A television production company called about a short story I had promised to write. I was supposed to submit the piece ages ago—that date on my calendar reads: MUSHROOMS! THIS USED TO BE THE COURTING SEASON! KITCHEN TABLE TO TELEVISION!
I had been asked to write a script about an old kitchen table, but I never did, because I forgot. I often wonder how many laundries and shoe repair shops have things that I never remembered to pick up.
IT IS AN ORDINARY table—not the talking kind. I hate stories told by dogs or slippers. Or tables.
This table was crafted as a demonstration of skill at a carpenter’s workshop in Vyborg and remained there as storage for tools. When the war broke out in the late 1930s, the workshop was closed down temporarily.
When its owner was killed in the war, everything in the workshop was auctioned off.
THE TABLE WAS purchased by a newlywed couple.
The husband, in a uniform, carried the table on his shoulders to their apartment. It was placed under the window in the kitchen, covered with a tablecloth with little flowers and embroidered initials.
A hand reached for another hand across the table, and kisses were exchanged. Trembling hands opened letters and wrote letters on the table. The following year, diapers were changed and a christening dress was ironed on the table.
Sometimes a big black typewriter was placed on the table, and its keys were pounded by a man. Sheet after sheet was ripped out of the typewriter and thrown on the floor. Eventually, the typewriter would be angrily moved away.
THEN ONE DAY, shattered glass rains on the table. An entire window.
A bomb has hit the house next door. The couple grab their baby and run away. They don’t even have time to take the baby bottle from the table. The butter dish is full of glass.
The table stays there, waiting. On some days, the wind lashes rain through the window onto the table, and sometimes the sun stripes its surface with shadows and light.
Then someone comes and picks up the table. It is taken to Helsinki in a freight car, to a sublet room upstairs in a wooden house. The young couple and their child begin to rebuild their life around the table.
THE TABLE IS UNDER a window facing a backyard with apple trees in blossom. Sometimes a crimson rose is placed in a vase on the table. Sometimes a big black typewriter is lifted onto the table, and its keys are pounded by a man. Sheets are ripped out and thrown on the floor.
Someone slams their first against the table so hard that the vase falls over. Someone cries, with their face against the table. A woman writes rhymed poems in a little notebook.
A child is learning how to eat at the table. Meager breakfasts and meager dinners. Coffee from broken cups. More and more often, just two people: a mother and a little girl.
A bottle of booze is banged on the table. A young man passes out with his face against the table. A woman gently places a pillow between his cheek and the table.
AND THEN, ANOTHER move: an apartment on the fourth floor. Two rooms and a kitchenette.
The table is placed under the window in one room. The window faces a gloomy brick building dotted with small windows. The table is covered with a brand-new oilcloth, and a vase is placed on the table.
Sometimes a big black typewriter is lifted onto the table; a man places his fingers on the keys, but nothing happens. Then the typewriter is moved away.
THEN ONE DAY, diapers are changed and a christening dress is ironed again on the table. A transistor radio is placed on the table. The big sister turns up the volume, and the baby is fumbling for her toy.
Someone slams their fist against the table. Someone cries and passes out with their face against the table. Bottles of booze fall over on the table at night. Playing cards. Ashtrays. Half-eaten slices of bread with butter and pickled herring. Blood. Shattered glass. Dentures.
The big sister is doing her homework at the table, and the little sister is building a Lego table.
YET ANOTHER MOVE. Now the table is adorned by a rose-patterned oilcloth, and a table lamp is placed next to the radio.
Sometimes a big black typewriter is lifted onto the table and left there. Enthusiastic, the little sister pushes its keys. The big sister is baking. The woman is writing shopping lists, and sometimes she traces with her finger the outlines of the roses on the oilcloth.
Someone slams their fist against the table. Someone cries and passes out with their face against the table.
MEAGER BREAKFASTS and meager dinners. More and more often, just three people: the mother and her two daughters.
The older daughter places her purse on the table, takes off her glasses, and begins to pop her pimples in front of a small mirror. The little sister is writing in her lockable journal and doing her homework diligently.
More and more often, the little girl lifts the big black typewriter onto the table and starts to write. The roses on the oilcloth fade.
Occasionally, someone slams their fist against the table. Sometimes a bottle of booze falls over. Sometimes a man passes out with his bloated face against the table. The little girl cries with her face against the table.
THE MOTHER and two daughters spend many long evenings drinking coffee at the table. Just the three of them; Easter, Midsummer, Christmas, the whole year through.
Fingers are tapping against the oilcloth. Someone is painting their nails. Someone is solving crossword puzzles. Sentimental favorites are playing on the radio. The lamp lends a dim light on the surface of the table.
The father’s seat is empty and will remain so. Nevertheless, a plate, fork, knife, and glass have been set on the table for him, just as always.
ONE EVENING, when the mother and her two daughters are sitting at the table, one of them writes the date on a taffy wrapper: 5/23/63.
Sometime later, the wrapper is rediscovered under the oilcloth, and someone writes: FOUND 6/7/63. Then the wrapper is slid back under the oilcloth.
The following Christmas, the mother and the daughters remember the wrapper when they are once again spending the evening at the table. They glue the wrapper to the middle of a sheet of paper and write the date on the paper: FOUND 12/24/63.
AND SO BEGAN the story of the note under the kitchen tablecloth. Years passed. Sheets of paper were glued together, and the date was added whenever the note was rediscovered or remembered.
This is how my mother, sister, and I passed the time when we were sitting at the kitchen table in the long evenings of my childhood and youth, waiting for Father to come back—from the local dive or from the dead.
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