I was seventeen the summer I learned to brightwork. My parents had just finished moving us from Miami to northwestern Washington state on a long winding caravan that took us through the muggy swampland of the Florida-Georgia border, the flat khaki scrub and curved turquoise sky that make the snow-globe of New Mexico, a freak spring blizzard coming into (and meth signs leaving) Montana, and finally — the thick, fresh, gray, salt air of the northwest. You get over the mountains of Yakima, past the peach fields and red dust, and you can’t yet see the ocean. But you can lick the air or the back of your hand or your lips, and you can taste the salt. It fills your eyes and your lungs, and you become puffy with the weightlessness of the air, the sky, the clouds, the spicy piney needles that litter the floors of every mudroom, and settle down into the dark crevices of flannel in the beds of loggers and beauticians and fishermen.
I didn’t like those moody northwestern days, the sky so bloody orange at dawn, thick delicate fog hovering over the marina. I’d dress for cold and rain, only to be tricked by hard yellow sun pouring onto the rigs at mid-morning. Afternoon brought drizzle, or sometimes wind, or hail, or the uneasy low pressure of a coming storm, blowing in from the yawning black mouth of the Pacific, barely tamed by the scrap that was Ediz Spit. The Spit was a curving man-made finger of rock and sand and gravel just past the abandoned paper mill, a lawless cloisters for the seagulls, with the distinction of being known as the make-out spot for the students of the Port Angeles High School.
I never went out there. Mom didn’t have time and my step-dad, Rick, had always preferred the woods to the water. Besides, like I said, we had just moved, and I was expected to help with the unpacking. I might as well explain clearly now—some people just can’t wrap their heads around my parents’ sudden decision to pack the belongings of two adults, five children, a cat, a snake — and, for some of us, an entire lifetime — into a car and a trailer, and drive across the entire country, just to move onto a boat. The vessel in question was a 40-foot Pearson houseboat, built in 1975. The name she came with was Piece of Ship. First we renamed her Pilot’s Boy, then Whalesong, then (for a brief, sarcastic day after Rick met the fat couple on Junior’s Tuition) Blow Me. “She’s a hard one to name,” Rick had said, through a wreath of pipe tobacco. But — finally — we named her Goodnight Moon, which always reminded me not of the illustrated children’s book, but of that Pablo Neruda poem about the naked woman whom he saw as brightness itself, his whole world, the moon living in the lining of her skin.
I met Paul the day he came to measure the galley counters. The sun had come out earlier than usual, and the sky was freckled with clouds, a powdery azurite, what my Baba would have called in Russian, goluboi shto ubivayet serdtsi — the blue that kills the heart. It was the first of eleven days of a heat wave, and the cat lay in the shade on the aft deck, below the hanging pot of birdfoot nasturtiums and Plains violets. A breeze brought the smell of new-cut logs off the strait, where they waited in cargo ships, stacked like the toothpicks they would become upon their arrival to Japan or Macau or Taiwan, “or, come to think of it, Russia.” (Paul was airily dismissive of the world beyond the Peninsula, and also of the logging company. His son later told me that the sentiment behind this was mutual, and involved a broken contract, large quantities of weed hidden inside massive Russian kielbasa, and a pack of wild dogs.)
I went and sat cross legged next to Paul on the dock, watching him measure. He hadn’t worked on a Pearson in some time — since the summer of ’82, he said over his shoulder, tape measure dwarfed in his hands, which were crusted, creased, deeply gnarled. After I began to brightwork seriously, I understood why. The burns, the glues, the sharp tools and harsh chemicals, they are all part of the trade. But that first June meeting, I stared at Paul’s hands and wondered if he was a giant. He was certainly tall and wide enough, with wide feet to match, covered in greasy socks, and shod in old black Teva women’s sandals. Despite the heat, he wore thick Carhartt jeans. The black hem of his cotton t-shirt drifted over his waistband. It was dirty and transparent with age, trimmed at the sleeves and bottom with hems lacy with holes. Paul’s hair was tied at the back of his neck, the ossified tail emerging sheepishly from the bottom of his baseball cap like a small rodent. His hair perched awkwardly on his scalp, a matted mess so thick and lambent, it looked like individual threads of sterling silver floss. His face seemed to fit itself perfectly, yet you could see where it was fastened at the hinges, like the wooden, mobile face of a marionette doll.
His eyebrows squiggled up suddenly, his eyes glittered black at me, and he said: “Hey, kiddo. Ya wanna learn how to brightwork?”
