from Voir Dire
Joseph McElroy


In the year 1990 I tell this to a woman who is on a job with me, and we 
share an issue of justice, I believe, but at that moment of first 
meeting, little more. A recollection of hers inspires mine, and she 
hears me out.  She happens to be an expert on sound.
               One summertime I dreamt of varnishes.  I was a boy. "Dream" in the 
sense of eat, sleep, think varnish, thin, mix, and apply again. And 
varnish remover.
               I carved a model whaleboat.  Chiseled it, I hear the split and scrape, 
gouged it out of a slab of stained hardwood that had been lying on the 
toolshed floor for weeks - for years. A base, a stand for a trophy, I 
can't imagine what. The wood had this deep and independent gravity to 
it, and the finish brought up a richer, plum band or stripe across the 
top side like the dark gap between the good creamy rings of Saturn in 
my book.  And I -  who knew where the rakes were, three trowels, the 
pink skull of (I think) a cat at the foot of the neighbor's 
termite-ridden fence post, a rusted little handsaw, the tuning fork my 
mother had left beside the kitchen sink, the wintergreen-tasting twigs 
and dirty red bark of the woodpecker's preferred tree on the far side 
of the house, my sister's bike covered by me with a plastic tarp when 
she went to camp, and here behind a blue coffee can (kerosene-smelling) 
of nails (to be used as a target when my town friend brought his air 
rifle out) my sister's zippered kit of bike tools and an unused train 
ticket on the shelf above the workbench in this shed where I had 
learned for myself the carpenter's rule  Measure twice, cut once -  I 
who (as my father put it) kept track as much as anyone around this 
joint had left where I'd seen it the middle of June this eighteen-inch 
block of maple inherited like the tool shed itself from the previous 
owner. Part of something else.  Noticing it now I took it up off the 
floor and felt it and  was drawn to it by a force of ownership.
               For the first time I thought vaguely, What is going on around here?  
In fact, I loathed myself as a boy, despised the balsa wood of my 
old-fashioned model kits - can you imagine? These had been procured for 
me by my great-uncle, a Warrant Officer in the Coast Guard, and they 
were specialty items even in those days. I don't know where he found 
them. A heavy cruiser, an aircraft carrier, slim destroyers side by 
side, a buoy tender, an old scale-model 83-foot harbor patrol boat. 
Today it's all pre-cut plastic, and was even then.  Whereas my 
great-uncle  thought plastic an abomination. Granted it repels "ship 
worms" on a real boat, but then you get chronic barnacles and you need 
to apply anti-fouling paint. Plastic come to think of it may have been 
just about all he felt himself in extreme opposition to - such a quaint 
objection it seems now. I could cut a hull from a length of balsa when 
I was nine. A double-ended Macao junk had my blood on it.  Airy as 
cork, completely dispensable  meringue-light balsa wood for kids to 
carve like cheese.
               I'd had other kits that required no cutting to speak of.  Old friend 
bass wood, for a Union Pacific locomotive, a Patton tank with treads 
that moved. But not to be compared to what I found on the floor of the 
toolshed, our toolshed now (for we had bought this place cheap after 
renting it the previous summer. Now what was that like?).  I was almost 
twelve. In that instant, balsa seemed soft as styrofoam, the crust of a 
loaf, as flesh, I didn't know what, an avocado, and I would try my hand 
upon this ill-advised hardwood - my knife and the dented chisel that I 
had come upon by chance striking it with my rake in a pile of rotten 
leaves. It said -  this chisel, but more this curious dent or uncannily 
retooled minute trough in it, no more than a wicked little groove in 
the middle of the blade,  Get started, get going.
               You see my mood, Humming all the time in fact.
               Instead of breathing.
               Remembering little things the way you can't not remember some larger 
ones - now that's confusing, the way I put it. Animal smell of the sun 
on the earth at the exposed root of an outstanding sweet white oak that 
now belonged to us; or on the other hand my mother and father's 
parallel love of life, I suppose.
               The woman I'm telling this to more clearly than it could have been 
told or thought twenty-five years before narrows her eyes, she has a 
look of attention and polite impatience, she wants to hear what's 
coming, understanding that this isn't a story maybe. How could there be 
passion in her interest, impertinence?
               Kneeling among shingles, splintered shims, and hard rice grains and 
kernels of horse corn and preferring the bottom of a yellow milk crate 
to rest the block of maple on, I took the handsaw to its corners, and 
soon had a crude oval, kerosene-smelling because of the saw.
