First Chapter of Work in Progress: How to Mend a Wooden Heart

On Friday, August 24, at the Lavender Library in Sacramento, I read an abridged version from the first chapter of How to Mend a Wooden Heart, my work in progress. You can see the video of my reading at . If I look and sound terrified, I was. Which is weird since I spent over twenty years as a teacher. But it seems retirement has taken away my ease at speaking in front of groups. Go figure.

At any rate, since I read the Reader’s Digest version of the first chapter at the Library, I’m providing the full version below. The manuscript’s currently at 15,000 words with a target of 60,000 when it’s finished. Enjoy!

How to Mend a Wooden Heart

By Pat Henshaw

Chapter 1

Matt Brooks pulled up in front of the Stampede Saloon in Rosewood, California, tired, hungry, but finally here. A little more than three thousand miles in a vintage Jeep proved to be more than his badass could take.

If the bar owner was half the man Matt had gotten to know online, he knew he’d be offered a cold one before they sat down and solidified their deal.

Matt had been reeled into the job with sweet pictures of a former stagecoach stop, a dilapidated barn, and the desolate, dry fields surrounding them. J. P. Comstock had added photos of the surrounding Trinity/Shasta Forest rich with conifers, redwoods, pines, and firs. Matt’d salivated at the thought of working amid them.

Comstock’s invitation to head up the restoration project and building of an area museum was one incentive to travel across country for work.

The larger incentive was a three-year online friendship with Will Faraday who shared his love of woodworking. The promise of meeting Will had Matt hopping into his car even faster.

They’d never met face to face, and now Matt was a little apprehensive. Could he take it if Will didn’t like large, hairy, nitpicky dreamers in the flesh?

As Matt stretched next to his jeep, he noticed the wooden sidewalk in front of the rustic bar. Ever since he’d walked on the one in Old Town Sacramento the day before, he’d fallen in love with these things. This one, unlike the other, didn’t have anyone else on it.

His stretch quickly became a gallop up onto the walkway.

The first footsteps in his Wolverines sang out in solid echoing thuds—just like the sounds cowboys made in his dad’s collection of old TV Westerns. Matt strode to the end of the sidewalk where it dropped off to the street. Then he turned and walked past the bar entrance to the other corner.

He felt huge here, taller than usual. He stood six feet six and towered over regular-sized folks back East. Now he felt like a superhero. He stretched into himself, feeling like one of the redwoods he planned to visit. Powerful, mighty, God-like.

He knew he probably looked more like a delighted boy-man with the silly grin on his face as he stood on the wooden sidewalk on Main Street in the tiny town of Rosewood. The quiet, except for the gurgle and sputter as his beat up old Jeep cooled, gathered around him. An utter calm, almost plaintive stillness, permeated the town. As the quiet seeped into him, Matt was thrilled finally to be here.

Feeling a little foolish, he glanced around. All he saw were a handful of people minding their own business, but nobody staring. A couple blocks away, a lanky string-bean of a guy was walking with his head down, hands in his pockets, coming his way. He couldn’t see the man’s face, so Matt figured he was too far away to care what he was doing.

Matt tromped to the corner again, almost like he was going to meet the guy, then turned and headed for the bar door before the man caught him living out a childhood fantasy. With each step, Matt listened to the ball-tightening sound of the wooden planks singing to him.

Wood was his first and truest love. They’d come a long way together in Matt’s thirty-six years. He loved the smell, the feel, the look, and sometimes accidentally the taste of it. A past lover had shouted before he left that Matt had a wooden heart. He’d taken the slur as a compliment.

Matt caressed the long, hewn handle of the bar as he opened the door and stepped into the early afternoon dimness of a genuine old West saloon. Chills ran down his back. He was deep in lust. In his mind, he could hearing the tinkle of an out-of-tune piano and smell the earthy scent of men hot off the range quenching their thirst. He shivered at the illusion.

This time of day, the place wasn’t what anyone would call booming but had the cozy air of a well-loved family rec room. Wood-paneled ceiling, walls, and scuffed, well-used floor. A hand sculpted bar reigned along most of the far wall.

Matt’s hands itched to caress the carvings across the front of it. As he walked toward the stampeding horses etched in the bar’s façade, he listened to the music of the solid hand-hewn floor.

He squatted and took in the row of horses galloping away from danger at the darker end of the bar. Decades of drinkers had almost obliterated the horses’ hooves near the floor, but higher up, the animals’ frightened eyes and gaping mouths, the wild fury of their manes, still reflected their terror.

Matt’s knees cracked as he stood.

“Kinda nice, isn’t it?” The bartender eyed him as he rose.

“Gorgeous. You should get it restored.”

The guy behind the bar who was Matt’s age and as big and burly gave him a half-grin.

“With this clientele?” He shook his head. “Wouldn’t last a year.”

“What happened to the railing? Where’d it go?” Matt knew a solid brass rail would have stopped most of the boots from jabbing at the hooves. There had to have been one at some point.

The bartender shrugged.

“A long time ago, a man came in. Said he’d polish it up, straighten it out. The owner thought that was a good idea, but after the guy took it away, nobody ever saw it or the stranger again.” He repeated his shrug. “Brass prices were sky high at the time. The guy probably sold it.”

