Inheritance

by Mary Beth O'Connor

The dresser is sullen today. I may not be able to get by it. It could be one of those days I’ll have to stay in bed. Every now and then I chance a quick look to see if I can detect a change in mood—its low hum is somewhat like a quiet snoring, but I know better.

It is an enormous thing of dark oak that belonged to my grandmother—one of those substantial pieces of furniture that came as part of a set. Its mates got separated. Like those night tables passed on to my cousin after her maiden aunt broke her neck in a fall. She only wanted one. And who could bear to have an entire room full of such brooding dark weight? I haven’t looked in the bottom drawer in years. It is deep, up to my knee, and wide enough that I could sleep there if for some reason I wanted to—hide, say. Or pretend it was a trundle bed with my beloved grandmother right above me, humming softly—

But, as I’ve said, its hum is not gentle, and luckily I was able to push the drawer out that time. After that, it got stuck so badly I had to call in the plumber on false pretenses. There’s a chip missing where his pry bar pulled, and since then each day when I wake and look over, its mood is at best “reserved” toward me.

I used to try to soothe it by singing, stretch wide enough to (barely!) hold it in my arms, and then gently slide open a drawer to get at my clothes, but the last time I reached into the depths of the middle drawer, it snapped back so fast that my wrist was caught, bruised and, I first thought, broken. I screamed, but only a little for my voice isn’t strong. It let go, but as soon as I retrieved my hand, the drawer snapped shut so tightly that the vibrations from the resounding “bang!” caused the shutter to fall off the window closest by and into the yard below, which upset the landlady.

The only things I really miss are the items in the two drawers under the carved grapes and vines cascading down from the top, which, by the way, my forehead barely reaches now. I used to be able to watch in the mirror as I brushed my long, long hair—just the way my grandmother used to do. I would sit on the end of her bed in the evening as she unpinned her hair, mesmerized by the long, white cascade of it down her rounded back. She would catch my eye in the mirror and begin telling one of her stories. How they horrified me! But I couldn’t tear myself away. Her silver-backed hair brush is lost to me now, somewhere on the dresser’s top.

Years ago, I loved to lock myself in my room, tiptoe over to my chiffonier, as I called it then, and trace each lovely carving, then slip my fingers beneath the grapes to the small knob hidden there and pull. The left drawer would slide out silently to reveal my treasures lying on the green velvet lining, and I would take each one and hold it up to the weak light of the chandelier: the smooth wooden rosary beads—I loved the patterns they made (and the silver cross!) when pressed into the skin. Old buttons, the charm bracelet given to me when I’d been very good and hadn’t made Nelly or Thomas cry, dark pictures of my siblings in old-fashioned clothes (those large bows!) and long tresses—even the boys (that of course was before Daniel’s death). The matching drawer beneath its fruit I didn’t explore too often. It’s been a long time, maybe years, since I’ve seen those things. Why, I might not be able to reach that far in my present state.

Since I’m often in bed, I spend quite a lot of time dreaming old, familiar dreams—finding hidden rooms in my grandmother’s house where ancestors long dead rise up from their beds and beckon to me with bony fingers; a child’s tricycle plunging over a cliff; myself standing over a newly-dug hole in the ground… Half-awake I see things, hear things, wonder if I really committed those crimes—and wake up trying to speak, to call out! But my voice is under water, my lips bubbling spittle.

Perhaps I should just call someone to come and take the dresser away. But I can’t do that until I see what else is in those little drawers. I will rest and then I will make another attempt.

A loud knocking sound wakes me—was it real? A woodpecker out in the trees? I hear things in the whir of the fan, the rain, the silence in my head—pieces of music I wish I knew how to write down. There it is again—perhaps it’s the lady from Meals on Wheels who would love to come in, but I can’t let her see what bad shape I’m in. She knows to leave the tray outside my door. I’ll have to make a run for it, as I don’t want the trays to stack up and her to call anyone. If I roll over to the side of the bed closest to the door, I can just squeeze past the dresser’s edge, and if it growls at me, I might just get angry enough to give it a good smack. I glare at it and it whimpers. Good.

“I’m selling you,” I tell it, and, surprisingly, all of its drawers shoot open. What to do? I’m not as agile as I used to be. Should I reach in to those little treasure troves? Will it snap? I imagine the obituary: “Old woman found with head stuck in dresser drawer. It is unknown…” I start to laugh and imagine the dresser is laughing too—a low, guttural sort of laugh. Maybe it has forgiven me. The knocking comes again, louder, more insistent. The drawers snap back with a series of loud bangs, like firecrackers. “Ssh!” I plead with it and it chuckles, loudly. The drawers open and shut like cash registers. I jump up and hug it as tightly as I can to make it stop. I feel the knobs jabbing, the big center drawer pushing hard against my stomach, the little secret drawers at my breasts.

Much later, I imagine, I waken hearing beeps and hums. My eyes are pasted shut—it takes several tries to uncrust them and take a cautious peek. The room is dark but lights from machines in fish tank green and lurid red like spots of blood pulse and hum. I try to shout as in my dreams, “help, help!” but the cries won’t surface. Voices. The stroke of cool, long fingers on my hand. “Arrangements… old furniture… poor dear.” My only niece, the one to whom my things, such as they are, will go. Poor dear. The one to whom the furniture from all rivers of the family is making its slow, deliberate way.


Mary Beth O'Connor's poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as The Comstock Review, Prick of the Spindle, Mad Hatters' Review, The Massachusetts Review, Compass Rose, Blue Earth Review, and Nimrod, and is the author of the award-winning chapbook Smackdown! Poems about the Professor Business, recently released in a second edition by The Teacher's Voice. She teaches in the Department of Writing at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY.