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Even A Bureau Has Limits by Nathan Scott Herzog

I watch a woman bend over double. She buries her head in the lowest drawer, her rear cresting over her shoulders. She thumps the wood with her knuckles: thump, thump. I don’t like the sound. Too much like a drum, or a heartbeat, or a pulse. I imagine she’s looking for a secret cavity. I could tell her all the things that have been hidden inside, but there’s no false bottom. It’s not the first time the bureau has been sold here. As the proprietor says, bad eggs keep coming around.

This woman continues tapping. I find the sound particularly noxious, like a knocking on a door that will never open. Her hands make the same dead, dead, dead sound against the dried, stretched wood. She slides open the top drawer, Mother's scarf drawer. Dead, da-dead, dead. Suddenly the drawer snaps shut on her fingers. She howls. In pain? In fright? I don’t care. She’s gone. Even a bureau has limits.

Mother’s bureau had been returned from upstate New York. It had been purchased for a little girl who kept her toys rattling around in the blouse drawer. There was the time when I placed my figurines in that deep drawer. They sounded like rocks crashing in the surf when Mother pulled the drawer open and later I found them piled outside at the end of the drive.

So I removed the little girl’s toys. She got in trouble for that. Her Daddy didn’t like that her toys were spread over the floor instead of picked up like he had asked. She dumped them back in the drawer and insisted her room was clean only to turn and find her toys on the floor again. She wouldn’t return to her room after that. Her Daddy put the toys away himself, sighed when she insisted he brace the drawer shut with a chair but did it anyway. They both watched when the drawer slid out, toppling the chair over.

I watch two men lift the bureau into a truck. I’m bound to it, as I’ve always been. The morning I rose from sleep and noticed myself still lying in bed, they carried my body out but I couldn’t follow. I couldn’t get near the open door.

When they came for the bureau, it pulled me along with it, straight through the wall. My sister would have loved that. You want that natty old dresser so badly? she had asked. Take it, for all I care. Now it appears it has taken me. I’ll let you in on a secret. I never liked that bureau. It was for Mother to fuss over, never for me to use, and oh how she got angry if she caught me looking inside it.

I dig in my toes when I feel the pull. For a moment I think I can resist it, remain in place while it is hauled away. Then I’m jerked off my feet straight through the forgotten furniture littering the barn, through the parked cars, down the gravel drive, dragged behind the truck pulling away.

I try to keep pace but can’t match the truck’s speed on the highway. I fall to my knees. I’m pulled under grinding tires. It would be excruciating if I could still feel, humiliating if I could still be seen. Finally the bureau stops, delivered into a new garage with smooth plaster walls and a cold concrete slab. I’m grateful they left it on the ground floor.

Once the bureau had been delivered to the fifth floor of a Manhattan walk up. Constructed floors can’t hold me any more than constructed walls but this did not break my bond. I hung beneath the bureau, hung half-sunk into the floor of a corridor leading to a washroom, feeling warm bodies on urgent business pass unheeding through me. Damnation would be more pleasant.

In the dim light of the garage I saw the bureau’s finish, cracked and worn. The mirror’s silvering flaked in one corner. Some scrollwork had snapped off, likely a clumsy mover whom I would have gutted for the mistake. The sight hurt me the way the bureau did when it was misused or damaged. It hurt the way Mother stared at me when she caught me looking through her things. It hurt my thoughts, filled them with so much hot, wet shame until there was no room for anything else. Fix this, fix this, it scolded me until I did what I could. Only the bureau limited my abilities. I could touch what it touched and nothing else.

A young woman enters talking while holding a phone up to her face. She circles the bureau like it’s a catch. Perversely, I thump the wood hard. That shocks her. She snorts a giggle for the phone. She’s not horrified. Not yet. I prepare to thump it again when I notice her worrying a circle on the side, sandpaper in her hand, a bleached circle where she touched it. It looks like an eye staring at me.

The woman returns with a shrieking device that scrapes the lacquer away leaving the wood raw. What is more torturous? Having the skin flayed from your body? Or watching as someone skins the child entrusted to your care? I push the bureau from her grasp but she won’t let go. I throw my body against it, desperate to slam it out of reach. It rocks dangerously. Dark stain peels from the drawer faces, leaving them as pale as beached fish.

Did I tell you of the student who kept his whiskey out of sight in the sweater drawer? He staggered into his room one night, slopped his drink over the surface. When he turned back all his bottles were aligned on the top like so many whispered secrets. That little shot of shame was all it took. He never hid his spirits inside it again. But my limited reach couldn’t scrub the sticky substance away. It remained, collected dust, grime, mold. I couldn’t keep Mother’s bureau clean. Now look what has become of it.

She removes the bottom drawer from the cabinet. As I wrench it back, the bottom cracks. Oh Mother, I did not mean for that to happen. The woman frowns at the broken drawer. Lays it on a workbench while I search for any weapon I can use.

Fibers screech as she yanks the drawer bottom out. A saw blade whirs. Wood buzzes against the blade. I don’t dare look. I pace around the cabinet imagining all the horrors I would inflict upon her. As she steps away I see she has replaced the broken piece. I mean to whirl the drawer off the bench, crack her right over the head with it. But my hand can’t grab the newly added wood. The sides, the face—those feel as tangible as ever–-but the newly added bottom: my arm disappears straight through it.

A steel pin creaks as the mirror swivels. The woman studies her face in the glass. Pushes her hair back from her forehead. Stops to examine a blemish on her cheek.

I stretch her flesh all the way to the bone.

The mirror is mine. I can force the reflection to show anything. I can age this woman in a blink. Settle the skin around her lips, gather fat in folds around her neck.

But I go too far. I age the mirror itself, scattering flecks of shredded silvering. In a blink she stops considering her face. A screwdriver appears in her hand. Before I can wash her hair white, she uncouples the mirror from the bureau and lays it onto her workbench where she detaches the glass from its frame.

The living cannot hear the dead scream, but they can feel it. Oh they feel it. She shivers and rubs her arms but I’m not done. I wail my rage until the chill is too much for her and she scurries from the garage. But I can’t stop. I wade past the walls, rage under a small stand of pines, stomp across a decaying fence into a field of dried chattering grass before I feel the soft tug that stops me short. I realize I am further from the bureau than I’ve ever been. This is new territory. Death was always the end, until it wasn’t. I existed on a tight leash before now. Did I have this woman to thank? How much more would she have to replace before the bureau became something else?

I summon the woman back with a bang. She finds the bureau on its side, its legs snapped off. The two remaining drawers sag against the cabinet. Her eyes widen. She shuts herself inside the house. A lock turns. This is how Mother reminds me of my place. Fear is all I can conjure no matter my intent.

By morning the bureau sits at the side of the road, a cardboard sign proclaiming it FREE. Soon, a pickup truck stops. A man steps out and inspects it, jiggles a drawer. (It never jiggled before.) He whistles to a boy. Together they lift it onto the truck bed. I watch them leave. The truck turns out of sight. I’m alone for the first time in as many years as I’ve forgotten. I’m as eager and clumsy as a child. Then I’m pulled off my feet and dragged down the road.

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