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The Four Seasons--Summer

Hal remembers the summer of his life--and summer is the season of growth,

© Copyright 2008, 2010

By Autumn Writer

Chapter 2: Summer

For there is a man whose labor is in wisdom and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not labored therein shall he leave it for his portion? This also is vanity and a great evil.

For what hath man of all his labor, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath labored under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 2: 21-22

May 1950

Hal sat in his pickup truck, looking at the sky. The approaching black clouds told the story, and for emphasis they rumbled with thunder as the wind blew up the dry dust. Workmen scrambled to stow their tools ahead of the storm. A flash of lightning lit the sky. Hal got out of the cab to check the tarp that covered the supplies in the bed of the truck, and then got back in to wait out the storm.

He knew that it would only be a few minutes before the summer storm turned the dirt road of the new housing tract into mud. It was only two in the afternoon and work for the day was over. He wondered if Mr. Stanton would understand.

As he mulled the possibilities a sedan pulled up beside his truck. The window rolled down.

"Get in!" the driver yelled. "We'll wait out the storm together."

There would probably be a radio in the sedan; it was sure to be more comfortable than the pickup. Besides, the occupant always provided interesting news and conversation. Hal felt the first drops of rain as he ran around the front of the car and dove into the passenger's seat.

"This is gonna' be another big storm," the driver said.

It was Mort Plinsky. He was a short, rotund little man. He was nearly bald and wore glasses with thick lenses and thick black frames. In the summer months it seemed like he was always perspiring.

"You're right, Mort," Hal replied. "I doubt that we'll get back to work today. What's worse is that when we have to shut down fast like this it takes a long time to get set back up again."

"Can't control the weather," Mort reminded him.

"Tell that to Stanton," Hal fired back. "It's not only the rains. Yesterday there was an accident on Route Five and the cement trucks were held up two hours. We couldn't pour any foundations and the cement hardened in the trucks. It's been one thing after another."

"Stanton's got to keep the pressure on to get these houses built," Mort said. "He can't control the weather, either, and he can't turn these houses into cash until he finishes building them. The bank's on his back, just like he's on yours."

"Yeah, I know," Hal said. "It's just been hard to keep things movin'."

Hal and Mort worked for Stanton Builders. The company specialized in building starter homes in suburban tracts for returned soldiers who were taking brides and wanted to start families. Hal was the Construction Foreman in the new tract. He'd started with Stanton a few years before as an Assistant Foreman and had done well. Old Man Stanton figured Hal's Sergeant's Stripes from his Army days taught him how to move men on the job. It was more-or-less true.

It was a new kind of home building—assembly-line style. It was the only way to keep up with demand. There were only a few designs from which to choose. The builder put them together street by street, not waiting for a buyer; there were buyers enough. The main thing was to get them built as fast as possible so that sales could be closed and more debt retired. Delays meant no cash and nervous bankers.

"How long've you been with Stanton?" Hal asked.

The rain continued to fall. In fact, it was pouring harder.

"Not too long; three years. I started with him on the Rolling Meadows project and then he asked me to come over here to Whispering Woods. Before that, I worked as a realtor in the city."

Mort was the sales agent for the tract. He was older than Hal by thirty years. His job was to show the models to prospects, help them with their mortgage applications and then close the deal.

"This rain will make these dirt roads useless," Hal complained. "I'm supposed to get a load of cement blocks for the basements for units forty-five and forty-six. The truck won't even try to get down here until the road dries out."

"It doesn't help me much, either," Mort added. "Just try and convince a housewife that someday it will all be green grass and paved streets once the tract is done. Then, they look out the front window and see half the front yard being washed down the street and their shoes covered with mud. Good luck! It just kills the deal."

"I told Stanton that he should pave the roads when the project starts. It would take care of a lot of problems," Hal told him.

Mort shrugged. "He probably doesn't have the money to do that. It would help me, too. The faster these things get up, the faster we close. I don't get paid until the closing. Most people want to be in before the end of the summer. If they sense a delay, they'll buy into a different development."

"He'd save a lot of money in the long-run," Hal repeated.

"He's set in his ways. He's been in the building business a long time, but this style of doing it is new for him, too. He has a lot to think about."

The cement blocks weren't delivered until the following afternoon. The sky threatened rain again. Hal noticed the workers looking at the sky anticipating the deluge.

"Keep working!" Hal barked at the men. "You'll have plenty of time to get under cover."

The coming rain was a certainty. Hal only hoped he could finish laying the cement blocks for the south wall of unit forty five and finish the framing of unit thirty-eight. The men were working hard enough; it was hard to keep their minds off the weather. When the rain cut their hours short, they suffered, too. The bad weather was taking its toll on the schedule. In the morning he'd have to go to the Company office to get overtime approved.

As the storm approached Hal was about to jump into his pickup again. He spied Mort's car slowly making its way to where he was, so he waited.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," Mort said.

"I wish we could," Hal agreed. "I thought you'd stay down at the model where it's nice and dry."

"I came up here to talk to you," Mort informed him.

"To tell me we're falling behind more?"

"Well, you are, aren't you?"

"It's not that bad," Hal pointed out. "The finish carpenters are still working on unit twenty-eight and the plumbers and electricians are in thirty-two."

"Be honest," Mort insisted.

"Alright, maybe we are. We're doin' all we can. I'm goin' down to see Mr. Stanton tonight to see about some overtime for Saturday."

