Wednesday, December 2, 2009

something of value

( Note:  This pulls together some previous sketches--which have been removed from this blog--and adds a conclusion.  There is a bit more material that may get inserted at some point, but otherwise, this piece can stand alone.--aa)

Something Of Value

I PULLED MY TRUCK into the driveway, and Pat’s Tornado swerved in behind me.  Lurching out of his car, the bill of his hunter’s cap hit the doorframe, knocking it sideways across his head.  He did not seem to notice.  As he staggered toward the stoop, still singing ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, I began to realize the magnitude of his condition.  I was drunk, but Pat was at the edge of oblivion.  Annamarie appeared in the doorway.
==     ==

AFTER TURNING WRENCHES for four years back east, and in Santa Fe for Boddy’s, and then the Kawasaki dealer, and some anything-that-rolls-in-the-door auto repair shop, I’d had it with the oil and grease, the brake dust and exhaust fumes, the bone deep slices in every knuckle—and most of all, the grimy stains that no soap, no solvent would wash out of my hands.

A classified ad sought carpenters in White Rock.  I contacted old man Sandoval, the SnapOn dealer, and met him out at his house in Arroyo Seco.  I carried in a carton with a couple of air wrenches, an air chisel, and some other tools I knew I wouldn’t be using again.  I walked out of the house with a battered Skil Model 77, a wellworn leather tool belt, and some odd chisels and planes.  No money changed hands, and each of us thought he got the better of the other.

==     ==

NEXT DAY, I put the tools in my truck and hauled myself across the Rio, and up the highway that scales the rugged slopes of the Pajarito Plateau.  The Sandias and the Sangre de Cristos panned in and out of view as I negotiated the switchbacks.  Up on the flats, a trim young jogger loped along the road that ran to Los Alamos.  A fox, half hidden the brush, watched his progress.  Beyond the fox, the terrain rose to the Jemez. 

A little ways down the road, this tentative wilderness gave way to a convenience store.  I stopped and bought a quart of grapefruit juice and a bag of barbecue chips.  Another hundred yards, and suburbia spilled out to the east.  This was my turnoff.  At first, I missed the street named in the want ad, and wound down the lane all the way to the rim of the plateau.  The land fell off more than two thousand feet to the Rio.  I heard a plaintive wailing, almost like a child.  A thousand feet below me a string of geese were working their way south.

I probably took the longest possible route back along the coiling lanes to La Senda, and found the house.  It was a timberframed structure, with slumpblock walls and great glass panels.  Sitting on a rolling five acre lot, surrounded by stubby piñons, its form was ranging and aggressive--a prairie style house in the high desert.  A carpenter was nailing up cedar shakes on a curved section of wall. 

I pulled into the driveway.  A lanky, weatherbeaten man was standing nearby with a clipboard in his hand and a roll of drawings under his arm.  He wore tooled leather boots with pointed toes, and a straw hat with the brim rolled up on the sides, so the front also came to a point.  I got out of the truck and asked him if he knew about the job offer.  With his free hand, he took the cigarette out of his mouth. 

“You carpenter?”

The right answer was no.  The biggest thing I’d ever made using a hammer and saw was a plywood camper shell for Annamarie’s Datsun.  But I was pretty good with motors and transmissions—how much harder could this be? 

I glanced over at the building.  Even though it was chilly, the carpenter who was nailing up the shakes had taken off his shirt.  I flashed back to when I was in school, and Linda was pregnant, and I got that summer job working at the library.  It was the main branch, and my job was opening cartons of new books and gluing the envelope under the back cover.  A new wing was being added to the library, and I would look out the window of the dingy storeroom and watch the guys tiptoeing across a run of open joists carrying sheets of plywood, out under the open sky.

“I’m pretty good with wood,” I replied.

He peered into the truckbed.  “Ah see ya use a worm drive,” he said, nodding at the Model 77.  “Anything else is a piece a shit.  Kin you start now?  Ah’ll give ya four-fifty.”

==     ==
IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE, and we had knocked off early to drink a beer.  We got our regular table at The Fat Man's, and Pat launched back into his life in western Massachusetts, weaving his spell on me again, while outdrinking me two to one.  After a few rounds, the other guys shoved off, but Pat and I stayed for another few pitchers.

Pat Maloney was older than the rest of us.  Having served a formal apprenticeship as a joiner, he took a paternal interest in our work, teaching us how to sharpen a chisel or plane iron, testing the edge by shaving the hair on his forearm.  Using hand tools, he could layout and cut a mortise and tenon joint with machinelike precision, probably as fast as someone using a router and power saw.  He mesmerized us with stories of living and working on a pheasant hunting resort, raising the birds, maintaining the incubators and coops, guiding the hunters.  He described an idyllic existence.

