JIM Locke sets gently on the undisturbed earth a mahogany box, opens it, and takes out his transit, which looks like a spyglass. It is a tool for imposing levelness on an irregular world.
Locke's transit is made of steel with small brass adjusting wheels and is as old as the century, more than twice as old as Locke, who is thirty-six. He uses it near the beginnings of jobs and first of all for guiding bulldozers. Locke erects the transit on a tripod. He turns the brass wheels until the bubble, encased in glass beneath the eyepiece, floats to the center of its chamber.
This piece of ground was once part of a New England hayfield. It lies on the southern outskirts of Amherst, Massachusetts, a college and university town, the kind of place that has a fine public-school system and a foreign policy. The site has been studied all winter. It commands pretty views. There's a deep-looking woods on one edge. On another there's a pasture, which turns into the precipitous, forested, publicly owned hills known as the Holyoke Range. And to the north and east there's a panorama. Look north and you see a hillside orchard topped with two giant maples locally known as Castor and Pollux. Look a little east and your view extends out over a broad valley, all the way to the Pelham Hills, which have turned blue at this morning hour.
The air has some winter in it. On this morning in mid April, 1983, a New England spring snow is predicted. The sky looks prepared. It has a whitening look. Several weeks must pass before dandelions appear, but the urge to build has turned April into May. While Locke prepares for the transformation of this ground, four others pace around, killing time. They have their collars turned up and their hands thrust deep into coat pockets. They wait with reddening noses. None of the onlookers needs to be here, but none would have willingly stayed away. Among them is a very tall man named Bill Rawn. He is the architect. He has driven all the way from Boston to witness the birth of the first house he has ever designed, and he grins while he waits. There are Judith and Jonathan Souweine, the woman and the man of the house-to-be. (Their surname is French and is pronounced "Suh-wayne" or, if one is in a hurry, "Swayne.") They have spent months planning for this moment, and they have imagined it for many more. Judith and Jonathan smile at each other. Judith takes a few snapshots while Jim Locke works with the transit.
Turning her camera on Locke, Judith sees a refined-looking young man. "Obviously, his upbringing was very upper middle class," she says that she thought when she first met him. "Everything about him was -- well, you know. He's made a conscious decision not to be a white-collar professional." Locke is wearing jeans and work boots and an old brown jacket, a workingman's uniform. His clothes are clean and he is clean-shaven. He has straight brown hair, neatly trimmed and combed, and a long, narrow jaw. There is a delicacy in his features. You can imagine his mother in him. He has a thoughtful air. He studies his transit a moment, laying two fingers on his lips. Then, as he bends again to the eyepiece, he wipes his hair off his forehead and for a moment he looks boyish and defiant. The ceremony can begin as soon as the bulldozer arrives.
When Locke has begun to wonder whether it is coming at all, it appears - - a small, yellow machine on a large trailer. Locke gives the driver instructions, while the others hang back. The bulldozer puffs smoke and clanks down off the trailer. The first pass the machine makes over the ground, ripping the hair off the earth, looks like an act of great violence. The bulldozer does resemble a beast, but the creature is both unruly and extremely methodical. Gradually the sense of disruption goes out of the scene. The machine goes back over the same, suddenly dark ground. Piles of earth mount up. The hole deepens and, as sand appears, turns orange. Watching the bulldozer work is restful and mesmerizing. Its noise discourages speech, leaving each member of the party alone and thoughtful.
This group does have a few worries. They have not settled all the details of the plan. They have not arrived at a final price for the house. They have not yet signed a contract. Jim Locke wanted all of that done before this day. He felt that he had to go ahead, knowing that if he delayed he might not get the excavator for weeks. But Locke can imagine events that would leave him holding the bill for this work. He and the Souweines have begun to build on faith, without much knowledge of each other.
The party lingers a while. The bulldozer's cab begins to sink beneath the level of the field.
FOR eight years, Judith and Jonathan shared with another young couple a duplex in Pelham, a town that adjoins Amherst. But both families grew too large for the place, and reluctantly they all agreed that the time for moving on had come. Judith's parents, Florence and Jules Wiener, had settled in a new house on about twenty sloping acres. Jonathan and Judith looked around. They decided that they'd like to buy a piece of her parents' property. They liked the idea of locating three generations of their family on adjoining land. It was a traditional arrangement that had grown uncommon. They imagined many advantages. They also thought that it was a slightly risky undertaking, but they like to see themselves as people who are not afraid of taking chances. Jonathan is hardly a typical son-in-law. He adores Judith's mother, and he and her father have been friends ever since Jonathan was seventeen and came courting Judith. Both Jonathan and Jules are lawyers, and it's a family joke that if Jonathan and Judith ever sued each other for divorce, Jules would opt to represent his son-in-law.
So Judith and Jonathan made their offer to her parents, who concealed momentarily their great delight, lest they seem too eager and stir up second thoughts. Jules and Florence deeded to Jonathan and Judith about four acres of land. The Souweines would have a house built on it by the time the youngest of their three children entered kindergarten.
JONATHAN is polite and very direct. In conversation he tends to curtness, but let him get on a subject that truly engages him, such as a coming election, and he becomes positively garrulous, tapping his listener's arm for emphasis, talking so swiftly that his words slur. He looks his best at such moments, or running a meeting, or speaking in front of a political gathering, or striding down a street. He clearly likes command. He is an inch below six feet. He has broad shoulders. He comes at you a little sleepy-eyed, wearing a small, crooked grin, and carrying his arms out from his body in a way that makes you think of impending showdowns in westerns.
Jonathan started college on a basketball scholarship, and even now, in a business suit, his hair in middle-aged retreat, he looks like a busy play-making guard -- what sportswriters call the spark-plug type. He was a good athlete and a better student. He gave up his scholarship, went to Columbia, participated in protests against the Vietnam War, campaigned for a liberal, anti-war congressman, and went on to Harvard Law School. He imagined himself becoming a lawyer who would work for the public good. He spent a year clerking for a federal judge and another in the department of consumer protection of the Massachusetts attorney general's office; in between he took command of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group and in that capacity led a number of lobbying campaigns, for solar energy and for a bottle bill and against white-collar crime. Then Jonathan ran for district attorney of Hampshire and Franklin counties. It was now or probably never, he told Judith. Against all predictions - - he was a newcomer, out spoken, and even a little left wing - - Jonathan won the Democratic primary. He lost the general election, and soon afterward he became a country lawyer. For the sake of his family he gave up running for office, but he has kept his hand in as an epistolary politician. He writes letters to editors assessing political candidates. He writes about burning issues of the day and also about local fund-raising events. He has written so many letters, and so many have been published locally, that a Jonathan Souweine letter to the editor has become a virtual institution in Amherst and the towns nearby. Some people think he is still running for office, but clearly he is writing letters instead.
A former lieutenant in Jonathan's campaign remembers a quiet day in their office when a stranger, a middle-aged man, walked in off the street and asked what sort of name was Souweine.
"French," Jonathan said.
The man looked greatly relieved. "Thank God. I thought you were Jewish."
"I am," Jonathan said pleasantly.
"He looked right at the guy," his former lieutenant remembers. "Jonathan told him he hoped that religion wouldn't be an issue in the election. He talked to the guy for about ten minutes, and I remember thinking as I watched, This is Jonathan in one of his best moments."
Jonathan has fun. He does not deny himself the pleasure of a gaudy necktie now and then. He has a way with children. He emerges from a movie about Robin Hood - - his favorite hero - - teaching his boys how to swashbuckle down the street. EJe says, "I love trials. I love the intensity, the action." Losing the race for DA, he insists, was a fine, enlightening experience, nearly as rewarding as winning, he guesses. Jonathan seems to believe in coming home with his shield - - or else on it.
Judith likes to mix it up now and then too. She is small, with black curly hair. She hopes to become a representative to the Amherst Town Meeting, a yearly congress on town affairs that usually lasts for days. It's some people's idea of torture and her idea of fun. She runs Amherst's preschool program for children with special needs. Of the fights between her teachers' union and the local schoolboard, battles in which she will participate during the building of her house, she says, "There's one guy on our team who's not confrontational. But me? My idea is you yell, you scream, you pack the room and have emotional floor fights. What could be better? So we lose. At least we'll go down kicking and screaming." She explains, "If you grow up with a lot of yelling and screaming, yelling and screaming doesn't scare you. In fact, you kind of like it."
