Excerpt

The Boatbuilder

Daniel Gumbiner

May 25, 2018 
The following is from Daniel Gumbiner's debut novel, The Boatbuilder. Before Eli “Berg” Koenigsberg developed an intense addiction to painkillers, he was a hardworking kid, always looking to prove himself. Struggling with his addiction and chronic pain, Berg begins an apprenticeship with a reclusive boatbuilder—a new outlet for handling his suffering. Daniel Gumbiner graduated from UC Berkeley.

One day garrett asked Berg to help him drop off Vespucci’s father’s canoe at the local boatbuilder’s shop. They loaded it onto the roof of his truck and drove north along the bay. It was autumn now and the grass that had been kept green by the summer fog had turned brown. Everything seemed brown: brown buildings, brown trees, brown cows. They listened to the local radio station as they drove, WMUR. The DJ was announcing different community events that week.

“Folks are needed on Sunday to help weed a patch of grass in the commons,” he said. “Lot of weeds in the grass. Please help if you are able.”

When they pulled up the driveway, Berg immediately recognized the house as one of the places he’d broken into. Down to the left was the old farmhouse he’d entered and, up to the right, there were two large barns. In the distance, behind the barns, Berg could make out what looked like a blue school bus. He didn’t remember that school bus being here when he’d entered the farmhouse. He was staring at it, straining to remember whether he’d seen it before, when he realized that Garrett was saying his name.

“Dude,” Garrett said. “Look alive. C’mon, let’s go.”

Article continues after advertisement

“Sorry… I just… I thought I might have been here before.”

“You know Alejandro?”

“Who?”

“Alejandro Vega,” Garrett said. “The boatbuilder.”

“What? No.”

Article continues after advertisement

“Or Uffa? You go to one of his bus shows some time?”

“Bus shows?”

“Yeah, he has musicians come and play on his bus. I went one night. Got totally shadracked. Stumbled home at 4 a.m.”

“No, I’ve never been to one of those.”

“Oh, well I can’t say I recommend it. Bunch of freaks.”

Instead of walking over to the farmhouse, Garrett led Berg up a short trail toward one of the old barns. A young man with a ponytail was standing by the door, smoking a spliff. He was wearing purple sweatpants, a purple sweatshirt, basketball shoes, and a fanny pack.

“What’s up, Uffa?” Garrett said.

“’Sup, Garrett.”

“This is Berg,” Garrett said.

“Hi Berg.”

“Sorry it took so long to get you this boat,” Garrett said.

“Lots of bullshit happening. I won’t go into it. Is Alejandro around?”

“Yeah, he’s here but he’s busy working. JC wants two new boats.”

“How many have you built for him now?”

“I’ve lost count.”

“You know, I’ve still never met that guy. Very mysterious.”

“He’s a good client,” Uffa said.

“People say he’s nuts. I mean, I’ve never met him so I don’t know, but that’s what people say.”

Uffa didn’t respond.

“Like, didn’t he kill someone?” Garrett said. “In Mexico? I know he went postal on Teddy Kearns at the Western that one time.”

Uffa stubbed out his spliff on the bottom of his boot. “Well, how ’bout we haul this boat inside?” he said.

“These memories were too shameful, too sad. He pushed them out of his mind, far out of his mind, to the extent that, weeks later, he was not sure if they were even real.”

The three men lifted the old canoe off the back of the truck and carried it into the barn. After they set it down on two sawhorses, Berg looked around. It was like being in some kind of cathedral. Tall ceilings and tall windows and boats hanging from the rafters, strung up by thick cords of rope, listing gently in the air. Everything shot through with columns of cold morning light, smelling of straw and saltwater and fresh sawdust. In the center of the shop there was a thirty-foot boat on blocks and, in the back, there was a loft. An older man was on his knees on the floor of the loft, staring at the ground, a pencil in his mouth. He was wearing jeans and sandals and a black turtleneck with holes in it. He did not look up from his work when they entered.

“Well, what do you think?” Garrett asked Uffa.

“There are no bleeding fasteners,” Uffa said, circling the canoe. “And this crack that you were worried about is horizontal, not vertical. So we should be able to just put some bedding compound in there and it will be fine. We’ll redo this rub strake for you, too.”

