Later that week, with her father laid out in the long box, Ruth imagined lifting a blade to his body and sawing him down the middle. She wanted to cut him open and count the rings, peel back layers of skin and bark, make a place for herself in the hollow of his ribcage. As the faces filed past, paying respects and offering condolences, Ruth thought of the tree that had been called hers, and that her father had felled one bright September morning.
Her mother had asked for it, something symbolic, and her father had planted it, though he thought it fanciful—an apple, Ashmead’s Kernel.
‘What’s symbolic?‘ Ruth had asked.
‘A thing that stands for something else,‘ her mother said. ‘Something that means Ruth when we see it.‘
The sapling grew with the child, spindly and smooth, but it was not long bearing its first plain fruit when death came to them, and her father’s grief expressed itself with the raising of an axe, apples falling to the ground unharvested along with an imagined future. Her mother had spoken of warm pies and cider and enough for keeping. What did he know about an oven or raising a girl?
The apple tree was slight and her father was strong. Ruth watched him swing and swing long after it had fallen, a low wait arranging itself on her tongue too late. Afterwards, crouching beside the thin stump, tracing the light and the dark circles separately, she had counted twelve rings instead of six and her little body trembled in the high grass. Confused, she counted again, and again, but the years still made no sense. Though she later learned that you must count the dark along with the light to gauge the year, something took root and tangled inside her, and she could never again say for certain who she was.
Her mother’s funeral had been held in this same chapel, and her father had been as still and silent then as he was now, hands hanging useless by his sides. As the small gathering filtered out into the gray day, a man stepped up to Ruth, his back to her father’s casket, and held out a dull metal hardhat.
‘Didn’t know it was you the other night,‘ he said. ‘You should’ve said something.‘
‘I know,‘ said Ruth, the tin hat suspended in the air between them.
‘Well. I’m sorry for your loss,‘ he said.
‘It’s okay,‘ she said, pushing the tin hat back towards him. ‘It’s yours.‘
She had been under specific instructions to get that tin hat.
‘They just walked right in here and took all of it,‘ cried her father, her coat still on, her suitcase in the hallway.
His tin hat, his pen blanks, his lathe; deep-fluted hollowing tools and his fine roughing-gouge, a huge hunk of mesquite and the cherry it had taken him so long to cure. He named it all. ‘I seen them from my window,‘ he insisted—snooping around his yard, fiddling with his locks. One man had picked through a dozen boxes of pepper-grinder parts; another hauled out bowl blanks and rough rounds of madrone and sycamore, quickly and quietly, while they thought he was sleeping. And now they were going to sell it, to sell what they had taken from him. His fingers, gnarled and arthritic, dug deep into the mattress as he moaned—‘Now girl, what you waitin’ for?‘
Ruth turned and raised an eyebrow at the woman hovering in the doorway. Local, but they had never met before. Ruth had hired her over the telephone to come a couple of times a week in the beginning, then every other day. The agency was more expensive than she could afford, with its commission and insurance, but commensurately reassuring. She reminded herself that her father didn’t want his daughter taking care of him anyhow, had told her to live her life—as though that is all there is to it. She had found a weekend job.
The woman shrugged—‘I mean, some people did come by‘—and Ruth noticed how young her father’s carer was, much younger than she’d seemed on the telephone, and she felt an unaccountable shame. On the easier end of the line, she had mistaken distance for perspective. But it had been thrilling, the sound of her self against the mouthpiece: decisive, poised.
‘He’s tired,‘ said the girl, tucking pillows beneath his knees and elbows. ‘He gets upset. They get that way. I’ll heat some coffee.‘
Left alone, Ruth looked more closely at her father, eyes half closed, drooping in the bed despite his many props. He was both exactly as and completely other than she had left him. Smaller, and papery, his colors had turned. Auburn no longer, he wore a white crown, but it was surely him inside the withered skin.
‘My hat,‘ he said as she slipped out of the bedroom, ‘my tin hat most of all.‘
Ruth closed the door softly behind her.
Busy, clinking sounds called to her from the kitchen where she was assured her help was not needed. She took her suitcase to her old bedroom, but did not unpack and just sat on the edge of the bed. She thought to go back down and ask the girl some serious questions, but became distracted on the staircase and in the hallway by what used to be bare walls, hung now with all sorts of barometers and chronometers in mahogany and oak surrounds. On a floating shelf, a tidal clock set into a smooth sphere of walnut wood. And a novelty clock, in a piney heptagon, moved its hands only through the days of the week.
