Eight in Three Weeks: and Other Early Stories by David Pablo Cohn
David Pablo Cohn’s Eight in Three Weeks presents a masterful writer’s debut collection of short stories. By turns understated, harrowing, humorous, and mysterious, these stories reveal Cohn’s capacity for inhabiting and revealing the consciousness of an unusually wide range of characters. Women, men, and children from different cultures, subcultures, professions, and age groups are all vivid and moving as they undertake their quests, undergo their struggles, and reach their epiphanies. In “The Duchess,” a working-class man named Billy copes with midlife angst by attempting to build a sailboat—a project that drags on as unsatisfactorily as the rest of his life. “Abraham and Sarah,” by contrast, not only revisits the Biblical story about the couple of that name but also segues to a modern-day Abraham and Sarah whose experiences both echo the Hebrew Bible’s account and diverge from the ancient outcome. Perhaps most unusual is “On Ziahtown Road,” in which an old, sick Liberian man sets off on foot to find his missing daughter but takes a stranger, longer voyage than he anticipated. Other stories – “Bragging Rights,” “Water on Travertine,” “Fly Away,” and “Eight in Three Weeks” – demonstrate Cohn’s impressive ability to delve into children’s minds and to explore boys’ and girls’ bafflement as they attempt to figure out the adult world’s mysteries. Three other narratives – “Artifacts,” “Last Night Ashore,” and “Tales from the Ice” – vividly reflect Cohn’s first-hand knowledge of Antarctic bases while deployed as a computer scientist to the South Pole Station and elsewhere on the earth’s coldest continent. Throughout Eight in Three Weeks, David Pablo Cohn manifests nuanced command of the short story genre as well as imaginative insights into the human condition.
- ISBN: 978-1-932727-23-4
- Price: $16.95 (paper)
Read an Excerpt
No one was willing to say for sure whether Billy Eriksen's body was in the boat when they set it afire that night. I suppose it's better that way: any sort of certainty one way or the other would have raised uncomfortable questions about the disposal of human remains. And those noncommittal “Hmms” from the boys down at the shipyard seemed to give everyone enough leeway to believe that things had been resolved in a way Billy would have appreciated.
He'd been working on the Duchess for probably twenty years by then. His father had grown up working the mill, and when Billy finished his four years in Pullman, he returned to the peninsula with a Bachelor's degree in land management and a passion for cartography.
He took a job with the county and a bride from his graduating class at Chimacum High School. It wasn't that Susan Miller had been waiting for him, not exactly. It was just that over the years they'd been told by enough friends that they were well-suited to each other that, when the time came for their cohort to begin pairing up and breeding the next generation of Washingtonians, marrying seemed like the path of least resistance. With her parents' help, they bought a three-bedroom rambler off Sheridan Street and settled into their expectations.
It was hard to say when the troubles started. But their expectations had seemed to include a clutch of little Eriksens running rampant through the house, and as their neighbors' lawns bloomed with swing sets and wading pools, Billy and Susan's lack of offspring increasingly loomed as an uncomfortable gulf around which conversation navigated during neighborhood backyard barbecues.
To be fair, it wasn't as though they had greater troubles than other couples. But children have a way of stripping away the ambivalence in any marriage, either galvanizing a union or tearing it apart. Without that clarifying effect, Billy and Susan's marriage drifted into the shoals of quiet desperation. Doctors visits, couples counseling - even a six-month dabble with Tibetan fertility enhancement - nothing seemed to make a difference. And the more they attended to “the problem,” the more it seemed to magnify the realization that theirs was to be an empty nest.
Susan filled her half of that emptiness by devoting herself to the city's children, earning a teaching certificate through the State Extension and taking on Social Studies for Grant Elementary. Billy filled his with a boat.
In retrospect, Billy's nautical turn surprised no one. Talk was always about boats around the counter down at the Blue Moose, and joining in that talk afforded him a rare conversational outlet that wasn't prone to veering off into laments about incomplete homework assignments or reflections on the moral character of tee-ball umpires.
