Wood

A graduate of Stanford, Wallace While began his writing as a reporter on the Salt Lake TRIBUNEin 1952. Seven years later he joined the staff of the NEW YORKER and has been there ever since.

a story by WALLACE WHITE

HARRY INGLIS, the new cook, lay on his cot in his cabin behind the kitchen. He was smoking a cigarette and looking at the ceiling, hoping to feel tired. He was not tired, and soon he got up and walked about the floor, bumping into things and cracking his shin on the metal cot. He held his leg and sat down on the edge of the cot, his cigarette between his thumb and middle finger, staring at the wall. The knotholes were dark, the grain splintered. A large crack ran between two of the boards.

On the day she had hired him, the wife of the owner of the resort had worn a hat made of feathers — brown, green, and orange feathers mixed together, like no bird that had ever lived. With unrevealing eyes, she had looked at the group of men in the social room of the Haven of Hope, in San Francisco. She had looked them over like a cattle buyer: “Have they been here long? What about their work history? Are these people reliable, Captain?” She must have been in league with the captain of the Haven of Hope, Harry thought, or she never would have lured them up here. Or else the captain had been deluded, thinking Mrs. Rieber was a good woman, when the only good she hoped to do was for herself and her husband and her daughters. Harry had not been forced to come up here to the resort. He had come of his own free will. But he had come as well because he was a fool, walking through the door into the chute along with the other cattle, caught by a promise held out to him, a promise of something on the other side of the wall.

The grain of the wood made patterns on the wall of his cabin. No two boards were alike, and no pattern was repeated. A man could draw such patterns, Harry thought, and not do as well as nature. Nature had arts no one understood. He dropped his cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. After they had hired him, the Riebers had paid for his new shoes and for two work shirts, and for these things he was grateful. He got up slowly and rocked back and forth in the center of the room. The cabin was small. He had seen the same walls for four or five weeks, devoid of any human form except his own and that on a newspaper clipping he had tacked to the wall — a picture of a girl from Boston who had got amnesia and was found, after six weeks, in a hotel room in Chicago. They said she had not even known her name. With his hands in his pockets, he walked to the door and stepped out onto the hard earth.

It was almost dark, and a wind blew from the canyon to his left. The air was fresh. He could see only the fading sky fringed by trees, and in back of his cabin the mountains under clouds. He tipped his head back, remembering a song the patrons of the resort had sung that evening at campfire: “If you’ll be M-I-N-E, mine, I’ll be T-H-I-N-E, thine. . .”He had come to the campfire that evening and had sat unobtrusively on the ground at the edge of the crowd that had gathered around the fire. He had joined in the singing with them. The girl, the Riebers’ older daughter, had been on the other side of the fire, her dark hair made lighter by the glow from the burning logs. Now and then she had glanced in his direction, not even seeing him. He worked his lips silently and closed them as if to keep his breath from escaping. The breeze chilled his shoulders through his cotton shirt.

At the Haven of Hope, in San Francisco, where men who were down on their luck were always welcome, Harry had got meals and a place to sleep even though he could not afford to pay. The Haven of Hope took in all men, no matter how much trouble they had seen. He had been staying there a little over a month when Mrs. Rieber had appeared. “Mr. Inglis,” the captain had said that day. “Mr. Inglis, I’m happy to tell you there’s a job I think you can fill.” No, Harry had thought, let me have more time before I go to work —just one more long, long game to play before the night falls. “You’ve cooked for large crowds, haven’t you.?”

“A long time ago, in the Merchant Marine,” Harry had said.

“When was that?”

“A long time ago — I don’t know. Seven, eight years ago now.”

“Didn’t you have some cafeteria jobs afterwards?”

“Afterwards?” He tried to remember.

