When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade. She called him Brother. Or Brutha—I don’t suppose either of them had ever voiced a terminal r. His two grown daughters did call him Daddy. Certainly I never felt even the most obscure impulse to call him Andrew, or “old man,” or any other familiarism, though he frequently gave me to know it would be all right if I were to call him mon vieux. He, for his part, called me boy, and beloved, and once, in a letter, “Breath of My Nostrils.” He was about to turn ninety-two when I moved into his basement, and he had not yet quite reached ninety-three when they buried him the next winter, in a coffin I had helped to make—a cedar coffin, because it would smell good, he said. I wasn’t that helpful. I sat up a couple of nights in a freezing, starkly lit workshop rubbing beeswax into the boards. The other, older men—we were four altogether—absorbedly sawed and planed. They chiseled dovetail joints. My experience in woodworking hadn’t gone past feeding planks through a band saw for shop class, and there’d be no time to redo anything I might botch, so I followed instructions and with rags cut from an undershirt worked coats of wax into the cedar until its ashen whorls glowed purple, as if with remembered life.
The man overseeing this vigil was a luthier named Roehm whose house stood back in the woods on the edge of the plateau. He was about six and a half feet tall with floppy bangs and a deep, grizzled mustache. He wore huge glasses. I believe I have never seen a person more tense than Roehm was during those few days. The cedar was “green”—it hadn’t been properly cured. He groaned that it wouldn’t behave. On some level he must have resented the haste. Lytle had lain dying for weeks; he endured a series of disorienting pin strokes. By the end they were giving him less water than morphine. He kept saying, “Time to go home,” which at first meant he wanted us to take him back to his house, his real house, that he was tired of the terrible simulacrum we’d smuggled him to, in his delirium. Later, as those fevers drew together into what seemed an unbearable clarity, like a blue flame behind the eyes, the phrase came to mean what one would assume.
He had a deathbed, in other words. He didn’t go suddenly. Yet although his family and friends had known for years about his wish to lie in cedar, which required that a coffin be custom made, no one had so much as played with the question of who in those mountains could do such a thing or how much time the job would take. I don’t hold it against them—against us—the avoidance of duty, owing as it did to fundamental incredulity. Lytle’s whole existence had for so long been essentially posthumous, he’d never risk seeming so ridiculous as to go actually dying now. My grandfather had told me once that when he’d been at Sewanee, in the thirties, people had looked at Lytle as something of an old man, a full sixty years before I met him. And he nursed this impression, with his talk of coming “to live in the sense of eternity,” and of the world he grew up in—Middle Tennessee at the crack of the twentieth century—having more in common with Europe in the Middle Ages than with the South he lived to see. All of his peers and enemies were dead. A middle daughter he had buried long before. His only wife had been dead for thirty-four years, and now Mister Lytle was dead, and we had no cedar coffin.
But someone knew Roehm, or knew about him; and it turned out Roehm knew Lytle’s books; and when they told Roehm he’d have just a few days to finish the work, he set to, without hesitation and even with a certain impatience, as if he feared to displease some unforgiving master. I see him there in the little space, repeatedly microwaving Tupperware containers full of burnt black coffee and downing them like Coca-Colas. He loomed. He was so large there hardly seemed room for the rest of us, and already the coffin lid lay on sawhorses in the center of the floor, making us sidle along the walls. At least a couple of times a night Roehm, who was used to agonizing for months over tiny, delicate instruments, would suffer a collapse, would hunch on his stool and bury his face in his hands and bellow “It’s all wrong!” into the mute of his palms. My friend Sanford and I stared on. But the fourth, smaller man, a person named Hal, who’d been staying upstairs with Lytle toward the end and acting as a nurse, he knew Roehm better—now that I think of it, Hal must have been the one to tell the family about him in the first place—and Hal would put his hands on Roehm’s shoulders and whisper to him to be calm, remind him how everyone understood he’d been allowed too little time, that if he wanted we could take a break. Then Roehm would smoke. I remember he gripped each cigarette with two fingertips on top, snapping it in and out of his lips the way toughs in old movies do. Sanford and I sat outside in his truck with the heater on and drank vodka from a flask he’d brought, gazing on the shed with its small bright window, barely saying a word.