Sanctuary of the whirlig.., p.1
Sanctuary of the Whirligigs, p.1Barry Rachin / History & Fiction
Sanctuary of the Whirligigs
* * * * *
Sanctuary of the Whirligigs
Copyright © 2016 by Barry Rachin
This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
* * * * *
Sanctuary of the Whirligigs
Ignoring the paved, red brick walkway, the dark-haired woman cut across the lawn to where Marcus Rosedale was lounging on the front stoop. Even by the most generous standards, she wasn’t particularly pretty. Thick, charcoal eyebrows perched over pallid cheeks, sloping haphazardly toward fleshy lips. It was the sort of unremarkable, aesthetically commonplace face one seldom noticed in a crowd.
Some women possessed a certain penache. Even when wearing torn jeans and a blouse bought off the discount rack at the bargain outlet, they wreaked of haute couture. Sadly, this one was not of that ilk. How she appeared in middle age was not much different from how Marcus imagined she would look thirty years later when applying for Medicare and her social security pension.
She waved an arm at a collection of wind-driven lawn ornaments scattered across the weedy grass. “Are these gizmos for sale?”
“Whirligigs,” he corrected. “They’re called whirligigs and yes, I’ve got plenty in the basement.”
The woman stabbed at a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, pushing the frames up on the bridge of a doughy nose. “Yes, well I really like the feisty chicken.” She pointed toward a brightly painted wooden ornament perched on a spruce pole. A gust of wind tickled the blades of a purple propeller, sending the chicken’s upper torso bobbing up and down in the direction of a terrified earthworm. A red barn with tufts of hay spilling out of an upper loft served as a makeshift rudder, steering the contraption into the fitful breezes.
“Hennie Penny.” Marcus grinned good-naturedly. He disappeared into the house, returning moments later with a replica of the mechanical device.
“They’re all so clever,” she said, gesturing toward a red-capped lumberjack, who was chopping wood with an axe near a rock garden. Several feet away, a less-ambitious, bearded man snoozed leisurely in a rocking chair that rhythmically bobbed back and forth as the wind pumped a drive shaft hidden just below his feet. Directly to the left, a brown bear clawed the air with an outstretched paw, just out of reach of a salmon leaping from a frothy pond. It was all good fun – a comical, self-contained universe in microcosm where only good things happened and nothing ever went terribly awry.
“Do you teach?” She inched the glasses up on her humped nose.
“Woodworking… how to make them… The whirligigs, that is.”
He rubbed his grizzled chin and looked away. “In the ten years I been assembling these mechanical contraptions, you’re the first person to ask.”
“How sad!” The woman ran a taut index finger over the brass welding rod that served as the drive shaft. She stroked the acrylic paint that decorated the wings and fancy plumage. “How much would you charge to teach me?”
* * * * *
Andrea Simpson – that was the dark-haired customer’s name. After purchasing Hennie Penney and registering the unusual request, she was in no great hurry to leave. The woman was a psychologist with a PhD. Dr. Andrea Simpson – she worked at the women’s reformatory in Evanston, where she counseled lifers, hard-core recidivists and assorted social riff raff.
When Andrea finally left, Marcus went back indoors, fired up the band saw and cut a base plate replacement for the sold item, but, before he could measure for the brass drive shaft, the kitchen phone began ringing with shrill insistence. “What are you doing Wednesday night?” His sister, Brenda, was on the other end.
“What I do pretty much every night,” he replied cryptically.
“There’s something we need to discuss. Meet me at the Longhorn Steakhouse.”
Something we need to discuss… Marcus saw Brenda only sporadically. They seldom spoke even at holidays and when they did, his sister never mentioned anything more timely than the weather. Since elementary school, they shared no common interests. When there was no immediate reply, she blurted, “Six o’clock. I’ll be waiting in the lobby.” The phone went dead.
Marcus returned to the basement. He cut a slot for the metal cam then routed a quarter-inch groove from the propeller end. The brass rod was considerably thinner, but he always seated the metal in nylon bushings to reduce friction.
