Breakfront by Lesley C. Weston
My brother Mike put the radio out on the porch. “Turn it off. You’ll run down the batteries,” I said.
He raised the volume, and I reached to turn it down. For a moment we were kids again, pushing and jockeying for control of the knob. But in the three years since I left home, Mike had grown. He caught me in a headlock and knuckled my scalp. “Why’d you go and chop off your braid?” he asked. “Your hair looks awful.”
“What do you know?” I twisted away and struck a pose, holding an air guitar. “It’s perfect for a rock star.”
Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” and Mike stood next to me, with his eyes closed, listening. When the song was over, the Chipmunks took Bing’s place, shrilling their hyper version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Then, “Oh Holy Night” started playing. “You sing it better,” Mike said.
“Get the boxes in the foyer,” I said.
Mike looked up and down the street, and then went inside.
Only a few cartons left. He got them in two trips, and we packed them into the van. With everything out of the house, I wanted to leave, but we couldn’t.
The breakfront was still on the lawn. Dad had wanted to keep it inside until the guy came to pick it up. He and Mom argued about it, and finally Dad agreed. With losing the house, and the cancer, he didn’t have enough energy for a fight. Besides, he knew Mom was right. If the sheriff and the bank people came and it was still in the house, they’d be able to lay claim to it.
Dad went upstairs and curled up in a sleeping bag while Mike and I took the breakfront apart. We wanted to leave the sections on the porch, but Mom was still worried. It looked so small in pieces that she was afraid the guy would renege on the deal. She told us to put it back together on the lawn. She was right about that, too. When it was together, standing seven feet tall and eight feet wide, it was beautiful.
Dad almost cried when he came out again and saw it sitting on the grass in front of the house, listing to one side because of the slope in the yard. He pulled an old sweater out of the trash and polished the wood and the beveled glass doors. His face was gray when he finished.
Mike followed him inside. After the door closed, I went over to the breakfront, ran my hands across the wood and opened the small desk in the center, pressed the hidden button that released the secret compartment. Of course, that drawer was already emptied, but I leaned down and sniffed the musty smell, remembering the space filled with my grandfather’s letters, my parent’s marriage license, and the ribboned lock from my father’s first haircut. The sound of my pulse filled my head. I closed the compartment and folded the desk back in place. My hands continued down the drawers and stopped on the one with the loose handle.
Mike had been five and I was twelve when I’d gotten sick of reading his favorite story, The Wind in the Willows, and locked it in the bookcase. Mike stood on that handle when he climbed up the drawers to get it back.
We’d both gotten the lecture that night when Dad came home from work. The breakfront was his, and his father’s before him, and his father’s father before that. Someday it would belong to one of us and we had to be careful with it. We had to learn that not everything in the world could be replaced.
I jiggled the handle and wondered if Mike remembered that night and, if so, had he ever pictured the breakfront in his own living room. I know he had.
A few minutes later, Mom and Mike came back out. Mike handed me the thermos I’d left on the kitchen counter and we waited on the porch, in the cold. Inside, the furnace had been off for two days, and, what with us opening the doors all the time as we packed and loaded, it was almost as cold inside as out.
Mom tucked her hands into her armpits, and hummed “Jingle Bells” along with the radio. Mike sang a few words, and went back in to check on Dad.
I opened the thermos and filled the cup. I offered Mom a sip. She sniffed it. “What’s in this?” she asked.
Mom leaned over the porch rail and emptied the cup into the bushes.
She looked at me; eyeing the orange stripe in my hair. “I worry about you, Annie,” she said.
“Why leave it for the sheriff?”
“That wasn’t my point.” She handed the cup back. I put it back on the thermos and set it on the porch.
She leaned on the rail and watched a squirrel zigzag across the empty street.
The house across from us was strung with Christmas lights, and they were still on from the night before. Some of the lights she watched twinkle were probably ours. Three boxes of Christmas stuff had gone to the neighbors after the tag sale. Two houses down, our inflatable Santa waved from his plastic sleigh.
“He’s late,” I said. “We ought to just leave it. Let him load it. We should be on the road.”
“He still owes us half.” Mom scrubbed at her face with the palms of her hands.
“He’s stealing it, either way.” I opened the thermos, poured another cup of spiked coffee. She didn’t say anything until I pulled out my cigarettes.
“I thought you quit.”
“Well, I started again.” My father’s old Zippo made a metallic click when I flipped the top. The flame jumped up like a torch.
“Where’d you find that?”
“Stuck under the wing chair’s cushion.” I took a deep drag, and closed the hinge with a snap.
Mom just shook her head. “Don’t let your father see it. He’ll want it.” I shoved the warm lighter back in my pocket. “And don’t give him any cigarettes.”
“What harm could it possibly do?”
Her eyes closed, “Just promise.”
“Okay. All right.”
We leaned against the railing with the radio between us. “Little Drummer Boy” was playing. I blew smoke rings, and Mom watched the street. She gripped the railing, arched her back, and stretched like an old, worn out cat. “I better go check on your dad and make sure everything’s out of the house.”
“Only things left are the sleeping bags.”
I drained the cup and closed the thermos, then crushed my cigarette out on the balustrade and flipped it over the rail. It bounced off the edge of the breakfront.
The look Mom gave me drove me off the porch. I walked down the steps, picked up the butt and shoved it in my pocket. Waiting was driving me nuts, so I paced around the yard, past Mom’s burlap-covered rose bushes. I walked the length of the path that wound through Mom’s garden, trying to memorize the rise and fall of the bricks. I stopped and toed the mulch border along the driveway. Mom still leaned against the railing, but she held the thermos cup between her hands, watching the rising steam.
“Is there a shovel somewhere?”
She looked up, startled out of whatever place she’d gone to.
“What on earth would we need with a shovel?”
“Not to pack. It’s just—crap, Mom. I can’t stand that someone else will get your garden.”
“The grounds too hard, and there’s no more room in your van.”
“I could dig up some bulbs.”
Her smile didn’t get as far as her eyes, but it was enough to send me searching for a shovel, a rake, for anything I could force into the ground. I ended up with a bent fireplace poker.
Mom held a shopping bag open, and I pried and dug until the bag was full.
Holes pocked the ground, and as we packed the dirt back in and smoothed the mulch, Mom got a funny expression on her face.
“The woodchuck is in for a rude awakening.” Her eyes swept around the yard, and then up to the house.
“Does Mike know? Have you talked?” I asked.
“Jesus, Mom. He knows more than you think, and he’s trying to guess the rest. He’d be better off knowing.”
“Are you better off?”