According to the owner’s manual, the cutting drum of Hartley’s joiner spins at 3,600 RPM. It’s fitted with three razor sharp blades so something like 10,800 slivers per minute are shaved from a board passed across its surface. More to the point, during the approximately one-half second the index finger of his neighbor’s right hand was pressed against it, the drum removed ninety fragments of bone, fingernail, and tissue from that appendage. In all, it added up to about an inch.
They had been working in different parts of the garage when the machine’s whirring ended abruptly in a sickening thump. Though his neighbor made no sound, Hartley knew without looking what had happened – as if, unconsciously perhaps, he had been waiting for this. So he dashed into the house and grabbed a towel from the linen closet. By the time he got back, Bokelman appeared to be in shock. He just stood there looking at his mangled hand, his pale, flaccid face registering only mild surprise. The joiner was growling furiously again, like a tiger whose appetite has been whetted for human flesh. Hartley flipped the switch and wrapped Bokelman’s hand in the towel. Then he led him to his car which was parked in the driveway.
On their way to Harbor View Emergency, Bokelman talked about how bad the traffic was getting and what he was going to fix for dinner that evening. He was shivering and his face was as white and grainy as a peeled potato. Hartley thought he was going to pass out. But he made it. There was that soft, passive strength of fat people in him.
At emergency they whisked him off to an operating room while Hartley gave a bored girl at the reception desk what little information he knew about the patient. The man’s name was Eugene Bokelman, he said. Middle sixties, maybe. No, it wasn’t a work-related accident. Bokelman had just come over to his place to plane some boards he was making into picture frames. Yes, Hartley did have liability insurance but he presumed that Bokelman was covered by Medicare or some kind of insurance of his own.
This done, Hartley took a seat in the waiting room. The place was filled with people exhausted from the effort of holding in pain or fear, or both. Most were alone, slouching low in their chairs, eyes shut against the bleakness of linoleum and fluorescent lighting. Only the throbbing of an ancient soft-drink machine broke the silence. Hartley flipped through the grimy pages of a hot rod magazine, then through a couple of old Sports Illustrated issues. After half an hour he walked to the reception desk and called his wife. She’d been out shopping when the accident happened. “My god!” she said, “we don’t even know the poor man.”
This was true, despite the fact that there was but a single house between their two residences. The Hartleys had come to Seattle the previous year when Mr. Hartley was hired as finance director for the Port. Bokelman’s wife had died shortly before they moved in. He kept pretty much to himself. Sometimes he’d nod if they encountered him on the sidewalk but nearly six months went by before he said a word. Mrs. Hartley had taped a campaign poster in the front window for a female politician. Hartley was working in the yard when his taciturn neighbor happened to walk by. Bokelman stopped and just stood there, watching him work. Finally he pointed to the window. “What do you think she can do for the city?” he wanted to know.
Hartley was embarrassed. He suspected that his wife had hung the poster simply because the candidate was female. “I don’t know,” he said. “My wife put that up. I guess one politician’s about the same as the next.”
Bokelman smiled sardonically. “Only when you don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I’ll be voting for her opponent. You really ought to look into the record.” Then he continued on his way. Hartley bit his tongue and dug deeply into the soil with his spade. Several months passed before they spoke again.
On this next occasion Hartley’s garage door was open to keep the sawdust down. He was cutting some cedar fencing when he was surprised to catch sight of Bokelman coming up the driveway. As always, he wore a white shirt, open at the collar, and black everything else: baggy black pants worn shiny at the pockets, black belt and shoes. He was nearly bald and his pink face gave him a babyish appearance.
“Nice shop you’ve got here,” he shouted above the noise of the saw. Hartley cut the power and walked to where his neighbor stood at the doorway, hands in his pockets jingling change and keys. “Name’s Bokelman,” he said without removing his hands from his pockets. “I used to do a lot of woodworking myself.”
Hartley thought his hands must be dirty and began wiping them on his shop apron. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve always had a shop wherever we’ve lived.”
“Nice to have a shop. Used to have one myself.”
Hartley introduced himself and Bokelman said “glad to meet you” but still kept his hands in his pockets. Hartley found this unsettling. Of course, he could have extended his own hand and Bokelman would have been forced to take it. But his neighbor hadn’t offered to shake hands earlier and, in fact, Hartley was even relieved at not having to pump Bokelman’s puffy palm. Yet he was aware that, in withholding his hand now, he was accepting the distance Bokelman chose to maintain as the condition of their acquaintance.
“Gotta go,” Bokelman said. “Maybe I’ll stop by sometime and you can show me around. Your shop, I mean.”
