“…I have come after them and made repair
Where they left not one stone on a stone…”
— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”
It was March in Maine when John Young became a local hero. There had been an unseasonable thaw, and then a subsequent cold snap and flurries, which gave ponds slushy, tricky patches you had to avoid.
John had been doing an “emergency” Sunday job at the Wedding Cake House, out in Kennebunkport. The owner’s nephew had accidentally backed into the 100-year-old wall while plowing the driveway, smashing it into a jumbled pile of rock. He tried to restack it out in the snow, quickly realized he was in over his head, and called Leo, the handyman whose number he found stuck to the refrigerator.
“You should have seen him, man,” Leo had told John, “Trying to fix the wall before his auntie came back from Florida. He was out there freezing his balls off. I told him, ‘No offense, man, but you restacking this wall is like asking a monkey to repaint the Mona Lisa.’ I gave him your card. ‘This guy is an artist,’ I said. ‘The only master craftsman waller in Maine.’”
When John arrived, the nephew greeted him with an upward nod. “You the stone guy?” he asked. Then, “How quick can you fix this?”
“Few hours,” John said.
“Cutting it close,” the nephew said. “My aunt is supposed to be back this afternoon. Look, it’s kind of a piece of shit…can’t we do it quick?”
“I’ll do my best,” John said.
The nephew stood by while John got started, separating the top course of stones from the bottom. Normally John would be on edge to have someone watch him, but he knew that kid wouldn’t hang out for long in the cold.
“The handyman guy said you were a pro,” the nephew said. “Is that why your hourly rate is so high?”
“I’ve been doing it for a while. And it’s a Sunday. I don’t usually work on Sundays.”
The nephew looked at John’s old dump truck, the Moody Blue, and the attached trailer with the tractor. He walked around it, his hands shoved deep into his tan corduroy pockets. “This thing an antique?” he asked, pointing his chin at the truck. His brown Saab—shaped like a baked potato—was parked in the far corner of the driveway. It had a UCONN sticker in the back window.
“It’s over 20 years old,” said John. “So technically, yes.”
“Passes inspection and all, huh?”
John silently located the base stones in the pile, laying them close together, with their broadest side against the packed, frozen ground. He assessed the size of the long, heavy thrufters and decided to unload the tractor. The nephew watched closely.
John began placing the first course over the base, using the tractor to lift and guide the thrufters into place, where they’d run through the width of the wall, stabilizing it. As he’d predicted, the nephew soon went inside.
The rest of the wall sagged from years of neglect and frost heaves. John studied it while he worked steadily on the wrecked portion, which he knew looked a little too clean and tight to pass for untouched.
Sometimes, he had to do what the customer wanted. This often meant ignoring his overwhelming sense to restore a wall, and to instead simply repair—“preserve”—it back to its disheveled state. But he’d been driving by this wall for years; he’d envisioned its potential, and he felt honored to work on it. He was in a mood today—he had to listen to the stones, had to make it absolutely flawless—even if it was just a section, and even if that meant restacking it later.
When he finished, he put his chisel, sledge and shovels back into the Moody Blue, and the nephew came out.
“Man,” the nephew said, looking at the wall. “It looks too good. She’s going to know we messed with it. Isn’t there any way you can loosen it up?” He grasped a stone on the top course and rocked the weight of his skinny, frat-boy body against it. It wouldn’t budge. “You shouldn’t’ve changed it…” he said. “It’s historic. Why did you change it?”
“I didn’t change it,” John said. “I restored it. This section is how it originally looked a hundred years ago—maybe even better.” He jumped on top of the wall, his breath freezing in a huff. He rocked from side to side, to prove that nothing moved, nothing wobbled. The nephew still didn’t look impressed.
“I see what you’re doing,” the nephew said. “Trying to make the rest of it look bad, so you can get some work ‘restoring’ all of it. This isn’t the time to be messing with…a piece of history.”
“You know what?” John began. He took a deep breath. It wasn’t worth it. He’d get his check and leave. “If you’re aunt isn’t happy with it, call me up, blame it on me. I’ll fix it.”
The nephew sighed. “Defeats the whole purpose, though, you coming out here today. She’ll still know I wrecked it.”
“Well, maybe she’ll like it.” John was exhausted. “Anyone who knows anything about restoration will be happy with that.” He wanted to get home—he kept thinking about beef stew.
“Whatever, man. You’re the expert.” There was a tone of condescension in the kid’s voice.
The nephew was working John’s last nerve. “Look,” he said. “Try finding anyone else to stack stone in March. I don’t need your friggin work, either, by the way. And—oh—next time you drive a snowplow, try not to fuck up history by backing into it.”
The nephew raised an eyebrow, dismissed him by taking a checkbook from his jacket and clicking open his pen. “Who do I make the check out to?”
“How about ‘Guy who saved my ass?’”
It was starting to get dark when John got home. He put his tools back in the barn. The house lights were off; Allison must still be at her friend Carrie’s house. Since turning thirteen, she never seemed to be home. As he clicked the big padlock shut on the barn door, the street light on the corner flicked on—it was when kids knew it was time to come home. He was walking toward the house when he heard the panicked shouts from behind the barn.
That morning, Allison had asked him if he thought the pond was still okay for skating, and he’d told her to wait for another full week of freezing weather, to play it safe. Weeks ago she and Carrie were working on spins, and they brought John to the pond to show him their Waltz jumps. Allison’s jump was cautious but the landing beautiful, her thin legs steady in rainbow legwarmers, her rosy face grinning with pride. Carrie’s jump was impressively high but she landed on the toe pick, nearly falling, her blonde hair whipping forward before she regained her balance. They were eager to get back onto the ice today and make their jumps perfect.
“But we stay where it’s shallow,” Allison told him that morning. “I’m sure it’s frozen solid. It has been all winter.”
“No,” he told her. “Just stay off it today. Let me check for sure this weekend.”
He rounded the corner of the barn, his body hot with adrenaline, his steel-toed boots squeaking the snow as he ran across the half acre toward the channel-fed pond at the edge of the woods.
Allison’s red coat was what he saw first. She was flat on her stomach against the ice. “Reach for me!” she was shouting.
In response, a heavy gasp. Splashing. The fingers of Carrie’s purple gloves were visible, fingers curled, trying to dig into the ice. The top half of her face and blonde hairline barely protruded from the hole in the ice; she held herself up the same way a swimming dog holds his nose above the water.
“Carrie, reach!” Allison screamed.
“Allison!” he yelled.
Water whipped from the ends of her two long, dark braids as she turned to look at him. A surge went through him when he saw her face—relief that she wasn’t in the water, horror that Carrie was, panic that Allison could be, at any moment. “Dad, Carrie fell through. She fell through! I can’t get her!”
“Don’t you move, Allison…don’t you goddamn move an inch toward that hole!” His tone snapped her into focus, and she froze her body, nodding slightly.
He jogged along the small pond’s shore, crazed with facts. It was getting dark; soon he would barely be able to see. Allison was a featherweight—90 pounds, maybe—and he was at least twice that. He couldn’t go onto the ice; he had to run back to call for help. But he couldn’t leave them. And the closest neighbor was a quarter mile down the road.
A long-forgotten storage area of his brain engaged, spewing out information: A person could only stay conscious for 20 minutes in freezing water—less than that if they were thin or struggled. Some could survive for up to 90 minutes, if they stayed calm, brought their knees to their chest to keep their organs warm, and didn’t thrash.
The trick was to stay calm.
To read the entire manuscript, please contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org