Seventeen Against the Dealer (10 page)

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
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What with the three storage boats racked up along the wall, the four rowboats, and the stacked pile of building wood, the little shop was almost impassably crowded. The days, too, felt crowded. Dicey worked through them. Her arms ached from the circular motion of sanding and the stroking motion of painting. Her shoulders ached from the hefting around of plywood boats. Her back and the backs of her legs, too, ached—from bending over, to sand and paint, long hour after long hour. She lost track of the days. She'd been this tired before—so tired you'd almost rather sleep than feed your hunger, tired with worry as much as from the mental exhaustion of cooking up ways to get what you needed and the physical exhaustion of following through on your own plans. That's what it had been like the summer she had brought her brothers and sister down to Crisfield, and this kind of tiredness was how tired she'd been, all that summer, all the long way from Connecticut to Crisfield. Like that previous time, Dicey had a place to get to. Knowing the place—what it was, this time, rather than where it was on a map—kept Dicey going.

She gave Mr. Hobart a week to answer her letter. When she noticed that a week and more had gone by, she figured that he'd been serious about the order. So the money in the bank was hers to spend. Gram caught a cold, probably from helping out those two rainy days. Dicey, eating breakfast alone in the six-o'clock kitchen, heard her grandmother, coughing away, behind the bedroom door. When Dicey opened the door, Gram was sitting up in bed, drinking a cup of hot tea. “I'm getting better,” she announced.

“You don't sound it,” Dicey countered. “You ought to spend a day or two in bed.”

“You just worry about what
undertaken, girl. I'll take care of myself.”

Maybeth and Sammy were studying for exams, mostly for Maybeth's exams: science, math, American history, English—neither art nor chorus had an exam. History and English were the courses she absolutely had to pass, and Sammy, as a tenth grader, hadn't taken them. Dicey wasn't much help, either. She couldn't remember the things you had to know for American history. She could barely remember two days ago. She wasn't even sure whether it had been a week, or more, and if so how much more, that Gram's deep cough had lingered on, after the stuffed nose and runny eyes of the cold itself. Dicey kept forgetting exactly when it was that the exams would start. She kept forgetting in the evenings to return Jeff's phone calls, and not remembering that she'd forgotten until the next evening, when she was too tired to remember not to forget again.

She measured time in work accomplished. After she finished the first four rowboats, she spent a day hauling—hauling the painted boats back to Claude's shop, hauling back the next set of four. While she had the truck, she hauled a load of firewood from the farm, and stacked it wherever she could—in the bathroom, under the worktable, outside the door. The acrid, headache-inducing, lung-clogging, nose-offending smell of paint would fill the room if she didn't keep windows open. So she was burning a lot of wood, to keep warm. She couldn't afford to get sick.

Two of the monthly storage bills got paid. The third was a dentist in Salisbury who had said he wanted to be billed monthly. Dicey sent him a second bill. If she didn't have his money, she wouldn't be earning the seventy-five dollars for Gram.

When she had the time and energy, Dicey studied boat designs—or tried to. The trouble was, she couldn't read the designs, couldn't see from the flat lines on flat paper what the
finished boat would look like. She studied the drawings and even copied one, line by line, onto another sheet of paper, but that didn't help. Besides, that wasn't what she wanted to do. She wanted to make her own ideas into this boat, to follow her own drawings. When she had time but no energy, Dicey simply worried; worrying gave her the strength to keep going.

Every morning, she forced herself out of bed. The alarm would go off and her body would want to go back to sleep. To keep that from happening, she lined up in her mind all the things she was in trouble over, and hadn't gotten done, or hadn't gotten done in time. This worked like hammering together a bed of six-inch nails and lying down on it, the way Indian fakirs were supposed to do. She would turn off the alarm and start remembering: the unpaid storage bill, the supply of sandpaper, the question of if she could have the truck, of how far behind schedule she was falling—driving the nails through the board she was lying on, like an Indian fakir reaching around to hammer up nails that would stick into his flesh. That got her out of bed pretty quickly.

