“You’ve got the perfect hands for clay, Tony.” David dragged his wet fingertips along my knuckles in a slippery caress. He always knew the right thing to say, and still he managed to come up with some real stunners. I had a worker’s hands, tough and callused, with soil permanently ground in the knuckles and nail beds. Sure, I wear gloves. But one thing you learn running a landscaping business: dirt happens. David shared a similar philosophy. For all his pretty-boy charm, he had one rugged set of hands on him too, strong, singed, and hardened by years of shaping his creepy clay figures.
“Maybe I don’t need to worry about ruining my manicure,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m any good. This is a heck of a lot harder than it looks.”
“Give it time. Get a feel for it. And make multiples—my kiln is a fickle bitch.”
I was just beginning to understand the appeal of such an explosively temperamental firing process. David liked drama in his life. While firing in his repurposed antique wood stove might burn down the studio or shatter his favorite piece, it was a hell of a lot safer than dating a junkie.
My objectives weren’t anywhere near as thrilling. It was basically a gag gift I was making, a spoon rest shaped like a big ceramic spoon. Grandpa Tito used to keep one on his stove. I could see it vividly in my mind’s eye, stout and rustic, seventies brown to match the rest of the kitchen, permanently crusted with tomato. Heck, I could practically feel it whistling past my head as my brother Sal tried to nail me with it. I could even recall with perfect clarity the satisfying crack it made when he missed and broke it in half against the edge of the table.
Sal’s birthday was coming, the thirtieth anniversary of the spoon rest incident, also known as “The day Sal got the belt for his birthday.” For ages I’d been keeping my eye out for a good spoon rest, but the only ones they make nowadays are plastic.
Finally, after several tries, I came up with something that would at least approximate the original piece enough for my brothers and me to have a good laugh over it. Especially once it was glazed brown. Then David cocked his head and said, “They sell those down at the adult bookstore in latex or silicone, y’know. Probably way less abrasive.”
“It’s not a—”
“I’m teasing. The first few months, everything I made—pencil holders, mugs, ash trays, whatever—came out looking like a bong. I’d say you’re ahead of the curve.”
Ceramics don’t happen overnight. I thought I’d allotted plenty of time, but between the drying and the bisque firing and the glazing, I’d cut things pretty close. The morning of Sal’s party, I watched the vented stove cool while the wares inside pinged with the change of temperature. Each crackle and pop, I decided, must surely be the death knell of a clumsy spoon rest.
As soon as the kiln was cool enough to fully open, David reached in with a blackened oven mitt and pulled out one of his figures. Even filmed over with ash, it was expressive in a weird, misshapen way. “Take heart,” he said as he peered in. “Nothing exploded. Now let’s see what the glaze has been up to.”
Painting and glazing are two entirely different beasts. Raku glaze isn’t like paint, he’s explained to me, it’s more like heat-activated alchemy. Since everything turns some shade of brown in that old stove, I figured glazing would be the least of my worries.
At least until I saw what color my best spoon rest turned out. “I sure didn’t see that coming,” David said. He stared at the ridiculous thing a long moment, then added, “I could’ve sworn it would get a little oxygen on that shelf. Some ash must’ve blocked the vent.”
Hell, if it didn’t look phallic before…. I sighed.
He set my masterpiece on a cooling rack, sidled up against me, slipped his arms around my waist and pressed his lips to my ear. “Look on the bright side,” he murmured. “In wood firing, it’s quite a feat to achieve such a delicate shade of pink.”
David, Tony, and even Tony’s brother Sal appear in the novella Sympathy.