“That’d be fine,” Hartley replied. “And if there’s anything I can do for you, just holler.” It seemed like the neighborly thing to say.
“I’ll do that,” Bokelman said with his back turned.
He was at least 25 years older than himself and since Bokelman had given only his last name Hartley felt obliged to say “Goodbye, Mr. Bokelman.”
“Goodbye,” Bokelman replied giving a flip of his hand without turning around.
What little the Hartleys knew about Bokelman they’d learned from old Mrs. Sullivan who lived across the street. He’d been an optometrist, she said, before some kind of heart condition had forced him into retirement. Dr. Bokelman, she called him. “He was always kind of different, but you couldn’t call him unfriendly. A little gruff maybe. He and his wife, oh, she was such a lovely woman, would usually walk around the block a few times after dinner. I liked her a lot. Just the opposite of him. She always had a smile for everyone. She even helped me around the house after Frank died. But then when she died, Dr. Bokelman just seemed sort of lost. I don’t think men are good alone, do you? He almost never comes out of the house anymore. Never says hello to anyone when he does. Just walks past like he doesn’t see you. And it seems like he always has dreary music on his Hi-Fi when I walk by the house. Like dirges or something.”
Hartley had heard the music himself. And he knew it well. He owned recordings of most of the French composers of La Belle Epoque. And the piece he heard most frequently emanating from the Bokelman home was among his favorites: Ravel’s Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte. Pavane for a Dead Princess.
Not long after their brief conversation in the garage, Bokelman came by one Saturday afternoon while Hartley, garage door open again, was refinishing an old chest-of-drawers. He was accompanied by a young man whom he introduced as his nephew.
“Roger here is helping me frame some canvases. You wouldn’t mind cutting a few boards for us, would you?”
Hartley had not previously noted the nasal, sing-song quality of Bokelman’s voice. Now it added to the impertinence of his barging in and asking him to cut up the bundle of lumber his nephew was holding. Roger remained a couple of steps behind his uncle, looking rather uncomfortable and saying nothing. “Come on, Roger, give him your boards,” said Bokelman, taking the boy’s arm and dragging him forward. “This won’t take long.”
Roger handed over four lengths of one-by-four clear fir and a piece of paper with the required dimensions. “Do you want to pick these up later on today?” Hartley asked.
“Well, we’d really like them now if you’ve got the time,” Bokelman answered for the two of them.
So, as they stood looking on, Hartley cut the fir into eight lengths according to their specifications. When he had finished, Bokelman was bending over a miter box which was permanently mounted on its own table against the wall. “This is a nice one,” he said. “We were going to go out and buy a ‘cheapie’ weren’t we, Roger?”
Hartley was annoyed but too naturally gracious to force Bokelman to ask. “I guess we could miter them too,” he said. “You haven’t got much.”
“Oh, splendid,” Bokelman replied. “Isn’t it wonderful, Roger? It’s our lucky day.”
Hartley adjusted the saw and cut the sixteen angles. Bokelman then gathered up the finished pieces, nodded to Roger, and said, “Let’s get going. We’ve got work to do.” Then, to Hartley, “Thanks. You’ve got a nice shop here.” The two of them walked out, Roger a step or two behind his uncle.
After that, Bokelman was over nearly every weekend with some job he needed done. He even began to operate a few of the tools on his own. Hartley had been taken aback when asked if he minded and had been reluctant to allow this. The tools could be dangerous if you didn’t know what you were doing. But Bokelman went on in his sing-song way about how he used to use power tools all the time. Hartley, who in any case was tired of doing his work for him, grudgingly gave in. He let him use the radial saw and the drill press thinking he couldn’t run into too much trouble there.
Then came the day Bokelman showed up with some boards he wanted to plane. Hartley, normally an accommodating man with a long fuse, was feeling genuinely irritated by then: with himself for being unable to say NO and with Bokelman for taking advantage of the fact.
“You know how to work a joiner?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Bokelman. “Used them lots of times.”
“Well, go ahead then,” Hartley told him with a glance at the short lengths of wood in his neighbor’s hand. Then he went back to his own work and waited. When he thought back on this moment, as he often did, Hartley became increasingly convinced that he actually was waiting. But he could never be sure for it had been a day of waiting. It was three hours before hearing anything at Harbor View, three hours in which to build up a pretty good head of guilt in the matter.
Finally a doctor came out and told him they’d saved what they could. They had hopes he’d retain feeling and some freedom of movement in what was left of the finger. But they wanted to keep him in the hospital a day or two for therapy and in case of infection setting in. Hartley should go home now. He could visit his friend the next day if he liked.
