About the Author
Chris Lynch is the Printz Honor Award–winning author of several highly acclaimed young adult novels, including Printz Honor Book Freewill, Iceman, Gypsy Davy, and Shadow Boxer—all ALA Best Books for Young Adults—as well as Killing Time in Crystal City, Little Blue Lies, Pieces, Kill Switch, Angry Young Man, and Inexcusable, which was a National Book Award finalist and the recipient of six starred reviews. He holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College. He teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Lesley University. He lives in Boston and in Scotland.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“I said, nice table, that. Pretty work. The inlay is classic. And it’s strong, huh?”
He stands on the table, adding eighteen inches to his height. He bounces up and down on his toes, testing the table’s strength and adding, taking away, adding and taking away, an additional two inches. He hops down, to where nature put him. Five foot seven. Do you know this one’s name? No, you don’t. Don’t and won’t.
“But it doesn’t look it. That’s what’s really nice about work like this. Real strong and functional, but with delicate lines. Nice, nice work.”
He is sliding his hand over the highly polished finish of the nice, nice work in question.
“Thanks. But it’s not mine,” you say.
“What? What are you taking about? Of course it’s yours.”
“No. Sorry, but it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is. What are you, jerking me around? I been sitting here three feet away from you for two weeks watching you do it.”
Watching you. Watching you? Two weeks watching you.
“You just finished it yesterday morning. It’s just dry today. It’s nice work, why you want to pretend you didn’t do it?”
You look at that table, and you agree. It is nice work.
“Two weeks?” you ask. “Does it really take somebody two weeks of life to make something like that?”
“Fine. Be that way.”
The surface of the table is the size of a chessboard. Your classmate has left it to get back to his own knotty-pine creation which he says is a bookshelf, but you know is for videos.
Why are you here?
Whose table is that?
Why are you in wood shop? You are meant to be a pilot. How does wood shop get you any closer to being a pilot?
But here you are. And you do not like to be idle. Devil’s workshop and all. You don’t know why you are here but you know you are, and you are meant to be doing something so you might as well.
Why would somebody spend two weeks of his life on a table big enough for one small lamp, one can of Pringles and one glass of water and nothing else?
And why would another somebody spend two weeks watching him?
Beautiful plank of blond oak. Four feet long, two feet wide, two inches deep. Little table maybe means nothing, but this is a beautiful piece of wood.
“This is a beautiful piece of wood, Mr. Jacks. May I?”
“Yes it is, and yes you may, and what’s more I have fifteen others just like it stacked up in the storage. Sweetheart deal, fell from the sky, and you shoppers are the beneficiaries.”
You stroke the piece of wood as if it were an Angora cat. You could do that stroke up or down or sideways or swirls all day long if you wanted to and never pick up a splinter. It is a magnificent piece of wood.
“That mean you’re finished with that table now?”
“The table. You filing it?”
Your classmate takes this as his cue, sliding on over beside you. “He says it ain’t his, Mr. Jacks.”
“Well it’s not, if he’s finished with it. It’s the school’s. Just like that video rack is going to be if you ever complete it.”
“It’s a bookshelf, sir.”
“You done with the table, then?” Mr. Jacks, just like the video-shelving guy, takes an up-close-and-personal inspection of the table in question. “Nice finish. I can see myself. Extra credit when I can use myself. Smooth, strong, clean edges. Fine work, as usual.”
The kid is laughing in a way that makes clear to everybody that he doesn’t find anything funny. “He says it’s not his, sir.”
“It’s not mine.”
“No, sorry to say,” Mr. Jacks says, “but it isn’t. I wish I could let you guys keep some of your stuff, but the rules are the rules. We keep them through term, then we donate.”
Mr. Jacks takes the table up and walks it off, to where they take the wood that has been made furniture and is thus no longer of any use to the class.
“Mr. Jacks.” You are looking ever closer at that beautiful blond board and all its fine grains.
“Huh? Oh, ya, knock yourself out. But it better be great, using my star lumber.”
“Great,” you say. An answer. “Great,” you repeat, a question, a promise, a further question.
· · ·
Why do you do it? What is the driver? You don’t know.
“What are you making there, Will?” Mr. Jacks asks.
You release the trigger on the handsaw, raise your protective glasses. “Not sure, really.” The rest of the class continues with hammering, planing, chipping and slicing with pneumatic tools and raw muscle power, so that you have to strain to be heard. But this is not new. It is standard and barely noticeable, to have to strain to be heard.
