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Whittling

Elwood shifts on the egg-carton foam that lines his recliner. “No, I wouldn’t be more comfortable in bed. I told Bobbie that the day I can’t get out of bed and get dressed is the day I die. If I need a rest, I can nap here. If I take a notion to watch the television, I can. And I can see who’s goin’ up and down the road.”

His daughter gives him a lingering look, sweeping from head to toe and back again. He’s looked in a mirror, knows what she’s seeing. Not yet sixty but his hair’s long gone, and he looks like one of them Jews coming out of the concentration camps at the end of the war—except his bones are draped in a flannel shirt, and work pants so loose his belt makes pleats at the waist.

His daughter’s gaze skitters away. She plucks up the wooden chain, fingering the five oval links, rattling the ball in its rectangular cage. “What’s this?”

Elwood grins and quirks one naked brow. “You’ve got eyes in your head. What’s it look like?”

His daughter rolls those eyes. “I mean, where did you get it?”

He lifts his left shoulder one painful inch. “I made it, a course.” At his daughter’s look of surprise, he chuckles. “Why, I been whittling since I was knee high to a grasshopper. Many’s the time Eldean and Elbert and me hunkered down in the front yard with Daddy, all of us whittlin’ and shootin’ the breeze, cigarettes bobbin’ as we talked.” He looks off, seeing their hardscrabble farm at the head of Old House Creek clear as his own gnarled hand. Those were better days than they knew.

“Making a wood handle—for a hammer, a ax, a shovel, or such—that ain’t whittling. Doing the necessary and doin’ it well is right gratifying, but not my idea of fun. Whittling is pure pleasure.

“Why, sometimes we didn’t do anything but sharpen sticks and then dump the shavings into the kindling box. More often we made this and that, like combs for Mommy’s hair or circle bracelets for the girls at school.” He chuckles. “Give a girl a bangle with her initials cut in it, and like as not she’d give you a little something in return.” He winks and grins. “That’s how I got my first kiss. I made one for Mary Jane Caudill, MJC with a daisy on each side. When I gave it to her, she kissed me, right there in the school yard. I called her my girlfriend for awhile. We were twelve at the time.” His chuckle turns to a long, racking cough. “All three of us boys could turn out right pretty bracelets.”

His daughter continues to finger the chain but her eyes sparkle, so Elwood goes on talking.

“Now, Elbert always was a wild one. By the time you knew him, he was riding motorcycles, long-haul trucking—and when Marie wouldn’t give him a divorce, he changed his name, married Bea, and had ten kids anyway.” Elwood shakes his head. “The black sheep of the family for years.”

He picks up his half-mug of coffee—always a half mug—and grimaces. These days he can’t even lift a full mug of coffee without spilling all over hisself.

“Anyway, this one time Elbert decided to whittle dice. He made three of ’em. He buried a buckshot bead in a corner divot of one. He tamped in glue and sawdust, and if you didn’t know it was there, you’d never tell by looking. He used those dice to shoot craps. When it was his turn to roll, he’d do a little sleight of hand and replace one of the true dice with his loaded one. He won a lot of money that way—till the night he had too much moonshine and bragged to Jim ‘Bit-Nose’ Ward about what he’d done. It took half a dozen of ’em but they got him good.” Elwood wags his head. “He stopped cheating at craps after that beating, but he passed bad checks and had to leave the state—didn’t even finish eighth grade. Thank the Lord he came round in the end, gave me money to get to Daddy to pay off the checks. He wanted to be able to go home and see the folks. And when Marie finally got a divorce so she could marry Richard Morehouse, he did right by Bea.

“Daughter, I need to take a leak.” He grimaces and heat rises from neck to cheeks. “I need your arm.” She hoists him out of the recliner, and they shuffle down the hall, Elwood leaning heavily on her arm. He backs up to the toilet. “I have to sit these days.”

“Um. Can you handle your belt?”

“Yes. But it’s hard—and slow. Once I pissed myself before I could get my pants down. You undo the buckle. I can do the rest.” Pushing down his pants and boxers with his right hand, he grips his daughter’s forearm with his left as she lowers him to the padded seat. She stares straight ahead. As he struggles to pull his clothes back into place, she looks aside at the bathtub, lined with more waffle foam. “I’ve lost all the padding in my ass. Bone on porcelain’s mighty uncomfortable.”

Shuffling back to the living room, leaning on his daughter—needing his child to care for him like a toddler—burns Elwood’s core.