The Moose was a local haunt, tucked around an improbable corner in the city boatyard, and somehow, early on, Billy and Susan had acquired the habit of heading down there Sunday mornings to split a stack of blueberry buttermilk pancakes and linger in the eavesdropped chatter. They were quickly welcomed as regulars, and before long Billy had picked up enough terminology to ask convincingly about the advantages of monofilament over nylon line, or how the co-op was planning to rig that new sloop of theirs.
The Sunday conversations did seem to placate Billy's restlessness, but also left him intoxicated in a way that made Susan wary: his normally attentive responses to her own musings about glitter and glue sticks always sounded farther away on the drive home, as he rode a broad reach to some foreign shore in his mind.
Of course he knew better than to talk about travel with Susan. There was money enough for indulgences, but aside from the honeymoon in Victoria and an uncle's funeral in Missoula, neither had even left Washington for more than a dip across the state line. The Millers stuck close to home, and Susan's domesticity prevailed on the Eriksen household as well: exotic destinations were best viewed after dinner on the Discovery Channel from the shared comfort of their Costco living room set.
So maybe conversation at the Moose just stirred that last trace of Viking blood in Billy's veins. Susan saw it coming, and when he came home one night with blueprints for a coastal cruiser, she consoled herself that the competition for his affections would only be a wooden boat, not a younger woman.
Besides, there was little real danger in the undertaking. Billy had sought refuge in plenty of other projects over the years. The guitar from Crossroads still hung on its hook in the living room, forlorn and resigned to a destiny as wall art. Golf clubs lasted two seasons before the financial mathematics of green fees saw them off on Craigslist. They were followed in uneven succession by birdwatching, bicycling, painting, and pottery.
His father's power tools, an antique bandsaw, table saw, drill press and entirely serviceable planer had gathered dust since the old man's sight failed, and he was happy for the promise that his wayward son might, however belatedly, take to the holy art of woodworking. It took three trips from the old Eriksen household to outfit Billy’d garage with the equipment necessary for building a boat.
But the enthusiasm that Billy's father held for his son's new obsession was shorter-lived than either of them would have liked. Old Man Eriksen - even his wife called him that - came from farming stock, and his love for woodcraft was strictly pragmatic. He saw it as a blessing to be able to fashion whatever useful implement he needed out of scrap lumber. A boat, by his reckoning, did not fit into any reasonable definition he could summon for the word “useful.”
Still, he was happy to indulge his son; if nothing else, it was a chance to bond over the smell of sawdust and shouted conversation.
Billy chose the Seabird, a 25 foot carvel-planked yawl, as the vessel to carry his dreams. It had classic lines and an impeccable pedigree. That it was intended “for the amateur builder” was almost an afterthought for Billy; what had really captured his attention was an old black and white photo of Thomas Fleming Day reclining against the mast of the original Seabird in the Azores, halfway across the Atlantic on his record-setting Providence-to-Rome run.
Rome. The Azores. These were faraway names from the glowing screen of the Discovery Channel. And yet for $75, the mail order plans held some implicit promise of making Billy as intimately familiar with them as he was with the County Planning Office, or the Hilltop Tavern. Some days, on the drive home after a particularly unrewarding day at the County, he caught himself saying things, just to hear the sound of the words in his own voice: “You know, the last time we stopped in the Azores, we had to wait out Hurricane Martha. Started drinking Maracujá, and got ourselves kicked out of damned near every bar in Ponta Delgado.”
He offered to call her the Lady Susan, but his wife would have none of it. “It's bad enough that she's stealing you away from me every evening,” she said. “Damned if I'm going to have her take my name, too.”
“Would you rather I called her the Lady Virginia?” Ginny Gordon's predations had been the downfall of more than one marriage in the neighborhood, and her unsuccessful attempt on Billy still served as a touchstone to their mutual commitment.
So somehow he settled on The Duchess. And while dinners still began with the conventional how-was- your-day-dears, Billy's thoughts increasingly skipped without segue to the growing stack of sawn ribs and planking that crowded the garage.