               But not an oval. God!, a many-sided mess on my hands to take me until 
I had to go back to school -  the rest of the damn summer to finish the 
boat, the wood implacable, or until my sister got home from camp.
               But not a mess, when I blinked and saw my crude cuts now as one sweep 
of gunwale either side and found my pencil in the clanking can of 
nails. This thing I made would be a model of an old double-ender 
whaleboat, not quite the flared, sea-steep prow and stern of a 
Portuguese fisherman's "half-moon" but steadier and stronger. But 
               Next morning I began to shape the gunwales and hollow out the hull on 
the ground outside. Holding my breath, and with awful slips and stops, 
holding the mad tool down one-handed with the whole half of me bearing 
down on the damnably minerally resistant block.
               My gouge-marks looked like fingertips working another matter trying to 
get somewhere and there was a war on and I'm right here ensconced in a 
summertime state with no coastline. Jazz in my throat, my unconscious 
humming a frequency set to a secret future that was my own, and hoping 
to take up the saxophone. But ruining my fingers on the wood. Cutting 
myself on the blade. Muttering "Deeyum!" bringing to life this piece of 
a petrified forest which maybe remembered in my gougings the leafy tree 
it came from.  By this time they were casting hulls out of cement, so 
here was hope for me, hollowing out my hull, holding ( my great-uncle 
said)  the line  (for the Coast Guard had turned to steel and 
               Wood calms.
               My sister at camp, perhaps I'm not like the people at this summer 
place -  my parents -  their mysterious routines: I was like the place 
itself I now think -  that was what I was like -  this close little 
toolshed and nine and a half acres around the house to do with what we 
               And I was getting somewhere, because for some reason I didn't have 
much time.
               It was quiet there, said the woman I was telling this to; but that's 
going to end. I touched her hand. It had no effect on her.
               I worked the oval length of the thing deeper. I created a barrelly 
roominess. Gunwales flaring emerged from the inside out - and I had 
even carved  (I can't believe it today years later)  a miniature cradle 
of passable gunwale ribs. Till one day (floor-planks maybe to come) I 
had nowhere to go almost yet kept faithfully sanding and finely 
shaving. Wanting to show the boat to Liz, the neighbor's younger 
daughter whom I loved;  and happy as a "free man" not to be interrupted 
by her, prizing the dark, plum vein straight through the block 
unplanable and of a natural- weight. Quiet around here? Not always, as 
even the neighbors know. My father's a famous talker, a public speaker, 
and he and my mother have a way of speaking to each other that's very 
               The toolshed, though, is conceded to me. At almost twelve I'm not your 
skilled woodworker.  But I am taken for thirteen.  Secret and 
determined - for I go into what I don't know.  I know enough to try, 
and am cruelly inspired some days, tall for my age,  proud of the 
papery-tiered gray-plastered-cone hornet nest just outside the door up 
under the overhang of my shed roof, a generation of long brown wasps, a 
power I lived with and thought I could arouse from this nest to do some 
bidding I was not fiendish enough to yet know.  I'm somebody. That was 
               Till one day, to music, the unwavering, final sound of a cello, taking 
something from my humming you would swear (or coming in on it) the 
rough-cut, gouged and gunwaled and resanded hull of my whaleboat with a 
tiny, carved, not-glued-on keel and stem and stern post, when I held it 
by the gunwales rose almost from my fingers it was now comparatively so 
light - though hardwood maple as I had learned from my mother 
appropriately, whose cello far away inside the house it was. It was a 
particular day, expectant, unwise;  I knew this piece of wood, and we 
were expecting an important friend of my father's in the late afternoon 
and my father had left for an appointment in town but was coming back, 
an embarrassment of riches as I saw it and saw it then, and I was not a 
person with ever nothing to do, though my father had an opinion on that 
score who himself thought being holed up in a tool shed or finding a 
weasel's,  probably a marten's, little S-curved scat on the far side of 
the river was O.K. for a kid or some other types but not greatly 
thrilling. Or a question like my humming, sometimes loud, stood next to 
me if I could identify its appointment with me, this question. Which 
was, What did I know was going on, if anything?
               My mother, doubtless alone but don't assume anything around here, was 
not doing something silent but was practicing somewhere inside our 
land-embedded, landscape-lost cottage today, private in that wooded, 
stony-spined, hilly province of Vermont. Audible strangely in memory 
too, the faraway, heart-breaking throat-gripping authority of that 
instrument's tone said,  Listen, listen, bring the boat inside and test 
it in the bathtub. I saw it manned and rocking, I saw it passengered, 
did I hear music coming from it? - I was strung myself enough to 
concentrate so hard I might not hear tires on the driveway.
