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

THE expense of framing and sheathing and roofing lies mostly in materials. Afterward, little by little, increasing amounts of labor are applied to dwindling amounts of new wood and nails. Now the time of swift, dramatic changes in the house has passed. At the start they used hundred-foot-long tapes, then ones twenty-four and sixteen feet long. Now they carry six-foot folding rules. These are long enough to measure what is left to do. Their fields of vision are narrowed, and their rulers, which they can use more accurately than tapes, are magnifying glasses for them.

The carpenters begin to populate the bare rooms of the house with visions of the life in them to come. They foresee parties in the living room, mornings in the kitchen. "I don't know if these people will sit on this porch or not," Richard says. "They run pretty wide open." Looking at the porch, he imagines Jonathan and Judith, gone gray, sitting there in rockers. Jim observes that the staircase is going to be fairly steep. "It'll get Jonathan upstairs fast," he says. "Jonathan's stair comes down into Judith's foyer," he remarks, adding, "A foyer's fancy. Just having one is fancy." As Jim begins to build the staircase, he imagines Judith descending it in a party dress, and he smiles. When the upstairs bathtub is plumbed, Jim fills it, opens the drain, and runs down to the living room to listen for gurgles. "It's not too bad. They can't object too much. A house lives."

Jim stands outside on the sandy ground and looks over Judith's shoulder at a catalogue of bathroom fixtures. He advises. She selects soap dishes, holders for toilet paper, bars for towels, a hook for Jonathan's bathrobe. She turns and looks at Jim. "It's so weird. Discussing these intimate details of my life. Where my husband hangs his bathrobe."

"Yeah," Jim says. "And you already admitted you like to sit in the bathroom and watch Jonathan shave."

She smiles wryly. There's sudden color in Jim's cheeks.

Alone one gray morning in the basement, Jim finds a castle on the floor, built of scraps and sawdust. "Cute." He steps carefully around it, moving on. And later, working on the stairs, Jim thinks of children on them and puts lots of screws into the newel posts. He anchors the posts to the framing stoutly enough for juvenile traffic. He slaps a post when done. It does not waver. "Strong like bull."

THERE are two categories of finish work inside the house. One is repetitious and fairly easy to perform. The carpenters must install dozens of window casings, nail in hundreds of lineal feet of baseboards ("Baseboards are the low point of the finish work, if you'll pardon the pun," Jim says), plug in a truckload of doors, lay some 1,500 square feet of oak flooring. They divide these chores. Jim takes the doors. Alex lays the oak floor. "It makes the time go by quickly. You keep busy. No thinking," he says. Alex willingly takes on the repetitive tasks that make up one category of finish work, but he also wants his share of the second category: he has asked Jim to assign him the TV cabinet and the woodlift (a dumbwaiter to transport wood from basement to hearth). The woodlift is an especially demanding job that combines mechanic's work with cabinet making.

Only small piles of wood lie in the corners now. They dwindle slowly. Richard has the kitchen, a task of great complexity. He's making all the cabinets from scratch. "If I had to do one thing all the time, I could probably do kitchens," Richard says. He's making a lot of this kitchen from rough-cut boards of poplar that he planes and joints at a friend's woodworking shop in Apple Valley. Richard now divides his time between the hills and Amherst, but when he's away the others do not seem to miss him as much as they would if each did not have something special to build.

Ned has three sets of living-room steps. He builds the treads himself, gluing together long, thick boards of red oak. "Oak. It's really nice working with oak. I love this winy, uriney smell it has. Piss oak." When he has made the oak floor of the foyer turn seamlessly into the first tread of one set of stairs, Ned stops to say, "I love this sea of oak in this living room. An Oriental carpet, some contemporary furniture. Anything would look good in here." The stairs won't take more than a week, however, and then, Ned fears, it's the baseboard beat for him. Making steps is a fine job. Ned wishes he could make it last.

"It's like geography," Jim says. "The interesting parts are the edges. Where things come together. The middle parts that are all the same are not so interesting to me." The main staircase will have dozens of edges and joints, all out in plain sight. Once, Jim was ready to give the staircase to a subcontractor. Now he has claimed it for himself, and he feels a little selfish.

