The javelin still throbbed in my thumb when I rose Friday. I couldn’t reach it with a utility knife the night before, whatever was in there ran too deep. I wasn’t sure about Fir, if it had been treated lumber I would’ve had to cut it out of me. I picked it up out on the forty-second street job, dressing the four by ten beams that would hold the barge rafters at the cantilevered gable end of the roof over the porch.
Going to bed at eight got me up at four-thirty jonesing for a cigarette. All week I played Archie Bunker at dinner before putting the kids to bed. Driving until after midnight to get May to fall asleep; her screaming in her car-seat as we pulled away, resigned to it by downtown, happy on Forest Hill as she watched the lights, calling da-da affectionately. She is almost always gone by the
The walls were built with two-by-six studs and had to go up with Ralph’s wall jacks. I had heard rumor of Ralph well before we left town a decade earlier- a hard-nosed son-of-a-bitch cut from the cloth of the construction old-school. He is my new favorite person. Me, him and Elliot (Jud’s father-in-law) got the walls up in a week, fully sheathed, levering them off the floor slowly with the jacks, then on ladders, bracing the thousands of pounds against the wind. We ran the joists and the rafters the next week, I found the stones to walk the top plate of the wall, fourteen feet up, setting material and nailing it in place by hand, jettisoning the added weight of the nail-gun.
The beams had arrived rough hewn from the re-saw operation that dimensioned them into lumber. Instead of sanding, I ran over the surface with a wire brush- a trick I picked up in
There is a stiffness after weeks of framing that leaves you tired yet ready, like the skin of a drum, like you can never fully go slack. I sat in the blue-light of the kitchen Friday, dressed after shower, boots before me, trying to get it together. I had no music on, the ache of the new day washed over me again and again. The stab in my thumb was insistent and new all over. I would become a hard old tree-stump of a man, shouting down his children for misbehaving at dinner. I dreamt of fir grain, wearing through its rough skin with the brush, revealing the true grain beneath. I dreamt that I ran it for days, till I could peer into a secret world inside each beam. I dozed in the middle of the kitchen, thinking there was no way I could possibly go on.
The phone rang, it was Ralph. I hadn’t even noticed the rain. We talked of installing the beams that day, the walk-board skidding across the wet scaffold, the mud waiting beneath, building up on the ladder rungs. Ralph called it on account of rain, I suddenly felt very happy. A rain-day. I would stay home and rest.
I was in the port-o-let under the dogwood blossoms when the phone in my pocket started ringing. I fished it out best I could, it was eight o’clock and Jud was calling.
“Aloha, Mr. Hand.” I said.
“Buenos dios. Hey, whatcha gettin into over there this mornin’?”
“Well I’m spending some time here in the office.” I hadn’t really quite figured it out yet. I’d kind of been thinking about the wrapping of the exposed rafter beams in pine. At that moment I heard a vehicle pull up and stop and then a door open.
“Well the plumber says he’s coming your way.” Jud said. Directly outside I heard Ronnie,
“Hey you in there, Baby Duck? Ain’t you got one of those blue boxes at your house?”
“Yeah he’s out there yellin’ for me right now.” I said into the phone. There was laughter on the other end. “I reckon I’ll be setting that vanity then. Any chance of you swinging by and helping me get it up the stairs?” There was more hell being raised outside for me to come on out.
“Hell I’m halfway across the nickel bridge now. I’ll call and yell at Howie to hurry it up.”
“Are you sure? I’m guessing that vanity only cost around five thousand dollars, not including the marble top.”
“Howie’s fine. The boy’s in a much better mental state these days. I’ll swing by and check up on you guys around lunch.”
“I hope you realize you’ve ruined my morning poop with nothing but bad news.”
“Hey, you’re my number one ram-rod over there.”
I prayed the paint in the little bathroom had cured enough to have us get in there and start knocking around. Usually when Ronnie calls and says he’s coming it means he’s still a day out. I let us in. He was cussing Jamie the roofer for blowing an appointment down in the fan, which was what lead him directly to me. I got upstairs to the “master suite” and set up my stuff while Ronnie started dragging tools out of his white van. I hooked up the XM radio and dialed it to “
We convened in the living room where under the packing blankets the vanity had waited for two months for us to prepare its final home up the stairs of the cape-cod. I still hadn’t quite figured out how to get it around the corner made by the two doorways adjacent to the first step. The forty sheets of sheetrock had gone up, but there had only been one way to do it. Ronnie browsed through the other items- the countertop, the under the counter sinks.
“Hey, you gonna help me get this son-of-a-bitch up the stairs?” I asked.
“Is it gonna fit up those stairs? Where’s your tape measure?” he jabbed his thumb at me.
“We don’t need no fucking tape.”
Just then the phone rang, an unidentified number. It took me three rings before I realized it was Howie’s new number that I’d yet to enter into my phone.
“Hey man, Jud called, I’m on my way.” He still sounded a little groggy.