Harry turned on his heel, feeling it cut the hard dirt, and faced back toward his cabin, his arms out from his body, his chest in. He stepped over the sill and went back inside, and the patterned walls seemed to tell him: these are your limits, this is what you’ve got; stay here. Eight by twelve. He multiplied: seventy-two, eighty-four—no, ninety-six square feet. He stood before the gray seabag that had been everywhere with him. The hem that held the drawstring around the top was coming loose, and he thought, I must get a needle and some heavy thread. “If you want the job,” the captain of the Haven of Hope had said, “we’ll talk to the lady right now. Her and her husband, they’ve got a resort outside of Napa, up in the mountains north of Napa, and you’d get room and board plus two hundred dollars for the summer.” The captain looked around to see if the woman was within hearing distance. She was not. “She come here looking for men for heavy work; didn’t expect to find a cook. No, sir. But I spoke highly of you, Inglis. It isn’t every day people like that are looking for a cook — at a place like this.” The captain smiled, but his smile faded. “If you take it, Inglis, you’d better do a good job, to show the lady she did right in coming to the Haven. I wouldn’t send out a man I didn’t believe in.”

The captain believed in Harry. Harry hesitated.

“Well, sir?” the captain said.

Harry said, “I’ll talk to her. OK.”

Out of generosity, or out of something less admirable, the Riebers had promised Harry and the two other men they had hired at the Haven — a handyman and a driver for their flathed truck — a quart of beer each day. The beer, an unexpected boon, had made the disadvantages of the job seem less and less. As the weeks went by, Harry had come to expect the beer, a necessary nourishment. It was free, but it served to put the men more and more in the Riebers’ debt. How had they known this simple thing would tie the men to their jobs so surely and so fast?

Now he stood stock-still, listening. A sound came through the open window. Harry stood with his neck taut and heard a splashing sound, like a fish jumping out of water. It sounded again, then stopped. Did he hear voices? No, just splashing in the distance. He walked to the window and looked out. The sound could not have been that of a fish, for the canyon stream was too far away. But it might have been made by someone swimming in the pool on top of the hill. He considered this idea. Once, he had seen the two Rieber girls walking toward the pool at twilight—the older one, Janet, and her little sister, Karen; the older one thin and the other still chunky with fat; the older one with tanned skin and nearly a woman’s breasts.

He listened but could hear nothing. How far sound carried, all the way from the pool on top of the hill down through the trees! The sea on quiet nights would send its rush and low retreat all the way to the galley, and sometimes, when he had finished his work and had gone topside to stand silently at the rail, he could hear voices from the afterdeck. And sometimes the sea seemed to have voices of its own. He cocked his ear. Did he hear a splashing sound now, or was it just the wind? He lighted another cigarette, then walked to the center of the room and pulled the string that turned off the light. Now there was only the orange glow of his cigarette and the cold moonlight through the window.

AFTER dinner that evening, Janet Rieber had come to the kitchen behind the dining hall. “Mr. Inglis, that pie was so good, I wonder if I can have another piece.” Her shirt was white, a boy’s shirt, and in its pocket she had put a pack of chewing gum; lie could see its outlines. “Well, can’t you give me one anyway? I won’t tell; I promise. Please, Mr. Inglis.” He cut the pie with the butcher knife, making a piece twice as big as usual.

“Oh, thanks so much. You’re a very good cook.”

“I used to cook in the Merchant Marine, Janet. When I was about your age I joined the Merchants. When I was sixteen I left home and went to Frisco, and then after a while I started shipping, and now I’m —how old? — twice as old — no, three times as old as you, Janet, and still . . .” But she did not want to hear about him. He might ask her about school, but he knew that all adults asked such questions and that she would resent his asking. He stood there dumb, and she thanked him again and went out, letting the screen door bang, the pie in her hand. Harry stood at the sink with his head turned, watching her as she walked.

“Mr. Inglis!” It was her mother, surprising him at the sink.

“Oh, hello, Mrs. Rieber.”

“I just thought I’d ask you whether you have enough milk for tomorrow. Mr. Rieber will be taking the truck into town.”

“Yes, Mrs. Rieber, I think we’ve got enough.” He went to the door of the refrigerator room and looked in and saw three five-gallon milk cans sitting on the raised lath flooring. “Yes, ma’am. We’ve got plenty.”

The mother nodded and walked away, and he thought: I was just talking to your daughter, who was wearing a boy’s white shirt, open at the neck.

