A Short Story
© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers
Read Time: 18 minutes.
Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?
AN OLD MAN NAMED CARL SAT ON HIS PORCH, idly carving on a piece of wood. Nothing had come to him.
He studied the dog at his feet, Chief, who lay across the top step of the porch and snored peacefully. Chief was one of those fire-company dogs, white with black spots now gone gray. “Sleep well, old damnation. Reckon you got it coming to you.”
Carl’s gaze leapt to the pickup truck that stood by the road, dwarfed by tall trees on either side. He could not recall what color it had been, but it was nothing like that color now. Except where rust showed, it was muddy gray, not much to look at. But it still got Carl down to the store for supplies and back up the mountain as soon as he had filled his order. He knew the town people watched him, scratched their heads, and probably thought him a crazy old coot. But he couldn’t help that. Nothing could help.
He sighed. He had carved Chief plenty of times, in all positions, and the pickup more than once. Maybe he should whittle out one of those fairy tale princesses. He used to carve them for Celia, who was partial to them, but had not done one in years. He shook off the shreds from his aimless whittling and took a new interest in the wood. Where in this block of pine would he find a princess? He saw a line and pressed the tiny blade where he wanted it to cleave.
“Hiya!” said a young, chipper voice. “Whatcha doin’?”
Carl looked up and saw a boy, standing a few respectful feet from the bottom of the steps. He stood fearless, looking up at Carl with eyes that pierced his heart.
Chief raised his up ear but showed no other interest. He knew about boys.
“Just whittlin’, I reckon,” Carl said. He looked the lad over—six or seven years old, wearing a red shirt and blue shorts. “Where’d you come from?”
“I mean, how d’ye come to be here, right now?”
“Walked.” He marched around in a circle, showing how.
Carl pressed his lips together. When did kids get to be so sassy?
“We’re renting a cabin. Down the road. Me and Mom and Dad. For two weeks. It’s a vuh-cation.”
Carl examined his carving. “Is that a fact?” He drew another stroke down the block of pine.
“Yessir. Can I pet your dog?”
“Why ask me? He’s the one you’re addressin’.”
The boy frowned in perplexity. “What’s his name?”
“Calls himself Chief.” Oughtn’t take too much off the lower end. Princesses need room for their full skirts.
“Chief. Hi, Chief.” The boy sidled ever so carefully toward the spraddled dog. Chief raised an eyelid. The boy placed placed a hand in front of his nose, which hung off the top step along with his downside lip. Chief sniffed the hand, then licked and yawned. Courtesy rendered, he resumed his nap.
“He’s a nice dog,” the boy said in a tone of awe.
“He’s a ball of energy today,” said Carl. “Not this perky when he’s tired.”
“Where’s Kit?” It came to Genie that she had not seen her son for—how many minutes? Too many, here in this wilderness. She stopped stuffing food into the cupboards and looked out the kitchen window. Seeing no boy, she looked plaintively at Gus. “I told him to stay close.”
“When did you ever know Kit to heed instructions?”
“Not yet.” She giggled nervously.
“Well, he’s only seven. Plenty of time yet for growing up.”
“If a bear doesn’t eat him first.” She shuddered.
Gus sighed. “Relax. I’ll go find him.” He strode out the door, down the steps, and out toward the gravel road that wound past the cabin.
Genie felt mildly reassured. If Gus was not concerned, why should she be? He knew the woods better than she. Where did all that confidence come from? She longed to explore that, but all her experience told her to tread carefully.
When they were dating—he first asked her out across the circulation desk at the library—he had been a handsome, impertinent young man. “Who are you?” she had asked. “Call me Gus,” he replied. “Now how about that movie?” She had countered, “I still don’t know who you are.” He spread his arms, offering himself for inspection. “I am a humble design engineer.” She looked at him quizzically. “And you want to see Pride and Prejudice?” He feigned confusion. “Something wrong with Jane Austen?” She knit her brows and questioned herself inwardly. “I guess my first thought was, for an engineer, you have a taste for the finer things.” He smiled from ear to ear. “That’s why it’s you I’m asking out, Marian.” “It’s not Marian, it’s Genie. And it’s a date.”
At dinner, after the show, Gus had chatted amiably about Elizabeth Bennet and Mister Darcy, measuring the film against fine points of the book—another shock to Genie’s system. But when she asked anything about his background—his youth, where he grew up, were he went to high school, he clammed up. He shunned all her questions in the nicest way, referring her to his employer, a design-build construction company, who he said would vouch for his honesty.
While falling in love with him, she assumed he would someday share his personal story. But now, eight years and one son later, she still knew nothing of his life before they met. Something had wounded him terribly, and he had walled it off.
