( Note: This pulls together some previous sketches--which have been removed from this blog--and adds a conclusion. There is a bit more material that may get inserted at some point, but otherwise, this piece can stand alone.--aa)
AFTER TURNING WRENCHES for four years back east, and in Santa Fe for Boddy’s, and then the Kawasaki dealer, and some anything-that-rolls-in-the-door auto repair shop, I’d had it with the oil and grease, the brake dust and exhaust fumes, the bone deep slices in every knuckle—and most of all, the grimy stains that no soap, no solvent would wash out of my hands.
Pat Maloney was older than the rest of us. Having served a formal apprenticeship as a joiner, he took a paternal interest in our work, teaching us how to sharpen a chisel or plane iron, testing the edge by shaving the hair on his forearm. Using hand tools, he could layout and cut a mortise and tenon joint with machinelike precision, probably as fast as someone using a router and power saw. He mesmerized us with stories of living and working on a pheasant hunting resort, raising the birds, maintaining the incubators and coops, guiding the hunters. He described an idyllic existence.
During that time, he met Rosa, a sophomore at
Pat followed her out west to marry her, but soon grew uncomfortable in what to him was an alien environment. He could not persuade
Our mutual oscillations coincided in White Rock. Pat was already working on the project when I got hired, but it took a while to get to know him. For one thing, I was canned a day after I started.
I was a disappointment to the man who assumed I was equal to the merits of my tools. That first day on the job, he assigned me to frame out for a big bathtub within the circular walls. While the shirtless carpenter pounded on the walls from the outside, I struggled to resolve the interplay of arc and rectangle. It was a task for a top notch, experienced mechanic, and by the end of the day I had maybe two illfitting boards nailed up.
The next day, the foreman walked in and watched me struggle for a while.
“Son, yer buildin a house, not a pie-anner,” he advised. By the end of the day, he’d let me go.
“Ain’t gonna fuss with a check, son.” He pulled out his wallet and peeled off three twenties. “S’more than ya earned, but don’ worry bout it. Good luck.”
A few despondent days later, I got a call from Orlando, one of the carpenters. “Where have you been, dude, we need you.” It turns out that the carpentry contractor had been fired, the day after they fired me. The owner of the house—Cal O’Ryan—a physicist at the lab—was taking over finishing the project. He had gotten the names of the carpenters from the subcontractor before he sent him packing, and apparently knew nothing of my limitations.
Nevertheless, it was back up the hill for me. Someone else had finished the bathtub frame, so I fell in helping the best I could, humping materials, rerouting extension cords, retrieving tools dropped from above. At some point, I was working with Pat, who was installing a wood cap on top of a parapet—a continuation of the curved wall that was my earlier downfall.
Pat had divided the half circle into twelve segments, but he couldn’t figure out the angle of the joint where the segments met. He tried determining the angle by eye, and cut out the segments. When he set them in place, the last one would not fit.
I started to explain to Pat how to calculate the cut by dividing angle of the arc by the number of segments, and he started getting annoyed.
“Here, dammit,” he swore, and handed me his pencil. Then he began taking the tools out of his apron, handing them to me one by one, and when I could not hold anymore of them, and they started falling to the deck, he took off his hat and threw it down and started to walk away.
“Pat, wait a minute, let me just lay one out for you.” It took me a while, because I needed Pythagoras to work out the length, and I couldn’t remember the square root algorithm. (but oh how clearly I remember Nancy Swope, who sat on my left in Mrs. Byers’ math class. She wore these button front blouses, and when she would lean forward, I could steal a glimpse of heaven between the puckers of the fabric. It was a wonder I passed the course.)
Nevertheless, I worked it out close enough so that when Pat cut out a new set of caps, all he had to do was trim the ends that met the main wall of the house. It was cherry. Cal noticed, and gave Pat a compliment on the work that afternoon. From then on, Pat and I were tight.
We worked together through the autumn, and under his tutelage I gained some skill. He had a tender side, too. Once—it was the day before Thanksgiving—I was nailing up blocking inside a closet, using a brand new twentytwo ounce Estwing. As I began the swing of the hammer, its claw caught for a moment on a stud behind me. I remember watching the hammer head, with its razor sharp waffle pattern sparkling, as it wobbled by on its way to my ring finger—which I had not yet learned to tuck behind my thumb when holding a nail.
It seemed like the hammerhead just tagged the fingertip, but it tore a nice flap of skin loose.
“Damn,” I cried, and dropped my hammer. Pat noticed, and went out to his car to get a bandaid. By the time he returned, it was red beneath the fingernail. The pain was excruciating.
Once again, Pat went back to his car, returning with needle nose pliers and a tiny brad. He put the brad in the pliers and heated it with his lighter until the tip started to glow.
“Gimme your hand,” he ordered. I gave it to him.
“Now look away.”
Then he poked the brad through my fingernail. Blood spurted from the little hole, but the pain immediately subsided.
“All set,” he said. Now let’s get back to work.”