Fiction — From the August 2018 issue

Mr. Hutchinson

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Mr. Hutchinson took his pipe out of his mouth. “Got a new dog, I see.” He was wearing his buff-colored work suit, which he wore every day because, he said, he had gotten used to wearing it on the production line. He had worked in a factory that made electrical equipment and rocket parts. Because he didn’t cinch the waist strap, the work suit gave him a columnar shape. His crew cut, meanwhile, made his head look square.

“The police station in Lunenburg was giving away a litter,” Jacob replied.

“What you gonna call him?”

“Her. Butterscotch.”

“Oh, is it a girl?” Mr. Hutchinson chuckled at his error, and both he and Jacob looked over at the pale, spindly five-month-old, which Jacob had just tied up in his family’s back yard. She was hurling herself toward them and then bouncing and flopping awkwardly as she was brought up short by her tether.

“Your mother choose the name?”

“My sister liked it, too.” Jacob hadn’t had an alternative to suggest, so he hadn’t much minded being outvoted.

“Women like sweet things, don’t they.” Whenever Mr. Hutchinson puffed on his pipe, the rhythm of his breathing became methodical and a little hurried. “Well, everybody does, I suppose.”

Mr. Hutchinson’s wife had died in the spring, and it was still easy for him to get teary-eyed. He had been married to her for fifty years. In the brief time the Putnams had known her, she had twice baked and shared with them layered cupcakes that she called napoleons: piecrust below, yellow Duncan Hines cake above, and a spoonful of raspberry jam in the middle. With chocolate frosting on top. Her funeral had been the last public event that the Putnams had attended as an intact family, and when her casket had been lowered into the ground, it had shocked Jacob to realize that the body was going to be left behind when all the living people went home. He had pictured it raining and the rain seeping down, and he had cried bitterly, even though he had scarcely known her.

“You going to leave her out, in the winter?” Mr. Hutchinson asked.

“I don’t know.”

“I could help you build a house for her. They stay warm in the house, from their own heat, if it’s small enough.” He said the word “warm” with the r softened away. Waum. Jacob still heard the New En­gland accent because he had been fairly old when the Putnams had moved to the state.

“I don’t think I’d be able to build anything like that,” Jacob said.

“I’ve got wood in the shop and some tar paper and some tin for the edging. Of course, you ask your mother first.”

It would be a bore, Jacob thought, but he knew money was tight now, and Mr. Hutchinson was probably right that it would keep the puppy warm and dry. “It’s very kind of you.”

“You ask your mother.”

Jacob ran up the street to catch the school bus.

When the Putnams had moved in, Mr. Hutchinson had boasted to them that he had bought his house so long ago that it had been sold to him by the builder of both theirs and his. The houses were almost mirror images of each other, though his was slate blue whereas the Putnams’ was Army green, and his was a little grander: it had four bedrooms on the second floor instead of three, it sat astraddle two lots rather than in the center of a single one, and its clapboards were wood instead of aluminum. He and his wife had sat out the fad for artificial siding that ran through the neighborhood a decade previously.

Although Mrs. Hutchinson, while she had been alive, had never ventured beyond the blue shade of her screened-in porch, Mr. Hutchinson could be found in his driveway in all weathers, morning, noon, and night, smoking his pipe. If there was even a dusting of snow, he rose early and plowed the driveway with a gas-powered snowblower. He always plowed the Putnams’ driveway too, unasked and undiscourageably, as well as a subsidiary loop of asphalt that connected the two lanes and made it easier for both families to turn their cars around. On the first dry Saturday in May, he had resealed the blacktop on this loop when he resealed it on his own driveway, a standard of upkeep that the Putnams, even before Jacob’s mother and father split, had known they would never rise to. The asphalt of their driveway was already fissured and rumpled; the older couple that they had bought their house from must also have been lackadaisical.