"And what if it rains on Saturday?" Mort asked in a way that irritated Hal.

"I don't know! We'll just have to keep trying."

"Well, calm down already," Mort said to him. "I know a way we could keep working whether it rains or not."

"Once we get the roofs on we can..."

"I don't mean that. I mean something really different," Mort said.

"Whaddya mean?"

"What if you had an area set aside to store cement blocks, and other things that you know you'll need, instead of having special deliveries for each unit? Late shipments wouldn't hold you back."

"Yeah, I see," Hal admitted.

"There's more," Mort said. "If you had a building with enough space you could pre-cut a lot of the framing members ahead of time and you could put the framing carpenters to work doing that when it rained. It would save a lot of time on the site."

"Then they could just put the pieces together instead of cutting each one as they go," Hal added.

"See? Now you've got it," Mort chimed in with glee.

"We'd have to get all the framing members in the drawing numbered so we could label them. That would be easy enough."

"You'd have to keep track of how many you'd need and how many you made," Mort said.

"Mort, that's great!" Hal turned and said. "D'ya think Stanton would go for it? We'd be caught up in no time and actually get ahead of Ace Builders down the road."

"He might," Mort said. "You've got to convince him."

"What—why me," Hal protested. "You should tell him. It's your idea."

"Naw—that's okay," Mort replied. "You tell him. Tell him you thought of it."

Hal paused before answering. He sensed something wrong in the older man's tone. Maybe it was the way he looked away after he spoke.

"I don't get it, Mort. It's your idea. You should go to Stanton."

"No, you go," Mort mumbled. "You lay it out for Stanton—and be sure to tell him you thought it up."

"What're ya talkin' about, Mort? You should get the credit. Besides, how can I explain your idea as well as you?"

Mort squinted at Hal from behind his black-framed glasses.

"Just do it, Sonny. Take the whole thing with my blessing. Tell Stanton it was you who thought it up."

"It's not fair, Mort. It's not fair at all and I don't get it. We both know this will work and when that happens no one will know..."

"Look, kid, that's real nice but facts are facts," Mort sighed. "To Stanton, I'm just an Old Jew. He would never trust me or even listen. All I want are my commissions and I'll never get 'em if something isn't done to get these damn houses built faster."

"No, no," Hal protested. "I know Stanton. He's not like that. We'll go see him together."

"Stanton's alright; at least he's no worse than anyone else. It's an age and a way of thinking. Listen, if I were to go to Stanton with you, he wouldn't listen to either of us. I know what I'm talkin' about."

"But Mort, I can't..."

"Can't? Can't what? You not only can, you've got to," Mort cried. Then he lowered his voice. "Look, kid. You're young; you want a career, promotions, glory. None of that's for me. What's an Old Jew want but his commissions?"

The rain had let up; the sun was coming out. It gave both men an excuse to look out the window, away from one another and the unsatisfying standoff.

"Your family; kid, if you won't do it for yourself, do it for your family—and my commissions, of course. Now get outta here!"

The weather the next morning was merciful. It promised to allow them to get in a good day of work. Hal arrived at the jobsite early and got the men started. They were good men, so he knew that once they got their orders that would get right to work and stay at it. That gave Hal a chance to run for supplies and get Saturday's overtime approved. There was also the task of presenting Mort's production plan to Mr. Stanton.

It was a good plan. After dinner the prior night Hal sat at the kitchen table roughing out an outline of the plan. He added some details, polishing the rough edges. He started feeling more confident; it soothed him to know that his hand was in it, too.

Hal sat at Mr. Stanton's desk as the company owner looked over the Requisition for Overtime Form. He said nothing; just made an 'hmmm' sound here and there and shook his head slowly every few seconds.

He was a tall, angular man with jet black hair, about a dozen years older than Hal. He wore glasses with black frames. Although he was thin, his arms were huge and when one shook hands with him it was like putting a hand in a vise—if Mr. Stanton so chose. His strength was a tribute to his days wielding a hammer and a saw. Before the war he had been a carpenter. He made a lot of money building barracks and other buildings for the military. When peace arrived he invested in the company that bore his name. Every dollar was his and that thought was always on the table.

"I guess I've got no choice, do I, Sarge?"

He signed the form and handed it to Hal.

Mr. Stanton's nickname for Hal was 'Sarge'. Hal was just getting used to it. Others had picked it up from the company owner and started calling him that, as well. Perhaps it was a reminder of the reason he gave Hal the job he had. Maybe, by being the boss of a 'Sarge', it raised him to officer status. If that had been his wish Hal could have set him straight with some stories of some officers that he knew. He considered calling him 'Lieutenant' as a joke, on some occasion, to test his theory. He would, someday, but this wasn't the right time. Hal, as always, played it straight.

"This weather's been a killer, Mr. Stanton," Hal replied. "I just don't think we can let this Saturday go by without trying to catch up."

"Yes, yes," Stanton agreed, "but, you stay on 'em. If they're gonna' be at time-and-a- half, I want some progress."

"Right, Mr. Stanton. Don't worry."

Stanton turned his attention to some papers on his desk, a signal to Hal that he considered the meeting over.

"Mr. Stanton, if you've got a minute there's one more thing I want to talk to you about."

"Oh?" Stanton looked up, appearing perturbed at the break in routine. "I'm sorry. I thought we were done."

