Jenny took me searching through the empty lot behind her old house. The property, divorced from her previous cul-de-sac by a stucco wall, was the only undeveloped land remaining in the complex. It had stood desolate for years, a neglected, suburban salt flat, until one morning the neighborhood woke up to find a water heater abandoned in the center. The next night, someone added a dented washing machine.
Soon after, the lot was filled with the entire neighborhood’s discarded things.
Many of the items were indistinguishable, with missing or broken parts, but Jenny found what could only be described as an oversized wooden spool. Jenny seemed to think she could turn that spool into a table. She never mentioned needing a table, but she tended to see things for what they could be instead of what they are, had a do-it-yourself philosophy. In college, she took one look at my Mona Lisa afghan and screamed, “Shower Curtain!” Through graduation, the Madonna smiled wryly from our bathtub, soaked up water like museum praise.
After turning the spool to its side, Jenny said, “It could easily seat eight.”
She studied the knobs in the oak, the serrated edges, the large hole through the center the size of a serving plate, then decided she could drape a tablecloth over the top and just remember to not put dishes there.
“But there will always be that person,” I said, picturing my broccoli casserole vanish through the middle.
We trekked through the junk in search of some solution, and when a nearby homeowner pitched a box of scratched records out his window, we realized Tony Bennett wedged into the space perfectly. There was no additional hammering or gluing required, which Jenny interpreted as a do-it-yourself miracle.
So we turned the spool on its side and weaved it through stained couches, over crushed cassette tapes, and through a gate of stainless steel refrigerator doors that reflected the overcast sky and captured clouds around our ankles. We lifted it over the stucco wall, rolled it into Jenny’s old living room until it sat next to her previous dining room table like a recently discovered uncle.
“Don’t touch anything,” Jenny warned.
Her old house was impeccably tidy because her ex-husband, Tim, cleaned whenever he got upset. I once heard him say, “I swear to God if my mother-in-law calls this house one more time, I’ll clean the fucking grout with a toothpick,” and I don’t think he was kidding around. The last month of their marriage was full of bleach. Empty cartons of it stacked up in the garage like lazily concealed affairs, and all their fights ended ugly, with Tim stripping the sheets for brutal, no-softener washes, then nuking sponges in the microwave to annihilate germs and grease.
I pointed out to Jenny that the spool had left a pair of muddy tracks on the carpet.
“Oh no,” she said. “He’ll know we were here.”
Jenny was so nervous about Tim seeing the tracks that she dimmed all the lights and lowered the blinds. “That’s better.”
But Tim just walked in the house through the front door, looking neither surprised by the mess from the spool, nor the presence of his ex-wife breaking into her old, but his current, place. Jenny seemed irritated that Tim entered through the front door, rather than the garage, which when it was their place instead of his, was his preferred entry of choice. They stared silently at each other for some time, which although uncomfortable for me, was some form of lucid communication between the two of them.
"It will be a table," Jenny said to whatever Tim had inaudibly, but coherently, communicated. She added threateningly, "Soon."
Tim was a small man with a thin blonde moustache that shaded his top lip like an awning, but an awning so thin you still had to lean up against the wall if it rained. His legs were unusually short, as if his knees had grown straight from his ankles just to bypass the drama of shins! I never thought he was Jenny’s type, and after their first few dates, I asked why she was attracted to him. She told me that when she looked at Tim, she never saw that moustache or those stumpy limbs, but a heavily bearded man with flannelled shoulders so broad he had to walk through doors sideways.
Who was I to judge? Her eternal optimism was admirable.
Recently, I had bumped into Tim at our city’s weekend flea market. He’d been wandering the vintage clothing tents doing some therapeutic lint rolling. There was a petite woman with him, her arms full of leather Hell’s Angel’s memorabilia.
I briefly mentioned it to Jenny, who was stomping across the spool tracks to smear them. "I'm going to keep it here until I find someone with a truck who can help me move it,” she said.
“My truck’s in the garage," Tim said. "I could deliver it tomorrow."
The whole conflict seemed resolved, but Jenny responded with, "No thanks."