               I ask as of a not quite real nightmare: and  who was the woman under 
the bed telling a long, almost funny, frighteningly unrememberable 
story, and who were the much-decorated twin Marines adrift in 
slow-motion orbit about the Moon?  Yet I kept scraping, and with 
practically new sheets of coarse and fine left by the previous owner 
sandpapering down to the rubbed-pale, somehow distinguished paper that 
had been coarse-  and  fine-sand. Now sounding an eerie thinness of 
bottom that I would rap proudly, and wishing my mother or someone would 
come here by chance and only for a minute and look at what I  had to 
show. It was her college cello she was playing this July day we found 
ourselves apparently alone, she with a touch, a lostness and sweep of 
elbow enough to make you smile (I could see her), it was comical,  a 
fineness of face I could see in the wood I worked never imagining that 
I was being watched; and "not a musician," she said, for she "never" 
played her cello; dragged it up here (in the car) along with her high 
school clarinet, "the easiest reed to know" (though a weakie next to 
piano and sax), plus her plastic recorder from primary school.  Why 
does she play only when she "has time"? I am told I said, because I 
would say things.
               To my father this summer of 1966: If you could find a war you liked 
would you go fight in it?
               Grownups laughed, so my sister I believe laughed too but didn't like 
it. So what has changed?  (For this has not.)  Say things and people 
will hate you.   Go to your enemies for the truth, for justice. Say 
things and many people will pretty much love you. My father with much 
talk about American police state freedom I recall didn't seem to expect 
much of me. I am finding the words; they, really, me. He was for 
freedom. He saw you as being set for life with your abilities. I mean 
that you couldn't do much, you were pretty ordinary but the struggle 
for freedom would make it OK.  But what has changed?
               The woman listening nods almost imperceptibly.
               From that time, that day? I add.
               My mother had a policy of more or less not going into town, whereas I 
had two friends in town, one with a Buck air rifle that shot .177  BBs  
who had plans for us, and one with a real bow who fletched his own 
arrows (whose father coached hockey at the high school), and a thick 
red blue and white target with a stand.  My mother's wariness became 
mine, I weighed her words.  (Why don't I think of the house as ours?  
Feeling like a lodge as you went foreignly through the front door - and 
who knew where you would wind up, is there an undiscovered annex? what 
was unfixed about it, if anything?  We had bought the place after 
renting it one summer, and I was nearly twelve and believed in 
owner-ship down to the faintly harsh or peppery peppermint smell of my  
mother in the hall, "extremely independent" (my father described her 
but it didn't sound right).
               Until, this morning, on my knees on the shed floor, tapping the flat 
bottom of my boat, fighting it, pampering it, blowing on it, caressing 
it, and fine-sanding the inside, so that with proud unconcern I heard 
the ajar door creak and knew someone was in the doorway of this tool 
shed behind me (did I need a sweep-oar instead of a tiller?), I heard 
the faraway inside-the-house cello and turned with my sandpaper block 
in my hand to see a man in green perfectly familiar to me but 
unexpected, ambushed (both of us), so that I looked at his dark green 
workshirt, a tiny American flag pin in the pocket button-hole, and 
turned back to my work as if he visited me often or weren't there, or I 
had contempt for him or respect.
               I recall because perhaps from just about that time (because it came 
from this very man),  I had learned that no one could touch me.
               It was my friend's, my play-mate's, father, our neighbor, and he asked 
me if I had seen Liz. (But why was he over here?)  He came and stood. 
"Sand and varnish, varnish and sand," he said. "Makin' a boat?" he 
said. What can you say to that?  "Where'd ya find the wood?"  he asked, 
as if he knew. Right here on the floor he was standing on, I told him 
and  he said my toolshed looked just like when the owner his friend had 
lived here. Former owner, I said.  "Too bad he had to sell."  I didn't 
mind, I said. "You don't mind," this man said methodically. "He was a 
nice fella. Not enough work around here, it's gone down statewide."
               Continuing with my own work, I asked what work his friend, our last 
summer's landlord, did.  "Whatever needed doing,"  Liz's father said.  
"Somebody's playin' the violin," he said. I looked up at him and I 
nodded, and in some way new to me smiled and continued my work. But I 
heard the distant distant cello's throat-grip-ping, wide, biting, 
caressing (I believe), string-rubbing stroke of tune deep-drawn by the 
bow and hung along the layers of flattened color and absorbed 
mid-summer day.