“We'll be outfitting her with two-inch foam insulation in the cabin,” he might tell Susan over yams and turkey casserole one night. “We don't want to be running the heater all night if we take her up to the Aleuts.” she appreciated the deliberate “we,” but settled for little more than asking polite questions and nodding in considered agreement where appropriate. In her mind, Billy's dinner conversation veered somewhere between thinking aloud and offering some vague accounting of how his evening would be spent. It was, if nothing else, a welcome bridge to the silences that had of late gone unpunctuated except by the clank of fork and knife against Corelle ware.
The more time Billy spent poring over plans, the more it always seemed there was to do, and the more discoveries there were of other things that would have to be done first. Susan's discreet inquiry to the shipyard boys one Sunday drew knowing smiles. Ole from the Wooden Boat School combed at his great gray walrus mustache and looked somewhere past her shoulder with pale blue eyes. Perhaps it would take a while, he mused. Perhaps - and he paused here to take special care with his words - perhaps Billy had come to an early understanding of a truth that all men learn when they grow old enough: that only dreams yet unrealized are still perfect. And that some dreams, perhaps, were better left that way.
It was five years before Billy finally laid a keel for the Duchess, years taken up by as much time in the library researching exotic destinations as were spent in the garage, measuring, cutting, and finishing actual pieces of wood. He still seemed to live with one foot in another world, but as Susan's polite questions drifted from halyards to Hawaii, from baseboards to Bimini, a new warmth and intimacy glimmered around the dinner table at the Eriksen household. Sundays they still went down to the Blue Moose. When Clara came by to refresh their coffee, she seemed to know better than to ask how the Duchess was progressing. Most often she would simply set off on the weather or summer ferry traffic.
If Billy didn't slip away from his seat to join the shipyard conversation at the counter, it wouldn't be long before a couple of the inveterates ambled over to the corner to perch on borrowed seats and check in on him. Perhaps it was a charity of sorts, but their eyes were always bright with unfeigned enthusiasm as he recounted each week's progress.
When time did come for the keel, it took no one by surprise that floor space in the Eriksen garage came up three feet short. So the next summer was spent constructing a zinc-roofed longhouse sort of shed diagonally across the back yard, shadowed in the lee of a pair of white oaks that bordered their property to the south. That project, at least, went quickly: by September the shed had hanging lights, a radiant heater, portable stereo, and a second-hand couch where Billy could rest while contemplating the next step of his greater adventure.
They held an end-of-summer barbecue to christen the longhouse, Susan feeling for once an inexplicable lack of embarrassment over the absence of child- proofing around the yard. By then most of the remaining neighborhood children - those who hadn't gotten shopped out to grandparents or hauled back to Spokane when a husband strayed - were past the need for latch guards. It felt, if anything, like a coming out of sorts.
The Duchess was half-skinned when a January storm split one of the oaks, bringing a limb down through the longhouse roof. There was no visible damage, but the three weeks of intermittent rain that followed necessitated wrapping everything in plastic tarps to keep water off the untreated wood. By March, when he'd finally managed to secure the shed to his satisfaction, Billy ran his fingers over the Duchess' carvel seams with the tentative caress of a lover who suspected his mistress has been untrue. He broke the news to Susan over dinner.
“I’m just worried something's been compromised.” Since there was no way to know for sure, he pulled all the planks off and set about re-skinning her from the keel on up. Susan offered no complaint and asked no questions.
It was the heart attack that changed everything. He'd left her voicemail Thursday afternoon saying he wasn't feeling particularly well and might be coming home early. By the time class got out, there were two more messages on her phone, a short, inaudible one from Billy, and one from Jefferson Healthcare saying her husband was resting comfortably, but would she please call the following number as soon as possible?
As far as heart attacks go, it was a good one, if such a thing existed: partial blockage of the left descending coronary artery, exacerbated by vascular spasms. The doctors were against surgery - blood thinners, Lotensin and a change of lifestyle, in their opinion, offered a better prognosis for long-term recovery.
