"Saw, boy, saw!" said the Mr. Theodore Riley, the old casketmaker with nails between his teeth.
The boy in questions was Tom Smith, a local orphan of hazy origin. He sat on a the top of a salt pork barrel staring blankly out the wide open door to the shop. The occasional snowflake swirled in the air with the dust. Tom's lips were deep red and chapped, and his cheeks burned in the cold. He clutched his hands in his armpits. Occasionally someone would pass across the frame of the door on more interesting business than the construction of pine caskets.
"What did I say boy? Are you ignorant?" Mr. Riley stood up to his full height and slapped the haft of the hammer into his other hand. Tom slowly turned around. Mr. Riley raised his eyebrows. Tom suddenly gulped and jumped off his perch. He picked up the wood saw again and resumed sawing. Mr. Riley leaned down and started hammering.
"You're unsettled boy," said Mr. Riley, puncturing boards of wood three more times with great gusto. Tom briefly stopped sawing, then quickly started again, pumping his arms even faster. "How old are you?"
"I'm not sure," said Tom, his voice cracking.
"Hmm," said Mr. Riley. He slammed another nail into the casket. "I'd guess sixteen or seventeen. Maybe eighteen if you ain't been fed proper. Have you been fed proper boy?"
"I've been hungry sometimes, but not always."
"That's not real definitive."
Two more nails were pounded into submission and Mr. Riley walked around the casket to work on the other side. He picked a plank from the finished pile and examined it's quality. He snuffled through his nose and stroked the stubble on his chin before deciding to use it.
"You need to plane these straighter boy," he said.
Three nails became subservient.
"You should choose a wife soon."
Tom stopped sawing and looked over at Mr. Riley.
"Did I tell you to stop sawing, boy? Get back to work! I should pay you by the board and not by the day."
Tom sawed again, more slowly.
"There ain't enough women here. You'll need to send for one from back east. By post."
"You don't have a wife Mr. Riley," said Tom quietly.
"No I ain't. Not had much use for them. All them crinoline skirts and smelling salts and little lap dogs. I hate lap dogs. Ain't natural to have a carnivore that small. Frightful beasts."
"Not all women have lap dogs."
"The parsons' wives don't, that's true. They're always thin and stretched looking and sour-faced. Must be a symptom of being married to a parson."
"I wonder why you're telling me to get a wife when you don't like women."
"Now I did not say that!" Mr. Riley stood up and shook the hammer in Tom's direction. "I said I didn't have no use for women, not that I didn't like them. There's a difference you see."
Tom put down the saw and picked up his plane. He picked a wood curl from it's underside then started planing a board. Mr. Riley watched him through squinted eyes, then returned to nailing.
"You get a wife now, before you too learn how not to have use for them. This territory is turning respectable these days. Won't be too long before there are cosmopolitan metropolises here too. Whole country will be damned near filled with them. And one day, mark my words, all the available land with be turned into rows of brick houses, theaters, opera houses, and those new department stores. There'll be houses upon theaters upon operas upon department stores. There won't be a space left for a man to get lost in the prairie and look up and see the stars in heaven above without seeing a gaslight lamp. Nor the mountains or the lakes or the desert. Not a lick of anything wild. It'll all be gone. Everything dies. Mark my words. You get a wife."
"Yes, sir," said Tom sighing heavily. His gaze slowly returned to the square of bright, cold outside.