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If A Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

They had lasagna for Thanksgiving dinner that year. The meatless kind. From a can.

“Nothing like the smell of a good bird in the oven,” Mike Senior announced, scraping his boots on the doormat, inhaling.

“Uh, Pop?” Janet whispered.

“Yes, ma’ am?”

“Never mind. Happy Thanksgiving, Pop. Let me help you with your coat. There are a few things in the kitchen I’ve got to see to yet. Mike should be back any minute. I’ll leave you and Shawn to get reacquainted.”

He smelled it all morning. He smelled it when he woke up in the cramped, stuffy bedroom he rented near the school in South Boston where he worked as a custodian part-time—fresh, brought in from the woodshed where it had been kept during the night to keep it moist. He smelled it as the bus crossed the state line into Maine—skin turning brown, the first drippings running down the sides. He smelled it at the rest stop where he bought Shawn an Indian tomahawk made in Taiwan, smelled it during the walk from the abandoned railroad bridge where the bus let him off—almost done now, the gravy bubbling in the pan, its aroma taking him past the boarded-up stores of the old mill town, the overgrown orchards, the brief view of the lake which meant he was halfway there . . .a rich, fragrant distillation of 60 Thanksgivings past, so strong that none of the changes in the house could stain it; not the plastic stretched tight over the windows to keep out drafts, not the towels stuffed against cracks the plastic missed, not the ugly black woodstove jutting out from the fireplace, appropriating all the space near the couch . . .not even the garlic and parmesan cheese Janet was sprinkling over the top of the casserole dish in a last desperate attempt to make it all palatable.

“And just how heavy is it this year, Shawn?” he asked, playing to memories and traditions he felt it was his duty to impart.

“Seven. Seven and a half in May.”

Shawn was busy chopping up the coffee table. He thought his grandfather had asked him his age.

“Seven pounds, eh? Kind of on the scrawny side, isn’t it? By the way, Shawn. That’s a real Indian scalping hatchet you’ve got yourself there. Never point it at anybody unless you mean business.”

Mike got home around one. He didn’t say where he had been. He went into the bathroom to wash his hands.

“I was just admiring your stove there,” Mike Senior said when he came back. “Clever the way it fits in so snug.”

“Eats wood.”

Mike Senior nodded, as if Mike had said something profound.

“That so? Well, guess it’s nice to have the trusty furnace to fall back on. You can say what you want about the good old days but give me a nice tight burner every time.”

“We shut it off, Pop. Eats oil.”

Mike Senior nodded again, pursing his lips this time, as if his son had just topped his previous insight with an even truer one.

“That’s an idea. Hey, you know, talking about woodstoves. . . . We used to have one when I was a boy. A real potbelly, too. At least my grandfather did. He was quite a piece of work, my grandfather. Your great-grandfather, Mike. Shawn’s great-great-grandfather. It was my job to fill the stove every night before I went to bed so it wouldn’t go out.”

“Did it?”

“Did it what?”

“Go out. This one’s always going out. That’s what it does best. Goes out.”

“Well, naturally. You’ve got to. . . .” He tried to remember what his grandfather had said in 1918. “You’ve got to spit on it first. You’ve got to make sure your tinder is dry.”

Mike sat on the couch nursing a beer. His face had hardened since the last time Mike Senior had seen him. There was something reproachful about his prematurely gray hair, his tired eyes.

“You never showed me, Pop. You never taught me about woodstoves when I was small.”

This took Mike Senior off guard. The frowning. The green work pants he hadn’t bothered changing out of. He wished Shawn could come back from wherever he was hiding.

“Well, no. Of course, because we didn’t have one. We had a furnace, Mike. I remember showing you where the oil went in. Remember, Mike? It was through the spigot underneath your mother’s rhododendron.”

“Was that the same grandfather whose brother starved to death on his way out West?”

“He didn’t starve,” Mike Senior said angrily. “At least he did, but it wasn’t his fault. The wagon train lost its way. Their scout was drunk. It was an unusually bad winter.”

He didn’t like the direction the conversation was heading. Not at all. He waited until Janet came in, then . . . following the ritual . . . sniffed at the air like a bird dog, glanced significantly at the pocket watch he had bought at Woolworth’s to someday leave to Shawn, pushed himself up off the couch.

“Guess it’s time I started working on the old gobbler,” he said, stretching. “Got my favorite knife all sharpened up for me, Janet?”

“Uh, Pop.”

But it was too late. Before Janet could stop him he had gone into the kitchen.