* * * * *
Andrea Simpson arrived early for her first woodworking session. Marcus brought her downstairs into the basement. “Table saw, drill press, router and scroll saw… these are the tools we will be using.” He laid a whirligig on the workbench alongside the metallic gray scroll saw. The elaborate design featured a bearded man in farmer jeans chopping at an upturned log. A pile of neatly stacked wood lay a short distance away. A brown dog resting on his haunches sat close by the propeller watching the woodchopper with a quizzical, upturned face. On the far side a tree in full leaf and stipled with pink blossoms served as a rudder to steer the ornament into the wind. “Thought we’d start with the woodcutter.”
“Isn’t this project a bit involved for a beginner?”
“Each design has a unique theme,” Marcus parried her question. “And, anyway, like I said earlier, we’re in no great hurry. Bit by bit, it all comes together.” Flicking on the scroll saw switch, the reciprocal blade pounded the air with an insistent fury. “We’ll cut the torso from half-inch pine… the legs from thinner stock.”
Marcus reached for a blonde board on which the man’s upper body including the axe had already been outlined in pencil. He inched the board into the thin blade then adjusted the blower to clear away debris. As the blade proceeded up the chest, down the back and over the shoulders, Marcus angled the wood to follow the penciled line. When the blade approached the back of the neck, he shut the machine down and stepped away from the table. “Now you finish the cut.”
Andrea reached for the switch, but Marcus grabbed her wrist. “Always know where your hands are in relation to the blade… that’s the cardinal rule in woodworking. He raised both hands, splaying the calloused fingers. “The tool has no preferences… it doesn’t discriminate between wood and flesh.”
“Yes, I’ll be careful.” Andrea set the saw in motion and watched as the blade tentatively proceeded up the back of woodcutter’s scalp. As she rounded the tip of the nose, the woman momentarily backed off the cut in order to accomplish the sharp angle, but everything was proceeding nicely.
“Watch what you’re doing,” Marcus counseled as the blade negotiated the underside of the grizzled chin. “You’re forcing the cut, dragging the blade at a cockeyed angle. Let up on the pressure or you’ll snap the blade.” Andrea relaxed her grip and the metal strand eased back perpendicular. Sliding the board a quarter turn to the right, she finished the cut and continued past the belly to the hips.
“Not bad for a novice!” Marcus grinned good-naturedly. “You drifted a bit wide on the brim of the hat, but we’ll clean that up on the vertical belt sander.”
“What about the legs?”
“We’ll tackle them in a moment, but let’s tidy things up a bit.” At the sander he showed the girl how to remove the excess stock then handed her a small strip of 180-grit sandpaper. “Round over the sharp edges and the piece is ready for painting.”
As the sandpaper polished the surface silky smooth, Andrea’s expression settled into a determined grin. “Do you enjoy working at the prison?” he asked.
“I’ve only had the job a few months.”
Marcus’ visits to the lumberyard for rough-cut poplar and pine took him past the Evanston facility at least several times a month. A collection of drab, cinderblock buildings was connected by an equally depressing concrete walkway. A thirty-foot fence was capped with coils of razor wire. “They’re hardened criminals.”
She crooked her head to one side. “Yes, for the most part.”
“How do you rehabilitate incorrigible thugs?” he pressed.
Andrea was sanding the crevices around the eye socket and nose. All the features stood in bold relief. “There is no silver bullet or standard treatment,” she said and brushed a gossamer film of loose sawdust away with her slender fingertips. “Most are severely character disordered. From a psychological perspective, their problems are structural.”
It took Marcus several minutes to digest the queer remark. Pointing at a thick, hardwood beam that ran the length of the ceiling, he observed, “That timber is structural. Tamper with it and the whole building falls down.”