When Hartley got home his wife started dinner while he sat at the kitchen table and told her everything that had happened.
“I don’t know why you let him use those tools,” she said. “He certainly doesn’t look like the type that knows anything about tools.”
Mrs. Hartley rarely hesitated to speak her mind. And if that occasionally made Hartley uncomfortable he’d be the first to admit that she was only giving voice to thoughts he often shared but generally kept to himself.
“Do you think we’re liable?” she asked.
"I don’t know,” Hartley replied, his voice now tired and short.
“Of course, it really was his own fault,” his wife continued. “If he didn’t know what he was doing he had no business using those things. The nerve of the man, anyway. He’s always over here asking you to do things for him.”
“Barb, he’s probably just lonely. I’ve never seen him with anyone except his nephew. And I don’t mind much. I could have planed those boards for him in five minutes. I should have.”
“Sure you should,” she shot back. “And what else? Why do you let him take advantage of you like that?”
The next day, Hartley did go visit Bokelman. He wondered if he should bring him a book or something. He nearly stopped by a news stand to pick up the day’s papers for him but rejected the idea at the last minute. They were neighbors separated by one house and a mile’s worth of convention.
Bokelman was in a room with three other patients. They all had visitors except for Bokelman who was seated next to his bed.
“I feel terrible about what happened,” Hartley said, pulling up a chair.
“Well,” Bokelman sighed, “it was my own fault. I guess the boards were too short.”
Of course they were. Hartley had seen that right away. Any experienced woodworker would have used a pusher instead of his hand. When he had returned home the previous day and glanced warily at the blood-spattered joiner he found himself feeling uneasy. The pusher for handling such small pieces hung on the wall next to the machine. It was in plain sight. But couldn’t he have pointed it out anyway?
Bokelman sighed again. “I guess it’s just one of those things.”
Soon he was home and walking around with his hand all bandaged up. No one came to see him. When several days had gone by without their meeting on the sidewalk, Hartley got to thinking he should stop by and say ‘hello’. Bokelman answered the bell, his bulk filling the doorway.
“How’s the hand?” Hartley asked.
“Well,” his neighbor whined, “I don’t think it’s right. It still hurts, especially when it’s cold. I can’t get much use out of it. You want to come in?”
Hartley didn’t know whether to interpret this as an actual invitation. Bokelman’s tone suggested that it was all the same to him whether Hartley came in or not. But it was cold and he could not be standing there like that with the door wide open. He had little desire to enter, but neither did he wish to appear unfriendly or indifferent to his neighbor’s discomfort. “Well, just for a minute,” he said.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the living room, Hartley’s attention was immediately drawn to the walls which seemed to glow with an amber-like luster. At eye level throughout the room hung dozens of paintings, each in an ornate gold-leaf frame and illuminated by a small bronze lamp mounted above it. It was the paintings themselves which seemed to glow and fill the room with a warmth and passion that seemed so at odds with the Bokelman he knew. A few upholstered chairs were arranged at the room’s center to create the effect of a well-appointed gallery displaying its many treasures to best advantage. Photographs of a woman, who could only have been Bokelman’s wife, rested on a table next to the several chairs where Bokelman clearly spent much of his time.
Hartley managed a feeble “Are you an art collector?”
“No, my wife was a painter. They’re hers.”
Hartley felt uncomfortable. This room was a shrine. “She was….. very good,” he heard himself saying.
“Yes” Bokelman said absently, sitting down. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you anything, but…….”
“Oh, I have to get going,” Hartley interrupted. Then he added, “But may I just take a minute to look at your wife’s paintings?” Despite his discomfort he felt it would have been rude to rush off without admiring them.
“Help yourself,” his neighbor replied.
Hartley walked slowly, pausing in front of each canvas. It was only then that he heard, how could he have missed it before, Ravel’s Pavane. He turned his gaze to the stereo. Then, involuntarily, to Bokelman who quickly looked away as if to say I’d rather we not get into a conversation.
Hartley returned to the paintings. Though not a painter himself, and certainly no connoisseur of fine art, he could nevertheless appreciate how beautifully they were done. ‘Painterly’ as he once heard a museum docent describe the works of an artist being exhibited. Though pastiches of the great French Expressionists, they clearly stood well on their own merits. He felt himself drawn into them by Ravel’s haunting music. And suddenly he was aware of a deep empathy for Bokelman who spent his days in this room, gazing at these paintings, listening to this music. And the pavane, this slow, elegant dance of a Spanish court constrained by rigid, deadening convention - was it not like the dance in which he found himself locked with the sad, overweight man sitting in this room?