Stanton leaned back in his chair, assuming the pose of the patient patriarch.

"I was trying to figure out a way to keep the work going when we have the delays—you know—because of late shipments and weather."

Stanton sighed. "I know what you're gonna' say. The foreman before you had the same idea. It was a disaster. These guys just can't switch to finish work, even as helpers. We tried it—didn't last a month."

Stanton set his jaw and crossed his arms.

"Oh, no," Hal hastened to protest. "I heard about that. This is something completely different. I made an outline last night we could go over." He pulled a folded paper from inside pocket of his jacket. "I even put some rough numbers to it. It wouldn't cost that much and in the long run it would save us a lot of time."

Stanton sighed again. His look showed annoyance that he would be forced to listen to the young man, and then find a way to reject the idea.

"We'd save a lot of money in the long-run, too," Hal added.

Stanton's eyebrows raised into an arch on the last point.

"Okay, then; let's hear it."

Hal recited the plan. He watched Stanton press his hands together and look at the ceiling. As he felt Stanton’s attention slipping away he found himself talking to himself over the words that he was uttering out loud to Stanton.

"If Mort were here, he'd know how to sell this."

He wondered why he ever let himself be talked into going it alone. He, nevertheless, pressed on—even into the teeth of impending rejection. He laid it all out—Mort's part and his own. Finally, he was finished.

"Well, whaddya think, Mr. Stanton?"

The older man said nothing.

"Of course there are some rough edges that we'd have to smooth out," Hal conceded.

The older man drew a deep breath.

"Might work," he grunted. "Are you sure you can build that workshop for the cost you said?"

"That's the easy part," Hal blurted out, feeling a sudden gush of confidence.

"It's little more than a pavilion. If we grade the plot right, we won't even have to pour a floor."

"Maybe the men won't go for it," Stanton warned.

"They don't like getting sent home. They'd rather work and get paid."

Stanton nodded, unable to fault the logic

"We've got nothin' to lose," Hal concluded.

"Alright," Stanton said, "you get that workshop built. I'll have the draftsmen mark up the drawings. We have to get moving fast if this is gonna' count for anything while we're still in the season."

"I'd like to get it going by next week," Hal said. "I'll pull two men off and get the workshop construction started."

"I'll pull the plug on this fast if I get a single whiff of a screw-up," Stanton called after Hal as he left the office.

"He'll pull the plug on me, too."

When Hal arrived at the job site he hurried straight to the model where he knew Mort would be. He liked the feeling of victory, and wanted to share it with him. During the drive over Hal christened the program the 'Precut Plan'. His head was swimming with ideas to refine the whole thing and he was calculating how long it would take them to catch up, and then how long it would take to be further ahead than they would have dared suggest a day ago.

He swung his pickup into the driveway of the model and saw Mort's car in the usual place. There was another car in the middle of the driveway, which had to mean that Mort was with a customer. Hal unloaded the supplies he had brought out to the jobsite—a few kegs of nails and a half-dozen spools of wire. They used the garage of the model to store some supplies to keep them out of the weather.

"I'll catch up with Mort later and fill him in."

He stowed the supplies in the corner of the garage and then got in his truck to check the progress on the jobsite. By the time he arrived it was lunchtime. The Paymaster had delivered the weekly checks earlier that morning, so most of the men were away at the bank. A lone figure sat on the half-finished floor of Unit Forty-Five. A black barn-shaped lunch pail was open and Hal could see that the owner was savoring a ham sandwich.

It was Steve Kowalski, a big man, as tall as Hal but wider. He had learned his trade during his wartime service. He and Hal liked each other; Hal always thought Steve was a little smarter than the rest.

"Hey, Sarge," he called out when he saw Hal walking toward him. "Overtime tomorrow?"

"I got it approved this morning," Hal answered. "A full day for everyone."

"Sounds good. Want half a sandwich?"

Hal shook his head. "No thanks, I already ate at the diner," Hal lied. "Aren't you goin' to cash your check?"

"Naw. I'll give it to the missus and she can cash it on Monday. I'd rather have some peace and quiet out here. We got a nice day for a change."

"Yeah," Hal replied. "We've got to try to catch up. This rainy weather has us way behind."

"Can't help the weather..."

"Not exactly true," Hal interrupted. "That's what I came to tell you. Stanton approved it. We're gonna' try something new. We've got an idea to beat the weather."

"If Stanton approved it, it can't cost much."

"In fact, it won't. We'll just need to do things a little different, that's all," Hal said.

Hal went on to tell Steve about the Precut Plan. As a carpenter, he was most interested in the part of precutting the framing members in the new workshop.

"You mean all the joists, the studs, everything?" he asked.

"Even the rafters with the forty-five degree ends," Hal answered. "Whaddya think, Steve? Think it might work?"

"Whew! This will be a big change. It's like building houses in a factory. Some guys will take some convincing. There's no reason why it can't work. But they won't like it at first.

"They will when they can work cutting members in the workshop when the weather's bad," Hal pointed out.

"That's what'll convince 'em," Steve agreed. "Whose idea was this, anyway?"

"Well, uh, it was..."

"It was yours, wasn't it?" Steve declared. Hal kept silent. "I just knew it. Good old GI know-how. We don't call you 'Sarge' for nuthin',"

It was late afternoon before Hal finally had a chance to look for Mort Plinsky. He drove to the model and saw his car was gone.