She's the bosomy, softhearted, affectionate, challenging mother, who minds everyone's business and who says, when Jonathan scolds her for offering unsolicited advice to friends, "They want my advice. They just don't know it." She is also a woman in a suit. She has a master's and a doctorate in education and has done a great deal of postdoctoral work, particularly in the study of disabilities that cut children off from learning. She has worked as a guidance counselor and a special-education teacher. She developed the pre-school program that she now runs. She has written books and papers and delivered many lectures, and has served as a consultant to a number of schools besides Amherst's - - they asked for her advice. She has contributed to her field. She is "Judith" or "Judith Souweine," and she sometimes corrects people who forget or don't know and call her Judy or Mrs. Souweine. She also laughs a great deal and often at herself. Her smile has light. It tempers the occasional sharpness of her tongue. She's self-assured, sarcastic, and merry as birdsong in the morning. Most strangers find it hard not to warm to her. She cries easily. Her nose turns red beforehand. Talking to Jonathan, she calls him Souweine, or Pook, or sometimes Pookeroo.
Of the friendships they share, Judith says, "In most cases I'm closer to the friend than Jonathan, because Jonathan doesn't talk to people. He just talks to me."
"Judith's a very good friend," Jonathan says. "She likes to chat. I don't. If you've got a good marriage and you like your kids, you just don't have much time to make new friendships. I find I get a lot more back from my wife and kids than from any friendship."
"In our family," Judith says, "I take care of the big emotional decisions."
"I like the ceremonial occasions," Jonathan says. "You can feel emotion, but not too much emotion."
She attends to their social life and to matters of aesthetics. Jonathan, she says, has little aesthetic sense, and he agrees. He is their organizational genius, however. His principal tool is the list. If he has a great deal to do tomorrow, as he almost always does, he cannot sleep until he records his obligations in a list. He pulls lists out of pockets, drawers, his briefcase.
Judith and Jonathan call themselves "B-plus people," a condition they define this way: "Life's not perfect. Get it done." They keep appointments and don't like to be kept waiting themselves. They revel in being busy and worry sometimes that they carry busyness too far. They astonished their housemates in the duplex at first, Jonathan remembers. "Come Friday, they'd be tired out and want to regroup and sit around and read, and there we'd be with every piece of sports equipment you could have and thirty-two community meetings to go to."
They have a fine, sturdy marriage that is more than a marriage. It is an enterprise. They make a formidable combination. They are decisive. They know their own minds. And they knew what they wanted in a house. They wanted a study so that Jonathan could work at home more often than he did. They wanted a remote master bedroom and a special domain for children. To ease traffic jams during the morning rush to schools and office they wanted a bigger kitchen and more than the one bathroom they had in the duplex. "And a place where we can all sit down and play a game," Judith said. "And a place for the kids' markers." They had given huge parties in the duplex, but a larger house would make a better site for parties. "It's nice to have a house where you can do weddings and bar mitzvahs," Judith said. "When I was growing up, there was an unwritten rule that you did those things at home." The location of their imagined house would improve their opportunities for hiking and bike riding and cross-country skiing. Because their yard would not be enclosed in woods, as their present one was, they would be able to do a lot of gardening. When Judith and Jonathan thought of a new house, they thought mainly of their family's busy social, civic, working, sporting, life, and maybe even of packing a few more activities into it. "When you get more space, you can do more stuff," Judith said, smiling.
Judith and Jonathan had imagined in some detail a house that would suit them functionally. Jonathan had already begun making lists. But they were stuck on the question, among others, of what style of house theirs should be. How should it look to their new neighbors, to their friends, and to people passing by on the old road to Boston, down at the bottom of the hill?
Judith and Jonathan had not rearranged their political philosophy to suit fashion or their growing affluence, and they did not want to display their bank account in the facade of their new house. "I won't be a brilliant lawyer," Jonathan once remarked. "I work hard and I'm a good lawyer, and that's good enough for almost any situation, and it's good enough for me." A plain-styled, sturdy house would have suited him best. Judith's first impulse was utilitarian: "It's the structural details that can change the quality of your life." They had made up their minds, though, to build a house of 3,000 square feet, in a region where custom-made houses cost at least $50 per foot. "By any standard," Jonathan would say later, "it's a lot of house and a lot of money." Neither he nor Judith wanted to spend what looked to them like an enormous sum and end up with what Judith called "just a big box." (The enormous differences in the cost of living from one part of America to another are almost entirely accounted for by differences in the cost of housing. What is merely a studio apartment in Boston is an expensive house in Amherst.)
Judith grew up in a large and stylish house on Long Island. It had a foyer and a graceful staircasc and a full butler's pantry. Judith did not imagine a reproduction of that house. It would have cost too much, and anyway, she did not want to imprison herself in the past. But she had been happy in that lovely house, and she did think back to it sometimes when she thought ahead to her new one. So did Jonathan. "I grew up in a Long Island subdivision, in a split-level house. All the houses were the same. I didn't mind. I didn't think about it. Then I met Judith, and Judith lived in this beautiful Colonial house. It was just gorgeous. It made me aware that there was something other than split-levels. It made me aware."
Although she and Jonathan considered many options, they began to feel that they didn't have all the skills to invent their new house by themselves. And time was running out. Finally, late in January, 1983, they decided to call in an architect. "We felt the problems of building a house were too complex for us and we're great believers in professionalism," Judith said afterward. "It looked like a difficult piece of land. We wanted to get someone with a lot of aesthetic ideas, too. Aesthetics are not as important to us as the function. They're important, but they're not where we start."
THE top of a standard doorframe is six feet eight inches from the floor. Bill Rawn's head just misses tops of doorways, like a trailer truck going under highway bridges. Bill is just short enough to live in a standardized world. He is slender. He has thick, dark, shiny hair, hair of good health, and a handsome face. In his office, in Boston, Bill usually wears dress shirts and penny loafers and casual pants - - jeans or corduroys. The pants are usually too short. They leave a lot of ankle exposed. When the time nears for Bill to leave his office, to meet a prospective client or go to lunch, he ducks into his closet. He reappears soon afterward, knotting a tie, dressed in a gray flannel suit, tailored, transformed. He worries that his metamorphosis in the closet may seem "a little false," but there's nothing unnatural-looking about Bill in a suit. He has become a man of affairs. On the street he catches people's eyes. Passing him, you might wonder if you had seen him in the paper or on TV last night.
Bill speaks fluently on other subjects, but it can be nerve-wracking to hear him talk about designs of houses and buildings. When he begins a sentence, you worry that he may not find his way to the end of it. He has a very deep voice, prone to cracking in moments of excitement. Words fail him. He stammers. "Bill's appealing awkwardness," one female acquaintance calls it. When Bill begins to draw, however, he is all authority and purpose. His long fingers move with assurance and grace. Bill's right hand is clearly his proper grammar book and dictionary.
Bill's resume is six and a half well-stocked pages long. Its high points suggest the history of a Renaissance man in delirium. It takes him from Yale and a degree in political science to Harvard Law School, to two years in a large law firm, to the post of assistant chancellor at the University of Massachusetts. In the meantime, he established himself as a successful artist, whose work was displayed in Soho, uptown New York, and Amsterdam. Finally, in the late 1970s, he threw over all of his other careers for the one he had always dreamed of pursuing and went to architectural school at MIT, where he won the design prize for his graduating class. He went on to work, under titless of ascending importance, for Davis, Brody & Associates, a large architectural firm in New York. Around the time when the Souweines were imagining a new house; Bill decided to start his own firm, in Boston.
Bill and the Souweines had met years before, during a political campaign, and for many years since they had spent a summer week together on Cape Cod. Bill spent hours alone on the beach, didn't insist that the others join him, always washed the dishes, didn't care if he got a bed, and actually seemed to prefer a mattress on the floor. When the Souweines decided to consult an architect, they thought of Bill. Perhaps they could help him get started in his practice. Besides, Bill was brilliant. If they were B-plus people, Bill was A-plus -- a perfectionist.
When Bill got the phone call in January, inviting him to Amherst - - to explore the possibilities, no commitments either way - - he felt grateful. He felt flattered. Even though he was essentially a rookie, they trusted him as a friend. The mainstays of his life, friends and architecture, were coming together in his first commission, his first command.
Bill had the feeling he had used up all the time allotted him for trying out new careers. "You start at age forty ... I come from a social world that expects success, whatever that means. It's fine to fiddle around for a while. Your friends are amused, and then you throw all that up to become an architect. You don't do that very many times." In talking about the Souweines' house, Bill said, "Single-family houses are mainly not architected. But they have been a means for architects to acquire reputations."
A house wants a place," Bill Rawn likes to say. When he arrived for his first site visit and consultation, he was pleased to find that his friends' land had meadow on one side and woods on another. They had bought an edge of a woods, and the edge of a woods is a definite place in a way that an open field or the middle of a woods is not.
