Laura lives with Max in the cabin next to mine. I'm a planer, apprentice to the carpenter. Each day I prepare the wood the lumberjacks bring. Laura is a speech therapist. Her clients are kids mostly under the age of ten, their ability to communicate complicated by hearing loss, congenital stuttering or physical defects. Last winter, an article in The Daily Grove profiled Laura's work at the clinic. "Children do better with verbal exercises when trying to describe something that excites them," Laura said. Two days later, Max showed up at the clinic carrying three large oak stumps he carved into a duck, a bowlegged Buddha and a bust of Angelina Jolie. Each log was chiseled and slashed at mind-numbing speeds. Watching, the kids and Laura fell all over themselves to express their joy and amazement. Max invited Laura to dinner that night and moved into her cabin by spring.
Our summer tournament starts tomorrow. Every day after work I come home and take my box of sticks down from the ledge above my kitchen sink and pour them out on my table. As a stacker of sticks, I'm a two-time champion and hope this year to break Jesse Cane's record of nineteen. My own record is sixteen. I've done fifteen twice, though fifteen isn't sixteen or even close to nineteen, I know. In the evenings now, with Laura not around to visit me as much as she once did, I practice hard and have many hours to kill.
Max has won the gold medal for speed carving at our last three tournaments. I look at the wooden dolls, the howling dogs and clown heads Max creates with electric saws, rip and cross cuts and Gerber hatchets, and am not impressed. His velocity is nothing more than a parlor trick, yet because he's the reigning tournament champ, his pieces sell well in the city. The novelty inspires galleries and souvenir shops to carry his handiwork with bright yellow cards attached: Carved in Under Three Minutes by Max Durest.
Laura says Max has a gift. In private, Max admits his sculptures are worthless. He's embarrassed by his ability to produce wild swans, tulips and skyscrapers, trolls and trucks so fast that even those competing against him are awed. Lately, as a surprise, Max has been working on a new sculpture, something he's yet to show Laura and is taking his time to carve. When he comes home exhausted from his studio, Laura is there to greet him, believing he's spent his day hacking out whim-whams to sell in the city. I hear her voice through my window, hear her door open then close.
What a tangle. Last week I set aside my sticks and went with a flashlight down the path to the river where Max has his studio. The door was locked, but looking through the window I was able to see a dark tarp tossed over a broad shape. I tried to wedge the window, only a noise startled me and I ran back down the path. I didn't return to the studio for several days, and then not until Laura asked me.
For a week now, tourists have filled our woods in anticipation of the tournament. The competition is the highlight of our summer, with cash prizes and trophies, large crowds and ESPN2 coverage. Tonight, I clear my table and take down my box of sticks. Around seven o'clock, I listen for Laura to return from her run. Laura wears light nylon shorts and a gray or green sports bra when she trains in the summer. In winter she dresses in layers of T-shirts, polyurethane mittens and GORE-TEX sweats. Most nights I hear her start off around six and come back an hour later. Rain or shine she follows her routine, runs out along the paths toward the river, beyond Dulmeir Hill, past the oak and cherry, apple and maple orchards. Only if the weather is truly dreadful will she run on the machine I made for her, the wooden pedals mimicking the motion of a trot, the joints greased and turning, pumping up and down.
The surface of my table is beige, a Guinness Cooper oak, flat and unstained, with natural veins and wiggly clouds throughout. For my sticks, I use bits of wood collected from work and sanded into two-inch strips, the official size required for the tournament. Each stick is slightly different, the shape at the tip or a spot on one side, a natural broadening in the center where only 1/100th of a centimeter makes a difference. When I pick a stick, I turn her over in my hands, use the tips of my fingers to gauge which if any side is best to stack. To qualify as a stacker, a contestant must complete a "ten" in one other sanctioned event that year. All sticks are examined before the tournament, weighed and measured, inspected for illegal grooving or filing for easier stacking. Anyone caught cheating is turned over to the lumberjacks. Once, a stacker named Winston Perle managed to hollow out and insert microscopic lead shavings into his sticks, giving them greater stability. When the judges discovered his ploy, Winston ran straight to the river and threw himself in. Crowds gathered at the bank, men and women watching as boats were launched to search the waters.