I shrugged. Paul pocketed his tape measure, grunting deeply as he pulled himself up. I followed Paul onto the dock, where Watchee (his old dog, a dopey mishmash of St. Bernard, Newfoundland, black and tan coonhound, and God knew what else), lay panting and whimpering in the heat. Paul kicked Watchee gently with his foot. “Fat bastard,” he said happily, and hopped into his little rowboat skiff with surprising agility. He called out, “Be right back,” and he exaggerated the long “a” so that it went singing through the air, and it was several seconds before my grinning face caught to my senses and realized he was gone. I heard Rick walked down the finger pier toward me.
“Eliza Jane. Hey.” I don’t know when Rick started calling me that. He had nicknames for everyone. My brother, Ian, was Ianesque. The cat, Mr. Chippy, was Chipstack, Chippendale, Fish and Chips, Chippadee. One of mine was Eliyahu, but Rick also called me Eliza Jane, which embarrassed and pleased me. Rick married my mom when I was eight, so I’d known him forever. To me, his face existed outside of time. Round blue eyes, straight nose, firm mouth. Rick was scratchy knitted wool sweaters, fierce brief hugs that smelled like cherry pipe tobacco, worn Patagonia fleeces from the 60s, soft-boiled eggs on Miami winter mornings, long bicycle rides that led nowhere — stopping to look at birds circling above with the binoculars he carried around his neck on those trips: “Look, ‘Liza Jane, wo-o-o-ow, a snail kite!” Worn comfortability, a coming home into my self.
“What do you think of Paul?” Rick asked.
I shrugged once more. Watchee whined low in his throat, and I knelt down to stroke his wet nose. Rick bent and scratched the dog’s head vigorously, and the dog started to get excited.
Rick said, “Yes, yes, I know, scratching feels so good in the heat! Yes, you’re welcome!” He looked at me. “You know what Watchee’s name means in Makah? Lard ass. Like, gordo. Fat, fat, fat.”
“Did Paul get Watchee from the Makah?” The Makah were a tribe that lived out west on the coast.
Rick shook his head. “No. Well — not really. He got Watchee’s mother when he lived out past the rez, at Neah Bay.”
I started to ask about Neah Bay, but Paul returned, and Rick went to pick up sandpaper and turpentine from the boatyard. Paul began to teach me how to brightwork.
Goodnight Moon was in pretty bad shape. Still, she had beautiful wood railings running three quarters around the boat. Not teak, by any means, but a rich reddish tint, speckled with paint, old gummy patches of badly done varnish, long black scars notching the surface like dimples, and faded patches on the leeward side. Paul gave me a heat gun and a flat sharp metal spatula. I was to strip off all of the old varnish, four-inch section by four-inch section. He told me under no uncertain terms that if I broke his heat gun, he’d have my ass. “I bought that thing in ‘79. They don’t make them like that anymore.” As I began to work, Paul moved five or six feet down the companionway, flipped on a little transistor radio, extracted a ragged sheet of sandpaper from his back pocket, and attacked the railing. Kansas wailed around us, Carry on my wayward son, I had to yell to be heard.
“Rick says you lived out past the reservation in Neah Bay.”
“Thas’ right.” He sanded over the outside curve of railing.
“When? Why?” There was nothing out there but trees and cougars. No reason to live in Neah Bay unless you were a fisherman or Makah, and even then, there was certain a remoteness of spirit necessary to live so far from civilization. It was a forlorn place. If you wanted to, you could disappear into the hundreds of miles of forests out there, and no one would ever find you again.
Paul said, “I dodged the draft, went to Canada. Came back, got in a little trouble, had to stay inconspicuous, if you know what I mean. The hell I was gonna go back to Can-eh-dee-ah to deal with those maple syrup drinkers again. Neah Bay was close, and besides, I knew some…ah…people out there.”
Carry on my wayward son. There’ll be peace when you are gone. Lay your weary head to rest.
He turned away and sanded for 15 seconds, then turned back. “Hey, qu’est-ce que cela! What do you care, kid. Less talking, more action. While I’m young, okay?”
I spent the summer by Paul’s side, listening to classic rock and scraping, sanding, and applying coat after coat of varnish to Goodnight Moon’s brightwork. The wood became familiar to me, the smell most of all, and the way it flew up my nose on clouds of sawdust, then down my throat, choking me even as I struggled for deeper breaths. I finished our railings on August 31, the day before I left for college. Mom made a baked Alaska, and I invited Paul over for cake, but he didn’t come.
