The Element of Desire, a story by S.K.Johannesen.
Aleta Jensen was my girlfriend, as they say in America, something you are expected to acquire and be glad about. It was the last thing I really wanted, although there were many advantages to having a girlfriend.
Girlfriend and advantages are American words that I soon found out had meanings to watch out for and that put you on your guard whenever you heard them. In America what is important is made childish, while what is unimportant is the occupation of the waking hours of serious people. Needless to say, everything represented by “girlfriend” belongs to the first class of things, the things that are made childish, so that they sneak up on you without warning, while everything represented by “advantages” belongs to the second, the class of things that are made to seem important, that distract you and harry you from morning to night.
Aleta’s father, Jensen, a Norwegian from the Southland, had that sharpness masquerading as morality and good sense that his type have developed to the highest degree. He was always going on about advantages. “You have had many advantages in your upbringing,” he would say, although he knew nothing about me. “America presents every day advantages to a man who knows how to exploit them.” That sort of sentence was typical of him. He said this word advantages when what he meant was opportunity, or just luck, as though these words did not have enough in them of the idea of competition and cunning and sharp practice. As you were to take up your advantages you were also to be on guard so that people did not take advantage of you, which meant in reality to take advantage of them first. Aleta was no doubt one of his advantages which in the course of nature became one of my advantages, like a good hand at cards, and this trafficking in advantages where his daughter was concerned did not trouble him in the least, since of course his daughter was trained to the same outlook. And anyway, the idea of “girlfriend” made everything concerning erotic love a matter for sly winks and evasions and low comedy.
Jensen lived with his family in an up and coming section of Brooklyn out by the Narrows in what seemed to me a big house in a row of identical new houses planted with grass and slender trees with only a few leaves on them and held up with wire supports. Jensen’s wife and daughter complained constantly that this house was not big enough. Jensen had no particular trade, but he managed two adjacent apartment buildings in Manhattan, in one of which he kept a small penthouse flat where he slept several nights a week, and where I would also stop over from time to time when I was doing a job in his buildings.
“See here, Jørgen,” he would say, introducing the topic of some job he had lined up for me with one of his rich tenants, fitting up a bar, say, or panelling a library. “See here, Jørgen.” He had got this lingo from these tenants as well. “This lady wants a good job. These are important people and they know good work, and they don’t mind paying for it. Charge double for everything. Materials, time, everything. Just don’t come to her and say you measured something wrong, or you couldn’t find the right materials, or it cost more than you thought. Charge double. Put everything right up front. Double. Just like that. And no trouble. These people hate trouble. If they sense trouble then they come to me, because I recommended you. If they like it, and there’s no trouble, and everything is done when they come back from the Adirondacks or wherever, then they drop by to see me, they talk about this and that, nothing special, and when they leave there’s something on the kitchen table. You see what I mean? A little appreciation. There’s advantages to work like this. So long as you don’t screw up.” These were the things he would say, a long rigmarole with his head tilted toward you so and speaking out of the side of his mouth, with this bit of vulgarity at the end. For the boys, you know, man to man. Not the way he talked around the people at meeting.
I did not do badly in America, largely because of Jensen’s connections at meeting, among whom nothing was ever what it appeared to be. People you would never look at twice, or, if you noticed them, it was because there was something definitely strange or even menacing about their figures or their manners, these very people would turn out to be connected with important people in the old country, or they would have unusual talents or past histories. All this in the midst of the gloom and cold sour smells of the hall where we met, over some sort of department store with cheap goods, not far from where I lived in the boarding house. It was through a connection of Jensen’s at meeting that I came to work at the Roosevelt estate.
Simon Thornquist was an impassive man in an overcoat which he wore summer and winter, a grey man with thin lips and heavy jowls that were always raw and red. His wife was tall and shapely and sceptical of whatever was happening in the meetings. Jensen held this Simon Thornquist in some reverence, and introduced us one Sunday afternoon, in his smarmy way, as though every one of his self-serving and sideways words was a ten dollar bill from a box he kept by him and which would one day be empty.
Simon and Nathalie Thornquist kept a cold-water flat at the back of the second floor in a three-storey frame house covered in hexagonal tiles made of tar coated with red grit that poked up awkwardly in the middle of a row of identical brick-fronted houses with low stoops and iron palings around the front areas. The flat was airless, overheated in the winter, full of upholstered furniture, jumbles of knick-knacks, bowls of wax fruit, embroidered silk cushions from places they had been, and many useless things of glass and tarnished silver-plate in large cabinets with curved glass doors. It made you think about the absence of children.
Thornquist was a brilliant joiner, a master, the best I ever saw. He had learned his craft from building boats in Norway. Every Monday morning he took a train from Grand Central Station to Hyde Park, where a car met him for the short drive to the Roosevelt estate. He returned the same way on Friday evening, having slept at night during the week in a room over the workshop. I do not know what Nathalie Thornquist thought of this, or if she thought anything of it, or what she did in the week in that suffocating flat with the upholstered furniture, or if she spent any time there at all.
