He leaves home before dawn. Through the window of the train Mount Hood rises up, draped in moonlight and snow. Spectacular. Standing guard over the sleeping city.
Then again, he thinks, it could blow any day.
At the airport, security’s a breeze, so on the other side he sips a coffee over yesterday’s paper, picked from a heap by the lids and cream. As his plane ascends eastward a sunrise blooms in fast time, from night to morning in a minute. He sits back. Two blue eyes are watching him through the small space between the seats in front of him—the sleepy toddler he waved to before buckling in, traveling, he believes, on his grandmother’s lap. He leans forward, pointing out the window, mouthing “Look!” and the little boy presses his nose to the glass—a Band-Aid strapping his chin—and gapes at the orange-yellow sky and the bright, beautiful dawn they’re hurtling into.
After a moment Cole pulls back from his own window, slipping a three-ring binder from his briefcase, and studies the paperwork for a huge bid he’d hoped to make before this trip—a four-room addition and new second story on a 1920s bungalow, along with two porches and a new garage. But then a sheet of paper rolled into a tube pokes him in the knee—a crayon drawing of yellow and red scribbles, a fiery orb, and a silver X, their plane. He flips pages in his binder to an elevation drawing of the house and, using a drafting pen, adds a sun rising over the roof and draws the boy standing on the porch, a big smile, the Band-Aid. He snaps the paper free, folds it in thirds, and slips it through the space until it’s tugged away.
When the plane levels out, he studies the excavation and electrical proposals and clowns with the kid every time he peers over the seat and drops out of sight giggling, but after a while his grandmother settles him down to sleep.
Once they’ve landed, Cole reaches for his carry-on. The boy and his grandmother are sitting tight until the plane empties out. Cole waves at him going past. “Bye-bye, sunshine. You’re a good artist.”
The boy grins hugely, then presses both palms to his mouth and throws kisses, like showering Cole with handfuls of confetti.
In Newark he changes to a small plane, and before long, off to the east, he glimpses Hartford’s two big domes—one yellow, the other blue. The capitol and Colt Firearms. His great-grandfather painted the gold leaf on the capitol dome, or so the story goes. And his grandmother carefully inserted firing pins at Colt during the war.
The plane follows the Connecticut River north, and then circling Bradley they swoop in low over the tobacco fields he worked in Suffield and Windsor Locks. He’s never thought of tobacco nets as anything but an agricultural fact of the place where he grew up, no different from a hoe, a tractor, a bag of lime. But now, after thirty years, seeing the nets from the air and then driving with the windows wide open past fields of Connecticut Shade, he imagines them as an art installation by Christo, acres of undulating white cheesecloth rolling in swaths over the terrain toward a dense line of elms and cottonwoods. There’s the art—the regularity and surprising beauty of red cedar poles poking through the nets—and also the mathematical symmetry. The poles are thirty-three feet apart. The squares they form are called bents, which contain ten rows of twenty-seven plants that typically produce eighteen leaves each. The drying sheds differ in size, the biggest as long as a football field, and their vent design varies, but they all have the simple New England lines of a covered bridge.
He’s here to buy a shed and oversee its dismantling: thirty thousand board feet of American chestnut, as prized as mahogany by woodworkers until the trees were wiped out by blight in the early decades of the twentieth century. He’ll use the wood for a post-and-beam addition he’s been planning to build onto his own house in Portland for years. He’s always called it the family room, but at this point he should think up another name. Whatever chestnut’s left over—and there’ll be plenty—he’ll dole out to paying customers.
East Granby. His hometown, so to speak. It’s taken him nearly thirty years to come back—three decades and three thousand miles to feel he was ready to see it again. This is his busiest season with work, but he’s carved out five days for the trip; he’ll return to his real home with a piece of his past. Two flatbeds’ worth. He worked summers on tobacco as a kid, and though he was big for his age the labor was still as hard as it was reputed to be. He complained along with everyone else but secretly enjoyed unfurling the nets, skidding along behind the Farmall in a setter, shimmying between rows on his butt for suckering on cold wet mornings late in the spring, the temperature rising so fast that by coffee break it was a hundred degrees under the nets. He loved the obsessive care shown to each valuable leaf, the rich smell of alluvial soil, the sticky juice on his fingers, arms, and hair.
He drives along winding roads north of town past stone walls parceling up the cow pastures and the brick saltbox where his music teacher lived. Sprawling fields once tented with nets are now squeezed between new housing developments, a commercial nursery, a gun club. When he reaches Alex Bearcroft’s house, he immediately recognizes it and can almost come up with the name of the kid who used to live here, running all wobbly with his trombone case down the driveway when the school bus stopped for him.