“It’s okay, I still don’t know what I’m doing over here, I may have to run get my hand truck.” The only way I could see the thing going up the stairs was on edge and vertical.
“Okay I’m gonna stop by Starbucks and get a coffee. You want me to pick you something up?”
“No I still got a full thermos. See you in a bit.” I hung up.
“That was Howie?” Ronnie asked.
“Yeah he’s on his way”
“Well shit, you don’t need me for nothing then!”
I was gone and back with the hand-truck, blankets and straps and still no Howie. Ronnie was vacuuming up white pvc shavings from where he’d sawed off the flange for the toilet. I’d set that flange after I put down the plywood sub-floor and the tile guys had set the cement board and run the tile.
“Hey what was wrong with the flange?” I asked.
“It had a hairline crack right there, Killer” and showed me the missing chip.
“What happened? I set it just like you told me. Was it me?” I said.
“I dunno, maybe the tile guys stepped on it.”
“Well we got to assign blame to somebody.”
“Let’s blame Howie.” He said. I set to pulling the base molding that Jud had run behind where the vanity was going. It was going to hold the vanity off the wall ¾ of an inch and blow the reveal the counter-top needed on top of it. The wall and trim both had a beautiful new coat of caulk and paint. I cussed Jud a few minutes to Ronnie, wishing that Howie would show up so I could get him to yank it. There was a recognizable guitar twang on the radio.
“My word, is that Willie Nelson?” asked Ronnie
“I think so.” We both worked in silence for a moment. I wondered what would happen when Willie and then Kris Kristoferson finally died. I would need to write something about Willie, perhaps before then.
“My parents saw him down in
“Oh did they? Well I guess ole’ Willies getting on up there.” Just then Howie rolled in. “Whatcha say, Lightnin’?” Ronnie hollered.
“Hi guys.” He said. “Sorry I’m late. Hey Clay, is your family back yet?”
“Not yet. Hey, will you take this pry bar down to that end of the board?” I said. He dropped his tool belt and hurried down onto the floor. With me pulling the free end he went through and applied pressure every so often to the piece. “That’s it, just like unzipping your pants.”
“Now don’t ya’ll get me excited.” Ronnie said. “I know how you feel about Howie”
“I do love me some Howie,” I said. “Alright let’s go get that vanity.”
“How do you want to do this?” Howie asked
“I dunno, let’s just take a running start and see does it fit.” It came off without a hitch. No hand truck. Light, it tipped on edge easily, we got it around the corner and up the stairs with no damage to the pre-finished veneer of whatever it is that passes for Cherry in
“Hey, who is this?” he asked. I said I thought it was George Jones. “Man, I love this radio station.”
I made a couple quick measurements between the two cavities where the medicine cabinets were to go, marked down and eyeballed the vanity center between them. No time for the level, no square. I screwed it in, popping a few screw heads out in the sheetrock. More touch-up.
“Is that where you want it?” asked Ronnie.
“Yeah, why not.” I said.
“Is it center?”
“Is it level?”
“Are you sure about that?” he grinned.
“Will you stop fucking with me and do your thing, god-dammit?”
“Whatever would you do without me?”
“Fuckin' plumber” I said. I then ran the baseboard to it to lock it in further, no turning back. If we lost the plumber it’d be a week before we got him back. He started threading on valves for the sinks and I went to get my head around the counter-top.
“Hey is the marble cut already?” Ronnie asked.
“Fuck if I know.”
“The plumber don’t cut the marble. Cuz if she crack, who gonna pay for it?”
“Not this monkey,” I said, “Let’s go check it out.”
The marble was cut for the two sinks and the faucets. The sinks would lay on two foam covered boards built into the vanity and the countertop lay on top of the whole thing. No problem. Ronnie and I worked in tandem. While waiting for him to finish the valves I installed the two pre-finished medicine cabinets into holes in the sheetrock. I tapped them in between the studs I’d framed up. I had to use a no-mar mallet, they were honeymoon tight. Ronnie popped a level over the top of both of them, and had nothing to complain about. “Ace number one carpenter!” he said.
Howie was getting frustrated with the base in the next room. He was being too quiet. I decided to let him alone for a while as I’d already run him off of this job a month earlier. His tension was palpable as we gingerly carried the marble piece through. I had enough to worry about, there was no dropping that marble.
“Hey, how you gonna set the top, baby duck?” Ronnie asked.
“What, you ain’t doing that either?”
“Nope, I just make with the pipes and turds and such.” He said.
“Geez-louise. I don’t know, I figure we could set it into some silicone caulk. You got any?”
“Nope. Just a piece-a-tube of latex. What do you wanna use, white or clear?”
“Haven't you figured out yet that I’m making this up as I go?” I said.
“Well I got to run to the supply house for the flange, you want me to pick it up?”
“Naw, I’ll head to Lowes and grab some lunch.”