The only time Dicey enjoyed was the time spent fussing over boat plans, thinking about the way a V-bottom was put together, or standing beside the larch she'd bought from Ken, with her hand resting on the pale boards, trying to feel the way they should be shaped. The golden lines of grain ran the length of the boards, almost as perfectly parallel as warp threads set out on a loom, ready for weaving. Looking down at her fingers resting on a board, feeling the wood, she was reminded of the Shakespeare Jeff had read to her, about shaping rough-hewn ends. When she had her fingertips tracing the lines of a board, Shakespeare's words felt real to her, because she was going to shape this wood to her own purpose, to her own design, into a boat she already had the buyer for.

Days passed. Dicey worried and worked.


alf of the difficulties, she was thinking one day, as the wind blew bright and cold in the shop door and out the open windows, arose because Claude did such bad work. His bad work made her work harder. She had to sand more; sometimes she even had to replace badly driven nails or stuff paint thick into inadequately filled joints. She knew why she had to waste her time working on these boats—but even so there was in her a low, banked anger. She felt like some piece of skewered meat rotating over the heat of her own anger. Need for money skewered her, and lack of time skewered her, and she was being turned over her anger's fire as if every long brush stroke her arm made propelled her, rolling her around and around. It had been days since she'd been able to work on Mr. Hobart's boat plans, she thought. Although she wasn't exactly sure, it might have just been yesterday that she didn't.

The voice came from behind her, a laughing voice she didn't recognize: “‘Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task does not divide the Sunday from the week?'”

Dicey straightened up and turned around, all in the same movement, holding the paintbrush up in front of her like a knife. A man was leaning against the door frame, the bright sunlight behind him shadowing his face. He had thick, dark hair with streaks of gray running through it. He looked, in his faded jeans
and high-buttoned pea jacket, as if he'd been leaning lazily there for hours. His eyes watched her, laughing.

“What?” Dicey demanded. He'd broken the rhythm of her work. “What did you say? What do you want?”

“I was only wondering why you were working on a Sunday.” He didn't move. The laughter was gone from every part of his face, except his eyes.

Dicey shook her head, impatient. “I know that. That was a Shakespeare quote, I know.”

He took a step into the shop.
he said.

Dicey shrugged: it didn't matter which play. “What do you want?” she asked again.

He moved into the shop and stood beside an upturned boat. Before he answered her question, he reached down and tested the paint with his fingers. Then he ran his hand along the long board that marked the keel of the flat-bottomed rowboat. “This one of yours?”

“No.” Dicey disowned it quickly.

He straightened up. “Let me give you a hand turning it rightside up, miss. Or are you going to set it over there?” He indicated two rowboats waiting beside the stack of larch.

He had a noticing eye, a quick eye, Dicey thought. His light-brown eyes studied her, as if he had only one minute to learn everything about her. “I've got one more coat to put on it,” she told him.

That seemed to surprise him, although she didn't know why it was any of his business to be surprised. “You've already got two coats on it, haven't you?”

She nodded. She didn't have time to waste, talking.

“Why three coats?” he wondered.

“The builder said so.”

“It beats me,” the man said. “Someone who slaps together a
boat like this—it's a P-poor piece of work—he probably wouldn't notice a missing coat of paint. Did you think of not doing the third coat? Did you think of the time it would save? Is he going to check up on you?”

For less than a minute, for just a few seamless seconds, Dicey thought of it: These two boats were numbers seven and eight, and she was two weeks into the job; she was on schedule—almost; well, she was falling behind almost imperceptibly; and there were twenty-two more of these waiting for her. . . . It wasn't the size of the job she minded. What she minded was spending her good working hours on such bad work. For a few seconds Dicey was tempted. Then she shook her head, as much to shake off temptation as to say no.

“Just because he told you to put on three? He won't notice if it's only two. Trust me, miss, he'd never know the difference.”

Dicey, watching his face, thought she wouldn't trust him an inch. His face was made for mocking, a clever, mocking face. He looked lively, interesting, he looked like fun, but she wouldn't trust his advice.

“You always do what you're told?” he asked.

