Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress — a novel about losing my mom and finding her again, leaving home and going back and about childhood. The parts like this, about my lovable swearing father, made me laugh when I wrote them and repeat them to my friends as long as they would listen, after.
Lainey spent each fall throwing wood through a small basement window at her father’s head. It was a homegrown production.
The cycle was this — her father cut it in the backyard, his daughters stacked it on a trailer, he drove it to the house, the girls unstacked it in the garage and dropped it through the window into the basement, where her father once again stacked it. It seemed to Lainey to involve entirely too many steps.
The day of the wood’s arrival was a dark day at the household. The rumble of the lumber truck was no match for the terror in the tiny sound of her father squeezing the handle of his oilcan as he greased the chainsaw.
The delivery was 30 cords, enough to heat the three-bedroom ranch through the winter, with two to spare for the countless times Lainey and her sisters left the backdoor open.
It began with her father cutting the timber into small, manageable pieces the depth of his woodstove, while his daughters stood by to grab the pieces and load them onto the trailer.
“Get it!” her dad would holler over the chainsaw, nudging loose pieces on the ground toward Lainey, his boots scuffed leather. He had no patience for her tentative nature around dismemberment. This was about production, not the ability of his crew wearing Guess watches, flannel shirts and blue jeans. He had not, Lainey thought, done a very careful screening of his workmen.
However, stacking the wood became an art form. The big chunks, split with an ax, went in a row on the front and back end of the trailer, solid and steady, one tucked into the other. The girls had small competitions to see who could stack the tightest, neatest end rows.
“Mine’s higher than yours!” one would hoot.
“But mine’s stronger,” another would say and kick the structure, solid under the strike of a size 7 Ked.
Eventually, the hell-cry Get back to work! would sound when her father noticed the competition for fine craftsmanship was actually a detriment to the process.
The trailer was big enough for two 1980 Ski-Doo snowmobiles, one facing each way, and small enough that the Honda three-wheeler could pull it filled to capacity with firewood. The bed of the trailer was plywood warped with age and balanced on one axle with a metal fender over each tire.
And this was pivotal to the entire operation: the clearance between the fender and the tire.
The trailer could take the weight of wood until it almost touched but did not touch the tire. Any less, and it was wasted space. Any more, and the trailer was pegged to the ground, and Lainey would be charged with unloading what she’d just loaded until the trailer rose to make clearance.
This was a waste of time, her father would address his crew when this happened, Could you not see it was getting too heavy? Are you blind? Be it good times or good eyes, all were in short supply for the man who continued to saw and curse and yell directions at his crew.
Once the trailer was loaded, it was time for the step that Lainey hated the most — helping him back the trailer into the garage. The trailer fit inside the garage door with an inch to spare on either side. And even as Lainey told him “a little more to the left,” he was going right.
“Am I gonna make it, damn it?” he would bellow.
“Yeah, I said, YEAH!” Lainey would scream back, sometimes without even looking. Let him rap into the trim of the door and go absolutely off the deep-end, she would think.
But if he did rap the trim, she would crap her pants. No way was it a good scene. The taillights on the trailer stuck out the farthest and, with just a hair scratch, would catch the white paint and peel a long, fine stretch of paint free for all the world to see, or similarly, her father.
Never was the trailer backed in without some kind of situation unfolding. But once it was parked, her father became the jumpy one. For his job was to stack the wood in the basement. And their job was to relay the pieces down through the small access window from the garage into the basement. They would drop the pieces, one by one, letting them fall eight feet to the concrete floor below in a thundering whack at the feet of her father.
“Drop them straight down,” her father warned every time. “Don’t throw them! Jesus!”
And, of course, the day came when her mother wailed him in the head with a piece of wood big enough to kill him.
“Ow!” came the howl and Lainey and her sisters crowded around the little window.
“Are you OK?” Lainey’s mother called, reaching for the next chunk of wood.
Her father did not answer, enjoying more the silent suffering that brought them to the window.
“Dad!” his daughters insisted, “Answer us!”
As they peered into the dark hole, their eyes dilated, trying to assemble the scene below: a man slumped over, grabbing his forehead with a leather glove, the other hand on his waist for emphasis, a blue streak coming from his mouth clouding the basement.
“Who threw that?” he finally asked, deadly quiet, checking his head for blood.
All three girls looked up at their mother, who was standing behind them, arms crossed.
“I did not throw it,” she said down the hole at him.
“The piece of wood is six feet across the basement floor!” he countered. Indeed, the chunk had some steam behind it from the looks of things.
“I did not throw it.” Her mother was nothing if not consistent.
The argument went on like that for some time, her mother denying, her father counting out the feet between his head, the window and the wood. This was reassuring. If he could fight and holler and curse, then he would live. Unfortunately, it also meant he’d live to get another load in before nightfall.
The event became family lore, one of their favorites. And, while at the time, Lainey hated the sawdust in her eyes and the scratches on her arms, she remembers now what it felt like, the satisfaction of that last load. She treasures now what her father taught her about hard work. And what her mother taught her about good aim.