was of inferior quality and workmanship. Who cares if it falls apart after three years? Dispose of it and get another one. Such a waste, such a disregard of craftmanship, such a lack of appreciation for family history. Maggie had been moaning the same dirge for years. She had seen it coming and had told Miguel to revamp the shop, sell new, but inexpensive furniture for those who didn’t care about real quality, but wanted only the veneer.
* * *
She entered the pink stucco building through the open bay door. With the advent of closing his shop, Miguel had put off maintenance on the ventilation system, and it was often necessary to keep the bay open. Three floor fans whirred in an inadequate attempt to disburse the fumes and provide some cooling. It was a large space with work benches, metal cabinets, shelves and walls stacked with tools, paint, varnishes and lacquers, sample books of fabrics, piles of remnants and new and old wood.
Miguel was reupholstering a wing chair at one end; Steve, his son, was adding brass hardware to a refurbished chest. Jocko, the youngest worker, who had the least amount of skills, had already gone to work for a delivery service.
Maggie gave a nod and a wave and headed for the office. Since Tessa died five years earlier, Maggie helped in the office. It was his wife’s death that sent Miguel into a slow spiral downward, refusing suggestions for changes and becoming closed and withdrawn. He was resigned to the shop closing and his empty life. But, his life was not empty; he had a son and a grandchild on the way. He had possibilities before him. Maggie had none, and felt the weight of lonely years ahead without purpose.
She could try to find work at some furniture manufacturer making new furniture or, perhaps, in the office. She knew a lot about keeping accounts, ordering, and scheduling. But no, no. That was just wishful thinking. Living near three bus lines, she didn’t need a car for work or anything else. These manufacturers were far away and she would have to transfer busses too many times to get to any of them. And, who would want her at her age?
* * *
By Thursday afternoon the last of the orders were finished and delivered. Miguel and Steve were gathering what they wanted to keep and loading the truck. Maggie put a few fabric remnants, hand tools and brushes in a large shopping bag. Tomorrow, whatever was left would be hauled away as trash, and Miguel would hand over the keys to the landlord.
She gave a last farewell look, remembering a time long ago when there were five or six workers hammering, sawing, scraping. The cavernous space, with an operating ventilation system, was cool and comfortable. The radio played music all day. There was talk and laughter, as well as grumbles, but they were few. Crying was useless, and she squinted to stop the flow of tears and memories.
With slow steps she circuited the room, brushing a hand along the walls, the empty shelves and a dusty bolt of fabric ordered for a customer who changed her mind. The woman didn’t like the bright red hibiscus flowers, walked away and left the fabric. Miguel had shouted several curse words and wrote off the expense as uncollectable. “Maybe someone will like it,” he said each time it was suggested that it go in the dumpster. But no one liked it. It became old and useless. Like she was. Maggie gave an inward smile. Being flamboyant and loud didn’t guarantee you a lasting place in this world.
As she moved away her eyes caught a bit of white behind the bolt. Pushing it aside, it fell with a thud, sending up a swirl of dust, causing her to cough. There stood a liquor cabinet, found on a street curb and picked up by Miguel. It had been a someday project for his own home. The intricate carvings along the edges were clogged with paint, as to be almost obliterated in some places.
Maggie opened the swinging doors and clapped her hands at seeing the unpainted interior. She stroked the natural walnut, smooth but dulled with time and neglect. The cabinet had two pull down inner doors with shelves fitted for glasses and liquor bottles. On the bottom were an insulated drawer for ice and a rack for wine bottles. The interior just needed a cleaning and polishing, but the exterior would require much more.
With a brisk step she walked to a bin holding empty cans and bottles. Putting on rubber gloves she reached inside, shaking cans until she found one with some paint stripper still in it. She poured the thick liquid on the cabinet, retrieved a brush from her bag and spread it over a small section. She should be wearing goggles, but was too anxious to see how many layers of paint there were.
“Miguel. I want this cabinet. You don’t want it do you? Is there room in the truck? Will you take it to my house?” Nearly running outside the building, she panted out her questions. Grabbing Miguel’s hand, she pulled him inside.
