Seventeen Against the Dealer
She heard him, but didn’t hear him. His voice entered her consciousness the way the first sounds of morning enter a dream and become part of it, before you wake up into the real day. The smell of paint lingered, although she had cocked open the high windows and raised the wide metal door. The paint had a penetrating odor that hung on in the air. The curved sides of the dinghy shone with fresh color. She’d scraped and sanded the bottom before painting the sides. When this paint dried she’d put the boat up on the storage rack for the rest of the winter; and the job would be done because the bottom paint wouldn’t go on until spring. Bottom paint was still wet when the boat went into the water. Green stains had splotched her jeans, her sneakers, her arms, hands, and face. Probably her hair, too, if she had a mirror to see it. She looked at her hands, the nails ringed with green, even after the scrubbing she’d given them in the shop’s dank little bathroom. The hands she watched went right on with their work—as if she didn’t exist—stroking the whetstone against the blade of the adze.
She was reviewing her plans. Dicey Tillerman always had things planned out so she could get to where she wanted. Where she wanted to get to was being a boatbuilder. Sailboats, she wanted to build sailboats. Not fancy yachts, but a boat a person could sail alone, or two people could sail.
Dicey knew you didn’t get what you wanted just by wanting it. She’d worked the last two summers, over in Annapolis, to learn things she needed to know. She’d learned some carpentry, she’d cut and sewn sails, and this fall she’d hired herself out to a boatyard in Crisfield, never mind the rotten pay, to learn what you were contracting for when you offered winter storage and maintenance for boats.
The boats she wanted to build were wooden ones. She wanted to build a boat with a carved rudder to guide it by and the long, varnished tiller under your hand. Not plywood, either. Dicey Tillerman had an idea about a slender, soft-bellied boat built out of planks of wood fitted together so close it was as if they’d grown that way, sturdy enough for heavy winds but light enough so the slightest breeze would fill the sails and move it across the water.
For now, however, the shop came first, and the shop work—repair, maintenance, storage. She knew that nobody hired you to build a sailboat right away, first thing. She also had an idea for a dinghy, one that could be powered either by a motor or by oars. Her plan was to get herself a name for building dinghies, save up the profits, and then—when she was ready—start taking orders for sailboats.
So the next thing she needed, now that she had the shop and tools, and a bank account, was work. She didn’t expect it to be easy. She knew that nobody had done what she planned to do, start her own boatyard, from nothing. At least, nobody she knew in Crisfield, or Annapolis, or the points between had done it. Boatyards were inherited, father to son, or bought out. Nobody just started one. But nobody had done a lot of what she’d done in her life, like getting her family down to Crisfield when they were all just kids, or even dropping out of college when she’d been offered a scholarship to continue. Just because
nobody had done something didn’t mean that Dicey couldn’t.
Standing with her feet planted apart in front of the workbench, the light falling over her shoulder, wearing a sweatshirt no amount of laundering ever got clean, Dicey fingered the honed blade of the adze and then, satisfied, hung it in its place overhead, between the long saw and the squat broadax. All the blades above her gleamed like polished silver. She wrapped the oilstone in its cloth and set it aside in its metal box; the box she put on the storage shelf under the table’s surface, beside the row of wooden-handled screwdrivers and hammers, and the pile of plastic containers that kept nails and screws sorted out by sizes, each container labeled with adhesive tape on which she’d made dark pencil marks—and gradually she heard him, standing still by the doorway just behind her. The sense of his being there rose up in her, as quiet and sure as a tide rising up along the shore. It was as if his silence awoke her.
The pane of glass shone dark behind his head, the darkness of early winter nights. His gray eyes watched her, had been watching her; she was glad to see him. “You’re early,” she said.
“Actually,” Jeff told her, “I’m late. I thought you’d prefer that.”
“Actually,” she mimicked him, “you’re right.” She stretched her arms up high over her head, stretched the muscles along her back, then walked down the shop to turn off lights. It was like a cave, the shop. Square, about twenty feet by twenty feet, the cinder block walls rose up from a slab cement floor. The high windows snapped up shut, closing out the darkness; she’d pulled down the broad metal doorway that opened onto the water when the afternoon temperature started to fall; so the shop felt like a cave, too, it felt like a treasure cave. Some treasure, Dicey thought, and grinned. One dinghy, belly up on a rack at the center of the shop. Two more dinghies stacked on racks against the wall, waiting for the same caretaking. On the other hand, their
monthly storage fees would pay what she wanted to give her grandmother every month, and because she was underpricing local boatyards, she could hope for more boats to winter next year—yeah, they were treasures.