In stair-building, the steeper a stair, the taller the risers between treads and the narrower the treads. All the books, including the handbook Richard pored over in trade school, prescribe that the width of one tread and the height of one riser should add up to seventeen or eighteen inches. The collective, successively refined wisdom of the tribe of carpenters seems to have produced that formula. It is the one that works best for the largest variety of human feet. A more basic rule for stairs says: Every tread must be as wide as every other, and every riser must be as tall as every other. It is very easy, a common mistake, for a builder of stairs to forget to add to his calculations the three-quarter-inch thickness of a finish floor that's not installed yet.

Then he builds the stairs and lays the floor, and suddenly he has a staircase with a bottom riser that is three quarters of an inch shorter than all the other risers. A stair like that will never stop tripping people, even those who know its flaw. Stair-making carpenters are like school crossing guards or trainers of seeing-eye dogs. They take on one of society's small sacred trusts.

The carpenters kneel on the floors of different rooms. Harpsichord music emanates from Jim's radio. Hammers ring now and then. Fine-toothed finish handsaws rasp away, making a sound like the music of the nighttime summer woods. First thing in the morning the house usually has a sylvan stillness, while the carpenters settle into their work.

Summer lingers in September. In the kitchen Richard's router whines. "Why, that boy is makin'the most piteous wailin' and caterwaulin' you ever did hear," Jim says. On his radio an old English ballad plays. Jim applies a delicate sliver of wood to the outer wall of the staircase. Now, after weeks of labor, he is done. And really, Jim has to admit, it's a pretty good-looking stair.

The day the carpenters begin to sand the floors, Richard's voice is merry. It's hard to do floor sanding well. You can easily make a floor ripple - enough, Jim says, to make a person seasick. And with the floors they return briefly to communal labor. "Glory work," Richard says.

The strips of red-oak flooring have a mottled grain, which has lain hidden in the grime. Now, as they pad around in stocking feet with brushes and buckets, applying coats of polyurethane, it is as if they were performing some trick for recovering disappearing ink. The grain emerges everywhere, its colors deep and radiant, the beauty underneath the bark of solemn oaks transported to a house.

Around the time when the first frost comes to Apple Valley, closing out Ned's and Richard's gardens, a man who lays carpet arrives at the house to cover the bedroom floors. The oak floor's last coat of polyurethane is still a little tacky, and the carpet man, pausing at the threshold of the foyer, says, "They don't have the heat on in here. That's why they're having problems with the floor."

Ned, in his socks, comes right out of the kitchen at these words. "Problems with the floor?" he says. His eyes are very wide, his chest quite high. "What problems? We don't have any problems with the floor."

"Okay, okay," the carpet man says, taking half a step back from Ned. "You're the general."

Ned returns to the kitchen, shaking his head all the way. He says to Jim, "Funny how reluctant I feel to share the house with anyone. So when a stranger comes in, mouthing off ... I'm ready to give this house to the Souweines -- I guess."

"I heard from a completely independent source that Jonathan is happy with this house," Jim says.

"Only that?" Ned says.

"What you want, boy?" Jim says. "You're gettin' paid."

"Well, jeez!" Ned says. "This house is the jewel of Amherst."

NED needs to move an old bathtub, to get his own house ready for renters. He is moving to South Carolina in a few weeks, perhaps for a year, perhaps permanently. Apple Corps needs to discuss their future and also the end of this job. So they gather one night in September at Ned's house. Two weeks, Jim says he figures. Richard and Ned can start the next job in a week. He and Alex can finish up. They all agree that they can make their deadline easily. "Okay," Jim says. "The hell with the Souweine job."

"I think we're doin' okay," Richard says. "I think it held together real well."

Ned lies on the floor. "Yeah. A vote of appreciation from down here."

"I think you did real well, Jim," Richard says.

Alex nods assent.

"I feel better than I did," Jim says. Abruptly he rises and turns to fetch a beer. His face has deeply reddened. Back turned for a moment, he asks, and his voice quavers slightly, "What's the state of the economy, Alex?"