The carpenter has long gray hair which he ties off with blue yarn as he works. There is hair in his ears and nose, hair on the back of his hands which has also gone gray between the muscle and veins. Years ago the carpenter played bass in a band called The Wooden Nickel which opened twice for Buddy Miles at the Fillmore East. The band broke up not long after that, over an incident involving a girl with a diamond tattoo, and disconsolate, the carpenter has not touched his instrument since.
A glass panel runs the length of the carpenter's ceiling. At night he pours Labrot & Graham whiskey into a wooden mug, adjusts the lens of his telescope and gazes at the stars. Sometimes, when I'm missing Laura a bit too much, I'll walk from my cabin and sit with my sticks at the carpenter's table as he searches for his favorite constellations. "Perseus, Bootes and Andromeda," he says. "Lyra and Aquia." He points out Polaris and Cygnus' tail.
Tonight is Thursday. The carpenter has ballroom dancing at the Rec & Ed. I stay in my cabin after work, listen for Laura to finish her run. When she knocks on my door, I've eight sticks stacked. Laura has dark brown hair cut straight across her shoulders. Her cheeks are red from her shower, her hair damp and drawn back from her face. I am, as always, happy to see her. In sleeping together, once last year before Laura met Max, we managed to consummate eighteen months of neighborly curiosity. I woke the next morning elated, imagining our future, while at breakfast Laura spoke of the weather and did not say a word about what happened.
I have my ninth stick in hand, ready to stack, when Laura comes over and musses my hair. I raise my neck and push my head against her fingers. She smiles and asks about my day. I describe the desk the carpenter's building.
"What wood?" she wonders. This is Laura. She more than anyone understands what I like about my job. "Cherry," I tell her, and take her through the process of planing the wood, how I teased and cured and brought all the rich red colors to the surface. When boys new to the forest ask, "How much is there to know about being a planer?" I smile behind my mask, watch them slide about on wood dust and shavings covering the porch, ignoring as they do the way I handle my scrub, detecting flaws and strengths, applying different pressures to the razor while my thumbs smooth and massage the knots and veins.
Laura goes to the sink and fills a glass with water.
"Are you hungry?" I mention the tuna casserole in my fridge. Laura removes the tuna, puts a piece on a plate and eats it cold. "Do you mind if I take some to Max?" she tells me he hasn't eaten, that he's still at his studio, practicing for tomorrow. "He should have been home by now." She cuts a second piece of tuna and slides it onto a sheet of tinfoil. Her shorts are blue, her long legs bare and smooth and tan. I haven't touched her legs in over a year, and still from memory I can feel them. "Maybe you could take it to him," she says now, and looks at me in such a way as to let me know this was her plan all along. "It'll be good if you go and tell him to come home. He'll listen to you, Michael. He likes you," she says.
I want to laugh and make clear if there's anyone she shouldn't ask to help Max it's me, that I wish him all the very worst of luck tomorrow and wouldn't care in the least if he stayed at his studio forever. "I don't think…," I start to say, only here Laura moves toward my table, her hand finding my wrist, baby warm, as tender as a sparrow wing. "So?" she asks. "You'll go?"
Max has rust brown hair, worn in a wild nest of curls. His arms are muscled. He wears large lumberjack boots, has deep sleepy eyes and heavy hands which grip and spin the wood as he works. His studio is on the north side, near the lake. I walk the quarter mile down the path feeling foolish and angry by what Laura has asked me to do, and unwrapping the tuna from the foil, I toss it into the woods.