At the head of Mr. Hutchinson’s driveway was his barn, painted the same slate blue as his house. Half was a garage, large enough to hold two cars, though he owned only one. The other half housed a woodshop. When the Putnams first moved in, Mr. Hutchinson had given Jacob and his father a tour of it. Arrayed on its walls, hanging from hooks that were set into a reticulation of holes, were chisels, punches, gouges, knives, files, rasps, planes, clamps, vises, hammers, mallets, T squares, levels, saws, wire cutters, shears, and scissors. The orderliness and number of the instruments had made the revelation of them seem like the opening of a clock. Pasted up on a strip of wall beside an interior door was a collage of bare-breasted women, squatting and leaning and stretching—photos that had been scissored out of magazines and calendars. Jacob had sensed that it would be disrespectful to study the figures too closely, so he hadn’t. Disrespectful to the women, disrespectful to the part of Mr. Hutchinson that had been disclosed by his decision to paste them up. In the middle of the wall of tools was a telephone. “She knows better than to come out here,” Mr. Hutchinson had explained. “I tell her, this is my house and that’s hers.” (Huzz.) “But she knows she can always call if she needs me.”

Mr. Hutchinson said that for a long time he had been taking in bureaus, tables, and chairs that were in need of restoration, from people who didn’t mind not knowing how long a repair might take him. “The things people do to furniture,” he said. He had recently decided to close his repair business. He had never needed the money. He did enjoy the work; the trouble was that he was almost too fond of it. “I work on a thing so long that I get so I don’t seem to want to finish with it,” he said, laughing at his softness.

At the foot of his driveway, in the strip of grass that separated his property from the Putnams’, was a young magnolia. Either its showiness or the litter made by the thick white clamshells of its petals seemed to embarrass him, and while Mrs. Hutchinson had still been alive, he had always explained to anyone who remarked on the tree that he had planted it only at her request. “It makes an awful mess.” After she was gone, what he said was that he didn’t think he could bring himself to take it out, but he didn’t much care to look at it anymore.

Mr. Hutchinson’s yard, most of which lay on the far side of his house, wasn’t like other yards on the street. It was larger, for one thing, on account of the double lot, and it was comparatively unchanging. The Hutchinsons’ children had long ago grown up and moved away, and the yard shared with the house an empty, slightly haunted look. Its ground had never been leveled or terraced. Large, bold, deep-rooted rocks surfaced in elliptical, organic shapes, at the edges of which Mr. Hutchinson had here and there left erect a stand of white birches. It was picturesque, in other words, in a way that was uncanny in a suburb. Jacob couldn’t tell whether the almost painter­liness of it represented an intention on Mr. Hutchinson’s part or was merely the result of frugality.

“I don’t know if I want Jacob exposed to that,” Mrs. Putnam said to her ex-husband.

 

“It’s probably fairly harmless, Irene.”

“You told me he didn’t want his wife to see it.”

“That’s not exactly what he said. I think it’s just a way of making the place his. His realm. It’s a working-class thing, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want Jacob to get the idea that that sort of thing is all right,” she said.

“That sort of thing isn’t all right,” Mr. Putnam said to Jacob.

“Okay,” Jacob replied.

Mrs. Putnam sighed.

“I think it would be kind of cool to learn how to build a doghouse,” Mr. Putnam said reflectively.

When the soul in one body recognizes the soul in another, Jacob wrote in his journal, which had flowers on the cover because he hadn’t realized until he brought it home from the bookstore how flowers would look, that is how you know whom you are meant for. Souls who have recognized each other must never leave each other. And therefore when two souls who think they recognize each other suddenly no longer feel that they really do, it is still their duty to try, because what if the not recognizing is the mistake? But I guess if in the end two people are really sure that they are not each other’s souls really, and they are sure now that they were never in fact together in the other world, the one that came before this one, then I guess there is nothing to be done and they must go their separate ways alone.

“Jacob, set the table!” Mrs. Putnam yelled up the stairs. “Alice, wash your hands!”

He had left out the problem of the inclination that one body could feel for another without any reference to soul.

“We ought to start with a drawing,” Mr. Hutchinson said as soon as Jacob walked into the garage. Drawring. He had stored his empty pipe, tucking the stem of it into one of the narrow pockets in his work suit that had been sewn for a pen or pencil.