Resettled in the recliner, breathing hard, he huffs, “Thank you, daughter. I’m right glad you can be here this week. It lets Bobbie go see her family. This has been awful hard on her.”

“I’m thankful I can be here.”

***

They talk long hours every day, mostly about the past. Elwood tells her how much he regrets stopping school after eighth grade. That’s when the one-room school on Old House Creek ended. “Now, if I was doing it again, I’d walk those two miles out to the road and catch the bus into high school. Eldean did and look how far that got him. I’ve done pretty good—never wanted for a job, and my family never went hungry or barefoot. But who knows how far I’d’ve gone if I’d graduated high school?”

Elwood grins. “I remember like it was yesterday when Eldean stayed with us while he looked for a job after high school. Everyone was making over him because he graduated salutatorian, and you asked whether that was as high as you could get, and he said, ‘No, it’s second highest. Valedictorian is highest.’ You weren’t even in school yet, but you said, ‘Well, I’m going to be valedictorian.’ And then Eldean said, ‘I hope you do, sweetheart. And if you do, I’ll give you a hundred dollars.’”

She returns Elwood’s grin. “And when he went through the receiving line after commencement, he handed me an envelope with a hundred-dollar bill in it.”

“Eldean always was as good as his word. He made the same offer to all his nieces and nephews, but you’re the only one who collected.”

***

Elwood talks about heading north at age fifteen, eventually getting a job in a defense plant. “I always was big and strong, and looked older than my years.

“Your mom was working at the defense plant then too. That’s how we met. Your grandpa introduced us. When I told Mommy and Daddy I was getting married, Daddy said, ‘Son, if you’re as good a judge of women as you are of horseflesh, I reckon you chose well.’

“Once we had made up our minds, we didn’t see no reason to wait. Plus married men were exempt from the draft then. We eloped to West Virginia four weeks after we met. They didn’t have a waiting period, either to get a license or to use it. I was seventeen, your mom nineteen.”

He chuckles and smiles at his daughter. “You were born ten months later to the day, and that kept me out of the Army when they started drafting married men but not fathers. The upshot was that I wasn’t drafted until near the end of the war. I trained as a medic in Texas. When the war ended they discharged fathers first, so I served only a few months, and all of that stateside. The only medal I ever got—not having been overseas—was sharpshooter.”

As he stops talking, fatigue falls on him like a rock, and he can barely open his eyes. “Daughter, I think you’d best help me into bed.”

She removes his shoes and socks and unbuckles his belt. When she pulls off his shirt and t-shirt, he glances down at his washboard ribs and then up at his daughter’s expressionless face, glad she hadn’t gasped or offered sympathy. She holds a flannel sheet up between them for the minutes it takes him to finish getting his clothes off and his pajamas on. She lifts his legs up onto the bed and pulls up the blanket. Elwood thinks of all the times he tucked her in at night and swallows the pain of this reversal. She says, “I love you, Dad,” and kisses his whiskered cheek. He’ll have to try to shave tomorrow.

Standing at the washbasin the next morning, his daughter steadying him, he starts trembling like shivering in a cold wind. She says, “Dad, why don’t you sit down? I can shave you.” He cocks one naked eyebrow. “I’ve shaved my legs since I was twelve! Besides, it’s a safety razor. I can’t do much damage.” Elwood chuckles as she lowers him to the toilet seat.

She sets the shaving mug and brush aside. She strokes the razor against the whiskers’ grain, runs her fingertips across his skin, and goes back over any rough places. Elwood remembers when she was just a little tyke, standing in the bathroom door, watching him shave. She says, “Stop smiling! And poke your tongue into your cheek so I can get the whiskers in your wrinkles.” When she’d patted on the aftershave, Elwood runs a thumb along his jawline. “Smooth as a baby’s bottom. Thank you, daughter.”

“Well, you are surely welcome.”

Back in the recliner, he takes up where he left off talking the night before. Elwood talks about how stubborn she’d been, even as an infant and toddler, and what a quick learner. “You followed me like a duckling, always asking questions, always wanting to help, hand me tools and whatnot. One time, when I was sawing lumber, I got you out from underfoot by setting you up on the board near the sawhorse and telling you you were holding it steady.” They both laugh.

She says, “I’ve shocked more than one man by changing a car tire—or recognizing a Phillips screwdriver or pinch-nosed pliers—and being able to use them. Not all my dates were pleased.”

“Like I always said, ‘You gotta be able to do the necessary.’ And there didn’t seem to be anything you couldn’t do—or wouldn’t try, anyway. You helping me skin out rabbits and coons made that job a whole lot easier. And I won a right smart of money betting on your marksmanship against your male cousins and uncles.”

