Unchocked

Unchocked

(…a short story)

The cabin reservation was made the year before when Heinz turned in his vacation notice to his boss. Another machinist would have to run the vertical mill for the week Heinz was gone. Now it was just a matter of gathering all of the supplies he needed for the week and then head north to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. He also had to make sure he left things in their proper order.

Heinz, a tool and die maker for a small CNC machine shop on the near west side of Chicago had worked as a machinist for over thirty years.  Apprenticed in Hamburg, Germany as a teenager he came to America at the age of twenty with his new wife Gertrude.  He hoped to start his own machine shop with her as office manager but Gertrude contracted Polio during their voyage to America. When Gertrude died Heinz went on alone.  His work became his closest partner. He accepted all the job orders given to him and often worked twelve to fourteen hours a day six days a week.  The precision of his craft was his sole interest.

Over time Heinz had become the shop’s top machinist. It was said that if Heinz couldn’t form the part, no one else could. He apprenticed the younger guys but in this he didn’t have much patience or pleasure. He didn’t appreciate their cavalier attitude toward working with precise tolerances.  If the drawing said + or – .001 mm then that is what was required. He didn’t accept anything less than the perfection of specific numbers measured with fine gauges. He frowned at sloppiness and shoddy workmanship.

Shaping a block of steel and the cinnamon smell of the Tap Magic lubricant were elemental to Heinz’s way of life as were exact order and a respect for the tools of his trade. So it was that every night before he locked his eight drawer wooden tool chest he wiped down each of his machinist’s tools. He carefully cleaned his micrometers, the digital veneer calipers, the inside calipers and the steel rules. He wire-brushed the metal files and zeroed the dial indicators and digital protractor.  He wiped and reset the mechanic’s square to a right angle and inspected the scribe and pick. He lined up the telescope gauges, precision level, thread gauges, surface gauges and reamers each into in their drawer, carefully placing each measuring instrument in its proper place on the green felt liner.

After cleaning and inspecting his tools Heinz would brush the metal filings off of his work bench.  He would then sweep up the curly cue metal shavings around his mill and beneath his work bench.  He dabbed up the gritty oil at the foot of his mill and would then throw Oil Dry over it to soak up the tooling oil over night. He did this routine every day and again today at 4:15.  At 4:30 pm he punched out and left for a week of vacation.

During the week prior to his vacation Heinz purchased cans of groceries enough to last him a week. He bought three bottles of Steinhäger and a bottle of Schnapps. He knew he could find some good German beer in Germantown, Wisconsin, a stop along the way.

Though he lived his life in solitude Heinz never partook of alcohol during the time he wasn’t on vacation. He never went to a tavern. Instead, he always sought to maintain the austerity and self-control he thought a man should have. Precision marked the beginning and end of each of his days.

Heinz packed his 1960 BMW 700 and left that Friday night for Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The drive north to Germantown took Heinz about two hours from his Chicago apartment. Once there he quickly found the store where he had purchased his beer last year.  He purchased four 12-packs of Warsteiner Premium Verum and a few cigars.  He placed six bottles of Warsteiner into a cooler along with the schnapps. The cigars were placed in the glove compartment.

Rice Lake was another six-hour drive north. Heinz didn’t stop for dinner at one of the many supper clubs advertised along the way. He chewed on some beef jerky purchased with the beer.  Driving at night was all the more difficult for Heinz because of Heinz’s night blindness. He gripped the wheel at ten and two and stared straight ahead.  The white lane lines were ever in his view like tolerances to be held.

He entered the city limits of Rice Lake and drove through the only intersection with a stop light. He proceeded past the town and turned onto a gravel road about four miles north. After winding along a deeply grooved dirt road through a dense opine forest he came to an opening revealed by the office’s front porch light. He pulled over and stopped the car. Virginia, the cottage owner, greeted Heinz from the enclosed porch. A remote TV weather report sounded a cold front coming out of Superior Wisconsin.

“Heinz, it’s good to see you again. I have your cabin ready.” She opened her guest register. “It’s gonna get chilly tonight. Down to 32 degrees.  You’d better get that fireplace going.  There’s some dry wood along…you know where it is.”