"Friday," he reminded himself. "He's got to get home before sundown."

He'd fill Mort in later.

After Hal got the men started off the next morning, he spent the rest of the day planning out the new workshop pavilion. He traveled the property to find the best place to put up the temporary building. He wanted a place that would be convenient to all the future building lots, but wouldn't have to be taken down until nearly the close of the project. Most of all, it would have to be on a spot with easy access to power and where the terrain could be graded for good drainage because Hal didn't want to pour a cement floor that he would have to break up later. By the time it was time to go home for the day he had begged or borrowed all the necessary lumber and materials and arranged to have footings poured.

By Monday, he had Steve and another carpenter working on putting up the simple structure. Mort didn't arrive until eleven that morning. Soon after that he had an appointment to show the model to a young couple. Hal got busy. At three in the afternoon he pulled his pickup into the driveway of the model and looked for Mort. He found him working at a little desk on the first floor.

"Well, Stanton said 'yes'."

"I figured as much when I saw the workshop going up."

"Stanton's having the draftsmen change the drawings so that all the framing members will be numbered. That way, we can mark each piece as we cut it and match it later to its location on the blueprint when we go to use it at the building site. By the time the new prints are ready, so will the workshop."

"Yeah, okay," Mort sighed. Hal was surprised by the indifferent tone.

"I think it's really going to work," Hal added. He looked at Mort, hoping to spark some enthusiasm.

"It'll work," the older man assured him. "Just stay on top of it."

"Mort, if it hadn't been for you..."

"Forget that, kid. It's your project now. I told you that last week. Now you've got to make it happen. Just be sure that Stanton appreciates what you're doin' for him."

He must have caught Mort in a bad moment. Hal was so certain that his silent partner would want to hear everything. He stiffened, resolving to let the chip fall off Mort's shoulder by itself.

"Friendship is a two-way street, he reminded himself. "I won't force myself on anyone."

On Friday the Paymaster delivered the checks and carried the new prints with him. Hal spent most of the day checking them out. Later that day the electricians wired the new pavilioon and flipped the switch. They were ready to launch the Precut Plan.

On Monday morning Hal called all the framing carpenters to the workshop to explain the new plan. There was some grumbling. Just as predicted, the prospect of beating the weather out of some lost days and work hours kept most of the men on his side. Hal called Steve Kowalski aside.

"Steve, you're the right guy to run the workshop," Hal told him.

They decided to finish Unit Forty-Five the old way and start fresh on Forty-Six. It would avoid confusion and let them have a head start on the next unit. There were some things Hal hadn't thought about.

"We should bundle the finished pieces so that a frame segments' pieces are together and they're arranged to come out of the bundle in the order that they're going to be used," Steve said.

Hal nodded and had to admit that he hadn't really considered that. "What do you think we should use to strap them together? We can't go out and spend a lot of money. Stanton will never go for it."

"It should also be something that I can handle by myself," Steve added.

"Reusable, too," Hal said. "Off-hand, I'm not sure what to do. Let me think about it. For right now, we'll get started. Make sure you use that wax crayon and mark each piece with the right number according to the drawing. I'll get back to you after I take care of a few other things."

Hal walked back to his pickup. It would take him until lunch to take care of everything he had to do. He thought for a moment about chasing down Mort at lunchtime. After getting the brush-off he decided to give it a rest for a few days. Not far away a forklift was unloading palletized bags of cement from a flatbed truck. He shook his head, wondering to himself what they would do without the forklift. Stanton had been reluctant to buy it, but it had proven indispensable.

"That's it!" he shouted out loud. He hurried to the workshop where Kowalski was just about to go to lunch.

"Steve, I know what we'll do about packaging the finished framing members," Hal blurted out.

"I'm all ears," Steve replied.

"We won't strap them together at all," Hal explained. "We'll build wooden cribs out of two-by-fours that are big enough to hold a whole framing segment. We'll make them so the forklift can get under it and strong enough so we can reuse it."

"Then I can put the cut pieces in the crib and the forklift can haul the thing to the building site."

"And then they'll return them when they're empty," Hal said. "Can you make them? We'll need at least two—probable three."

"Sure," Steve assured him. "Get me a requisition for materials. I'll start after lunch."

Weeks passed and the Precut Plan worked better than anyone had hoped. Hal made more improvements as the weeks passed by and the system worked even better. Whispering Woods was well ahead of schedule. Ace Builders' tract fell behind and that meant Stanton Builders got the pick of the Finish Carpenters and other inside men. That enabled Stanton Builders to leapfrog ahead even more.

"Keep up the good work!" Stanton would tell him when he visited the office from time to time.

Hal preferred to be at the site as much as possible and minimize his office time. He was curious why the Old Man hadn't been out to the project at all that summer, but he never asked

"Maybe he doesn't want to jinx it," Hal thought.

Every so often Stanton would call Hal into his office and ask for a complete report. Otherwise, it was hands-off. Hal kept building the houses; Mort kept on selling them; Stanton kept counting the money. At least, that's the way Hal saw it.

Hal didn't get many opportunities to see Mort for more than a minute or two at a time during those weeks. With more units going up, Hal was in demand anywhere and everywhere. It was easy to lose oneself in the job. The company was on top—sole possessor of first place in the home construction race, and a lot of it was due to Hal. He had broken the framing logjam and that led to bigger things. It was hard work, but fun at the same time. It wasn't easy to think of anything else.