I took to riding to Hyde Park with Thornquist when I had nothing else going on, and gradually made myself useful around the workshop and even got paid after a time for the work that I did. I was useful to Thornquist because he was not trained as I had been with old Pausgaard in Denmark, and there were times when I could help him solve a problem, with a knack that I had learned, or a standard way of laying out work that saved trouble.
The tools we worked with were the very best. No expense had been spared. Boxwood and rosewood, brass, and the finest Sheffield steel. Panel saws suspended in special slots. Great knobbly, cumbersome rabbeting planes. Rows of screw clamps in graduated sizes. Winding sticks, those elementary devices for squaring stock by sight, always in matched pairs, the big ones made of mahogany, the small ones of ivory, esoteric in their simplicity.
In the middle of the floor, under conical lampshades suspended from the ceiling, stood a great workbench, with vices at each corner and square holes for the dogs and hold-downs along each side, so that two men could work at the same time without crowding each other. The upper surface of the bench was a massive slab of maple, rock hard, polished, each thick plank joined to its neighbour invisibly by the edges with hidden splines and butterfly-shaped dutchmen to make a single golden mass under the lights, as uniform and fine as a piece of cheese, while below, in dark obscurity, were cupboards for more tools and small bits of stock, and drawers with scribing tools and compasses and cabinet scrapers and the like, and sets of fine moulding planes, and chisels and oilstones, each one in its own perfectly fitted box.
This workbench became the centre of existence of those lovely days, the altar to which everything we did was brought, even the humblest bit of garden joinery, the benches and trellises and arbours, which were our bread and butter. Not to mention repairs to all manner of fitments, the fitting out of cupboards and doors, the matching of trim and wainscoting for alterations to rooms, even the construction of temporary platforms and stands and pavilions and other structures for political and social gatherings, which were sometimes grand. We joined everything in the workshop according to a meticulous plan, mortise-and-tenon work in the framed sections, properly pinned and chamfered, holes drilled to take the carriage and lag bolts for quick assembly of the sections, all to be assembled on the morning of the event, having prepared through the night and for many days before.
A sort of rivalry developed between Thornquist and me, and I like to think that this pushed him to achieve certain things he would not have achieved otherwise. I say this knowing that I stretched myself beyond anything I had ever done before, because of his example, and because of this rivalry, yet I was still not up to Thornquist.
From time to time we were called upon to repair pieces of furniture at the estate, old things, some of it heirlooms. It amused Mrs. Roosevelt to take a personal interest in these matters and to discuss with Thornquist what was to be done. Never with me, I should say, which was only proper, as he had the regular position on the estate, and was in every way the one who made the important judgments on jobs that came to us.
Thornquist had a certain ponderous quality about him that one might think of as humorous. I don’t mean deliberately humorous, but humorous to others. Nevertheless, I do think it was sometimes done on purpose, but you could never be sure with Thornquist. Sometimes when Mrs. Roosevelt was listening to Thornquist, she would lift an eyebrow in a certain way as people of quality do when they are amused by a rustic. But it was not altogether that sort of meaning. She was also attending to Thornquist’s words, and it was then I recognized her very great intelligence, and I remember it when I hear her spoken of as a great lady and an important person.
The rivalry with Thornquist did not arise merely over the repair of old furniture, although these jobs often required great ingenuity. Sometimes we were asked to copy something, perhaps to complete a set of chairs, or to match a particular table, so as to have a pair of them. Another time it might be to make a piece of furniture of some type or other that would not be identical to anything, but be in the style of some other things, even down to copying a particular bit of carving or a particular band of inlay work. I recognized certain styles from my days with Pausgaard, from looking into the design books he encouraged us to study, and could here and there pick out something of an English or Dutch character, but simplified, and made of American woods, which I had come to appreciate. I believe after a time I entered into the mentality of these by-gone craftsmen, into their “problem,” which was nothing other than loneliness, and into the way they thought it through with their hands and entered into the genius of the material itself, and expressed this loneliness in the voids and hollows and particular volumes of a work, in the selection and colouring, the depth and polish of the wood, amounting to a breath-taking wastefulness, a prodigal wastefulness, of which I had no experience, but which suited me, and echoed my loneliness without flinching from it or pretending to be friendly or requiring me to fit in, which of all the things in America was the most terrible to me.
Thornquist always saw into the heart of a thing, and saw the intention in it. Even when he copied something, which had to be so close a copy that you could not tell at a glance which was the original and which was the copy, he knew just where the original had attempted a certain line, or curve, or proportion, but had fallen short, where an element had been pared to a near degree of refinement, but had not demonstrated the last bit of courage, had not been pared to the slenderness or the fragility that was the exact thing, the thing required if the whole was to be what it wanted to be, what it yearned to be, if one may so speak. For Thornquist added to loneliness the element of desire, and this was beyond me. I compensated by setting myself ever more technical demands in the work that I did.