“We did those in school last year,” Jacob said. Mechanical drawings were always on lime-green paper; everything depicted in them was rectilinear and in perspective.

“Well, but I’m going to do this in my head, this one time. It’s basically a box, see? So once we set the dimensions of the base, and decide how much higher the front will be than the rear, the rest follows.”

Jacob didn’t nod because he didn’t quite understand.

“Of course she’s still growing,” Mr. Hutchinson continued, “but I think I see the size of dog she’ll be.”

“How will she know to go inside?”

“You put a blanket of hers in there, she’ll go in, when it’s cold enough. They like a small space, you know. They feel more secure.”

Butterscotch in fact liked to hide under Jacob’s bed.

“Got to be big enough for her to turn around inside, but not too much bigger,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Leaning against a wall of the garage were sheets of plywood and a few other pieces of lumber. Mr. Hutch­inson slid out one of the sheets, and Jacob hurried to pick up the other end and then he walked backward while Mr. Hutchinson walked forward. The sheet of wood was marked by a red stamp in the shape of an almond or an eye, which reminded Jacob of the purple stamp he sometimes saw on cuts of meat in the butcher’s department of the grocery store. The stamp and what it was stamped on were cut up in tandem in both cases.

“Did you buy this?” Jacob asked.

“A long time ago,” Mr. Hutchinson replied. He pointed to strips of white-painted wood, square in cross section, that might have originally been the crossbars of a length of fence. “That’s salvage, there. That’s what we’ll use for the frame.”

“Oh,” Jacob said, not understanding.

“Can’t join up plywood tongue and groove.”

It was a point of pride with Jacob that he usually understood immediately when a thing was explained to him, but this wasn’t his world.

“The base and the two sides will be the same length, of course, and since we want the roof”—Mr. Hutch­inson pronounced it like the child’s word for a dog’s bark—“to have a slant, we can cut the two sides from the same piece of wood, with a diagonal.”

“I don’t understand,” Jacob admitted.

In silence, Mr. Hutchinson opened a drawer and took out a pad of paper. He folded a piece of it in three, like a letter before it goes into an envelope, and let it hang open in his palm. It had the shape of a gutter. “Base and two sides the same length,” he said, pointing at the paper gutter.

“I see,” Jacob said.

Mr. Hutchinson now folded down at an angle the top edges of the two sides of the gutter, as if turning them into the wings of a paper airplane. He then tore the two sides of this paper gutter neatly off its base, and then flipped one side over to show that, thanks to the angles creased into their tops, the two sides could come together, like puzzle pieces, into a rectangle that was split along a diagonal.

“I see,” Jacob said again.

“This way, you see, we only need to cut the length of these three pieces once.”

Jacob still wasn’t going to take up woodworking for the same reason that he wasn’t going to accept custody of any of Mr. Hutchinson’s sorrow. There already wasn’t room in his life for anything that wasn’t irrevocably his.

After about an hour of work, he and Mr. Hutchinson put away their tools and stored the pieces of wood that they had measured and cut.

At the beginning of the hour, Jacob had taken a few nervous glances at the collage. It had unsettled him that the figures were straining so hard to be pleasing. It wasn’t that he approved or disapproved, necessarily. The strain in the women’s eyes had happened a long time ago, he told himself. He wasn’t responsible. What he didn’t understand was why Mr. Hutchinson or anyone else would find such pictures appealing. The best he could do was think of the collage as a piece of archaic art, and the grimaces and stereotyped postures as representational conventions, the motives for which had been lost with the passage of time.

The next afternoon, Mr. Hutch­inson rapped on the Putnams’ storm door, which was askew in its frame and rattled. “Is your mother home?” he asked when Jacob and Alice came into the kitchen to look at him. He was holding a cake.

Their mother came downstairs. “Did you make this?”

“Oh, it’s just a little thing.”

It was a tall, single-tier cake with a smooth amber crust, with a hole in the middle of it like in a millstone. Mr. Hutchinson was carrying it on a dented brass cake stand, which he held by its spindle. A thin pink sugar glaze had been dripped over the top.

“Do you like angel food?” he asked. “We always liked it, but not everyone does.”