What a shame. Still, the bar hadn’t lost its cache as a relic in Wild West history. The imperfections dubbed it authentic.

Matt glanced around the bar. It was poised as if waiting patiently for the fun to begin. The patrons looked mostly like him—big, hairy guys with no metro-males among them. Jeans, work boots, plaid or denim work shirts. Weathered faces, askew hair, bushy eyebrows. Tall, beefy guys sat alone, nursing drinks, or with a companion, deep in talk.

Matt was more than comfortable in a hangout like this than the upscale bars back East or even the gay bars he’d recently visited in San Francisco.

He took a breath. Time to get the show on the road.

“I’m Matthew Brooks, here to see J. P. Comstock.” He tried to look his business best as he smiled.

The bartender grinned back.

“Kinda figured you probably were. I’m J. P. You can call me Jesse. Or Jess. People call me both.” He flung a work-worn hand at Matt, and they shook. Matt felt the warmth of good-hearted friendship extended to him. “Let’s have a seat and talk about the restoration project.”

Jesse muttered a few words to a younger man who was shelving glasses from a dryer rack.

“What’ll you have?” Jesse asked.

“Whatever’s on tap.”

Armed with beers, they sat at a four top in the corner. Before they got settled, though, in walked the man Matt’d seen outside. He hadn’t recognized the guy at the time since his head was down like he was studying the pavement.

Now Matt got a good look at him. Damn, Will was just as gorgeous in person as the photos he’d sent online.

Sun-glazed wheat-colored hair. Eyes blue as the sky. High prominent cheek bones. Tanned skin, life lines around his eyes and mouth. Tall, on the slender side, but oozing strength in his big hands. His bearing said he’d lived life outdoors and was ready for any joys or hardships Mother Nature threw at him. He was even more handsome than Matt’d expected. He looked perfect.

They’d been corresponding for three years. The last few months Matt’d been slowly falling in love with Will through his emails and pictures of his projects.

They’d exchanged Christmas presents last year. Will had sent Matt a set of hand-forged chisels with carved handles, and Matt’d made him a small hand-carved wooden statue of a lumberjack standing on a piece of petrified wood.

Living an itinerant lifestyle resurrecting historic structures on the East Coast, Matt’d never been where they could meet in person. When Jesse, on behalf of the Rosewood Historical Society, had asked if Matt’d come to California and head up a team restoring the historic stage stop, he’d jumped at the chance. He’d get to meet his woodworker correspondent, who’d said he lived in Rosewood.

Now excitement thrummed through Matt as he grinned like a loon at Will. His excitement must have telegraphed itself to those around him. While Will walked up to the table, Jesse looked between him and Matt.

“Will?” Jesse asked, a puzzled frown on his face. “This is—.”

“I know Matt. We met online. I didn’t know you’d be in town so soon. I just came in to get a drink and to think,” Will muttered. He’d turned pale like he was looking at a ghost.

He and Matt stared at each other for a couple of seconds. Then Matt stuck out his hand and rose.

“Glad to finally meet you in person.” Matt knew he sounded way too happy for this to be a casual greeting. He shook Will’s hand and leaned in for the hug. Will stepped back, pulling into himself.

Jesse’s frown burned into them, which took Matt back a step or two. Why was he frowning at both of them as if they’d done something wrong?

“How’s Stuart?” Jesse barked at Will. “Got over the flu yet?”

Will reddened and dropped Matt’s hand.

“Uh, yeah, he’s good.” Will’s stare slid away. His face turned a deep russet. “He’s at home, resting up.”

As Will turned toward the bar and raised his hand to the bartender, Matt’s excitement at meeting him turned into foreboding. Something wasn’t right. What the hell was going on?

Jesse glanced at Matt, then at Will. He raised his eyebrows at Will.

“How’d you two meet, again?” Jesse asked.

“Uh, online,” Will muttered.

“We met in a woodworking group where everyone talked about their projects and shared pictures of the stuff they’d made,” Matt clarified.

Jesse drank a gulp of the beer and nodded.

“By the way, I didn’t ask. You got a boyfriend? Or maybe girlfriend, Matt?” Jesse still looked grim.

“No, I move around too much.” Matt shrugged, but still didn’t get what was happening. What a strange question to ask.

Jesse gave Will a gut-splitting, balls in the wringer frown.

“Well, Will here does. He and Stuart are a couple. Maybe he didn’t mention it.”

Will collapsed into a chair while Matt’s gut spiraled to his toes.

Stuart? Who the heck was Stuart? Matt had never heard of him. He slumped into his chair across from Jesse and took a quick drink of beer.

Dammit. He’d spent the three thousand mile drive fantasizing about what he and Will would do after they met in person.

Now that he really thought about it, Matt realized Will hadn’t ever flirted exactly. But they’d gotten along so well. Boy, did Matt feel like a fool.

He looked up at his table companions, lost for moment. Jesse had just pulled his heart from his chest and stomped all over it. And Will? What was he doing sitting there looking sad like someone had kicked his puppy? What the heck? He had three years to tell Matt he wasn’t single. Three years.