Outside, she walked across the wilderness of lawn and peered through the window into her father’s workshop that too was disused and desolate. The woodpile that had once edged the length of the house was shrunken and mossy. Once, following a storm, her father picked up the phone and men had come and spent the day sawing fallen alders into rounds and wedges. And Ruth, wanting a job to do too, had been busied hauling the smallest of the limbs and sticks up to the woodpile on a small cart. The woodpile was up by the house, and the trees and the men were far down by the creek across a path of stones that used to be part of the streambed. Back and forth she’d trundled. They had only wanted her out of their way but when they saw how eagerly she adopted her role they showed her how to pull with her legs and hips, to protect her little back and shoulders, to stack the logs and sticks over the wheels instead of weighing it down at the handle. Her father had held his tongue but soon gave Ruth his look that meant ‘Enough now‘.
Alone at the house, Ruth had scanned the woodpile from left to right and back again, seeing what spaces needed to be filled and which log would fit perfectly where. A woodpile, thoughtlessly stacked, could soon go awry, she imagined the men telling her. She liked to place the pieces of wood together just so. It had been a satisfying feeling, the closest she had ever come to providence, and it occurred to Ruth, now, that she had rarely known such purpose since.
A distant cloud rumbled and the alders shivered. Back at the house, a light came on and the shape of a woman moved across an upstairs window. Ruth drifted through the high grass towards it as in a dream then stopped and watched the caregiver’s shadow pull the curtains across her father’s bedroom window. She looked again at the woodpile, and the emptied woodshop, then made instead for her rental car and drove away in the darkling rain.
When she finally found the high school woodshop where the turner’s auction was taking place, men were milling in and out of its open doors, yellow light spilling into puddles beyond. Heads bent low against the rain, they pushed handcarts stacked with stumps and boxes, and covered the smaller things in their arms with their hats. He’s not crazy then, thought Ruth, though she was hardly relieved. Her resolve had dwindled as she drove and she had already found comfort in the fact that he’d be wrong. Now it seemed he had been telling the truth and that she must still do something or return with nothing but a good reason why.
A few heads turned her way as she entered the shop, the swish of her skirt a beautiful bird in a copse of flannel and denim. Most everybody in the room was a man and old, or seemed so beneath beards and large glasses. Ruth smiled at them hopefully, a vestigial gesture that had seldom saved her from the difficulty of having to speak or ask. She was a plain woman; denied, she believed, the benefits afforded to pretty young girls. A couple of the men nodded dimly but turned away again and her smile drained into a hollow place. The least thing, she thought, the smallest of things. She was weary of it; an incessant sensation of having the knees cut from underneath her, triggered by the least of things.
She didn’t want to be here. Stupid not to think things through. Typical. But wouldn’t it be weird to walk in and out again, she thought? Wouldn’t that be worse? Like anyone would even notice. ‘Damn him anyway,‘ she whispered, but her body would not obey her thoughts and she sidled past the men to where school-grey chairs were laid out five deep and twelve abreast with a crooked aisle down the middle. A blackboard on one wall displayed a palimpsest of detailed plans, unambiguous geometry, and final pleas for homework. The shop was filling quickly with men in coveralls and pencils in their shirt pockets. Ruth took a seat on the end of an aisle and pretended not to listen to their talk and low laughter.
‘Did you see that peppershaker?‘ ‘Say, what’s in them boxes?‘ ‘Pine-blank was spinnin’ so fast, it almost killed him.‘ ‘Almost don’t count!‘ ‘If I even look to raise my hand you slap me real hard, hear?‘ ‘I hate paying for wood.‘ ‘You wanna sit down?‘ ‘Naw, I sit all day.‘
The shop smelled like cedar and chalk. Huddled in pairs and fours, the men said whaddya think, and some thought it was better than last year and those who couldn’t disagree more did so. The first to arrive had placed their woodenwares on a table at the front. Small boxes and bowls, spoons and spindles; some spinning-tops and slender ink pens; whistles and dibbles, yo-yos, honey-dippers. They turned these in their dappled hands, holding them to the light in search of flaws and inspiration. Later-comers and those with larger pieces settled theirs around the legs among knotty stumps of doug fir and alder, rounds of cherry and chinkapin. There were old and little-used tools, and handles for tools, and handsome tool-cases. Mystery cardboard boxes, heavy and marked only with numbers. And sitting atop a silvery wedge of ash, her father’s tin helmet with hardly a dent in it.
‘Got your eye on something?‘
A man in thick glasses and high-waisted corduroys eased himself into the seat in front of her and turned around.
Ruth looked towards the tin hat and heard her father’s enfeebled roar—now girl, what you waitin’ for?