Jonathan spoke about the front door. The one to the Sonweines' side of the duplex stood out of the way and invited little use. Jonathan said he wanted an unmistakable front door. If they were going to pay for a front door, he wanted people to use it. Bill had a compatible desire. He believed that a house should "respond" to the nearest public thoroughfare. It should not turn its back on public and community, and certainly not if it was the house of Jonathan and Judith Souweine. Bill thought he would also like to keep the new house's windows from opening directly onto Judith's parents' dormered Cape, to the east, or onto the split-levels down the hill across the road, to the north. The road, he noticed, ran past the Souweines' land in a line almost exactly east to west. How to honor the road and the bucolic while avoiding mundane views of other houses?
As Judith and Jonathan talked, Bill sketched a rectangle. One long side of the house that Bill was now building faced roughly south. One of the narrow ends faced west, into trees. The other narrow end looked out on the big, open view. On the long south side he installed a lot of windows. Into the narrow east side he put a front door. He turned the house a little off the east-west axis - - 15 degrees, eventually - - so that the front door, although not directly facing the road, would open up in view of it. No one driving up from the road would miss that front door.
The Souweines described their wish to set aside a domain for their children, one large and nice enough to keep them there a while. Bill drew an upstairs to the house and assigned the whole thing to the children - - three bedrooms, two playrooms. The Souweines wanted to recapture some of the privacy they had enjoyed before they'd had children. To the back of the large rectangle Bill appended a smaller, narrower one, a one-story extension with bedroom and bath, nestled into the woods. The windows of this master bedroom would look out upon the line of the woods, down upon a brook, away from Judith's parents' house, a little bit away from it all.
Judith and Jonathan wanted a big living room. It should serve for formal dining now and then and for parties. It should contain their baby grand piano. It should also invite informal family gatherings. That old home of Judith's childhood had a grand living room and also a de facto one, a den with an unaccountable coziness about it, where the family always congregated, leaving the living room for company. The Souweines could not afford two living rooms, so this one room had to be versatile. Bill drew a living room running the width of the house - - a well-lighted room with windows on both north and south walls and many fine views through them. He made the room rectangular, because in his experience squares diminish the possibilities for coziness. He installed a chimney at the center of the house, behind the living room's east wall, and sketched a hearth for the Souweines to gather around. Judith and Jonathan told him they wanted a spacious, sunny kitchen and an ample breakfast nook beside it - - the house would have no dining room. Bill gave over the southeastern half of the main floor to those rooms. Jonathan said he had to have a study. He would like a pantry, but he would trade it for a study. Bill fit the study into the northeastern side of the plan, next to the foyer. There the little study's window would command both the grand view and the sunrise. Bill rarely feels awake before noon, but Jonathan rises early and Bill wanted him to have the morning sun.
At a single sitting, out of the void of virtually unlimited possibilities, Bill had summoned a floor plan that fulfilled Judith's and Jonathan's most important wishes for a house. Bill felt warmed up himself. This basic form could answer his wishes too. This layout - - the rectangular box with a front door in the gable end, more or less facing the road -- had a historic precedent. Elaborated in his mind, its roof, its paint, its moldings on, it was a kind of American house that he had long admired casually.
"What this house wants to be is Greek Revival," Bill said.
"It does?" Judith said. "How does it know?"
ANYONE in the building trades knows unpleasant stories about architects. The architect sacrifices the client's dreams and comfort for the sake of his own art in so many tales that you have to suspect arrogance is a hazard of the trade. But if you watched Bill help the Souweines make decisions for themselves, you'd know that he is not a martinet. He has a reservoir of what the Romantic poets called sympathetic imagination. But when he believes that he is right, Bill does not give in easily. "He's real mild, and real obstinate," Jim Locke says of him.
When dealing with professionals, many people vacillate between servility and resentment. Jonathan and Judith believe in choosing their experts carefully, conveying their wishes clearly, and then surrendering some of their authority. The Souweines worried that a house whose style derived from Greek Revival might look ostentatious. They had thought they wanted something along the lines of a New England farmhouse. With courtliness and persistence Bill allayed many of their fears. Jonathan and Judith questioned him closely and decided to let him have his way.
Bill belongs to the contextualist branch of the post-modern movement in architecture. The contextualist believes not in form for form's sake, as many modernist architects did, but in appropriate form. To Bill, contextualism means designs that partake of a community's character and history. The nineteenth-century passion for Greek architecture left its mark on Amherst. Bill wanted to capture the spirit of Amherst's old Greek Revival buildings in a new design. Studying those old buildings, he defined for himself the salient visual features of the form; his synthesis was stately but simple, at least when compared with many real Greek Revival buildings. Bill applied this synthesis to three sides of the Souweine house's exterior. He imagined the long, south-facing wall differently.
Bill envisioned a south wall that would mark the house as a work of post-modern architecture. He wanted to create a wall that would emphasize its openings and celebrate southern light, and that would also give inhabitants the feeling of being enclosed. Standing behind walls made of broad sheets of glass had always made Bill feel that he was at the unfenced edge of a precipice. So he filled the southern wall not with huge expanses of glass but with many traditional, mullioned windows. This was his way of supplying interrupted surfaces that would make people sitting near those windows feel unconsciously at ease.
Arranging all the windows into a pleasing composition was a difficult puzzle. Bill worked on it assiduously, alone in the office that he had rented in Boston, racing against a deadline to complete what he considered the most important part of the exterior. He finished on time. The experience left him uncharacteristically short-tempered, but not for long. Although a great deal of drawing lay ahead of him, he had done the hardest part. And he was excited. He was about to see something wonderful happen. He was about to see his first commissioned design turn into a house. He was about to see paper get turned into wood.
COMPARED with towns near the Connecticut River, settlements in the hills just a dozen miles or so to the west and north of Amherst seem like outposts. On March 1, a month and a half before the groundbreaking, as a dank mist fell on Amherst, it rained ice up in the hills. That night, in a little community called Apple Valley, limbs were snapping, a sound just like gunfire, and the power was out. Inside a house on a hillside Jim Locke and two of his partners sat at a kitchen table. They were members of a small building company of equal partners, called Apple Corps. The fourth member, Alex Ghiselin, was out of town. At the table were Jim, a broad-shouldered fellow in wire-rimmed glasses named Ned Krutsky, and Richard Gougeon, a bearded man, who owned the house where they had gathered. In the eerie light of a Coleman lantern the forearms of the three carpenters looked enormous, like clubs.
"This is the best-looking house I've seen in a long time," Jim said.
Jim and his partners had before them invitations to bid on three new houses. The Souweine job was the biggest. They could all see from a glance at the plans that the framing would be tricky and the trim challenging. "It's neat," Jim said. In the drawings on the table, in the flickering light, the three partners could foresee a full and interesting summer of building from scratch. They were eager for the smell of clean, new wood.
Even more than Richard and Ned, Jim wanted to build the Souweine house. In their ten years together Apple Corps had followed a policy that is unusual among builders. The partner who ran a given job - - usually the one a customer called first - - got paid less per hour for planning the work and dealing with money than he and the others received for driving nails and sawing wood. The arrangement was a statement about the group's early social philosophy. It had the practical effect of keeping any one partner from becoming too fond of bossing the others around. Jim had once favored the practice. Now he thought they should abandon it. Jonathan had called Jim. If the Souweines accepted Apple Corps's bid, Jim would run the job. He wanted to run it. For many years Jim had viewed as a chore the part of building that is business. He was ready to let himself get interested in business now.
AT a lumberyard once, needing to measure the width of a board and having no ruler, Jim spread his right hand on the surface of the wood and declared, "It's twelve inches." He had long ago measured the breadth of his opened hands, to enhance their utility. Only on a very large man would Jim's hands look normal. Just one of them opened can cover his long face, from ear to ear and forehead to chin. He could keep one hand behind his back and still play peekaboo with a baby. Although a knuckle is likely to carry a wound now and then, Jim keeps his hands very clean and the nails neatly trimmed. His hands look serene, in the manner of graceful animals.
Jim was born to work with his hands, but he doesn't feel he was raised to do so. Both of his parents excelled in college. Both were Phi Beta Kappas. His father is an eminent lawyer. "Education was pushed at me as a way of being successful," Jim says. He went to a public high school and for a year to a prep school. He went to two different colleges in the 1960s. Some were good schools, some poor, he thinks. Wherever he went, he did badly. "I couldn't really flunk out of college," he explains, "because there weren't really any grades at the ones I went to."