Hal did see Mort just about every day. He was always showing prospects through the models. Then he would escort them out to building lots that might 'one-day-be-theirs'. He closed a lot of sales. Many new owners had already moved into their new homes.

On no particular day Hal had just finished with the town building inspector and had the C of O for the latest unit in hand. It was located close to the model. He saw Mort sitting in his car in the driver's seat, the door open and his feet swung out on the ground. He had his customary white shirt and tie on. Suspenders held up his trousers. His suit coat was lying on the seat beside him, because Mort was never out of uniform.

To Hal it seemed that Mort sat there longer than normal and it looked like he was shaking his head. Hal tried not to guess about what was going on. He felt that Mort had taken steps to avoid him after they started getting busy—after Hal pitched the Precut Plan to Stanton.

"No reason for me to feel guilty," Hal reminded himself. "I tried to give him credit. He wouldn't let me. 'Take it with my blessing', he said, 'I just want my commissions'."

He watched and Mort just stayed seated, like his body didn't want to go to the next step in getting out of the car. Hal put his pickup in gear and drove the short distance to the model. He pulled up behind Mort's sedan.

"Hi'ya, Mort," Hal called out, "haven't seen you around in a while."

"I've been here," the older man retorted.

"Well, you look like you're stuck in that car. I came over to see what's goin' on."

"If you want to make yourself useful, you can take those boxes of sales material to my desk in the model," Mort told him.

He handed Hal the keys and he popped open the trunk. There were four boxes full of brochures. Hal hoisted the first one onto his shoulder and followed Mort inside. He set the box in a corner. Mort cascaded into his chair behind his desk. Hal made three more trips until all the boxes were inside.

"Thanks," Mort said. "I don't think I could have gotten them all up here."

"They were heavy enough, even for me," Hal replied. "I'm glad that I came along when I did."

Mort appeared winded. Droplets of sweat accumulated on his bald head like condensation on a cold glass of water. It was a warm day, but certainly not the hottest of the summer.

"I had to load them in the car all by myself back at the office," the rotund man explained.

The logic, of course, wasn't rock-solid. It was at least a twenty minute drive from the office to the site, so he should have recovered on the way. Hal decided not to press the point.

"He's sixty two and overweight. He's been working hard."

"Can I get you a glass of water?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah," Mort gasped, "a glass of water would be good."

"We need to take it easy in this hot weather," Hal admonished as he set the water in front of him.

"What's to take easy?" Mort scoffed "The houses need to be sold. There's no time to take it easy now. Maybe—when the season's over."

Hal looked at Mort, who was starting to recover and caught himself before he shook his head. He poured himself a glass of water, too, and sat in a chair across the desk from him.

"You've got plenty of houses to sell," Hal said.

"Yes, that I do," Mort answered.

"It was your idea that made it all possible," Hal said. "It really worked—the right idea at the right time."

"What idea?" Mort grimaced. "I had a pipedream. It was your idea."

"You should get some of the credit for it," Hal said. "We've all worked hard, but you..."

"I thought we went through this already a long time ago," Mort insisted. "Besides, I got my commissions."

"It's not too late, you know," Hal replied. "I could say something to Stanton."

"You just make sure Stanton takes care of you, Mister—in the wallet I mean," Mort raised his voice and his agitation showed. "Don't let him take all the profits and give you nothin' but a pat on the back."

"Whatever you say, Mort."

"That's what I do say; now get outta here. I've got a prospect coming in soon."

Summer turned into autumn and the crews were pouring foundations and framing houses as fast as they could. When it became too cold to pour cement, they would have to stop and the inside guys would be limited to working on what was already up. Sales had slowed somewhat; most families wanted to be in their new homes before the start of the school year. With the number of prospects decreased, Hal saw Mort less.

Hal was surprised one autumn day when Mr. Stanton paid a visit to the site.

"I wanted to see the new operation before it shut down for the season," he explained.

Hal escorted him to the workshop where Steve and two helpers were busy churning out framing members. Stanton watched the workers, not saying a word.

Steve laid eight two-by-sixes side by side on a table and placed an oversized clamp across the top of the formation. Then he placed a mysterious apparatus on the end of them. It was a long, straight piece of stock that was clamped to the eight pieces of lumber. It was marked along its vertical piece small lines and numbers. To it, another length of stock swung on a hinge and tightened in place with a large wing nut.

Steve adjusted the second arm at forty-five and tightened it. Then he lined up the upper-right corners of each board with the edge of it, finally clamping all in place.

"What's that?" Stanton asked, pointing at the contraption.

"It's a jig that Steve and I designed to allow us to cut a whole series of like-pieces with one pass of the saw. Those two-by-sixes are a set of roof rafters with forty-five degree ends."

Steve stepped to the assembly and turned on the power saw. In less than a minute each rafter was crisply cut. He marked them with a wax crayon and then unclamped the finished units and began loading them into the crib.

"Geez!" Stanton exclaimed and gave a whistle. "You're telling me they're all gonna fit?"

"It's just a glorified protractor," Hal said. "Steve can adjust it all the way from zero to ninety degrees. Most of the time it's either at ninety or forty-five."

"And what about this?" Stanton asked, pointing to the makeshift crib.

