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Archive-name: Miscell/carpentr.txt

Archive-author: Neil Bernstein

Archive-title: John the Carpenter's Tale

(c) Neil Bernstein 1993

     One Sunday, driving Dolores' truck back from a provisioning

trip, Pete stopped along the riverbank to watch a crew of panting

scullers labor their way against the current.  Their slender craft

slipped around chunks of floating ice smoothly as a ballbearing

sliding down a greased track.  Got all the time they need to do

that, he thought bitterly.  Men who could go home to adoring wives

and get up the next morning to go to work.

     In Lombard's General Store he met old John buying feed for his

three geldings.  The man's belly nearly split his overalls as he

carried the sacks out to his car.  Pete hid a chuckle.

     "You come back for coffee now," John bellowed.

     Pete could see no reason to refuse him.  He followed John's

rusty truck up a series of gravel paths, shook hands with his

pretty wife.  John eased himself into a great armchair.  He bade

her serve them their coffee and an endless succession of snacks:

toast, honey, ham sandwiches, spiced drumsticks, maple candies,

pear cobbler...

     When she was done serving she settled back on a kitchen stool

and nursed her baby.  Pete watched her play with the suckling,

bouncing him gently on her knee.  He knew, feeling the certainty

only the superstitious know, that it could not be John's child.

     John had been a carpenter for twenty years.  One morning he

found the work too exerting and gave it up violently, pitching his

toolbox through the window of the house he was building.  He tried

a variety of jobs after that, settling on delivering the Weekly

Argus.  He sat long hours alone at the head of his kitchen table,

playing solitaire late into the night, gaining ten pounds a year. 

He always left a half-finished puzzle set up in the living room.

     Pete remembered the last time he'd been out to John's house. 

A selectman was giving Grandpa Goosehair some problems, badmouthing

him in town meeting.  The old man wanted Pete to see if John could

dig up any incriminating tax information.  John looked over

everyone's tax forms, considered it his neighborly duty.  He got so

he could do the arithmetic so quickly that everyone brought him

their crumpled forms: farmers who could only read with a certain

pair of spectacles they'd lost years and years ago, folks who could

read Latin but couldn't be bothered with figures.

     Pete'd got himself lost on nameless gravel tracks and had

arrived very late.  The ex-carpenter's wife had just finished

showering and now stood before a full-length mirror.  Her hips were

swathed in fine linen, her arms left half-bare by a silk-finished

nightgown.  She braided her hair and rubbed fine powder and oil

into her tremulous neck.  John knelt on the parlor floor, his

massive buttocks arching high, and rustled through a stack of


     Pete grew distracted.  He chose to watch the wife's

ministrations instead, noting the care she used to touch the

perfume bottles to her temples.  During the day she slaughtered

pigs, birthed troublesome calves, muddied her legs turning earth

with the tiller.  Now you'd only know she was a farmer if you

looked at her fingers.  Maybe she wore gloves to bed.  He'd thought

John would be paying more attention to his wife's elaborate ritual,

but he seemed engrossed in his search.

     Problem, Pete had thought, if you lived too long together. 

Forget where you want to be kissed.  From behind the wife did not

look over twenty-five, though Pete knew she was older than he.  Her

hair was still dark--Pete could not decide whether it had been

tinted--and her back was straight as his rifle-barrel.

     The ex-carpenter had let out a roof-shaking yawn when Pete

finished his business.  His wife pecked him delicately on the cheek

and disappeared up the stairs.  Her bottles rested in a neat row on

the shelves.  Pete had thought John would pad off after her. 

Instead he loosened his belt and headed for the couch.

     "G'night," John had mumbled, fitting a pillow under his great

hoary neck.

     As Pete had entered his car he'd looked up again at the house

which John had built at the start of his career.  Every house he'd

built since, he'd told Pete, didn't measure up, couldn't be more

than an imperfect copy.  Pete saw a candle burning in the wife's

bedroom.  It was a warm summer's night.  She'd left the window

open.  A massive maple spread over that face of the house.  He

remembered clearly that its branches drooped below the eaves. 

Perhaps there was an extra shadow standing by the bed.  He couldn't


     Now Pete wiped a crumb from his lips and stared out the

window.  The branches were still there, ready to be climbed.  A

thick one ran past her windowsill.  Easily take a man's weight. 