Heinz nodded with blood-shot eyes. He handed her a check for the week’s rent and looked around at the small office attached to the house. The same carved woodsman cuckoo clock hung on the wall over the same cluttered desk. Heinz looked at his digital watch. The wall clock was six minutes slow or stopped. He was too tired to care.

Above the office’s small whirring refrigerator hung the same 1975 Norman Rockwell calendar from Martin’s drugstore.  Nothing had changed. Nothing was out-of-place. He felt his jaw slacken and he let out a sigh of relief. The smell of cedar somewhere in the room replaced the Tap Magic smell of his hands.

“Are you still cooking, Virginia?” Heinz asked.

“Will sauerbraten, red cabbage and spaetzle do?

“Only if you join me for dinner tomorrow night. I will bring the beer”

“It’s been a year, Heinz.”

“Yes, it’s been a year to the day and …two hours. I better get going and get that fire started.”

Heinz drove his car around to the one room cabin a quarter of a mile from the office. It was too dark to see the lake but Heinz could feel the expanse before him. A patter of rain began to fall on the cabin roof. Pine boughs swooshed around him with each gust of wind coming off the lake. Heinz unloaded the cooler and some boxes from the trunk of his car.  He carried them into the cabin and set them on the floor.

Without turning a light on he found the bed where it had been the year before and lay down. The constant focus on the road and the oncoming strobes of light had given Heinz a fierce headache. His neck was stiff, his forearms were tight and his hands still seemed to be clutching the steering wheel. He closed his burning eyes.

The rain began to fall more evenly. The wind was howling plaintively outside the cabin windows as if nature was trying to get in the cabin.  But with his eyes closed the monotonous lane soon appeared again.  After a few minutes he let his hands release their hold on earth.

Through a part in the calico curtains, a ray of sun shot through the room, glinted off a copper spoon hanging on the wall and struck the corner of Heinz’s eye.  He jerked upright wondering if he had overslept.  He looked at his hands if they would tell him what he needed to do.  After a couple of minutes he stood up and set the coffeepot going. As he turned on the burner he wondered if Jason, his latest apprentice, had remembered to turn on the mill’s lube pump. He bit is lip and then released the thought. Heinz had trained him well.

While Heinz stood on the porch surveying the lake the percolating coffee pot boiled over, sputtering coffee and grounds out of the pot’s spout.  “Damn,” he thought. The red-hot burner below sizzled and hissed.  Heinz came in and set the coffee pot on another burner.  He dabbed up the watery coffee grounds with paper towels and then poured himself a cup of coffee. This action made him think of Gertrude. She would have fussed over the mess he’d made but only for a moment.  Then she’d take his hand and say “You’re not at work.  Go sit down. I’ll take care of it.”

He opened a can of deviled ham and spread it on a slice of pumpernickel bread.  From the cooler he took out a hard-boiled egg.  He ate thinking about work and the whir of the lathe.  His knee bounced up and down nervously until he heard footsteps on the porch. It was Virginia. She cracked the door open.

“Hi, just came to check on you. You find everything alright?”

“Yah, I’m good here.”

“I have row-boat if you are interested in some fishing.”

“I may go out this morning to look around. The fog is lifting.”

“You know where to find me.”

“Yah, I will be over soon.”

Virginia left and Heinz returned to his breakfast.  The size-on-size fit of everyday life was being replaced by nature’s uncontrolled bluntness.   When he had finished breakfast Heinz fell back into his chair and let his shoulders drop. He wasn’t going to roll up his sleeves this week. The memory of Gertrude and the presence of Virginia would see to that.

Stiff from sleeping most of the night with his feet off the side of the bed Heinz ambled up to the office.  He was hoping his back and legs would soon loosen up. When he got to the office Virginia handed him the key to unlock the row-boat. When she handed him the oars she joked, “OK, mate, here’s your gear.” She had packed him a lunch.

“I thank you ma’am. Have I been away a year?  Does time stand still here? You haven’t changed a bit.”

“Only that old cuckoo clock stands still. I have to keep moving so the wrinkles don’t catch up.”

“Hah, you’ve done that! I’ll be back after lunch.” He headed out the door and then turned back to poke his head inside the doorway.  “Virginia, tonight…?”

