Excerpt from The Distance
Lee is making boards. Working his way through a stack of rough cut blanks of 4/4 lumber, he takes a jack plane to each, its long sole plate sliding over the surface of the maple as he bends into the task. Delicate curls of blonde wood snake up from the blade and pile atop the plane until their accumulated weight pulls them off and they tumble to the shop floor.
He doesn’t think when he’s making boards, at least not about the work. He works quickly but precisely, as only someone who has a long familiarity with a tool can do. The sound tells him if he’s moving against the grain or with it, though he rarely commits the error of moving against the grain, as he unconsciously gauges the grain direction when he picks up each blank to secure it in his bench vice. The length of the shavings tells him when he is done: If he can run the length of the blank in one continuous shaving, then the surface is flat and it’s time to flip the board. All this not thinking about making boards gives him time to think about other things. He wouldn’t call it thinking, though, these unsorted images. The thoughts just come and he lets them come. When he described this to April one afternoon, she said it’s like meditation. He wouldn’t call it that, either.
She’s on his mind today, April is, because she left his house early this morning, without waking him, and he woke up alone and disoriented. Not that she hasn’t done this before, she regularly goes in to work early and has to leave his home for hers to shower and get her work clothes on, but this morning it threw him off. He’d lain there in the accumulating light, hearing the Brimhall’s rooster announcing the dawn, and feeling the cold for the first time this fall. Her birthday is this weekend, and she wants to go dancing, maybe at Lacy’s Tavern, though he’s not a big fan of country dancing, or at the Wooden Nickel where there’s usually a live rock band every Saturday night, though he’s not a big fan of dancing there, either. Truth be told, he feels silly doing any kind of dancing, but it’s what she wants to do so he needs to figure it out. He’d be happy just going for dinner at Serrano’s or even something a little fancier, but Serrano’s in particular doesn’t feel like a special occasion, since they eat there a couple times a week.
He pauses to take off his jacket. It was cool in the shop when he started work this morning, and the air held smoke, but an hour of resawing and straightening and flattening lumber into boards has warmed him considerably. He hangs his jacket on a wooden peg that’s stuck into one of the exposed studs of the unfinished shop’s walls, then he swings open the barn doors. He pours a fresh cup of coffee from the thermos on his tool bench. It’s no more than 30 steps to the back door of his house, but he holds to work hours, only going in the house at lunch and at quitting time and to use the toilet, since the shop has no plumbing. He walks out the open barn doors with his coffee, stands sipping and looking out over his yard to the western horizon, where the Umcompahgre plateau falls away into the San Miguel river valley and, farther west, the Dolores river, the river of sorrows, he thinks, El Rio de Nuestra Señora de Dolores. Best fishing season is nearly done, but he thinks he might get out once more while they’re biting.
He looks at his watch. 8:30. He can have these boards jointed, drilled for dowels, glued up and clamped by lunch if he keeps his head down. Then he’ll have the afternoon to finish the cutting plan for the Perry’s corner cupboard, which they want in a Shaker style. Maybe even get to the lumberyard for materials before dinner. A loud drunken song tumbles from high in the spruce tree, and Lee takes a step, then another, until he can get a look at the source. Black head, black and white wings, rust orange breast. He’s seen it before but he doesn’t know it. He’ll try to remember to ask the park service guys next time he sees them. He never was good at naming birds, even when he worked in the park. He drains his cup, shakes it out over the grass, and goes back in the shop.
For some reason he can’t figure, Colleen is on his mind now. Maybe it was the birdsong that set him off, or maybe the feeling in the air, the combination of the temperature and the particular slant of afternoon autumn light and the smell of dry leaves on damp ground. Whatever it was, he’s thinking about her, and in particular he’s thinking about how she used to terrify him when she was behind the wheel. He’d usually try to drive wherever they were going, but she was strong-willed and liked to be in control, so more often than he liked he would end up in the passenger seat.
Early in their relationship he would try to coach her—don’t follow so close, try not to jam the gas pedal down every time you set off—but she’d just get mad and accuse him of doing the same things. After a couple of loud arguments and one full-blown fight when he made her stop the car and he got out and walked home, he decided the only thing he could do was buckle his seat belt, look out the side window so as to not see how close she came to rear-ending other cars or running red lights, and hope that when she did eventually crash the car he wouldn’t be in it with her. Just so somebody survives to take care of Meredith, he remembers thinking.
She never did crash it, though, he thinks. He picks up the plane and settles back into his work. Then the next unsorted thought arrives: And we lost her anyway.