Alex reads some figures. He asks Jim, "What do you figure? How are we doing?"

"I stopped keeping track in July," Jim says, returning to the circle with his old color back. "It made me sick."

"I think we're going to make some money," Alex says. "About ten thousand dollars. Maybe."

Jim asks them about the party that the Souweines have proposed for the middle of a weekday. Jim says, "Thing I don't like is saying, 'Oh, everything's all right now,' because I don't feel that way. But I don't want to antagonize them."

"I've been on jobs where it felt real bad to leave," Richard says.

Richard and Alex have a short contest. Alex names bad jobs they've known. Richard names good ones. "Right," Richard concludes. "There's good and bad ones."

Over the next few days Jim canvasses everyone, his partners and all the subs. Finally, Jim has to tell Judith that she's chosen the wrong time of day for the party. In a busy season like this one, no one wants to take hours off from work. Perhaps another time, they say to each other, but Jim feels sure there won't be a party. There almost never is.

He is pleased about the construction scheduling. They will beat the deadline. They can make a relaxed withdrawal. Clearly, he did some things right, or that would not be about to happen.

At a bar in Northampton, after work, Jim goes over the last change orders, trying to tie up loose ends for a last meeting with Jonathan. He wonders if he should exaggerate the costs of some of those changes, in order to gain leverage for bargaining. He shrugs. "I don't have a strategy. I'm just doing it for what it cost us." The endeavor takes Jim back through all of his old yellow pads. His attention wanders. "I've really been thinking about the issue of the art versus income," he says. "I guess I realized this summer that I'm not willing to trade it. The art."

IT'S moving day, October 20, and Jonathan, in the cab of Jules's pickup and in the rooms of his old and new houses, is thinking about the meaning of things.

Jim loads tools into his pickup. He has worked at the house all day. While Jonathan fetched boxes from Pelham and Judith unpacked them in Amherst and Jules wallpapered the upstairs bathroom, Jim finished dozens of last little chores - - hooked up the kitchen stove, planed a few edges of doors. He has worked hard to make the place inhabitable. He's finished his work now, but he isn't ready to leave.

Jim wanted to settle the final change orders today -- for "symbolic" reasons, he said to Jonathan this morning. Jim imagined a ceremonial exchange - - the Souweines would pay the bill; he'd turn over the house. But Jonathan hasn't studied the change orders yet, and Jim has agreed to put off the issue of money until the following week.

Jim catches Judith and Jonathan in midflight. They have a great deal to do before bed, and now Jonathan heads upstairs, to begin arranging new rooms. Judith remains in the kitchen, unpacking boxes of plates and food.

Jim leans against a counter, as if this were a coffee break. "I'm not sure if I want to let you have the place or not," he says to her, the quaver of a small laugh in his voice. "I like it."

She looks up from a box and smiles at him. "You can come anytime. You don't even have to call."

Jim drinks down the beer Jonathan gave him. He walks toward the front door. He calls up the stairs, "Jonathan, if I don't catch you tomorrow, I'll catch you Monday. Good luck on your first night, if I don't catch you tomorrow."

Jonathan appears at the top of the stairs. "Thanks a lot. And thanks a lot for doing everything that had to be done for us to move in."

"You're welcome," Jim says.

Half an hour later, in his own kitchen, Jim says, "I wanted to hang around to see if anything would happen. It's funny. Every time Jonathan says you've been doing a good job, it's always in the context of some negotiation or some favor. It's not that I don't believe him, but it's always sort of tinged. I don't feel closure. I assume it will come. It doesn't always."

YESTERDAY Jonathan and Judith began to prepare their new house. Today, Friday, they'll begin to live in it. Judith's face is bright. She's like a tourist in some long-imagined country. Everywhere she looks she sees something that delights her. How thoroughly, for instance, sunlight penetrates the breakfast nook - - she'd never fully realized this before. From the kitchen all morning come her cries of glee: "Oh, the rug is here!" and "It's the phone company!" (The young man who comes to hook up the phones says musingly that the house looks like an old farmhouse. "Oh, you said just the right thing!" Judith says. Later she'll offer him lunch.) The morning wears on. Two orange moving vans - THE CAREFUL MOVER, say the signs on them - - pull up outside. Four men in coveralls come in and out, two by two, a man on either end of the heavy and bulky stuff that they lug down the ramps, out of the van, and in through the front door.