“Angel food,” Jacob’s mother repeated. She took it from him and set it on the kitchen table. “Can I cut you a piece, Mr. Hutchinson?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “But you go ahead. You and the kids.”

“It might be too sweet for me, with the icing,” Mrs. Putnam commented.

“I should have made it without icing.”

“I didn’t mean that, Mr. Hutchinson.”

“I would tell you to call me Maurice, but nobody ever does. What they call me is Sonny.”

The cake was strangely thick, like cotton candy, and had a similar spongelike texture. When pressed with a fork, it remembered the shape it had been and tried to return to it.

“It’s good,” Mrs. Putnam said, after a bite. The children chorused more enthusiastically and soon finished their pieces.

“Well, it’s from a mix, I’m afraid. I’m not the cook Virginia was, but I think it’s nice to have a treat from time to time, especially if you don’t expect it. I worry about you, you know, with your job, and what with the kids here.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Well, if you ever need anything.”

“I so appreciate it that you’re making that doghouse with Jacob.”

“We did good work on it yesterday,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Mrs. Putnam patted her son on the arm.

“I remember when I started at the factory, I was only a little older than he is now. I thought, this might not be a bad job for a year or two. Beats farming, anyway. But when you start a thing like that you keep going at it, and one day I looked around and there I was, the oldest man on the floor. Now, how did that happen. And the next thing I knew after that, they’re giving me a watch for forty-five years of service. For your whole life, for forty-five years of service, a watch.”

He looked to Mrs. Putnam for a reaction. Did he have tears in his eyes again? It was a speech he had delivered before, and Jacob wondered whether it would be impolite for his mother to answer the same way she had on previous occasions.

“It’s a pity,” she finally said.

“Oh, I did pretty well out of it, I suppose.”

That year, under a special dispensation, Jacob walked to the high school in the mornings for a geometry class before he reported to the middle school. Two years older, the other students in the class paid little attention to him, but when they did they were old enough to be willing to be kind to someone they must have seen as a child and something of a misfit. In their company Jacob felt sometimes that he was never going to grow up the way others did and that he was never going to be mastered by his body the way they were, but also that he was never going to come into mastery of it. Usually when the class was slow to understand a proof, he flipped through the textbook and worked out in his head the answer to a problem in a later chapter. But one day Kenny Simonelli, who sat in the next aisle, one seat ahead, was wearing a T-shirt whose sleeves were cut so high that one could see locks of dark hair that shot out from his armpits. He wasn’t the kind of boy who knew to be ashamed of his body, and the soft hair was a sign of his vigor, like the grass that shoots up from between squares of concrete in a sidewalk. Jacob told himself that the reason he couldn’t stop looking was because the sight was so ugly.

“I think he thinks he’s courting me, Joe,” Mrs. Putnam said to her ex-husband one Sunday afternoon, when he was dropping Jacob and Alice off after a weekend at his furnitureless divorce apartment in the city. “He’s older than our parents.

“Was it a good cake, at least?”

“Joe, please.”

“I liked it,” Jacob volunteered.

“You’re in eighth grade,” his mother replied.

It must be that after a body dies the soul forgets everything it learned in the world before returning to a body again. So, what is the world for, if everything you learn here is erased? And how does a soul recognize its companion, the soul it knew before, if every cycle it forgets everything? There must be two kinds of memory, of the body and of the soul. And only the memory of the body is erased. There must be a soul-memory that is forever but isn’t of anything in particular. Like math?

Jacob didn’t wear his glasses when he wrote because he didn’t need them for that, and when he looked up from his journal and out the window he was semi-blind and the still-green top arms of the oak trees across the street were out of focus, bowing and dancing in a gray wind that threatened rain, waving, ducking, flailing, rising, as if the hundreds of leaves on the branches were being presented to him in their motion together as something conjoint but articulated, as if the hundreds of leaves were acting ensemble as a marionette or a shadow puppet, each leaf held up on and moving on a stick of its own, the wind the puppeteer. The dance, Jacob realized, was more discernible to him because he couldn’t see the individuality of the leaves and couldn’t see the stems they were attached to. The dancing ensembles whipped to one side; recoiled; bent backward; relaxed. It was the indistinction of Jacob’s vision that made it possible for him to see the rhythm.