“Still on.  I’ll be cooking this afternoon.  Catch me a lake trout and I’ll cook it. You clean it and I’ll cook it.”

“It’s a deal except I already caught me a can of herring. It’s in my cabin already to go.”

“You know the way to a women’s heart ~ prepared food.  See you tonight.”

With that Heinz walked down to the reedy shoreline where the row-boat was beached.  He unchained the boat, grabbed the oars and his bag lunch and pushed off the shore.

Heinz rowed slowly measuring the strength in his arms against the return distance.  When he had reached the middle of the lake Heinz stopped rowing and took in the familiar surroundings:  a featureless grey sky domed the lake today. The water lapping around his boat rippled with each tickling of wind.  Along the shoreline shoulder to shoulder pines stood in a dense lattice-work of deep blue-green. It was to this spot that Heinz returned every year. There were no tools, no work orders – only time and space in the queue.  It was here that life came to him outside the defined tolerances he worked with every day. And it was here that he sat in nature’s unfinished place, a precious commodity not mined and milled into an end product.

Heinz opened his bag lunch and pulled out a slice of pumpernickel bread and some Edam cheese. He opened a beer. While he ate and drank the lake breeze blew across his unshaven face. Hah!

Late in the afternoon Heinz rowed back to the shore.  He grabbed his things and headed back to the cabin. Nearby a common bathroom offered a hot shower.  He decided not to shave giving his hands some freedom from their regular duties. He showered and dressed in a clean pair of slacks and pullover shirt. He grabbed the tin of herring from the box and a cold six-pack of beer and headed over to the office.

As he arrived Virginia was finishing up registering a couple for the night.  Heinz overheard them talking:  they were on their way home from a week canoe trip outside of Ely, Minnesota. They were hoping for a hot shower.  Heinz told them to wait a bit.  The hot water had been used up during his shower.  He offered them a couple of beers instead for their wait. They accepted and headed off to their cabin.

“Heinz, my dear, you know how to finesse the customers.”

“That hot shower finessed me.”

‘You didn’t shave.”

“A man has got to know his limits and mine is shaving while on vacation. When it gets to long I’ll mill it off.”

“Pour me a glass will you Heinz?”

Heinz poured Virginia a tall glass of beer and set it behind her on the kitchen table.

“Put on some music. I’ve got some old records next to the couch.”

Heinz sat on the edge of the couch and looked through the collection of LPs. He chose the Warsaw Concerto by Addisnsell. Rachmaninov would be for another night.

Heinz set two places at the kitchen table and lit the candle. The flame listed every time he came in and out of the room.

Virginia grabbed the plates and spooned on red cabbage and spätzle.  She added sauerbraten to the plates. Dinner was served.

Heinz sat directly across from Virginia. The familiar food, the halo of candle light and the rush of arpeggios weakened his knees.  He was glad to be sitting. Virginia’s face was radiant, awash with both red and gold. The hot stove had flushed Virginia’s cheeks and the candle light gilded her features. If angels cook then he must be in heaven.

Heinz and Virginia didn’t discuss Heinz’ work when they were together. Virginia understood Heinz’s passion for precision and his irritation with sloppy work.   Virginia’s husband had been a tool and die maker for many years before he died.  Like Heinz he had worked with tight tolerances each and every day.  Virginia knew that Heinz’s visit’s to Rice Lake became a reprieve of sorts from the exacting measures that so drove his personality.

Heinz and Virginia would dine the same way each night.  Heinz would spend the day alone and the night he spent with Virginia. There would share beer, schnapps, cigars, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Chopin and Brahms.  They would play cards and near the end of the night dance to polka music. A time of remembering and a time of letting go met together each night.

After those evenings Heinz would fall into a deep sleep.  In the early morning hours vivid dreams would animate his sleep. He would see himself talking to him Gertrude about their new home in America. He saw his childhood home and the curs that came to their door for biscuits. He saw his father playing the violin while his mother cooked the family dinner.  He saw his childhood school and saw himself in his short pants.  He saw the shop in Hamburg where he apprenticed.  He saw the trolley that he brought him to school. And his dreams always included a machine shop. 

