The story of a young couple on a tight budget, an architect determined to excel, and four carpenters devoted more to craftmanship than to profit

They're gone only a few minutes. They reseat themselves as briskly as they left. Jim laughs out loud, at nothing in particular. "Okay," Jonathan says. "What can I say? I came here hoping the price would be somewhere between one-forty and one-forty-five." He studies his papers. He looks up, the trace of a smile on his face. "I don't want to bargain or anything. You take off six hundred and sixty dollars and we have a deal."

Jim is sitting very stiffly. He opens his hands. "Why do you want to dicker?" he says.

"You call that dickering?" Jonathan says. "I call that a round number." It'll cost him $4,000 for appliances, he explains: removing the $600 and adding in the appliances will bring the grand total to $150,000. "So when my friends ask, I can say it's a hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar house."

"Why don't you leave the six hundred and sixty in and tell them it cost a hundred and fifty thousand?" Jim says.

Silence takes over again. Someone's stomach growls. Jonathan has picked up his calculator. Jim has pulled his out. It is hard to imagine what is left to compute. Judith smiles. "Look at this. The war of the calculators."

"That's my proposal," Jonathan says, the brief skirmish over. "We make the deal, I won't bug you or complain."

"It makes me uncomfortable," Jim says. "I'm bargaining with three other guys' money." He adds quickly, "I know that's not your problem."

"I just talked to my partner," Judith says, still smiling.

Jim shifts in his chair. "It's stupid, you know. Here I am worried about six hundred dollars on a one-hundred-forty-six-thousand-dollar job." He adds, "But so are you."

"Actually, I'm worried about a lot more," Jonathan says.

Jim laughs. "I feel foolish."

"Don't feel foolish," Jonathan says. "Talk to your partners. "

"I've got to," Jim says. He is no longer laughing, all of a sudden. "If it were just me, I'd say, No way."

The tone of the discussion changes now. "One thing I worry about, Jim. You're building my house, you have to make decisions. I have partners. If I want to move the office, I'll call a general meeting - - but not if I'm just going to buy paper clips." Jim stares at a point on the wall. "I don't want you to feel bad or pressured," Jonathan adds.

"You got to make a deal, Jim!" Judith says, not unkindly. "You got to make a deal."

"I'm not used to bargaining," Jim says to her.

"Hey, I bargain," Jonathan says. "Judith bargains, and this - I'm kind of annoyed, because I thought I was being magnanimous. "

"My job's not bargaining. You accepted the bid!" Jim says.

"Do you think they just built the Empire State Building? They didn't bargain over the price?" Jonathan says.

"It feels to me like if you don't make a little deal out of it, you won't feel good about it," Jim says.

"I want to loosen you up, Jim," Jonathan says.

"Loosen me up how?" Jim says, raising his voice. "By the purse strings?"

"I want the six hundred dollars," Jonathan says, softly. "But you don't go up on a mountain and return with the truth. You can't tell me your estimate is the only possible number. I think there's got to be a little more give and take, a little more bending, a little more suppleness."

Jim looks at no one, and no one speaks. Then Jonathan sighs. "I really did think I was being magnanimous. I have a short office meeting. I'm available if there's anything else to talk about. I don't think there's anything else to talk about."

Jonathan leaves. Jim walks out like a person who has found himself in the wrong neighborhood, wishing but not daring to run.

A few days before, the other contractor who had bid on this job called Jonathan, offering his services at a reduced price if for some reason the deal with Apple Corps went awry. Jonathan insisted that he had a moral commitment to Apple Corps, but the other builder's call made him realize that he felt that he was going to pay for it - the other builder had good credentials too. By his own standards Jonathan has negotiated very gently with Jim and has asked for only a small, token concession. He assumed that Jim would accept, and he imagined a handshake and in the next day or two another ceremonial gathering of the Souweines and the carpenters at the site. It was just a small daydream, which Jim has destroyed. Jonathan is openly angry, at last.

In the bar downstairs from his offfice Jonathan tells Judith that he has given up bargaining. He says to Judith, "I'll tell you the truth. He makes me uptight. I feel if I say the wrong thing, he'll get offended. Tell you the truth, I'm not worried about the money. I'm worried about the deal. If he can't pull it together on one night, how's he going to pull it together on the house?"