“Great,” Garrett said. “Thanks, Uffa. Hey, what happened to John? He’s not working in the shop anymore?”

“Cut his hand on the table saw.”

“Oh shit. You know, I thought his finger looked weird last time I saw him at the Western, but I wasn’t sure if it had always been like that.”

“Yeah, he lost a bit of his finger,” Uffa said.

“I figured it might be something like that, but you never know. I met a girl in Willits who was born without a big toe. Some kind of deformity. Ran in the family. Several of them without big toes. Well, anyway.” He looked around the shop, distracted. “We should get back to work. Mangini’s really cracking the whip these days.”

As Berg and Garrett walked back to the truck, a couple of dogs barked at them and then ran off toward some trees, distracted by a squirrel. In the distance, Berg saw a young girl running along the path down to the farmhouse, barefoot and tan, a fistful of blue flowers in her hand.

“I need to go back inside,” Berg said.

“Why?” Garrett said.

“I’ll just be a second.”

“Okay,” Garrett said, taking out his phone and beginning to flip through women on a dating app. “Hurry up.”

Back in the barn, Berg found Uffa leaning over the canoe, picking at a piece of caulking near the stern.

“Oh hey,” Uffa said.

“Hi. I was wondering if you guys need any help now, because Tom’s hand was hurt and all.”

“John?”

“Right, John’s hand, and I was thinking that maybe… I mean I don’t know how to do anything, really… but…”

“You’d have to talk to ask Alejandro about this,” Uffa said. He led Berg across the shop and up the stairs to the loft. “Ale,” Uffa said. “This is Berg. He’s interested in becoming an apprentice.”

Now that Berg was up on the floor of the loft, he could see what Alejandro was working on. It was a big sketch of a boat, precise and elegant. The sketch was drawn on multiple pieces of plywood, which had been painted white, and it ran the entire length of the barn. The old man looked up from the drawing and took off his glasses. His eyes were a muddy blue, the color of pond water.

“You would like to be an apprentice?” he asked.

“Yes,” Berg said. “I mean, I think so. I don’t really know what that means.”

“It means you work here four days a week for free for the next month and then, if you like the work and we like each other, I begin to pay a stipend for the next two years. And you can live in that cubby back there, if you like.”

Berg turned around and saw that there was a triangular door at the far end of the loft floor.

“That would be great,” he said.

“Very good then,” Alejandro said. He stood up, hobbled over to Berg, and shook his hand. He smelled like coffee and sweet tobacco. “I hope you find the work rewarding,” he said. “It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. If you don’t like it, you don’t like it. It’s no problem.”

“Okay,” Berg said, desperately hoping he would like it.

“You’ll start next week.”

Berg walked outside and got into Garrett’s truck. As they drove back to Fernwood, he watched the bay on his right. Small coves and reedy beaches, a light fog approaching, wolf-colored and wet. He did some quick calculus to determine whether or not he would be able to afford the apprenticeship. If he kept working at Fernwood a few days a week, he could probably get by. Then he thought about how he’d broken into what he now assumed was Alejandro’s house, months ago. He thought about all the photos of boats and the oilskin map. He thought about the Lortabs and the amulet and how he’d taken a shit in the bathroom. But these memories were too shameful, too sad. He pushed them out of his mind, far out of his mind, to the extent that, weeks later, he was not sure if they were even real.

For the first few days of his apprenticeship, Berg didn’t do anything but sharpen. The key to good woodworking, Alejandro said, and boatbuilding in particular, is having sharp tools. And the key to sharpening tools, he explained, is patience and awareness. If you did not maintain balanced strokes against the stone, the edge of the blade would begin to round. On the first day, Alejandro gave Berg a brief lesson in sharpening and then he set him loose.

Berg’s first task was to get the flat end of the chisel entirely level. You did this by rubbing the back of the chisel against the water stones, applying pressure to the front edge of chisel, where it was likely to lift up. From there, you gave the beveled side of the blade an angle, stabilizing the chisel with both hands. After every few strokes, you would dip the blade in a plastic tub of water and hold it up to the light to examine it. It was crucial to keep the blade at the same angle the whole time. If your hands shifted position, you would begin sharpening at a different angle and the blade would become dull.

