“Chrissakes Benjoy, if you’re not going out to haul, you oughter at least have a fire going in here,” Rut peered into the dim workshop, cap in one hand, fogged glasses in the other. “Why the dying eye Jayzus don’t you lug down an old woodstove? You got every other thing a fella could need.”
I looked around the shop. A bundle of oak laths dug out of the ice stood on end by the door to thaw and drain. I was working my way through a stack of trap bottoms, fixing bows in place, nailing on the laths, cutting door hinges out of leather scraps and slices of old tire tread. The finished traps went out the door into a stack on the southern side of the sagging red building to wait their turn to have the heads tied in. I had the rack of bows set on the stairs up to the crawl space above. The buoys I’d painted that morning hung from the low beams. Rut barely had to duck but I had to weave my way through. I had the coils of new rope under the workbench along with a basket of floats and a heap of old buoys waiting their turn with sand paper and wire brush. Brushes, cans of paint, and jars of nails lined the shelves on either side of the door.
“It’s cozy long as you keep your hat on,” I said.
Rut gave the one chair by the door a poke with his boot. I cleared the radio off and set the tin foil antennae back in place. Rut sat down, started to unbutton his jacket, glanced at the open door and turned the collar up. He sighed and set his legs on top of a trawl tub. “You can’t have a christly workshop without a woodstove,” he muttered. “Way the wind is down here by the shore, I let mine go out I like to freeze to death.”
It wasn’t rightly spring in any way except by the almanac. But there we were, Rut and me and the first fool robins. All of us set to some internal clock that said go, so we went. Late March had a fine day or two between the gales that raked the sea first out of the south and east and then back around again out of the north and west. The ground was still frozen hard under the layer of mud. There wasn’t a lobster to be had inshore, and not a worm within a yard of the surface. April’s only promise was to deliver at least one major snowstorm. But, inside, a voice said spring and there we were.
I checked for smoke out of the rusted, creosote streaked stovepipe that ran out of his little place every day I went out to haul my traps and again when I put the boat back on the mooring and hurried up the hill, raw hands tucked in my armpits. Some days when Dickie’d hauled offshore he tossed me a codfish or a cusk to give Rut, other days I saved him a bucket of stone crab claws. He had me pick him up a loaf of bread and a quart of milk days I went in to sell my lobsters and if Young George saw my skiff alongside the wharf he always left a packet or two of moose meat for me to take out to Rut. Early birds we were that year, scratching at the still frozen ground and spring dreaming when we found a patch of sunshine out of the wind.
I’d been waiting for him ever since I heard his screen door bang and him call to the gulls to get the scraps of bread he saved in a bag. I shut off the talk radio show out of Boston and listened to the scrunching and the cursing as he waded down through the slick beach stone to get to his punt. The mutter and curse as he hauled her down from where the tide had left her last night and the grunt and ooof as he clambered aboard. The rattle of oarlocks and the dip and splash as he pulled against the incoming tide. The bump and rattle as he ran her up onto the shore and settled the oars under the thwarts and clambered out. The clatter of the anchor where he set it in the long crack in the ledge to hold her. The curse and pause for breath pace as he made his way up the beach to the workshop.
He watched me set the last bow in place and thread the trap on the beam that ran out at right angles to the workbench so the bows would have support when I nailed in the laths.
Rut hauled out a faded blue handkerchief out of his coat pocket, mopped his forehead, cleaned his glasses, folded the handkerchief neatly and stowed it again. “You picked up the wood for your bench along the shore didn’t you. The old man always had us boys walk the shore after a blow. Best kind of lumber that. But my ticker.” He patted his chest. “Doc says I got to watch my ticker, wouldn’t he give me hell he knew I was hell and gone out to the island.” He paused and glanced out the door like maybe he figured they were coming out to fetch him back and grinned. In the grey light by the door his worn face smoothed. His eyes were bright behind his glasses.
“No smoke,” I said. “They’ll never know anyone’s here.”
Rut laughed and slapped his knee with his cap.
I cut the pieces for a new door hinge out of a sheet of scrap leather and he watched me angle the corners and fit them so they lined up neat and trim. I cut a short piece of oak lath and whittled a door button for the twine to wrap around and keep the door from floating open. I carved the corners round and even.
“You know,” Rut stopped and dug in the pockets of his jacket until he found the bottle of Old Duke. He tipped it back and took a long swallow. He held the bottle out to me. I grinned and shook my head. “You know, back in the old days we had us a place down to the shore. Two stories and a wharf run right under it. Every man on the island had him a shop there. Bobby Wentworth had the biggest, built the seine dories for his weir right where he could look out and watch the tide. Regular apartment building it was. The New York House we called it.”
I peered out the one window across the rough field to the where the Fore Harbor opened to the southward. A couple of small houses, just a room or two each perched there on what was left of the old, wind swept pasture.
“Not a damn thing left now,” said Rut. ”Just a spatter of tar on the ledges where they dipped the weir nets and tarred the lines to keep the sea worms offen them. And you know, every one a them shops had a woodstove, Benjoy. Yessir, us boys hauled down a load of wood every time we come down to bring them their dinner pails.”
I set a new trap bottom on the bench and set the ends of bows in place in the holes drilled in the sills then nailed them in. One tap to set the nail, one to drive her home. Three on one side, spin the trap around, and three on the other.
“Thing of it was,” said Rut. “There was only the one flue for the whole place. They run the flues from every shop into the one chimbly. Now I tell you when them stoves got a going it was just as warm as could be in there. The old man would be down to his suspenders and undershirt even when it was cold as a witch’s tit.”
Rut took another pull on the bottle, unbuttoned his coat half way, and leaned forward. I set the hammer down.
“Now, them friggin’ Murray’s was always looking for an easy way to get ‘r done. Big Danny was just about the worst. Hell of a man to help haul back a trawl loaded with halibut but the old man always said, ‘The day Big Danny gets an idea is the day you want to watch out.’ It was some old cold that winter, down below zero and the wind a howling every day for a month. The hoar frost was that thick, you wanted to look out a window you had to scrape a porthole. Seems as how Big Dan came down late to the shop and his hands was just about froze so he had an idea to start the fire just as quick as he could. The old man said he come in to say howdy-do and good afternoon, you know to put the shit to him, and saw Danny in front of the wood stove, a gallon can of gasoline in one hand and a lit match in the other.”
Rut paused. Our breath smoked in the chill air.
“The old man said he only had time to holler, ‘Fire in the hole!’ and dive for cover. ‘Course flames shot out every flue in the place, blew the Christly lids off every one them stoves and shot a pillar of fire out the chimbly. The whole place was a buzzing like a hornets’ nest been poked with a stick. Whole island’s worth of fishermen in their undershirts and braces out in the cold.”
“The old man always said, he said Rut, you mind, don’t matter where it goes in, we all get what comes out.”
Rut got up and glanced out the door. “I best be getting back and tending that stove of mine,” he said.
I listened to him make his way home until I heard the screen door bang to again. I knew if I looked out I’d see the thick smoke of new wood added to his fire. I went back to work but it was a little dimmer without him there.