If he only knew, Dicey thought. “What
you want?” she asked.

“I want to see your boss.”

“I'm the boss,” she said.

That made him smile. She didn't like why he was smiling, but she liked his smile.

“I should have guessed. It's the bosses who work on Sundays, isn't it?”

“So, what do you want to see me about?”

“Work, I think. I could use a job, make a little money, and this place looks busy. Every other place around here is closed up tight.”

“I can't afford to hire help,” Dicey told him. “Sorry,” she said. She turned back to the boat she was painting. It was an odd time of year for an itinerant worker to be looking for a job. Mostly they'd come around during spring and summer, and mostly they were kids. She dipped the brush into the paint and stroked down the side of the rowboat. She wished she
hire someone, and get this job over with.

She thought he'd leave, but he walked around to stand across from her. She looked up at him. “Really, I can't.” It wouldn't do him any good to try to persuade her.

“Fair enough, miss. But it's a cold day out there, and you could offer me a hot drink. I see”—he forestalled her protest—“a kettle, and a box of cocoa mix, and I assume that's a sink in there. If you offered me a hot drink, I'd make it, and make you one, too. I'm pretty handy.”

Maybe he was hungry, Dicey thought. His face didn't look hungry, but there was hunger mixed in with laughter in his eyes, so maybe he was too proud to ask. “Sure, okay,” she said.

She painted while he ran water, then opened up the envelopes and poured mix into two mugs. The inside of this boat was already done, she was finishing up the final coat, and then she just had the one more coat to put onto the other, and this batch of work would be completed. Eight done, twenty-two to go. Dragging the paint can behind her, she worked up the curving side to the pointed bow. The man waited until she'd finished it and laid her brush across the top of the paint can before he poured steaming water into the mugs and stirred.

He passed her a mug, and she sat down on the dry boat to drink. The man leaned against the wall beside the stove, his jacket unbuttoned to show a thick white turtleneck sweater. “So this is
shop,” he said. “I've never had a business of my own.
Never had the capital. Never had the chance. It must be nice, having your own business. You been at it long?”

“A couple of months.” The instant cocoa wasn't anything as good as Gram's, but it was hot and thinly sweet.

“The great thing about a hot drink on a cold day,” he said, “is the first swallow, the way you can feel it sliding all the way down your throat into your stomach. You know? It's about the only time I can really feel where my throat is, the length of it. So—you're Tillerman?”

She nodded.

“And you're not hiring.”

She nodded again.

“I guess that's just my bad luck.”


“Tell you what, though, Miss Tillerman. I'll help you out. Gratis. A free afternoon's labor, what do you say to that?”

Dicey didn't know.

“You'd be doing me a favor. It's cold, there's nowhere else I can look for work until tomorrow—if I don't decide to move on—and I haven't talked much to anyone for a few days. I'm a man who likes talking,” he told her, his eyes laughing, at himself that time.

“Yeah, but what if I don't? Like talking.”

“Then you can listen. The truth is, I always prefer listeners to fellow talkers. You aren't going to turn down my offer, are you?”

Dicey thought about it. With another pair of hands she could do some actual work on Mr. Hobart's boat at the end of the day, before going home. She might even get home in time for dinner. “No,” she decided.

“Good enough,” he said. He took off his jacket and draped it over the stack of larch. He peeled his sweater over his head, and then pulled his undershirt down. He put his hand out for Dicey's mug,
and she gave it to him. He washed both mugs in the bathroom, dried them, and set them back in place on the worktable. He moved around the shop with a catlike grace, never disturbing anything. Dicey got back to work.

He didn't need to be told anything. He opened a can of paint and stirred it patiently. He selected a brush from the glass jar where she kept them soft in turpentine, shook it out, then painted it dry on his jeans. He carried the brush and paint to the other boat and started painting the flat transom. Watching him out of the corner of her eye, Dicey decided he must just be lonely, which was why he was crouched there, painting with slow, careful strokes. He sure wasn't talking. He didn't look or move like a man who'd paint so slowly, so she thought he might be dragging out the time because he wanted company.

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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