I’m standing on a makeshift scaffold, about ten feet up — not very high, really, looked at from below. Up here, though, perched on these rickety boards, I feel like I’m standing in a canoe. G. says it’s perfectly safe, with the infuriating casualness of someone who thinks everything is. But I’m worried about a board breaking, followed by a leg or a neck, or, since the boards aren’t nailed to anything, stepping too close to the edge and, like some cartoon character, being see-sawed into space — too short a journey for my life to pass before me in satisfying detail.
Yet I need to go higher, another couple of feet, to wedge this heavy crowbar under the wooden siding I’m ripping off the house. I climb on the sawhorse we’ve dragged up here for that purpose. Despite my wife’s steadying hand, it’s rickety, too. I feel as if I’m standing on Fear’s shoulders; every time I move, Fear shrugs, as if to say, What’s the big deal?
I pry out some nails, yank another board loose. The sound of wood and nail being separated is like some deep groaning in the chest of the house — a mournful sound but music to me: one less board to tear off.
It’s demanding work: if I don’t pull hard enough, my arms get tired with nothing to show for it; if I pull too hard, and the board springs loose, my body jerks back, and I’m momentarily off balance, with nothing to grab to steady myself.
My wife isn’t happy up here either; she’s always been afraid of heights. So, of course, we joke — about this ludicrous perch, about falling, about the work we’ve taken on, its pleasures and risks. I have a band-aid on my finger, another on my toe. There are other cuts on my face and legs and several black and blue marks of mysterious origin. Norma is bruised, too, and she smashed her finger with a hammer. But the worst welts have been raised with words. Oh, the arguing. About nothing, everything. I’m told it’s in the nature of this work, this building of a home. But there are no lover’s spats on scaffolds. For a moment now, up in the air, we’re friends again.
We started on the addition only recently — more than an addition, really; it nearly doubles the size of the small house we just bought — and, not-withstanding our inexperience, we’ve made remarkable progress. We’re what they call hard workers: cheerfully obsessive, or not-so-cheerfully. Besides, there’s good reason to move along; Norma starts medical school this Fall and will have little time for other things. How lovely to be struggling now with each other and with these heavy two-by-tens that must be coaxed inch by inch into place; all the metaphors of heart and home join as neatly as boards cut to fit, joining us in frustration and pride and the sweat of our brow — no small thing, either, on these near-100 degree days.
Seemingly, we’re doing the work ourselves to save money, but I think the real reason is to save something of ourselves: to save it the way you save food or memories — something to draw on when times get rough, a recollection of effort that paid off, of something built true, of cuts that heal. And the building joins us not only to one another but to others, friends and neighbors, so that my world has suddenly changed. Out from behind my desk — my deskwork for now being squeezed into odd hours, odd even for early-rising me, who learns to rise earlier — I rediscover myself among people who could care less about THE SUN, to whom my skill at making this house of words is interesting, as far as it goes; but these hands, they remind me, are for other things, too.
G. comes out nearly every day. A friend of a friend, he’s a builder of more than thirty years experience, a generous man who is helping us as a favor.
We’re an odd match. Imagine Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson; imagine night and day. G. has built nuclear reactors and believes in them fiercely. We stay away from this and other subjects the way you’d stay away from Three Mile Island. After all, I have plenty of friends who share my most impassioned opinions; we can have an orgy of agreement any day at the natural foods restaurant, over a sprout sandwich. But they’re not out here helping.
G. and I talk about things I know little about: organic gardening (which he also believes in); solar energy (likewise; never mind the contradiction); carpentry. He is extraordinarily knowledgeable, practical, self-reliant and believes in helping people help themselves, even Yankees like me. (I’ve lived in the South twelve years, but that doesn’t matter; the highest compliment G. has paid me is, “For a guy from Brooklyn, there may be hope for you yet.” We joke about the Civil War, the difference between “Yankees” and “damned Yankees” — and, in an oddly tender moment, G. reflects on his grandfather, who was from the North, “yet one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever known.”)
On the way to a nearby sawmill, G. holds forth on a favorite topic — the greed of the lumber companies. For example, a so-called two-by-ten, he explains — as he has explained several times before, but he is passionate about the subject — really measures about one-and-three-quarters by nine-and-a-half, after it’s been smoothed from a rough-sawn to a finished board. To G. it’s unfair: you’re paying as much for the finished as for the rough-sawn wood, even though you’re getting less wood and the actual cost of finishing it is minimal. “You’re paying for the sawdust,” he says. By going directly to a sawmill, we’re saving money and “getting what we pay for.”
At the mill, after we’ve loaded up, the owner walks over to say hello, then, pointing to the lumber in the truck, asks, “You know how wide those are?” I realize the question is rhetorical, unembarrassed boasting, and a touching expression of pride in his work. “Get your tape and measure it,” he says. G. obliges. “Ten inches exact,” G. says, and the owner beams. “That’s right. Ten inches. That’s because I don’t use my blades till they’re worn out. I throw ’em away when they’re half worn.”
“I told you,” G. tells me on the way back.