He drifted away from them without a diploma. "It's funny," he says, "because I love learning things and I got some real highs in there, and even now I get purely intellectual joy out of things." Jim speaks softly and always grammatically. He often analyzes his own thoughts and sometimes analyzes his analysis. He seems to have drawn a distinction between education and schools, the sort that some God-fearing people draw between religion and its churches. Jim reads a great deal. Before he would pick up his toolbox in the mornings that spring and summer, he would read, among other things, the books Understanding Wood, Vanity Fair, and Pride and Prejudice and issues of the magazine Fine Woodworking.
Jim had a passion for automobiles as a boy. Drifting around between colleges and afterward, he earned his way as a mechanic. He got married. He was raised near Boston, but born in the Connecticut River Valley. In 1972 Jim came back to his birthplace. He bought acreage in the hill town of Ashfield, in an area of dirt roads and orchards. That summer he set up a tent on his land and built a house. He had no experience working in wood. He and his wife labored alone, one long summer, just they and a book, Rex Roberts's Your Engineered House.
In 1973, after serving that isolated apprenticeship, Jim turned pro. He went to work for a building contractor and learned the trade mostly by watching other carpenters.
Jim and another young settler in Apple Valley worked for the same contractor that year. Their boss's business looked doomed. Jim and the other young man took a job on their own, helping Alex Ghiselin renovate a house. Alex joined them in business. They persuaded a local architect to let them bid on a new house. Then Richard Gougeon came onto the team.
Richard had a different sort of pedigree from Jim's. "Jim and I," Richard says, "we come from completely different ends of the rope." But Richard, more than the other members of the partnership, has been Jim's alter ego, his improbable secret sharer.
Jim lacked interest in school. Richard was dyslexic. Richard worked hard at his books, but he could not read well enough to keep up. He flunked every grade through the tenth but was always passed on to the next. He finally got a chance to acquire some self-esteem when he was sent to a trade school. In twelfth grade there his classmates named him carpenter of the year. Jim had moved to the hills west of the Connecticut River. Richard was raised there. During most of his childhood he lived in a house trailer. His father's family came from Canada in the late 1800s. His father worked as a farmer, as a lumberjack, and as a repairer of equipment - - trucks, tractors, balers.
Richard is short, with a physique that would serve for socialist posters. His beard is full and black. He has a booming voice and usually keeps the volume turned up. His repertoire of laughter ranges from silent mugging, eyes wide and mouth shut as if on something inedible, to bellowing, head back on his shoulders - - it could bring down rain.
Like Jim, Richard built a house for his family in Apple Valley. He did so in his spare time, on nights and weekends, and mostly by himself. By the spring of 1974 he had reached the roof. On a Sunday morning his father came over to lend a hand. They were putting up the rafters when a car pulled in. A moment later there appeared over the top of the ladder a lithe stranger with a nailbag and hammer hung from his waist. That was how Richard first met Jim, when Jim came unasked to help with the roof.
In the years that followed, the partnership survived many squabbles. When they named themselves Apple Corps, after Apple Valley, some hill-town tradesmen smiled. This group sounded like another bunch of hippie carpenters. In fact, though all had built or renovated their own houses and Richard had practiced carpentry since tenth grade, none knew much about the business of contracting.
Apple Corps grew up together, as Richard says. Their skills evolved. Their business practices lagged behind. Contractors get wealthy in part by subcontracting out large pieces of a job, hiring unskilled labor for some aspects of it and semiskilled labor for others, and bringing in the crack carpenters at the end, for the things that show in a house. Even the best contractors cut corners, for the sake of reduced labor costs. Apple Corps always hired subcontractors for the plumbing and wiring, often for the heating and masonry, and sometimes for the painting, but they did the rest of the work themselves. Their reluctance to hire helpers meant that their overhead was low and they could underbid many other contractors. It also meant that they could build only one large or two small houses in a summer, which reduced their opportunities for profit. Although the practice made Richard shake his head (to him, it was a form of not minding your own business), they had turned down jobs once in a while, because they did not care to execute certain sorts of designs with certain kinds of materials. "I've never put on aluminum siding yet," Jim remarks, with evident satisfaction. They did no advertising to speak of, and you could not even find the company's name in the phone book. In the last good year of forty hour weeks each of the partners had earned about $20,000 in salary and profit, enough to live comfortably, but hardly enough to get rich. They had often talked about making more money, but collectively they had felt reluctant to change their ways.
In their ten years Apple Corps had laid hands on more than two hundred houses. They had left their mark on the countryside. They had gotten steady work solely through the recommendations of former customers and the good notices of tradesmen. Jim always hated the company name, but he felt proud of Apple Corps's accomplishments.
WITH Ned's and Richard's help, Jim came up with an estimate. The Souweines accepted his bid. But Bill had been given scarcely a month to invent a new house, and the plans Jim bid on, though nice-looking, were sketchy. The imagined house began to change. Jim, Bill, and the Souweines held many long meetings. During these, Judith made a study of Jim.
"Jim's of, you know, the same genre we are. But he's gone a different way. He made a conscious decision not to do what Jonathan's done. So all that makes it a little more complicated than if we'd hired another builder." Jim's apparent concern for the quality of her new house amazed Judith. She liked that side of Jim, but other traits she found slightly exasperating. Jim seemed reluctant to bargain, unwilling to enter the fray of commerce: "It's sort of naive, sort of purist Yankee." In fact rural Yankees once made a name for themselves as clever horse traders, but at some point, in the western hills at least, Yankee tradesmen gave up bargaining for the take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Judith considered the possibility that the slight discomfort she felt with Jim might stem from "an ethnic difference." She had known anti-Semitism, though, and she had not felt that from Jim. It would be odd if she had, because Jim's father is Jewish. Jim had no reason to mention that fact to Judith. Jim's friends describe his looks, accurately enough, as "Waspy." But Judith guessed right anyway. "It doesn't have to do with being Jewish or non-Jewish," she concluded. "It's a cultural-political difference."
ON a Monday in late April, Jim walks into Jonathan's office in Northampton carrying a zippered leather case wedged tightly under his arm. Any purse snatcher would know that something inside was worth caring about. The case contains Jim's final price for the house and, on many sheets of yellow legal paper, the history of that price. It started at $162,000. The Souweines subtracted the garage and half a dozen other expensive items. The price fell to about $139,000. It started back up again as the Souweines and Bill made new substitutions and additions. Jim's case contains the estimated cost of materials from Apple Corps's usual supplier; firm estimates on foundation work, plumbing, heating, wiring, painting, and insulating from Apple Corps's usual subcontractors; and Apple Corps's estimate of its members' own labor. Jim has put all those figures together and has added ten percent to the total, to cover overhead and profit and fear of miscalculation. He has come up with a hill-town Yankee's price. It is an exact looking figure, rounded to the nearest ten dollars.
From his last meeting with Jonathan, Jim knows that the Souweines hope for concessions on the price, but he's not sure that, even as it stands, it is high enough to cover the cost of this house and bring in a modest profit for Apple Corps. The builders have turned down all other jobs for this one, though. In planning this house Jim has invested at least two weeks' time, for which he hasn't yet been paid. Losing this job would rank among the large setbacks in Apple Corps's history. Jim feels nervous. He says so, rather nervously, to Judith and Jonathan.
Judith sits knitting in a chair in front of Jonathan's desk. She smiles at Jim and trades some small talk.
Just to build the house they want - - and never mind the purchase of the land - - Judith and Jonathan must borrow, at 13 percent interest, $100,000, the maximum that the local savings-and-loans will lend for house construction. To raise the remaining tens of thousands, whatever they come to exactly, the Souweines hope for a good and timely sale of their old house, and, of course, houses aren't always easy to sell. Jonathan hasn't lost much sleep over the money, but the sheer amount makes Judith nervous. She confesses later to an embattled feeling - - "It's us against the world, you know." The world is a troupe of unknown lumber dealers and workers, with a building contractor at their head. You turn everything over to a gang of people who don't really know you or have any reason to care about you. You turn over dreams, pride, and money. It's a frightening gamble. Judith and Jonathan don't intend to undertake it without some reassurances and some measure of control.
Jonathan hopes that Jim's final price will be around $142,000. He fears it will be more, and if it is, he'll ask Jim to lower it, if only to get proof that Jim will compromise with them. Judith is a trained psychologist, among other things. She can foresee an argument. The prospect doesn't frighten her. She smiles and knits. A button on the lapel of her blazer reads, GOOD CONTRACT GOOD EDUCATION, a token of the role she plays in negotiations elsewhere. If she feels at all nervous, it's well concealed in the thrust and parry of her needles.
They begin. "Okay, Judith, tell him," Jonathan says.
"I will really go crazy if I have to live with my father for a month. My sense was it was absolutely clear we'd be in by September first," Judith says to Jim. She smiles.
