Relic

by Aubrey Hirsch

I lived upstairs, in the finished attic space of our home in Oil City. It was the largest room in the house, despite its low ceiling. So when we had to find a place to store my grandmother’s antique dining set, it moved in with me.

My father left for work one day with a cane and came home with four stitches in his head and a shiny new wheelchair. It had bulky foot pedals and wide handrims. As many times as we tried, we couldn’t get it to fit tidily beneath the heavy dining room table. After four family dinners watching my father reach his fork across the twenty-inch gap between himself and his plate, my mother said enough. But since she couldn’t bear to let the table go, my brother and I helped her drag the whole dining set up the skinny staircase to my room. Our father watched from the foyer.

She replaced it with a tall, grey plastic table with metal legs and a faux-pebbled surface. We sat in padded folding chairs that looked strange beneath the glass-bead chandelier. My mother tried to dress it up on Sundays, but her lacy oval tablecloths sat on top of the new table awkwardly, like pieces of bologna on a slice of white bread.

Upstairs, things were even stranger. At first, I had a sort of reverence for the table. I placed some dusty stuffed animals on the chairs and left them frozen there, as if waiting for tea. Sometimes I did my homework at the table, careful not to leave uncapped pens on its shiny surface.

But each morning, as I cut around it to get from my bed to my dresser, it became more oppressive and less sacrosanct. It was prime real estate for bottles of lotion, jars of hair product, tubes of acne cream. I hung bras and pairs of jeans on the high-backed chairs—items of clothing too dirty to fold into drawers, but still clean enough to be worn again. The wood itself went from glossy to matte, accented here and there by a dusting of shimmery eye shadow or a waxy glob of hair gel.

Until one day when my mother came upstairs, rag in one hand, orange-scented spray in the other, to polish the table. I was reading on my bed and didn’t notice she’d come in until I heard her gasp. She walked over to the table, put her hand on the arm of a chair like she expected it to touch her back, and started to cry.

With her eyes in the room, the table transformed back into a holy relic, like a bizarre monument to the family we used to be. I plucked a canister of hair spray from the table like a daisy. I’ll fix it, I said.

That night, after we cleaned the table together, rubbing its surface until we could see ourselves in it, I cried, too. But it wasn’t my fault, not really. I hadn’t wanted the table in my room to begin with. I hadn’t wanted anything to change at all.

Aubrey Hirsch is the author of Why We Never Talk About Sugar. Her work has appeared widely in journals like American Short Fiction, Third Coast, Hobart, and elsewhere. She currently teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

What fascinating, surprising things can you tell us about the origin, writing, revision of this piece?

    The central image in this story was generated in a writing class I taught last semester. I like to start every class meeting with a writing exercise. To help build camaraderie and reaffirm the importance of exercises, even for more experienced writers, I always write along with the students. The vast majority of this free-writing never leaves my little black notebook, but every once in a while something I’ve dashed off in response to a prompt stays with me. The idea of the beautiful antique table in an unexpected place was one of those things. Once I found a situation to suit the image, the story followed easily.
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