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In The Sailboat, an aging widower named Nick makes wooden furniture by hand for a living. When his customer visits to check on an order of rocking chairs, Nick must endure repeated inquiries into his mysterious side project: the crafting of a model sailboat.
About the Author
Eric Luthi is the principal of an alternative high school by day. At night, he writes plays and short stories and teaches at a community college. He describes himself as the father of four and husband of one. Eric is currently working on his first novel.
The Sailboat by Eric Luthi
The old man opened his eyes and saw the exposed oak beams above him. He cut them years ago. It had been hard work, but he had wanted to do everything by hand back then. He rolled over and sat up on the right side of the bed. Eighteen years later and he still slept only on the right side. He closed his eyes and waited for the wave to pass.
He reached out to touch the wall and ran his fingers over the surface. The grain was rising. The walls would have to be oiled again soon. Maybe this summer. It would wait until summer.
He washed his face and looked in the mirror. Sarah had suggested the beard. She came up behind him one morning and leaned against his back as he was shaving. “You know,” she said over his shoulder, “if you'd let it grow, maybe you'd look a little less like a scarecrow.”
The next morning, he had skipped shaving, and now, long after it had turned white, he still wore the beard.
He dressed and went outside into the cold air. The top of the mountain disappeared in the clouds. A spring frost had dusted the trees and ground during the night, and the sunlight that made it through the clouds was almost too bright. The old man turned and walked toward his shop. It looked like a barn, bright red against the frosted trees.
* * *
“Hey Nick, read this,” she had said one evening as she dropped a magazine into his lap. She poked him in the side and continued, “This would make a good design for your shop.”
“A barn?” he said.
“Yeah, a barn. Its big, with lots of room to work, and it wouldn't stand out around here. If you like, we could always paint it red.”
“Sarah, I don't want to work in a barn.”
“Why not? Lots of people work in barns. Artists even.”
“I build furniture. I’m not an artist.”
“You will be.”
* * *
The old man pushed through the shop door and went in. Unfinished work lay all about. The day before, he had finished shaping and sanding parts for a dozen long-tailed rockers. They were stacked in rows on a long table awaiting final assembly. The buyer wanted them next week.
He moved to his workbench and pulled aside a dusty cloth. There, in a wooden clamp, rested the carved hull of a model boat. It was a sailboat, or would be when it was done. He picked up a block, wrapped it in sandpaper, and rubbed the hull. He used finer and finer grit as he worked, finishing and smoothing and refining.
Nick was getting ready to step the mast when the light in the shop brightened. A man stood in the doorway. Nick squinted and raised a hand to shield his eyes. “Hello, George,” he said.
The old man turned back to his work. “The rockers won’t be finished until next week.”
“I know that. I wrote the contract, remember? I’m checking on your progress.” George walked over to the workbench. “What are you working on? That doesn't look like a rocking chair.”
“I’m just foolin’ around.”
George stood behind Nick, looking over the old man's shoulder as he worked. “Is that walnut?”
Nick fitted a silver dime into the hole he had drilled in the deck for the mast.
“What's the coin for?”
“Tradition. You always put a coin under the mast.”
“Even on a model?”
“Even on a small boat like this one.”
“Why a dime?”
“’Cause it fits.” Nick showed George the end of the mast. “On a bigger boat, I’d use a bigger coin.”
George watched Nick for a few minutes. “That's nice work. It's a fine sculpture.”
“It's a boat.”
“Yeah, I get that. You haven't done any carving in a while. I think I could sell it. How about you sell it to me when it's done? I'll spot you a couple hundred dollars up front and split the sale price.”
The old man shook his head.
“Sixty-forty?” asked George.
“No counter offer?”
“You already got a buyer?”
George paused and said, “Give it some thought. I'll be back for the rockers next week.” On his way out, George pulled the door closed.
The old man watched him go and then turned back to fit the mast into the deck.
* * *
Nick heard the truck arrive. The rockers were finished, each one carefully wrapped in a protective cloth. All but the last one. He always left one for the buyer’s inspection. The door opened, and George entered, followed by two men. The men began moving the rockers outside, and George came to the workbench where the old man sat in front of the sailboat.
“What did you do?” George asked.
“It's almost finished.”
“I can see that. But you painted it red.”
“Chinese Red,” said Nick. “It's a good color, don't you think?”
“Yes, but you painted it.”
“Only the hull. The mast and spars are sealed with marine varnish. I'll treat the sails next to stiffen them.”
“Unpainted wood doesn't do well in the water.”
“You don't put paint on sculpture.”
“The Greeks did. So did the Romans.”
“You're not Greek or Roman. What you are is an idiot.”
The old man shrugged.
“Well,” George said, “at least we can agree that you’re crazy.”
“Maybe. A little lunacy now and then is good for the soul.”
George shook his head.
Nick said, “Come by tomorrow noon, and we'll see how she sails.”
“You're not really going to put this in the water?”
“All done, George,” said one of the men. “We’ll wait in the truck.”
George looked skeptically at the old man and shook his head again.
* * *
George returned at noon the next day. The shop was empty, and he let himself in. The sailboat rested in a little canvas cradle built so nothing would mar the hull. Chinese Red. Crazy. But she was beautiful. The deep red hull contrasted with the white sails. All rigged and ready to go. There was even a painted lead sailor holding the tiller.
Nick walked in and said, “I see you've met the captain.”
“He fits,” said George.
“I thought so, too. I made him special. I built a mold and cast him from tire weights.”
“A lot of work for a sculpture you won't sell.”
“She's a sailboat and has another purpose.”
“A higher calling?”
Nick lifted the boat. “You ready?”
“Aren't you going to cover her up?”
“Here,” said Nick, “you carry her.”
George carefully wrapped his arms around the hull.
* * *
The park was cold in the early spring. Still, the sunshine brought people out after the long winter. Some children played down by the pond with their parents. The kids saw Nick and ran over to him. “Grandpa Nick,” they shouted. Some hugged him. Many of them had sailboats. Some boats were already on the water. Each one was different, some worn more than others, but the craftsmanship was unmistakable.
Nick called to a boy standing behind the others, “Daryl, this is for you.” He took the sailboat from George and handed it to the boy. Daryl didn't say anything. He gave Nick a quick hug and ran to the pond to put the sailboat out to sea.
“Really?” said George. “Really?”
“You’re certifiable, Nick. You know that?”
“What's next? Are you going to try climbing down a chimney?”
Nick turned on George and stuck a finger in his face. George took a half step back. Then Nick’s expression softened, and he wagged his finger.
“Sometimes, George . . . Sometimes . . . I like the way you think.”
About the Story
The Sailboat was written by Eric Luthi and first appeared in the literary magazine Chicago Literati.
At SunLit, we were drawn into The Sailboat by the description of the main character: an old man who works with his hands and still loves his wife even though she passed away eighteen years ago.
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