Berg’s progress was slow. He had always had shaky hands—his friends in high school had made fun of him for it—and he couldn’t figure out how to keep the handle of the chisel stable as he sharpened. All it took was the tiniest twitch and then he had made a bad stroke and he basically had to start all over. His mind would wander, too. He’d be paying attention to the strokes, placing them carefully and accurately, and then he’d begin to think about something else—if Nell was really going to get a dog, as she’d said on the phone the other day; how he owed his brother a call; how he ’d left the acetone uncapped in the toolshed at Fernwood—and he would make another bad stroke and have to backpedal.

After the first couple of days he managed to produce a few moderately sharp chisels and Alejandro gave him a plane blade to work on. Uffa had just returned from a trip to Oakland and it was the first day the two of them were working together at the same time. Berg sharpened the blade Alejandro had given him for about an hour and, at one point, he got a pretty good angle going and he began to wonder if he was finished. He looked at the blade in the light, as Alejandro had demonstrated, and tried to determine if it was perfectly flat. He wasn’t sure. He decided to walk over to Alejandro and show him.

Alejandro was working a big piece of lumber with an adze.

He set down the adze and held Berg’s blade to the light, chest heaving.

“No,” he said.

And then he picked up the adze and went back to work. Berg returned to the bench and continued with his strokes. Twenty minutes later he walked back to Alejandro to show him the blade. He was pretty confident that he’d done it right and, if he hadn’t, he wanted Alejandro to show him what was wrong. He presented Alejandro with the blade and Alejandro showed him how, in the upper right corner, there was a slight difference of color, indicating that the blade was not ready. He put down his adze and looked at Berg.

“When was the last time you got lost in a thing?”

“What do you mean?”

“When was the last time you were working so hard that you forgot what you were doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re very punctual, aren’t you?”

It wasn’t easy to answer the question. Before he’d become an addict, yes, he was punctual. Berg said nothing.

“You’re punctual because you’re always thinking about the next place you’re going to be.”

Berg bristled, but a part of him also knew Alejandro was right. Alejandro was meeting the non-stoned version of Berg, the tense, anxious, calculating version. This version was punctual, he was right. This version had risen through the ranks at Cleanr, always hungry, always looking to prove himself, hurtling toward eventual burnout. Of course, at Cleanr, he had been doing something that didn’t matter to him. Now he wanted to get it right.

“It’s not your fault,” Alejandro continued. “Stop thinking about the result. Stop wanting it to be over right away and I promise everything will go better.”

The key was not even sharpening the blade, he told Berg. The key was staying completely in the room with what he was doing. Berg said nothing, returned to the sharpening stone, irritated and hurt. He tried to sharpen again, but now he was even more distracted. His mind wandered back to what Alejandro had said, wandered away toward something else. He missed a few strokes and found himself once again with a rounded blade. Frustrated, he put down the chisel and took out his phone, checked his social media. Photo of a stack of art books. Photo of someone’s toast. Photo of Nell drinking coffee. Uffa noticed him on his phone and walked over.

“The sharpening takes a long time,” he said. “You’ll get it, though. When I started I didn’t know how to do any of this stuff. It’s good to learn it. Having sharp tools makes everything easier.”

“Thanks.”

“What are you doing after we finish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Want to come hang out on the bus?”

Uffa had bought the bus five years ago, from a river rafting company in Truckee. He had recently installed an atrium on the roof, he told Berg, because he was tired of hunching. The atrium ran down the center of the roof, like scales on the back of a dragon. Inside the bus he had added a pepperwood cabinet and a fir desk. There was a jar of weed on the floor and a VHS of Jurassic Park and two guitars. Beneath his bed were several milk crates full of clothes and a pile of notebooks.

“Trying to write one poem a day for all of September,” Uffa said.

Alejandro was meeting the non-stoned version of Berg, the tense, anxious, calculating version.”

