Register Wednesday | June 26 | 2019

To Chop Wood

A short story

My God it was hot. It was one of those muggy days in midsummer; the kind of day when the sweat just beads up on you, even when you're sitting still. There were thin clouds spread out everywhere; they blocked the sun but kept the heat in and made the whole area a swelter-box. You don't want to do much on those days. I sat next to the creek, hanging my feet in the water; not like the warm lake water, no sir, this was cold creek water. A cold creek is a good thing. You need it, because at that time of year the lake's piss-warm. No one wants that. That's about as good for a man as a sweet, fruity drink. It's good by the creek. If you wait long enough king fishers zip by and deer wander down to drink. They get tired of the heat too. And if you stand in the shallow water, these little fish come up and nip at your toes. I've never tried to catch them. They're too small. And besides, I like them. I don't know of any other fish that nip at your toes.

On that day, though, there were other things. I didn't want them, but still, there were other things. And when you don't want something, you're usually late for it, if you get it at all. I was late and when I drove down in my Datsun I could see the heat coming up in waves off of the asphalt. No one much was out and even the trees seemed to droop in the heat. I saw a couple of old men on a lawn in their undershirts. They were soaked in sweat and sat under a big sugar maple. They drank from their beer-cosies. That made me think I should get some beer too. I veered off to the depanneur and picked up a two-four of Molson. I hurried because I knew Stew would be pissed at me but shit was it hot. I burnt my hand on the door handle. When I drove out of there some bitchy old dog started barking after my wheel. And was it ugly. I don't like ugly dogs and so I did my best to knock him. You know, just to piss him off a little.

When I turned into Stew's driveway I could see him banging things around in his garage - for no reason really. That's how I knew he was pissed. When I walked up to him, he didn't look at me at first. He kept his back to me and went on banging things around. He's a big awkward looking guy. It's as though he grew too big for himself. You can see it in his walk. He mopes around a lot and he's usually mad at something. He's like a big old gorilla. On that day he was barefoot, in jeans and a tank-top.

"It's about time," Stew said, finally turning around, slamming his ratchet set down for effect. He had a shiner on his right eye. There was grease smeared on his cheek and his hair was all mucked up with sweat.

"You know how it is," I answered.

"Alright," Stew said, rubbing his hands together. He looked down and noticed the case of beer in my hand. He shook his head. "You know we've got at least three cords of wood to get through."

"Yeah, but it was hot and I just thought ..."

"You didn't think." Stew was a grumpy bastard when he wanted to be.

"Fine," I answered, "I'll put it in the car. Drink it later." I started for the car and went to put the case in the trunk.

"Wait," Stew said, "you'd best bring it."

I whistled a rising note and turned. "Now you're talking."

"But it's gotta be cold," Stew said.

"Damn right. That's the thing."

He went up the fire escape to his old lady's apartment and came back a few minutes later. He held a cooler all chinking with ice. We emptied the beer into the cooler and pushed them down into the ice. It was good and cold on the hands. We put the cooler in the back of Stew's pickup and then grabbed a couple of axes and a file. Instead of turning back on the main road, we continued straight on this old beat-up road that went up through some abandoned fields. At the edge of the first field I saw Stew's Montecarlo propped up in back with sections of log.

"Fixin' 'er up," he said.

"Yeah?"

"Strippin' the spoilers."

"Good."

"Too french."

"I'll say."

It's always best to let Stew ease up when he's grumpy. I let him talk first. If I begin all chipper-like, I'm liable to set him off. When he's in one of his moods, watch out. 

The truck bounced hard over all the ruts left by tractors and pickups. They'd always come by in the worst time, the spring, and tear the road apart good. But Stew didn't mind. He'd leave the trail when he could and patch out in the field, doing doughnuts and blowing turf. That sort of thing. I didn't patch much myself but Stew was the king. I suppose you can patch all you want if you're willing to fix up after. And Stew spent most of his time fixing vehicles.

