“It’s not going to go,” Michael said. His face was hidden on the other side of the giant wardrobe. I was left to judge his mood from his voice alone, which was factual and sober. “It’s not going to fit.”
“It has to!” I protested. “I measured it. It has to fit. I took measurements!!”
“Well,” he said, “It doesn’t.” A tiny bit of sharp irritation bit through his tone this time. A peek at what must have been a huge, hidden mass of terror and desperate embarrassment. He didn’t even release a sigh, for fear of what else might come out with it. Can’t completely lose it with the client, Richard, standing right there.
“What do you mean?” Richard asked calmly. “You can’t get it through the door?”
“It’s not the door that’s the problem,” Michael said, “it’s the hallway. It won’t make the turn.”
From my place on the other side of the massive, massively expensive piece of furniture, I then heard only silence.
Normally silence is quiet. This time it groaned. Nobody said a word as the truth settled down on the three of us like a putrid, heavy mist: The veteran furniture maker -- Michael -- had months ago sent the green apprentice -- me -- to take some simple measurements at the home of the client -- Richard -- to make sure the design for this new wardrobe would go into its place. And the apprentice -- me -- had gotten it wrong. Completely, tragically, shamefully wrong. I had considered only the widths of the doorways but not the turn in the hall.
The silence also contained a number, a number we all knew but didn’t say. A number that was around the price of a new, reasonably equipped Toyota. The number that Michael would have to refund Richard if we couldn’t somehow get this f***ing wardrobe into that f***ing room and into the space he had excitedly cleared for it prior to our arrival. A number that I now think, twenty five years later and running my own furniture business, was probably already spent in the production of this unthinkably beautiful piece.
Which now sat askew, half in the hallway and half out, like some grand ship run aground. Proud, but absurdly out of place and helpless. “Well, what now?” it seemed to ask.
Still without a sound we all three entered and began working through the famous five stages. I was rounding the base from bargaining to depression when Michael, who had apparently outrun me, slid into acceptance and broke the silence. “OK then,” he said bravely, “What other options do we have?” His eyes scanned the walls, the floor, the ceiling. I could read his mind, which was definitely asking How much trouble would it be to remove that wall and then later replace it?
“The window,” Richard said, somehow still politely. “Maybe we could remove the window and bring it in that way. They did that at my office to get the new conference table in.”
My brain didn’t yet register what he was saying as it was too busy wondering which of these two men, both with so much invested, was going to freak the hell out first. And how soon. And at whom.
I muttered into my chest, silently. Shit. Dammit. Idiot. Shit. The only person stupider than me, I thought, would be Michael if he decided not to fire me over this.
When I looked up the two were already in the master bedroom. I squeezed around the stalled wardrobe and followed them in. They were discussing what kind of fasteners the carpenter might have used 80 years ago to install this beautiful antique window into this beautiful antique house. “And then we could get a crane, I guess,” one of them said halfheartedly.
Removing the window, I thought. Renting a crane. This is what it’s come to. This is what I’ve done. My ultra-thin veneer of self-confidence, so necessary when I started an apprenticeship for which I felt completely unqualified, had now been sanded through to expose the ugly glue and plywood beneath. I’m not confident, I’m not smart, I’m not talented, I’m not competent, I’m not good at details. I’m not a good person.
I thought of the time when I stupidly backed into that lady’s Accord without looking. The time I was 15 and I stole a Beatles tape from a retarded girl. The time I started a grease fire in the kitchen. The time Roger and I dropped a brick five stories onto the hood of a Cadillac.
Or I didn’t so much think of all these things as feel them, all at once. And many others. There’s a weight of guilt inside me, it seems, piled up from years of failings. A pallet of shame, wrapped up neatly and waiting to be air-dropped into any bad situation, in order to make it worse.
“I don’t know,” Richard said, now looking through his window instead of at it. The pale green leaves of the cedar elm outside were just starting to appear on its wet branches, earlier than usual. He turned back to Michael. “It sure is beautiful. I mean, you did such an amazing job on it, as usual.”
I looked down at the bed, for which this wardrobe was to be a companion. Same wood, bubinga and figured maple. Same style, Greene and Greene/Arts and Crafts. Michael had made it a year prior, before I worked with him. He’d had no trouble getting it into the room, I thought.