The movers place the couch here, then there, as Judith ponders, directs, and redirects. Under a cushion she finds some children's things. "Look at all the goodies. Want some crayons?" she asks the men, who grin and laugh. She sits. "This is great," she says, to herself. "As my father says, who needs money?" She looks around her, at the chairs, at the Oriental rug, at the wood stove on the hearth, and she pats the cushions beside her. "This is a great room. I must call my friend William Rawn and tell him he done good."

Judith and Jonathan pause for lunch and a little eclectic rumination. It's that kind of day.

"Jim seemed a little down," Jonathan says. "Maybe he doesn't want to leave."

"Jim was upset, I think," Judith says. "He didn't know how to say goodbye. He's so shy. It is strange. He's sad and we're very happy."

Across the river in Northampton, Jim and Sandy have finished dinner, and Jim has decided that Jonathan won't call, when the phone rings. It's Jonathan thanking him. Jonathan says that everywhere he looks he sees things a person could not reasonably expect to have in his house until he had lived in it twenty years. Then Judith's voice is in Jim's ear, thanking him lavishly. He knows Judith far better and he likes her more than he does Jonathan now, but it's Jonathan's plain and unmixed thanks that count for Jim. He has tears in his eyes when he hangs up.

"It was nice," Jim says the next day. "They still haven't paid," he adds.

FOR Judith, living in her new house is like a treasure hunt. She keeps finding acts of genius in the design, and she calls Bill Rawn often to report her discoveries. She invites him to spend a night in his creation, and he accepts with alacrity.

Bill spends an evening and the following morning watching the Souweines use the house, and he feels, as he puts it later, "thankful." The long sessions of planning and the decisions that came from them and the interpretations of those decisions that he made at his drawing board all are collected in the way the house manages the bustle of a weekday morning. There are no traffic jams. Morning light really does stream in, just as he dreamed it would.

When the Souweines and their children leave for work and school, Bill stays behind. He wanders through the rooms. He gazes out windows. Bill looks around the kitchen. He must call Richard and thank him for this beautiful cabinet work, he really must, Bill says, and as it happens he will. (And Richard will say after that call, "Yeah, I'd like to work with him again. I learned a lot.")

Trying out the house, he stores up memories of a few decisions that seem to him less than ideal, of ones that seem just right, and of ones that seem lucky. Months before, he had decided to make the breakfast nook ten and a half feet by thirteen feet and he had worried ever since that it would be too small. Now he sits down at the table in the nook and he sees that the space is large enough. He takes up a measuring tape and measures the nook one last time.

"I'm sure that some of the Souweine drawings will become a standard for me on the next house," he says. His tape measure snaps back into its case. "Now I understand what ten-feet-six by thirteen is," Bill says.

IN the course of a construction project, power often shifts among client, architect, and builder. Often it does so in unpredictable ways, until the end. In the end, power reverts to all but the most careless of clients. If you pay a builder in full before he's finished the job, it may be a long time before you see him again, and stories of such abandonment are legion. Every builder, meanwhile, knows stories of clients who never paid the last bill, not because of real faults in the job, just to save money. But whatever the merits of a given case, when the client withholds the last payment, the builder can't hope to get that money without spending some, often about as much as the last bill itself.

"I know all the tricks," Jules says privately some days after the last change-order meeting. "Jim couldn't win. Jonathan holds back fifteen thousand dollars. 'Sue me.' They get a lawyer. He calls Jonathan's lawyer, which would've been me. Their lawyer says, Let's settle this thing. If it went to court, the judge would order a settlement. That's the way the world works. If I were an SOB, I'd have told Jonathan to give them nothing. But that was not the spirit of the job."