"It's something we put together to get the cut members to the site. We thought of strapping them, but that would have meant buying supplies and equipment."

The forklift entered the open end of the workshop and scooped up the crib as though it was a pallet.

"The pieces are put in reverse order so they come out as they're needed for use," Hal continued. "Of course, the cribs are reusable. We built three and we use them all."

"I wouldna' believed it. This is a whole new way of doin things," Stanton said, shaking his head. He turned to Hal. "Sarge, let's walk up to the units under construction."

"I think we can get six more units framed up before it gets too cold to pour," Hal said. "Eight if the weather gives us a break."

"This is really going well," Stanton said as they walked together. "Your new system is working and the men are happy—I can tell by watching them work. I've got to admit that last May I thought it would be another big idea that wouldn't pan out. You've done it all. This tract is a big success. I've got you to thank for it."

By that time, they had made their way to one of the units in the final stages of completion. They went in and Stanton looked over the workmanship. He nodded a few times and let out an occasional 'hmmm'.

"We're scheduled to get the C of O on this unit tomorrow," Hal said, hoping for a comment from his boss.

"I don't see any reason you won't get it," Stanton said. "Everything looks like it's in order."

"We haven't had one turned down yet," Hal replied. "We have a checklist to complete before we even call for an inspection and we adhere to it pretty well."

The two men went through several more units in various stages of completion. Stanton said little. As they came out of the third unit Stanton abruptly turned to Hal.

"Can you and your wife join the missus and me for dinner at my club on Saturday night?"

"Hal, can you zip up my back?" Martha called across the bedroom.

"I'll be over in just a minute," Hal answered. He was struggling with his tie. He only wore one once in a while, but knew from his Army days what a good knot looked like.

"Hurry, we don't want to be late."

Hal and Martha had been married for three years. He could see that Martha was nervous. It wasn't often—well, it was a lot less than often—that they got to go out dining in a swanky place like Crystal Lake Country Club. That was where they were going on this night, since it was where Mr. Stanton was a member.

"I thought it was fashionable to be slightly late," Hal said.

His comment brought no response from the other end of the room. He looked in the mirror and saw her across the room struggling with the clasp on her bracelet. She finished it and strode across the room to where Hal was still adjusting his tie.

"I hope this old dress isn't too frumpy," she said. "It's all I had."

Hal recognized the hope in her voice.

"You look beautiful, and it's not frumpy at all."

"I had to let it out," she told him. "I still have some extra weight from the baby."

"If you hadn't told me, I wouldn't have noticed," Hal sighed. "Does the babysitter have the phone numbers and everything?"

It was their first time out on the town since well before their son was born. For Martha, it couldn't have come at a better time. New motherhood was a time of stress and she wished Hal was home more to help her instead of devoting himself to his job and Mr. Stanton's company.

They rode in nervous silence across town to the Country Club. She finally asked the question that had been on her mind for days.

"Why does Mr. Stanton want to treat us for dinner at his club?"

"I dunno," Hal replied. "The Whispering Woods project went real well. He probably wants to say 'thanks'."

"No, I believe something big is about to happen," Martha said, almost in a whisper as if she were afraid to say it.

"I don't think so," Hal said shaking his head. "I don't know what 'big thing' you have in mind. Don't expect anything like that, and then you won't be disappointed. Let's just enjoy the night and let it go at that. I've heard they have a lot of fancy kinds of food at this place."

Martha fell silent again. As their car turned into the private road that led to the main clubhouse she checked her makeup and hair and adjusted the bodice of her dress.

"Stop being so nervous," Hal said. "Just enjoy yourself."

The Stanton's were already seated when Hal and Martha were shown to the table. Stanton rose stiffly and greeted the couple. His wife remained seated. She didn't look like Hal had expected. Perhaps he expected a female rendition of his gaunt and stern-faced boss. She was short and a slightly plump with chubby cheeks and a pleasant look. Hal glanced over to Martha and saw her secret sigh of relief.

It was a pleasant dinner, filled with conversation about small things. Mrs. Stanton was especially interested in Hal and Martha's new baby. Mr. Stanton complimented Martha on her dress.

"The old boy isn't as stiff as he makes himself out to be," Hal thought to himself.

They each had a couple of drinks. For Martha, along with Stanton's compliment on her dress, it was enough to make her a little giddy. Hal was glad to see it. He hadn't seen her that way since their honeymoon. The drinks made Mrs. Stanton a little drowsy.

They had just ordered dessert. After the dishes were cleared from the table Stanton cleared his throat, and Mrs. Stanton perked up.

"Ahem ... I have something to announce," he said as he gained their attention. "Martha, I wanted you to be here for this because this has something to do with your husband—and you, of course."

He paused, and the other three at the table fixed their gaze on him, waiting for the rest.

"You know the work at 'Whispering Woods' went so well. I analyzed the whole situation. The fact is that..."

"Dear, just get to the point," Stanton’s wife interrupted.

Stanton cleared his throat again.

"I want to give you this bonus in recognition of how you handled the construction this year."

He thrust out a white envelope. Hal cautiously reached out and took it.

"Go ahead and open it," Stanton urged.

Hal took the check out of the envelope and read the amount.

"Two thou ... Mr. Stanton, I never expected this," Hal said in disbelief and handed it to Martha.

"It's nearly half a year's salary," she gasped as she looked in disbelief at Hal, and then at Stanton.