At Max's studio, I go around back just as I did a week ago and glance through the window. Max is sitting on the floor with what seems a thousand tiny wooden dolls scattered about. His head is hanging near his chest, his hands in his lap, his legs stretched in front of him. The sculpture beneath the burlap tarp is uncovered and centers the room. I stare at the angles and curves. The back of the piece is arched and rounded, yet cut flat across its center, creating points on a circle. There are no limbs to speak of, no life-like head or hands, though the figure is clearly feminine, with an opening at the top where a face would be, and a second hole in the middle—or chest—cut around a mass of wood, the size of a heart cleaved and exposed.
I continue staring for several seconds, then tap the window, startling Max who gets up, covers his sculpture and lets me in. Because he's not expecting me, he thinks of Laura, says "Mike?" and asks, "Is something wrong?"
I shake my head, step through the sea of trolls littering the floor, and go directly to the carving where I pull the burlap cover off again. "It's all right," I say, as if I've some special permission. The statue is even more remarkable up close. The surface is well planed, sanded and treated with oils. The wood is American holly, an enormous cut, over six feet tall, smooth and tan, more gold than ivory, with a tight, irregular grain. (American holly is a marvelous wood, though it grows slowly and presents problems with harvesting, as gray or blue stains appear if the tree isn't cut in winter.) I wonder where Max got the wood, search for signs that he's somehow culled separate sections together, but find nothing.
I walk around the entire piece twice, am convinced the sculpture is extraordinary, sensual and organic, and am tempted to shout, "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" but manage instead to say, "What is this?" and laugh as I point.
Max drops his chin. His shoulders sag as if he's been hit in the gut. I click my tongue, tell him half-truths, explain how Laura asked me to come check on him, that she's concerned he won't be rested for tomorrow and hopes I can be of help. "She tells me you're working too hard. She thinks you're practicing for the tournament." I stand with my arms folded across my chest. "Obviously, though, you've been up to something else." I wink, and laugh again.
Max remains a few feet in front of me, his face pale, his mouth drawn tight, then drooping. "You don't like her?"
"Honestly?" I look again at the sculpture, imagine what Laura would say. "No," I answer. "It's good you tried though," I tell him. "A person can't be faulted for that. How else are we to know our limitations?" I remind him that he still has his career as a competitive carver. "You're the champ," I raise my right forefinger to show Max a number one, the irony of my convincing him to focus on the tournament not lost on me. "A person shouldn't be greedy." I put my hand on the statue's side, nearly trembling as I touch her. "We'll keep this between ourselves," I turn serious, relieved when Max agrees we should not tell Laura.
I send Max home, say "I'll clean up," and wait for him to leave. Max has taken his Disston #12 power saw and cut through Beauty's center. There's little left now beyond pulp and splinters, the wood flying up in the air as the sculpture shuddered with surprise, her top half split and falling, the blade slicing deep into her shoulder, angling down toward the hollow which held her heart. I covered my mouth to avoid inhaling fragments, protected my eyes with clear plastic goggles, and stood watching until Max was finished.
Alone now, I kneel in the remains, fill my pockets and the front of my shirt with slivers, gather nearly a pound of wood before heading out again. At my kitchen table, I spend the next three hours turning all I've gathered into two-inch sticks. I then select the thirty or so pieces I'll take with me to the tournament tomorrow, placing them inside the velvet Crown Royal pouch I always use for competitions. At four in the morning, I turn off the kitchen light and fall into bed where I sleep until the alarm I've set wakes me.
The arena where we hold our tournament is on the east end of the river. Many of the preliminary events are underway when I arrive. Wood carvers, bark skippers and the two-man log tossing are each going through the early rounds, while stacking is scheduled to begin that afternoon in the auditorium. I sit in the stands next to Laura and watch Max defeat his first challengers with little trouble. Twice when Max makes a particularly impressive move, carving out the shape of a Great Dane and then the bust of Albert Einstein, Laura squeezes my arm and whistles. I stare down at the ridiculous scrimshaws and applaud politely.