She grins. “I remember. And I also remember how heavy the shotgun was and how its kick bruised my shoulder.”

***

Elwood draws as deep a breath as he can and coughs. He’s never talked about his first wife with his daughter. But he wants her to understand. “Your mom’s first two pregnancies went as they’re supposed to, and we were blessed with two wonderful girls. But then she had all those miscarriages trying to give me a son, had to have a hysterectomy, and her not yet thirty. Those were hard years, what with her bedridden and me working three jobs to pay the doctors and all. It hurt both of us that you had to take over all the cooking and cleaning and such. Thank the Lord you were able and willing to.”

She shrugs. “You do what you’ve got to do.” She squeezes his hand. “I overheard you and Aunt Nora when you said I could put a meal on the table good enough for anyone to eat, and she said, ‘She keeps the house cleaner too.’” His daughter stares vacantly at the far wall. “I was proud of myself—and hoped Mom didn’t hear, even though the bedroom door was open.”

Elwood pats her hand. “Yep, those were hard years. But marriage is for better or for worse, and I stuck with her, even when she started talking about everyone being better off if she was dead and spent that summer in the mental hospital. We’d be married still if she hadn’t turned to the bottle.”

Elwood blinks hard and clears his throat. “I was always faithful to my vows. Never more than looked at another woman till after the divorce. I just wanted to make sure you know that.” He’d remarried four months after the divorce was final.

“I do know, Dad.”

Elwood sighs and looks at his beautiful daughter, like him in so many ways. “I’m proud of you, daughter. I could die a happy man if I knew you’d come back to Jesus.”

She clears her throat. “I’m just not a church-going person. But I try to live a kind, moral life—to live up to your teachings.” She gives herself a little shake and picks up the wood chain. “You still haven’t talked about your whittling.”

“Well, like I said, it was something to do to pass the time before there was television, when getting into town took some doing. There’s a lot of pleasure in wood—the way it looks, feels, and smells. Everyone knows about cedar, it’s used so much, and anybody could recognize that smell. But cherry, apple—wood from any fruit tree—smells right nice, each in its own way. Some wood don’t have much smell, but oak—cutting into oak, you’re likely to smell poop or vomit.”

“Ugh. And I’ve always liked oak. Do you have a favorite wood?”

“Well, now, that depends on what I’m making. You have to match the wood to the project. Cherry and walnut you can sand smooth as glass, and you don’t see the grain ’cause it’s tight and straight. They’re great for furniture, cabinets, and such. I used cherry for the whatnot shelf and bookshelves in the bedroom there.

“Oak is a favorite open grain wood for furniture. You can always see oak grain, and no matter how much you sand it, you run your fingers over it, you feel the little valleys—unless you use a heavy finish to fill it in and smooth it out.

“Now, for something that’s going to be outside, you want something like walnut or white oak because they resist moisture. But be ready for stained fingers—purple or brown or black.”

She smiles. “Now that’s something I’d give a lot to see—you scrubbing purple fingers with Lava!” She sighs. “I wish you’d been woodworking and whittling when I lived at home.”

“So do I. But those years I didn’t have much time to do things just for fun. Being pretty much stuck in this chair, I took it up again.”

His daughter runs her fingers over the wood links. “So tell me how you did this.”

“Well, you start with a block of wood. This one was about one-and-a-half by one-and-a-half by fifteen inches. Then I just cut away all the pieces that shouldn’t be there. I started with the outside, cutting out the shape of a link, then turning the wood a quarter turn for the next link, and so on till I got to the cage, and it just stayed solid till all the links were made.”

As he talks his daughter runs her fingers along each link and down the bars of the cage.

“Now, on the cage: I took out wood inside the four corners from the top down to about an inch and a half from the bottom. Shaping the ball was the last thing. The trick is to cut it loose so it can move while leaving it big enough that it can’t slide through the bars. This one’s about as simple as it gets, just oval links and a single ball in a fairly big cage.”

She looks at him, wide-eyed and serious. “I’d like to have this. Unless you want to keep it.”

“It’s nothing special, just yellow pine. I don’t have the strength in my hands for hardwood no more.”

“Still, if you’re done with it, I hope you’ll give it to me.”

Elwood looks at the places that could be smoothed out a little more, mostly the insides of curves. But he’s so weak he can hardly open his pocketknife these days. It is the last thing he’ll ever whittle. He lays his hand over his daughter’s. “I’m done. Take it with you when you go. I love you, daughter.”

***

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