The woman lay the sandpaper aside momentarily and stared at him obtusely. “It’s the same with the human psyche. Given the opportunity, the level three sex offender will continue to molest young children, the pyro burn your house down without the slightest pang of conscience. Short of divine intervention, most of them will never see the light of day.” Satisfied that all the saw marks had been sanded away, Andrea placed the torso on the worktable. “Is there time to shape the legs? I’d love to see how the body parts fit together.”
Marcus handed her another board, half as thick with a pair of identical legs faintly outlined in pencil. Andrea cut and sanded the pieces then drilled matching holes in the upper thigh, assembling the various parts with a slim bolt and matching locknut. Standing the figure upright on the workbench, Marcus rocked the upper portion back and forth sending the long-handled axe in a sweeping arc. Chop! Chop! Chop!
The psychologist, who worked with the worst-of-the-worst female offenders at the state prison, grinned ecstatically. “Truly awesome!”
Marcus glanced at his watch. “Time for one last thing.” He grabbed an oddly shaped metal object from the tool rack. “We’re going to thread a length of eighth-inch brass, welding rod. The metal will be bolted to the propeller and serve as the drive shaft that powers the whirligig.”
He locked the bronze-colored rod in a vice-grip before slipping an end into a narrow hole in the center of the tool. “Feed the rod into the center hole and twist clockwise, until you feel the teeth grab metal,” Marcus instructed, handing the tool to the girl,
Andrea seated the tool on the rod and made several revolutions. On the fifth try she blurted, “Yes, that’s it! I feel something.”
“Good. Now make another half-dozen turns.”
She spun the slender handles end over end until a brass filament spiraled out the mouth of the tool. Marcus retrieved the golden thread from the concrete floor and held it in front of her eyes. “Another thirty or forty turns and you’ll have your threaded rod.”
When the welding rod was finally removed from the thread cutter, Marcus studied the perfectly formed threads – not a single blemish or imperfection over the entire length of the cut. “Too bad,” he mused, “that prison administrators couldn’t conjure up a similar device to ‘retool’ deviant behavior, convert character disordered misfits into law-abiding citizens. Mechanical alchemy – that sort of miraculous twaddle only happened in the misguided Middle Ages.”
Marcus spun a matching nut onto the freshly-minted thread. “The propeller will seat on that first nut while a second locknut on the far side holds everything firmly in place.” Laying the welding rod aside, he dimmed the lights and headed for the stairwell. “I think we’ll call it quits for today.”
* * * * *
I’m not smart enough
for the life I’ve been living,
a little bit slow
for the pace of the game.
It’s not I’m ungrateful
For what I’ve been given
But nevertheless, just the same…
In the foyer of the Longhorn Steakhouse a bitter-sweet James Taylor tune drifted over the Bose speakers. Brenda had already arrived. The hostess showed them to their seats, provided menus and went away. “I’m thinking steak tips.” Reaching for a glass of ice water, Brenda perused the menu. “Although the ribeye looks scrumptious.”
Whatever seemed so urgent when she phoned earlier in the day, no longer was a priority. “How are you doing with the flea markets?”
“Craft fairs… I sell whirligigs at juried craft fairs,” Marcus replied. “An art gallery on the East Side is also selling some of my original creations on consignment.”
“That’s swell.” She was clearly underwhelmed.
According to Brenda’s highly-refined sensibilities, Marcus’ woodcrafts were tacky, vulgar and tawdry – the sort of frivolous chachkies that only knuckle-dragging blue-collar types and the culturally challenged could appreciate “Actually, I sold a whirligig earlier this week.” He told her about Andrea Simpson.
“You’re gonna teach a psychologist, who works with female inmates, to cut wood and bend metal rods?”
“She came to the house yesterday for the first lesson.”
“Any possibility,” Brenda sniggered, “of a romantic tryst?”
“She’s not my type.”
Brenda sliced a hot roll in half and slathered it with butter. “Didn’t you have a craft fair last weekend?”
“Weather was awful!” His sister noted. “As I remember, it rained nonstop from mid-morning through late afternoon.”