Judith says, "I'm flabbergasted that we're going to spend a hundred and fifty thousand dollars and not have a garage." Of the $660, she remarks, "It's somewhat symbolic, obviously. But it's not totally symbolic. It's six hundred and sixty dollars we've got to earn, you know."

Now, in the bar, Jonathan takes her arm. "Let's go home. "

JIM and Sandy, his wife, sit up till past midnight. I don't mind the money so much as the way I'm being treated," he says. "I'm being handled. It's like going to buy a used car. Well, maybe not. He wants me to be less rigid. It's like he's trying to reform me. The bit about my loosening up. What do they mean? What do they care about what I do? Is that how you welcome someone into your family?"

"Weren't they saying, 'Come on, you're not as pure as that'?" Sandy asks. "'You're cheating us by at least this much money.' What they said to you over and over is that everybody bargains. They've got to shake that out of you."

"If I keep feeling the way I do," Jim tells her, "the job won't come out as well as it would have this morning. It'll come out six hundred and sixty dollars less good, and that's what bothers me. I hate that, because that's not the way I want to work."

Sandy looks sad. She says, "I just don't want to face another summer of your getting up and going to a job because you have to."

Just before they turn in, Sandy remembers their mortgage. Have they paid it? "It's not the end of the month yet," Jim says, touching her shoulder. "Don't worry about it. You don't have to pay mortgages until the end of the month."

JIM calls Jonathan and accepts Jonathan's terms. A few days later they sign the contract. Jim goes over each detail with care. He offers his hand to Jonathan, and Jonathan, glad the hard bargaining is over, takes it with an enthusiasm that surprises Jim. Jonathan gets the better grip, consequently. Afterward Jonathan feels pleased at Jim's approach to the contract. "A man who says he's worried about putting his name on a piece of paper is a man who cares about his word. Jim is a person of integrity. I feel very comfortable having him build my house."

Jim leaves contemplating the handshake. Even in that transaction, he thinks, Jonathan insisted on getting the better of him.

For the next two months not a week passes without Jim or one of his partners remarking on the affair of the $660. Usually Jim speaks of that sum as money that was taken from them. Generally he says so while they are performing some little task not specifically required by the contract.

LATE in the afternoon of May 16 Jim sits at an old metal desk positioned under the eaves of his attic, in the old house that he and Sandy recently bought. You can hear the rain on the roof. Jim sits beneath uncovered insulation; carpenters often inhabit unfinished space. He rests his chin in one hand and stares at the drawing he has begun. He's making a bird's-eye view of the underpinnings of the first floor of the incipient house. Jim has never planned a job of framing quite as intricate as this one. He works on it after supper. By the time he finishes, his framing plan looks like an urban street map and the rest of his household has turned in.

Jim arises near dawn. Just as his favorite weatherman, over in Albany, promised, the sky out the windows looks perfectly clear. While his house is quiet, just to prove he isn't nervous Jim sits in his kitchen and reads a chapter of his current novel. Then he slips the framing plan into his leather case and hits the road.

Jim has a long way to go to get from that complicated-looking drawing to a house built on schedule and for a profit, but today he will have company. Help should already be on the way, from Apple Valley.

At the site the foundation's gray walls sit amid wet, rutted, sandy ground and heaps of muddy loam. The foundation looks like a hypothesis drawn in the midst of confusion. Ned Krutsky pulls in just after Jim, and together they pick up various measuring tools to find out if the foundation is as good as it looks.

Ned is about the same height as Jim and much bigger, thin at the waist and huge in the shoulders and chest, where he looks positively swollen this morning, all bundled up in wool. Above his wire-rimmed glasses his hair is cut in the shape of an inverted bowl. At the moment he looks somber and slightly fierce. When he takes up a position on top of the foundation, holding a long, numbered staff in place for Jim, Ned looks like a sentinel on a castle wall.

Jim and Ned stretch a long tape measure across the foundation. Jim holds the tape's smart end, as they say, reading the numbers. "Well, look at that, why doncha." All the way around, the foundation measures half an inch smaller than specified, which is perfect - - or, as Jim says, perfect enough. Jim and Ned measure across opposite corners: a Euclidean trick. If the diagonal distances match,then the foundation's corners are square. Jim looks at the tape and then looks up, astonished. The corners are perfectly square, or as close to that immaculate condition as their tools can determine. Jim measures again and then reels in the long tape, bringing Ned with it. Jim grins. He turns a thumb up as Ned approaches. "That's not classic," he says to Ned. "That never happens!"