Last summer, Uffa told Berg, he had taken the bus up to Washington with several musicians. They all lived in a warehouse in Oakland, along with a couple of poets and a filmmaker and a visual artist. Most of them worked in the service industry, waiting tables or bartending. Uffa moved in and out of a room in the warehouse and the bus, depending on how much money he had at the moment. When he was living on the bus, he usually posted up next to the dog park that was around the corner from the warehouse. The dog park was a thin strip of fenced-in land and, every Sunday, Uffa served coffee and hot chocolate to the people who used it. This was part of the ongoing public relations campaign that he hoped would prevent someone from reporting his illegal residence. For the past couple of months he’d been in Talinas, helping Alejandro. He usually worked with Alejandro for about half of the year.

“I come up here,” he said, “earn a few survival tickets, and then head back to the dog park.”

Alejandro had most recently called him up here because he was working on a big boat for a drug dealer named JC. This was the boat that was currently sitting on blocks in the center of the shop. It was called the Alma. Apparently JC commissioned a lot of boats from Alejandro. Uffa said he used them to pick up weed in Mexico. The boats were both a form of transportation and a decoy. Most DEA agents expected product to come up from Mexico in little fishing boats, not wooden sailboats.

“It’s not as sketchy as it sounds,” Uffa said. “I mean, JC is sketchy. That guy is certifiably sketchy. But me and Alejandro, we’re normal. Well, Alejandro is a genius, but he’s mostly normal. Here, come look at this.”

Uffa walked over to his desk and picked up a framed painting. It depicted a scene at some kind of Islamic palace, with men playing strange instruments and carrying bowls of fruit. The work was insanely detailed, full of bright, pure color.

“Alejandro taught himself how to do this,” Uffa said. “Persian miniature painting. Can you believe that? I mean, the skill here… it’s off the charts. He thought this painting was bad, though. He was going to throw it out. I convinced him to save it, to let me have it.” Berg sat down at the desk and inspected the painting. The desk was covered with papers and magazine clippings and a few dirty glasses that seemed, at one point, to have contained green smoothies. Uffa lit a spliff and the room filled with sweet, skunky smoke. He continued to muse while Berg examined the painting. “You know, you came here at a good time. Business has been strong recently. We’re getting more JC commissions than ever. And JC pays well. I mean, we’re not rich. You won’t get rich working here, that’s for sure. But you’ll learn a lot of skills. Some of Alejandro’s apprentices go on to become carpenters or cabinetmakers, and that can be okay money. Don’t get into chairs, though. No one makes money on chairs.”

The closer Berg looked at the painting, the more he saw. There was a cat curled up on a rug, a man weighing some kind of precious metal on a scale, herbs drying, tiny golden keys, and several donkeys. It was ambitious, accomplished, not the kind of thing you would just throw away.

“Last apprentice we had didn’t make it,” Uffa continued. “Oh, I told you about him, actually. Garrett asked about him. He ended up cutting his finger. John Pressey. I’m glad he quit. I mean, I’m sorry he cut his finger and all but I’m glad he quit. Didn’t really like hanging out with him. Had a stressy vibe. He was always talking about how he couldn’t balance his art life with his work life and going on about some existential crisis and I was just like, ‘Man, I don’t need any more of that shit in my life.’ Between myself and everyone at the warehouse… I’ve got plenty. We don’t need any more of that around here.”

Uffa opened a bag of walnuts, took a handful, and held out the bag to Berg.

“You want some of these?” he said. “Brain food.”

Berg set down the painting and took a few walnuts. He motioned to the donkeys in the painting.

“My grandfather was really interested in donkeys,” he said. “Well, donkeys as symbols in Jewish literature. He thought they represented yezerah, the aspect of our physical nature that separates us from God. All of the great Jewish leaders—Moses, Abraham—were depicted holding the reins of a donkey, and this, my grandfather said, was meant to symbolize their mastery over their own inner beasts. They could not practice tikun olam, the healing of the world, until they mastered their own yezerah.”

“Ride the donkey,” Uffa said. “I like that. Is that what you were doing before you came out here? Studying Jewish stuff?”

“No, no,” Berg said. “I sold antivirus software.”

“I see,” Uffa said. “Another digital refugee.”

“I’m free now, though,” Berg said. “I made it out.”

“Damn right. Now you can do whatever you want.”

“I want to build boats,” Berg said, popping a walnut in his mouth.

“Oh, you’re gonna learn about that,” Uffa said.

He walked over to the desk and ashed his spliff on a small plate.