Could just swing yourself up to the bedroom, didn't have to be an

athlete.  John hadn't pruned the maple back, though it obscured the

view from his kitchen.

     "You must be full up," John said, smacking the table with his

meaty fist.  "I don't see you shoveling it in no more."  He

belched.  "What's new with your brother?"

     "You'd know as much as I would," Pete said.  "Haven't seen him

in a while."

     "Always rushing around."  John smiled through a mouthful of

crumbs.  "Making his money move.  Don't he never slow down?"

     "Never seen him do so," Pete said.

     "Damn if he ain't the by-God power in this town," John mused. 

"Damn if his word ain't better than the Good Book.  I knew a fellow

oncet, when I was living out to New Hampshire, thought he ran the

town, but he never did so good a job as your brother--I ever tell

you that story?"

     "No, sir," Pete said.

     "It goes something like this," John said.  "Now you know how

quiet these tiny New Hampshire towns are--there ain't no crimes to

speak of.  But the sheriff still walked up and down Main Street

every night to remind folks he ran the place.  It was a good deal

most of the time.  There weren't no bar fights 'cepting the ones

the sheriff got his deputies to start.  But then again, sometimes

he got folks so scared they wouldn't take their cars out for fear

he'd bust them for speeding--"

     John's wife handed him the baby.  "Here," she said, "you stop

him squalling, if all you've a mind to do is talk all day."

     The kitchen door clattered behind her.

     "Let me tell the man this story first," John called after her. 

"I'll be out directly."

     Pete saw her hoist up a bag of feed from John's truck and lug

it over to the barn.  The geldings neighed in the cold stable,

their voices carrying through the clear air.

     "I ain't even gotten started yet," John said.  "There was a

fellow lived in my town, world-class sprinter.  He had a little

understanding with the sheriff's wife.  Told me he came by her

place regular, every week, while her man's out on night duty.  

     "Now the wife'd get all excited waiting for the sprinter

fellow, rush around the house getting ready for him.  She'd pull

down the shades in the living room.  Carpenter said he put bolts on

them so they'd stay fast.  Sometimes she'd set him out a cup of

coffee, put in a couple teaspoons of honey.  That's the way he

liked it, told me it gave him quick energy.  That's what you do, he

says to me, when you want to win the race: drink your coffee with

clover honey.

     "Well, sometimes he was so flustered he got his trousers all

loosened as he tore up the path to the house.  Neighbor got shocked

one time, saw a little more than she wanted to.  Once he got to

the door he just took a flying leap and--Pete, you can figure out

the rest."

     "I guess I can," Pete said.

     "You bet you can," John continued.  "Worked fine most times

only once he soaked his big toe in the hot tea.  It ain't like he

ever noticed the pain.

     "Now the sheriff was an Italian fellow, name of Gianni.  Got

taken as a POW during the War, shipped up to New Hampshire. 

Learned pretty good English by the time he got released so he

thought he might as well stay.  He was a blacksmith by trade, but

they already had a couple in town, and the sheriff was just about

ready to retire.  Had a pot belly--monstrous-sized--reined it in with

a leather belt but you could still see it kicking when he walked. 

He was never gonna catch the sprinter fellow--nearly died of

apoplexy every time he ran to answer the door.  Minister saw him

nearly collapse one time when he was going by the church, but I

told him he was just walking away a little briskly on account of he

was a Roman Catholic.  Must've been his saint's day or what have


     The baby began to squall.  John patted it absent-mindedly as

he spoke.

     "Seemed the situation was likely to go on forever, long as the

fellow never slowed down.  Gianni got to play a few tricks on the

fellow every so often, kid him around a little.  One time his

deputies grabbed him off the street and got him drunk, sat around

him in a circle blowing smoke into his face and forcing whiskey

down his throat.  Curious-like to see what'd happen.  Thought

steam'd puff out of his ears or something.  But he only

collapsed--it took nearly two bottles, they told me, nearly two

whole bottles, even though he was only a wispy little fellow. 

Didn't wake up for two days.  But once he was back on his feet he

swept Gianni's wife into his arms and ran up a woods track clear to

Chittenden County with her laughing gales every second and telling

him to mind he didn't trip over roots."