"Shhhh," Ned says.

"That's what Sandy says," Jim remarks more softly. "Don't rile the gods."

Today all the omens are good. The excavator shows up on time. Then the lumber-company truck. Then the electrician. Then Richard, with the generators, which they'll use to run their power tools until they get electricity.

"Hell-o, Jim. Hell-o, Ned. God, it's pretty civilized down here, isn't it?"

"Yeah. No snow," Jim says.

It's May 17, 1983, the first day of carpentry on the first new house Apple Corps has touched in nearly two years. "This is great," Ned declares. "Building a new house is fun." He grins.

"I haven't built a new house in so long I've forgotten how," Richard says. He grins too. "New houses are fun. I just get the biggest kick out of it. Always have."

"And we need it," says Jim, who does not grin. "For solidarity. For money. Mostly for money."

The three carpenters stand by a chest-high pile of new lumber. They wear leather boots and jeans and jackets, and Jim and Richard wear baseball caps. Jim and Richard hover over the plans a while, muttering geometry. Ned takes half a step backward and looks around him in a studied way, like a fellow on a street corner who's been stood up. Elbow on the lumber pile, Richard looks Jim right in the eye and declares, "I'm ready to go. We're gonna breeze right through this."

From under his hat Jim smiles at Richard and says, "Yeah, this is going to take a while."

ON the second day the fourth partner, Alex Ghiselin, joins them. They set up, as they will every morning, a small factory beside the foundation: generator, extension cords, ladders, sawhorses, electric and hand-driven saws. Tooling up, as they call it, they buckle on belts and make themselves into roving hardware displays, hammers and numerous pouches hanging from their waists, red handkerchiefs in their back pockets, pencils behind their ears. Proper and efficient framing is the art of thinking ahead with clarity, of seeing the end in the beginning, and they have made the exercise of forethought part of their daily routine in all departments of house-raising.

Whenever they can, the carpenters assemble a portion of the frame out on the open ground, where they don't have to hang off ladders and there's room to swing their hammers freely. Then, standing on the foundation's walls and on stepladders, they install the construction - - a section of floor joists, say - - into its place within the frame. Most of the failures of most spare-time carpenters stem from misplaced haste: they haven't got much time. Apple Corps spends time now to save time later. It's a form of deferred gratification, which, psychologists say, is an element of true adulthood. Apple Corps has acquired a knack for looking calmly on the future. They always pause to remove any nails from boards they cast aside. The practice cuts down on tetanus shots. It was not always this way, but most of them have worked together for ten years now, and they have learned consideration.

After the sills, which are laid directly onto the foundation, come the girders and joists, the underpinnings for the plywood on which the finished floors will in turn rest. Alex and Ned construct the girders on sawhorses, nailing together three layers of spruce boards sandwich style. Ned puts down his hammer and uses his combination square to check that the upper surface of each girder is flat and smooth, or, as he puts it, "nice." The lumber becomes girders, each one too long and heavy for one man to lift. Richard assumes command of their installation.

Richard studies Jim's framing plan, scratches his head under his cap, and says, "I don't think I ever did any framing quite like this before."

The girders span the width of the house, all thirty feet of it, and Jim had the foundation builder make pockets in the concrete wall for the ends of each girder to rest upon. The men move around the sandy ground, carrying the first floor, piece by piece, to the deep gray rectangle at the center of the pickup trucks, sawhorses, stacks of lumber, cartons of nails. Soon floor joists begin to cover the space above the cellar hole, like bars above a cage. Jim dances out onto the joists, tightrope walking. Deliberately he makes the joists wobble from side to side. The generator putts. Hammers driving sixteen-penny nails ring like high-pitched bells, deepening with every stroke. Sometimes the carpenters syncopate their hammers, but that's by accident. When you close your eyes and listen to the men working, the voices you most often hear belong to Richard and Alex.