“Dios mio! I remember that cabinet.” He looked at the exterior and the interior and related to Steve how he found it and wanted to restore it for Tessa. “Never the time. Always the customers. . . then. . . I forget.”
He reached for the cloth he always carried hanging from his belt and wiped at the paint stripper.
“Gloves,” Maggie shouted, but Miguel shrugged. The stripper hadn’t been on long enough to soften the paint sufficiently but enough to know there were more layers under the white. The cloth was smeared with white, black, red and white again.
“Ahh. Imbecile. Only an imbecile does this.” He gave the cabinet a slap. “Too late for me. I’ll bring it to your house tomorrow.”
* * *
On Saturday Maggie was up early. It was the first weekend since she was a teenager that she had real plans, plans that did not include cleaning the house which didn’t needed cleaning or doing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. She felt a shiver of excitement slide across her skin, not because she was going to the beach or bike riding with friends; not because she was going to a movie and get burgers afterwards. Those days were long past. Friends left for college, married, moved, made new friends. It was an effort starting fresh with strangers. It wasn’t like growing up with classmates, the same ones every day, every year. There was no one like Lisa, who always said, “Come on, Maggie. You know you want to come to the game.” Or like Connie, with her make-up tips and hair styling, always telling her, “Put a little effort into it. You have to try.” She had tried, but she was still Maggie with no make-up and no styled hair.
She gathered her supplies and set to work. Wearing rubber gloves, goggles, a face mask, long-sleeved shirt and plastic apron, she hummed softly as she applied stripper to the cabinet. She worked on the shaded porch in front of her house. At seven o’clock the street was quiet, as was usual for a Saturday morning. It was cool, but by noon the heat would be back, along with the winds.
Using a paint brush, she covered a small section and sat down to wait. After twenty minutes, when the paint began to bubble, she scraped it away with a plastic scraper, applied more stripper to those areas where a residue of paint remained, waited and scraped again. When the grain showed clearly, she gently wiped the surface with mineral spirits using fine steel wool and wiped again with a soft cloth. Without pausing, she began the process on another section.
Waiting in between steps was a test of patience. At the shop, she usually had two projects going and went from one to the other. This was the first restoration she had done for herself, and she wanted it to be perfect.
She waited in a faded canvas chair and sipped her coffee, remembering when the house belonged to her parents. Other than being repainted and having air conditioning installed, the house remained the same, not so with several other houses in the neighborhood. As the people changed, from middle-class workers to up and coming professionals, some of the craftsman and adobe houses extended upward with a second floor or expanded outward in the back or on the side, creating an architectural style that had no name.
The paint was bubbling. Maggie donned her protective gear again and got to work.
* * *
“What are you doing?”
An older woman carrying an umbrella in one hand and holding the leash of a small frisky dog with the other called out to Maggie. After a brief explanation, the woman cautioned her to drink plenty of water as she worked, wished her a pleasant day and continued on her walk.
As the morning moved on, the heat increased as well as the passersby. Everyone who passed the house looked, asked questions, commented. There were more dog walkers, mothers with baby carriages, weekend dads with their kids out for pancakes at the diner, shoppers on their way to the bus stop, joggers. You had to be young, she thought, until a man about her age jogged, or rather fast walked, past the house. Maybe she could do that, walk, not jog or fast walk, just walk to get some exercise now that she had her days free. She could lose a few pounds. But, she would walk early, not in mid-afternoon. Crazy in this weather. Crazy for her to keep working and sweating on the porch. Take a nap. A power nap. Wasn’t that the jargon? She probably heard it from the kid Jocko who used it as an excuse for loafing on the job.
* * *
On Sunday morning church goers on their way to or from the Methodist church on the corner or the Catholic church on the next street stopped to chat. Some of the same people from the day before returned, marveling at her progress and the gradual change in the cabinet. It was as if she were the weekend’s entertainment, the star of a reality show.
By early evening she finished removing the paint on the sides of the cabinet. The carvings along the edges would be more difficult to clean and be slow work. No matter. What else did she have to do?
During the next week she worked in the cool of the mornings and late afternoons. Some areas along the edges needed three applications of stripper.