“I need to be getting home. Sorry your finger’s still bothering you. Have you been back to the hospital to have it checked?”
Bokelman stood and walked to the door. “Of course,” he said. “They just tell me it’s healing fine. I know something’s wrong though. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken me to Harbor View.”
“But... I’ve always heard their emergency room was first rate.” Hartley knew he was sounding defensive.
“Just the same, I’d like another opinion. How about your homeowner’s insurance? Wouldn’t they cover that?”
Hartley was stung. What was Bokelman up to? Claims? Lawsuits? “I guess I could call and check,” he said.
“Yeah,” Bokelman agreed. “Let me know what they say.”
“Damn him,” Hartley muttered when he was home again. Still, an inner voice insisted that, after all, Bokelman had made a perfectly reasonable request. If his manner was curt, verging on accusatorial, wasn’t the poor fellow drowning in grief? Could he have coped any better were he to lose his own wife? He called the insurance company. The agent wanted all the details. Said he was a woodworker himself. “How come he didn’t use a pusher?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” Hartley had replied. “I guess he really didn’t know how to operate a joiner.”
“Well, then, you shouldn’t have let him use it.”
Hartley felt a cold fury rising up in him. Was it just the impertinence of the agent or was it also a sense of helplessness that was overwhelming him? “Look,” he practically shouted, “the guy said he knew how to use a joiner. He said he knew what he was doing. He didn’t cut off his finger on purpose for god’s sake. And what difference does it make whose fault it was anyway? Am I covered or not? All the man wants is a second opinion.”
“Maybe you’re covered,” the agent said sourly. “Send in your claim and we’ll see.”
As it happened, things turned out OK. Bokelman went to the UW where the doctors affirmed that the surgery and been performed with great skill. The insurance company picked up the tab without a peep. Probably relieved to get off so lightly. Only Bokelman was unhappy with the outcome. He grumbled about his finger every time they met. The complaining got to the point where Hartley started having trouble sleeping. He had always considered himself a decent sort of fellow. Always ready to help someone out. If asked, he knew his friends would describe him in just such terms. But this thing with Bokelman was causing him to question the Mr. Good Guy image. If he was honest with himself, and this was not easy, had he not allowed the accident to happen? Perhaps, out of some deep unconscious malevolence, even wanted it to happen? Thoughts like that can keep a man awake at night.
One day Hartley was working in his shop when he caught sight of Bokelman coming up the driveway again. “Christ,” he thought to himself. “What’s he want now?”
“I need to talk to you, Hartley.” Here we go. Hartley felt the blood rising to his face. “I just want to say you’ve been a good neighbor.”
Hartley was caught off guard. “Well,” he stammered, “maybe I could have been a better one. I could have planed those boards for you and you’d still have ten fingers.”
“Nonsense. That was no one’s fault but mine. I did something stupid. And that’s all there is to be said about it.”
“Still, it happened in my shop and I feel terrible.”
“Just forget it, OK? By the way, there’s something I’d like your opinion on.”
Hartley couldn’t keep himself from saying “Anything I can help you with?” What’s the matter with you, Barb’s voice was shouting inside his head. Do you need to save Bokelman and the rest of the world with him? Don’t be such a sap!
“It’s like this,” Bokelman went on, never missing a beat. “I’m going to be moving soon. I’m putting the house up for sale and moving to Florida to live with my sister. She’s the only family I’ve got. That’s Roger’s mother. And the thing is, I’ve got to get all my wife’s paintings back there somehow. There’s more than you saw, probably a hundred. And some are just on their stretchers. Roger and I have been framing those and still have a few to go. And I wondered if you had any ideas about what kind of a crate I could use for shipping.”
Hartley felt a wave of resignation come over him. He knew what his wife would say. But it was too late now for saying NO. “I suppose I could design some kind of crate with partitions so the paintings wouldn’t be damaged. Maybe five to a crate. That’d be a lot of crates, though. I don’t really have time……..”
“Oh, I’m not asking for your help to build them or anything. Johnson’s cabinet shop is going to do that. I’ve already talked to them about it. They just need some kind of drawing of what I want.” Then he added: “The paintings are all I have left of my wife. I need to take them with me. I can’t go without them.”
“I understand,” said Hartley. He meant it. And he was relieved. Designing a sturdy shipping crate would be child’s play. And Barb could scarcely complain when he told her what it was for. Especially when she understood that this would be the extent of his contribution to the project. “I’ll draw up something for you,” he told his neighbor.