               But suddenly succeeded this time by my mother's voice, the way the 
cello gives itself over to the winds, for she was singing way inside 
that house, and I wondered if Rob was there, her bosom buddy - could I 
have missed the cutting sound of his tires in the driveway coming to 
keep her company?  I looked up at Liz's father -  his name was Whelan - 
  who had turned toward the door hearing the singer now. Was this why he 
had come, though I had never heard her do just this?
               Women - I thought of her as women for the first time I believe -  had 
a bodily distance from us that we are to accept; hence, to be 
importantly apart from: which gives you the distance to understand them 
and what they and you have to lose.
               The woman listening to me laughs.
               Or, to bear this after all bodily reasoning still further, that this 
Vermont man (though Vermonters are more intelligent, my father had 
said) could not tell a cello from a violin because he was not from the 
city; and so he did things more slowly and painstakingly; that  my 
father did not change the oil in our car himself like this man flat on 
his back; that city people controlled large things they did not need to 
               I thought I did Liz's father an injustice. But what?
               Or that we were having a visitor from a foreign country today though 
he was American, and that the man with me in this toolshed had had a 
flag July 4th which would have been fun to fly, that they had a cousin 
whose son had come home wounded and sick -  one was like a cut, the 
other was like a disease inside: country people sent more men to the 
war than city people because country people could do things but the 
things they could do kept them from seeing that the war was, according 
to my father and mother and their friends, wrong;  and this morning 
Liz's father (though he said, Don't tell her I was looking for her, he 
squinched up his nose in a friendly look) had really come to see or 
scout out my mother whom he hardly knew, or the place, because my 
father was not here. Though now he asked if I was going over to 
Montpellier with my father, burn some cloth (it sticks in my hearing 
much more than Whelan's ugly, interesting face) -  and I said my dad 
had already gone -  Oh, Liz's father knew that -  and it wasn't 
Montpellier, it was into town. "Oh, we know all about that too," said 
my visitor, as if I were a free citizen - he was a builder, a local 
contractor, and there were some who disagreed with him about the war 
but not about flag-burning, and my father was taking the briefest time 
out from a heavy schedule of rallies and raising money. He had been 
written up.
               Yet this man, for some reason in my toolshed, was the father of Liz 
whose mother mine could never be. I leaned back on my heels and held up 
my boat, turned it over, ran my finger all over it, and I know the man 
with the much too pink face and positively golden pale crewcut said, 
"Taking justice into your own hands." "How'd you know it was a boat?" I 
               I said I had some work to do. I meant Still to do. "Varnishing, 
sanding," I said.
               "You just do your work," said the man. He was not favorably disposed 
toward my father and was said to include him among flag-burners. "You 
like to go fishing?"
               I said we had fished the brook. He knew I meant with Liz.  I bore down 
on my hunk of maple, which was how I suddenly saw it.  "We go over 
t'the lake one night, got the outboard."  Liz's father meant they would 
take me. I wondered how many in the boat. Liz's older sister Naomi who 
was fourteen who I was sometimes preoccupied with. The mother ...  My 
country neighbors who knew all about my father having a little brush 
with another car in the covered bridge the other night that was not his 
               My mother Claire's elbow and shoulder bending across for the far A 
string, her wrist,  the station of her knees, the amber-varnished belly 
of the cello inside which was a spruce patch she'd had me feel with my 
fingers -  I witness her though I'm not there -  and who cares about 
these little things that come with an entire day and night in one long 
blink of someone's eyelids, these signs of Nothing? (I'm no musician!) 
but I have a reason to recall because the cellist broke off playing and 
for a second, as I stopped too at my woodwork (called that by my 
great-uncle who wrote me letters on USCG stationery) nothing came next. 
Yet now without missing a beat she was singing, but with no real, no 
fleshly severing from the long-drawn pressure across the string which 
hadn't reached the end of the bow but passed it on to her voice. Funny 
or something, except it wasn't -  I heard it on my knees like sound 
meant for me, or someone.  Mexican or what my dad called 
"south-of-the-border," her song was inviting -  not like the deep and 
aggravated solo I could hum that she'd been practicing so you couldn't 
tell if the patient practicer were going back to get it right or Bach 
had written it like that. But now that I heard it, both voices against 
the presence of Liz's father's slightly threatening presence, I think 
the Mexican-sounding serenade was a lot like the Bach -  who am I to 
say? -  the way Caribbean Spanish from the Korean grocery or on the 
taxi radio follows syllable upon syllable so steadily, Liz's father 
with me in my tool shed, then gone. Had I been rude?
