Men at Work

From Suite Harmonic to Clare, Loving, the Sky Spinner books find men at work–a soldier making camp, a judge going through his cases, a garage owner working on a car and a snake tamer removing a python’s eyecaps, a collector checking wares at auctions and a priest preparing for Mass. Here are some brief looks.

Suite Harmonic—Chapter 14
John leaned on his shovel for a moment and, as he wiped at the sweat on his neck with a grimy sleeve, he was thinking of what his Grandpa Given had said the first time they’d gone together to cut peat. It warms you twice, lad. Once when you cut it and once when it burns. Earlier, eyes out for guerrillas every step of the way, the regiment had marched seven miles along the railroad from their station east of Memphis at LaGrange. They were making a new camp now, a thing so familiar to John that he was sure he could do it in his sleep, and probably had. They cut the logs first. Then they dug out a hillside and fit the logs in snugly, and cleanly notched, to make a hut. He was working with George Tretheway and Levi Thrailkill, and he knew they would have it as comfortable as it got for a soldier, for they had a tent for a roof, and George had managed—John didn’t ask how—to find a stove.

It was supper call by the time they’d finished the hut. John eyed the darkening trees and the hillsides. It seemed to him they had company out there, that it was very likely that the patrols would encounter guerrillas who would attack in some force and pick men off the ranks the way wolves take stragglers from a herd.

Time Stamp—Chapter Eleven
Will was trying to work. He had three prisoners’ petitions, one civil complaint, and an emergency request for bail pending appeal on his desk, but all he could think about was the noise of the clerks in the hall crashing into doorways as they dragged props up and down the hall for the Christmas party. He looked at his watch. It was 3:45. He had gotten a fair amount done. He had written out his suggestions for two colleagues’ opinions and had pulled his own clerks’ research on a patent case into workable law. He had gotten a handle on an immigration case that had troubled him from the start. Still fresh in his mind, though, was the fact he’d missed most of the previous afternoon. Today, in atonement, he had intended to accomplish a good deal more.

Will took his feet off his bottom desk drawer and pushed it shut and then emptied his pencil sharpener into the wastebasket. He was trying to “do in” the old year, trying to reduce his backlog of work so there was some semblance of sense to the year’s calendar, some notion that things really were complete and handled when he wanted them to be.

In the Land of the Dinosaur—“Violin Song”
Gabe Jones was under a car, working his fingers through grease to pull out a driveshaft. He put his wrench in his pocket and rolled out from under the car, then wiped the grease off his hands and hung the towel back on the garage wall. “Lock up when you leave, Tim,” he said. Gabe hit the “no sale” button on the cash register and took the twenties and the checks out. He felt like a doctor, doing his last chassis and finishing at noon on a Wednesday. But Lissy had her heart set on their going away in the middle of the week. It was something different, she kept saying, and though Gabe was reluctant, the eagerness, the anxiousness in her voice had finally made him say yes.

Gabe put his shirt on and headed outside. It was October. It was a blue-sky day, and the leaves rattled under his feet. He stopped by the tow truck and knocked the dirt off the tires and then looked at the side of the garage where the paint was peeling.

The Second Magician’s Tale—Part III—Zürcher Day
In front of the garages, Sammy is intent. He’s sitting on the floor of his van, the back doors open and his legs hanging out. His python is on his lap, and he holds it firmly by the neck while he gently rocks Scotch tape across an eye. He has done this so many times: a snake soaked in a warm bath and its eyes swabbed with mineral oil. A twenty-four-hour wait. The Scotch tape routine if the eyecaps haven’t come off. “One down,” he says to the snake, as the cap releases.

He touches new tape to the other eye, and the eyecap comes off almost without pressure. Neither eye is infected and when he checks the snake’s mouth, it is healthy and unremarkable, although a snake’s mouth is never ordinary. He remembers his mother’s astonishment the first time she saw the double rows of teeth. “Two hundred? I’d be in bed with the dentist,” she said, and Sammy thinks, not for the first time, that the dentist was the only man that she missed.

Watching Oksana—“Treasures”
When the auctions started again finally in the spring, the barnyards smelling of thawed manure, he and the child went out on weekends canvassing the county and to the north. They slept in the pickup at night, and they ate noon meals while they leaned against empty hay wagons, their plates filled from Tupperware boxes of potato salad and buns and from black canning kettles of barbecue. They wandered through side yards and buildings, the child’s hands stuck in her pockets and he, with one ear tuned always to the nervous slide of the auctioneer’s voice—you give five give five—five do I hear three?—looking for old cultivators and for markings on the underside of tables and for the right color and style of antique glassware.

He knew when to plant himself beside the auctioneer’s stand and, with a flick of his index finger make his purchase, or instead yield to the amateurs, the dangerous high bidders.

Clare, Loving—“The Nuns on the Roof of St. Peter’s”
The bell rang in the sanctuary, and the altar boys and Father Étienne came out for Mass. Clare stood up with everyone else, and watched Father genuflect at the altar. Once, when Sister Immaculata had asked her to put funeral programs in the pews, she’d caught sight of Father through the door to the sacristy. He was getting ready to say the funeral Mass, and he’d stooped to kiss one of the vestments before putting it around his neck. It surprised her. Later, she asked Finn what Father had been doing, and Finn said he didn’t know, that they all did it, that priests had a whole rigmarole for getting their vestments on and he was glad he was done being an altar boy. He hated wearing a dress.

For Finn, it had been a lot of commentary, but Clare had hardly been satisfied. On library day, she’d hurried getting a book to check out, and then looked up vestments in the Catholic Encyclopedia. She knew what they were now—not just the cassock and chasuble, but the amice and alb, the cincture and the maniple, the stole. She liked thinking of Father Étienne—of any priest—following the exact order of things, which started with putting the linen amice over his cassock to cover his shoulders. It was an interesting part of his job.


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