The Waitress and the Cabinetmaker

Shelby Wardlaw


        The waitress was the only one in the restaurant when he came in to install the cabinets. She put on her most winning, big-tip smile and showed the cabinetmaker where he was to begin his work, then retrieved her novel and pretended to read. In truth, she could not tear her eyes away from the cabinetmaker’s rough, square hands, almost bark-like in texture, or the delicate manner with which he handled his tools. He measured and leveled, and hammered and lifted. The waitress gazed on, transfixed. Even in movement, the cabinetmaker appeared strangely still. He wore silence like a cloak. The waitress hovered on the edge of his silence, and the proximity was enough to make her muscles slacken and her mind go limp.
         When the cabinetmaker finished, he gave a nod and prepared to leave. Without thinking, the waitress cried out, “No!” and ran to the doorway. The cabinetmaker paused. He looked at her, and the waitress felt herself being judged, weighted as with a piece of untested wood. Then the cabinetmaker grinned and, almost involuntarily, the waitress grinned back.
         From that day forward, the cabinetmaker and the waitress fell more and more deeply in love. The waitress floated into the restaurant every morning, light of heart and of foot. By evening, however, the cares of the day had worn on her. Her head was stuffed with worries. On the bus ride home, the waitress gulped at the air like a fish, trying to catch a full breath. Then she arrived at the cabinetmaker’s house. As soon as she crossed the threshold, it was as if she had stepped into a deep mute pool. It felt silent and safe.
         Every night, the cabinetmaker showed her the woodworking he had accomplished that day. With one hand about her wrist, he would make her trace the smooth lines, gliding her fingertips along the sanded surface. A heat would spring into her veins once more, a blushing feeling that rose from her feet to her cheeks, and the waitress would finally sigh and feel content.
         As the months drew on, the waitress saw the cabinetmaker carve many cabinets, each one elegant in design and sturdy in construction. Many heavy things could fit comfortably inside its walls. No two cabinets were alike, for though the cabinetmaker used the same type of wood for several cabinets, he would find within each one the unique fingerprint of the grain, such that each piece had an identity that made it seem still-alive.
         Some cabinets were made of knotty pine, and so looked out from the wood with many eyes. Some were made of elm and proudly displayed their years of scarcity and their years of plenty. Some were made of oak, and wore their age-lines thick and round.
         The waitress marveled at each piece in turn. Every time she thought she had chosen a favorite, the cabinetmaker would create a new one, more beautiful than the last.
         Finally, one night, as the waitress and the cabinetmaker lay entwined on the doorstep of sleep, the waitress asked whether the cabinetmaker would teach her how to carve cabinets. The cabinetmaker was wary, for this was not the first time he had been asked this question. But he loved the waitress dearly, and so he said, “Yes, my darling, but not now. Let’s wait some weeks yet.” And with that, they fell to dreaming.
         A year passed. Then one afternoon, while the waitress was riding with the cabinetmaker to pick up some raw wood, she asked again whether the cabinetmaker would teach her his craft. The cabinetmaker was still unnerved at the prospect, and so he replied, “Yes my love, but not today. Let’s wait some weeks yet.” Three months passed, until one evening the cabinetmaker presented the waitress with a cabinet that was so stunning she passed out upon the floor at the sight of it. When she came to, she begged the cabinetmaker on her knees to teach her his skill, but he put her off a third time, telling her to wait some weeks yet.
         That night, the cabinetmaker dreamt he was walking in a dense forest. About him the whispering boughs pleaded to be turned into cabinets. “No!” the cabinetmaker yelled, and his voice had no echo. “You are meant to be the way you are. You cannot all be cabinets. Be trees, and be content.” The trees wailed and shuddered above him, and the wind they created rose to an incredible pitch. The cabinetmaker put his hands over his ears and awoke, sheened in sweat. Lying beside him, he found the waitress crying in her sleep. Gently, he shook her awake. As soon as her eyes fluttered open, the waitress told him she had dreamt that she was a lonely tree upon a hill, shivering in a bitter cold wind. Then she asked him one last time whether or not he would ever teach her to make cabinets. Moved and upset, the cabinetmaker agreed.
         Once they had both showered and eaten, the cabinetmaker took the waitress into his shop and began to teach. For the first several weeks, the apprenticeship progressed wonderfully. The waitress proved herself to be a quick and talented pupil. The cabinetmaker demonstrated how to choose the best cut of wood, how to strip and shape it, how to tap and sniff and discover with keen eye the very best grain the wood had to offer.