"You deserve it," Stanton assured him. "It brings you up to what your salary will be next year."

"I don't get it," Hal said. "All I can say is that you can count on me to finish up the Whispering Woods tract next year in first class shape."

"That's where you're wrong," Stanton said. "We're starting a new tract—Mountain View—in the spring. It'll be twice as many units as Whispering Woods, and the units will be a lot bigger, too. We just finished the designs. I want you to move over there and get that one started. You can name a new foreman to take your place at Whispering Woods. Then you can run the Mountain View job directly and take charge of the new man at the 'Woods'. You'll be General Construction Supervisor. What do you say?"

"I'm so proud of you," Martha gushed as they drove home after the dinner. "We can use your bonus to get the new living room furniture we were looking at."

"We should put a portion into savings," Hal cautioned.

"Well, yes," Martha conceded, but not too much. "You'll be getting a bigger salary next year. We can put some money away then."

"We'll have to talk about it."

Martha turned to her husband.

"Why aren't you happy? I told you something big was going to happen. Sometimes I just don't understand you."

"I'm happy, I guess," Hal assured her. "Maybe it's because it was all so unexpected. Maybe it's because I'll miss the guys at Whispering Woods."

Martha threw head back and laughed.

"Well, I won't miss that old furniture," she said.

Hal could tell that she was still a little bit drunk. She was very loud, and her manner was seldom so brash.

"I said that we could talk about the furniture," he mumbled.

Martha fell silent. In the dark Hal knew she was pouting at the rebuff. He asked himself why he couldn't go along with her festive mood. He should have, he told himself. He couldn't have asked for more from Mr. Stanton. Seeing Martha so happy and excited was the best part.

There was something that didn't sit well. Hal couldn't tell what it was, and that was the part that bothered him most of all. It was like finishing a jigsaw puzzle and knowing that one of the pieces was put in the wrong place and had gotten away with it. They would have to think harder about the new furniture.

When Hal arrived at the site on Monday he kept quiet about his promotion. It wasn't easy. He was elated over it and he wanted to share the news with the guys. He also had to speak with Steve Kowalski, whom he planned to name as site foreman for the following year. He was almost sure it was going to be Steve, but he needed to be positive.

There was another part of Hal that was uneasy. It was a nagging feeling that something didn't fit quite right. He kept thinking about it, trying to figure it all out. He couldn't—and he knew he had to before he would feel good again. His attitude baffled Martha, and that morning at breakfast she was angry when he put her off when she brought up the subject of new furniture again.

"I want to get the new things in for the holidays," she scolded. "You don't just get it the same day, you know. It has to be ordered and it will take some time to get here."

She went on to say that new furniture wasn't much good on an old carpet.

Hal wasn't listening.

He answered by asking, "What's wrong with the furniture we have now?"

Martha huffed and was prepared to engage him in battle when they heard the baby crying upstairs. By the time Martha returned Hal had slurped down the last of his coffee and was gone.

He was in the workshop with Steve, thinking about all that had gone by.

"What was it like at Old Man Stanton's club?" Steve shouted over the rumbling of the forklift that had come into the workshop to pick up a new crib full of cut lumber.

"Real swanky," Hal shouted back as the question brought him back to the present. "Tough place to get comfortable in. The wife got a big charge out of it."

"They can have those places, as far as I'm concerned," Steve shouted again.

Hal nodded that he understood and laughed a little with him. In the distance he saw dark clouds gathering in the western sky. He wondered if they were bringing snow. Below them he saw Mort parking his car at the model. He remembered that he should go down there and let him know that Stanton had been fair, after all.

Mort ambled into the model and Hal turned away. It was going to be a busy day. The empty feeling was returning. As Hal began to open the door to the pickup he turned back toward the workshop. Something jolted him; he finally understood his nagging feeling..

"I've got to go to the office to see Stanton. I'll be back in a while," he yelled to Steve.

When Hal arrived at the office Stanton was just finishing a meeting. "Sarge, I didn't expect to see you," Stanton said with a flourish.

"I need a word with you, Mr. Stanton—if you've got a minute," Hal replied.

"For you, Sarge, I've always got a minute."

Stanton slapped Hal on the back and escorted him into his office. Stanton sat in his usual chair behind his desk. Hal took a seat on the other side.

"What's on your mind?" he asked, and leaned back in his chair.

Hal reached inside his jacket and drew out the white envelope with his bonus check.

"I think you might want this back after you hear me out," he said.

The happy expression on Stanton's face disappeared.

"I don't get it," he said in a low voice. "You better explain this. I'm not used to having my bonuses thrown back at me."

"There's something wrong," Hal said. "I took the money, the promotion. I got it for something that wasn't mine."

"I still don't get it," Stanton protested.

“The whole Precut Project. It was Mort Plinsky's idea, not mine. He came to me with it when we started getting behind and told me about it. I took the credit. He wouldn't take any."

"I'm starting to understand," Stanton said. "You figure that I gave you the bonus and the promotion for coming up with that idea. You think that Plinsky should be the General Forman next year?"

"No, no," Hal answered. "That's no job for him. He'd never handle it."

"That's right," Stanton said. "But you could handle it, couldn't you."

"Well, yeah."

"But you still think you stole Mort's idea?"

"Something like that," Hal said, hanging his head.