There is a lot of sorting out still to do, and on the morning before the meeting, Jules tells Jonathan not to pay any of the last bill until he and Apple Corps have settled the whole. Jonathan does not take the advice. In his office Jonathan writes out a check for the part of his debt that he doesn't question. It's for $6,000. The costs of the other, questionable items amount to only a third of that.

Jonathan does not hand over the check at the beginning of negotiations. He gives it to Jim midway through, when a compromise on the other issues is in the air. Jonathan does not withhold that uncontested payment. He does employ it, but gently, it seems.

As for Jim, he has done some tactical thinking. He owes Jonathan a credit on the shingles, which are of a less expensive grade than Jim had specified. Jim comes to the meeting resolved not to mention the subject. If Jonathan has forgotten, Jim will forget. But when Jonathan mentions the shingles, Jim concedes the debt at once. The living room will see cozier scenes, but a rough symmetry governs these proceedings.

All of Apple Corps sits in the living room. Jonathan, and Judith, who joins them midway, take the couch. Jules sits on one of Ned's little stairs, on the sidelines. Richard fiddles with the brim of a new hat. Sometimes he sighs. Ned arises to pace. Alex rests his forehead on the heel of a hand, studying puzzling figures. Jim wets his lips. He says to Jonathan, "I've got a general issue. What happens with this procedure each time ... Let's see. When a situation comes up and we make a mistake, we eat it, but when it comes out less, in theory we make money, but ... " Jim stops again, re-wets his lips. "I don't know what I'm getting into. It just seems like it's a ratchet. It goes only one way." He tries again. "I'm not trying to collect. It's just a way I feel. It seems like ... Maybe I can't say anything."

Jonathan leans forward, toward Jim. "I want to say something that might make you feel better. I want you to listen carefully, because I don't want you to misunderstand me or get angry. There have been many, many times throughout the process when you looked at something as an extra and I didn't. But if your feeling is that it's all going one way, I think sometimes it went the other way. I'm not saying you did anything wrong by any means, but maybe that will make you feel better."

Apple Corps has a list. Jonathan has a list. They cannot agree about the stairs. Jonathan calls the staircase the one part of the house that does not please him. Mainly, he says, the railing is too low for safety. Several other items stand between them. These make for a thicket of numbers.

"And you won't listen to me, even though I have more gray hair than anybody," Jules says from the corner.

Everyone laughs. Eventually, they do listen. The whole argument boils down to $2,000, Jules points out. Apple Corps thinks Jonathan owes them $1,500, most of it on the staircase; Jonathan believes he owes nothing but on the contrary is owed $500.

Jonathan should surrender his claim of $500. Apple Corps should give up $500 of theirs. That would leave $1000 in dispute, which they could split, Jonathan paying $500. Each side, in effect, gives up $1000.

"I'm willing to do that," Jonathan says. "Because if I don't, then we won't resolve the stairs and there will be bad feelings."

Apple Corps asks for time and privacy. Jules, Jonathan, and Judith leave the room. The carpenters stand in a circle by the hearth.

"It's hard, but I think we just ought to do it," Ned says.

"Okay with me," Richard says. "Come down here four or five more times and it'll cost us five hundred dollars." Richard turns to Jim. "I love the stairs. They're the prettiest stairs."

Jim purses his lips. Then he says, "It makes me think of what happened in the beginning and of the two hundred dollars we gave them for Rawn."

"You can't go back over all that," Richard says.

"I guess you can't. If we do this, I just make some calls and it's all over."

"I'd say let's just do it," Richard declares.

"You agree, Alex?" Jim asks.


"Smile a little?"

"Nope. I don't have to do that."

Champagne is opened and poured ("The ceiling's not guaranteed against corks," Jim says), and Jonathan raises his glass to the carpenters. "I want to make a toast to you." It reads a little like a list. It's delivered with vigor and unmistakable feeling: "You're a very nice bunch of guys. You built a beautiful house. I'm very glad we got this resolved today. And, I hate to say it, but Jules was probably helpful. And I am proud that I live in this house and that you built it, and I will tell everybody about that." He shakes hands with each of the carpenters, and when he reaches Alex, saying, "I love this house and I like you guys," Alex does smile after all.

"Thanks, Jonathan."