My sticks have already been presented for inspection when I go into the auditorium that afternoon. My velvet bag is tagged and placed at table nineteen. (The number seems a good omen.) At two o'clock I take my seat and roll my sticks out across the table. There are sixty-four stations in the auditorium, sixty-three other competitors. The rules require every contestant to stack as many sticks as they can in the first two hours. To avoid inflated numbers, with a stacker building threes and fours over and over again, only five misses are permitted, with the total from those stacks constituting one's score. At four o'clock the top fifteen stackers advance into the evening's final where one slip leads to elimination.
I run my fingers through my sticks, manage in the first hour to stack eight and eleven. By twenty minutes until four, I've added an additional ten and twelve to my total, and knowing how the game is played, I knock twelve down and stack another nine before the buzzer. My total puts me into the championship, and leaving my sticks with the judges, I go outside for some air and a bite to eat.
Laura finds me spreading mustard on a hotdog and wishes me luck tonight. She's wearing her running clothes and plans a quick jog around the river. "Max's finals start at eight o'clock," she says, and promises to watch me first, then qualifies this with, "If I can."
"You'll be done in plenty of time. It's only four thirty."
"I know, Michael, but," Laura smiles. I bite my dog, wipe mustard from my lips. As Laura stretches, arching her back then rolling her hips side to side, she thanks me for my help last night. I toss my dog in the trash. "About Max," I say. "He can't win."
Laura doesn't understand, assumes I'm referring to the tournament. She stops her stretches, stares at me, her eyes narrowed against the sun. "What do you mean?"
I answer the only way I can, frustrated and with questions of my own. "What sort of man can't recognize beauty? How can you waste your time on someone who settles for carving puppets and frogs? Don't you see how weak he is? If Max doesn't know what to do with your love," I say. "If he'd rather sit sniveling in his studio, then he deserves what he gets and I shouldn't be blamed for anything."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Laura is frightened now and wants me to explain, "What are you asking me? Why are you saying this? What's going on?"
And so I tell her.
At six twenty, I'm inside the auditorium, waiting to enter the main room where the last fifteen tables are set. The carpenter is with me. He has on his lucky flannel shirt, blue and slightly frayed, the one he wears when working on a particularly fine and complicated piece of furniture. The shirt is a talisman, the carpenter's way of reminding me to keep my focus and wishing me luck without having to repeat all he said to me in the days leading up to the tournament. Some of the other planers roll past on wooden skates, slap my shoulder and wish me luck. The carpenter sees me wringing my hands, watches me look through the front window toward the opposite side of the river, and encourages me to, "Keep your focus. Now is not the time." He tugs at his tail of gray hair. The judges inside the auditorium sound the warning bell and I leave to take my seat among the finalists.
Each table is assigned a counter. When the starting bell rings, I place my first stick in front of me, build my stack to five and then seven in just under an hour. Six of the other contestants are eliminated by then, and three more go in the next twenty minutes. I glance into the stands, hear the carpenter tell me again to "Focus," and manage this all the way to eleven.
At twelve sticks Beauty holds. I reach thirteen then fourteen as the last of my competition is gone. Those watching in the stands applaud. I continue on to fifteen with thoughts of Jesse Cane's record in my head. A mistake. At fifteen anything but sixteen is overreaching. Still it's hard not to imagine more. I place sixteen on my stack and look again for Laura.
Seventeen is deep space, is rarified air, as uncommon as the planet-forming dust disk recently discovered circling the paired-star system Stephenson 34 and thought to be twenty-five million years old. I go from seventeen to eighteen and then nineteen as a stirring starts in the crowd. The reaction I assume is for me, but then I see people leaving.
I break Jesse Cane's record with my twentieth stick. The cheers for my success barely fill the auditorium with echo. At twenty-one, only the carpenter, two judges and my counter remain. I get as far as twenty-three when the stack gives a little shudder and collapses. The two judges hurry over, sign the forms and the official application to recognize a new record, shake my hand and hurry off. I have no idea what's happening and follow the carpenter outside, into the adjoining Hank Stamper Theater where the finals of the carving competition are underway.