He dreamt of a 5 axis vertical mill, of fixtures and of metal shavings peeling off a turning steel bar.  He could smell the cinnamon scent of Tap Magic and see his hands chocking a 4140 steel bar into the spindle of the lathe. He saw himself aligning-centering-cutting-drilling-boring – sculpting steel into precision gears.  He saw himself being measured by a micrometer and a dial indicator checking spindle runout – Virginia holding the gauge! He saw himself checking hardness with a Rockwell tester and then falling off into deeper asleep again

As a strobe of morning sun came through the curtains laser-like onto his closed eyes half-asleep he would imagine the stamp of a time clock and bolt upright in bed. He would then sit rubbing the sun’s imprint from his eyes.  In those waking moments each night’s quickly vanishing dream passed through his mind.  What appeared to him in the night seemed to enact some absurdist play where memories – real people, times and objects – donned the surreal and came together on stage to wait for someone to come along and give meaning and direction to it all.

The days Heinz spent fishing he didn’t fish at all.  He never brought fishing tackle or a rod with him to Rice Lake.  Both he and Virginia knew that when Heinz said that he was going “fishing” he really meant that he needed to be alone. So it was that he would take the row-boat out to the middle of the lake and sit there letting time pass over him. Time could come and go as it pleased without the date time stamp his everyday life..

In the afternoons, before Heinz made the short walk up the hill to have dinner with Virginia he would settle into his cabin for nap. From a collection of LPs leaning next to the bureau Heinz would select an album of classical music.  He would choose Frederick Delius’ tone poems:  Song of Summer and A Walk to Paradise Garden or Dvorak’s New World Symphony or Debussy’s Clair de Lune and Reverie or Bach’s violin concertos. Bach had a way of resetting things for Heinz, of resolving any stress he felt in his neck and his hands.

After putting the needle down on the first track he would pull Virginia’s homemade afghan off of the high back chair and bring it with him over to the rug.  Lying on the floor eyes closed and covered with the afghan, just as he had done so many times before listening to his father play the violin, the music coursed through him and down into his hands where it was released.

Heinz’s father was concertmaster of the Philharmoniker Hamburg. His mother played the organ in their Lutheran church. Heinz was taught the piano and was made to practice rigorously until he began his apprenticeship. The metronome which had kept the strictest of time was exchanged for a time clock.

On the last night before Heinz returned to Chicago Virginia cooked sauerbraten. Heinz placed birch wood and kindling into the fireplace and began a fire. He lit the all candles and chose Chopin’s nocturnes for the dinner music.  He set the table.

Once again there was music and laughter and the shuffling of cards. And once again when the hour grew late they sat on the porch swing. Virginia would take his hands and hold them.  As if blind she would trace their outline with her fingers, her eyes reading some unseen message. His hands were calloused and leathery from use.  As she looked at them tonight she saw that they were etched with fine lines of dark grease like a charcoal drawing she had seen once.  These hands, like her husband’s, had held steel stock to be turned and milled and chamfered, steel to be transformed from block to bolt, from stock to shaft.  On this night friendship’s annealing process, a slow working stress relieving process that had both softened and solidified his soul over time brought tears to his eyes. And when she took his hands into hers he could sense the weight of what felt like a massive headstone of grief being taken from him. The night came to an end when he kissed her deeply and held her tightly under the chromatic gauze of the northern lights.

On Sunday morning Heinz packed his car and drove up to the office.  Virginia was waiting at the desk preparing checkout bills for the guests. Heinz asked for the bill and she handed it to him.  Heinz paid the bill and then looking at Virginia he said, “They broke the mold when they made you.” 

With a smile she replied, “Well, then you old machinist, you’ll just have to come back and take some more measurements.”

Heinz smiled, “I’ll be back next year if you can stand it.”

“I’ll be right here with this old cuckoo clock ~ me and time standing still.

“Bye, kiddo.”  Heinz kissed Virginia and headed out the door.

The Sunday trip driving back top Chicago took him most of the day because all the weekenders were heading home. When he finally reached his apartment he unloaded the car and put away his things.  He set the alarm clock for 5:30 am.

 The next morning he clocked in at 5:52 am.  At 8:30, his break time, he had handed the shop manager his vacation request for the next year ~ two weeks off the clock for recalibration.

© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved

***** 

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