It’s hot, very hot. At night, the heat is a blanket you can’t throw off. At noon, it’s the whip on the slave’s back. Can you imagine, I ask Norma — the sweat pouring off me, running down my arm, down the hammer, falling like tears — being in the fields in this heat ten, twelve hours a day, unable to take a break when you want, go inside for a cold drink? Of course, we can’t imagine. We are always mistaking the suffering of others; it’s either much worse than we think or not nearly so bad. Such a deep pocket, human nature. You put your hand in and come up with small change but reach deeper and there’s no telling what you’ll find. Yet how impoverished we are when it comes to real compassion.
Down the road from us live a half dozen black families, and one white man, described to us as a redneck, but I decide to wait and see. One morning, we stop the car, get out and introduce ourselves; I joke, ingratiatingly, about us being the new hippies, and he laughs. Yet, within minutes, he’s complaining about “the nigger” who didn’t show up to do some work for him, how “lazy” he is. The comment is abrupt, uncalled for, yet clearly important for him to get across, a way of naming himself, turning out his pockets, the way others let on in a hurry they know Christ, or where to get cocaine. We listen, not saying much; the talk turns to crops, to the heat.
I’m buying insulation. Norma is waiting in the car with Mara and Sara, my daughters from a previous marriage. A black man walks by, looks at them, and sticks his head in the window. He says to Norma, “There aren’t many white kids that look like their parents but yours sure look like you.” Norma says, “You think these kids look like me?” He says, “They sure do.” She says, “They’re not mine.”
Our road is easy to find but our house, a half mile down the road, isn’t. The road narrows after a quarter mile, twists around a trailer, a house, another trailer, each time seeming to end in someone’s yard, before our driveway begins. We’re at the very end of the road. Have faith, I tell friends when I give them directions, yet nearly everyone who comes out imagines they’ve gotten lost, just before finding us.
Once they’ve come this far, there’s no question it’s the right place. Who but me would line up the construction materials so perfectly, every board stacked neatly, little piles of scrap wood set apart from other little piles of this and that, spectacularly distinct, laughably orderly, like my desk, my closets, the refrigerator shelf. Some people, when they feel insecure, go out and spend money, or have a drink, or call a friend. I straighten up. Norma is usually good-natured about it, but I know it’s hard to live with; I’m as extreme, in my own way, as some unregenerate slob (which my father was; get it?) — yet it’s not cleanliness that concerns me as much as the arrangement of things. As I once put it, facetiously, cleanliness is next to Godliness and Godliness is next to neatness. The problem is I often act as if I believe it.
Naturally I’m dismayed when the carpenters show up to help with the framing; I can tell from the start these guys don’t arrange their home libraries in alphabetical order. As unobtrusively as possible, I pick up after them: saws, cigarette butts, soda cans. “Nice place you got here,” one of them says; moments later, he flings a two-by-four into the strawberry patch.
The next day, the carpenters don’t show up at all. G., who had arranged for them to work this weekend, apologizes. “Carpenters are never dependable,” he says. Besides, one of them has “a domineering wife, who probably decided for the both of them to take a trip.” I wonder whether this woman is domineering or simply speaks her mind and, whether to G., that’s the same.
And what about me? I keep encouraging Norma to express her feelings boldly and without compromise, which is difficult for her, she says. My advice sounds sincere, even to me — yet why have I always married shy women, whom I then implore to be less shy?
Once again, the carpenters don’t show. What was supposed to be easy — paying someone to do the framing and roofing — turns out to be what’s most hard; we’re no good at waiting. I’m disappointed but don’t acknowledge it; I don’t want to seem unappreciative of G. Norma is openly impatient and I become impatient with her impatience, giving her a little lecture on non-attachment.
To save money, we shop for used doors and windows. We find the windows — five of them for only $5 each, which we buy from a doctor’s wife who has just remodeled, bargaining with her as we stand in the rain, in a ritzy neighborhood where the homes have more closet space than our house has square feet. But we can’t find the right door. We discover one we like at an antique store — solid oak, with stained glass, exquisitely crafted — but, at $1,200, it’s a little out of our range.
Actually, buying this place was, too, but friends loaned us the money for the downpayment and the addition, and the owner, also a friend, agreed to finance the purchase herself — thus, our monthly payments for the house and seven-and-a-half acres are less than most people pay for a two-bedroom apartment in town. Still, we both feel some embarrassment at owning land, as if it makes us seem more prosperous than we actually are, or more bourgeois, or more “adult” — though, at 39, I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
Getting things done, physically, gives me more satisfaction than I’d imagined. There’s no mental substitute — no matter how rich the mix of ideas. For a long time I’ve longed for work like this as part of my day. Running and exercising regularly are like practicing scales; this is the real music. It doesn’t matter how simple the accomplishment: joining two boards with a nail — making what was separate one — or sawing something down the middle. And as I become more skilled I become more daring. I imagine I can learn to do anything, to trust tools and to trust my steady hands, to design my wild dreams and build them, to climb high, higher, a few feet higher.
I thought of ending with that last paragraph. After all, I need to end somewhere; the house isn’t done. I liked the image of climbing.
But yesterday afternoon, insteading of climbing up on the second floor joists to drive in a nail — which would have made sense — I reached up over my head. It was awkward but I didn’t want to climb higher. I didn’t like it there.
I brought the hammer down. On my finger.