Still, it was close to a year before his strength had returned enough for him to totter out over to the longhouse after dinner. Once it had, work on the Duchess resumed with a new passion. Dinners shrank first to an abbreviated affair, then quickly to a simple drive-by pass at the table as he carried his plate out to pore over hardware catalogs and cleat arrangements. Susan objected at first, then resigned herself to following him out with her own plate, providing companionship and an audience for his musings between forkfuls of turkey lasagna.
He did submit to her insistence on the doctor- prescribed twice-weekly walks. Wednesday evenings they usually limited themselves to a stroll down to the lagoon, but weekends he allowed her to drive to North Beach and lead him through the thicket of brush along the ramparts of Fort Worden.
She preferred taking to the beach below the bluffs on their way back, reveling in its fine iron sand, sea glass and makeshift driftwood shelters. But she noticed that Billy invariably focused on the damp tide- washed track just ahead of his feet as they walked, only ever looking seaward in brief, reluctant glances. When he did, there was an apprehension in his eyes, one she imagined she might feel if her wayward glance had caught the attention of some fearful animal. It was only when they were back to the safety of Sheridan that his gaze rose again to the horizon and his words returned to dreams of sailing.
She never did ask him about that - to even pose the question seemed an intrusion on some inner world he was unready to share. Even if it weren't, she was not entirely convinced that there was anything to be gained by probing the inconsistency of his behavior. After all, he seemed happy, happier than he had been any time in their marriage before the boat. Or maybe he was just content - and at this stage in their lives, she wasn't sure there was that much practical difference between the two.
The night that it happened, the night his heart gave out for good, she found him seated in the cockpit, reclining against the starboard coaming like he was just pausing to catch his breath. The corner chisel lay on deck just below his hand, a faint V-shaped divot marking the end of its brief flight.
There had been some late nights these past few months, and over the years she'd gone to bed alone more than once. Most times he would join her by midnight, floorboards creaking against the futility of his tiptoed approach. There would be a whispered apology, and he'd slide across to rest his arm against the curve of her gently rising back. But more than once she'd woken alone, too, and found him dozing out in the longhouse, sprawled across the couch and snoring amid crumpled advertisements for self-tailing winches.
That night, the night it happened, she'd gone out to tell him she wasn't going to wait up. There would be projects to grade tomorrow, and she needed her full eight hours if she wasn't going to be caught face down and drooling on the break table in the teachers' lounge.
It wasn't unusual for the longhouse to be quiet - she knocked on the door and called Billy's name before entering - best not to startle him in the middle of some delicate operation. But the moment she saw the angle of his head, lolled back like that and gaping open- mouthed at the ceiling, she knew.
The funeral was to be a small, neighborhood affair. Billy's living only kin by that time was an estranged brother somewhere in the South, so Susan's family, as usual, stepped into the breach and made the necessary arrangements. There was a memorial service at Grace Lutheran. Billy's manager at the County delivered the eulogy, followed by short reminiscences from Susan's brother, a couple of coworkers and a smattering of the neighborhood dads.
It wasn't until we saw them in the back two rows, squirming in unaccustomed Sunday neckties, that anyone thought to include the shipyard boys. They came forward to pay their silent respects afterwards, but it was hard not to feel that there had been a slight, and not only in the order of the service. Not one of the half-dozen speakers had failed to touch on the boat, if only in passing. Each had done so playfully, as comic relief against the litany of Billy's virtues: Billy was loyal, Billy was hard working, Billy was honest. Then, of course, there was the boat. That a man such as Billy should distract himself by building a boat seemed in their eyes to be a quirk, verging on character flaw; something that could only be rendered inert by dismissing it as an endearing eccentricity.
It was Ole who broached the question of what was to become of the Duchess. He approached Susan's brother during the reception, saying he hoped he wasn't being disrespectful. But her brother said it would be a kindness for him to call on her, so he did.
