This short story is a re-print from the Ancient Paths archives. It was previously published in Issue 4 (Spring 2000).
Mr. Wilson by Edward Leschke
Old Mister Wilson and his wife lived next door to us. He’d been there forever. Even Mom couldn’t remember anyone else there and Mom was pretty old. I started to go over to Mister Wilson when I was five and watch him in his garage. He’d make chairs, tables, cabinets, rocking horses. All kinds of stuff out of wood. He even made me a baseball bat. Burned my name into it too so everyone would know it was my bat.
Mom didn’t mind me hanging around with Mister Wilson. She told me he was a good influence. Not like my friend, Cory. He was a bad influence as far as my mother was concerned. Cory like to throw stuff. Rocks were his favorite and the apples we stole off Mrs. Carrington’s tree. We got caught for breaking a window once, but never for stealing apples. I had Cory come over to watch Mister Wilson once. I asked him to come again, but he said Mister Wilson was boring. Nothing to throw I suppose.
Mister Wilson never swore either. He’d hit his finger with the hammer and he’d just shake it and say, "Mother of Mercy. Mother of Mercy." I think it was some secret special Catholic prayer for pain. That’s not like other people. I know my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Owen. She knocked a pile of papers off her desk and we all heard her say the S word. And it wasn’t shoot in an Irish dialect like she said it was either.
Mister Wilson was real responsible and hard working. My dad, he wasn’t very responsible or hard working. That’s why we had to leave him.
My Mom told me he drank too much and spent all our money on liquor and gambling. He lives in Chicago which my Mom said was pretty close but he’s never visited since I can remember.
My Mom isn’t very handy. She always had to call a repair man or buy a new one of whatever that broke. Mister Wilson never called a repair man. He’d take whatever it was apart and head to the hardware store. Learn how to fix things, you can’t always go out and buy a new one. That’s what Mister Wilson always said.
When I was small, he only let me sand at first. That was always my job and as I got older he let me hammer or screw or paint or even varnish. One day I was in the garage when I was nine and I was sanding or vanishing. One of those. I asked my Mister Wilson, "I’m like an assistant, aren’t I, Mister Wilson?"
"You’re an apprentice."
"What’s an apprentice?"
"Back in the Middle Ages, an apprentice--"
"When was that?" I interrupted. "The Middle Ages."
"Before you were born."
"Were you born yet?"
"No. Anyway. Back in the middle ages, an apprentice was a young man who worked with a master learning a craft. It could be printing, painting, bricklaying or woodwork. The apprentice would start doing the simple stuff and work his way up to harder stuff. He’d work seven years or more under the master and then he’d be off on his own."
"I been here four years, haven’t I?"
"Yep. That’s why you’re my apprentice."
"Then you must be the master, Mister Wilson."
Mister Wilson smiled and did one of his inside laughs. Mister Wilson never laughed outside for you to hear. Just inside. He’d would smile and his head and shoulders would bounce a little. That’s how I could tell he was laughing even when his back was to me. I made Mister Wilson inside laugh a lot.
Over the next three years, me and Mister Wilson made lots of stuff in his garage. Some stuff, like a writing desk we made, he put in his house. Other stuff, like the dining room table last Christmas for my Mom, he gave for presents. And other stuff he would get people to pay him for and he always gave me something for my help. Mister Wilson said, "That’s your cut. Put it in the bank for college."
Last summer after I came back from camp, I went in the garage and Mister Wilson was working on a new project. He had the six sides of a box all cut out of oak and leaning against each other. "Whatcha building now, Mister Wilson", I asked.
"What’s it look like?"
"A pirate trunk. But it’s awful long for a pirate trunk."
"It’s a cargo trunk."
"Can I nail it together?"
"Not yet. This is a special trunk. We’re gonna carve pictures on the side panels here."
"Pictures of baseball players?"
"All of them are going to be about my life. Don’t look so disappointed. This first one here. See. I started carving already."
"Looks like a party, Mister Wilson."
"It’s a wedding."
"Is it your wedding?"
"Is that Mrs. Wilson?"
"You better believe it. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? A little more work and she will be the most beautiful woman in the world."