He could hear nothing more. In the darkness was only the sound of wind and living things somewhere under the trees in the brush. He dropped his cigarette on the floor and covered it with his foot. He walked to the door again and started across the pale clearing from his cabin toward the kitchen at the rear of the dining hall, a great hulk that floated peacefully in darkness. He climbed the two steps of the stoop and opened the screen door to the kitchen and reached into the pocket of his dungarees for the key to the wooden door. He unlocked it and stepped inside. He moved slowly to the right and reached out to touch a table, then trailed his fingers along the wall toward the refrigerator room. When he came to it, he flattened the palm of his right hand on the metalcovered door and pulled at the knob with his left hand and felt the door catch, held back by the padlock put on it each night by Mr. Rieber himself. Mr. Rieber was smart. He had had the sense to invest in this resort. He sent his daughters to a private school in the winter. Shaking the hands of Harry and the other two men from the Haven of Hope, he had told them to call him by his first name — Fred. Harry did not know why he disliked Fred Rieber. It made no sense, but neither did a lot of other things. His heart was pounding as he moved toward the sink and ran his fingers over the drainboard. When he found the ice pick, he grasped it and returned to the cold metalcovered door and squatted on his heels, working at the padlock.

Without even thinking, he remembered that he had been a fun-loving boy. One summer night after a party he and his friends had decided to go out to the river not far from Pocatello. “Hey, Harry,” the other boys had said. “We’re going to get the girls to go in with us.”

“Like hell you are,” he said.

“Hell we ain’t.”

“How?”

“Barbara Jessup will. She’s going to talk to the others. They’ll go.”

“Well, OK, I guess so.”

“You chicken?”

“Hay-ull no.”

At the river, the boys had put on their suits near some spindly bushes; the girls had put on theirs in the car. Then Harry waded into the water and began swimming silently in the dark, moving close to a small red-haired girl, feeling her arms beneath the water, cold and slippery. She had tried to get out of his hands, but he had touched her beneath the water, and she had let him hold her.

He had been a smart boy too, or at least he had thought so. Then where had his smartness gone? Now he sat back on his heels with sweat warm on his forehead. Yes, he had been smart. In the summers he used to go out to a ranch not far from town and help round up cattle. When he had left Idaho and gone to San Francisco, he at first had hung around the docks and earned a few dollars running errands for shippers. Occasionally he would supplement his income with small thefts. With his saved money he decided to buy a yellow polo shirt and, eventually, a jacket with a brown and white houndstooth pattern.

HE FORCED the ice pick into the padlock until his wrists ached. Then he propped the padlock up and began to pound the ice pick’s handle with the heel of his hand, driving the tip of the pick into the lock. He placed the ice pick through the shackle of the padlock and braced the pick against the door of the refrigerator room, turning and twisting the lock. He had been stronger in the Merchant Marine. On lunch-counter and short-order jobs after he had quit shipping he had been stronger too. But more and more over the years he had come to hate working under the lunch-counter and restaurant managers, men as strong-willed and self-important as some of his teachers back in school, men as cocksure as Mr. Ricber. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, hearing his heart.

He went to search for a hammer in the dark but found a screwdriver instead. With it, he began to unscrew the staple over which the hasp on the metal-covered door fitted and through which the padlock was linked. With his fingers as guides, he worked at unscrewing each of the four screws that held the staple in place on the doorjamb until at last the staple and the lock swung free. “Mr. Inglis,” Mrs. Ricber had said the day he and the other men arrived at the resort. “You men may have your beer anytime after your work is done. Just remember Mr. Ricber wants to get things closed up by about eight.”She had been wearing a pair of pants that day, and she had walked off in such a way that she caught the eyes of all the men without her husband suspecting, walking as her older daughter walked, but with years of experience. He had drunk and digested the quart of beer allotted him hours ago. Now, placing the screwdriver on the floor, he opened the metal-covered door and walked into the dark refrigerator room, where cheeses and roasts and hamburger and the three five-gallon cans of milk were kept in the silent cold. He knew where the beer was, and in the dark he walked on the raised lath flooring and felt his way along the cold shelves until he came to the beer and picked up a frosted quart bottle, chilling his hands. He brought the bottle out of the refrigerator room and closed the door, then moved to the sink to find a bottle opener. He could not find one.