         “The cabinet is already there,” he counseled her. “Your only task is to bring it out. A great cabinetmaker does not carve or craft: he reveals.”
         The cabinetmaker showed the waitress how to cut away the excess material and how to smooth out the edges; how to sand and how to polish. Every step had to be lovingly, patiently executed, with an openness of mind.
         Finally, the waitress was finished. She stepped back to admire her work. Indeed, the cabinet she had made was beautiful. The lines were clean and the perimeter was delicately ornamented with a geometric pattern. Yet the cabinet seemed flat and dull, like a creek that has been lulled into a shallow, stagnant pool. The waitress frowned.
         “Something’s missing,” she said, glancing at the cabinetmaker. “Your cabinets always seem so full of life. This one is just a shadow. What did I do wrong?”
         The cabinetmaker looked at her, and for a moment the waitress was reminded of when they had first met and he had sized her up in the doorway of the restaurant.
         “Come,” he said at length. “I’ll show you.”
         The cabinetmaker turned and led her to where his latest piece leaned against a back wall. He tilted it forward and pointed to a spot on the back. The waitress bent down close. At first, she could only wonder at the complexity of the grain, but then she noticed something else. Woven into the wood, wed to it with a clear finish, was a strand of the cabinetmaker’s golden-brown hair. Thin and unobtrusive it was – no one could notice it unless it was pointed out – and yet it glimmered faintly, like a signature on a canvas.
         “You do this to each of your cabinets?” the waitress asked, looking up at the cabinetmaker’s worried face. He nodded.
         “It’s a wonder you are not bald!” the waitress laughed. Surprised, the cabinetmaker laughed with her.
         The waitress plucked from her head one of her own fair hairs and the cabinetmaker showed her how to interlace it into the texture of the wood. The moment she sealed it, the cabinet glowed with energy. It inhaled, stretched, and settled into its form. A wave of peace washed over the waitress. Never before had she felt so secure in the world. It was as though she had been journeying for years over the surface of the earth and only now had she found the niche into which she dropped easily and fit perfectly. The feeling lasted for a full month.
         Then, one morning, the waitress woke up shivering.  The bed seemed hard and when she stood up she got a head rush and had to sit back down. Work at the restaurant was stressful that day. Customers were rude. She put in multiple wrong orders. On the bus ride home, the waitress felt like she had been pulled apart and reassembled incorrectly. That night, she set to work on another cabinet.
         Two weeks later she finished. The piece was more intricate than her first one; the waitress’s thoughts were too frenetic to fit inside clean lines. She plucked a hair from her head and wove it into the wood, just as the cabinetmaker had shown her. The cabinet glowed. Immediately, the waitress was filled with warmth. She felt able to view the world with grace once more and take comfort in the silent refuge she found in herself. The feeling lasted three weeks.
         Again, the waitress woke up frigid as a stone. Again, she set to work on a new cabinet. A week later, she completed it, though by this time her shoulders so stooped with care that she plucked two hairs from her head and knit them into the wood. The silence that followed was pure bliss and the waitress was joyful for many days.
         But too soon the dawn light became harsh and the waitress was forced to return to the cabinetmaker’s shop and set to work.
         Over the next year, the waitress built cabinets with increasing frequency and fervor. Every time she completed a piece, she would experience a period of calm. Yet, inevitably, the elation would not last. Each time the feeling faded, the waitress was left with a slippery sense of existential dread. She craved the silence her art afforded her, she needed it, and with every cabinet she made she found that she needed it more and longer. She began to carve one every week, then two a week. She put more and more of herself into her work – two hairs turned into three, then five, then ten.
         At first, the cabinetmaker admired his beloved’s industriousness. Her dedication to the craft only made him fall more in love with her. Her cabinets were more ornate than he would prefer, but anyone could see that they were still incredibly beautiful. The cabinetmaker began to worry, however, when he walked in on her one day in the studio ripping out a fistful of her own hair.
         In the weeks that followed, the cabinetmaker watched the waitress closely. She insisted that she was fine, that she didn’t need any help. Truly, the waitress did seem happy and very calm. Yet her hair thinned, her eyelashes fell out, and her fingernails began to rip off.