“Please, Pop. Don’t say anything to him about it, okay? He’s super uptight about things right now. He’s discouraged, Pop. You would be too if you were in his shoes. Let’s just have a nice quiet dinner for a change, all right? All right, Pop?”

He heard Janet whispering all this over his shoulder, he saw the casserole dish cooling off on the counter, saw the rubbery noodles the color of slugs, the blistered tomato sauce, the black stains in the empty oven, but it still didn’t register. He stood there rubbing his nose in disbelief.

“What’s this?” he finally managed to choke out.

“It’s called lasagna, Pop. It’s Italian food. We thought we’d try something different this year.”

“Something cheaper you mean,” Mike said. He was in the kitchen now, pushing Shawn out in front of him. “Shawn wants to see Grandpop carve.”

But Mike Senior had recovered himself now. He started digging away at the middle of it with Janet’s spatula, ignoring his son’s sarcasm.

“Who wants an end piece? Shawn? Nice crispy corner going to waste here. Nothing like variety I always say. Variety is the spice of life. Nice dark piece okay for you, Janet?”

He carried the dish into the dining room, trying to hide his disappointment. It was one tradition down, but there was another yet to go. All during the bus drive he had rehearsed saying grace, going over different words, trying them out on the bus driver who was glad for the company and helpful in suggesting phases of his own. It was a special prayer for the occasion, traditionally reverential but timely, too, showing Mike he understood after all. He was too shy to tell him so face-to-face, but with their heads bowed he thought he might just bring it off.

“I think we’re ready to start now, Mike,” he said, interrupting the celery before it could be passed any further. “Heavenly father, . . .”

But Mike missed his cue—whether deliberately or accidentally Mike Senior couldn’t tell. He was talking to Shawn, jabbing his fork at the casserole dish like a teacher pointing to a map.

“We can’t have turkey anymore, Shawn. Why not?”

Shawn didn’t answer.

“Because it’s too expensive, that’s why not. It costs over a dollar a pound and lasagna feeds the four of us for only a buck. Understand that, Shawn?”

“Why bother him with it?” Janet said. She had seen her father-in-law fold his hands, then quickly unfold them, and she felt embarrassed.

“The boy has to learn,” Mike said defensively, putting his fork back down. “The sooner he does, the easier it’ll be.”

They finished dinner in silence. Mike Senior wondered if it would be possible to slip grace in before dessert, but as it turned out there wasn’t any dessert, only coffee. By the time they finished and washed the plates off . . .they didn’t use the dishwasher anymore, Janet explained . . .it was still only three. Janet said something about Parchesi. Mike said something about needing more wood.

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day. Mind if an old man tags along?”

Mike went to find Shawn who was hiding again, this time in the bathroom. He stood over him while he buttoned his coat. He made him leave his tomahawk behind on the kitchen counter.

“This isn’t a game, Shawn. If you work hard you can play with it later.”

Janet was watching the three of them get ready from the sink. He turned to her, heading off her protest before it was made.

“Well, it isn’t, you know. Not anymore. The boy has to learn.”

They went through the door in chronological order— Shawn in a hurry to be outside, Mike Senior hanging back to fasten his hood, Mike . . .dressed in the army jacket that had always been too short for him, even in the army . . .caught somewhere in between, needing to free himself of the house, feeling reluctant to face the cold. It was below freezing now. The sun had lost its strength in nagging its way westward through the iodine-colored clouds which had clung to it since morning; what yellow was left was wasted on the roof of the corrugated iron shed where he kept his tools. He crawled in on his hands and knees, then shoved out what they would need. An oil can and some rags. The chain saw. Almost as an afterthought, the ax.

“Let me give you a hand with that, Shawn.”

“Don’t, Pop. He can manage.”

“Yeah, but it’s awfully heavy, Mike. I just thought. . . .”

“I know what you thought, Pop.”

There was no use arguing with him. Mike Senior gathered up what was left, then hurried after them, his irritation soothed away by the ax. He felt it only fitting that he should be the one to carry it. When Mike first handed it to him, he had swung it back and forth to check its balance, then held it outstretched in front of him to sight down the shaft.

“Good ax,” he announced at last, running an appreciative finger along the blade. “Damn good ax.”

The path crossed a culvert, then merged into an overgrown dirt road the construction crews had used in putting up the summer homes around the lake back in the 50’s. There were No Tresspassing signs here, the remains of a wire fence once rumored to be electrified. Mike stepped over it into the trees, or at least what was left of them. A worm had gotten all the pine. There were still some birch but not many. The summer people cut them down to decorate their fireplaces.