When Jacob didn’t understand why, say, the front panel of the doghouse should be one width of plywood shorter than the front edges of the two side panels, Mr. Hutchinson was able to show him with only a few hand gestures. Teaching had probably been part of his job on the production line. But Jacob appreciated Mr. Hutch­inson’s patience and straightforwardness only impartially, the way one admires the neat plumage of a bird that one wasn’t looking for but that happens to have perched in a tree nearby.

Out of the recycled fence beams, he and Mr. Hutchinson built two square frames, one to buttress the front panel and one to buttress the back. Then, with a jigsaw, they were going to cut a hole in the front panel for Butterscotch to go in and out of.

“Shouldn’t be too much broader than her head and shoulders are going to be,” Mr. Hutchinson said as he marked out a rectangle in pencil.

“Should we make it a little bigger just to be on the safe side?”

“Don’t want to let the heat out. Say, does your mother like the pictures?”

Jacob almost turned to look at the collage but at the last moment he understood. “You mean the movies. Yes.”

“How about your sister? She too little?”

“She goes to the movies.”

“I think I’m going to ask your mother if I can take her and the two of you.”

“There’s a new one about UFOs,” Jacob said.

“Is there? I saw that one they had about zombies. Didn’t much care for it.”

“No, this is about how the aliens might not necessarily be bad.”

“Oh, is it?” Mr. Hutchinson extracted his pipe from its pocket and tamped his stubby thumb nervously down into the bowl. It was a tic that usually meant he was going to suggest in a minute or two that they down tools. “The things they think of.”

“Richard Dreyfuss is in it. He was in Jaws, but I wasn’t allowed to see that.”

“That the one with the shark?” Shahk. Mr. Hutchinson laughed but looked a little concerned.

“What was the movie about zombies?” Jacob asked.

“Don’t remember what it was called. Now, when did I see that?” Mr. Hutchinson bit on his empty pipe and looked out the open door to a corner of visible sky. “Do you know, I think it’s been twenty years since I’ve been to the pictures.”

Jacob had therefore seen a movie more recently than Mr. Hutchinson simply by virtue of having seen any movie at all since he had been born.

“Apparently Jacob just told him yes,” Mrs. Putnam said to her ex-husband.

 

“I wasn’t thinking about it like that,” Jacob protested.

“Maybe you could come, too, Joe. As the children’s father.”

“I don’t want to cut in,” Mr. Putnam said.

“Oh, it isn’t funny, really. I feel so bad. He’s out there all day long. Whenever I go outside, whenever I look out the window. With his pipe.”

“Do you want me to say something to him?” Mr. Putnam asked.

“No. God no.”

When Mr. Hutchinson rapped on the kitchen door, he stood at a tangent to it, because he was too polite to look into its window before it was opened. Jacob saw that he was wearing a faded black tuxedo and carrying a derby.

“Mom, are you ready?” Jacob hollered up the stairs. He opened the door for Mr. Hutchinson.

“Is your mother in?”

“She’ll be down in a second. Come on in.”

“Oh, I’ll wait.”

Alice came downstairs first. She was too young to know to disguise her stare. “Aren’t we just going to the movies?” she asked.

“Yes, we’re going to the movies,” Jacob told her curtly.

“Come on in,” Mrs. Putnam said, when she appeared.

“Don’t you look nice,” Mr. Hutch­inson said.

“Not as nice as you,” Mrs. Putnam replied, her head turned to one side as she finished screwing in her earrings. Except for the addition of the earrings, she was only wearing what she had put on that morning.

“Heh,” said Mr. Hutchinson. He glanced at Jacob, who had on corduroys and a plaid shirt. “Now tell me, Irene, is this the new theater down on Clement, past the bowling alley?”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to drive.” She had told Jacob she didn’t think it was safe for them to be Mr. Hutch­inson’s passengers.

“I’ve got my car all pulled around.”

