The Larkin

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The Larkin

The Larkin by Chuck Thurston
My mother loved auctions. She never spent much, but usually came back with an item or two — a cut glass sugar bowl, a salt and pepper shaker set, perhaps a chair or hassock — if it would fit in her car.
Although she often talked of the shrewd maneuvers she had made to get her prize, I don’t think it was the anticipation of finding a bargain at these events, so much as it was the social experience that drew her to them. She was a farm wife with a large family — five boys and a husband — and the auctions were a pleasurable diversion from her busy life.
I was 10 to 12 years old when she brought home a small writing desk that we put in my upstairs room in a corner of the large old farmhouse. I doubt that she paid more than a few dollars for it. It was dark from many coats of varnish or shellac applied over the years, but I loved it immediately.
it was solid oak with elaborate carvings on the top and a drop front writing surface. It had several pigeonholes for keeping a small boy’s treasures, and was even lockable — although the key was long gone. I spent many hours doing my homework on it.
Eventually I moved on in life — the military, marriage, a family, a job and a move several states away. A brother took over the old farm to raise beef.
A lifelong bachelor, he didn’t need that much space in the big house and a few years ago he mentioned that my little desk was still in my unused old room; he would be glad to haul it down and put it in my vehicle on my next visit.
Within a few weeks, my wife and I were looking it over. It was dirty from the dust and grime of many years, but we brought it home. Even a thorough cleaning didn’t seem to improve it much, so we parked it out of sight in a spare room.
When we built our cabin, we decided to see if it might work out there. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it, but I found a furniture restorer in the area, put the desk in the back of my van and ran it over to her. She came out of her house to look at it, and when I lifted the rear van gate said, “You have a Larkin! “And,” the lady assured me, “they are quite collectable now!”
Hmmm…that put a little different spin on things.
I had no idea what she was talking about, but did a little research. Around the turn of the 19th century, the Larkin Soap Company awarded small pieces of furniture like this as premiums for the purchase of their soap products. Ten dollars worth of soap got you a little writing desk.
When I picked it up after restoration, it was as the lady had promised — a beautiful honey-oak underneath all the layers. A few loose joints were repaired and some new brass fittings were added. We moved it to the cabin and placed it proudly along an interior wall, with a small chair from my wife’s own childhood. The two pieces looked as if they had been waiting all their furniture lives for this mating.
That would have been a happy enough ending, but a few years ago, we were approached by one of those slick coffee-table magazines planning on doing a feature story on cottages and small cabins. Could they do a photo-shoot of ours for this issue? We certainly qualified as small.
On a nice spring day, they brought their cameras and lights and computers and went to work. We hustled to stay out of their way as they took dozens of shots. They promised us proofs of the pictures they took, and three weeks later these arrived in the mail.
We have always taken our little cabin’s appeal more or less for granted and have been flattered, but always a little bit surprised, when others commented on it. Now we saw it almost as if for the first time — as captured by a professional photographer.
And in many of the pictures, standing in its quiet corner is our little writing desk. Warm, functional, dignified. Originally gotten for soap coupons, moved from place to place, over-painted, bought at auction with egg money when someone’s household dissolved, and neglected in a dark, unheated room of an old farmhouse for decades — its time come again at last.
We don’t miss many opportunities to show it to visitors and to point out, “It’s a Larkin!”

“The Larkin” is one of the stories in Chuck Thurston’s book “Senior Scribbles Unearthed” – available on Amazon.

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The Writer as Technician

Standard

We have all read books where the writer pays absolutely no attention to economy and effectiveness – where wordiness offenses are just as egregious as extra strokes in an already bad painting. In fact, I apologize for using that big word in the last sentence. It simply means terrible. My wife just finished a book by a respected author, that a respected friend had suggested. Half way through, she told me it was an egregious (sorry…) read in terms of the lengthy and convoluted passages describing feelings, emotions, snarky moods, blue funks, etc. She read a passage to me and I agreed. I have experienced similar exasperations (discomforts) with authors who use buckets of adjectives to describe scenes – evidently feeling this will make their work more “literary” – even as a golfer who can’t keep his elbows in thinks that a new iron will cure his slice.

William Zinsser, the fine author and editor, warned against this. He would know. Mr. Zinsser edited stuff for John Updike when he was on the New Yorker staff. He is an expert on writing well, and in fact wrote a book titled (check this): “On Writing Well.” One of his suggestions I particularly like is “Make things easy for your readers!” I’m not sure that quote is exact, but it is close enough (You should make things easy on yourself, too).

I took that quote(?) to heart. Consider those long, wordy descriptions of scenes or characters. Why are they necessary when the internet gives us resources never before available to writers? Google! Wikipedia! I made up my mind that I was going to write a piece of hot fiction that would cut right to the chase in scene after scene and leave the glossy descriptions to people who knew the subjects better than I did. Here’s a sample:

“Harry finished his third scotch, pushed his little tray up and tightened his seatbelt as the plane slowly descended into the greasy murk of LaGuardia. The New York City skyline (http://www.ny-chamber.com) and the intoxicating bustle of the big cityusually excited him, but there was too much on his mind now. Would she be waiting at the gate to meet him? Would she exude the warmth he was hoping for, or would she be as cold as a frozen daiquiri (http://www.chow.com/recipes/10230-classic-frozen-daiquiri)? Tonight would be the night. She’d accept his explanation and apology for his wine-fueled and ill-considered hot tub cootchy coo with Cynthia – or she would be off to Atlantic City to join the oily Faro dealer who always reminded Harry of Snidely Whiplash (http://bullwinkle.toonzone.net/snidely.htm).”

Look, nobody is going to wordsmith New York City better than its Chamber of Commerce and I could try all night to describe Rocky and Bullwinkle characters to you – but to what effect? Admit it – you want me to get on to the airport showdown or the murder – or the flashback to the hot tub and the hanky panky. Right?

 

I was never very good at metaphors, similes and analogies anyway; and now the digital age has bailed me out. Where is the craft in that, you ask? Listen, some chamber flack worked into the night crafting prose that somehow gilded Gotham’s polluted lily; a mixologist labored for hours perfecting the perfect daiquiri; some underpaid commercial artist knocked considerable polish off his skills to turn in a cartoon that put another tank of gas in his jitney – the better to make the rounds of clients and plead – nay, beg – that they make no more cuts in this year’s marketing budget.

 

I couldn’t sleep nights if I insisted on trying to replace their selfless efforts with my own attempts at “literary” prose. I am never going to touch Joyce Carol Oates at that game, anyway. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” says Morelly, and I concur. I badly need descriptive help – I bet you do too – and Google has got the goods!

 

Chuck Thurston

cthurston@ctc.net