We at least agreed the table shouldn't stay put, being shamed by all of Tim's fancy furniture, so together, the three of us rolled the spool into the garage, printing a new set of tracks over the carpet that sprouted from the other in tree branches. We brought the spool to a stop next to Tim’s truck so that when Jenny met a different person with a truck, the driver could simply back it into her old driveway and the wooden spool would have a clear rolling pathway.
“Next up,” Jenny said, “Chairs.”
Jenny dragged me back to the lot, but this time in search of rectangular-shaped items that could contrast geometrically with the table. She described every item we passed with insults about her ex-husband.
Looking at a yellow bathtub with clawed feet—“Only Tim would clean a tub this ugly.’
Passing a smashed-in, thirty-year old computer monitor —“Tim’s moustaches grows slower than this modem runs.”
No other worthwhile items turned up. As we returned to the house, Jenny frantically recited plans for the spool: “I’ll stain it! A darker tone for the top. Maybe doilies as stencils? Lacy patterns around the foot!” She hurdled over the stucco wall with renewed excitement. The table seemed like a new start for her—a clean slate of cracked and mildewed oak! Back in the garage, Tim stood next to the spool wearing gloves and blue protective goggles, which looked like a tiny ocean suctioned to his face. His moustache puckered out beneath it like a disappointing beach.
“I sanded it,” he explained.
“Why would you do that?” Jenny asked.
There was an obvious improvement brought about by the sanding. The wavy edges were smoothed down to fine porcelain, and Tim surfed his bare palm over them without a hitch. He returned the sander, which looked brand new and still had twist ties around the chord, to its thin plastic covering. According to Jenny, he always stored things the way they first came out of the box in the original box they were purchased in.
Jenny moved through the garage and started opening drawers and cupboards. Her face reddened when she discovered the majority of them empty.
“Where’s my paint?” she asked.
“It was old,” Tim said. “I discarded it.”
Jenny’s face twisted into an unclear expression that Tim offered a sarcastic laugh to.
“What was I thinking?” he yelled. “You could have turned it into dinner!”
This caused Jenny to storm through the garage opening and slamming every cupboard. She ripped something from the toolbox that was not paint but came in a narrow tube and poured from the nozzle like a thick balsamic glaze. She circled the spool, garnishing it generously.
“Ta-da!” she yelled. “I love it.”
Tim claimed he had some cleaning to do and marched into the house. He left the door open, and we listened as he narrated the various hygienic states of the rooms:
“Got to dust that fan.
“It’s a giant allergy.
“Dammit these tiles.
“Is that soap scum?
“Where’s my Swiffer?”
Jenny brought her lips a centimeter from my ear and whispered, “I took it.”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s not here.”
Inside the house, Tim pounded on something. Then, the sound was overpowered by high-pitched squealing. Jenny explained that when he got really heated, he bent over the kitchen counter tiles and excavated the dried food particles with an electric carving knife.
“Go check on him,” Jenny said.
“He’s perfectly safe.”
Jenny took betrayal very seriously and tended to hold grudges for years, so I weaved carefully through the staged furniture in search of her ex-husband, who, as a result of their divorce, had no lasting ties with me. I was the only friend who gave her my honest opinion about Tim, but there I was, doing her jealous, ex-wife bidding. Signs of Tim’s binge cleaning were everywhere—sheets bleached to the point of yellowing, perfectly even vacuum prints visible on the carpet. I wondered if Tim endured there for hours in a craze, sucking up the shadows of opposing carpet fibers instead of actual dirt.
The intersecting rectangles ceased at the tiled floor of the bathroom, where Tim stood on a stool cleaning the mirror with newspaper.
“It reduces streaks,” he explained.
His proximity to the fluorescent light caused his nose to cast a shadow over his mouth, and I couldn’t even see that moustache, might have easily mistaken it for a densely freckled upper lip. Elevated to twice his size, Tim seemed like the man Jenny might have always imagined him to be, who walked around on an average set of legs instead of his actual shrunken ones. He lowered the newspaper to his side, as if surrendering.