     "Did you say Chittenden County?" Pete asked.  "Vermont?"

     "I did indeed," John said.  "The one right here.  Old Gianni

was so shocked he crunched his cigar in half.  Nearly had the pair

of them killed when they got back.  But later on he learned to take

a more philosophical attitude, oncet he figured out there was

nothing he could do.  His wife helped him out a little--you know how

women can take your mind off things.  Told him no way she can be

happy with a dynamo--just a bang, no build-up, no fuse.

     "I didn't know what to tell him.  I didn't know if this was

the kind of problem you could cure with your standard marital aids

or something like that.

     "Oncet I saw Gianni buying the fellow coffee and doughnuts. 

He was waving this stinky little Italian cigar, telling him there's

no difference between them, they're all brothers.  Just that the

fellow got hisself a higher metabolism.  He had a point--the fellow

was always drinking like he'd burn up, always kept a canteen in his

belt, always dashed behind a tree every couple of minutes.  Gotta

keep the system lubricated.  Motor got too many rpm, can't let it


     "You buy that?  I'd like to, but I doubt there's a pat answer

to everything."

     "I don't know," Pete said.  "Ain't so weird.  Fellow in the

Guinness book who ate a whole car or something, piece at a time."

     "Ayuh," John said.  "That's so.  Well, let's see now~they'd

just made peace when Gianni took his girl back to the Old Country. 

I got postcards from the Fontana di Trevi and Napoli and other

places that I'll never hope to see.  Fellow kept on running rings

around me, asking when they're gonna come back.  My little

cousin--that's my little cousin Geoffrey, by the way, he'd be right

out of high school now if he ever bothered to finish--Geoffrey said

he caught the fellow jerking hisself off in the middle of the

cemetery.  He was cleaning up and coming again until he was sure he

couldn't possibly have any left.  Yet he must've got a second wind

the instant he ran over her threshold--instantly got back in

Gianni's bad books.  Must've carried her right on up to the attic--

     "Now I was walking back from the bus station with old Gianni. 

He'd stayed for a couple drinks, sent his wife on home before. 

When he saw the door to his house was open, immediately he starts

suspecting something.  Don't be crazy, I says, don't be crazy, you

just got home.  You come with me, Gianni says, I'm gonna get that

fella.  That's okay, I says, you can tell me all about it later. 

I went on home--I didn't want no part of it.

     "I met Gianni next day, this is what he told me.  He says he

waited till he heard them sighing up in his attic.  Then he went

upstairs and watched them through the keyhole until they'd wrapped

their legs up tight and strung out their arms across the cast-iron

bedstead.  He reached down slowly to his belt and loosened his two

pairs of handcuffs--just so.  His wife didn't even look up when

Gianni snapped the handcuffs around her wrist.  The fellow?  Well,

Gianni said he knew what was happening, his eyes were always

darting around the room, but he never thought to do nothing about

it.  Gianni took his ankle in his big hands--he was a blacksmith,

you know, got calluses all over--and locked it tight to the rail. 

Sweat dripped down the fellow's leg, made a mess all over the clean

bedding.  Gianni told me he just held his nose and went out the


     "Before their ribs started poking out of their sides Gianni

took half the town, one-time 'r another, to look at them through

the keyhole and point and ask questions.  Hey, bud, I heard this

old sailor guy ask him, ya got a naked woman on display there, all

ready for fellers to look at, and... you ain't even chargin'?  No,

sir, Gianni says to him, never even crossed my mind.  Later on he

ground their bones up and mixed them up in his oats.  Told me it

made his horse run a mile-two faster."

     "Damn," Pete said.  "That's some story."

     He looked up and noticed John's wife leaning against the door,

one hand on her hips.  The points of her teeth sparkled, catching

his eye.

     "You ought never believe a word he says," she said, shaking

her head.  Her laugh rolled out deep as a growl.

     Grinning sheepishly, John leaned forward and slurped up the

last of his coffee.  Pete got up to say his good-byes.

     John's wife went hurriedly to embrace Pete, stretching and

sporting her lean body before the old ex-carpenter.  She smiled,

showing all her teeth.  Pete nodded quickly, ducking his head

before she could kiss him, and hurried out of the house.

- Neil Bernstein



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