The theater is filled to overflowing. The carpenter and I have to push through the crowd to even see the stage which is lit in white lights. The rest of the auditorium is dark. I squint, am nervous again for reasons not yet clear, think for a moment to go back outside, but the carpenter has hold of my arm and is moving me forward. A large stopwatch-like clock is set with six minutes remaining. The judges sit in the orchestra pit, an electronic recording of Beth Wood's 'Right On Time' plays overhead. Max and the other finalist—a man dressed in jeans and a gray cotton T-shirt—are working away with their saws and sanders. Unlike the other man however, who's completed a half dozen sculptures of a cow, a blackbird, a mushroom and what appears to be the head of J. Edgar Hoover, Max is still carving his first piece.
I look through the crowd and back again to the stage before spotting Laura sitting on the top step a few feet to Max's left. The wood Max is carving is a large silver maple. The crowd is unusually quiet. Even after the music stops and the time runs out and the bell goes off and the other man is named the winner, the crowd remains still and watching.
Beauty is there, not entirely in the way she was before, but taking shape. The sweet curve of her back is again cut in a confluence of rims and angles. The perfect hint of a head remains, as does the heart in her center. I watch only long enough to be sure what has happened, then go outside.
The carpenter suggests we have a drink at his cabin. Along the way he points out the stars, shows me Corvus and Indus and Berenice's Hair. He tells me the story of the girl with the diamond tattoo, how she followed The Wooden Nickel Band from Boston to Amherst to Buffalo. "God, Mike, but she was lovely," the carpenter remembers. "Her tattoo was in the soft fold of skin between her thumb and forefinger. For luck, I liked to stroke her diamond before I played. I knew halfway through our tour I was in love with her and tried each night to impress her with my performance. I was a good enough musician to keep from sounding foolish early on, but by Providence I was out of control. I'd solo in the center of a piece, play over and around the others. If not for our drummer, Davie Wekcal, I'd have ruined the band completely. Davie kept us together. His playing gave our music its integrity, despite how wildly the audience cheered my effort. I guess the girl knew this, too, because in Shreveport she and Davie took off."
I sit on the carpenter's porch, drinking whiskey from a wooden cup. Eventually, I finish my drink and walk back to the theater where the earlier crowd remains. Word of my record has spread and several people congratulate me, though mostly they continue watching Max.
I make my way to the stage where Laura sees me and tries to keep me from coming up the steps. She's still angry and stands directly in front of me. The buzz of Max's saw—a platinum Irwin 24V cordless—is the only sound. I've spent the last hour thinking about what to do, have pictured Winston Perle laying cold and still at the bottom of the river, and the carpenter not touching his bass for thirty years, and how easy to reconcile my own missteps with some equally extreme gesture. I consider offering my hands to the blade of Max's saw, extending my arms so fast no one has time to react, my fingers falling to the stage as everyone looking on gasps and shudders.
As I reached the river however, I changed my mind, reminded of the crowds who left the shore soon after Winston Perle threw himself in, and the boats which gave up searching for his body. The girl Winston tried to impress with his stacking married someone else a year later. I often see her dancing with her husband at the summer festivals, and walking with her children on clear winter nights.
We are as people like silver cogs driven by watch springs, our power seeming to fall forever outside our control, when, in truth, there's only us, only love and redemption. Before I left the porch, the carpenter, too, made sure I understood. Over whiskey he said, "How much prettier the stars, do you think, each Eridanus, Cetus and Caelum and all the rest, if at any time these last thirty years I managed to pick up my bass and play for them?" ("Without music," Nietzsche wrote, "the world would be a mistake.")
Max seems to know what I'm thinking when I lean forward and kiss Laura's cheek and tell her, "Sorry, sorry." I turn then and Max smiles as I apologize to him as well. "Not to worry," he says and shuts down his saw. The crowd thinks he's finished and begins to applaud. Laura waits, then walks over and stands beside Beauty. I reach down in front of her and gather up a new handful of shavings from the floor.
Copyright © Steven Gillis 2005. Title graphic: "Diamond in the Rough" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.