“Does Jenny want to get back together?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said, although I was fairly confident she didn’t.
“She keeps showing up here.”
Jenny stopped do-it-yourselfing when they first got married. She filled out the wedding registries, helped Tim meticulously unwrap and display the items in their suburban villa, and she enjoyed them for a while—Things! Boxes!—that Tim stored in such a way that Jenny could get those rush of brand-new-feelings more than just one time. But from their upstairs window, Jenny watched that lot multiply into a field of disregarded things, and she fell for it more than Tim, committed adultery on all of their furniture.
After she moved out, Jenny talked about the vacant lot, spent our weekly happy hour describing the exhilaration she got muddling through it. After witnessing Tim’s woodwork myself, I realized Jenny intended on leaving behind whatever she unearthed from the dirt, knowing Tim couldn’t stop himself from purging the filthiness.
“I think she misses me,” he said.
With sudden bravado, he hopped off the stool and pushed back the shower curtain.
“Let’s saturate these moldy fuckers!” he yelled. I walked back to Jenny in the thunder of Tim’s warrior chant: “Bleach! Bleach! Bleach!”
Jenny was not in the garage. She stood at the end of the driveway with a young man who wore a backwards hat and crossed his arms over a fraternity T-shirt.
“This guy has a truck!” she yelled. She hauled him up the driveway and showed him the spool. The guy twisted his hat until the bill faced forward, funneling his gaze toward Tim’s truck.
“How do you know Jenny?” I asked.
“We just met.”
I nodded. “She is very outgoing.”
“She threw wrenches at my windshield until I stopped driving.”
Jenny yelled inside for Tim to help us transport the spool. The young guy said he borrowed the truck from a frat brother to dump a load of puke-stained furniture into the empty lot. Together, the two men rolled it down the driveway and lifted it into the truck bed, which was littered with beer cans and not nearly as spacious as Tim’s.
I dug through my wallet and offered the young guy forty dollars.
“You’ve been very helpful,” I told him.
“Whatever,” he said, but pocketed it.
Jenny had me drive her car while she climbed in the truck and nestled her hips forcefully against the young man’s. Tim watched them depart, and I looked back at him, hoping he would run back to the house with his reduced strides, ignore the spool tracks entirely and call that woman from the flea market. There future looked flawless to me and required no imagination: her in a leather jacket, tiny arms extended and revving an imaginary motorcycle, while Tim circled her in his unique mating ritual, gently rubbing polish over the leather to remove all the smudges.
What Tim actually did was perch on his tiptoes at the edge of the garage with the goggles crowning his head like a tiara. He looked stupid and brave as he attempted to send across the cement expanse an expression that only Jenny could interpret, but one she never saw, because her peripheral vision was lost after she put on the young man’s baseball hat.
Jenny and I spent the rest of the evening at her new apartment. The young guy helped us roll the spool through her front door, but he barely crossed into her foyer when she instructed him to, “Leave it there.” He lingered, removed his hat and smoothed down his hair, as if waiting for an invitation.
“That’s really all you wanted?” he asked.
“Yes,” Jenny said.
The spool rested next to a cast iron coat rack with no bulb or wiring that Jenny planned on updating to a floor lamp. There were half-finished projects were everywhere, and Jenny examined all of them. Not even Tim could have translated whether she was overjoyed or saddened.
“Where will you put it?” I asked her.
“Somewhere,” she said. “I’ll find a place. What do you think of this?”
She held up a wrought iron birdcage with a beautiful, rusted blemish. It looked Victorian, delicate, and the door was held closed by a twine loop.
“It’s pretty,” I said.
“It’s a lampshade.”
Jenny held the cage from the top hook so it swirled, suspended, in between us. Would soft light ever fill up the empty space and erase an association with birds? They were the original mavens of crafting, who transcended their evolutionary rivals by bracing rocks between their beaks and hammering into eggs nature forbid them to break until the concealed milk hatched forth.
Brittany Bronson's work has previously appeared in Paper Darts, Juked, F(r)iction, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others. Her nonfiction appears regularly in The New York Times, where she contributes as an op-ed writer.