“Oh, you’re so sweet, but I only feel comfortable in my own car. You just take it easy.”

Mr. Hutchinson held the kitchen door open for Mrs. Putnam and the children. Mrs. Putnam waited on the porch until he came out himself so that she could lock it after him, and then because he seemed to be waiting for something on the top step she walked down ahead of him.

His stately car, with its jagged fins and diamond taillights, was parked diagonally on the loop. “Shall I move it into the garage, so it’ll be out of your way?” he asked.

“We’re already late,” Jacob’s mother said. “I can just back up.”

The Putnams owned a Toyota hatchback. “Alice and I should get in first,” Jacob explained, flipping forward the bucket seat for the front passenger so that he and Alice could crawl in behind it. Once he had flopped the seat back toward himself, he told Mr. Hutchinson, “You can get in now.”

The old man dipped one foot into the car gingerly, and as he ducked his head, his hat was knocked off, but he caught it. The limp black ribbon of his tie was knotted but not in a bow, Jacob noticed. Against the toylike plastic of the car’s interior, which Mr. Hutchinson sat in like an egg in a Styrofoam carton, he looked as if he had been abducted from his own time and place. His tuxedo gave off the faint chemical smell of mothballs.

“Is everybody buckled in?” Mrs. Putnam asked.

“Oh, I don’t usually bother,” Mr. Hutch­inson replied.

After a moment of deliberation, Mrs. Putnam started the engine. The car beeped at the unbuckled seat belt admonishingly.

“It has a mind of its own,” Mr. Hutch­inson commented, and they waited while he fished out the buckle and strap and figured out how to snap himself in.

“Don’t be difficult,” Mrs. Putnam told Mr. Hutchinson at the ticket window.

 

“Then you better let me buy the popcorn.”

The Putnams didn’t usually buy popcorn, but once they were in line for refreshments, Alice announced that she would have a large.

“Will you be able to eat all that?” Mrs. Putnam asked. “Why don’t I split it with you.”

“I’ll have a medium,” Jacob said.

“Go ahead and get one for yourself, Irene,” Mr. Hutchinson encouraged.

“Yeah, Mom,” Alice said.

She agreed to a small.

The glossy black and chrome of the refreshment stand must have been new to Mr. Hutchinson. The brightly colored circles and zigzags in the carpeting must have been new as well. A teenager in line with them backed into Mr. Hutchinson while she was laughing at something her date had said.

“Almost looks like folks don’t wear their nice duds to the pictures anymore,” Mr. Hutchinson observed, once they had their popcorn and were heading into the theater.

“I bet you and Mrs. Hutchinson always used to dress up nice when you went out,” Mrs. Putnam said.

“We didn’t go out too often,” he said, and then he went stone-faced, as if he were privately reviewing those years.

In the theater the two adults sat with the children between them, and toward the end of the movie, when Jacob remembered to check how Mr. Hutchinson was holding up, he saw that behind the old man’s glasses, on the lenses of which the movie was mirrored, he had closed his eyes.

Saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind last night. Why does everyone assume alien life will be carbon-based? There are so many other elements in the periodic table. Another life-form might not even be recognizable to us. Still, interesting movie. It raises the possibility that there are souls on planets other than our own, which seems likely to me. If a soul were put into a very different kind of body, or if it were put into a body in a very different kind of way, would it still have the feeling of not quite fitting into it? Of not quite lining up with it? Probably that feeling is how you know that a soul and a body are not the same thing.

“This is where even if you have a drawing you probably don’t want to use it,” Mr. Hutchinson said. They had assembled the crib of the doghouse, and they had cut the piece of plywood that was going to serve as its removable roof, and they had faced both crib and roof with tar paper and edged them with strips of tin. Now the roof was lying upside down on the worktable, and the crib was lying upside down on top of it, projecting at an angle thanks to the slant that they had cut in the sides so that when upright the roof would shunt off rain. The only thing left to do was cut four lengths of fence beam and nail them to the exposed underside of the roof, to form a square lip that would hold the roof in place. “By the end, you can usually use the thing itself as its own drawing.”