“Up here!”

He saw the two of them cross the stream in the wrong direction, then swerve back toward the road. His father had caught up with Shawn now. He was saying something to him, helping him with the saw. He carried the ax the wrong way, propped over his shoulder like a rifle. Trip over a stone and it’s goodbye ear, Mike thought, lighting a cigarette. He wondered what he was telling Shawn.

There was a dead tree on the edge of the woods. Maple, possibly oak. He couldn’t tell without the leaves. He had discovered it the same afternoon he lost his job—rotten, tilting, but not yet down. It hadn’t meant much to him at first. Something noticed through the bitterness, nothing more. But as October went by and his walks became longer, he began to feel the tree was deliberately mocking him by staying upright, the same way the neat, unused woodpiles of the summer people mocked his own empty shed, his stove that ate wood, then went out. Finally, the night before, lying next to Janet unable to sleep, he heard a distant thump up near the lake, as if a giant had suddenly drummed his fist against the frozen ground. He nodded—for the first time in weeks he allowed himself to smile.

“Whew. You set a pretty good pace there, Mike,” his father said, swinging the ax off his shoulder, missing his ankle by a hair. “This is our baby, eh? Nice sturdy elm from the looks of her. Where shall we dig in?”

Mike ignored him. He took the chain saw from Shawn and opened the gas tank to make sure it was full. He pushed the prime in twice, then yanked the starter cord out much harder than was necessary.


Mike Senior was breaking off some branches near the tree’s base. Shawn was straddling the trunk, kicking his heels up and down like a cowboy. Neither one had seen him.

“Get off of there, Shawn!” he yelled automatically, wondering what in hell could be wrong. He pulled it again, breaking the cord this time, the little knob on the end flying backwards into his face.

The saw burped—there was a gratifying cloud of blue smoke, then a roar. He was shouting for them to get out of the way . . .he was fighting to hold the saw steady, bracing it against his thigh the way the salesman had showed him in the store . . .when it burped again, throwing sparks out from beneath the handle, kicking loose from his hands, and somersaulting across the dead tree onto the ground. It spun violently around the underbrush for what seemed like minutes, sending branches and pine needles and pebbles into the air in a miniature whirlwind before conking out against a rock.

None of them said anything. In the distance Mike could hear a small plane.


It was Shawn who said it. Shawn who hadn’t opened his mouth since they left the house. Mike Senior’s face turned red—Mike drew back his hand as if to hit him. But he put it off for the time being. He squatted down next to the chain saw, prodding at it with a stick like someone checking to see whether a fierce animal was still alive.

“He picks it up at school,” he said with a shrug once the safety was on. “Shawn! Say anything like that again you’re going to get slapped, understand?”

The dead tree looked bigger now. There were branches poking out he hadn’t noticed before, goiter-like knots where old limbs had broken off during storms, twisted vines that still held parts of the trunk dangerously high off the ground. With the chain saw he had thought it manageable, even puny. But now, unarmed, it was as if the tree, were mocking him again—his broken saw, his joblessness, his son’s mysterious silences and abrupt shouts.

“You pay a hundred bucks for something you’d think it would work,” he said without much conviction.

Mike Senior nodded. “Good thing we have the ax.”

He was swinging it back and forth like a batter limbering up on deck, the eagerness on his face contrasting dramatically with the sullenness on Shawn’s, as if the two generations’ usual roles had been reversed— Mike Senior the excited boy, Shawn the jaded old man.

“They didn’t bother with fancy gizmos in the old days. All a man needed was an ax and a rifle and he was set for whatever came his way in life. They opened up a continent that way, Shawn. They made us the nation we are.”

“Like Uncle whatshisname, right?” Mike said. “The guy who starved.”

The stove ate kindling, not just logs. He showed Shawn what kind to look for and started him off through the trees with a little shove. He looked very small against the gray sky. Every now and then he would stoop down to pick up a stick, but it was obvious his heart wasn’t in it. For a moment Mike was tempted to call him back.

“First you make sure you got plenty of room to swing her. . . .”

His father had taken his coat off. His father was rolling up his sleeves.

“Then you hold her nice and tight. Nice and tight, Mike. My grandfather had hands like a blacksmith. He’d take a tree like this and have it in toothpicks inside of a minute.”

“Don’t you think you better start further up?”

But he didn’t listen. He spat on his hands, wiped them off on his pants, then brought the ax down with all his might against a huge knot in the tree’s base. The blade glanced off without biting in, knocking some dirt loose, flaking off a few pieces of scabby bark.

