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  Ellen Davignon: Lives of Quiet Desperation

What’s Tom Sawyer Got?

August 1, 2003

The receiving area at Mac’s Fireweed is a joyless place these days.  I say “these days,” as if it  was the past week or even the past month that has had us hunkered down, hanging on like grim death.  In fact, it has been a pretty gloomy place for nearly five months, ever since Jim, the revered leader of our little band of recipients, fell and in falling, did himself a grievous damage that has thus far precluded his returning to our midst.

During this time,  we’ve had two new stores, Murdoch’s, here on Main, and No Gold Gallery, in Dawson, come under the Maximilian masthead, which means  appreciably more stock coming in every day for receiving, pricing, re-packaging and dispersal.  And with our main man down for the count, we’ve had to work longer and harder and faster than any of us had ever anticipated, rearranging our work days to include Jim’s chores, trying to fullfill the tenets of his job without really knowing what they were and without the safety net of his years of experience.  To say that we’ve muddled through is an understatement and the odd time when laughter does echo in the bowels of  Mac’s basement, it has a manic quality that borders on outright hysteria. 

And so it was, the other day, when Catharine opened a tall box addressed to Murdoch’s  and withdrew a headless torso, first we gaped and then we snickered and, finally, burst forth with the slightly overwrought guffaws that signaled that a good group slap might soon be deemed appropriate.  Fortunately, it was not long before we came to the conclusion that a dressmaker’s dummy, well-proportioned (I estimated it to be a 36B-24-34) and beautifully covered with floral print, was not an object of hilarity and our mirth dwindled  down to an odd giggle or two as we stood and regarded our most recent acquisition. 

Actually, it was rather neat, we concurred, a decorative object, evocative of a fairly recent past and presented on a four-footed wooded base whose white paint had been scored and rubbed and distressed to achieve a suitably antique appearance.  Some of us wondered , privately, why that would appeal as a selling point.

“Jeez,” I blurted, never having been one noted for her tact, “that looks worse than the kitchen table and chairs I spent all last weekend scraping and sanding and painting and poly-strippering and…

Come to think on it, that old pine set had been pretty darned distressed too, but I hadn’t thought the look to be all that desirable.  Not only that, but the dress form, decorative and evocative and all the rest, was priced at twice what we’d paid for the table and six chairs, about 10 years ago.

Earlier, looking at the old kitchen set with some disfavour,  I have to tell you that its disreputable appearance did not cut the mustard for me.  Chips and cracks  and gouges in the chair back, scrapes along the rails, the surface of the table scratched, stained and just plain worn thin in areas of most use.  Hmm, I thought, a little paint couldn’t hurt.  Of course, I’m not all that much of a handy man, having relied all my life on others to take care of any distressed objects in need of succor.  But how hard could it be to paint a table and a few chairs?

I went to my son, the carpenter, for advice.

“Go see Terry down at the hard ware store, he’ll  fix you up with what you need.”  Then he added, “Take this palm sander.  And the sanding block.  Use this coarse sandpaper for taking out the gouges, the medium for smoothing down to the wood. And the emery cloth between coats.” 

Between coats?  Plural?  As in, more than one?  And taking off the old paint?  I’d thought to just slap on a new coat…

“Oh, no, no, no, you gonna do a job, do it right, isn’t that what you used to tell us?”  Well, yes, of course, but….

“OK, off you go then, ask for Terry, he’ll find you what you need.  Oh and get some glue, those back are kind of loose too, if I remember correctly…”

So what did I need?  Had the sander and stuff, had a couple old brushes, a bit stiff but usable,  some paint left from the fence…

As it turned out, Steve looked after me, it being Terry’s day off.  And he wasn’t long finding what I needed, either,  about $75 worth of necessaries, which included a pure bristle brush as well as a polyester one. Some Chair Loc, an amazing, if pricey, new product that would give my chair back a new grip on life.   A litre of Poly Super Strippa, a litre of  white Premium Colourlox  semi-gloss oil enamel, and a litre of Flecto Varathan, a crystal clear waterborne diamond satin wood finish that the manufacturers believed would far exceed my expectations. 

Well, you have to know that by this time my expectations were already exceeded by  a burgeoning belief that I had bitten off more than I could properly masticate.  On the other hand,  Ma didn’t raise me to be a coward  and though I might not have been her smartest or her prettiest, she would swear on her stack of well-read Francis Gay Friendship Books that I was her most bull-headed  and once I was committed to a course of action, it was well-nigh impossible to turn me aside. 

Sander in one hand, Poly Super Strippa in the other, I waded into battle, moving the whole operation outside and, coincidentally, into full view of the busy street.  It did occur to me that just possibly, one or other of my many friends and/or family, upon seeing me so involved in this big project, might stop to offer advice.  Or help.  

It wasn’t a pretty performance.  Chips and spinters flew.  A cloud of dust formed over 9 Heron Drive and settled on all horizontal surfaces and in the creases around my eyes and on my classy 1952 poodle hairdo I’d freshly set earlier in the day.  Sweat dripped down and made runnels through the grime as I laboured to strip old varnish, sand off paint and chisel away food particles that looked suspiciously like last Christmas’ rice porridge, shame on me.  The hours sped by, as did friends and neighbours, honking and calling out greetings.  At first I’d smiled and waved back, accepting their cheerful calls as appreciation of my industry.  Soon, however, when it became evident that not one of the lazy bas…er…souls was inclined to stop and share in my industry, I stopped responding to the calls, which had begun to sound more like catcalls than cries of encouragement, anyway.  Grim and determined, I slogged on, alone, reaming paint from grooves and crevices, peeling sticky curls of varnish from beveled edges of the large pine table.

 Finally, the prep work was finished and I was ready for the next step.  Sure, I thought, now that all the hard work is done, everyone will be by to help with the fun part, slapping on the new finish. I brought out my array of brushes, new and old, and opened tins of paint and vanish.  Okay, I thought, picking up a gob of thick white Colourlox oil enamel, let the games begin.

So what did Tom Sawyer have that I don’t have a whole lot more of?

 Alone, I painted one, two…six chairs, not once but twice, top and bottom, sanding and smoothing between coats.   On my own, I applied layer upon layer of the Flecto Varathan, again with the sanding and wiping,  delicately smoothing brush strokes, deliberately teasing out the small pools that formed, thinning the layer here,  adding to it where necessary.

Took me seven and a half hours, total time.  Not too bad I thought, considering I’d anticipated an hour and a half, tops.  When I was done I wrestled the whole shebang up the narrow steps of the deck and back in to the kitchen and stood back and had a look.

Doesn’t look too bad, if I say so myself.  Oh, the table top looks a bit funky, the light and dark areas and perhaps I should have let it dry a bit more between coats, half an hour might not have been enough.  Looks as if I’d tried to make a montage of fingerprints there on the one side and there are a few black flies preserved in the finish..  It is shinier though, mostly,  and the chairs are nice and white, even some places on the natural pine seats.  The old navy chintze tie-on cushions will cover those, though and I gotta tell you, the back are nice and tight.  I don’t think it was the Chair Loc that did it though;  more likely the gobs where the paint ran down the spindles and puddled on the bottom in curdled piles.  If I tie the stings of the cushions just so, I think the bows will cover those too.  Too bad they don’t hang down  far enough to hide the chair legs a bit more, should have spent maybe just a bit more time down there. 

Oh well, if anyone asks, I’ll just tell them I was going for that antique look.  Hey Catharine, just in case, explain to me one more time what the difference is between antique and old….

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