There's intimacy in this plea. Jim turns to her and leans in her direction. "What can I say? I can't build it any faster. I would like to do it sooner."
Evidently, Judith has resigned herself to October 31 -- after which, according to the contract, Apple Corps must, pay the Souweines $100 a day if the house isn't complete.
"Okay," Jonathan says, smiling at Jim. "How much are you going to build this house for?"
"I still don't have the prices on the window casings," Jim says. "My supplier let me down. He went to a banquet tonight. But in theory, with narrow casings, it's one hundred forty-six thousand six hundred and sixty. The reason I'm so nervous, I've been over and over this so many times I don't really understand the numbers anymore. My partner Richard looked at the plans today, and he said, 'It's okay, we can build it for that.' So I guess it's all right."
"What are the high points?" Judith asks. "What have we changed?" She knits. Jim extracts his yellow pad from his case and reads numbers, all the deletions they've made, all the additions.
"Does that make sense?" Jim asks.
No one speaks.
"Something bothers you?" Jim says to Jonathan.
Jonathan has been studying his own sheaf of yellow paper. He looks up abruptly, like a man awakening. "No," he says pleasantly.
Again there is silence. Again Jim breaks into it. "I have no idea how to value Bill's time," he says, referring to the architect. "I know I'd have had to do more drawings without him. I know I've been to more meetings than I ever have before, and I don't know if that's because of him. And on the other concerns you had, Jonathan, we just didn't add very much as a fudge factor in our original bid. Frankly, there are a couple of things we left out and we haven't put them back in. So I've allowed two hundred dollars for Bill's work, and that two hundred dollars is the only one of the things we talked about that I'm willing to remove."
Judith knits. Jonathan leans a contemplative elbow on his desk. Finally Judith speaks up. "You and I,"'she says to Jonathan, "I think we should talk about it."
Judith might just have fired a starter's gun. Jonathan jumps up. Judith arises. They vanish into another room.
Jim's price exceeds the one that Jonathan hoped for by several thousand dollars. Jonathan knows an estimate on something as large and complex as a house can't be as precise as Jim's figure suggests. To Jonathan, Jim's price begs for some negotiation. To Jim, the price represents hours and hours of honest addition and subtraction. For his part, Jonathan believes that Jim has been honest, and though disappointed, he's prepared to find the several thousand more than he'd hoped to have to pay, if Jim in turn will round the number down to the nearest thousand.
"I think he's gonna go nuts," Judith says. Jonathan stands firm. He just wants Jim to come down a little on the price, and she agrees Jim should.
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."
THE house looks like adjacent boxes, one large, one small, a child's outsized building blocks, with many rectangular holes in the plywood walls. To Bill Rawn, though, it is a new reality. Bill has made other inspections while Apple Corps was building, but the house lacked shape the last time he saw it. Now Bill can see the refined adult in the gawky child, and he is so moved he can hardly speak at first.
Bill and Judith stand gazing at the south wall from the field above - the Wiffle Ball field, Judith and Jonathan call it, though in spite of their efforts it is as much sand as grass and what grass there is has grown crunchy underfoot.
"Don't you think when you get it all lined up, it starts being a little special?" Bill says to Judith, in a deep voice on the verge of cracking.
"Bill, don't be defensive," Judith says. "It's very nice."
Jim shows them around inside. Some of the partitions, the ones that help to bear the weight of the second floor, are in place. There are, as Ned has remarked, lots of places to hide in now. In the dappled sunlight that comes down into the roofless house, the uncovered lumber turns golden and light orange. Apple Corps has not yet built a rough staircase, so the party ascends to the second story on a ladder. "This is totally unbelievable," Judith says when she gets to the top. "Jonathan got up here and said we had to put the principal room up here. Maybe I'll move up here."
"It really is an extraordinary view," Bill says.
The house has risen above some treetops. From the second floor they can see Castor and Pollux again. Those landmark maples have been invisible since the leaves came out. You can see the towers of the University of Massachusetts and, off to the east, the gently rolling woodland that stretches out most of the way to Worcester.
SUMMER heat arrives amd so does the roof, one day in the second week of June. The roof comes in the form of another huge pile of lumber that makes the lumberyard's truck look small. It is to be a very sturdy concoction, with triangular gussets of plywood nailed and glued as fasteners between rafters and collar ties.
Hanging off their ladders, the carpenters bolt sidewall brackets made of oak through the plywood walls and into the studs behind. Onto the brackets they heave new planks, making an open walkway along the top of the house's walls. Each plank spans the distance between two brackets, and at each intersection the end of one plank rests on the top of the end of another, making for a two-inch-deep step. Working on this scaffold, feeling their way along it without looking down, the carpenters encounter these small steps again and again. Always the step comes unexpectedly. It's a momentary free fall of two inches. They flinch and grimace and go on.
They set up ladders side by side, between ground and scaffold. Two men ascend in unison, on separate ladders, each holding an end of a piece of lumber. Two mcn up top on the scaffold take the boards from them. A chant begins: "Pain!" "Gimme more pain!"
"Ned and I got a system," Richard says to Alex, as Alex reaches the scaffold once again.
"I am glad," Alex said.
"Part of it's hollerin'" Richard says.
They trade roles. Those who play the ladder men request greater diligence in bending down from the receivers up top. The receivers demand improvements in speed from the ladder men, and every so often one of them asks, "You couldn't get a hoist, eh, Jim?" In this way, piece by piece, the huge lumber pile ascends. They nail the collar ties in place, on the plates that rest on top of the two long walls. They nail and glue the gussets to the collar ties one morning. That afternoon they make the angled cuts on the upper ends of the rafters, using a drawing on the kitchen floor as a template. On the following day roof-raising commences.
It is a Friday. Jim is supposed to set out for Cape Cod with his family. He's supposed to take the day off, but he comes by the site that morning anyway and helps his partners carry up the rafters.
They are very merry, and merrier after lunch, as they erect the first rafters and sections of ridgeboard, the horizontal timber that defines the peak of the roof. Richard and Jim stand on sawhorses, holding up the ridgeboard. Ned nails rafters to the ridge on one side, Alex on the other. They secure the rafters' outer ends to the gussets. The stout rafters of Douglas fir, which are pink like fillets of salmon, make a widening tent above them.
"I feel real good about this detail," Ned says, running a hand over one of the plywood gussets.
"A lot of these old roofs were way underbuilt," says Richard, restorer of old houses. "Not this one, though. And this house is framed to the thirty-second of an inch, right to the ridge."
In fact, the rafters meet the ridgeboard nearly perfectly. Richard stops nailing to say, "We should do like they do with a sports car, with a gold plaque that tells how fast it's gone. We should have a little gold plaque in the attic: Framed to a Thirty-second."
A voice calls from below. It's Judith. "'Lo," Richard says, looking down from the eastern edge of the building.
"Ooh la la," Judith says. "It's wonderful. It looks like a house. "
"We'll have you in by Easter," Richard says.
"Oh, great," she calls back. "But we don't celebrate Easter. How 'bout Passover?"
"Okay. Just give me a few Easter eggs," Richard says.
"We don't want to push you," Judith says. "We'll just be in our tent all that time."
When Judith leaves, Richard muses, "If we don't get done until next Easter, it'll cost us a lot of money." He's thinking of those hundred-dollar-a-day penalties for not being done by the end of October.
"Yup," Alex says. "They'll have it for just about free."
"Well, think of it, Alex," Richard says. "Today we're working for free."
"Because it's such a nice day?"
"No," Richard says. "Because we were supposed to finish the roof yesterday."
Ned laughs. Alex laughs. They are very merry today.
Apple Corps has always attached a bough from an evergreen tree to the roof of a new house frame. "We do it," Richard says, "because someone else did it before us." Ned can't remember anyone following the custom when he worked for his father in Pennsylvania. He began to follow it when he got to New England, and for the same reason that Richard did - other, older builders did it. To Ned, the custom feels right. He does not know just what to choose. He counts the Douglas fir among the noblest of trees, but it grows only out west. The house is too cosmopolitan in wood to make this job easy. The white pine, though, is New England's tallest, most elegant and precious softwood. Ned takes a white-pine bough from the woods beside the brook and carries it up the ladder.
Ned wears a pair of black combat boots, shorts with ragged hems, and nothing else. He has gone bronze in the sun. He stands on tiptoes on the scaffold under the ridge and reaches up toward the top of the house, the greenery in one hand, his hammer in the other. Reaching up with difficulty, frozen for a moment against pink rafters and blue sky, Ned is statuary in the heroic tradition.