Her tools were treasures, too, and they might in fact be worth something, at least to a collector. She’d picked them up over the last couple of years, in junk shops mostly, and at yard sales—hammers, screwdrivers, planes, and the cutting tools. She’d soaked and sanded those tools, honed and polished them, and even carved out a replacement handle for the broadax. She couldn’t have afforded new tools, and, anyway, the new weren’t made with the same care as the old. The old were made to last lifetimes.
And Jeff Greene, in a thick, dark sweater that rose up around his neck, standing waiting in front of the shop door, his thumbs hooked in his pockets, just watching her, probably knowing exactly what she was thinking . . . the thought made her smile.
“You look,” he told her, “like the cat that swallowed the canary.”
She reached up over the worktable to turn out the final light. “I feel like the cat that figured out how to get into a cream factory. That’s how I feel. Cream is better than canaries. Canaries have feathers, and bones, and beaks, and claws, too. I’d think a cat that swallowed a canary would look pretty sick, Jeff.”
He laughed, and turned to open the door. With all the shop lights out, the door’s glass pane showed a whiter, mist-filled darkness outside. “You haven’t hung your sign out yet,” Jeff said, looking down at the carved wooden sign that leaned against the wall beside the door. “I thought you’d have it hung by noon on Christmas.”
“If it’s outside, I can’t look at it.” Her brother had made it for her, cutting the letters deep into a piece of mahogany, staining
them dark so they would show up against the paler wood, and then varnishing it, coat after careful coat, so it would stand up against weather. TILLERMAN BOATS, the sign read. Dicey saw it clear in her memory, even though in the lightlessness she couldn’t distinguish the letters. “It’s a good thing Sammy took wood shop, or I don’t know what I’d have gotten for Christmas.”
“He’s got clever hands,” Jeff said.
“And he likes making things,” she added. Sammy had even roped James into making a half-court, a backboard to play tennis alone on, one summer; at the garage where he’d been hired to pump gas, he now spent most of his time working on engines. It was Sammy who kept their old pickup going for them. It was even Sammy who’d found it, and talked them into it, telling them it could be got running, he could do it easily, and at the price, which was only $485, he said—ignoring Gram’s raised eyebrows at the sum—they’d never find anything cheaper. “Who needs a wheeled vehicle?” Gram had demanded. “We do,” Sammy had told her. “You do, and you need a license, too. Maybe we can’t afford it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need it. And we can afford it.” Sammy had set his mind to it. Like anything else Sammy set his mind to, it got done. They insured it in Gram’s name, because she was the cheapest; Sammy was the only one of them who didn’t have a license at that point, and he’d turn sixteen in less than a year.
Jeff hurried Dicey along. “It’s after six. They’re waiting for us. Should I call and say we’re leaving now?” Dicey shook her head and followed him outside. He waited while she locked the door and took a final look. The shop lay quiet, the boats thick black masses in the darkness inside.
She let Jeff pull her by the hand toward his car, telling her with mock comfort, “You’ll be back tomorrow. It’s only a few hours’ separation.”
“No, it isn’t. Tomorrow’s New Year’s Day.”
“Then the day after. It’s only a few more hours. I don’t know why you’re in such a hurry.”
“Why shouldn’t I be? I know what I want to do, I’ve got enough money in the bank to pay six months’ rent and utilities, I’ve got storage and maintenance fees coming in—and I’ve got probably the best set of tools in the county. Some of them,” she added, “given to me by the man I love.” She put her arm around his waist and felt his arm go around her shoulder. “What more do I need?”
“You could marry me,” he suggested.
“I could but I can’t.”
“You mean you won’t.”
“I mean no, Jeff.”
“No you don’t,” he corrected her, lifting her bike into the back of the station wagon. “You mean not now, not yet.”
“I don’t think I’d ever marry anyone else,” she told him, fastening the seat belt. She had it planned—first the boats and then marrying Jeff.
“In that case,” he said, half of his attention on backing the car around the parking lot, “why don’t you marry me now and get it over with?”