I undertook to design and build a desk, a small lady’s writing desk, with a slanted pull-down front, and delicate bowed legs and a double bowed front, and I decided to make it out of pear wood, for the sheer difficulty of it, the near-impossibility, the absurdity of it, as this wood is nudity itself, a featureless beige without grain or depth, an obscene flesh colour, that appealed to me only for its sheer intractable hardness. I worked on it, of course, at times when I was free of other duties. The wood itself cost nothing. It came from a single log that someone had ripped into thin boards, stacked on the exposed joists of an out-building and forgot about. I reduced the thickness of boards with cabinet scrapers, as the bodies of our planes were not themselves so hard as this wood, and cut the boards with only the finest saws with the smallest teeth. The propensity of this wood to extreme and unpredictable warping and winding had to be countered with difficult cross-grain veneering and lamination, and careful pre-stressing of every element with moisture and heat and sealers, often discarding promising pieces at an advanced stage of development because the curl could not be cured, or because excessive treatment had spoiled the colour or texture of the wood, or revealed hidden flaws in its structure.
The desk, when it was finished, was not so much a desk as it was a model for a picture of a desk, for a painting of a desk by one of our modern Danish painters, a desk for a dove-grey wall, and a plain and sad woman next to it, her coat on, in a red hat and with a swollen belly. It was such a desk as was in itself, like the plaster casts at Thorvaldsen’s Museum, a dead monstrosity. Thornquist never said anything about this little desk, or inquired what it was for, or for whom, although I saw him looking at the desk speculatively from time to time.
At the time I was making this desk, Thornquist was occupied in copying an old walnut chair, a thing with an upholstered seat and an open, carved back. Very handsome, very wide and deep, with curving arms and curious bowed front legs that ended in long talons clutching a large ball, a ball cunningly flattened as though from exactly such a weight as this chair would hold. Everything about this chair, which had been brought to us from friends or connections of Mrs. Roosevelt’s in the city, was masculine, assertive, like a naked wrestler, especially sitting on the great workbench on the great yellow slab under the lights when it first arrived, Thornquist circling it, in his way, pulling absently on his lower lip, occasionally taking a measurement with calipers and transferring marks to a big sheet of paper.
From my experience with such things I knew that the joinery itself was not intricate, nor was the carving difficult to lay out or execute. The secret lay in the boldness of the curves, the way the thing reached out into space on every side, every member curved in every imaginable plane, requiring, for the slender arms, or for the long back posts, the reduction of a great balk of wood, which itself must therefore have been cured without shakes or punk anywhere. This balk had furthermore to be seen as carrying in its heart a sculpture, which, although destined to be only a part of the finished whole, still must nevertheless in itself be as beautiful and complete as a bone, a scythe, a psalm in the prayer-house.
The essence of this art was waste, which a lesser man would understand as “sparing no expense.” Thornquist understood it as necessity, a demand, a question of beauty and truth. He worked in a most peculiar manner, laying out the voids rather than the parts themselves. He laid out these shapes full size, on great sheets of a rough grey paper he liked to use, and studied his markings, but in a sidelong way, not always looking directly at them, but to the side, and then only after long intervals of looking away or out the window, or looking at nothing. I never saw anyone lay out work in such a way. Perhaps it was a boat-builder’s way. He erased and shaded, started over again, erased and shaded, until something satisfied him. When I say he copied this chair, he was in reality re-thinking it, making it live a second time, at a higher plane.
There was no question of originality with Thornquist. Such an idea would have been too vulgar for him to understand, and thus he did not criticize my desk, or let on in any way that he was thinking what was so transparently the case, that his chair, when it was finished, although superficially enough like the model or original to be accepted as a copy, was in fact the necessary realization of what the maker of the original must have thought, or should have thought, while my desk was monstrous, a thing of mere talent and training which I hated before it was done.
It was not long after this that I made up my mind to leave America. I left Aleta a letter, a silly and dishonest letter saying that it was not because of her and that I was unworthy of her and that she would find a better man. She would have, I am sure, reflected with bitter incredulity on the advantages that had been offered to me by her family and how cynically I had taken advantage of them all.
When I fled, I told no one, leaving only an extra week on account with Fru Holt, my landlady, which was all I owed to anyone, and growing lighter every moment until the day itself and the moment of departure. Walking at last the length of the North River pier where I had signed on for passage, I could have floated straight up and away like a balloon.
Stan Johannesen's work has appeared in Offcourse Issue #25, Winter 2005, Brückenkopfstrasse, and in Issue #7, Summer 2000, Old Photos. He is a native of New York City. His stories and essays have appeared in Grain, Malahat Review, Descant and Queen's Quarterly, and he has just finished a novel set in Denmark during the war. He taught courses in cultural criticism in the History Department of the University of Waterloo. His last book, Luggas Wood, has just come out from Blaurock Press, Kitchener, Ontario (Canada).
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