At Dartmouth, when classes were too overwhelming, when it was so cold that the wind outside felt as if it was burning my face, when I overheard yet another lax bro talk about how many girls he’d hooked up with the night before, I retreated to the woodshop. It was in the center of campus, across from the Green, in the basement of the Arts building. It was cave-like, with low ceilings and cement floors. Every spare surface was cluttered with wood scraps and tools — jig saws, router bits, awls, pencils. It was lit by fluorescents. What little natural light there was came from the door in the back, which opened onto a narrow path, and for the life of me I can’t remember where that path led. Everything glowed. I think it was the different types of wood, running in stacks along each of the four walls. With time, I learned their names: blond alder and beech, silky madrone, purpleheart, lacewood, Spanish cedar. They did all seem to emanate an inexplicable luster, but more than that, there was a kind of hush that sprung up from the bundles of wood, a smell and a glow, and an absence of noise that was a hum if I listened closely enough.
The first thing I made in that woodshop was a cutting board for my mom. The second thing was a box for Paul, to put his heat gun in.
Paul died a few years ago. By then I was back living in Port Angeles, in my own apartment on dry land. I went down to the marina a few times a week to visit Rick. He was lonely after Mom passed. All of the kids but one had grown up and moved out. On this particular day I’m thinking of, Rick was on his way back to the boat from the Costco the next town over. It was a terribly beautiful spring afternoon, the kind that shimmers a little around the edges. What surprised me about the Pacific spring was the hardiness of the flowers out here. The lilacs, especially, oozing their blue-y lavender scent all over the town in secretive bursts. It was curious, how the smell followed me to the most unexpected of places; the bank or the threshold of the dentist’s office, salt-air and rotting pines, and then — a swift violence, a green, callow, waking dream of a fragrance.
I wandered into the marina diner to get a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. I sat at the window and watched the leaves swirl hopefully around chipped fiberglass dock carts. I’d started on my second cup of coffee when Rick came into the diner. We hugged. He sat down next to me and stole a bite of pie. We talked for a couple of minutes about nothing. Costco had free-range chickens now. My boyfriend wanted to move in together; I wasn’t so sure. The brightwork had weathered well this summer.
“Oh. But you heard, didn’t you?” Rick asked. His brow furrowed a little. “About Paul?”
“No,” I said.
“He died last week.”
I was surprised, which maybe is a strange thing. Paul was old, and he hadn’t taken great care of himself. Cigarettes and malt liquor, and Philly cheese steak Hot Pockets for dinner. I guess I was surprised that I could, all of the sudden, feel the loss. Like the rapidly departing imprint of a head on a pillow, I could feel him slipping away. Rick started to say something, then his phone rang.
“Hold on a sec, Eli. Hi, Dr. Rose, what’s up?” Rick said.
I looked down at my hands, scarred and puckered, creased with the wear of years and years of toxic varnish, turpentine, and solvents. A long thin scar from a broken cake plate the night of my tenth birthday. A strawberry burn mark blooming over the fleshy web between thumb and forefinger — picking up that ancient heat gun by the wrong end. A mass of scar tissue over the tip of my left thumb, where I’d chopped off a good centimeter of flesh, right down to the bone. There was dirt under my nails from the daffodil bulbs I’d planted that morning. I’d gotten a late start on the garden. Who knew if the bulbs would survive.
One summer I’d come home from college and ran into Paul, and we’d had a beer in this very diner. I asked him again about the draft. What had he said again? I tried to remember.
It’s true I dodged the draft, and it’s true that I lived in Neah Bay, the end of the Earth, it seemed. Why did I do it? I don’t know. I don’t know any of the answers. You know what kind of men go out there? If you’re looking to hide from something, or run away from someone, go to Neah Bay. I lived among drunks and outcasts. Everyone was a recluse. Old men with greasy beards, and fingers stained brown from dipping too much chew. Men chased to the edge of the Pacific ocean—we all hollered in our sleep, kid.
Rick hung up the phone, and I suddenly, curiously saw that he was getting old. Fine lines webbing their way across his forehead, purple smudges under his eyes, white hairs growing out of his ears.
“Sorry about that, been trying to schedule this doctor’s appointment for your little sister for weeks,” Rick said.
“So was there a funeral?” I asked.
“No. He was cremated. His son came in from Seattle today to pick up the urn. You know what he told me? I guess he found some sort of handmade box on board Paul’s sailboat he’s going to put the ashes in. That’s the one you made him, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t realize Paul had a son.” Then I cried a little.
“C’mere kid,” Rick said. Arms around me. Cherry-flavored smoke. Wool catching at strands of my hair. The light had shifted. The diner seemed to be floating underwater, sinking fast through dead bullwhip kelp, muddy sand, the corpses of whiteleg shrimp. The waitress marrying ketchup bottles, whistling along to a Justin Bieber song on the radio. Light coming through the diner’s polyester yellow curtains, eerie pale, lemony-brown.