‘Actually,‘ she said—but what could she say? ‘I’m not sure,‘ she smiled. ‘It’s hard to decide. There are so many things.‘
‘You should get yourself a ticket,‘ he said, holding up a laminated square of paper with the number 47 on it. ‘Just in case.‘
‘Of course,‘ said Ruth. She took her purse and stood in line to get a ticket from a spectacled woman seated at a trestle table by a microphone up front. She didn’t suppose her father had meant for her to purchase his stolen belongings back but what difference did it make? She didn’t have to tell him anything; she owed him nothing. At her turn, the woman entered Ruth’s name and bidding number in an accounts ledger and, ticket in her hand, Ruth felt instantly inconspicuous, relieved. And in case she was new to this, the woman explained to Ruth in deliberate tones how things were going to work—‘When you want something, you just raise your hand.‘
As a man stepped up and began fussing with the microphone, the chatter in the shop grew louder. Short, with a neatly trimmed white beard, he held a sheet of paper at arm’s length, squinting at it over his glasses, then cleared his throat a couple of times to begin.
‘Just a second before we get started here tonight gentlemen. Can everybody hear me?‘
‘No!‘ cheered the room as one.
‘Does anybody want to hear me? Let’s see here. That better? Alright then,‘ he said as a murmur threatened to swell. ‘Let’s get going. We’ll start off with the wood then move onto some odds n ends and all your fine creations here. And then we’ve got our human auction, which was a great success last year. All for the good of the guild folks, no need to say that twice. But let’s get on now with what looks like a nice chunk of maple wood. Solid, no flaws. Let’s see. Can we go ten on that?‘ he asked the men, and Ruth saw their fingers twitch as they nodded their heads as one. The man rolled his paper into a gavel and slapped it against his hand.
‘We got ten. Ten, we got fifteen? Anybody twenty? Twenty? It’s a nice solid piece of maple burl, ready to be something folks. We got twenty, can we get twenty-five? No? Anybody else? Anyone else, for the good of the guild? No? Alright then. Going once. Twice. Sold for twenty to number seventeen.‘
He moved through the wood like this, a man to the right of him—stout and serious—holding up stumps of hawthorn and rosy tulipwood for the room to see while he called out their qualities and potentials. The spectacled woman sat silently behind them noting the final bids and numbers in her ledger: seven dollars for the hawthorn, twenty-five for tulip. Though the wood was held high, occasionally a particular piece would cause the men to half stand and crane forward, though they must have seen it all before: the golden lake of ripples on a piece of quilted maple, the mesmeric pocks of birdseye wood.
Favored too were those woods with strange growths and the colorful marks of rot and fungus forever suspended in the grain. And the latent form of each warty stump and spalted bowl blank was identified with every bid—‘A fine platter inside this one folks, ready to be finished,‘ called the old man at the microphone. ‘There’s a candlestick in this walnut, or some nice smelling firewood. It has a few cracks on the outside but there’s still a big bowl under there. Needs some drying but just about ready to be something this cherry.‘
And with each piece raised, an invocation for the good of the guild, tithes the men seemed reluctant to offer though they’d be returned to them in kind in one way or another. This evening was in aid of their selves. Yet bidding began slowly and ended quickly, and eager bidders were kept in check with wisecracks about waiting wives at home and where a man might find a second job in this day and age. Each man observed the other, kept track, approved, sniffed; blushed at being seen to pay for what they could find elsewhere for free. They wanted bowl blanks most of all: stripped of bark, roughly turned, dried, and ready to be finished. Less appealing were those freshly cut pieces, wet and green, which could crack as they cured, the auctioneer conceded. Four small pine blanks sold for ninety dollars, while a wide redwood, too heavy to lift—too much like a tree—went for seventeen and change. It was in need of more time and patience than most men seemed willing to part with.
Four small pine blanks, stripped of bark and roughly turned, ready to be finished, sold for ninety dollars while a wide redwood, too heavy to lift—too much like a tree—went for seventeen and change.
Ruth held tightly to her number, absorbed in the parade of what men like these valued. It was impossible, she thought, to distinguish which wood might have been taken from her father’s shop and which was another man’s donation. And what use was it to him now anyhow, she wondered—walnut spinning on a lathe? When Ruth had come home, the caregiver had introduced her to her father as though she and Ruth were colleagues at the beginning or end of a long shift, pointing to a pillbox marked with the days of the week and a child’s spill-proof drinking cup.
‘He likes to hold things himself,‘ said the caregiver quickly. ‘I would never treat him like a child, but with the tremor—‘
But Ruth was barely listening, unaware of how children or men were supposed to be treated. She had not seen her father in countless years and she could not be sure he knew it was her or noticed that she had ever left, let alone returned. Leaning in to fix a button, he had gripped the caregiver’s arms in his trembling hands.