“Well, it’s rather important that you know what you’re making. Otherwise, how can I judge whether you’ve made it or not when you’re done?”
You look up, and try to smile. You do smile, successfully if not radiantly. “Faith, Mr. Jacks,” is what you say.
“Faith,” he says. “Faith. You mean I’m just supposed to trust you, that you’re doing something worthwhile with your time and my wood and the school’s machinery?”
“Well. Well, I suppose that’s what I’m saying, sir.”
Mr. Jacks looks all around, for comic effect, the way teachers do in regular classrooms when they want to emphasize that a student has said something fairly ridiculous. But this is not the regular class, nobody hears or notices what is going on between you two, and Mr. Jacks has to give an answer all on his own.
“Okay,” he says. “You haven’t botched anything so far. So I guess you’ve earned a little faith.”
Is it? Is it faith if you’ve earned it? Isn’t faith putting trust in something for no good reason? Maybe you should ask.
Or maybe you shouldn’t. Since you have no idea what it is you’re doing, or why.
· · ·
This means you.
Asking you. Is there a voice in your head, directing you what to do? Is that how it gets done, what gets done?
If so, why do you listen? Is it authority because it is in your head? Or is it in your head because it is authority?
“Gran? Hello? Pops?”
Nobody is home. This is not all that unusual, they are largely functional people still, and do go out from time to time. But they were supposed to be home this afternoon. That’s how it was supposed to be, and you really prefer things to be the way they are supposed to be.
Funny, when you find things to be not to your liking you try to force them to be otherwise.
“Gran?” you call again, louder. “Pops.” The house is small. It is easy enough to know when no one is in it, and yelling louder doesn’t conjure them. Neither does standing frozen in the doorway.
Go on. Step inside. There’s no other way. There will be a reasonable explanation. Check the refrigerator. The refrigerator. There wouldn’t be a note anyplace else, and you know that. The grandparents are not thumbtack people, they are magnet people. You know that. And do you see any metal walls around here? Go on, go to the fridge.
Will. Went to bocce ball. Beautiful day. Come on down. Love, Gran & Pops.
And here’s the thing. You do it once more, don’t you. Like the note is lying to you or something. Like there is some kind of conspiracy.
“Gran?” you call. “Pops?”
· · ·
She is so right. It is a magnificent day. You stare up searching for a cloud and see but one anemic-looking excuse for a wisp of a nothing probably a thousand miles away in the sky. The rest of what you take in is such a deep and hard crystalline blue, like a swimming pool, that you feel drenched in it after staring up for only one minute. One minute is a great deal of sky-staring for most people. It is nothing to you. The clack of bocce balls against one another plays as the soundtrack.
“So how was it today?” Gran says, first grabbing, then pulling on your arm as if you were a window shade and she wanted you down.
“Shush,” Pops says. He is lined up, staring down the improbably perfect crew cut of the bowling green. His size-twelve feet are tight together, his elbows bent, the ball resting just under his chin. He is stooped over as he addresses the ball, but truth be told he would be stooped over anyway. Pops is a stooped-over man.
“It was good today, Gran.”
“Shush, I said. Did you hear me say shush? This is a critical shot.”
He shushes you a lot, doesn’t he? Does he like you, do you suppose? Or does he tolerate you? Those are the choices anyway, right? Like or tolerate? Love wouldn’t come into it, would it? No, you don’t suppose love would . . .
“Started on a gorgeous piece of wood today, Gran. Even without doing anything to it, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s too good to be furniture. It should be growing in your garden, but of course, it can’t. So I’m going to set it free.”
Pops drops his ball right there on the perfect green ground. Slowly he turns to face the two of you, wife and grandson, sum total of family. “Did you even hear me, Will?” He gestures toward the little cluster of black balls down at the other end of the pitch. Like, if you see them, you will comprehend. “I told you what a critical shot this was, and you know I can’t bowl properly if you two are conversing.”
Do you like him, Will? Or do you just tolerate him? Or does it even matter? Don’t suppose it does. You’re essentially . . . what would they call it . . . a circumstance, until—god willing, as they say—you turn eighteen at least.
“Are you listening to me, Will?”
“Oh, Pops, take your shot, after all.” Gran calls Pops Pops. You like that, don’t you. And she doesn’t take him always so seriously. You like that, too. She does manage to be very kind, doesn’t she?