“Lunch? We ain’t got time for no fuckin’ lunch. What the fuck is this?” He was smiling the whole time, “Besides I got to roll out of here by one to meet that roofer.”
“What? Fuck that roofer!” I hollered, and off we went. I left Howie to work out the issues with the base mould unencumbered by my opinions.
I called Jud on the way, “Man you got to get down to this hell hole. It’s a nightmare today.” He said.
“What, the Mike’s job?”
“Yeah, except there’s no Mike. So I guess that means I'm runnin' this job. We got a million people running around, guys are pulling off, dudes screamin’ at each other. It’s kind of fun in it’s own twisted way.”
“Yup, going to war,” I said, “striding forth to do battle.” He laughed.
We brained out the silicone issue together, over the phone. Not white, clear, let it splooge out if it must and then cut it back later with a knife. I hauled ass over to Lowes, parked the truck over by the garden center and decided going in there were too many re-tire-ees browsing the perennials to effectively check out that way. Knuckle-head contractors filled the isles, confused, got to close too me in the paint department. Four tubes clear 100% silicone, for windows and doors. I got checked out and ran it wide open up Monument, pulled a U-turn two miles down and rolled onto the expressway for two exits. I didn’t quite get killed by a U-of-R student coming off at
“What is this shit, you needed Kitchen and
“What? Why? It’s hundred percent silicone!” I said.
“Man I’m just fucking with you.”
“Must you always force me to live with doubt?” I asked, “It’s very cruel you know.”
The countertop lined up perfect under the cabinets. I threw my two twenty-five pound bags of lead shot from Green-top on top of it to hold till the silicone set. I ran a two-by-four brace from the shower to hold the backsplash in place. No caulk squeezed out. I felt like a very good carpenter. Howie and I went out front to have a cigarette.
“Man, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. That base moldings not working out very well.” he said.
“I think the blade’s shot. What I’ve seen of what you’ve done looks fine. Keep rolling and the painter will get it later.”
The phone rang, it was my wife’s phone. I answered and my five year old son said “Hey dad” he sounded worn out and tired. I felt a pang in my heart.
“Are you on the train yet?” I asked.
“Yeah, and we’re passing a cool cemetery.”
“Is it pretty?”
“Yeah. It’s very cool outside the train.”
“Well you guy’s will be home tonight right? I miss not sleeping with you.”
“Yeah, and we went under a big stone bridge! What are you and Jud and Howie doing at work today?”
“Oh we’re all having fun playing with Ronnie the plumber. I’ll see you tonight, okay, buddy? I love you.”
“Okay, dad. I love you too”
I got off the phone and had back at it.
I woke up late Saturday to go work on the Murden’s fence and the bird was still fluttering behind the heavy iron plate over the fireplace. Mary and the kid’s were gone to Providence to visit her nintey-five year old grandfather. Laundry lay in large drifts in the kitchen, ashtrays were spilling over. I’d hoped whatever was in the fireplace had managed to make it back up the chimney, but the two cats had gathered and the thing didn't sound like it was dying.
Years ago I’d read that to remove a bird or bat from your home, one throws a heavy sheet over it and gingerly carries it outside. I went to the bathroom and fetched my son’s towel, his name Henry embroidered on one edge. I got Henry’s towel for good luck.
The thing had been busy, soot had been pushed out from the edges of the iron plate, the cats had nosed the red pillows that Baby May plays on out of the way, the pillows had got black around the edges. I fiddled with the plate, hoping it was an adolescent sparrow or something, cats hovering behind.
The plate fell out, a full grown starling burst forth, cats scattered. More soot. I hurled my lucky towel, scattering an ashtray, my house of soot and ashes. The three windows facing the street had the blinds drawn; above them is one long narrow pane. The bird went for this, steadily knocking down the glass items we’d placed there onto the couch below. I bugged out and decided to regroup.
The cats were under the bed in the next room; I shut their door, opened the front to the morning outside. The starling wasn’t going for it, he hopped and fluttered back and forth against the glass, his wings ragged with filth, the blue morning light glinting off the purple along his back. He lighted atop the heavy urn that held our dog Cleatus’s ashes, his beak open as if he were panting. I thought Aw, Christ he’s gonna go “Nevermore” on me. My friend Jay later told me that he’d learned in his African-American Women’s Folklore class that a bird in the house means death is afoot, or some other bad omen, and you should get out. I’m glad I wasn’t aware of this, I needed to go build a damn fence in Church Hill.
I got the last vase down and finally gathered the stones to get up on the couch and catch the thing. It flapped wildly into a corner, I could see the black sheen of him under the ash, I got the towel over him, gently as I could, and he went mostly still. I think I could feel his wings thrashing, I wish I could remember feeling his bird’s heart in my hands. I hurried to the door and flung the towel open, he burst from it, a fierce explosion of soot and bird, shot through the trees and into the sky.
I still haven’t cleaned it all up.