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Animals in the Clouds – Chapter 4

Chapter 4: An Absolute and Excellent Desk

“Blast it, to be important, you have to feel important. And this is an investment.”

“In feeling important?” says Crystal, “forgive me, but I’ll stick with my 401(k).”

Charlie’s eyes plead with the ceiling. “Listen, I’m trying… to admit something–the hardest thing–and that’s that… that you’ve been right. Never cared, had ambition, you know?–never did what I set out to do.”

“And what was that?”

“That’s just it. I never even set out to do.”

Sliding the ad back across the counter, Crystal smiles, “I get it. I know what this is.”

“What?”

“You know what. Undersized men buy big bikes. I guess your like tend toward oversized office furniture.”

Charlie leers, but Crystal doesn’t blink or budge. “Every chance you get,” he says. “Every chance to bring that up.”

“Trust me, I stopped trying to bring that up long ago.”

“Stop it,” says Charlie. “When clients come in, I want ’em to get the message this desk sends.”

“Be lucky if it doesn’t send you to the poorhouse.”

“Look, I’m not gonna look like an ass behind some puny cheapo desk.”

“Look you, desks don’t make people look like asses. Asses make themselves look like asses.”

Charlie clucks his tongue. Crystal smiles. Though she thinks the desk excessive in every way, Charlie’s insistence upon it cheered her. Where there is gumption, there is hope.

Charlie grabs a glass from the cupboard and a carton of milk from the fridge. “Ordering it tomorrow,” he says. “Gotta call Rocco.”

“Rocco? Not much of a carpenter,” says Crystal, picking an apple from the fruit bowl. “Might find you have drawers jutting out the sides of your new desk like strange ears you let his confused hammer near it.”

“First sensible thing you’ve said all day,” says Charlie, turning to find Crystal’s apple airborne and not three feet from his nose. To his surprise, he catches it, and feeling smug, says, “I’ll call a pro….”

* * *

Charlie does so and over the ensuing weeks signs for three crates postmarked Chihuahua. He has arranged the nuts and bolts in piles on the floor, but all this arranging hasn’t kept his mind from falling out of sorts. Dingboom and the Morning Mist abstractionists had left him feeling ill-qualified to judge the qualifications of others.

That said, Pillof’s arrival comes as a relief, if only because the mere sight of the carpenter renews Charlie’s faith in him. A bespectacled and quiet man, Pillof looks a bit like the marionette maker Jepetto, with his silver hair and mustache–both touched with smoky brown, with his dirty canvas tool belt, and skin tanned as weathered leather.

Tracking the woodsmith’s eyes, Charlie hopes to note a spark of appreciation for the desk. There is no such spark–just an odd twisting at the corners of the mouth. Hours pass as Charlie watches the carpenter work. Again, new worries set in, as each screw-turn and nail strike seems to deepen the sinkhole of the debt. Out the window, the sun fattens and falls, as ever magnified by selfish interest in the dirty world of business.

* * *

Midway through the second day, the desk is complete. Charlie smiles as he fills out the check. “A nice desk, no?”

“A nice desk, yes,” says the carpenter, with too much mimicry of Charlie’s own intonation to admit real conviction.

“Yes, well, you’re a fine craftsman,” says Charlie, handing over payment.

Pillof eyes the check, notes the hefty gratuity, but reserves any sign of endorsement beyond that same twisting at the corners of the mouth. “Day,” he says, doffing his cap.

From the doorway, Charlie stares after the carpenter, wondering if it’s just Pillof’s way, or if there is something else. As yet there are no employees, no product, no marketing plan…. Curiously, Bunk never asked to see any of that, just took Charlie at his word. Charlie feels the weight of it. He kneels down before the great bureau, “On your fine Italian grain I’ll write my success. You’ll see. More furnishings come tomorrow at one–you’ll have companions. Carpets by two; pens, notebooks, staplers, by three; phones and computers by four; our first interview by five; a corporate framework wrought by six. At seven, I’ll go home and rest like a God.”

There is no reply from the giant desk. The flamed grain of its lacquered surface glowers in the twittering fluorescence.

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