She was hurt that he would not share. All in good time, she thought, as always.
Gus was gone a long time in search of Kit, and she began to worry. Then she saw him coming up the path from the road. Alone, but not upset. That could mean anything.
She ran out on the cabin porch to meet him. “Yes? Tell me. Quick.”
“Relax.” He grinned. “There’s an old sawyer’s cabin a mile up the road. I thought that’s where he’d go.”
“Why did you think that?”
He shrugged. “Because that’s where the road leads. Anyway, I snuck up, hid in the road, screened by bushes, and saw him holding quite a parley with the old man and his dog.”
“Our first day here, and he’s out bothering the neighbors. But you didn’t you bring him home with you?”
“I wouldn’t say he was bothering the guy.”
“You said he’s a sawyer. Doesn’t he have work to do?”
Gus sighed. “Was a sawyer, years ago. Right now, it looks like he’s just a whittler. Probably hungry for any human contact.”
She squinted. “How do you know he was a sawyer?”
“Why else would anybody live up here? He doesn’t rent tourist cabins, I’ll tell you that. In fact, we were lucky to find this one.”
How deftly he changes the subject. “Speaking of which, what prompted us to come to this out-of-the way place for a vacation, anyhow?”
Gus frowned. “I, uh, found it in the paper.”
“It’s our first vacation ever. You know Kit would have been delighted with Disney World.”
“And he’ll be delighted with these woods, too. You wait and see.”
“I won’t feel good until he’s back in my view.”
“Well, here he comes now.” Gus pointed. “And all on his own. No coercion.”
Kit skipped in from the road, a smile on his face and an object in his hand. “Hi, Mom. This is for you.”
He gave her a small wood figurine, less than six inches tall. “It’s a fairy princess. He said you’d prob’ly like it.”
“The old man up the road.”
“Does this old man have a name?”
Kit shrugged. “His dog’s name is Chief.”
“Aren’t you afraid of dogs?”
“No. I like ’em now.”
“How much money should I send back with you?”
Kit gave her a look of incomprehension.
“You know, to pay for this fairy princess.”
His eyes widened. “Oh, you don’t have to pay. He said it’s a gift.”
She stood perplexed.
Gus swatted her playfully with a dish towel. “There you go, Genie. One day in the woods and already the forest gnomes are giving you gifts. That wouldn’t happen in Orlando.”
When the lad showed up again the next day, Carl was working on a dog.
The boy’s eyes moved from the real dog reclining on the porch to the wooden dog in Carl’s hands. “Is it Chief?”
“I reckon it is. He’s the only dog I’ve got to model by.”
“I know what you’re gonna say. The real Chief is just like a lumpy rug on the floor. Sometimes I wonder if he’s drawing breath. But this Chief I’m holding is standin’ up and rarin’ to go.”
The lump of basswood, on which the old man had worked all morning, had started to show a fair likeness to its original, except for posture. The flop of the ears and the hang of the dewlaps were dead on. Tiny striations from Carl’s blade gave the impression of Chief’s hairy coat, with even the dark spots suggested by minute cross-hatchings. The dog rose on his back legs, front paws flailing the air, as if leaping to snatch a treat from Carl’s hand.
“You see,” he told the boy, “this is how old Chief looked a few years ago, when he was a gay young dog.”
“Chief is gay?”
“Happy. Playful. That’s what I mean. Just like this.” He held the object for the boy’s admiration. Carl was proud of his work. He might be just an old buffoon in a cabin in the woods, but he knew a thing or two about beauty.
The boy, who had told Carl his name was Kit, asked, “How old is Chief?”
Carl scratched his chin, as he often did when ciphering. “Well, let’s see, it’s about fifteen years ago I got him, and he was just a wiggly puppy then.”
“Did you buy him at the pet store?”
Carl chuckled. “Oh, no. When you live in the right kind of place, people give you nice dogs like this for free.”
“For free!” Kit jumped up and down on the porch, causing Chief to turn back over his shoulder and protest.
“Let’s go inside a minute, and I’ll show you something.”
The boy followed Carl into the dim, cool cabin. Carl switched on a light. “Look at that.”
Kit’s eyes roamed the room. Every surface held carved figurines—in all woods, painted and unpainted, varnished and unvarnished, stained and unstained. They were in two or three subtly different styles, which the boy would not notice, but all bore the fine marks of Carl’s favorite tool, his simple, two-bladed jackknife. He had heard that there were knives especially made for woodcarving, but as long as he had a good, sharp pocketknife, what did it matter?