"A good day," Alex says. "Fun times. Much more fun than putting tar on the foundation wall."
Casting backward glances, they amble over to Jules's driveway. "This is going to be one stately-looking house," Richard says. "It's going to be wonderful." They stare up at the roof. The house, a box this morning, now looks very tall. It begins, as Bill would say, to stand with its shoulders up. "This is neat," Richard goes on. "I never thought I'd get a chance to build a house with all the stuff this one's going to have on it. It's like building a thirty-two Ford, you know?"
Ned laughs. "Ah, Richard."
They stare at it a while longer.
"A proud building," Ned says.
All the way down the driveway, they glance back over their shoulders at what they have built.
APPLE corps usually collaberated with customers on designs, and the carpenters liked to build that way. To imagine, then to build - - there's a roundness to that kind of work that's pleasing. The carpenters liked the intimacy and the friendliness that sometimes came from serving people with their ideas about houses as well as with their manual skills. Building was never quite the same with an architect involved. Apple Corps made plenty of mistakes all on their own, of course, but somehow those weren't as memorable as the ones that architects caused.
Chatting in his kitchen with Sandy and a friend one day, Jim says, "When you see a house written up in The New York Times Magazine, they usually give the name of just the architect and the owner, and I think the builder has every right to be pissed off." Jim leans against his kitchen counter. "The thing about the architect is, the architect is sort of the artist, and the practical person who works with his hands always disdains the architect. Why should a guy be able to make a living doing that, just because his head works in a different way? But there are these things that Bill should know, and I have to come up with them."
Jim raises his voice slightly. "I've got to bring reality to the Souweines. He brings them the pretty pictures. I bring that." Jim smacks his fist into his open palm. "I've got to bring them that." He punches his hand once more. "And that," he says, and then he smiles.
AFTERWARD, when the affair of the frieze board has run its course, each party will give a different accounting. Apple Corps will blame Bill, who will mildly blame Jim, and Judith and Jonathan will blame both Bill and Jim. They could as easily conjure up a trickster god who oversees construction sites. Jim plans to put on the shingles once the roof is framed, so Jim gives Bill "a reprieve" on some of the drawings, including the drawing of the cornice.
The Souweines, meanwhile, have begun again to worry that the design of their house has grown excessively distinctive. Jonathan stands in the driveway, looking up at the frame of the house. "Enough is enough. It has a taste of a Greek temple. Fine. But it's not a Greek temple, and we're not Greeks." He and Judith have resolved to put red shingles on their roof. "That gives it a little color, a little fun, in what could be a pretentious house," Jonathan says. He thinks the red roof will resemble a necktie, he says. He owns a few ties with generous amounts of color in them. He grins.
But New Englanders, Jim learns to his slight surprise, have not taken to red shingles. No one has them in stock. Apple Corps will have to wait, and in the meantime, the only thing they can do is build the cornice, the trim that will go just below the roof. So they start on it about a week earlier than Jim had intended.
Jim drives to his favorite lumberyard in Amherst to buy pine boards for the cornice. He goes to that yard partly because they let him choose his wood himself. The specifications call for number-two pine on the exterior, which generally means white pine with knots in it. There are knots and there are knots, though. Dead knots, roots of branches that died before the tree did, tend to fall out of a board. Knots left by living branches will bleed through paint, but you can treat them for that, and they won't fall out. Knotless, number-one pine for the cornice would cost at least $1,000 extra. The Souweines seem strapped for cash now. Jim feels sure that Jonathan wouldn't spring for number-one pine, so he doesn't bother to ask. Jim does spend over an hour, in the lumberyard's fragrant hangar full of wood, searching through piles of pine, rejecting every board with dead knots in it, except for one. He can't find any more boards without dead knots, so he has to take one that has them, and he decides to make that board symbolic. He looks it over and addresses this remark to it, as he loads it on his pickup: "There, Jonathan, there's your six hundred and sixty dollars."
Jonathan has been telling Bill that he has to get the remaining drawings out to Amherst much faster than he has been doing. Bill is now searching for an assistant, but somehow he finds the time to draw the cornice in detail. The drawing makes it plain that two wide frieze boards are supposed to be built out three and a half inches from the wall. Jim picks up the drawing of the cornice on the morning that Apple Corps begins to build it.
Jim and Richard feel stumped about how to build one detail of the cornice that every drawing has included. The problem has to do with the application of some crown molding to the eaves. Jim and Richard spend an hour of that morning crouched on the kitchen floor, trying to solve the problem. Preoccupied with the crown molding, Jim does not think about the frieze. He thinks he knows Bill's intentions for that detail. Jim does not consult the new drawings, the ones he just picked up at the bus station. They sit inside his leather case, over in a corner.
They've built the cornice and the red shingles have arrived when Jim calls Jonathan to talk about the stairs. Jim mentions, by the way, that they've improved on a feature of Bill's plan. The improvement has to do with the crown molding on the eaves.
Jonathan doesn't know exactly what Jim's talking about, but he does not like the sound of it. Neither does Judith.
Back when they got stumped over Bill's drawing for that molding, Richard declared, "That isn't proper." He decided to apply the crown molding differently, the way the old-timers used to, a modification that cost Apple Corps about $30 - a small price for propriety. A few weeks later, passing by an old house in his truck, Richard stops and, looking up, sees that very same molding applied in just the way that Bill had specified. "Whoops."
The crown molding is a false issue, though. Troubled by Jim's call, Jonathan phones Bill and tells him he'd better come to Amherst soon. Bill must visit anyway, to talk to Jim about redesigning the staircase.
A tall wooden ladder leans against the high staging on the front end of the house. It wobbles as Jim climbs. Bill follows, looking slightly nervous. He stares at the crown molding. He shrugs. "It's different than what I expected," he tells Jim. "I don't have a lot of problems with it."
When Bill drove up to the house, he noticed the knots in the cornice right away. He decided not to think of them again. Too many other potentially explosive subjects already lay between him and Jim. Every time he has glanced up at the house, though, Bill has seen those little round black spots, like pox on the crisply installed trim beneath the roof. After a while, when Bill looks at the house he can see hardly anything but knots, and he can't contain his worry.
"I assume there's no problem with knots in the trim wood?"
Jim looks up with widened eyes.
"I wondered why we didn't have clearer pine," Bill adds.
"Because it isn't in the contract," Jim says. He explains the issue as he sees it. Then Judith comes over and the meeting ends.
It's late. The other carpenters have left. Jim heads for his truck. "Are we okay, Jim?" Bill calls.
"I don't know what you mean by 'okay,"'Jim replies. He adds, "I'm just in a hurry. I'm not upset."
Then it's just Judith and Bill, in front of the shell of the house in the bright summer evening.
Judith says that she fears they must write a change order for the master bathroom's fixtures.
Bill grasps her arm and lays his head upon her shoulder for a moment, a contortionist's trick for big Bill to perform with little Judith, and he says, "Look, my friend, if that's the only change order that comes out of today's conversation, you'll be lucky."
Bill tells her about the knots. She says, "They did an awfully nice job." "Oh, yeah!" Bill says, with feeling. But those knots are driving him crazy, he tells her.
"There's some things you can worry about, but I think it's a little late for this one," she says. Bill tells her clear pine would cost $1,000 extra. She says, "Forget it, Bill." In a moment she leaves him standing there, in front of the skeleton of his first house.
Didn't the contract call for clear pine? Bill asks himself. He stares up at the cornice and laughs a short, deep, sorrowful laugh. "Funny how something like that can really get to you. Boy! I'm really..." Bill knows those knots will bleed through the paint. He's always thought of knots that show as a sign of general shoddiness. He suspects that the contract doesn't call for clear pine. He has always specified it on buildings in the past, on occasions when wooden trim was involved. "I'm surprised I didn't catch that."
Bill gazes up at the cornice, and suddenly he looks puzzled. He walks backward, away from the house, all the way back to the Wieners' woodpile. He tilts his head, for a slightly sidelong view. He makes his hand a visor for his eyes, and he says softly, "I always thought it came out a couple of inches from the face of the house." He stares. "It's..." He laughs. Then he groans, "Ohhhhhh," like someone desperate for bed.
The frieze, one of the most important elements in Bill's synthesis of Greek Revival, lies flat against the house, a broad band extending out just the thickness of the boards that make up the frieze. Those boards are only slightly thicker than the clapboards that will lie below them. The frieze won't stand out to meet the eye. It won't create the proper look at all. "It just doesn't seem substantial enough. "
Bill gazes. He groans. He tries out reassurance. "It'll look a lot better." But he adds, "It better. Because it looks really weak right now." He laughs, and it sounds like an echo from an old well. "You pour so much of your soul into it," he says. "It's very different from most fields. There are so many vagaries that can change things and explain why it didn't come out in exactly the form of your vision." Bill stands beside the Wieners' woodpile, staring up in the evening light at the tall, elegantly proportioned skeleton. Standing in that same spot ten days ago, Ned called the building "proud." Bill says, "It's so funny, because every time I look at this house now, all that I can see is the frieze."