“Nice and tight. I see what you mean.”

Mike Senior shook his head in disbelief, staring at the ax like something must be wrong with it. He went over to the oil can and squirted some over the blade, then swung it again closer to the spot Mike suggested. This time the blade bit into the wood with a satisfyingly resonant whonk, but when he bent down to pry it loose for his next swing the ax refused to budge.

“It’s stuck,” he finally decided, after examining it from all angles. “Uh, your ax is stuck, Mike.”

“So I see. What happens now?”

“I think it’s your oil. They used to have this special kind years ago. I remember it came in a red, white and blue can. It had Teddy Roosevelt’s picture on the side. If we had some there’d be no problem.”

“I thought you said you knew how to do it.”

“I do. Only it’s been a while, Mike. My grandfather wanted to show me, but my father wouldn’t let him. He wouldn’t let me go out in the woods once I was Shawn’s age, Mike. He thought that was old-fashioned. People were ashamed to use wood in those days. We had a furnace. My father threw the ax out the day the men came and put it in.”

He was still talking when Mike kicked the ax loose. Apologizing, explaining, making excuses for them both. But it was too late for that now—all Mike could think of was his own bitterness. He would hear his father’s voice behind him as he brought the ax up, lose it beneath his own grunt as he slammed it back down, pick it up again as the hard, biting cut echoed off toward the lake.

“Things will get better, Mike. It might be kind of tough right now but you’ve got to keep the old chin up, roll with the punches.”

He swung the ax harder, swinging it less at the tree than at all the frustration that had been building inside him for so long. Harder and harder. Deeper and deeper into the wood.

“Things always look darkest before the dawn, Mike. Things are bound to get better soon. I can feel better days in my bones.”

The bosses. The unemployment office. The applications for work. The maybes. The next weeks. The sorrys. The nos. The staying home. The game shows. The walks. The Salvation Army store. The food stamps. The day-old pies. The making do, stretching out, diluting. Janet’s own bitterness. The pipes that froze. The rags stuffed against drafts. The doctor’s bills. The gas. The bare tires. The lottery tickets. The part-time jobs. The patches. The cutting back. The cold. The stove. The wood. The goddamn wood.

“It’s free, Mike. That’s the great thing about it. I heard the man say so on the radio this morning when I was getting ready to come.”

Mike stopped to catch his breath. The sweat was rolling down his forehead, stinging his eyes. His wrist hurt—there was a pain in his back below his left shoulder. As tormenting as it was, his anger had made no visible impression on the dead tree. He was still less than a third of the way through.

“What?” he mumbled, feeling defeated.

“Energy from the sun, Mike. It’s the energy of the future, the man said. It’s our only renewable source of energy that’s free.”

Mike laughed.

“Free, right? That’s a good one, Pop. That’s the best one I’ve heard in years. The sun, right? Somebody’s already got a plan to slap a meter on it. They’ve probably got a patent on the thing right now. They’re going to put it in a pump or a can and it’s going to cost us plenty, you wait and see.”

And when he turned to watch the sunset that’s exactly how it looked—appropriated, sold, fading behind the ridge near the lake like all the other missed opportunities in his life, appealing only when gone. He was standing there watching it vanish when Shawn appeared from the same direction, blotting out his last glimpse of it, emerging from whatever faint light remained.

“Here he is!” Mike Senior yelled, happy for the distraction. “Our lumberjack, Mike. Look and see how much he’s brought back.”

“Too small.”

“Here, take a look, Mike. He’s got himself half the forest.”

“Too small!”

Mike grabbed the branches from his son’s arms and threw them toward the road.

“Go back and find bigger ones, Shawn.”

“Mike, for Pete’s sake, he’s only a. . . .”


Shawn wiped his nose off on the sleeve of his coat, then started robot-like in the opposite direction from the one he had come, pushing his way through the briars until he disappeared. Mike watched him go, then . . . grabbing the axe ..swung it blindly at the dead tree with all the strength that was left in him. The bark flew up past his head . . .the tree shivered, writhed, began to split. . .the axe bit deeper, deeper . . .the overstrained shaft shattered apart into splinters, leaving a piece the size of a pencil sticking through his right hand.


Without screaming, without saying a word, he dropped what was left of the broken ax and started running up through the woods toward the lake.


