Carpenter's Rule

by Mark Harkins
Illustration by Carolyn Skrzwdlewski

Russell scowled and chewed impatiently on his cigar. "Not there!" he bellowed at three workmen unloading a company pickup in the parking lot. "Take those ceiling tiles to the cafeteria and put them all inside."
The men observed his pointing finger and slowly moved to the indicated building.
Suppressing an urge to speed their progress with his boot, Russell fumed at the delay. Bad weather put this shopping center three weeks behind schedule. Now with his foreman sick and the crew shorthanded-
"Excuse me, Mr. Russell?"
The voice at his elbow jerked Russell back to earth. He looked sharply at the speaker-a balding, old man with snow-white hair, torn jeans, and a weathered T-shirt, clutching a baseball cap in his gnarled hands. He reminded Russell of his own father, who'd passed away last year.
"Can I help you?" Russell asked.
The old man looked down and rubbed a finger behind one ear. "Seems to me like you're the one needs help," he said with a dry chuckle. "I can outwork any two men you've got with one hand tied behind my back."
Russell yanked the cigar from his mouth and jabbed the smoking tip at the old man. "Are you asking for a job?"
The old man nodded.
For a moment Russell hesitated. He needed seasoned hands, and the old man looked like he'd been around since Noah built the ark.
"What's your name, old timer?"
"I'd like to say yes, Nathan," Russell continued. "But we work long, hard hours-"
"You call this work?" Nathan snorted. He raked a few stray hairs out of his face and slapped the baseball cap back on his head. "Why, any sissy can outwork this crew. Compared to choppin' cotton, baling hay, or buckin' barley-"
"I'm sorry," Russell said, "we just can't risk it. At your age-"
"Tell you what," Nathan said. "You're gettin' ready to install a suspended ceiling in the cafeteria, ain't you?"
"That's right."
"Well, I don't like to brag," Nathan said, puffing out his scrawny chest, "but I'm the world's greatest installer of suspended ceilings."
With heroic self-control, Russell managed not to smile. He'd heard the like before. Still, the old man's scars and calluses looked authentic. Nathan might exaggerate, but he probably knew his stuff.
"Now this here job," Nathan continued, "contains two sections. You give your two best men the dining room, and leave the bar and smoking area to me. My piece ain't quite so big, but there's some tricky work that'll slow me down a mite. If your boys finish first, you owe me nothing. If I win, you put me on the payroll."
"Done!" Russell agreed, shaking Nathan's hand. The old man's grip felt strong, but something made Russell suspect he hadn't eaten. "Providing you let me pay for lunch and dinner."
A slow smile spread across Nathan's face. "Let's get a move on."
Russell called Kevin and Leroy, his two best workers, and promised them a bonus if they won the race. Then he led the way to the cafeteria, where they found Nathan already taking measurements. The old man sat down and scribbled in a notebook. Then he tore the page out and handed it to Russell.
"This is what I need," Nathan said. "Pile my equipment in front of the bar where I'll be working."
"Hey! No fair!" Leroy complained. We ain't got started!"
"Not having to wait for orders is one of my advantages," Nathan chuckled. "If I were you boys, I'd quit lollygaggin' and get to work."
After watching Nathan work a couple minutes, Russell knew he'd found a craftsman. Years of experience showed in Nathan's economy of movement. He never hurried, yet the work seemed to come alive beneath his hands. This enabled him to snap his chalk line and mark his ceiling borders, while Kevin and Leroy fumbled through the preliminary measurements.
Though Nathan established an early lead, Kevin and Leroy narrowed the gap when hanging wall angles. Four hands proved an advantage when nailing these L-shaped border fixtures to the wall.
But when it came to hanging the aluminum channels into which the ceiling tile would fit, Nathan pulled away and took a commanding lead.
When Russell called time for lunch, Kevin and Leroy ambled over to check the competition. One look sent them hustling back to work. They toiled through the lunch hour, working with frantic speed to make up ground.
By the time the old man finished eating, the boys had whittled his lead time down to thirty minutes. Nathan hardly noticed. He calmly resumed work at a pace that made Kevin and Leroy scramble to keep up.
Last came installation of the ceiling tiles themselves. Nathan reached this segment first and quickly jumped into the lead. But Kevin and Leroy handled this phase best. They understood the work and knew how to coordinate their efforts. Sweat poured from their bodies as the boys closed in on Nathan, who in turn sped up when the finish came in sight.
Word having spread among the crew, a crowd gathered in the cafeteria for the finish.
"C'mon, Nathan!" a senior worker bellowed. "Show these young jackasses how it's done!"
"What's the matter, Kevin?" another needled. "Can't two of you keep up with one old man?"
Nathan ignored the spectators. He methodically continued installations, slapping up two and three tiles at a whack.
Kevin and Leroy thundered in pursuit. Scraps flew as the young men worked at breakneck speed. Cut, fit. Cut, fit. Faster, faster, faster.
With only five tiles remaining, the boys caught up to Nathan. They dropped their last tile into place while he still had two remaining.
Descending from the ladder, Kevin stretched and grabbed two sodas from his cooler. He handed one to Leroy and chugged his own without coming up for air.
"You're a tough old buzzard," Kevin said when Nathan stepped off his ladder. "You gave Leroy and me a real scare. Care for a soda?"
Nathan smiled in his slow, modest way. "I'll accept if you offer again in a couple of minutes. Where I come from, we live by the Carpenter's Rule: The job ain't finished 'til the cleanup's been completed."
Sick comprehension dawned in Kevin's eyes as he looked at the debris he and Leroy left scattered in their wake.
In the meantime, Nathan shoveled his neat pile of scraps into a plastic garbage bag. Then he walked outside and tossed the bag into a dumpster.
Kevin and Leroy stormed over to Mr. Russell. "You saw what happened, Boss!" Kevin squalled. "You gonna let that silver-tongued old buzzard steal our victory?"
Russell draped a sympathetic arm across Kevin's shoulders. "You boys earned yourselves a bonus. I never saw you work that way before. But don't you go bad-mouthin' Nathan, 'cause starting tomorrow, he's your new boss."

About the author: Mark Harkins is an all-thumbs carpenter and full-time professional security guard. He lives in Pasadena, Texas, and has been writing for ten years. Credits include Catholic Digest, The Secret Place, Good Old Days, and A.I.M. Magazine.