Jacob held a length of fence beam along the front of the doghouse, and Mr. Hutchinson marked with pencil where they would cut it.

“Shouldn’t it go all the way across?” Jacob asked.

“Doesn’t need to, to hold it.”

On the same fence beam they also marked the lengths of the doghouse’s two sides, but they had to start a new fence beam for the length that would go along the back.

While operating the saw, Jacob wore Mr. Hutchinson’s rough gloves and large yellow goggles, which folded all the way around his face, over his own pair of glasses. The goggles reminded Jacob of a toy he had owned as a child, which you held up to your eyes in order to look at the world through a red pane or a yellow pane or a blue pane, or in combinations of the panes through green, orange, or purple.

“Did you like the movie?” Jacob asked, just at the moment when, with the pedal, he was setting the saw into motion. Mr. Hutchinson didn’t hear him.

Jacob slid the beam sideways into the blade, so that the rotor’s teeth bit in where Mr. Hutchinson had nicked the wood with his pencil.

“Did you like the movie?” Jacob asked again, once the saw’s whine had sunk back into silence.

“An awful lot of shouting, wasn’t there.”

“They didn’t know what was going on,” Jacob explained.

“That could be. Two more cuts.” He pointed to the remainder of beam in Jacob’s hands and to the pedal at Jacob’s feet.

When the four lengths were cut, Mr. Hutchinson laid them on the eaves of the upside-down roof, snug against the outer edges of the upside-down crib. Jacob outlined the four lengths in pencil like bodies in the street after a murder spree, and then together he and Mr. Hutchinson lifted the base of the doghouse out of the way.

“Now we just nail them down?” Jacob asked.

“This way you’ll be able to just lift the top off when you want to clean it.”

“Why would we need to clean it?”

“Well, if she messes with a skunk, for example.”

While Jacob hammered, Mr. Hutch­inson handed nails to him, interrupting only when it looked like Jacob was going to space them too closely. Because Jacob had been getting so much practice, he hit almost all the nails true.

When the roof was done they fitted it over the crib of the doghouse. “There,” Jacob said. “I think Butterscotch will like it.”

“There it is,” Mr. Hutchinson agreed.

Alice had said that it was going to look like a coffin, but it looked more like a birdhouse for a very large bird. The aperture in the front had darkened when they fitted the roof on, but maybe Butterscotch wouldn’t mind or would even welcome the protection of the shadow.

They bent their knees and carried the house out of the barn and across the loop connecting the driveways and down into the Putnams’ back yard. Butterscotch pranced up on her hind legs once she let herself believe that they were actually headed her way. A few yellow maple leaves were tucked into the lawn endwise like bookmarks. The hips on the rosebush were already red.

When they set the house down, Butterscotch sniffed it only briefly before wriggling her snout into their hands.

“I’ll cut you two more lengths of wood for the house to sit on, crosswise,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “Won’t stop the damp-rot from getting into the wood but might slow it down.”

It hadn’t occurred to Jacob that contact with soil could harm wood. It made sense to him that air would give some protection.

Mr. Hutchinson scratched the ruff of the dog’s neck. “Does your mother ever make butterscotch for you?”

“Like, the food?” Jacob asked. “She tried once, but it burned.”

“When I was a boy my mother used to make it with butter from goats’ milk.”

“Goats?”

“My father got an idea one year, and he brought home goats.” Mr. Hutch­inson felt for his pipe and his pouch of tobacco, and without looking began to assemble a smoke. “They eat anything, you know. Mother was so mad. But he’d already paid for them. The first time she made us drink the milk, we held our noses. It’s not for everyone. It’s almost too rich. But you get used to a thing, and once you’ve had goat’s milk, if you go back to cow’s, well, it just tastes like water. Like dishwater.”

He tilted his head when he sucked, and Jacob watched the flame of his lighter step down into the bowl of the pipe. The crinkled edges of the small leaves in the bowl glowed orange. How much stronger and sweeter Mr. Hutchinson seemed to think the flavor of the world had once been.

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is the author of the novel Necessary Errors (Penguin Books). His essay “Peel Her a Grape” appeared in the July 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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