               Yet having latched my door and turning the whaleboat over and over, I 
knew I could have approached my mother even with company if I had 
thought fit, my mother and her way of speaking.                                                                                                         
I think it stimulates the woman I'm telling this to (it stopped her in 
the middle of a sentence she had to give it some thought, this natural 
relay from string to voice not missing a beat by someone inside a house 
unseen by me working outside though inside my own toolshed). "I see, 
you sort of take off from one to the other -  she was playing and 
suddenly she saw you - "    "It wasn't me she saw," I said, "if it was 
anyone," for the woman was almost flirting with me like a palmist, 
while I had been in the first place reminded of the cello-voice by 
something in her story.
               "Your sister - she liked camp?" inquired the woman listening to me. 
Not especially. No.
               Launched by its own lightness, my model my old boat for a second got 
fusilaged and decked kayak-like like smart materials responding to 
emergency signals, earthquake or ticking bomb, yet a second later 
wasn't a boat any more. Varnished mellow under the layers of inland 
silence in which that person on vacation would make music: and so did 
the one bird out at that late morning hour extract such comfortable 
hollowness and morality from a tree-trunk.  It makes the tree a 
building, me inside coated with a mould of intrigue, boy inertia, 
flesh, hearing historically again and again a car on the ground, my dad 
an hour ago departing (as if he'd taken some-thing) -  the need for a 
               But when she left off playing to sing and her hooded voice more true 
than the cello reached me, bending over my fingerprint gouges,  
boat-carver feeling the wood's commanding depth that as there was less 
and less of it seemed less and less shallow, she was singing in the 
late-morning stillness crowded with small sounds in fact or the inner 
hum of that summertime day of 1966 to him -  my father I felt - in my 
shoulders, at the root of my tongue, or literally my heart wanted it so 
-  though he had gone to town. And Rob might be there with her 
visiting.  In my palms I was making more than a boat. I think now, What 
could be more than a boat or more than me?  I felt what I was making 
must be more than a boat. Or must turn into more.  I was stuck, and 
responsible, and doomed, but excellent, no more than I deserved.
               Sliding in behind the wheel, my father had said out the window, "The 
boat, now."  I didn't know if it was a boat or what it was, I said, in 
despair.  "You don't?" my dad said; "well, if it's something else, stay 
open, you owe it to yourself." "I'll keep it open," it came to me to 
say, meaning the work I was finishing, and wondered if it was an open 
solution I was thinking about.
               He knew how to look at me: that's fairly stupid, his mystery look had 
said, or that's incredible or dumb, you're a fool - not a kid, a fool - 
  I must have found in the wide thin lips of a rich face -  or that's a 
genius remark, go your way. How could you owe a thing to yourself?  was 
in my mind to ask him.  But I was the tooled, eight-to-five genius of 
the place and of departure; darkly separate and free and  you're free 
to kill me if you think I need it.
               My father had had to show up at the town office that morning to 
explain a car on car meeting three nights ago in the covered bridge: 
you had to laugh seeing them disappear -  one set of headlights off 
maybe (probably), the approach on one side straight, on the other  
looped like a hairpin -  the collision muffled, comic stars shooting 
out of the bridge the middle of the night: which car had entered first? 
But the other driver was someone we knew well. I saw two cars disappear 
at opposite ends into the bridge and heard the rest, the overall, large 
structural impact in my mind. My dad hadn't let me come along this 
morning, I had rested my elbow on the roof, it was nothing.  Maybe it 
was being at his side. He thanked me, I was taking responsibility, he 
said, practically twelve and looked fourteen. It was only the town 
office, but they had a jail cell in the basement with a bunk. Car 
window rolled down to speak to me, "Should have seen the other guy," my 
dad said, flipped the key: ignition, confirmation, blast-off  Going 
Into Town.
               "Never explain," he said. Advice of high quality I have not been able 
to take.  The other car, I imagined its front fender scraped with our 
"California Cream" -  the grille maimed, door wouldn't open, important 
leak under-neath. My father said we would see. He widened his eyes out 
of their sockets almost, winked (more like a full facial squint or tic 
to close his eyes), blew out his cheeks -  no problem. "Hey, you're 
getting big" -  as if he hadn't been keeping an eye on me, "Haven't 
seen you in weeks," he goofed, he squeezed shut his eyelids and gunned 
the motor.
               My mother had taken a her-side-of-the-family view of this,  intrigued 
only by the chance that my father might get charged, an old story 
"coming true."
               "A risk of arrest?" asked the woman listening to me.
               He had been arrested several times in a good cause.