“You’re gonna be up to your eyes in boats,” he said. “Catboats, tugboats, dories, cutters, skiffs. I get bored of it some of the time, to be honest. Like, why don’t we try making a car? Or a dishwasher? Or a robot cat, you know? Shake things up. But Alejandro’s always boats, boats, boats. You won’t want for boats, man. You found the boat king.”

Berg cut down his hours at Fernwood. He worked there only two days a week now and spent the rest of his time at Alejandro’s. Even if there was nothing to do in the shop, Berg would hang out in the farmhouse and talk to Alejandro, or whoever was around. At first Berg felt like he was intruding, but Alejandro made him feel welcome.

“Do you want to stay for dinner, Berg?” he’d ask, eyes twinkling.

Alejandro and his wife, Rebecca, lived in the main farmhouse with their two teenage sons, Hal and Sandy. Their daughters, who were older, lived on different parts of the property. Lizzie was married to a Dutch man named Jens, and she had given birth to Alejandro’s only grandchild, Tess. They lived in a cabin down by the water. Marie, Alejandro’s other daughter, lived by herself, baked sourdough bread, and on occasion helped out her father in the boat shop. Alejandro never would have said it, but Berg could tell she was his favorite child.

Berg guessed that Alejandro was around sixty-five years old. Every morning, he woke at sunrise and took a walk through the woods. When he returned from his walk, he had toast, eggs, and cowboy coffee, and read the paper all the way through. Uffa, Rebecca, and his children rose around this time, and joined him in the kitchen for breakfast. There was a jovial atmosphere to the farmhouse in the mornings, with Rebecca and all of the children discussing the farm-related work that needed to be done that day. On any given morning, the generator needed to be fixed, the irrigation in the tomato patch repaired, the animals fed, the goats’ toenails clipped, the bread made, the cheese made, the sausage made, the cows milked, the fence by the chicken run mended, the pear trees pruned and inspected for blight, the soil temperature recorded, and someone needed to go into town to buy a five-gallon bucket.

Alejandro said he was part Chilean, part Hawaiian, and part “something else.” He’d grown up in Tahiti and California and his father had made his living chartering tourists back and forth from the West Coast to Tahiti on a schooner named Hoku Lewa. There was a large black-and-white photo of this boat in the shop. It hung above the workbench, next to a photo of Uffa and Alejandro from many years ago. In that photo, the two men were standing in front of the ribcage of some small boat, both of them in overalls. Uffa looked very young in the photo. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen years old.

The boat shop was a large, airy place. It was not entirely disordered but you could not say it was orderly, either. There were miscellaneous cans of turpentine and linseed oil, stacks of black locust and pepperwood and cedar, old paper coffee cups full of fasteners and bolts, and hundreds of tools, some of them in better shape than others. Several dogs came in and out of the shop, and Berg’s favorite dog was named Swallow. She was a black-grey mutt with long eyelashes and a runny snout. During the first week of his apprenticeship, she ate a dead squirrel and it made her horribly sick. Berg found her behind the shop vomiting, but she seemed to be in good spirits. In between each heave she would look up at Berg, entirely unrepentant.

I’d do it again, she seemed to be saying. I loved eating the squirrel and I’d do it all again.

Berg learned that many people in Talinas believed Alejandro to be mentally ill. One day he ran into Joe Leggett in town, for example, and told him he was apprenticing with Alejandro. He hadn’t seen Leggett since he stopped going to the Tavern.

“Good luck with that,” Leggett said. “That guy’s a quack.” It was true that Alejandro was strange. His mind was borderless and kinetic. He’d sit down and talk to his six-year-old granddaughter for two hours and become entirely absorbed in the child’s world. His yard was littered with broken-down cars and other detritus. Shortly after Berg met him, he became interested in pasteurizers, and designed and built his own portable pasteurizer for Rebecca to use in the field. After that he began carving Elizabethan lutes. He would stay in the shop after hours, working on these lutes that he didn’t know how to play.

Alejandro was so confident and intelligent, his daily existence so full of life, that Berg felt intimidated.”