         Meanwhile, the cabinetmaker’s warehouse reached its storage capacity. Cabinets were stacked ten high, leaning against every wall, gathering dust and harboring spiders. The waitress had to start selling.
         Her first buyer happened to be a Leafer from the big city. When he saw the waitress’s cabinets his eyes widened. Never before had he encountered such woodwork. The craftsmanship exhibited an earnestness that made the man feel naked and vulnerable. He remembered a moment when he was seven, when his grandfather had taught him how to ride a bike. He had fallen and crashed all afternoon until his knees were as red as the setting sun. His grandfather had suggested going inside and giving up for the day. But the boy was stubborn. He had gotten onto his two-wheeler one last time, tears streamed down his dirty cheeks, and rode.
         The man bought two cabinets, full-price.
         The next weekend, two more people from the city ventured upstate to the cabinetmaker’s workshop. Each had a vision of a moment that meant something to him, and each went home with several cabinets.
         Word spread. Families came, then businessmen and decorators. The sight of the magical cabinets caused some to weep, while others stood agape. Many found themselves full of stories to tell, like a well that has been filled by a summer storm and suddenly needs to be emptied. Several bold customers requested to speak to the artist. But when the waitress came forth, the buyers struggled to keep their countenance. Bit by bit, the waitress had given herself up to her art. An ear was missing, her nose, most of her teeth and lips, several right toes and the left leg below the knee. The cabinetmaker escorted her and translated. His face was pained, lined now with worry for his fading love.
         After a while, the customers stopped requesting to see the waitress. Rumor had it that the artist was very passionate but very deformed – a mysterious eccentric. The buyers kept coming, however, and orders poured in.
         The cabinetmaker gave over all of his time to taking care of his beloved. He begged her to stop making cabinets. He wept and pleaded with her. “This isn’t right!” he argued. “You’ve taken it too far. You are dismantling yourself and soon there will be nothing left.” The waitress stroked the cabinetmaker’s full head of hair with her remaining fingers. She told him not to fret. He had given her an amazing gift and she felt more alive, more full of purpose than she ever had.
         The waitress’s cabinets gained international acclaim. Magazines featured them. Auction houses sold them. Wealthy housewives coveted them. Everyone thought he knew the true heart of the artist’s work. It had something to do with childhood: the time she won the spelling bee, the night he counted stars, her first kiss in the tree house in her neighbor’s backyard. Everyone felt the alluring pull of a story, a glimmer of his own truth. Museums began bidding for the cabinets, and still the waitress created masterpieces and fell apart.
         The waitress’s fingers were the last parts of her to go, and her eyes, until finally, only seven years after the cabinetmaker first taught her how to carve, the waitress had whittled herself down to nothing. All that was left of her now was her heart, a beating, raw, meaty thing, full of blood and muscle. Feeling older than ever before, the cabinetmaker took the heart and buried it in a hole in the front yard. He closed up shop. He shut the warehouse doors. He mourned and his tears seeped into the earth.
         Then the heart sprouted and grew into a proud tree. The type of tree was unknown, for it had never been seen before, nor has it been seen since. Its bark was beautiful, rough and richly patterned. Its branches thrust outward, drinking in the sun. Its leaves unfurled like a woman’s pale inviting palm.
         When spring came, the cabinetmaker heard a scratch at the bedroom window. He stepped outside. It was the tree, tapping at the panes.
         “What do you want?” the cabinetmaker asked, weary now, and sad.
         The tree rustled its leaves and shook its limbs.
         “Make me into a cabinet,” it said. “I want to be a cabinet.”
         The cabinetmaker sighed, and his breath was long and low. He stared at the tree. He saw inside to the rings and sap and knotty living pulp. He was silent for a long time. The tree waited, its leaves agitating the air.
         “No,” the cabinetmaker said finally. “You are beautiful the way you are. But I will sit by you.”
         And with that, the cabinetmaker walked over to the tree and sat beneath it with his back resting against the trunk. A shiver ran through the branches. The tree’s leaves slowed their trembling, and then fell still, as if, finally, they had found lasting peace.

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Shelby Wardlaw is a writer and teacher living in Austin, Texas. She graduated from Vassar College in 2010 with a B.A. in English and Russian. Her book reviews have been published at The Review Review,, HOW Literary Journal and Pinter & Martin. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, drinking tea and exploring the mountains of North Carolina.