“Thanks,” Michael said, guardedly. He was bracing for the “However…” that was surely coming next.
It didn’t. Instead, Richard suggested that we leave the wardrobe in his front room for now. He’d pay Michael the balance and we’d go on home, and we could all have the weekend to mull it over. Richard and Michael would spend the time thinking through all the options for getting the wardrobe into the bedroom, and I would spend it thinking through all the options for a new career.
Minutes later, when we closed the doors to his truck, Michael looked straight at me. “It’s not your fault,” he said, before I could talk. “I know what you’re thinking and it’s not your fault.”
“Of course it is,” I said. “I completely f***ed it up. I’m so sorry.”
“No. I never should have laid that burden on you. I should have gone myself and measured.”
He switched on the radio, which then mercifully filled the silence of the hour-long drive back to the shop.
The time I cheated on a Chemistry test and got caught and thrown out of the honors class. The time I went golfing with my dad and broke a guy’s car window and my dad had to pay for it. The time I drank too much in college and threw up on my roommate’s new beanbag chair. The time I accidentally made a joke about death to a lady at church whose husband had died a week before. The time in fourth grade when I hit a kid nobody liked because a popular kid told me to.
I want to apologize to that kid. To all these people. I want them to know how sorry I am for my stupidity, for my carelessness, for my selfishness. For whatever tiny scar I might have left on their hearts, a pain they probably aren’t even aware of now. But a scar which, so my guilt tells me, has probably affected them all these years. Has left them broken.
And because the moments have all passed and I can’t actually apologize, they can’t actually forgive me. And so I can’t forgive myself.
The long weekend passed, Monday morning finally came. I pulled slowly into Michael’s driveway, dreading what was to come. Dead man driving.
I parked and walked up and looked through the sliding glass door. Michael was at his bench, back turned, chiseling something. When he heard me he turned, walked over, and put out his hand.
“Good morning!” he said with a smile and a firm shake. This was how every morning began for the six years I worked for him. Always a gentleman, always kind. It made a difference.
“Hi,” I said. Then, bracing for the answer, “What’s new?”
“Not much! Monday morning, fire in the stove, probably the last one til October, What’s new with you?”
Fire. If you’re about to fire me, I thought, your chipper tone is a weird and slightly cruel introduction.
“Nothing really.” I said flatly. “So, um...did you hear anything?”
“About what?” he said, either feeling or feigning puzzlement. I couldn't decide which.
“Oh! Right! I meant to call you but I forgot!” he said cheerfully. “Richard called Sunday morning. He said he’s decided he loves it right where it is, right there in the front living room.”
“Really?” I said, stunned.
“Yes. He said he had some friends over Saturday night and they went on and on about it, all night. They could all see it from the dining room, and then later from the couches, and they just kept noticing it all evening and talking about how beautiful it was.”
“Yep! He said he realized that if it had been back in the bedroom he would probably have shown it to them quickly and then forgotten about it as soon as they all left the room. But instead they kept noticing it, and they opened it and looked all through it. He sounded really proud.”
“That’s...amazing,” I said.
“Yes, and he said he has it right by the front window so the neighbors can see it and get jealous,” he laughed.
“That’s awesome,” I said carefully. “So...I mean...we’re done? That’s it?”
“We’re done!” Michael said.
I let out a sigh. Then, like a man who still had a job, I walked over to my work bench and set my lunch bag and thermos down next to a stack of papers. Papers I hadn’t seen before.
I looked closely. They were freshly printed drawings and cutlists for a dining table. Our next project, which we would start today.
“Those look ok? Understandable?” Michael asked.
I pretended to review them carefully to buy myself a little time. I needed it to process the moment, to digest the grace I’d received. From The Universe. From Richard. From Michael.
And maybe, I don’t know, maybe also from my Chemistry teacher, and from my roommate, and from the retarded girl, and from the new widow, and from my dad, and from that kid in fourth grade, and from so many others. Maybe, by the same grace, they’ve somehow turned the bad I handed them into good. Maybe the same grace that forgives the injurer also heals the injured.
Maybe someday I’ll absorb this, someday I’ll actually believe it's true. And then, maybe, I can finally begin to forgive myself.
“They look great,” I said, hoping he didn’t just see the single tear that fell on the paper I was holding. “Where do we start?”
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