THE following morning Bill and Judith and Jonathan, who is dressed for the office, hover in a ring around Jim. He sits on the opened tailgate of his truck, a pencil behind his ear, and extracts from his leather case the most recent and detailed drawing of the cornice.
"There was always an assumption that the frieze would extend out from the face of the house," Bill says.
Jim studies the drawing for the first time. He looks up at Bill. "Well, I guess the solution is to get the drawings before we build the house." Jim throws the papers down onto the tailgate. He stares at Bill. Judith and Jonathan glance at each other and don't speak.
"It's been different from the way you did it all along," Bill says.
"Not all along." Jim picks up the blueprint and shakes it. "These drawings right here are dated six-fourteen. It's making me mad, all this stuff." He hurls the plans down, glaring up at Bill. Bill and the Souweines stand around the angry builder, wearing helpless, worried looks.
"Your drawings have all these assumptions and implications in them," Jim says. "Now I feel I'm on the carpet."
"I'm on the carpet too," Bill says, very softly. "My feeling is we have to try to correct the frieze in some way that makes sense."
Jim looks away. He takes a deep breath. He gazes up at the frieze. He studies the drawings again.
Jonathan doesn't understand the problem fully. Judith explains it to him, to one side. Smiling, she tells Jonathan that perhaps the solution is to change not the frieze but the name of the house's architectural style. "Maybe we can call it something else."
Jonathan returns her smile. "It'll explain why the Greek Revival didn't sustain itself."
"There are more drawings on this house than on most five-hundred-thousand-dollar houses," Bill says to Jim, very softly.
Jim studies the detailed drawing once again. "It's on here," he says. "I guess I didn't have it in my mind that way. "
Bill stares up at the frieze, chin on hand. Jim stares up at the frieze, a forefinger against his lips. "Hey, Bill, what about the idea of having the frieze go down a little lower?"
"Below the vents?" Bill asks. "I think that would look very strange." Jim's solution would not preserve the proper effect, the sense of a roof floating on the frieze.
"It would be neat," Jim says. "There'd be a line there under the soffits."
They stare upward.
"I would like to be able to say that that's good," Bill says. He looks pained. "I just don't think it is."
The architect and the builder go back to silent, upward staring. There is, it seems, no other way around the problem but for Apple Corps to take down the frieze and put it up again. The repair looks hard to Jim, because they assembled the cornice so carefully and because to change the frieze they must alter the soffits. The repair will mean, among other things, that one of the carpenters must spend a day or more inching along a high staging on his back, cutting over his head with a skillsaw while twenty feet up in the air. A neat job won't be easy. Jim says he doesn't want to ask anyone to do that job.
Jonathan has to get to the office. Bill and Jim should try to find a way to fix the frieze, he says. Then Jonathan turns to the subject of the knots and Jim has the feeling all at once that he is in the witness box in court. "I would consider it an acceptable solution if you will warrant that the knots won't come through the paint for five years," Jonathan says to Jim, "since I do have tremendous respect for your integrity and judgment as a builder and I know you wouldn't put anything there that wasn't satisfactory."
JONATHAN'S strategy, it's real familiar. I m used to it. 'You're a real good, a great, craftsman and I know you wouldn't do anything wrong, so why did you?' It's just what my father would do," Jim says.
Apple Corps has retreated to an Amherst sandwich shop for coffee.
"The frieze?" Richard cries. They will not redo the frieze, Richard declares.
"I was ready to punch that guy," Jim says, referring to Bill. "It feels really funny. I never felt that way about anybody before." He explains that Bill won't accept the easy-looking solution.
Ned says to Jim, "He seems kind of soft and mild in his requests. "
"That's just his manner," Jim says. "He gets an idea, he sticks to it."
"I knew it was going to be like this," Alex says. "An arm-wrestling match."
They vote. It's unanimous. They will not guarantee the knots. Three of them vote no on repairing the frieze. When that ballot reaches Jim, though, he doesn't vote. He says, "I wish these issues were perfectly clear. I'm not quite sure when those plans arrived."
"Aw, shoot," Richard says. "I'll take your skillsaw, get up there, and thrash it. I don't mind. I'll do it on my back with a rope around my neck."
Ned searches for a general explanation and a remedy. "I sort of feel Jonathan and Judith need to know how much of an imposition this guy's being on us," Ned says. "The guy wants to build a Cadillac, and they only want to buy a Chevrolet. "
"They know he's upping the ante all the time," Jim tells Ned. Jim lifts opened palms to his partners, that old gesture of innocence, and says, "Everybody knows everything. But everybody wants something different."
APPLE corps holds a conference on how to become more businesslike than they have been - - an annual, sometimes semi-annual, soul-search of an event at which many motions are made and many are tabled. Tonight they agree that they ought to think about hiring a lawyer.
"We could hire Jonathan," Ned says.
"He'd probably do great things for us," Richard says.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he was real good," Jim says.
When Jonathan sent them his first bill, they could knock $660 off it, Jim says. They laugh and turn to other business, but they meant what they said. They believe that Jonathan could handle their problems easily - - the customers who take months to pay, for instance - - if he handled their problems half as adroitly as he has handled them. It seems to Jim that every time they meet to discuss money these days, Jonathan begins by praising Apple Corps. Jonathan closes a big meeting on change orders in the same way: "I think this went exactly as I hoped it would. Not everyone's happy about everything, but that's life.... Again, keep up the good work. The house is looking great. Everyone who sees it says so." He turns to Jim and Richard. "The work looks great." He turns to Bill. "The design looks great." And then he's gone.
At these moments Jim feels as if he's being played in several keys at once. He is reminded of a phrase from an old song whose name he can't remember: "a handful of gimme and a mouthful of much obliged." But Jonathan's praise also sounds authentic to Jim. It pleases Jim to hear it, and it dismays him to feel the strength ebb from the grudges that he's nurtured -- just when he needs them most, to make himself want to hold the line in every disagreement from now on. When Jonathan raised the issue of the knots and said, in effect, You're a fine builder, so I know you'll guarantee those knots, Jim was so disarmed that he didn't think to describe the pains he had taken to do more than the specifications required and find the best number-two pine he could. The upshot of the subsequent meeting with Jonathan looked like a symmetrical exchange. Apple Corps gave in on the frieze without an argument, and Jonathan gave in almost as easily on the knots. But when Jim thinks about it afterward, the trade seems less than even to him. He and Richard yielded on a somewhat debatable issue - - one very early drawing had shown the frieze nailed flat against the house - - while Jonathan merely acceded to the undeniable fact that the specs called for number-two and therefore knotty pine. Jonathan leaves them feeling fairly contented, though, and impressed that they are.
"He's a pro," Jim says, a while after Jonathan has left.
"Yeah, he is," says Richard, who has just seen Jonathan in action for the first time.
THE reality is that if these guys weren't quality workmen and quality people, there'd be fewer problems," Jonathan reflects. "They'd say, 'Fine,' and then just go and do what they wanted. You know why I gave in on the knots? Suppose Jim said, 'Okay, I'll guarantee the paint.' Suppose four years later I called: 'The knots bled through.' What could I do if he said no, he wouldn't fix them? But the point is, if Jim said to me he would do it, Jim would do it."
If you sit in Jonathan's chair and muse briefly, looking out over Main Street, it's clear that he made an even trade on the knots and the frieze. Sure, the specs call for number-two pine, but Jim should have explained the difference between numbers one and two. Jim never said there was an option. So Jonathan did have some grounds for argument about the knots. He gave them up. Jim and Richard gave up no more in agreeing to pay for the frieze.
Jonathan remembers telling Bill again and again that one of these days something would get built wrong if Bill did not deliver drawings well ahead of time. Imagining himself as Apple Corps's lawyer, Jonathan tells the builders, "Don't you touch that cornice. Not until you get the detailed drawings and have time to study them." He'd have added, "If you build it wrong, you're screwed, and if you're right, no one thanks you for it." He would have advised them, "Go tell the owner his architect's holding you up and he's got to adjust the completion date." As the lawyer representing himself, he figures that having hired an architect and builder, he has a right to expect them to get the house built correctly, and not to pay for their mistakes.