After Dartmouth, Alex worked as an advance man in Senator Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign and as a reporter in New Hampshire, first for a local paper and then for The Boston Globe. He was a good journalist. He is a meticulous, hardworking carpenter. What he loves most is farming. Alex has a little farm between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers. He supports it by carpentry. It was Alex who put up the $2,000 that got Apple Corps started in business a decade ago. His partners call him chubby, though he isn't really, and there's a gentleness about him, a country doctor's air, that would make him suitable for pushing pharmaceuticals on TV. He drives to the site in his pickup in the morning, with his huge, floppy-eared, dark-red Irish setter, Brewster, sitting shoulder to shoulder beside him. Brewster looks like some cheerful, slightly dimwitted young apprentice in a dog suit.

The bottom deck of the house begins to cover the cellar hole. The house becomes a platform. The days are growing warm. Jim and Alex had painted the outside of the foundation with tar before the bulldozer returned and pushed the dirt back up against the walls. The tar will help to keep the basement dry. They had placed insulation under the sills; the house will be cozier for it. The crowning of every floor joist will tend to keep the floors from sagging over the years. The contract requires none of this specifically, but these little pains that they take, and many others like them, constitute good and reasonable building practice. As for precision in framing - cutting, measuring, and nailing - Jim insists that it will make the finish work go smoothly.

At lunch they take stock. Sometimes they do business. They sit together on the deck, cross-legged in a circle. With mock sneakiness, Richard slowly withdraws from his wicker lunch basket a check at last received from one of the winter's customers. Richard folds the check into a paper airplane and floats it to Alex, who catches it as if he's found a butterfly and says, "A kited check."

Alex, who is serving as the company treasurer this year, passes around the new ink-pad stamps that he says he plans to apply to customers' bills, but won't, of course. One stamp says "Pay or Die," and the other, over a picture of a man encumbered with several casts, warns, "Penalty for Late Payment."

Jim wonders whether Alex should send one of those to Jonathan. Would Jonathan take it wrong? Would Jim feel pleased or sorry if he did?

THE frame of the house is rising, and the carpenters and their clients seem to be drifting toward the condition of strangers. In the mornings Jim finds around the site small neat piles of nails, ones they have bent and discarded, and also evidence that someone has been clearing out the undergrowth in the woods beside the brook, and he guesses that the Souweines have come by in the evenings, the children collecting nails while Jonathan clears brush.

They get used to seeing Judith regularly but for now usually just in passing. Jonathan they see less often. Once, after they spend most of a day working in the rain, Florence Wiener invites the damp, muddy crew into her kitchen for coffee, and they come away murmuring about Judith's mother's graciousness and wit. The person they see most often is Judith's father, Jules. He drops by nearly every day and stays a while.

Jules is of middling height, a fit and very active sixty-year-old. He's smoking cigars these days. He's reveling in his retirement. It's an even bet as to whether he's doing more now than he was when he was officially working. He does a little law for Jonathan's firm, serves on a local committee or two, breeds racehorses, studies racing sheets, builds fences, mows and plants with his hired man. Jules's time belongs to him, though, and he likes to spend some of it with the builders.

Jules stands beside the foundation and watches Jim work. Jim is completing the framing around what will become the hearth. He has to join one piece of wood to another at an angle greater than ninety degrees. He has to make a miter joint in the frame. Tongue protruding, Jim makes the mitered cuts on the ends of a piece of two-by-ten and puts the board in place, but he doesn't nail it there. Evidently, Jim doesn't like the way it fits.

Jules watches, surprised. Jim tosses that board away and cuts another. He goes through all the motions again. This time Jim seems to like the fit. It looks perfect, in fact, from where Jules stands. It will not show. It will be covered up. Besides, that neater joint is not a stronger one. To himself, Jules says, "These guys aren't builders. They're craftsmen." He has no worries now about the quality of the house his daughter and son-in-law are getting. His observation isn't an unmixed compliment, though. Jules is a businessman, after all.

By the end of May they've finished the bottom deck and have begun to raise the walls. Pausing to take stock at their morning powwow over coffee, Jim says, "Whoever thought it would take so long to frame this bottom deck?"

"We're doing okay," Richard says. "It's about what we estimated, isn't it?"

"But this is the time when we usually do better than we expected," Alex says. "This is when we make up for later."

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In