               The sweet song was to her absent husband or me or a friend.  I 
couldn't make out many words in the melody in this land-embedded, 
heat-hushed place softly grinding with subconscious insect existence, 
their soft parts, their hard parts, sharing supposedly with us their 
sanctuary wild life. It was some wit in the fathom and touch, the 
string note freeing the voice, I would say now. Though also a 
specialized risk all over me of my parents, and one between them that 
fixed my fair value alongside that of my currently absent sister -  me, 
in the sense that in some way I couldn't do anything about my existing, 
a pitch of light understanding between my parents. There was nothing 
much I needed to do -  to fail or excell. It was all right. A value 
estimated swiftly - or destined - between them, those two intimate 
aliens; a level I was at, equality -  but to what?  I had a parent at 
all times. I took my own advice.
               The woman I'm telling this to tells me, "But you did hear a car coming 
in the driveway." "I did," I said, surprised at her, for I could hear 
across twenty-five or so years the curve, the new tread on the left 
front of Rob's old rebuilt 6 .   "You and those tires, you were a 
sentry, you were in a war with no one to report to."  The woman looks 
at her watch.
               Maybe it wasn't words at all sung by the person inside that summertime 
house, atheist sylph that she was. Singing she made it sound like 
words. How unusual for her, how alone and arrestingly mammal and 
limited and scented, time-bombish -  and for my father, for that was 
how I'd link the wild, knowing tone, not any arc of performing, just 
little touches linked by instinct though with a terrible overall form 
to them, everything happening at once, inexorable to them, so that just 
before I heard car-tires cut the driveway gravel out of nowhere I 
wondered if he had known how to spirit himself like a Sit-in, a Be-in, 
into the house a back way -  by the field -  past the woodpecker tree, 
My way I called it. Or he had never left, he was a residue left in her 
-  as she knew how to not make words:
               :till, taking a scrap of sandpaper to a still bothersome gouge to see 
what a finish brought up out of the grain, the old owner's once coarse, 
often folded sandpaper, I was aware that she wasn't singing now. When I 
had in a flash gotten used to it, like something I might ask for; and 
thinking what to cut a very small rudder and tiller from unless I went 
to a sweep oar, I saw maybe not a boat after all, this thing 
manufactured for many days (off and on) at a time when these lifeboats 
were being made out of plastic ... plastic burning sticks in your 
throat like liquid metal fumes -  and the car turning onto our driveway 
off the county road part hidden by dull drooping midsummer spruce 
boughs was of course not my father -  and I needed to go in the house 
and tell "that woman," as my father called her to me, or tell her 
music, what I had discovered in the gunwaled hull, in really the 
bottom, of my boat, until I heard someone or something outside my 
               :till, hearing only an animal pressure upon the ground outside and, 
much further away, the house door stick shutting as if it had been left 
half open for a while having not been previously actively slammed by my 
mother -  or Rob: and now, like a consequence of my thinking,  Rob's 
practiced, friendly singing voice damped by the house door shutting  
speaking with such a roundness of understanding more asking than 
commanding -  silly, in even Rob my mentor (who was a non-practicing 
minister who didn't go to church who knew trees, clouds, wind 
direction, each local flower, bored to death with ferns, but "a passion 
for" local birds -  that called our "pileated" woodpecker "sociable" 
and "frank" and "open, for all his crest" -  (knows his shit, my father 
said) - I must answer what was nearby because I knew this animal 
pressure upon the ground outside.
               Covering it in my mind -  the whaleboat -  like a kayak -  an old 
World War II seaplane pontoon -  but seeing that I hadn't wasted time 
on a model boat because whatever was in it still belonged to me though 
I envisioned (hand-witnessed) some bent-necked lute, great African 
flutes or nameless anti-War zithers I saw played on the streets of 
Manhattan and Burlington, I heard my name called. And a dumb impression 
passed through me. It kept the far sound and the near one apart - about 
that exact watchful listening animal sound outside my toolshed, husky, 
firm, it was a girl against the outer wallboards of this toolshed house 
of mine as close as a hand on my shoulder saying my name, confident it 
was I inside, a waitingly modest first name but aimed devotedly by her.
               "Your father was quite the speaker?" said the women listening to me.
               The younger sister, Liz, my down-the-road or across-the-field 
neighbor, would I let her in?   It was like good advice or my 
character, that closer noise outside my shed -  Liz's hands and bright, 
broad cheeks, a naive lift in her walk, her devotion subtle -  or some 
contemptible mistake I was going to make -  thinking, What is it I 
               Working my boat, I said.