‘If you leave now, you’ll have plenty of time,‘ he pressed. ‘They’ll be on their way this minute, over to Franklin. It’s Thursday.‘
‘Ruth is here Lee. Remember? I called her, remember?‘
Ruth did not know what to think. Clearly her father was unwell, bewildered, but she had not been told of any senility. He was distressed, yes, but it was not unfair, she thought, to say that he had never paid her much notice, or that she might have walked into the room at any time and heard the same cry—‘Think they can take what’s mine?‘
It was always something. The goddam feds and their stinkin’ taxes. The DMV could shove their license—‘What’s a couple of beers?‘ he’d barked down the phone. ‘There’s nobody in this damned town to run over anyhow.‘ Ruth had begun to screen her calls. When the town put in parking meters on Main Street, she’d come home from work to the red light flashing on her answering machine. ‘Those are public streets!‘ he had roared into all her available space.
Always something but never the thing he meant. Ruth was tiny when the big mill on the east bank of the river bought up their struggling rivals on the west, its lumber redirected to the hands of other men. But she remembered the feeling in the house, her mother’s nervousness, and how he always spoke of those forests as his. For a while, he’d hewn timber for small ranches but another baby on the way had forced him across like the others, eyes lowered, tin hat in hand. And then, that son-of-a-bitch doctor had lost the both of them—his wife, Ruth’s mother, and a boy baby, born too early. Her father had carried on at the mill until the forests were exhausted, Ruth had long left, and there was nothing left to cut.
Ruth had read about the closure in the newspaper and was surprised, when he telephoned, to hear that he did not blame the hippies up in Portland as she’d expected. No. It was the bigwigs at the mill, he said—‘They was responsible for our living as well as their own. They should’ve steered us better than they did.‘
Ruth had stayed silent on the other end. She pictured him staring out upon the denuded earth, seeing a future that had not been safeguarded for him alone, or not seeing it at all. And, indeed, he did look out and reported with interest and updates when acres of clear-cut land were replanted with ponderosa starts. His descriptions of the spindly saplings, held up with rigid stakes, provoked both pity and pleasure in her, the emerging trees making plain in their unhurried progress that they would not tower nor fall in his lifetime. It was around this time, Ruth recalled, that he had turned his hand to making things instead, from stray logs and the casualties of rough storms. And what was now a sizable woodturning guild had begun with her father and three or four men lending each other a hand, a parting-tool, or a pair of calipers now and then.
Ruth envied them the hours spent in great care and purpose as much as the finished box or fruit bowl. They were mostly amateurs, by the looks of it, and she wondered if the hobby was not in fact a means to the guild, a way for men to be around each other. But this evening, among the standard egg-cups and salad spoons, were objects of uncommon beauty, the work of true turners, and the men bid generously and in earnest when these things came to auction. Some men seemed to have a fondness for particular things—spindles, whistles, tiny boxes—and Ruth wondered what her father would have brought to the table tonight. She tried to imagine him here, examining dead wood for blemishes and promise, perceiving what lay ready beneath bark and moss, knowing just how to shape a thing. But none of his creations were here this evening, only tired, dulled tools and raw materials lying in a jumble on the shop floor.
The man at the microphone cleared his throat and looked out at the room.
‘We’re nearing the end of the night men and I want to thank you all for your donations and your time, we do depend on it.‘ He paused. ‘We’re all—well, y’all know old Lee isn’t here with us again tonight.‘
For the first time that evening, the men lay down their quips and jibes and the shop was silent save a low cough and the sound of someone shifting in their seat. Ruth leaned into the sound of her father’s name.
‘We have some things of his here you might recognise. Jim Bell and I were out visiting a few weeks back and, well, we all got to talking and Lee came straight out with what we’ve all known for some time, there’s no more turning in his future. Told us to take it all away. It was hard for him to say and it was hard for us to hear. I half expect him to come hollering through those doors, demanding it all back,‘ he laughed. ‘I know if it was me—‘
He stopped and unfurled the paper in his hand, then rolled it up again.
‘Anyway. We’re grateful for his offering, so let’s do him proud on it, dig deep men. And one more thing,‘ he said. ‘If you saw the mess old Lee had hoarded up out there, hooo boy. Get rid of what you’re not going to use eh? Just damn well get rid of it.‘
Ruth’s heart raced against her ribcage. Even those things he gave away he came to think as taken from him. Of course, she’d known.
