Warm Stool

The receipt paper was heat-activated– meaning every little letter, every little number, was branded on there.

She thought back to her middle school technical education class. They worked with wood and metal. Heat, too. She desperately wanted to excel at this. Her father (and his father) were great at woodworking. The Best, she thought. The students made projects out of wood one semester. She chose to make a step stool. Allowing 13-year-olds to operate heavy machinery was too much of a liability for the public school, so the teacher cut the wooden pieces for each student’s project. The students worked with manual tools– files, sandpaper, hand saws.

She wasn’t good at this. Her father made it look so easy. The wood was never square enough, smooth enough; the corners and edges far from even. She’d encountered a similar problem in art class when working with clay. The kiln crystallized her lack of skill, making her imperfections permanent. But the step stool was turning out fine, she thought. Better than her projects in art class. She liked wood. She liked its integrity, its practicality. People make houses out of wood. They don’t make them out of ceramic.

Of course, she had her fair share of help from the tech ed teacher. He looked like Santa Claus and had a utilitarian name befitting his position. Rumors circulated around the middle school that he had a habit of looking up girls’ skirts and down their shirts, but she seldom wore skirts and was flat-chested, so she couldn’t really comment.

The day is Tuesday, December 4th, and she believes the wood glue has dried enough for her to take the stool home. The fourth period bell rings and students spend the next three minutes funneling into the classroom. They put their books in the cubbies, don safety goggles, and head into the workshop area. She asks Santa Teacher about her stool, if he could retrieve it from the drying area, if it’s ready for her to take home. He narrows his eyes and gives her a “sees you when you’re sleeping” look, almost like Tyra Banks’ smize, and walks into the drying room. He emerges with the stool half a minute later. She thinks it looks decent apart from its uneven corners, some smudged glue, and a few rough patches. Still, not a bad try for a 13-year-old. He slaps a grade on it. A-. Dad will ask why it’s not an A+, she predicts, then he’ll see why. As long as it doesn’t affect her chances of getting a full-ride scholarship to college, he will be satisfied.

She carries the stool with her for the rest of the day since it’s too big to fit in her 6 inch-wide locker, but also because she sees it as a mark of individuality. Everyone else in class made a shelf, but she wanted to be different. On top of that, stools are more… practical. She cradles it on the school bus ride home and prays that no one picks on her today. This stool must not meet the same fate as her long Chinese Staircase keychain three years ago– pulled off her backpack and stomped on by a friend’s older sibling.

Both she and the stool survive the half-hour bus ride home. She opens the front door of her house to two barking dogs and yells at them to GET BACK. Mother is watching a show about DIY home renovation. They greet each other and she shows her the step stool she made with her own two hands. Mother is impressed. Mother is impressed with everything she does, but this time, she feels that it is more genuine than usual.

Father gets home from work 90 minutes later. His key makes a gravelly sound as it turns through the Kwikset lock. In a Pavlovian response, she hops off the couch and greets him, stool in tow. Father is covered in dirt and grime from work. She hugs him anyhow. He surveys the stool and deems it a winner. Father is always proud of her, but this time, she feels pride in herself too.

The receipt paper is heat-activated, but the letters aren’t really branded on there. Actually, the correct term is THERMAL PAPER, and Wikipedia says that it’s coated with a chemical that changes color when exposed to heat.

It’s Friday, December 4th, and she hands the customer a receipt along with his bag. “Have a good one,” she says.

This story was originally written on receipt paper. It has been reprinted with the author’s permission.