“HI. I’m Mary Jenkins. This is Slobber.” The woman, pointing to her drooling dog, waved a hand.
A while later Maggie heard, “Buenos días. What you do?” A grandmotherly woman, pushing a baby carriage, stopped to talk in halting English.
Some came up to the porch for a closer look. “Is this the best brand of paint stripper? Is it caustic?”
The interruptions slowed Maggie’s work, but this was a new experience for her. After her parents died she discussed her work with only Miguel and Steve. Actually, talking at length with anyone was a new experience. She appeared to be a neighborhood attraction
She thought about the changes that began some years earlier. There were numerous reasons for leaving the area: new jobs, larger houses for larger families, poor school performance. But, change came again and again. The down town area sprouted new buildings like mushrooms after rain, bringing people back to be close to the new concert halls, theaters, shopping, office buildings, and museums. Schools in the area improved. Los Angeles became a happening city and that happening flowed northeast. The doctors, lawyers, movie people, writers, technicians, musicians, designers, the cappuccino, latte, wine crowd, filling the cafes and restaurants along the boulevard had money or expected to have it and took on the debt in order to live there. Brave or foolish, Maggie didn’t know. The changes zipped past her. She lived life as a witness, not as a participant.
On Wednesday, she began her morning walks and had a latte at a café on the boulevard. She recognized some of the customers who had passed her house and lingered to talk. They waved; she waved back.
“Still working on the cabinet?”
“I’d like to see it when you’re finished.”
People appeared interested. Maggie had met more people in a few days than she had met in all the years living on the block. Young couples, with and without children, single moms and dads, older neighbors who had been in the area as long as she had. All living behind closed doors. No. Not so. They kept their doors open. They went out and about, saw life, lived life. It was she who was living behind closed doors.
* * *
By the following Saturday, Maggie finished the carved edges. With no more specks of paint anywhere, she began applying a paste wax.
“You’re still at it? You are one determined lady.” It was Clare from the week before, a young woman who was a screen writer, along with her partner Jason, both with several credits on their resumes.
“What are you doing now?” Jason went on the porch and watched Maggie cover the last section with wax. “How will you polish it? I have an electric polisher if you want to use it.”
Thanks, but no. Hand polishing. Like this.” She pulled from her apron a torn tee shirt and rubbed the wood in a circular motion. “Want to try?” She gave Jason the cloth and got more cloths from inside. With Clare joining in, the cabinet was polished in a short time.
“What now?” Clare asked.
“Two more coats of wax on the outside, then the same for inside.”
“Wow,” Jason said as he stepped around the cabinet. “It looks perfect now, but you’re the expert. You should do a Youtube video or set up a blog and show people how to do this.”
“Can you stay for dinner?” The invitation went from thought to words without thinking. It was not often Maggie had guests. Sometimes, when Tessa was alive and Miguel drove her home, they would stay for coffee. She liked this young couple and appreciated their interest in her work. “I can make a quick pasta with clams. And. . . and I have beer.”
She expected them to give a polite no thanks because they had another invitation, a script to finish, a dog who needed to be fed. All good reasons and not necessarily lies.
With a quick exchange of looks Clare and Jason nodded. “I’ll help you,” Clare said. “Jason will bring the cabinet inside.”
“I meant what I said about a video or a blog,” Jason said. “I can set it up if you want. Think about it.”
Yes. Think. Think. Tomorrow the forecast was for cooler days, no more Santa Anas, no more winds, fires coming under control, and, for now, the danger passing. But there would always be that same danger. Always chances and changes. Lives depending on them and one other—choices. Always choices.
She turned to Jason, and, with conviction in her voice, said one word.
About the Author:
Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Somers, NY. She has three children and six grandchildren. Her stories and non-fiction have been published in By-Line, American Literary Review, The MacGuffin, The Griffin, The Toronto Star, The New Haven Register, The Somers Record, The Adelaide Magazine and others. Adelaide also writes children’s fiction, haiku and Japanese poetic forms. She has published two collections of haiku, An Unknown Road, available on Kindle, and The Distance I’ve Come, available on Cyberwit and Amazon. Some of her published work is posted on her blog: http://www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com