Thursday, December 29, 2011

Call Me Lucy

A well-known work of literature starts with the classic line, "Call me Ishmael." The story goes on from there and deals with very somber topics, epic struggles and significant life lessons.

My story, as related here, is decidedly not somber, epic or even significant. It is a little bit funny, though, so read on if you are in the mood for a giggle. Before the Lucy incident, however, we must set the scene with a little background:

My husband has been working for months on a dining room table for a local client. These people have commissioned items from him before. They have very discerning taste and an abundance of financial resources, but are lacking in some basic social skills. They treat Andy in a fairly demeaning way at times and can be very demanding. This doesn't sit well with the woodworker's wife, as you might imagine.

The table is nearly finished. It is not a style that appeals to me (or the artist himself, either), but for what it is, it is awesome. The quartersawn white oak was salvaged from the grounds of a castle in Scotland. The table seats ten comfortably and is embellished on the edge and apron with more carving than I've ever seen in my life--to the point of gaudy, but that's just a matter of personal taste. The traditional ball-and-claw legs look like they once graced the body of a dragon--complete with feathers, scales and not just claws--more like talons. The table top itself is stunning in its figure and grain patterns. When it is completely finished, I will photograph it extensively, but for now you will just have to imagine.

The table was to be completed before Christmas, but the combination of change orders and further desired embellishments and carvings forced it to be delayed until this week. The clients were scheduled to stop by to check on the effect of the fuming, a faux-aging technique achieved with a plastic tent and ammonia, on Wednesday at 5:30 PM. The race to finish the carving and sanding was on so that the table could be assembled and fumed prior to their arrival.

Andy took all of Christmas Day off--perhaps foolish of him, but who could blame the poor guy? He's been working from morning until late at night, often ten o'clock or later, to get this table completed and he was exhausted. Unless you work at a gas station convenience store or Denny's, you should get Christmas off, right? Blowing caution to the wind, he took it.

Monday morning, however, he received some bad news: Erik, his shop assistant, was sick in bed and wouldn't be coming in. This was a major set-back. I offered my assistance and he took it, what little it amounted to be. Tuesday, Erik was still sick, but came in anyway at Andy's desperate plea. He made it through the day, but wasn't terribly efficient or effective. Tuesday evening, I reported for duty again and sanded until quite late. Wednesday morning dawned bright and clear, but with a distinctly ominous sense of doom. The table was not done and the clients would be arriving at 5:30 expecting to see it assembled and fumed and when they are not happy, they have quite a knack for making certain no one else is happy either. By ten o'clock in the morning, when Erik had not yet arrived, Andy called his house. His wife had to deliver the bad news that Erik was in bed with a fever and would not be able to come in.

Andy's eyes flashed with panic.

I changed back into the dusty clothes I'd worn out in the shop the previous two days and offered what I could. Since my sis-in-law and her husband are still here for the holidays, I enlisted Ruth to take charge of meals for the day. I would focus my attention on the table legs, all of which needed to be sanded. Remember all that ornate carving? Sanding those legs would be a tedious process--but one that would have to be completed at a frenzied pace.

At two-thirty, with only two of the legs sanded and Andy still finishing some carving details, the clients called. They had changed their plans and would be dropping by immediately. This is the way they roll. Andy cringed, then informed them that his entire day had been structured to do the fuming at five o'clock. It is a short process, so it was to be completed right before their scheduled arrival at five-thirty. He didn't tell them that the table wasn't even finished yet, and prayed that they wouldn't come yet. They were disappointed at not being able to come right that minute, but said they would put off their arrival until just after five o'clock.

Andy and I switched into an impossibly high gear, for we'd already been in 'high gear' all day, our hands, arms, shoulders and backs aching from the exertion, our half-eaten lunches (which had been delivered to us in the shop) sitting on the workbenches collecting sawdust.

At four forty-five, with almost all of the carving completed and three and a half of the four legs sanded, Andy began assembling the table--a temporary assembly just for fuming and display which the clients would forgive because the finish wasn't yet being applied. He placed the table on a diagonal so that the unfinished leg wouldn't be noticeable. With the help of Tano and Benny, the table top was put atop the legs and apron and the plastic tent sealed into place over the whole thing. Andy had made it clear that I should vacate the premises, as the clients would not be too keen on discovering that a non-woodworker with no training had been put to work sanding their precious table. I understood completely and was not offended, so I gathered up our pitcher of water and glasses and headed for the door.

I hadn't made it out of the shop yet, however, when the clients began to pull up the driveway. It was five o'clock. Andy was completely occupied with putting the final touches on the tent and starting the fuming process, so I didn't bother him with my dilemma, but I was really trapped. To walk out of the shop right now and head to the house, I would likely meet the clients in the driveway. I was in grubby clothes and covered with sawdust, carrying a pitcher of water and two glasses--all obvious signs that I'd been working with Andy in the shop all day, putting my untrained hands on their furniture. What could I do?

I had to make my decision quickly. I spun around quickly and went around the corner toward the stairs. I sat down in the stairwell, just out of sight, with my pitcher of water and glasses and waited for the clients to come in. I would get to listen to their conversation. This would be fun!

I had visions of storming down the stairs and into the middle of their discussion if the clients got out of hand and began belittling my husband again, as they've done in the past. I would show them! I giggled silently at the thought of it, for not even Andy knew that I was still in the building. He had been so busy he hadn't seen me sneak up the stairs, I was certain.