The familiar winnowing follows. Jonathan has a client whose interests need defending. He leaves at once. Alex, Richard, and Ned have suppers waiting. They move toward the door.

"This is not good-bye?" Judith says to them.

Ned grins. "Good-bye. Enjoy your house."

"We love our house," she says.

Jim remains behind a while. To Judith he says, "It was good to have a third party. Even this third party." He nods at Jules.

"I did not talk against you, Jim," Jules says.

"No. I know."

"So what have you guys got lined up?" Judith asks.

"Ned's going to South Carolina and Alex will be away this winter. Richard and I have a lot of inside jobs."

"So you and Richard are the winter crew, eh?" she asks.

"We have jobs for most of next summer, too."

"Aren't you selling yourselves short, working for time and materials?" Jules asks.

"Well, it's just so we don't have to do this," Jim says, beckoning at the scene of difficult and just completed negotiations.

"You won't make any money," Jules says.

Jim barks a laugh, rather like Ned's. "We didn't make any money on this!"

Jules grins. He winks. "Then you're stupid. If you couldn't rip these people off."

Jim grins at Judith. "Too bad he lives nearby. You can't tell him to just go home." The moment he says it, Jim feels he has overstepped his bounds, but Judith changes the subject gracefully, still smiling. Jim gets his leather case, also his lunchbox and jacket, and, chatting pleasantly with Jules, thanking Jules for his help, departs.

So we only made three thousand dollars. But, pretty safe to say, we didn't make money on any other job this year."

This summer, from the Souweine job, the carpenters have earned better wages than ever before, but most of the profit they hoped for has evaporated. They have just dined together on pizza and wine. Now they sit with account books and calculators before them, at Alex's table. Outside, frost is gathering on windshields. Warmth swells from Alex's wood stove. Jim has taken off his wool shirt. He wears a white T-shirt. His eyes have red rims.

"Then where we really screwed up was our labor," Richard says. "How come we ended the job on time?"

"Because we put in so much at the beginning."

"Yeah, big weeks."

"How many days we put into it all?" Richard asks.

"We put in four hundred twenty-three days," Ned says.

Alex laughs.

"Oh," Richard says. "Now it's all making sense." He laughs. "What are we laughing for?"

"Well, it had to be in labor," Jim says. "Especially in the finish work."

"So we should've estimated our labor at what?"

"A third more."

"I remember thinking, 'Uh-oh, here comes the finish work,' when we finished the framing, because usually we're ahead by then," Richard says. "We built it, though, at fifty dollars a square foot. By God."

"Why didn't we lose our ass?" Alex asks.

"Because we were supposed to make fifteen thousand plus five percent on materials," Jim says. He makes a face.

"Yeah," Alex says. "We could've gone away with a lot of money in our pockets."

"If we knew what we were doing," Jim says. "This is depressing. Got any liquor?"

"We blew it out on the finish work," Richard says.

"Always do," Ned says.

They've gone back and forth through the numbers. Subcontractors and materials came out fine. The items they'd forgotten to estimate were expensive, but some mistakes and underestimates are inevitable in a job, and those were roughly canceled out by the various overestimates they'd made. They spent most of their hoped-for profit on their own labor -- that is to say, on building just so. They spent their profit on themselves, and they know it. Ned finds a bottle of whiskey under Alex's desk and shoves it toward Jim. Alex has some more figures to report. On this job they drove the following miles, he tells them: Richard drove 1,700; Ned, 2,687; Alex, 945; Jim, 1,870.

Alex has computed the ratio of miles driven to hours worked. "Jim is the most efficient of the crew."

"It's not gonna do me any good. We didn't make any money."

"Hey, you made your wages, man," Ned says.

"That's not enough." Jim stands, takes a shot of whiskey, sits down, and says, "Depressing. I wouldn't mind, but that you beat your brains out ... "

"Okay! Let's leave fifty dollars in the account. Split up the rest. Susan's job is doin' real well." ("Susan's job" is the one they are working on now.)

Ned laughs.

"A little upbeat," Richard goes on. "Jim had the most hours by far."

"Yeah. For nothing," Jim says.