"Can I help?" I always asked even though he always said yes. So we started work on the trunk. Sculpting out each panel. Three panels on the long sides. One on the short ends. And three on top cover. I did an easier one for one end with a cross on it. The cross being for Mr. and Mrs. Wilson being Catholic. He let me do that one alone. I asked Mom if Mr. Wilson was trying to convert me, but she said I don’t think so. I’d go everyday after school but Tuesdays and Thursdays cause I had football. We’d been working about two months on the trunk when I stopped by and Mister Wilson wasn’t in the garage like he should have been. I went and knocked on the door until Mrs. Wilson answered.
"Is Mister Wilson coming out?"
"He’s not feeling well today. I’m sorry."
I came back on Wednesday and asked for Mister Wilson again and Mrs. Wilson told me to come in. She took me to their bedroom. I’d only been in his kitchen before when we’d go in to get lemonade, but this time I went through the whole house. Mister Wilson’s bedroom had lots of the wood stuff he’d made in there. The writing desk and a night stand. And in the oak canopy bed, Mister Wilson lay there. He didn’t look good. Kind of pale.
"Are you sick, Mister Wilson?"
"I guess I am."
"When will you get better?" Mister Wilson looked at Mrs. Wilson like she would know. She didn’t.
"I don’t know that," he said. I didn’t know what to say now. I didn’t know what to ask, which is unusual cause I like to ask questions. So I stood there. But Mister Wilson broke the silence. "I need a big favor."
"What do you want, Mister Wilson?"
"I need you to keep working on the trunk."
"I don’t know how to."
"Here. I wrote down what you need to do. You got the sketches in the garage. Mrs. Wilson will give you help and you can get more instructions if you need them. There comes a time when the apprentice has to work on his own."
"I’m not a master yet like you, Mister Wilson."
"You’re a journeyman. You work alone, but you get advice when you need it. Can you work on it?"
"Will I still get lemonade?" Mister Wilson did one of his inside laughs and said yes.
So I did. I worked alone on the trunk. Sanding, carving. I’d go ask Mister Wilson questions. Sometimes I’d carry a panel into his bedroom for him to see. That was hard cause Mister Wilson seemed to be getting sicker instead of better. Then Mister Wilson went to the hospital downtown and a week later my Mom took me up there to see him. I didn’t like smell there. Smelled like turpentine. That’s when they told me Mister Wilson was really sick. I saw him lying there in his bed.
He motioned me over and asked, "You done yet?"
"I’m pretty close. I’m on the last panel."
"How long till you finish?"
"Maybe another two weeks. I’m working on the surfboards on the Hawaii panel."
"Better start to stain it up. Two coats."
"You always say three coats. The best work always has three."
"Better make it three then." Then Mister Wilson started coughing and they made us leave. Two days later, Mrs. Wilson called me and my Mom over to her house and we stood in the kitchen and she told us Mister Wilson had died. They needed the trunk and I needed to finish it today the best I could. So all day and all night I worked on it. Mom helped too. Mom let me stay up after midnight to finish. I nailed it together and put the hinges on. And in the morning, a big long black car came and took the trunk away.
That night, they had a special service for Catholics called a wake downtown at the Peterson Funeral Home and when I got there I saw me and Mister Wilson’s trunk. Up front in the room, where everyone came up and knelt down was Mister Wilson inside our trunk. They were all dressed in black and after they knelt for awhile, they talked to Mrs. Wilson. On a table, they had old pictures of Mister Wilson when he was young. Lots of people came. Mister Wilson knew a lot of people, especially old people. He lay there in the trunk with his eyes shut, his head on a pillow, lying on these pretty white satin cushions. My Mom told me Mrs. Wilson had embroidered them over the past year. After we said some prayers and these men did a rosary and the priest talked some more, Mrs. Wilson asked me to come up. She told them I was the young man who helped her husband. Then she asked me to explain all the pictures on the trunk just as Mister Wilson had told me about them.
So I went around the trunk to each panel telling people about his wedding and the most beautiful woman in the world, his charging up the hill in Korea and living in a foxhole in the snow. The little girl in one panel who was their daughter playing with their old English Setter named Izzy. The picture of a man in a hard hat in front of a chemical factory was for him only missing two days of work sick in forty five years.
I told them I didn’t get a chance to finish all of the Hawaii panel. That’s where Mister Wilson always wanted to take Mrs. Wilson for another honeymoon but I think he wanted to go more than her, because he dreamed of surfing the Bonsai pipeline like those guys on TV. But he never got to go surfing there.