Crouching in the back room of a dry goods store on a Saturday evening, he had heard traffic through a closed window, heard people talking outside and known he must not answer them. Years ago. In his trousers pocket was twenty-six dollars in bills he had taken from a candy store’s cash register. Sitting there on the floor until it got dark, he seemed to wait for some particular thing, a remembered but vagrant thing that was seeking him. Now, as he banged the quart bottle against the edge of the wooden drainboard, he remembered how he had crouched in the back of the dry goods store until his stomach griped. He had laughed inside him at the thought of what he had done. He made his way back across the room and found the screwdriver and used it to pry off the bottle cap. He raised the bottle to his lips and swallowed. He could not remember where all that had been. Somewhere in California. Years ago. Fresno? Bakersfield? And the thing he had expected had not come. He had not been caught. The searching, vagrant thing had not found him, though it had surely been there, not far away, not farther than his arm’s reach. He swallowed the beer, feeling its harsh coldness soothe his throat and fall into an empty space below. When the bottle was empty, he put it on the floor and went back into the refrigerator room and felt for another one. What if they should find out in the morning? To hell with them then, he thought. “Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low . . .” They had sung that at campfire too. “And the flick’ring shadows softly come and go . . .” He had sought the eyes of Janet Rieber. “Though the heart be weary . . .” He had sung to her with soft conviction.

He drank the second quart bottle by a window near the sink, looking out at the dark hillside that rose up from the dining hall. When he had emptied the bottle, he stood balancing in the middle of the room, unsure where he was, spraddle-legged in the dark. When he moved, his foot kicked something — the ice pick — and it rolled across the floor. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he went into the refrigerator room again and got a third bottle. He opened it with the screwdriver and walked to the screen door and stepped out onto the stoop and stood there gazing at the clearing. His cabin looked flat against the trees. In the distance something glinted, maybe a shard of glass. He could feel his own swallowing in his ears, and holding the bottle at his side, he waited to hear the call of an owl or the crackle of some animal in the underbrush; he heard nothing but the trickle of a stream, then splashing. He heard it again, as if from bodies in water.

BENDING his knees, he slipped the bottle down along his dungarees until its bottom touched the wooden stoop. He left it standing there and shuffled down the two small steps, lithe as a dancer. He turned and walked close to the side of the dark and floating dining hall. His feet touched stones and twigs and pebbles. He walked beside the dark dining hall where secretaries and salesclerks and accountants and middle-aged schoolteachers and the Riebers ate his food every day, now floating dark as death, with grease on oilcloth table covers and sugar jars that needed refilling. He stopped by the dining hall’s front porch and stood looking out at the open space they called the mall, the flagless flagpole waiting at its other end, topped by a gold ball that shone in the light of the stars. The little log-cabin office next to the flagpole was locked. Some small creature shook the leaves beside him, and he began to move across the mall, swinging his arms in rhythm. He found the path leading up the hill and began to climb, leaning forward into the hill with his head bent and his arms and shoulders swinging to balance his legs, and after a time he felt no strain at all. He felt only the pleasure of blood pounding, irrigating his flesh, working through all the arteries that fed his body. He stopped at a point where the path leveled off and listened again. He walked up the path to the back of the shed that served as a pump house.

The pump house guarded the approach to the swimming pool and shielded his eyes from the place where, during the day, the secretaries and salesclerks and accountants and schoolteachers ran and splashed and stretched out in the sun. Now all was dark. Behind the pump house he stood waiting, as if his body had no weight and occupied only a point in time that carried him forward. Hidden there, he could see one bright corner of the pool, some twenty feet away. Light fell from the sky and by reflection wavered up from the pool. He heard splashing, and then the voices of the Riebers’ daughters became as clear as those of the boys and girls he had swum with in the river years ago, as clear as that of the red-haired girl who had let him hold her, underwater.

“Come on back in, Karen!”

“I don’t want to.”

“Come on, I said.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Scaredy-cat!”

“I am not! Mother said for us to come home early.”

“She never.”

“Yes, she did. She said —”

“Well, I’m not tired yet. Come on, I’ll race you! Scaredy-cat!”