Dicey turned her head sharply to look at him. “That wouldn’t get anything over with, it would just start things up. Cripes, Jeff,” she protested, and then laughed. “You make it sound so tempting.” She could no more imagine him not in her life than she could imagine not having her brothers and sister there, or Gram. Jeff Greene, since the time she’d first met him—over eight years ago now—had got woven into her life so thoroughly that, she thought, picturing it—the warp threads and the woof threads, all the colors and the intricate design—if he weren’t in it . . . everything would look entirely different, and feel different, too. Even the texture wouldn’t be what it was without Jeff.
“Besides,” Jeff said, “I’m still in school.”
Dicey grunted her agreement.
“Although I’m graduating this year, so I’m almost through. But I’ll probably go to grad school.”
“I’d think so.”
“So I don’t have a job to support you with. Although we could easily live on my allowance. Think of the savings in phone bills.”
“My phone bills aren’t bad.” They drove through town and turned onto a country road.
“I know. I know they aren’t.”
“I’ve been busy, you know that, Jeff. I’ve been working.”
“If you married me, you wouldn’t have to worry about being too busy to call me up,” Jeff pointed out. “Or write me letters.”
“Can we talk about something else? I don’t like feeling guilty.”
For a second, Dicey was afraid he would apologize. Instead, he told her, “You don’t feel guilty.”
He was right, she thought, grinning away, feeling good.
“And why should you feel guilty, anyway,” Jeff asked, “for doing what you always said you wanted to do?” But he said this as if he was reminding himself, not telling her.
Then she did feel guilty. “You know I’ll come home with you. Live with you while you’re home. Whenever you say, I will—you know that,” she reminded him. “Your father’s away, we wouldn’t be imposing on anyone.” Whenever they had this conversation, she always hoped that this time Jeff would say yes.
“You know that won’t work,” he said, as usual. “I’m not good at half-measures, Dicey. Besides, it’s too risky.”
“I know how not to get pregnant.”
“It’s not about not getting pregnant.”
She heard it in his voice, something angry, or sad, and turned in her seat to face him, to see his face. “What, sex?”
“I don’t think of it as sex,” he said. “I think of it as making
love. And I think love deserves the best from me that I can give it. Which is a lot more than shacking up with you for Christmas vacation.”
Dicey reached her hand across to touch the back of his neck. “I’m sorry—I said it badly—Jeff? I’m tired, I’m stupid with tiredness.”
“It’s okay,” he said, and meant it. “You’ve been working too hard for too long.”
“That part’s coming to an end now, I think.”
Dicey leaned back in her seat, while the dark night hurried past the windows and the dark road ran under the wheels. Work had laid the groundwork, and now the shop was started. She had always gotten things done; working hard, and harder, was what worked for her. She was bankrolling her own business because for the last six months she’d held down two jobs. Eight to four at Claude’s boatyard, learning what had to be done and how to do it, meeting people who might hire her on her own, and then the night shift at the McDonald’s up in Salisbury. Days spent sweating herself dry and nights togged out in a little orange-and-yellow outfit, inhaling the smell of grease and industrial-strength cleanser, taking orders and money from person after person, from an endless procession of people impatient to fill their bellies. Sometimes she thought if she never saw another hamburger in her whole life, it would be too soon. Sometimes, even, she thought if she never saw another human being, too.
Dicey was glad those six months were behind her, but she was even gladder for her bank account. She was on her way to where she planned to get to because of those months, which was what really mattered.
At the mailbox they turned right into the driveway, moving slowly. The two fields, one on either side, lay dark and empty.
The belt of pines that fenced the fields made a tall, dark wall. Then the driveway curved into the pines and Dicey could see the lighted windows of the house. Jeff drove around to the back and parked beside the pickup, in front of the barn. The car headlights shone briefly on the tarpaulin Sammy spread out to protect his tennis court, the beams of light reflecting off small black puddles formed by the mist, which gathered together if there was no soil to absorb it. Jeff turned off the engine and the lights, unbuckled himself, and then—as Dicey had hoped he would—he gathered her into his arms. The silky feel of his hair, and his strong young shoulders—the clean smell of him and the distant beating of his heart from deep inside his body—If she thought about it, Dicey didn’t see how she was going to stand having Jeff go away again, back to school. She didn’t think about it.