She led Ole through the house with a distracted welcome, opened the door to the shed for him, then stepped back, as if what lay within was a space where she no longer wished, or could bear, to set foot. He found her back in the kitchen when he emerged ten minutes later. It had taken only a glance to see that the boat was worthless, a well-intentioned but careless accumulation of tiny errors that would require far more time and money to correct than the collection of parts would fetch as scrap. But decency required that he remain there at least a little longer, if only to pay as much respect to the relic of a dead man's dream as to the man himself.
Susan's eyes flitted between the countertop and Ole's thoughtful scowl; at the very least, she must have suspected his conclusion, but could not bring herself to give words to the fear.
“I think we'll be able to find a good home for her.”
He pursed his lips and nodded sagely with the pronouncement. Neither of them felt the need for elaboration, so she thanked him again and he excused himself to make arrangements.
The irregularities at the Wheelin Funeral Home came to light only in the week after the incident. The Millers maintained a family plot further down the peninsula, and Susan assumed that they'd be buried there together when the time came. But Old Man Eriksen had made it clear that he and his wife wished to be cremated when they passed on, and Susan's family saw no need to go against an Eriksen tradition of Nordic frugality.
In the aftermath, Susan admitted that she'd never really had a clear plan of what to do with Billy's ashes anyway, even if they hadn't been misplaced by the funeral home. Keeping an urn on the mantle always struck her as a little morbid. But the point was moot. And as the paper trail unraveled and it grew increasingly unclear whether Billy's body had even been delivered to the crematorium, it became impossible not to speculate on some connection between the missing remains and what happened off Boat Haven in the pre-dawn fog that following Thursday.
In retrospect, perhaps the most surprising part of it all was that the Duchess did, in fact, float. Ole had left her hull on a borrowed trailer in the shipyard's back lot pending some long-term plan. There seemed to be no point in securing either against the improbabilities of theft, so anyone with a two-inch hitch on their pickup could have backed her down the public ramp and hauled her clear of the jetty with shore lines. From there, the receding tide would have taken care of everything else.
The first report of fire was a call from the front desk at the Tides Inn: a somnambulant guest had observed an inexplicable orange glow flickering offshore in the fog. By the time the Coast Guard mustered a cutter, the Duchess was full ablaze in the bay, flames funneling and curling from the waterline up like an immense maritime bonfire.
The Navy also launched a rescue craft from Indian Island, and the two boats circled the drifting pyre as the current carried it seaward. There were ship-to- shore calls and requests for clarification, but in the end, a decision percolated up through the command chain to simply monitor the situation and let things run their natural course.
She eventually sank in 35 fathoms, just shy of the southbound shipping lanes. There was no flotsam to speak of, and within minutes not even a greasy stain remained to mark where the Duchess had ended her maiden and final voyage.
Of course the sheriff was called in to cordon the boatyard off as a crime scene. But there were no witnesses and few clues - the perpetrators had been so thoughtful as to hose the borrowed trailer clean of saltwater and return it to long-term parking. Buoyed only by the halfhearted charge of criminal mischief, the case itself quickly sank beneath a sea of more pressing investigations.
Susan still goes down to the Blue Moose most Sundays. The shipyard boys always stop by her corner to say hello, and Clara somehow makes time between the crush of other customers to linger and catch up over a coffee refill. She doesn't even ask before firing Susan's order off to Maggie behind the counter. Pancakes, of course. With blueberries, but also with something else, something liminal and tasting of far away. Those who claim to be versed in such things say it's Maracujá.
Praise for Eight in Three Weeks: and Other Early Stories
Cohn’s fiction reveals an uncanny expert knowledge of unusual arts—ship building, flying WWII bombers, or how one might ignite an old stick of dynamite—and places many of us can only dream of. Yet the farthest journey we make within these pages is with Cohn’s characters themselves: how they deceive and redeem each other; seek revenge; heal; and forgive but never forget. Wry, irreverent, curious, sad, whip-smart—a terrific read.
David Pablo Cohn writes with intelligence, sensitivity and an open heart. I’m thrilled to read his work!
Cohn’s Antarctic stories reveal keen and compelling insight into life ‘on the ice.’
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