"Well," Stanton replied, "what if I told you I knew it was Mort's idea all along?"

"Now I don't get it," Hal said.

"I grilled Mort right after you proposed it last spring. He didn't tell me much, but enough to figure out what was going on. After I talked to him, I was satisfied that things would work out."

"I see," Hal mumbled.

"I don't think you see everything. I gave you the bonus and promotion for making it all work out there. Mort just gave you a push to get you started."

Hal's outlook brightened. He had truly done most of it, after that first meeting with Mort in the car during the storm. He looked at the envelope holding the check that he had thrown on Stanton's desk. He picked it up. He looked at it again, and then up at Stanton.

"Mort should get something," Hal said. "He had an important part in it."

"Believe me," Stanton laughed, "Mort's more than happy. All he wants are his commissions."

"I want you to give him half of this check," Hal insisted.

"What? You're joking," Stanton scoffed.

"You've got to," Hal said. "I'll still have half and my new job and salary. I won't feel right unless Mort gets half of this."

Stanton sighed. "Did you talk this over with your wife? She was pretty excited when she saw the number on that check."

"Not yet," Hal answered. "I will tonight."

"If that's what you really want..."

"I do," Hal affirmed. "Don't let him know it came from me. Tell him you dragged it out of me and you gave it to him. Otherwise, he won't accept it."

Hal went to the jobsite early the next day. Martha tongue-lashed him over dinner the previous evening for giving away half his bonus. He left early to avoid hearing it again.

"If she had never seen the first number, she would have been thrilled with what I got," he said to himself as he backed out of his driveway.

He explained the whole thing and the fairness of it all to her. Martha wasn't buying it. Hal wished that she had; it would have made him feel closer to her.

"Maybe she'll come to see it over time."

He knew that Mort would be late that morning, having been called to Stanton's office before leaving the previous afternoon.

"He probably thinks he's going to be laid off," Hal chuckled.

He was tempted to hang around the model at lunchtime, just to see his reaction. He decided not to. It would have given it away. Besides, Hal had plenty to do, having lost a good part of the day before in Stanton's office.

At lunchtime, Hal saw Mort's car approaching as he stood outside one of the units. The car stopped and Mort rolled down the window.

"Get in! I've got to talk to you," he shouted from inside the car.

Hal walked to the passenger's side and got in.

"Stanton just gave me a check for a thousand dollars for coming up with that idea," he told Hal. "He said that you spilled the beans. I thought you weren't going to do that."

"He just kept giving me the third degree," Hal pleaded. "It was like he knew it all along. In the end, I had to tell him."

Mort grunted, absorbing Hal's excuse.

"I got a check for a thousand, too," Hal said, plus a promotion for next year's project and a big raise. Stanton treated me real good."

"He did?" Mort exclaimed in surprise. "I guess I can feel better about things. Whaddya gonna do with yours?"

"Martha wants some new furniture," Hal replied. "Maybe put some in the savings account."

"Ah, that's good," Mort said. "I'm sending mine to my daughter and her husband in Boston. They're expecting a baby in a couple months. They could use it."

"Sounds like a fine idea, Mort."

"Well, kid," he said. "It looks like we both made out real good. I didn't think Stanton had it in him. I'm gonna miss you when you go to take over that new job next year. I wish you good luck with it."

"We were a good team, Mort. Why don't we go get some lunch at the diner?"

"You go ahead. I got a prospect coming in a little while. Besides, the diner's food gives me heartburn. I get heartburn a lot these days."

He slapped Hal on the thigh.

"You go ahead; I'll just go back to the model and wait for the prospects."

Hal pulled the door handle and pushed the door open.

"You know," Mort called after Hal, "I never thought that Stanton appreciated me."

Hal didn't see Mort for a few days. At the end of the season he had more than the usual things to take care of. On top of that, Steve Kowalski finally agreed to take the foreman's job the next season. He wanted to show Steve as many of the ropes as he could.

The next Friday the weather was a bitter cold. Although snow hadn't yet fallen, it seemed cold enough for it. It was late in the afternoon. Hal thought he was the only one left on the site. He was about to quit for the day when he happened to glance over at the model and saw Mort's car in the driveway.

"He must have had a late prospect."

Something told Hal that Mort's car should not have been there.

"It's Friday. Mort's always out of here on Friday by this time."

He looked at the car in the distance again.

"He must have had car trouble—probably dampness in the distributor cap. I'll go over and give him a hand."

Hal parked his pickup behind Mort's car. When he got out of the cab he saw right away that the motor was running. He saw Mort in the driver's seat. As he approached the car he was able to see Mort through the window. He was hunched forward, his face resting on the steering wheel. It was the first dead person that he had seen since his wartime days.

Hal felt for the veins on Mort's neck, hoping for a pulse. He felt it was his obligation to do so, but he knew there would be none. Death never tries to mask itself. Hal shook his head and reached past the body to turn off the ignition. There was a folder on the passenger's seat. Its contents were spilling out onto the upholstery. Hal figured he'd better check to make certain there were no important company documents to retrieve. After that, he'd find a phone and call the authorities.

Hall sorted through sheaf of pages. All of it was pretty routine stuff. He'd deliver it to the office. There was one item that he'd save and give to Mort's wife. Hal fingered the small slip of paper and couldn't help but smile.

Amidst the clutter of papers was a postal receipt for a registered letter to a Boston address.

To be continued

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