He slapped Zeppelin on and we tore up the field. I wasn't sure but we seemed to be aiming for the old hemlocks ahead. They were at the end of the field, at the beginning of the mountain rise. It was an island of hemlocks and around them were mainly maples and birches. There was some beech too. But it's hemlocks that are good. A hemlock forest is all dark and there's no heat or wind. You can go there and get some real work done. The wood isn't worth shit though. All the same it's a good place to be. It's maple we'd be chopping anyway. Stew had dumped a few truckloads there earlier on in the summer.

Between us and the woods was a rolling field that rose steadily. It was pretty well parched. We saw a few hare rip out from a trough and barrel down the field. Stew pushed his lips together and shook his head.

"Left my Winchester. Damn it. Get one of those for dinner. Baste that sucker up good."

The sight of a running hare makes Stew hungry. Not me though. It's got to be prepared and cooked through to get me going. In that heat I couldn't think of food anyway. I slid open the window in back of the cab and reached through. I got a beer out of the cooler.

"One beer. No more," he said.

"Easy Stew, easy."

I rolled the cold beer around my neck and started sipping. The water left on my skin felt good and I rubbed some over my face. The truck bounced all over and I had to sip quickly so as not to chip my tooth. The shocks were spent, and what with the road so lousy, it was a spine-stacking ride.

"I'd better have one too," Stew said.

When we got to the hemlocks Stew did a brakeburn on a slope and sent the ass-end skidding right up to the trees. Could he drive! We chugged our beers and got the axes out. The beer felt good in my stomach. Stew was lightening up a bit. Big black clouds pushed in from the south. It was bitching hot. I had to peel my T-shirt off it was so wet.

"Ten bucks I could fry an egg on the hood," Stew said.

"It'd be a winning bet, Stew. It'd be a winning bet."

There was a sharp line where the dry grasses ended and the spongy humus floor began. Its layered needles were soft and springy underfoot. Most plants couldn't grow in the hemlock shade; just mushrooms and little flowers. There was a scattered pile of cut maple right over by the entrance to the woods. Stew got out the file and started downward over the axe blade, over and over, always in the same direction. Everyone knows how to file a blade but Stew showed me how anyway. He's like that. When the blades were good and sharp, we set up two chopping blocks beside the pile at the entrance to the forest.

"A beer for the mood," I said.

"Then we cut," Stew answered.

I brought the cooler right up to the wood pile and pulled out two steaming beers. We lay back on the pile and drank. The beer was cold and I drank quickly. It gave me a headache; one of those short brain freezes. I pushed hard on my forehead with the palm of my hand. My spine tingled and my muscles loosened. I looked down past the hemlock trunks to the fields in the valley. Below the fields the river rushed from the lake. It was thick and white where it fell from the dam. At the end of the lake I could just see the water churned up into white caps by the southern wind. The clouds were coming in with the wind, in the same direction as the water. The heat wouldn't end until it rained. We knew that. And above us, on the mountainside, the maples stretched to the peak, good solid maples. No one cuts those maples. We finished our beers and cracked two more. On the ground, shadows moved back and forth as the wind came up over the hemlock branches. I scooped some ice water over my head with cupped hands.

"Goddamn," I said.

"Goddamn is right," Stew said.

"Back to the old shithole soon enough, eh?"

"You can have it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean to hell with it. Machining's where the money is and if you have any brains you'll get into it too."

"One more year, Stew. That's all."

"What good's high school? Machining. That's where the money is."

"No big rush."

"It's gettin' tougher and tougher and seems to me I've gotta get into something good and solid, else I'll be left with nothing."

"Finish up and you'll see it's different."

"You think so, eh? Shoot big and it's all the harder. Why try and do what you don't know? There'd be nothing."

"That may be."

I jumped up and stretched with a loud yawn. "Want to see how it's done?" I said.

"Oh, I want to see this."