"Oh, come on!" Ned says. "We got to give ourselves some credit."

"We put a lot into it and didn't get much out of it," Jim says.

Ned glares at Jim. "The things I got out of it through you are going to be significant, and there'll be a long-term payback," he says, and you might think he is threatening Jim - - cheer up, Jim, or else.

"Look at it this way, too," Richard says. "We made three thousand dollars on that house. I don't know how much you should make on a house like that."

"I figured ten percent would take care of it," Jim says.

"And ten percent is not a lot, I agree," Ned says. "Not for custom builders of stature."

"Add the four of us up and you have quite a stature," Jim says. He laughs for the first time.

"Maybe we need someone to kick some business into us," Ned says.

Jim looks around the table. He says, "I realized this summer that I don't want to compromise work for money."

"We don't want to do it cobby," Richard says.

"We can't do it cobby," Jim says. He looks glum again.

"So, in that mode," Ned says, "we're gonna have to ... "

"Charge more."

"Charge more."

Alex looks scholarly in glasses this evening. "But each of us made two hundred and forty dollars a month more than we did last year," he says, consulting the books. "I'm just depressed," Jim says.

They divide the spoils. Richard plans to drive in convoy with Ned to South Carolina, a few weeks from now. He'll transport Ned's woodworking tools in his pickup. "Well, I got new tires," Richard says. "Truck's all tuned up. Wish I'd gotten it painted. Oh, well."

They talk about changes to come, about becoming employers themselves. They wonder who they might hire. Richard thinks they should hire inexperienced carpenters.

"Because we're sure to know more than they do," Jim says, and there's a ripple of laughter in his voice.

Richard makes a high, loud laugh. "That's what I was thinking! "

Jim says, "I remember guys, when I was first learning, guys who lorded it over you because they knew how to sweep a floor: 'You kids all think you know how to sweep floors."' Jim turns to Ned and says he hopes Ned will return. Ned's place in the partnership will be waiting for him if he does.

"Well," Ned says, "I fully intend to stay in touch with you guys, and I'd appreciate the same. As things go on."

"As money is lost," Richard says.

"As we screw up jobs," Jim says. "Help, we're in court. "

"Please send money," Alex says.

Richard cackles. "Please send money."

IT'S always the same, Jim says. When you're done, the work's gone and you focus on money. That's when you think, They have a house and you don't have very much to show for it." He thinks that he has probably served the hardest part of his apprenticeship in business. He also says he knows now that he loves this work that never ends and always changes. "It is a great job."

"Jules saved us in the end," Ned says. "He allowed me to go away feeling all right. What I love most about this job, you leave one place and go on to the next, and it's all gone, really, the tension and anxiety. I love that cycle."

Susan's job, as Richard calls it, has progressed to stepladder height when Jim rejoins his partners full--time on Halloween, just soon enough to help them raise a huge hemlock beam, the main carrying beam for the second floor of the addition they are building.

Richard is the boss of Susan's job, which is the last on which they will all work together for a long time to come. Ned is in high spirits this morning nevertheless. Discussing the Souweine job over coffee earlier, he said to Richard, "Good will at the end is worth some money. We are horrible businesspeople. But, by God, we can build a house!" They stand on stepladders now and on the top of the frame of the first-story walls - on thin, precarious perches.

"Jim's used to bein' in charge," Richard says to the others. "We got to put him back in his place."

Jim smiles. "It's great to have a boss," he says.

"Thing is, we never listened to you anyways," Richard says.

All is ready. The beam is cut and mortised. The posts to support it are erected. They hoist the beam with collective grunts. The posts accept the load. The timber slides into place and the client Susan asks them to wait. A snapshot is in order. She rushes inside and returns with a camera. They are wearing their gunslinger's belts again, big hammers hanging from their hips. Richard wears a new pair of suspenders, which Alex told him to buy for the sake of modesty, for proper elevation of the pants. The camera is aimed. The builders of houses turn and grin from their perches. Richard Gougeon raises his framing hammer high over his head. "This is my best pose, right here," he explains. "When I'm swingin' my hammer."

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