The Sailboat by Eric Luthi

The old man opened his eyes and saw the exposed oak beams above him. He cut them years ago. It had been hard but he had wanted to do everything by hand back then. He rolled over and sat up on the right side of the bed. Eighteen years later and he still slept only on the right side of the bed. Left had been her side. He closed his eyes and waited for the wave to pass.

He reached out and touched the wall and ran his fingers gently over the surface. The grain was rising. The walls would have to be oiled again soon. Maybe this summer, he thought. It will wait until summer.

He washed his face and looked into the mirror. Sarah had suggested the beard. She came up behind him one morning and leaned against his back as he was shaving. “You know,” she said over his shoulder, “maybe if you’d let it grow…maybe…you’d look a little less like a scarecrow.” She laughed and jumped away as he reached for her.

The next morning he skipped shaving. Now, long after it had turned white, he still wore it.

He dressed quickly and went outside into the cold air. The top of the mountain disappeared in the clouds. A spring frost had dusted the trees and ground during the night, and this morning the sun was almost too bright. The old man turned and walked toward his shop. It looked like a barn, bright red against the frosted trees.

 

“Hey Nick, read this,” she said one evening as she dropped a magazine into his lap. Poking him in the side she continued, “I think this would be a good design for your shop.”

“A good design…a barn?”

“Yeah, a barn. Its big, lots of room to work, and it wouldn’t stand out around here. Or, if you like, we could always paint it red.”

“Sarah, I don’t want to work in a barn.”

“Why not? Lots of people work in them. Lots of artists work in them.”

“I build furniture. I’m not an artist.”

“You will be.”

 

The old man pushed through and went in. Unfinished work lay all about. Yesterday, he finished shaping and sanding the parts for a dozen long-tailed rockers. They were stacked neatly on one workbench awaiting final assembly. The buyer wanted them next week.

He moved to his workbench and pulled aside a dusty cloth. There, in a wooden clamp, rested the carved hull of a model boat. It was a sailboat, or so it would be when it was done. He picked up a block and wrapped it in sandpaper and began to rub the hull. He used finer and finer grit as he worked, finishing and smoothing, refining.

The light in the shop brightened. Nick looked up from the boat where he was getting ready to step the mast. A man stood in the open doorway. Nick raised one hand to shield his eyes and squinted against the light. “Hello, George,” he said.

“Hello, Nick.”

The old man turned back to his work. “The rockers won’t be finished until next week.”

“I know that. I wrote the contract, remember? I’m just checking on the progress.” He walked over to the workbench. “What are you working on, Nick? That doesn’t look like a rocking chair.”

“Just foolin’ around, George.”

George stood behind Nick, looking over the old man’s shoulder as he worked. “Is that walnut?”

“Yes,” said Nick as he carefully fitted a silver dime into the hole carved into the deck for the mast.

“What’s the coin for?” George asked.

“Tradition,” said the old man. “You always put a coin under the mast.”

“Even on a model?”

“Even on a small boat like this one.”

“Why a dime?”

“’Cause it fits.” Nick showed George the end of the mast. “On a bigger boat, it’d be a bigger coin.”

George watched the old man work for a few minutes. “That’s nice work, Nick. It’s a fine sculpture.”

“It’s a boat.”

“Yeah, I get that.” He watched the old man. “You haven’t done any carving for a while. I think I could sell it. How about you sell it to me when it’s done? I’ll spot you a couple hundred dollars up front and split the sale price.”

The old man shook his head. “No.”

“Sixty-forty?”

“No.”

“No counter offer?”

“No.”

“Ah, you already got a buyer?”

“No.”

George paused. “Give it some thought.” When no answer came, George continued, “I’ll be back for those rockers next week.” George left, pulling the door closed behind him. The old man watched him go and then turned back to the boat and fitted the mast into the deck.

 

He heard the truck arrive. The rockers were finished and each one carefully wrapped in a protective cloth. All but the last one. The old man always left one for inspection. The buyers liked to see the finished product. The door opened and George came in followed by two men. The men began moving the rockers outside as George went over to the workbench where the old man sat in front of the sailboat.

“What did you do?” George asked.

“It’s almost finished.”

“I see that. But you painted it red.”

“Chinese Red,” said Nick. “It’s a good color, don’t you think?”

“Yes, but you painted it.”

“Only the hull. The mast and spars are sealed with marine varnish. I’ll treat the sails next to stiffen them.”

“Why?”

“Unpainted wood doesn’t do so well in the water.”

“You don’t put paint on sculpture.”

“The Greeks did. So did the Romans.

“You’re not Greek or Roman. What you are is an idiot.”

The old man shrugged.

“Well,” George continued, “at least we can both agree that you’re crazy.”

“Maybe. A little lunacy now and then is good for the soul.”

George shook his head.

“Come by tomorrow noon and we’ll see how she sails.”

“You’re not really going to put this into the water?”

“All done, George,” said one of the men. “We’ll be waiting in the truck.”

George looked back at the old man and shook his head again.

 

George was back at noon the next day. The shop was empty and he let himself in. The boat was there in a little canvas cradle built so nothing would mar the hull. Chinese Red, George thought. Crazy. But she was beautiful. The deep red hull contrasting against the white sails. All rigged and ready to go. There was even a little painted lead sailor holding the tiller: the captain of his ship.

“I see you’ve met the captain,” said Nick as he walked in.

“He fits.”

“I thought so, too. I made him special. I had to make a mold and cast him from tire weights.”

“A lot of work for a sculpture you won’t sell.”

“She’s a sailboat and has another purpose.”

“A higher calling?”

Nick picked up the boat. “You ready?”

George looked at him. “Aren’t you going to wrap her up?”

“Here, you carry her.” Nick handed the sailboat to George who wrapped his arms around the hull.

 

The park was cold in the early spring. Still, the sunshine brought people out after the long winter. There were a number of children down by the pond with their parents. The kids saw Nick and ran over to him. “Grandpa Nick,” they shouted at him. Some hugged him. George noticed that many had sailboats. Some boats were already on the water. Each one was different, some were more worn, but the craftsmanship was unmistakable.

“Daryl,” Nick called to a boy standing a little behind the others. “This one is for you.” He took the sailboat from George and handed it to the boy. Daryl didn’t say anything. He took the boat and, after a quick hug for Nick, ran for the pond where he quickly put it to sea.

“Really?” George asked. “Really?”

Nick shrugged.

“You are certifiable, Nick. You know that?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s next? Are you going to try climbing down a chimney?” George took a half step back when Nick turned on him and stuck a finger into his face. Then Nick’s expression softened. The finger stayed where it was but started wagging.

“Sometimes, George – sometimes – I like the way you think.”


Eric Luthi is the principal of an alternative high school by day. At night, he writes and teaches at a community college. He is the father of four and husband of one.

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