“That’s about right,” he replied morosely. The fair was held at a local farm. No sooner had the crafters set up their displays, the heavens opened with a flood of Biblical proportions, a deluge to put Noah to shame! Marcus was assigned a spot on a gravel embankment. The tent leaked. The unrelenting rain kicked mud onto the legs of the table, splattering the wood. When he got home, he had to wash all the merchandise that had been out on display. Several whirligigs had to be repainted. No customers showed up. He sold nothing and was out the seventy-five dollar booth fee plus travel expenses.
Marcus’ experience at the East Side art gallery, where he was selling his crafts on consignment, proved even more demoralizing. Among creative artisans an unspoken code of conduct existed: every crafter, if humanly possible, deserved to earn a reasonable profit not just break even. But Carl Swenson, the gallery owner, didn’t see it that way. “It’s a buyer’s market,” the proprietor glibly argued, “and I got a surplus of artisans, who would die to show their merchandise in my store.” With niggardly persistence he then proceeded to nickel and dimed Marcus down to an absurdly low, wholesale cost.
Marcus wanted the account for prestige as much as name recognition, but when he heard through a word of mouth that the shrewd dealer had tripled the retail price, passing Marcus’ merchandise off as high-end collectibles, he realized the blunder. The cartoonish creations weren’t whirligigs, per se, but the folk art of a gifted artisan. Like any lucrative, financial investment, their worth could only appreciate with age. The dealer was a crook – not nearly as sinister as the hoodlums and nut cases Andrea Simpson counseled, but an entrepreneurial thug nonetheless.
Nothing was negotiable. Carl Swenson owned the store, set the policies as he saw fit. At the Swenson Art Boutique a keepsake jewelry box fashioned from rosewood and bird’s-eye maple sold for three hundred dollars, but the owner couldn’t cough up a piddly ten bucks, allowing Marcus to share the benefits of free market capitalism. He placed five of his best pieces at the store that day, but as he walked out the door and down the street past a Japanese sushi bar and theater that featured foreign films, the whirligig maker knew that he would never return.
The waitress arrived and took their orders.
Brenda reached across the table and tapped her brother forcefully on the wrist. “I’m leaving Jeffrey… moving out of the house over the weekend.”
“What?” Marcus felt blindsided.
“It’s been four years now,” she continued in a cavalier tone, “I’ve outgrown him.”
He stared at his sister bleakly. The body language didn’t jive with the topic at hand. Brenda was grinning mischievously, like an impudent adolescent who had committed a foolish prank. “You outgrow a pair of shoes, not a spouse.” She glowered at him but held her tongue. “I assume you’ve told him.”
“No, not yet. Jeffrey has been away all week on a business trip. I’m clearing out Friday. When he returns, there will be a note taped to the bedroom mirror.” She cleared her throat of a non-existent obstruction. “Maybe you could…”
Jeffery and Marcus were best friends from high school. He introduced Jeffrey to his future wife. From best friend to brother-in-law and now this! Brenda knew a devastated and bewildered Jeffrey would contact her brother searching for answers. By telling Marcus, she could slip away without the need to defend her decision. “Maybe,” Marcus picked up where his sister left the sentence dangling in midair, “I could act like the guy who trails the circus elephants with a short-handled broom and metal scoop.”
“That’s a bit crass.”
“No, what you’re doing is crass. It’s also gutless.” The waitress arrived with the food and they ate in silence. Toward the end of the meal, the James Taylor tune returned in the background, the lyrics hitting him full force.
“Who’s the third party?”
“That’s not important,” Brenda shot back in a snippy tone.
* * * * *
At their second meeting Marcus taught Andrea how to shape the drive shaft. He inserted the rod into the groove they routed previously then, with a felt-tipped pen marked the entrance to the cam shaft. Locking the rod in a pair of vise-grip pliers, he explained, “We’re going to bend the threaded rod at a right angle from the black mark.”
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