But Berg never doubted Alejandro’s sanity because the first thing he’d seen was his work: his first experiences with Alejandro revolved around building, and everything Alejandro did matched, everything fit. He was a master with hand tools and his intellectual horsepower was astonishing. He would stay up late into the night, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking coffee and looking at lines. Berg would try to keep up with him for a few hours but then he’d fatigue.

“The lines of American fishing boats are high art,” Alejandro said. “Americans are strange. We do certain things that are unfathomable, like sit in traffic. To me this is evidence of mass psychosis, all of these people sitting in traffic. But the lines of American boats are both beautiful and practical.”

As much as Berg liked spending time with Alejandro, he felt inferior in his company. Alejandro was so confident and intelligent, his daily existence so full of life, that Berg felt intimidated. Alejandro never stopped investigating and questioning, and Berg, unfamiliar with even the basics of some of the issues Alejandro was exploring, struggled to keep up. About 30 percent of the time he didn’t understand what Alejandro was talking about, but he just kept hanging on, kept listening, like a foreigner trying to learn a new language.

Much of Alejandro’s work relied on sensory intelligence. He was able, for example, to determine the exact moisture content of a piece of wood by smelling it. This was important because wood changed shape as it dried. If you did not accurately determine moisture content, you might end up with a boat that, after a couple of years, had large gaps between its planks. Various species of wood had widely different structural properties and dried at different rates.

“You see,” Alejandro would say, holding a cut of white oak to Berg’s nose. “You must know the smells for each wood.”

The way the wood was cut mattered, too. Most lumber was flat-sawn, but Alejandro would quarter-saw his lumber because it gave him more pieces of wood with vertical grain. This type of wood was less likely to shrink or develop checks.

“When a tree dries,” Alejandro said, “it is opening from the pith. Its rings are trying to flatten out. So a piece of wood with highly curved rings, a piece with horizontal grain, is going to move more than a piece of wood with flat rings, or vertical grain. You must anticipate this. You must always be thinking about how the wood will change with time.”

Alejandro’s professorial style was highly improvisational. After discussing the differences between vertical and horizontal grains, he might point to the floorboards of the shop, show Berg how they were horizontal grain and how they had checked. From there he might explain how there was adobe under the floor of the shop, which would lead to a discussion of California’s geology, which would segue into a commentary on the exceptionally hot lava of Kilauea, and move from there to a story about hula, the slow form of hula that his mother had practiced in Tahiti, which was distinct from the more common, touristic version of the dance—all of this concluding, somehow, with a contemplation of the cello as an instrument, its merits and deficiencies. It was dizzying, but it was always interesting.

One day, when Berg was caulking the Alma, a reporter came into the shop. He said he was looking for Alejandro and Berg told him that Alejandro was out by the mouth fishing for herring. It was November and the herring run stretched from one end of the bay to the other, a forty-foot-wide river of shimmering silver.

“Do you know when he’ll be back?”

“I don’t.”

“No idea at all?”

Berg yelled over to Uffa, who was at the other end of the shop, cutting blocks for the Alma and soaking them in linseed oil. He said he didn’t know either.

“I’m sorry,” Berg said to the reporter. “We don’t know when he’ll be back.”

“I want to ask him about Szerbiak,” the reporter said. “I drove all the way out here.” He was wearing a dress shirt and glasses and he had a sweater tied around his neck.

“The novelist?” Berg asked.

“Yes, of course the novelist,” the man said, irritated.

“I’m sorry,” Berg said. “If you leave your name and number, I’ll pass it to him.”

When Alejandro came home, Berg told him about the man who had stopped by. Alejandro seemed disturbed, wanted to know what the man looked like. Berg described him, and then he asked Alejandro if he’d known Szerbiak.

“I went to college with him,” Alejandro replied.

“That’s so cool. His work is amazing.”

“It was cool for a while but I’m done with that scene. It was a dead end. The whole scene was a dead end.” He picked up a wooden mallet and began to caulk alongside Berg. “If that man comes back,” he said, “tell him I don’t live here.”

__________________________________

From The Boatbuilder. Used with permission of McSweeney’s. Copyright © 2018 by Daniel Gumbiner.




More Story
Thomas McGuane on Not Living
the Writer's Life
It might be convenient, perhaps even tempting, to compare the characters in Cloudbursts, Thomas McGuane’s mammoth new compendium—mammoth...