               Their house with dark green tarpaper siding was weirdly incomplete, my 
father thought, for a guy in the construction business, and why the 
tarpaper?   Liz and her sister and their parents lived there, slept, 
ate, went to the bathroom, undressed, and watched TV there, and left it 
empty when they went to town. Her father and uncle had added a platform 
pool in back. All year round Liz and Naomi lived bodily in that house 
(which enabled me, for all my family, to rely on those girls, anyway 
Liz, who was almost my age.
               I laid the hull down on the bench carefully and  went to unlatch the 
door just as Liz's knock came upon it.
               The pig tails I was used to at her ears had joined and thickened to 
one great braid today, strange and of an intelligence and history that 
included me. I let her in and dropped the latch, the cork grip of her 
fishing pole swinging a little, why did she bring it in? Her chewing 
gum a gummy cinnamon closeness when she put her hand on the boat right 
away, we stood shoulder to shoulder, hand near hand, embarked on almost 
a project though what less than life?  No need to say a thing, I was in 
my own place, and smelling in her hair bark or scalp or the ground 
between here and her house, her politeness in relation to the workbench 
and her taken for granted and, like schedules and habits and shared 
food, averagely authoritative knowledge of her older sister Naomi's 
gait and sway and breasts so that, on my knees for a second before Liz 
came down beside me on the toolshed floor to see me sand a gunwale and 
spit on it, I smelled the new denim stiffness of her jeans -  like 
sourdough bread or her body, her instinct I would now say; as if it 
could tell me what her older, harsh sister looked like dressing -  as 
if that was the thing at stake -  the accelerating unknown, or just a 
weather advisory.
               Liz took the whaleboat from me and turned it over and ran her thumb 
across it. "It's a whaleboat," I said.. "Who's gonna catch a whale with 
this?" she said - "they had harpoons," she said. She smelled it - 
unlike a country girl -  and put it to her ear and made a face. I 
looked at her and took it back. "They use them in the Coast Guard," I 
said.  I could do anything on earth - no problem - or I could be here 
with Liz or tell her to go. She looked at this pretty amazing little 
hull as if she was looking at me and took it back into her hands and 
then gave it back to me, as if I should say something.
               What? What did I know? That her dad had been looking for her and took 
a cello for a violin and the door creaked but I didn't look around 
right away at him? I did him an injustice.  It was me he came to see 
and Liz even that he looked for ( visit his daughter at her friend's?) 
-  I saw she must have described my shed, my wood, my chisel-work -  
though not my hands or their touch, my soothing height, my questions or 
puzzled, pal's love for her, but enough to stimulate her father; for, 
better than I, she must have known what you say and what you don't, and 
today he'd come as an I didn't know what, who had forgotten whatever it 
was he had to do and became a man with nothing to do but come over 
here. Interested in my mother, too.  A country man, Liz's dad could 
muster as much basic,- staringly puzzled interest in another as any 
city hawk keeping in touch, pursuing a surprise conversation with an 
alien on the subway.
               Learning to notice eyes, I saw Liz had practically black hair and blue 
eyes but no hair on her arms whereas Naomi had fine flax- white hair. 
My sister, who would trim her hair into the sink and leave it there, 
spent an hour brushing her hair looking thoughtfully or irritably 
elsewhere so that I would ask her anything at all in the way I had with 
words.   Liz had taken my hand pulling me somewhere without looking at 
me when I went with her and her mother and father (he put his hand on 
my head) and her sister Naomi to the IGA (my father debriefed me 
later). Today she had said. "You busy?"
               Naomi her sister is tall ("big-boned is what she is," my father had 
said).  I thought breasts, breasts either loved you or didn't, and saw 
you always and waited, I liked all girls and all breasts, they were 
equally near). Naomi was always about to be a bully. Instead, she would 
say something funny -- taking charge, though -- so you thought you 
knew, but then you didn't, as if her being nice was a pure coincidence 
or cut off from your hope that she would be. Last weekend she went with 
her mother and father and Liz quite happily to see her mother's cousin 
and her cousin's son who had won a Purple Heart, which I had Liz 
describe. I decided to call Whelan "Whelan," the way Naomi did.
               I told her this friend of my father's was coming today from Vietnam, 
Frederick. Because she said, "Does he live there?"  because I gave her 
a look. She asked what he was doing there, because I remember I said, 
"Prob'ly shooting gooks," because I didn't know honestly what he was 
doing, he wasn't in the military but was against the war and had 
brought me a small, beautifully written-on thimble-size silver cup made 
by a Vietnamese once, and I had said "gooks" when Liz didn't know what 
it meant, much less that we didn't say that word, lest you be burned at 
the stake as a Hawk yet her father Whelan I found I couldn't quite 
imagine saying it either, though I knew the word from my own father and 
his war against those who used it.