Cole pulls in and parks beside a stack of chestnut timbers. The big carriage doors of the shop are open, and though he’s never met Alex, or even seen a picture, he knows it must be her running chestnut through the planer. She’s young, early thirties, and a woodworker of the first order. For five or six years they’ve had a good business relationship, mostly by email but also on the phone. When he needs something as simple as a handrail or as complex as the paneling and French doors for the entire first floor of that house in Grant Park, Alex never fails to deliver. She’s got a great eye for grain—its pattern and flow always working with the architecture of her pieces, showing off the wood’s character as much as her exquisitely crafted pilasters and corbels. She favors chestnut from tobacco sheds but also reclaims black walnut posts and beams from defunct mills, random maple flooring, and even teak one time from a lobster boat tossed onto the rocks in a nor’easter.
He sends her photographs of a house, they discuss style and woods, she emails sketches that he can show to the customer, and a few months later another of her dazzling creations arrives in a crate. Her work is often the centerpiece of his remodels.
Alex doesn’t see him and he doesn’t want to shout over the planer and startle her, so he stands by a stack of chestnut that she’s already planed; the patina of tobacco has brought out the color, some boards a light honey brown, others deep chocolate. Chestnut’s more rot-resistant than redwood, lighter than oak, and easier to work with. Before the blight it was used for everything—railroad ties and telegraph poles, houses and sheds and bridges, furniture and paneling, pianos and violins.
After a few minutes she glances over her shoulder and smiles at him, kills the machine, and takes off her earmuffs. And as she’s stepping toward him he shivers despite the heat: with her dark loose curls, the soft round shape of her face and hips, her long straight nose, she resembles— no, she looks
like his mother did back then.
He extends his hand to shake, but she opens her arms like they’re old friends separated for years, and they embrace.
She pours coffee and stirs a heaping teaspoon of sugar into their mugs. He hasn’t taken sugar in his coffee since high school and the taste brings him back to driving his grandmother’s canary-yellow Cadillac on roads circling and crisscrossing this town, creeping by Liz’s house, hoping for a glimpse of her, and also by his own, searching for an explanation in a cracked pane of glass or a broken shutter, searching for meaning in the damage, for understanding to rise from the destruction. But that house always kept a tight grip on its secrets, and when he rolled by was as silent and lifeless as the night they were taken away.
Alex slides a package of biscotti across the table saw. “You’ll probably need to dunk it,” she says, rapping one on the steel. “They’ve been sitting out awhile.” Then, as if reading his mind, “So where’s the house you grew up in?”
“Old Newgate Road. At the far end. Just the other side of the creek.”
“There’s two old colonials along that stretch, right?”
“The one closer to School Street.”
“Center chimney?” she asks. “And the Palladian window?”
“We’ll go right by it on our way to the shed,” she says.
He glances over at maple panels she’s got clamped up on the bench.
“You must be excited to see it after so many years.”
What can he say? He’d planned to wait a few days before driving by the house, but in fact he’s ready. The sooner the better. “I am.”
They’re quiet for a moment until he says, “What’s the maple for?”
She points with her coffee mug. “A Greek Revival in Rhinebeck. Newel posts and banisters, window and door trim, a mantel. I never made Ionic columns before. Or so many dentils. It’s technical as hell but also, weirdly, makes me feel sort of Greek and precise. Kind of symmetrical.” She squares her shoulders and chin. “I can’t stop eating stuffed grape leaves from this old Greek place in Hartford. A week or so into the project I pulled the Iliad
off the shelf, and last night Oedipus the King
He dunks one of the stale biscotti. The anise and nutmeg and sugary coffee are like a treat from the Old Country. He eats a soggy second and then a third, sucking them down with the warm drink. “I built a Japanese teahouse for a client last month,” he says, “and was craving sushi the whole time.”
“And come to think of it”— he wipes his messy chin—“I do loads of work on Craftsman houses, and after a while I felt like I needed a fedora and a wool topcoat, and bought them, even though I only ever wear Gore-Tex and fleece. After a long day oiling dark paneling and chunky trim and hanging mica lanterns, I’ll sip an old-fashioned and get reserved. ‘Brooding,’
my wife would call it,” and immediately he fears he’s said too much.
She raises her mug. “To brooding in the aughts.”
Copyright © 2019 by Keith Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.