January 28, 2016

The Periodic Table

     The summer me, Benny, and Jo spent with my uncle Marty, turned out to be quite the eventful one. The idea to do so had been mine, as my uncle Marty lived in a big house that just happened to be quite close to the beach; and Marty and his wife were more than happy to host us, in exchange for a summer of helping Marty out at his successful seconds store.
     The store was a warehouse-sized building, with an old, faded hand-painted sign that read: used furniture 4 sale, tacked up beside the front doors, that were always left open during the day, so any rubber-neckers could get a good look at the embarrassment of secondhand riches within, and maybe stop by.
     The furniture, despite being pre-owned (as Marty called it), was very good quality, never decrepit or damaged. Some of it even bordered on antique level. Most of these were sourced from estate sales, storage box auctions, and the like. The best stuff was not sold in the store, but kept in the back for higher paying private customers.
    Of course, there was more to Marty's store than just used furniture, there were lamps, knick-knacks, army surplus fare, and a metric ton of books, CDs, DVDs, VHS tapes, radios, VCRs, board games, and on and on. All used and all cheap.
     The man himself was big, boisterous, and fond of tall tales that ended with "Gotcha!", once the listener was fully taken in. His wife, Margaret, was of the quiet and reserved type. In the evenings she would cook us fantastic meals as we would all sit at the dinner table, laughing and yattering about the happenings of the day and the news of the hour.
     After dinner, the three of us would find our way over to the beach, and watch the sun go down amidst talk and play.
     Benny and I were best friends since childhood, since my family's house and his were next door to each other; we were practically raised together. Benny was the tall man of the group, so much so that, by all rights, he should have ended up a football player in school; were it not for his professed hatred of football (much to his dad's dismay, and the bitter disappointment of our high school's coach).
     Jo was a middle school era arrival. Pale, petite, and pretty, she had long blonde hair, worn in a constant ponytail. Something of a tomboy, she enjoyed wearing capri pants and blousy shirts; crowned with a jaunty beret.
     Benny and I had the inevitable season of crushing on her, and competing for her affections. This season did not last long, however; as we were both disappointed with the soul-crushing: "Our friendship is too important for me to risk it with a relationship" line.
     Disappointment did not linger long, for she was right about one thing: as a trio of friends, we were inseparable. Occasionally, Jo would invite one of her occasional boyfriends to join us on outing. It was always awkward for them, and the poor sap was inevitably the odd man out. They would never return for another excursion; as a group, anyway. The three of us together were too much of a three-headed monster it would seem.
     Such were matters when we came to the event in question.
     Jo was in the store section of the building, with Marty's other employee/nephew, Brian, tending customers; of which there were few that hot afternoon. Me and Benny were in the back part, with Marty, bringing in a new truckload of stuff he and his business partner had bought at an estate liquidation auction. Only the first half of the building space was customer accessible. Separated by a wall of bookshelves, the roped-off areas were employees only. This area was for items yet to be priced, and higher quality furniture to either be appraised, or sold privately.
     Once we were done loading things off the truck, me, Benny, and Marty dropped ourselves down on a big luxurious sofa that was part of the stock, to recuperate. Marty's business partner took off in his truck again, on some other store errand. Jo showed up with a tray of iced teas, and distributed them. It was tea from the sun tea jar Margaret had prepared for us that morning; it had been sitting outside, soaking up the sun's rays all day. The ice was from the big box freezer Marty had in the store, filled with drinks, for hot days such as this one.
     "Brian minding the store?" Marty asked Jo, as she pulled up a chair.
     "Yup. There's only one lady there right now; and she made it crystal clear she was just here to 'look'."
     "That's what they all say," said Marty, laughing to himself, "Until they start buying things! Right boys?"
     Me and Benny laughed dutifully, Jo just smiled.
     I suddenly remembered something Benny had told me about, the night previous, after talking with his mom on the phone. I tapped him on the shoulder.
     "Hey! Tell Marty about the thing your mom wanted. Remember?"
     "What thi---oh! Oh yeah!" he said, not sure how he, or I for that matter, had forgotten to mention it earlier. He turned to Marty.
     "Yeah, ummm, my mom's sister, Patty, just brought a new house for her and her family, but they're still furnishing it. My mom promised to give her the nice dinner table set she inherited from their parents, which we had in our storage shed because we already had a dinner table set in our house when my grammy died. Thing is, it got scratched up something awful when my dad was moving some heavy things in there. Long story short, we need a dinner table that matches the chairs we already got. In my mom's words: 'something cheap that don't look cheap'."
     Jo laughed at that one, "Is she trying to pull the wool over her sister's eyes?"
     "Pretty much." Benny laughed in return, "My aunt Patty won't notice. She's a lovely, lovely person, but not the brightest star in the heavens, God bless'er."
     "I'll be happy to give you a special employee rate," Marty said, "You have a picture, or something..."
     "I remember what it looked like." Benny said, "I'm duly deputized to pick the table. My dad will pay and come for it when he can get my uncle Dale to lend him his pick up truck. So...in a few days." he noted, "Dale's sometimes hard to find."
     We had finished our iced teas, and set them aside on a little side tray put there for that purpose.
     "Well, we got some time," Marty said, getting up slowly, "I can show you some mid-priced tables right now. What was the wood type, Benny?"
     "Almond." Benny replied. He got up as well, and the rest of us followed suit.
     We spent the next ten minutes going over Uncle Marty's stock of cheap, but not cheap-looking, tables. As usual, when we were looking for something specific for someone, Jo came with us to help, but was inevitably drawn away by some book on a shelf, or some dresser topped with old knick-knacks.
     At last a table was found that met the proper criteria of appearance and price. Marty was slapping a "RESERVED FOR" sign on it, and was fumbling with his pen to write Benny's name on it, when Jo called out from somewhere unseen.