Jonathan feels sorry for the trouble the frieze caused, but not for the little imperfection it represents. No one else will see it, but Bill has said that even when repaired, the frieze won't quite reproduce his intentions. Orthodox Jews have a tradition that until the Temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, they will not erect a house or building without giving it one deliberate imperfection. Though not a member of the Orthodox branch of Judaism, Jonathan believes in the inevitability of imperfection. So why not celebrate it? "There's a flaw in the house ... ," he says, and he flashes a smile, a shooting star of a smile, "... which the pernicious part of me sort of likes."
Jonathan has already agreed to pay hundreds of dollars for extras that didn't seem like extras to him: for "kickboards" on the front wall (those seemed to appear in the earliest drawings), for "stops" in the small fixed windows (he thought windows always came with those). And Jonathan has already struck many compromises with Jim, including some that Jonathan did not have to make - - the roof, for instance. After Jim had made his original bid, he realized that Apple Corps would have to put into the roof's frame a lot more labor and more wood than he'd imagined. Jim was only partly to blame, but Jonathan could have forced Apple Corps to shoulder the increase alone. Instead, he looked Jim in the eye and asked for a compromise. Jim said the extra labor would come to $850, the materials to $450. How did Jonathan feel about paying for the extra labor?
"Sounds fair to me," Jonathan said, scribbling a note.
Jonathan had accepted the larger part of the change. Jim had returned the favor by shopping around for windows.
People he trusts told Jonathan to stretch for this new house, and he has done so. He's had to count on selling the duplex in Pelham for a tidy profit. They put that house on the market a month ago, and almost no one has come to see it. Jonathan does not feel frightened. "We have a backup plan." Any day now, though, Jim will hand him a stack of change orders, amounting to several thousand dollars, and Jonathan will have to raise the money. Jonathan has already agreed to some changes, without knowing their exact costs. Those he has to accept. There are some other change orders coming, ones Bill wants but Apple Corps hasn't yet built. Jonathan does not have to sign for them.
Jonathan knows that with the kindest intentions in the world Bill and Apple Corps could arrange his bankruptcy. He wants Bill and Apple Corps to be happy with the house, but the house has already been endowed with enough elegance and expense for Jonathan.
JIM leaves work last and gets there first. Some mornings summer fog settles over the valley so thickly that you can hardly make out Judith's parents' place across the driveway. Then the new building seems as lonely as a lighthouse. Jim sits by himself inside the empty house, in gray light, surrounded by gray walls, his calculator on one knee, a yellow pad on the other.
Jim got the sheetrockers to agree to begin hanging the interior walls and ceilings on July 15. He had to make sure that the lumber arrived soon enough for Apple Corps to frame the walls before the plumber's, electrician's, and insulator's promised arrivals. He remembered to call the building inspector, who would insist on seeing the place before the sheetrock went up. You build a job out of a host of promises, and if the electrician gets the flu, the whole procedure can collapse. You might have to tell the sheetrockers to delay a week and then you might lose them for a month. Timing is everything, and the job has not halted or even slowed for lack of the right materials or the next subcontractor. That is thanks to Jim's forethought -- both his choices of subs and his scheduling. In this sense the house really exists in the meticulously printed notes he carries in his leather case. The plan in there is sound. Mechanically this job has gone more smoothly than most construction projects. Jim could congratulate himself for that, as Jonathan and Judith have, but he doesn't seem to be able to find much comfort there.
He has never known a job that aroused such complicated feelings in him. The electrician's bill arrives. It comes to $780 more than the estimate. No one is to blame, Jim thinks, but the Souweines certainly have some cause to balk at paying this overrun. "Here we go again," Jim says when he makes up the change order. But Jonathan does not argue. In fact, he says cheerfully that he will pay the extra charges in full. Jim goes deadpan. "Okay," he says. He actually seems slightly annoyed at Jonathan's largesse.
Jim has a long, exacting memory, especially for his own miscalculations. Sometimes he looks around the house and nearly every piece of it looks like a reproach to him. Then he speaks as if the job has gone so far off course already that no matter what happens from now on, he will be unable to salvage any satisfaction from the work he's done. The act of saying so often cheers him up.
Nearly every day Jim talks about success. His ruminations have a tentative quality. Will he feel successful if they make their hoped-for profit? Will they make any profit? He has resolved to hold the line and charge the Souweines for every change, no matter how mean and small-minded the act will make him feel. Then, in the natural course of the job, an issue such as the windowsills arises.
The specs say nothing about windowsills. The contract would allow Apple Corps to surround all the windows with stock Colonial casings as if the windows were pictures - - to "picture-frame" the windows and leave them without sills. It's a fairly common practice, which saves a builder time. That's what Jim plans to do. This is a contract job. He assigns the task to Ned, the cabinetmaker. When the time for giving Ned his instructions comes, however, Jim can't bear the thought of their leaving a house without windowsills, and he does not want to ask Ned, of all people, to do a job wrong on purpose. Jim doesn't ask the Souweines' permission, perhaps because he fears permission won't be granted, and anyway, how can you agree to build a house for someone and then not give them windowsills to rest their chins and elbows on? So Jim tells Ned to make sills. He does not even ask for recompense. Evidently, he doesn't get much pleasure from the gesture either.
On his next visit, walking through the rooms, Bill notices the sills right away. He sees what Apple Corps has done. He finds Ned and Jim in the living room. He thanks them. "Got to please the architect, right?" Ned says. "No, I'm glad you're pleased."
To Jim, Bill says, "It has mostly to do with taking extra care. That's the nature of quality work."
"Or of not being businesslike," Jim says. He adds, "This contract's wide open. There are fifty places where we could've stuck it to them."
"Oh, I'm sure," Bill says. "That's the nature of ... Well, I'm sure."
Ned laughs. His shoulders shake. "We don't know how."
"Maybe we should take a couple of years off," Jim says to Ned. "Go work for some honcho condo builder and get back to where there's some compromise."
Whether or not they are making money, they have to build this house. The financial side of the job has become immensely complex, a labyrinth of bills they haven't received and ones they haven't paid and ones they haven't yet incurred. Late in July, Jim decides to take Richard's advice and give up trying to compare their real progress with their estimate. He will let Alex keep track of the accounts paid and received and stop worrying about the rest. By the second week of August, Jim admits, he feels much better. He still thinks about money. The issue is always there, he says, but for the time being it sits more lightly on him than it did when he believed he could control it.
THE first mouse is sighted in the basement, by the plumber. The house has rooms, windows, a hearth, some plumbing, exterior doors, electricity, and heat. It still has plywood floors, which now look old and worn. Odors of mortar and special glues come and go. The house always contains the smell of wood and faint, sweetish smells of sweat.
Once the carpenters had framed the walls inside the house and the electrician and plumber had woven the miles, literally miles in all, of wire and pipes into the skeleton, like so many nerves and arteries and intestines, the insulator came and Jim said, "The house will change today." By nightfall it was all muffled up in pink and yellow fiber glass, and loud sounds no longer echoed. That was the calm before the sheetrockers. The carpenters, the plumber, the electrician, the insulator, had all seemed to work quickly. Finishing in three weeks a job that looked like it would take months, the sheetrockers showed what quickness meant.
When Jules saw the sheetrockers pile out of their cars and van, and troop across the sandy ground up onto the new porch, he said, "It looks like the Nicaraguan invasion."
"He's an incredible worker," Richard said, stopping to watch, through a downstairs window, one of the bosses, a muscular young man named Dave Pogue.
Cutting and running, as he himself described his technique, Pogue trotted through the house, slapping huge, heavy gray rectangles of sheetrock against the studs, cutting holes for outlets, screwing the sheetrock in place with an electric drill that - - along with the several others constantly running - - made the house sound like a giant dentist's office. Through the windows the sheetrockers really looked like people working at the wrong speed. They came and went like a swarm and left behind a maze of gray walls with many smooth white seams that would vanish altogether under the first coat of paint.
The carpenters went outside to work when the sheetrockers arrived. A few weeks later, around the time when the sheetrockers left, Apple Corps finished the exterior. Ned put in the last of the southern windows. Alex and Richard finished clapboarding the house. And Jim endowed it with a front door. He built a Greek Revival molding for the entryway from scratch, following Bill's drawing. He did so without uttering a single complaint about architects.
Near the end of August, during a coffee break out on the porch - - those intervals in which they satisfy what Jim has called their "unrelenting quest for sugar" - - Alex produces a list of figures: So far they've worked 2,441 1/2 hours. They've billed the Souweines $104,715. "We paid all our bills, paid off our debt, and we're just about even," Alex says. He figures they should make some $13,000 profit, on top of the $14 an hour each has been making.
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.
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.
"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.)
"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 ... "
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."
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.