See book critic Alan Cheuse's reading picks for the season.
Five Skies: A Novel
by Ron Carlson
Hardcover, 256 pages
List Price: $23.95
They worked into the early dark the first day, but the three men had equipment trouble, and they didn't drill any postholes. Darwin had stepped off the intervals and marked where to dig, but the tractor didn't cooperate. The day would prove like so many days at the campsite to be too small a thing for the plans they made. Too often even as the days lengthened through spring and into the high Idaho summer and the two-hour twilight, the irrevocable night would rise up between them in the middle of their workings, Key turning to Darwin for the level and not being able to see him there with the instrument ready. They fell into a pattern then without having to speak about it, retrieving their gear, lifting all the tools off the bare ground into the tractor shovel or laying them on the hood of the Farmall, and a listener would have heard only this certain clanking as the hammers and chisels and crowbars and screwdrivers were gathered against the night.
"Nothing worse in the morning than finding a crescent wrench in the dirt," Key had told Ronnie Panelli the second or third day, when the young man finally understood what a crescent wrench was, the whole nomenclature of tools coming to him in daily increments, a lesson he resisted only for the moment before he saw that these tools were somehow his too, that he would get to wield them, be expected to, without assistance. He knew the language of only two things before this and one was the street and the other was golf, his life as a caddy. If the weather threatened, the men took the extra time to locate and place the tools in the large waterproof ammo chest by their tent. And so their days ended with this regard for their tools and the days began, as they squinted over coffee, in the exhilarating open air knowing where the shovel was, the chain, the awl.
On the first day, after a lunch of roast beef sandwiches on the sourdough rolls Darwin had brought from Pocatello, they'd fitted the tractor power takeoff assembly with the eight-foot auger, and already the light had lurched so that the shadows were twice as long as things and the various wild birds began traversing the high sky. That first lunch had been odd, Darwin sawing the bread on his makeshift tailgate table with the butcher knife they would all learn to use, a tool big as a hacksaw, while Ronnie Panelli stood in front of the truck, well away from Arthur Key. And then the sandwiches themselves, each the size of a loaf, the largest sandwich Ronnie Panelli had ever had in his hands, were outsize for only a moment until the magnitude of the place registered once again; midafternoon in such a world required food this big. Panelli held his sandwich in both hands and tore at it still standing in front of the truck, keeping the vehicle between Key and himself, while the other two men sat on a bale of two-by-sixes and talked.
The bread was fresh and rough. Darwin watched Arthur eat.
"Good?" he said.
Arthur Key nodded, and Darwin went ahead.
"Listen, do you want this job?" He pointed north where the sky was ripped with flags of rained-out cloud fragments stark in the blue day.
"If you want, we can eat and just take you back to Pocatello."
Key, glad for the sun on his face, the warmth, looked up, chewing. He shook his head. "I don't want that drive again."
Darwin set his sandwich on the cutting board and twisted open the big jar of pickles offering it to Arthur Key. "Just let me know," he said. "We can pump up those tires and that snow will be long gone."
After a minute, Arthur Key said, "It is a good sandwich, certainly good enough for who it's for." He held it up. "A little wine wouldn't hurt."
"A good red wine?" Darwin said.
"Any red wine. White wine is not for drinking. White wine is something to do with your hands."
The older man laughed. They both talked through their chewing.
"There's water here," Darwin called to Ronnie Panelli. He meant the five-gallon cistern that now sat near the tent. When there was no answer, Darwin added, "You don't have to stand out there and eat. There's room on the beach." Panelli didn't turn. The sun at just after one o'clock on the plateau was flat and, if a person stood still out of the light chill wind, warm. It was actually 60 degrees and would be 25 by midnight. These were the days that the ancient rock worked against itself, pressing and shrinking away, the red sandstone binding and yielding, calving a boulder into the vast gorge every century, even though they stood ready — rows of hundred-ton rocks — all along the ruined, steadfast lip of the canyon.
Darwin ate. He eyed Arthur Key. He was trying to say something and have it lead to the next thing, the thing he didn't know. He considered and then retreated. Finally, he tried, "But drinking isn't it for you. That's not why we have you here."
Key looked up from his eating as if he was as comfortable with this agenda as with any. His look showed that other men had tried for his secrets. "No," Arthur Key said. "It isn't. I'm just traveling."
"Well, no matter," Darwin said. It was early in the season and he still wanted his power poles and his job done right more than he wanted to know about this large man who leaned against the jeep tailgate beside him. "We've got some work out here in the country, bit by bit. Today, water and the power poles, and in a night or two we'll have our wine."
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Five Skies Copyright © Ron Carlson, 2007