               It is afternoon, nobody called me to lunch, Liz's fishing pole is 
leaning in a corner, why did she leave it?  Was she mad?  I step out of 
my shed and look around.
               The woman I am telling much of this to shakes her head, I see what you 
meant, that you were like the place. I laugh, but she does not.  A 
pleasure in each of us.
               Down near the brook, I devise an unheard-of canoe route across Vermont 
west to the Hudson like an early white trader along our rushing stream, 
often shallow or going-nowhere, portaging where I had to, and thence 
down to New York where my dad's at his rally if I'm asked on this past 
July 4th. The war was magical, if I'm honest in the warm, remembering 
woods on the river bank among poplars and elder bush. Hearing "Mekong" 
in the mercurial eddy around a rock where a dark trout waited suspended 
in gloom. Hearing in the near distances "Cao Dai, Tayninh" from a crow, 
two crows, three crows, somewhere low overhead. Somewhat as I, minor 
and privately American and not quite my father's son, if I'm honest, 
sitting on the toilet at night conceived the war historically and 
technically and as a promise of curious successes in my later life as 
if government men or their deeds my father worked non-violently and 
violently against and rightly abhorred were some type of money in the 
bank for me. The war a magic of commuting copter gun-ships frowning 
down on a screen and field of sniper-infested jungle foliage, leaning, 
banking, sliding to shape at the controls virtually the space of the 
air just above what was never to be fully known below the trees and 
down in the famous VC tunnels which enthralled me in their construction 
laid out for us in detail by a visitor, the mined geography of a war 
without front lines. Control, a technique of control, doing things at a 
distance employing remote lighted panels like NASA's in Florida and 
Texas. The tools and equipment of war my great-uncle liked. In 
particular, the sonar gear on his 311-foot Coast Guard cutter which 
they would test in northern waters in the vicinity of blackfish or 
"bigger fry" though sonar was pretty much saved for annual maneuvers 
with the Navy.  I had my woodwork still, a boat or viol; and my town 
friend coming out -  I wanted to get my hands on his air rifle and 
wondered what sudden death was like; and, as I can explain, though 
guilty of disloyalty, I was at the same time riveted and inspired, tall 
for almost  twelve -  looked thirteen at least, a more independent type 
of person. Where do crows go in the winter? Nowhere much, said Rob, 
friend of the family, intimate of my mother (who didn't always treat 
him well) -- sometime Nature mentor of mine:
               :who knew two dozen mushrooms (not counting those that grew on a huge 
white ash in off the blacktop back near the covered bridge) - knew the 
scat of a dozen "critters," had a moondial by his attic window at home 
and of the heavens had talked to me last summer and this at night trash 
astronomy I could tell he really felt though he offered me what would 
interest me and another evening brought his bronze sextant to teach me 
angular altitudes:  the stars crowded and fixed, a shooting star 
descending not as if overhead were the legendary canopy we hear of but 
a dark flat and deep field graphed briefly and laughably by this stroke 
fading across a screen -  which took us to the summer triangle, Deneb 
to the left and Altair below and overhead to Vega and the tiny 
parallelogram harp above this island of Vermont a melancholy angle in 
his words and the voice.
               Surprising how little music in the constellations. Harp, lyre, 
swooping eagle (you see Altair, the brightest), falcon, vulture.  I opt 
for vulture, Rob said, at odds I think with my parents one night the 
summer previous but he did not fret in front of me. "Harp star, 
tortoise," he said drily. "That 'cold blue glare'" - did I know 
Lovecraft? - "yaller to Australian telescopes I understand, isn't it 
green, don't you think it's green?" The herd-boy and Vega -  the 
weaving girl -  more  "trashy astronomy" (Rob called it) that night, 
but it was the Pole Star, North Star, Polaris twelve thousand years ago 
and in twelve thousand AD it will be again.  Our sun, our solar system 
moving in the general direction of Vega at 12 miles a second -  it 
would take it 450,000 years to reach Vega -  27 light years to Vega 
might as well be infinity. The cosmos is in fact unthinkably big, let 
it go, let it go bang.
               Of my boat, Rob said there was hard and soft maple, both hardwood; 
mine was the soft variety. The woman to whom I tell these things can 
see that the boy had a number of interests in those days. The 
boat...and the fishing and Liz went fishing.
               Yes, was I like the place? - you said you saw what I meant.
               Yes. How were you like the place? You were there.