They are kind to you. Kind people. Kindly. They didn’t have to take you in. Or did they? Love? Is it love? Charity. Somewhere in the Bible, doesn’t it indicate that they are both the same thing? Does that matter to you either way?
Pops bowls, finally, after taking a good long time lining himself up again. Twice as long as he needed, that’s for sure, but he had to be dramatic about how you had inconvenienced him, and then he must have put a mighty backspin on the thing because it took about a month to reach its destination where it nestled snugly among its colleagues.
“Pretty shot, Pops,” you say.
Pops is pleased. He is rubbing his hands eagerly as he walks back to you. “Ya, wasn’t bad, huh? You playing today, Mister?”
You look up, at the sky, down, at the almost grainless surface of the lawn, left, at the creamy well-kept skin of Gran’s face under her sensible massive sun hat, and finally right, at the bronze road map of Pop’s gnarly mug.
“Sure, I’m playing,” you say.
“Good,” Pops says, clapping his hands loudly and rubbing them together hard enough to light a fire. “I’m gonna kick your ass, boy.”
He always says that, doesn’t he? Funny. But wouldn’t you really like to know how much of it is play and how much of it is spastic honesty?
“Ya Pops,” you say. “You are going to kick my ass, I know it.”
That’s what you always say, too. Is that what you want to say? Wouldn’t you like to say something else? How would it feel?
Better? Might you feel . . . better? Would you like that?
· · ·
“Hmm,” she says thoughtfully.
Angela is standing over you. You are sitting. If you were standing, she would still be standing over you. She is tall, hard in a track-star way because she is a track star, and has a closely cut orange Afro probably an inch thick all around. Has she spoken to you before? You know her name, though, don’t you. Haven’t bothered knowing any of the others. What’s the use, after all. But you haven’t been able to not know Angela.
“You’re Angela, right?”
“Right.” She is talking to the woodwork. “Hmm.”
“So what does it do?”
“Um. Doesn’t do anything, far as I know.”
“So what’s it gonna be then, when it’s finished?”
You are both staring at it now, as if it were one of those alien patterns in a wheat field, or a crying Virgin Mary statue.
“It already is what it’s going to be.”
We all wait.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh come on. What does it mean?”
What does it mean? Do you think it means something?
Does it have to mean something?
“Everything means something.”
“Oh. Okay. Well maybe that’s true. And maybe this means something. But if it does, then I don’t know what.”
“You might not know what. But I bet you there is an answer.”
“So why are you making a pole?”
“Shut up. It’s not a pole, it’s a coat tree. Just doesn’t have any branches yet.”
Angela is leaving. Back to work. Done with you.
“I like your hair.”
She stops, does a half turn. “Thanks. Didn’t do it for you, however.”
“I liked it better when it was yellow, though.”
“Well I think I’ll keep it like this just the same.”
“Do you know what today is? May fourteenth? It’s one year ago today Sinatra died.”
She waits for you to make any sense at all. She’ll be waiting a long time for that, won’t she.
“Sorry about that, but I’m still sticking with orange.”
“How do you figure, a guy as rotten as him, could do something as moving as ‘Summer Wind’? Is there any sense in that, do you think?”
Is there any sense?
She goes back to honing an already well-honed trunk of a limbless coat tree.
She is back.
“So why does it look like a penis then, huh? Why you sitting over here quiet like a monk, working on a big ol’ penis all this time, huh?”
Angela is a tad piqued. Not unpleasant. But piqued still.
You look seriously, closely, at your work.
“Does it, you think? Look like that? I don’t really think it does. Does it though?”
“So that’s why you were talking to me?” You look at your thing. “Because I offended you?”
“Well I don’t think that’s what I’m making. No, now that I look at it, I really don’t think that’s what I’m making.”
Funny, how Angela looks at you, at you, the same way she looks at the piece. You are a study.
“Fine. Maybe it isn’t.”
You are looking at each other now a very long time. Nothing much comes of it, though.
“Mr. Jacks. Mr. Jacks, I’m done here. Would it be possible to start on another one of those nice pieces of board in your stash?”
“You’re done? With that?” Mr. Jacks is marching over now, with a sense of purpose. He’s staring burn holes in the wood and you know what he wants.
He wants what. And he wants why.
But you can’t give them to him.
It’s not as if you invented it, whatever it is, anyhow, is it? Does anyone else know what they’re doing? Or why? Do you think that stops anybody from doing what they do?
Take a look at what people d...
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