Running his hand from his forehead down over his mouth, Harry began to move along the back of the pump house. At its corner he stood pressed against the boards. He started toward the concrete walk around the pool where the benches stood, where the guests stretched out in the daytime, seeing the wooden bathhouse at one end and the redwood fence at the other, and then he stood with both hands lifted away from his sides as though he were waiting, animal-like, to spring forward. He saw the pool and the bathhouse and the dirt road beyond them that ran up to the Riebers’ house. Pale dust rose on the road in the daytime, but now it was just a scar in the moonlight, with stiff weeds standing gray beside it, and the pool was a glinting body that rippled softly as the water flowed into it at one end and lapped over the concrete trough at the sides and gurgled into the drains that carried the water back into the pump house. The motor of the pump within its chamber behind him hummed, and the canvas curtains at the bathhouse entrances hung moist and silent.

The girls were not there. Harry ran forward. Then he trotted down the concrete walk to the women’s side of the bathhouse and flung open the canvas curtain and stepped inside to surprise them. They were not there. He ran to each darkened shower stall and looked inside it, then turned and ran back toward the doorway, pushed the canvas aside, and stepped out onto the concrete walk, but he did not see them, and he decided they must be hiding from him. The pool rippled quietly under the power of the pump, and the stars lay on it in broken images, shattered. He knew the girls could not have gone far. Perhaps they were playing games. He had always liked girls who played games, who teased him. But a wave of fear washed over him. Suppose something had happened to them. Suppose they had drowned! As in a memory of dark horror, he saw the girls stretched out near the bottom of the swimming pool, their aching, drowning mouths working in silence.

With measured, light steps he ran to the pool and sprang through the air, turning over as he did, striking his shoulders into the water, striking his face against the surface, sinking into the cold.

He sank, moving his arms and legs, his new shoes weighing him down, swallowing water and crying out soundlessly. He felt his shoes touch the bottom, and he waved his arms through the darkness. The chlorine in the water burned his eyes. He thrashed the resisting water, and with water in his throat he clawed against the sides. For a moment he rested against the bottom. Then he began to churn with his legs, reaching for the walls with his hands, feeling the sides and bottom of the pool for the girls’ bodies, moving against the cold, and wanting to gasp but not daring to open his mouth, and finally swallowing in great gulps. He clawed the wall, his fingernails slipping on the smooth tiles, and pushed himself up with his legs until he burst through the surface and gasped for fresh air and reached out for the concrete trough. He hung there by his fingers, coughing.

When he had caught his breath, he pulled himself out of the pool. He crawled to the concrete walk and sat sprawled on it, letting the water run from his body and from his hair. The chlorine still stung his eyes. He had not found the girls at the bottom of the pool. They had not been there at all. He stared across the pool to the dirt road, trying to breathe normally. Soon he began to shiver in the light breeze. The shivering would not stop, and in a few moments he stood and began to walk down the path toward the dining hall, with dirt clinging to his wet shoes, following the path to a level space, slipping on stones and looking behind him. He went down to the mall, crossed it, and hurried along beside the dining hall until he came to the clearing in back of the kitchen, where he stumbled and fell. He picked himself up and brushed his hands off on his dungarees and made his way to his cabin.

Back inside his cabin, Harry turned on the light and stood in the middle of the floor, shivering. He wrapped his arms around his chest and looked at the wall. One corner of the newspaper photograph of the girl who had got amnesia had come loose and had begun to curl upward, giving her face a funny, haughty smile. He tugged off his wet shirt and dropped it to the floor. He tried to pull off his dungarees too, but feeling dizzy, he fell on his cot face down and saw waves of color rise before his eyes. The girls had not been at the pool that night at all, and he had heard no splashing and no voices. He had heard only the wind in the trees and the rippling of the water under the force of the pump, and he had known it all along. Harry Inglis had tricked himself— he had played a foul trick on himself—and he had known it all along, he had not really been fooled at all, and tomorrow the Riebers would find out about the stolen beer and the forced padlock on the door of the refrigerator room, and if they asked him about it, he would lie, and if they did not believe him, they would send him away. Well, let them, he thought; let them. He would go right back to the Haven of Hope, in San Francisco. He thought that he was going to laugh, but he did not. Turning over on his side, he raised one hand and covered his mouth, breathing through his stilldamp fingers. He drew his legs up under him in a passive crouch and gazed at the wall. I am forty-seven, he thought. Four. Seven. Three less than fifty. Seven more than forty. Eleven — no, thirteen less than sixty. He reached out to trace the grain of a board in the wall. With his fingers he followed the intricate grain of the wood to the farthest limits of the board, where the pattern ended.