Far beyond her, the men were raising their hands against each other for her father’s things. His lathe and turning tools, even his scraps of sandpaper, half-used tins of beeswax, and so many boxes of barometers. The stout man handed her father’s tin hat to the man at the microphone, and a dozen dappled hands held high their numbers at the first call for fifteen dollars. Then thirty. And forty-five. And seventy. And one hundred.
Most of the men bowed out before it got that far and, like Ruth, watched dumbly as the bids climbed higher and swiftly between a staunch few. They wanted it badly, whatever it was to them. And though later she would tell herself that the moment had slipped through her fingers, had she even opened her hands? When the man at the microphone pronounced it going going gone, and the tin hat went to the man seated in front of her, the words seemed to her an absolution. Her father would have to accept it: perhaps not this evening, but eventually.
The woodshop filled with chatter again; the man in front of her, pleased and proud. Ruth’s thoughts turned to the drive home, and tonight, and tomorrow.
‘Almost there folks,‘ called the man at the microphone. ‘You might remember this from last year. I’ve got this paper here with people’s names on it and what we’re bidding on now is their time—an afternoon with each of them in their workshops. Thanks to Pete and Joe and Carl for volunteering, we appreciate y’all. Let’s start with Pete, stand up there Pete.‘
A man stood briefly, tipped his head to the room and sat again. He was not far either side of sixty, salt and peppered but handsome in a way, Ruth noticed. The auctioneer praised him as a fine hollow form maker and something else exceptional but Ruth was only half listening, still thinking about her father and where to begin explaining. The men were laughing again now, ribbing each other about this or that, and an afternoon with Pete fetched a good sum on behalf of the guild. And a few hours with Carl, admired for his spindle work, were snapped up in a jiffy at one hundred and forty six dollars.
The next man announced by the auctioneer was Joe and he stood up slowly when his name was called, and stayed standing, as though it would hold things up if he were to try to sit down again.
‘Now Joe,‘ said the man at the microphone. ‘Well Joe here has advice that is worth a lifetime, oh boy. You name it. He’s also very good at figuring out where you screwed up and how to fix it,‘ the man said, laughing a little nervously. He paused and looked around the room. ‘Can we go five for an afternoon with Joe?‘
A strange hush, different than before, flitted around the shop then dissipated, and the room returned to an ordinary quiet. Ruth looked out at the heads and shoulders around her. Somewhere a man raised a finger to accept the five dollar bid and the man at the microphone thanked him then raised the bid to ten, but it was not quickly matched and he lowered his ask to eight then back to six which was eventually met with a nod of a head and, bit by bit, rose to seven then nine.
A hard rain drummed against the windowpanes then grew faint again. Ruth watched as the auctioneer pulled quarters and dimes from the men: cajoling, persistent, the evening turned shabby. She looked slantways around the room, careful not to show her confusion and dismay, but the men revealed nothing, were beyond her fathoming. She turned her eyes to Joe who was staring straight ahead of him, oblivious or indifferent, she could not tell, though the distinction was more and more crucial to her.
‘Eleven dollars for an afternoon with Joe,‘ called the man at the microphone. ‘He’ll even throw in a peanut butter jelly sandwich, how about that? All for the good of the guild folks, the good of the guild.‘
Joe flapped his hands by his sides, clasped them behind his back then gripped them, finally, on the back of the chair in front of him. Ruth’s throat swelled with an old ache. She stared at those fine, rough hands, at the slack, sallow skin on his neck and jaw, and wondered who lay there beneath it all.
She thought about this as she drove home in the rain, and at other times that week, and later that week, when her father was gone forever and there was no time, only the gauging of the years. The church organ swelled and the mourners shuffled in line to shake her hand. One of them winked gently at the caregiver, who was kind to come, and another pinched the girl’s cheek. Then a man stepped up to Ruth, his back to her father’s casket, and handed her a dull metal hardhat.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,‘ he said.
‘It’s okay,‘ she said and nudged the tin hat back towards him. ‘It’s yours.‘
The next man to approach her was Joe and she did not know what to say to him though she had thought of many things that week. He mumbled his condolences then raised his head and looked her straight in the eye. ‘Grape or raspberry?‘ he said.
‘Excuse me?‘ said Ruth.
‘Jelly on your sandwich,‘ said Joe.
‘Oh!‘ said Ruth, ‘I don’t know. Grape?‘
‘Alright,‘ said Joe. ‘I’ll expect to hear from you then.‘
‘Yes sir,‘ said Ruth.
Joe turned and doddered down the aisle and Ruth followed a ways behind him through the heavy wooden doors of the chapel. It was raining still. A deep, impregnable gray shrouded all but the nearest features around her, even the tallest trees in the graveyard, yet it seemed not like things hidden but as though whole parts of the world had yet to be made.