They’d talked about everything. Where they lived, what they did for a living, what their hobbies were, what they liked and disliked. Matt had thought they’d been bonding. Becoming friends. Maybe even cross-country lovers. What had he missed?

Instead, all the time Will had been stringing him along like any old online acquaintance. He hadn’t even mentioned the most important part of his life.

Matt berated himself for being an idiot, no better than a naive teenager who’d fallen in love with an online mirage.

Feeling like thirty-six years of stupid, Matt finished his beer, trying to get his bearings. As his thoughts whirled, he realized Will had also put Jesse in an awkward position. Jesse’d known nothing of his ties to the town when he’d hired Matt to do the job. He had to be as stunned as Matt at this turn of events. Which made it even more embarrassing that Jesse had to be the harbinger of bad news. Matt hoped Jesse didn’t see him as incompetent because of this lapse in judgement.

Matt straightened. Dammit, he was a big boy. He was no stranger to disappointment. God knew, being a restorer was a rollercoaster ride of joys and dips into hell. Those weren’t quite as personal. But still, Matt knew he’d live through this dive to rock bottom just as he had so many other disappointments in his life.

Living with his dad on or near restoration sites and being plopped in and pulled out of schools up and down the Eastern seaboard hadn’t left him with any close friends. He was really only comfortable interacting with new people on a business footing. He’d always been bigger, taller, more awkward than the other boys in schools. He didn’t share their stories or secrets from growing up together in the small, out of the way towns where he and his father worked.

Actually, his dad and the landlady where he and his dad boarded a lot of the time were Matt’s closest friends. When his dad passed away a few years before, Lily and her teenage son were the only people left he’d call friends. They were two of the few who knew he was gay.

Until he met Will online, Matt had thought of himself as one of those people who would disappear one day and there wouldn’t be a ripple in the pool of mankind.

Sure, he was lonely most of the time. Now he felt not only betrayed but also lonelier than ever in a new town without an anchor.

But he knew he’d survive.

He and his dad always had.

Matt reached deep down and buried his disappointment. No more watching his soul shrivel up. So much for pulling the lint out of his navel. If he knew anything at all, he knew that he had to take the next step and another one and move on with life. He had a job to do in this town and then he could move away, back East or anywhere really.

He glanced at Jesse. He needed to know where he stood now—other than with his thumb up his ass over a guy who’d played him. He had to make some decisions and quickly.

He raised his eyebrows at Jesse.

“So, about this project. We have a deal. A contract, right?”

They’d both agreed to the outlines of the work online. Since Will had lied by omission online, Matt needed to know if this job was still a go or if he should head back to the Net to look at some of the offers back East that he’d turned down. Maybe this whole fucking town was made up of Internet charlatans, and talking about the biggest fools was what they did for shits and giggles.

“Or is our agreement…?”

“No, no. It’s real. Me and the town committee, we still want you to do this.” Jesse stared down at the table as he turned his empty glass around with his fingers. “I’d lined up Will here to work with you, but that’s not going to happen. I got other help for us, too, so we’re good.”

Jesse and Matt both ignored Will who sat like the carved figure of a pitiful victim.

Matt almost laughed. What’d Will have to pout about? He hadn’t lied. Matt could say that for him. He just hadn’t told Matt the whole truth. So fuck him.

While the other bartender brought Will his drink, Jesse talked about how the ranch had been the site of the first trading outpost and hotel in the area, both built before the Gold Rush. Jesse’s grandfather inherited them as part of a land purchase. They’d been empty for decades except for transient squatters and travelers needing emergency housing. Stories about them, however, flourished from generation to generation. They even were present in the background of historic photos and were prominent on maps drawn over two hundred years before.

Now Jesse and the town committee wanted to preserve the buildings’ authenticity while restoring them. The idea was to establish a Rosewood Area Museum where school groups could visit to learn about Western history. After the original structures were preserved and safe for visitors, the committee wanted to find a curator or docent to give interpretive tours and lectures.

“Why don’t I take you out to the site? I can show you what we’d like done, so you can get a better idea of the scope of the project.” Jesse had his back to Will as he bent toward Matt.

In their computer correspondence, Will hadn’t mentioned anything about being asked to work with him on the project even though Matt had told him he’d be coming out there to live for a couple of years to restore the structures. Will’d just said he’d be happy to meet Matt.

Matt had taken that to mean they’d probably move in together and get closer. What a stupid fuck, he chided himself. Will, not himself. On second thought, maybe even himself too.

Matt’s father had always said he was a dreamer and someday would have to come to earth. Today’s events proved how right his dad’d been. Matt’s landing had been short, swift, and abrupt. A personal, self-induced crash.

Jesse and Matt slurped down their second beers, and Matt stood up. Jesse glanced at Will, who was still staring at the table.

“I think you and Stuart need to find somewhere else to drink from now on.” At Will’s gasp Jesse stared down at him. “You aren’t welcome here anymore.”

Matt walked away like he hadn’t heard Jesse’s warning. But he felt a little better that Jesse too seemed to be appalled. It wasn’t a town conspiracy after all, Matt thought with a laugh at the silly idea.


Leave a Comment