I set a section of wood upright on the block. I spat in my hands and rubbed them together. I set the axe in the wood a bit and then lifted the axe, wood and all, up into the air.

"'it 'er 'ard!" Stew yelled.

Crack! I brought it down and smashed that piece in two - right down to the block.

"That's a pansy chop if I've ever seen one," Stew said, standing up and grabbing the axe. He set a wide piece of wood on the block. In one motion, he brought the axe up and let it down hard and smooth, splitting the wood straight down, ending over the axe with his knees bent. He mustered a groan and stood, nodding some.
We sat back down on the wood pile. I cracked a couple of beers and gave him one. "Here's how," I said, and downed one, giving myself another headache, worse than the first. He grinned and did the same. I grabbed two more beers and we drank those off quickly. I grabbed another round.

"How'd you get that?" I asked, looking at his black eye, all nasty and swollen.

"That jerk-off of my mother's came in last night. Picked a fight with her. He says, 'oh yeah, won't fess up, eh? I'll get that boy of yours.' So he comes up. Right to my bed. Drives me in the eye. While I was sleeping. That dirty bastard."

"Him? You could take him!"

"I don't dare. He's got a streak, he does."

"Just the same, you ought to take him."

"I just have to be more careful when I'm sleeping. That's all."

"It's shitty, eh? We always have to be ready. There's always something."

"Yeah, can't rest at all these days," Stew said. "They say we won't even be able to get our wood here anymore. They're making it harder now. They say we have to go up top of the mountain and even further."

"Shouldn't be a problem."

"Oh yes it is. My pick-up won't make it, and even if it does, I won't get the wood back. It's useless."

"Just get your pick-up ready."

"Don't need to. To hell with those guys. I can go on getting my wood right here around these fields. Don't need to go high. No use in goin' high."

"Well, what's good is there's probably better wood up there. More of it too."

"Not sure. Maybe if you can get to it."

The steady wind changed and came at us in sharp blasts. The clouds piled in and stayed and it was real muggy. When I knelt, the hemlock needles stuck to my knees. The mosquitoes I slapped balled up and gummed to my skin. The sun didn't even peek through the clouds. Even so, we knew it was getting on. Beer bottles lay where we tossed them, scattered all around the wood pile. Now the beers were going down smooth. Each time I went into the cooler I'd take ice out to suck on. It made my mouth numb and was good and crunchy. It was good too to take some ice and press it on my forehead.

"All this damn wood," Stew said, standing up and swaying a bit. He lifted his axe and went over to the chopping block. He set some wood and wound up. The axe blade came down and kicked off the side of the wood, just taking off a thin piece of kindling. Coming down, it missed the block and went on with a thud into the ground. "Shit!" Stew said.

I laughed and got the other axe. I placed some wood on the second block and swung down hard. It halved clean. We worked quickly for a short time and cut a fair amount of wood - just a dent in the pile though.

The light dimmed and the mosquitoes came out in force. Stew slapped at them and groaned, dropping his axe. He was a sticky mess as he walked over to the cooler. Small drops of rain began to blow in through the opening to the woods. He took the last two beers out and lifted the cooler overhead, dumping the cold water down on himself. It drenched him through; his white T-shirt stuck to him; even his pants were sopping. He laughed quietly as we drank the last of our beer.

"See," Stew said, "there's plenty of wood here. Even when we're done this, there'll be more."

"Could be," I answered, "it's good here."

"Just around these fields. All the wood we need."

"It's good here and by the creek too. Especially by the creek."

"Not goin' up on the mountain unless I need to."

"Could be enough here. Maybe you're right."

"You bet I am."

"We know here better too."

"Never chop much with you."

"Don't worry, Stew, we'll get it chopped. We'll find time. It's right close anyway."

We picked up the cooler and axes and walked out of the hemlocks. It was twilight and down the field we could see the rain thickening towards us. It fell full and heavy in sheets and the grass bent and wove wild in the water and wind. We walked on to the truck and got in as the big rain hit.