The Coping Saw by Mary Jane Aklonis
other says I don't like her, even though I lived at home until I was thirty-five. When I call her from my room in Denver, her voice sounds crackly. For the first time I picture her dying. I even imagine the steel coffin I'll choose for her funeral as she asks what she always asks; "When are you coming back to New Jersey?"
I laugh, a sound that she says reminds her of hissing radiators. "For God sakes, Mom, I've been here for fifteen years. I couldn't survive any more in a state whose backyard is an Exxon refinery."
"What good is mountain air if you're still smoking?" You still smoke, don't you?"
I fish for room in an ashtray and snuff my Chesterfield on a used filter. Smoke rises to where I cradle the phone. "Occasionally."
"I'd settle for you coming home occasionally. You should save me from these cranky old men in my apartment building. One coot even wants me to have dinner with him."
She complains about the smell in her senior citizen complex; as if my leaving town created the odor of old age. As she babbles on, my fingers unfold the subpoena I'd just been served. The first line reads, you are hereby summoned...
"You're not listening to me. I'm just an old lady and you're uh-huhing me without hearing a word I say."
"You're right, Mom, sorry. Why don't you go to dinner with what's his name?" My voice breaks on the last word, and she thinks it's because I'm jealous.
She asks how my job at the eyeglass store is going. I tell her how I crafted a lens for a woman and it actually strengthened her vision. As I speak, I rub the nicotine stains on my fingers, hoping some of the yellow will wear off. It doesn't She carries on about the aunt who still sends me a dollar every year in a birthday card decorated with violets.
I can't keep my hands from trembling as I stare at the sentence telling me I must appear in court. My mind races from one face to another, trying to decide which one of my favorite boys squealed. "Mom, I'm kind of busy right now. I'll call you on Sunday. Okay?" "You're not in trouble or anything are you?"
She never stops reminding me of the time I was a junior in high school and a neighbor's boy told his mother that I asked to see his penis. "No, no, but you know. I have marquetry to finish for gifts, and we've been really busy at the store. Seems like half of Denver can't see lately."
"It's all that pollution out there; no sea breezes to clean the air. You only think it's healthier in the mountains. Be good, bye." She slams the phone down, a characteristic act of insensitivity that I used to interpret as anger.
As soon as both hands are free, I reach for my coping saw, and begin to mark the surface of an oak plank. On the back wall of the converted garage where I've lived since my divorce two years ago, my woodworking tools hang neatly on pegs. I've placed my completed marquetry on the other walls, making my tiny room a showcase of carvings. Mostly, I make gnarly trees with roots that spread like snakes over dark surfaces, but a few show deer heads. I can't make eyes, though, so their profiles lack those huge orbs.
I use the band saw to create a moon-like background to the trees. As I buzz through a fresh piece of wood, my hand jerks involuntarily and the blade rips the circle I'm making to shreds. Shavings fly everywhere, hitting my safety goggles and covering the subpoena I've left open on the workbench. From the portable fridge my landlady lets me have; I grab a Coors Light, and open the can with a quick thumb action. My fingers are long, thin, and tapered like a girl's. Tiny black hairs protrude in the spaces between my knuckle bones. One of those little boys said my fingers looked like private parts, as if each digit was an indictment of my hidden lust.
I wrap my hands around the sweating can of beer, press the lid to my lips and suck the golden juice. The air smells of freshly cut wood, and lack of ventilation threatens to close my throat. For a minute, I imagine my card-sending aunt opening the newspaper and finding my photo on the front page. No more dollars for me! My mother knows but she doesn't know.******
He'd come to the store with his mother, upset that at ten, he'd have to wear glasses for the rest of his life. I'd worked with children before, and eased his concerns with jokes, offers of candy, and kindness. His mother, an attractive brunette, thanked me for all of my help and we even met for lunch at McDonald's a few times. I always treated, and complimented little Timothy on how well he looked in tortoise shell. In the course of our talk, she and I discovered that we had both majored in Geology. With her degree, she was selling dresses at a boutique, and I was cutting glass instead of shale. Her husband was long gone, so when I suggested we all go see the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, she readily agreed.
As we wandered through the strange red rocks, Timothy drifted farther from his mother and me. I volunteered to follow him through the rough patch; while she rested in an oval that nature had formed within the rock. He took my hand as we moved through the projections, and I explained how this mysterious place came to be. When we were behind a large mass of stone, he let me brush his clothing, and didn't pull away as my fingers wandered lower. When I offered him five dollars and a chocolate bar, he allowed me to slip my right hand inside his belt. As he sucked on sugar, I moved behind him. I had mastered a technique so subtle, no child I loved felt violated. At least I didn't think so. He kept eating the candy in the shadow of a grotesque configuration.
"Thank you," I whispered. "Could this be our little secret? You know, your mother probably doesn't want you to have too many sweets." He eyed me strangely, but nodded. My legs felt weak as we struggled through the rubble and back to where his Mom was sitting peacefully.*****
Whenever my mother lost her temper and scared me to tears, my father would suggest a walk through the woods. A gentle man, he seemed unable to subdue his wife's outbursts, yet always spoke of her in glowing terms. We'd identify flora and fauna on our wanderings, and he'd quiz me on the type of rocks we'd see. Until I was ten, he never laid a hand on me. I was confused this one time when he asked me to lie down next to him on a thatch of pine needles. Thinking we would be searching for insects of some sort, I agreed. He asked me to undo my belt. I obeyed, but a queer feeling churned in my gut. "Dad, don't," but it was too late. He gasped and then the awful groan.
Afterward, he bought me an ice cream cone at Hill's, and swore me to secrecy. He needn't have worried. Who would I tell? I licked the melting cream, looked him in the eye, and said, "I don't want to go to the woods any more."******
I drive to my property in the Rockies. It's the only asset my ex-wife allowed me to keep. In return, she agreed to say nothing about what she had learned. The pines remind me of home, and I know I can't hurt trees. By now, the sheriff will probably be knocking on the garage door, handcuffs ready. I throw an old beach towel on the ground beneath a canopy of evergreens. I smoke a cigarette with my left hand as I draw with my right. I'm good at capturing replicas of branches that stretch over my head. I lie down and toss the lit butt aside. After I close the sketch book, I pick up the coping saw. I realize for the first time that I can carve an oval better than a circle. Why hadn't I thought of it before? Too late. I remember Timothy's Mom sitting in the oval of the red rock. She looked like a vision, the image you might conjure of your mother when you're a kid and then carry forever in your head. I'll miss her.
I decide it has to be the right hand, the offending monster that longs to touch what I don't want it to feel. With the first cut, my wrist stings, but I don't moan. I hate that sound. I stop for a second and stuff some pine needles in my mouth. I wonder if they'll find the hand first, and will they know why it was important to do?