Mike Senior went over to the tree to sit down, feeling drained, wondering whether he should wait for them there or go back to the house for help. It was dark out now. By squinting he could just make out the road, but not much further. He wasn’t sure if he could find the way by himself—Mike wouldn’t let Janet turn on the back spotlight anymore. He had just made up his mind to wait another ten minutes before shouting for them, when something small and square and silent separated itself from the black behind the tree.


He put both hands over his chest. He started shaking his head.

“You gave me quite a start there, Shawn. Not good for the old ticker getting surprised like that. You could have been an Indian and what would I have done then?”

Shawn’s arms were full. He came to a stop near the abandoned chain saw—mute, gloveless, staring up at his grandfather as if he had never really looked at him before.

“Uh, your Daddy’s gone wee wee.”

Shawn could tell his grandfather was embarrassed to be alone with him. He was fidgeting with his hands, clasping them together, then unclasping them, sliding his false teeth in and out with his tongue in a way he never did when Shawn’s parents were around. At the same time he seemed on the point of saying something but not sure how to begin. He made Shawn come over and sit down next to him. He patted his knee, then his shoulder. He pointed to the broken ax, mumbled something about wagon trains and grandfathers and not giving up. He made Shawn bow his head like he did in Sunday school. He started reciting something in a hoarse voice, like a frog’s.

“Heavenly father. . . .”

The words were too big for Shawn—he was too busy studying his grandfather’s face to pay attention. He kept his eyes closed most of the time, but every so often he would stop mumbling long enough to look nervously over his shoulder toward the lake, reminding Shawn of a squirrel.

”. . . and for our health which has been pretty good all things considered, and for this thy produce of thy table. . . .”

On and on. Louder and louder. There was a dab of spit on his lips. There was a little gray froth churned up when they moved.

”. . . we await thy assistance, thanking you serenely for pitching in to help like you have, bestow . . .upon. . .”

He lost his way, doubling back over words Shawn knew he had already said, stopping, shutting his eyes even tighter as though he was trying to squeeze them out.

“Bestow . . . Grateful, Lord . . . thy humble servants. . .”

He was mumbling again when Shawn’s father came back. He was in one of the intervals where his eyes were closed so he didn’t see what Shawn saw—that his father’s right hand was wrapped in a dirty handkerchief, that his father was carrying an armful of wood.

“Where are they?” he demanded.

Six logs. White, evenly cut. Six logs of magical white birch.

“Too green,” he said, kicking apart Shawn’s pile of kindling with his boot. But he said it half-heartedly—the kick was misdirected, more like a shrug than a kick. He seemed in a hurry, glancing back toward the lake the same way Shawn’s grandfather had in saying his prayers.

“The boy has to learn,” he said to no one in particular, handing Shawn one of the birch logs, then another, then a third. It was all Shawn could do to hold them. He felt his knees give way under the weight—he bit his tongue to keep from crying.

“Let’s get out of here.”

His father grabbed the chain saw and started running down toward the house.

“I’ll help you,” his grandfather whispered, holding back. “He can’t see us now. Here, let me take this heavy one off the top.”

They made their way through the woods as best they could, tripping over stones, sliding on the dead leaves. His grandfather kept whispering words Shawn couldn’t understand, his breath feeling hot and tickly, stinking of garlic. Shawn tried to block it out, slapping at his ear like it was a mosquito which wouldn’t go away, thinking only of how much he hated the wood he carried in his arms. How he hated the scabby feel of it. How he hated its smell when it burned—the way its smell associated itself with everything in life he had learned to detest.

“I promise, Shawn,”

He wouldn’t listen now. The dark. The cold. It seemed he had always been tumbling through it this way, arms aching, wrists scratched and bleeding. It seemed he always would be, too, forever trying to catch up, unable to escape a future consisting entirely of heavier logs, even thicker, more acrid smoke.

“Things will get better, Shawn.”

His father was waiting for them by the house, the spotlight turned on after all, throwing his shadow out across the lawn like a giant’s.

“Things will get better!” his grandfather hissed as they stepped clear of the woods, piling the third log back on top of the two he already carried so his father wouldn’t know. But it was too much for Shawn. The weight. The unfairness. From all the frustration and fear he finally found the word he had been groping for all afternoon.


He spun around to face his father, throwing up his arm to protect himself from the inevitable slap. But his father’s expression never changed. His father was looking down at the ground pretending not to have heard— his father was falling down onto his knees, gathering in the logs Shawn had dropped like a beggar scooping up precious coins. In that one glimpse Shawn knew that he had won—that his father would never stop him now, that he could yell at his grandfather again. “Liar!” he screamed, hating him. “Liar!”


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