Kit roamed the room, looking at dozens of forms—deer and badgers, Chief, the pickup truck, miniature tree trunks of the species from which they were carved, even beetles and toads. He reached out to touch a magnificent stag, and Carl wanted to shout, “Don’t!”—but he bit his tongue. What did it matter? The boy might as well touch them.
Carl picked up an eight-inch carving of a strikingly attractive young woman in a simple dress, looking back over her shoulder. He showed it to the boy. “This was my wife, Celia. When she was young. I lost her before I found old Chief. He never had the chance to know her goodness.”
“How did you lose her?”
“Oh.” Kit’s eyes were big and round. Carl did not know whether the boy had any idea what death meant. Still less how quickly a fast-growing cancer could destroy a life.
Carl set the carving of Celia back down and picked up a smaller one, a little boy in cherry wood, an impish smile on his face. “It’s our boy, Otto. When he was little. He was fifteen when I lost him.”
“Did he die?”
“No, no. At least I haven’t heard if he did. No, I lost him by sending him away. I was bad to him.”
Gus wondered what he had gotten himself into, and how he would get himself out. And whether he wanted to get himself out.
“This is the forest primeval,” Genie said, spreading her arms as they hiked up the road.
“That sounds like a quote.”
“Longfellow. ‘Evangeline.’ ”
“If primeval means original, then Longfellow was talking about someplace else. This is all second-growth timber.” Gus stopped and gazed up at the canopy of trees. “Old second-growth.”
“And did you just happen to know that? Or are you an expert forester as well?”
“Anyway,” she said. “It feels primeval.”
“Well, there may be something in that.” He grinned. “Lots of primeval feelings up here on this mountain.”
Genie sighed as they walked on. “Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Gus pointed to a bend in the road ahead. “Now hush up. Just beyond here is where the old man lives.”
“And we’re hushing up because?”
“Just take a look for yourself, and you can judge whether Kit’s in any danger from this old geezer.”
“More likely the other way around, I’d think.”
“Shh. Lower your voice.”
The planes of Otto’s face, caught in a large piece of cherry wood, revealed a smoldering anger. The anger became more focused as Carl worked. Clearly the anger was aimed at him, the carver. Accusatory woodcarving. Will wonders never cease.
He had begun work in the wee hours, unable to sleep. Now it was mid-morning. He whittled calmly but with weariness.
Chief and the boy watched in silence until, at last, Kit could not contain himself. “I thought you said this was the same boy.”
“But he doesn’t look the same.”
Carl met the boy’s eyes. “The one you saw yesterday—Otto was about your age. I’ve made lots of carvings like that. But I’ve never before carved Otto when he was fifteen.”
“Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.” Carl brushed a few crumbs of cherry off Otto’s face. “That’s why you think he looks different. He’s older.”
“But he’s not happy, like the other one.”
“I’m afraid you’re right. He’s not.” The boy nodded, frowning, and Carl wanted to explain. “Nothing can make him happy. That’s how he was at that age.”
“His mama passed away. I didn’t know how much that hurt him.”
Carl sighed. “I was unhappy too. So I could only see my own grief. Not his. I’m afraid I beat him.”
“Beat him?” The boy’s eyes showed shock. “You mean . . . ?” His hands formed small fists and plowed into his own thigh as he sat there on the porch step.
Carl hung his head. Finally, he picked up the knife again and continued work on the anguished figurine of his son. “Anyway, that’s why he looks unhappy.”
“What happened after that?”
“He left home. I never heard from him again.”
Kit’s head whipped around at a sound.
Carl looked up.
A woman walked in from the road. “There you are! I found you, you little rascal.” A young woman. A city woman, he guessed. A bit noisy, but she couldn’t be all that bad, raising such a fine young son. “Sir, I’m sorry. I hope he hasn’t been bothering you.”
Carl set down his knife and the block of cherry and stood up. Now he could see the young man trailing behind the woman. He looked furtive, or embarrassed. As if he would like to reel her back in. “Genie,” he said.
“Mommy,” said Kit. “This is the man who gave you the princess.”
She smiled warmly into Carl’s eyes.
The young man came up even with her.
“Howdy, Ma’am,” said Carl. “Hello, Otto.”
Her mouth dropped open and she stood there looking first at Carl, then at Otto.
Otto turned to face her. “Otto Augustus,” he said. “Named after my grandfather.”
Carl cast his eyes downward. “God rest his soul.”
Kit jumped up and down. “Dad’s name is Otto? Cool!”
Otto put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s a long story.”
They all stood a moment, letting their thoughts settle.
Chief scratched his ear listlessly.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” said Carl. “Come on up here, where I can get a good look at ye.”
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Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)