The minutes began to tick by. I could still hear Andy shuffling around making adjustments to the fuming tent and the clients had not yet come in. Perhaps they would just wait in their vehicle while the fuming process was completed. I thought of calling out to Andy, to alert him of my presence, but changed my mind. I didn't want to distract him. How surprised he would be to learn of my presence once the clients had gone!

In the darkness of the stairwell, I realized I was thirsty from the hours of sanding, so I poured myself a glass of water from my handy-dandy pitcher. I gulped at the water greedily, realizing too late that I had poured it into a cup that had been sitting in the shop for quite a while and was filled with a fine layer of powdered quartersawn white oak. The fact that it had been salvaged from the grounds of an ancient castle did nothing to help me swallow the grit. I couldn't spit or cough, as the clients could be at that very moment entering the building. I tried another cup and was able to chase down the sawdust with fairly clean water. Mmmm...tasty.

It was at this moment, however, that I began to see my predicament as the basis for an I Love Lucy episode. I was actually quite trapped. And I couldn't make a peep--not a cough or a sneeze or a clearing of the throat. And certainly not a giggle. The problem was that this was not a comedy show; this was a very important business meeting between artisan and client.

I heard Andy stop shuffling plastic and tape and mutter to himself that 'that should do it' with an air of finality. I figured he would invite the clients to come in and chat in the shop while they waited for the fuming process to take place. However, that is not what happened. Instead, Andy left the building, closing the door behind him, and didn't return.

The truth dawned on me. He had evacuated! Not understanding the process apparently, I had figured that the fumes would be contained in the tent. Oh, boy. I was really in trouble now. Slowly, the ammonia fumes began to waft toward me.


I began mentally reciting old phone numbers and poems, anything to prove that I was still conscious. I positioned myself in such a way that if I did pass out, I would simply slump where I sat, rather than tumbling down into view. A body on the floor wouldn't be a great addition to their conversation. I moved the pitcher and cups so I wouldn't inadvertently knock them over. I began to plan out the text of this blog post (even this very paragraph, down to this parenthetical note), allowing for alternate endings based on whether or not I managed to remain conscious. I could feel my brain getting fuzzy and wondered how much time had passed, as I had no way to measure it from my perch on the steps. After a bit, I couldn't concentrate on long strings of words or numbers that had significant meaning anymore, so I just began to count.

Fortunately, I was still counting when the door opened again and Andy came in alone. I learned later that he was wearing a respirator to protect himself from the fumes. Smart of him. I only had to wait a little longer for fresh air as Andy made short work of dissembling the tent, opening up all the doors and windows of the shop, and turning on several fans. My brain cleared immediately. Whoosh. That was really close.

After opening the shop up and turning on the fans, Andy left the building again. Have I mentioned that it is the end of December in Montana? My t-shirt and ankle socks had been fine when I was furiously sanding dragon legs with the doors closed and the heat on, but the longer the shop aired out, the more insufficient my attire proved. It was getting downright chilly in there.

Andy returned a bit later, this time with the clients. He apologized for the lingering odor and they all began to examine the table and discuss it. Overall, they were pleased, very pleased, so that was good. I smiled to myself in the darkness; I likely wouldn't have to bust in there and straighten them out. Remember when I said they can obsess about tiny details, however? Yes, they did that. For a long time. Again, I have no idea of how long, but it felt like forever. I thought about reaching for the pitcher of water again, but was afraid I'd get another mouthful of sawdust and choke or cough. I just waited. And I shivered. I could see in the faint reflection of a window that the clients were wearing their coats. Andy was just in a t-shirt, but he was running on adrenaline and had been busy the whole time. I was the only one thoroughly chilled.

As they gradually began to wind down their very lengthy conversation, I had one final Lucy moment. Andy would likely walk them out to their car and then just keep going toward the house. My growling stomach told me it was past our standard dinner time and Andy wouldn't have any reason to return to the shop right away. No, he would go in to eat and notice my spot at the table was empty. I, however, wouldn't be able to follow him until the clients had left the driveway and driven on down our road, as it crosses back in front of the shop and the path between the shop and house are lit up by a motion-sensor light. I was stuck until they were out of sight.

Sure enough. Andy went directly to the house without me. I'm sure everyone was a little confused when he asked where I was and no one knew, all of them assuming I was with him. By the time the clients were out of sight and I could gather up my pitcher and cups and head toward the house, he was coming back outside. He called to me from the deck.

"Have you been in the shop the whole time?"

"Yes," I replied sheepishly.

"Were you hiding?"



"In the stairwell."

"Why?" We were both on the porch smiling by now.

"So I could jump out and give them a piece of my mind if they had anything negative to say about you!" I assumed a fighter's stance. "I was watching your back."

He shook his head in disbelief and we laughed together, entering the house arm in arm.

Oh, Lucy.


Jeannie said...

Oh, the hilarity of the predicaments that you manage to get yourself into! Perhaps you should have dramatized the scene a bit by appearing to be passed out in a heap at the bottom of the stairs when Andy came to find you. Just think of the credit and attention you would get for being the dutiful, ever-present help-meet in times of trouble.

Larry said...

If you had made a peep, you would have had a lot of splaining to do Lucy.