     "Hey! What's up with this?" she said, appearing from behind a bookshelf at a far corner we had not had to access heretofore.
     Marty's head swiveled up with what could only be called alarm. "Don't mess with that, Jo! You have no need to be over there!"
     This piqued our curiosity, mine and Benny's, as Marty had never raised his voice with us before. We, with Marty behind us, made our way over to where Jo had called from.
     Like the artificial wall between the store and warehouse regions of the building, a massive bookshelf had been used to create a previously unseen (by us anyway) alcove.
     A mangled brace of old, rusty bicycles had been set before it, like a gate. Inside was a small, beautiful table of dark cherry wood. It could sit four comfortably at all four sides, though it seemed to have no accompanying chairs. 
     Thin pixie that she was, Jo had slipped through the bicycle gate effortlessly, and was admiring the table.
     Me and Benny got there, and between us, pulled aside the singular mass of bicycles, to allow entrance. Behind us, Marty lagged, calling out, "Don't touch that, honey! Leave it alone!"
     "Why, is it like a super-antique, or somethin'?" Jo asked, "Why is it walled away here like a pariah?"
     Marty reached them. He seemed calmer now that he could see that no one was touching the table.
     "Oh it's old, alright." he said, "But that's not the reason it's set apart here, and that's not the reason it's passed through so many hands throughout the years that it's impossible to suss out the original owner. Lord knows I've tried."
     "Why then?" I asked.
     Uncle Marty's eyes searched the heavens, trying to find the proper words.
     "It's weird." he said, "It's a strange effing table that inevitably freaks the wiggins out of whoever owns it to want to get rid of it. Present company included."
     "How the hell is a table weird?!" I asked, "Is it haunted? Do ghosts appear above or below it and go 'wooooo'?"
     "Is it cursed?" Jo added, clearly unbelieving where this story was going, "Do people mysteriously die around it?"
     "UFOs?" was all Benny could muster at the moment.
     "No, no! Nothing so dramatic..." Marty said, clearly pressed between either going all in, or backing away, "It's something simple. Something stupid. Something simple, stupid, and absurd, yet when you see it, it freaks you out to your core."
     Me, Benny, and Jo leaned in for the reveal.
     "It disappears." Marty said.
     We all blinked stupidly at each other.
     "What--what?!" Jo barked.
     "From time to time, at random times, for no reason known to mortal man, this table disappears. It ceases to be. It puffs out of existence without sound or prelude, and anything on the table when it goes, goes with it."
     "Where does it go?" asked Benny, with the slow measured tone of one speaking with a child, or a madman.
     "God only knows," Marty replied, dead serious, "But sooner or later (by my information, five to ten minutes), it pops back into reality. Everything that went with it comes back, with...exceptions."
     "Exceptions?" I asked.
     "Cloth," Marty said, as if that made perfect sense, "For some reason cloth never returns, be it tablecloth or doily or handkerchief. Gone baby! And food, or anything organic; it does come back, but it comes back all gross and ruined, and smelling like rot."
     I looked at Jo and Benny. It was obvious that none of us were buying this particular Uncle Marty patented tall tale; it was too goofy on the face of it. But it was certainly the most imaginative he had ever offered, and we were more than happy to play along.
     "How did you get it?" I asked.
     "It was sold to me under false pretenses, like most people in it's long history. When I saw with my own eyes what the table could do, I searched and found the man that had sold it to me. He fessed up easily enough, since he felt guilty about his deception. Together we compared notes and started seeking out and researching the table's history."
     "Has anyone considered putting a camera on it...see where it goes?" Benny asked.
     "I'm sure someone's thought of it, but I have seen no record of anyone actually capturing that video. You'd have to get lucky; it's pretty random. There can be stretches of up to three years between activity. I've owned it for two, and I've seen it disappear only once."
     "Two years?" I asked, "What are you gonna do with it?"
     "We don't want to just sell it again under false pretenses. We thought at first to destroy it, but God knows what powers are at work on that table, something catastrophic could happen. We were hoping to get it to someone with a scientific background, who might know how to handle it. But try getting anyone scientific to listen to your story about the mysterious disappearing table."
     "So, has anything...alive...ever made that trip?" Jo asked. her lip quivering. I could see that she was trying very hard to control her jollity, but it was quickly coming to a boil.
     "By our research, there are only two known incidents of something alive being on the table when the table did it's thing." Marty said gravely, as if he weren't imparting the silliest nonsense of his bullshitting career, "One of the farthest back owners that can be found put his beloved canary on the table mere seconds before it disappeared. When it came back, the feathers had fallen off, and it's little head had exploded."
     Me and Benny almost exploded with laughter, I don't know how Jo managed to keep a lid on hers.
     "The second incident, was much more recent," Marty went on, continuing to destroy us, "A man used the table to display his hamsters. He didn't actually see the table disappear until much later, but he saw the results. He said the hamsters looked like they all had been turned inside out, and their eyes had popped off. They were dead of course."
     That final sentence tore it. Me, Benny, and Jo doubled over laughing and applauding.
     "WELL DONE, UNCLE! Well done!" I shouted, clapping an arm on Marty.
     It was then I realized, he still wasn't laughing. Nor was he going to any time soon.
     Things happened quickly then, too quickly; though in my memory it seems to happen in exaggerated slow motion.
     Benny was laughing, as was Jo who, in a sickeningly quick motion hopped over on the table and lay on it, in a coquettish pose.
     Marty's eyes flew wide open, and he moved to grab her.
     "Hey boys, wanna ri---" was all she managed to get out before the table disappeared, right then and there.
     It came back soon enough, but the screaming, screeching, inside-out, bleeding yellow eyes thing that came with it, eventually had to be taken out of it's misery.