“Thanks, Hartley. You’ve been good to me.” And he thrust out his hand for Hartley to shake.
That evening after dinner Barb saw her husband sitting at the computer doing something with his CAD program. “Whatcha up to?”
“Oh, just sketching something for Bokelman.”
His wife drew in her breath audibly and deeply. Then let it out in a burst of exasperation. “So what’s it this time, Mr. Nice Guy?”
God, did she have to call him that? Hartley explained about the paintings, that Bokelman was moving and needed to ship them off to Florida. All he needed was a drawing. Just a drawing. It was a small thing to ask. And he was glad he could help.
“Sure,” said Barb. “And next he’s going to ask you to build those damn crates for him.”
“No, he won’t. He just needs a sketch to take to Johnson’s They’re going to make them.”
“Just you wait!” his wife scoffed. “When are you going to realize that you don’t owe this guy anything?”
“Barbara, don’t...” Hartley broke off. Then: “It’s not that simple,” he said.
Barbara came and stood behind her husband, and placed her hands gently on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, darling. I’m just thinking of you, that’s all.” Hartley bent his head to one side and touched his cheek to her hand. And he wondered if Bokelman was gazing at his gilt-framed memories from the darkened center of his living room.
Two days later Roger knocked on the door. Hartley thought he’d come for the drawing. But he just stood there with a blank look on his face for several seconds. “Uncle Eugene died yesterday,” he finally managed to blurt out. “He just fell down in the parking lot at Walmart . When the medical guys got there he was dead. They said it was a heart attack.”
Hartley felt like he’d been sucker-punched. “Oh, god,” he said, “I am so sorry.”
“Yeah, well it happened real fast. I don’t think he suffered none.”
Hartley went to the kitchen and poured himself a drink. He was sitting at the table, head in his hands, when his wife came in and wanted to know who’d been at the door. He told her. Her face was unbelieving so he repeated it. “Bokelman’s dead.”
There was a moment of silence. Then, “Well,” she said, “that’s one problem solved.” Her husband looked at her, speechless.
At work the next day Hartley arranged to take five days of unused vacation time the following week. Before going home that night he stopped by Home Depot and ordered thirty sheets of three-quarter inch plywood and an equal number of quarter inch panels. That plus five boxes of #8 woodscrews brought the bill to a little over $900. Home delivery added another $50. Hartley put it on his Visa card.
When the lumber arrived on Saturday he had it stacked in the driveway. If Barb had any thoughts about what she knew he was going to do she felt it best to keep them to herself.
Sunday, after church, Hartley put on his shop apron and for the next six days he hardly left his garage except for meals. Sometimes Barb brought him a sandwich and a beer when he failed to show up for lunch. The atmosphere was thick with sawdust.
Hartley got it down to where he could make a crate in about two hours. The longest part of the job was dado-ing the end pieces to receive the quarter inch panels that would divide the crate into five compartments. Five partitions per crate, nearly 100 paintings, twenty crates in all. A good forty hours of work. He let Roger try to help on the first day. But the boy was useless so he sent him home and told him to return at the end of the week to help load the paintings.
By ten o’clock on Friday morning the completed twenty crates stood side by side in the garage. Hartley had attached handles to facilitate moving them. Roger came as requested and the two of them removed the paintings from Bokelman’s house and loaded them carefully into the crates. While Hartley screwed down the tops Roger filled out the labels with his mother’s address in Florida. By the late afternoon the job was done. Before leaving the garage Hartley took a damp rag and wiped down the joiner again. There were still a few spots of dried blood he’d missed the first time.
Barb was out with friends so the house was empty when he went in. He poured himself a glass of scotch. He was glad she was gone so that he wouldn’t have to try to explain why he put Ravel’s Pavane on the stereo. He wasn’t quite sure himself. Then he sat in his favorite chair, listening to the music, letting the scotch warm his throat and clear the smell of sawdust from his sinuses. Images of the past few months came unbidden to his consciousness in no particular pattern. He thought of his neighbor, of how nice the weather had been all week, of the waiting room at Harbor View, of what would become of him if he ever lost Barb.
He heard the final notes of the pavane playing. The trucking firm would be coming to collect the crates first thing Monday morning. Hartley calculated that the paintings should arrive in Florida about the same time as Bokelman’s ashes.
About the Author: Patrick Butler is professor emeritus of history and political science at City College of San Francisco where he taught for thirty years. Upon retirement he moved to Washington State where he lives with his wife on the shores of Puget Sound. Among his interests in retirement is the writing of short fiction and Pavane is his third published story.