During that time, he met Rosa, a sophomore at Amherst.  When she got pregnant, she dropped out, and moved in with him for a while, in his gamekeeper’s apartment above the workshop.  But she left him behind to have the baby, back with her family in Santa Fe.

Pat followed her out west to marry her, but soon grew uncomfortable in what to him was an alien environment.  He could not persuade Rosa to move back east, so he left her, and began a pattern of wandering back and forth across the country, in and out of the lives of his wife and daughter.  Pat was a pendulum that swung between the people and places he loved, repelled from one pole by the unbearable burdens of marriage and fatherhood, and from the other by the desperate forces of loneliness and sentiment.

Our mutual oscillations coincided in White Rock.  Pat was already working on the project when I got hired, but it took a while to get to know him.  For one thing, I was canned a day after I started.

I was a disappointment to the man who assumed I was equal to the merits of my tools.  That first day on the job, he assigned me to frame out for a big bathtub within the circular walls.  While the shirtless carpenter pounded on the walls from the outside, I struggled to resolve the interplay of arc and rectangle.  It was a task for a top notch, experienced mechanic, and by the end of the day I had maybe two illfitting boards nailed up.

The next day, the foreman walked in and watched me struggle for a while.

“Son, yer buildin a house, not a pie-anner,” he advised.  By the end of the day, he’d let me go.

“Ain’t gonna fuss with a check, son.”  He pulled out his wallet and peeled off three twenties.  “S’more than ya earned, but don’ worry bout it.  Good luck.”

A few despondent days later, I got a call from Orlando, one of the carpenters.  “Where have you been, dude, we need you.”  It turns out that the carpentry contractor had been fired, the day after they fired me.  The owner of the house—Cal O’Ryan—a physicist at the lab—was taking over finishing the project.  He had gotten the names of the carpenters from the subcontractor before he sent him packing, and apparently knew nothing of my limitations.

Nevertheless, it was back up the hill for me.  Someone else had finished the bathtub frame, so I fell in helping the best I could, humping materials, rerouting extension cords, retrieving tools dropped from above.  At some point, I was working with Pat, who was installing a wood cap on top of a parapet—a continuation of the curved wall that was my earlier downfall.

Pat had divided the half circle into twelve segments, but he couldn’t figure out the angle of the joint where the segments met.  He tried determining the angle by eye, and cut out the segments.  When he set them in place, the last one would not fit.

I started to explain to Pat how to calculate the cut by dividing angle of the arc by the number of segments, and he started getting annoyed.

“Here, dammit,” he swore, and handed me his pencil.  Then he began taking the tools out of his apron, handing them to me one by one, and when I could not hold anymore of them, and they started falling to the deck, he took off his hat and threw it down and started to walk away.

“Pat, wait a minute, let me just lay one out for you.”  It took me a while, because I needed Pythagoras to work out the length, and I couldn’t remember the square root algorithm.  (but oh how clearly I remember Nancy Swope, who sat on my left in Mrs. Byers’ math class.  She wore these button front blouses, and when she would lean forward, I could steal a glimpse of heaven between the puckers of the fabric.  It was a wonder I passed the course.)

Nevertheless, I worked it out close enough so that when Pat cut out a new set of caps, all he had to do was trim the ends that met the main wall of the house.  It was cherry.  Cal noticed, and gave Pat a compliment on the work that afternoon.  From then on, Pat and I were tight.

We worked together through the autumn, and under his tutelage I gained some skill.  He had a tender side, too.  Once—it was the day before Thanksgiving—I was nailing up blocking inside a closet, using a brand new twentytwo ounce Estwing.  As I began the swing of the hammer, its claw caught for a moment on a stud behind me.  I remember watching the hammer head, with its razor sharp waffle pattern sparkling, as it wobbled by on its way to my ring finger—which I had not yet learned to tuck behind my thumb when holding a nail.

It seemed like the hammerhead just tagged the fingertip, but it tore a nice flap of skin loose.

“Damn,” I cried, and dropped my hammer.  Pat noticed, and went out to his car to get a bandaid.  By the time he returned, it was red beneath the fingernail.  The pain was excruciating.

Once again, Pat went back to his car, returning with needle nose pliers and a tiny brad.  He put the brad in the pliers and heated it with his lighter until the tip started to glow.

“Gimme your hand,” he ordered.  I gave it to him.

“Now look away.”

Then he poked the brad through my fingernail.  Blood spurted from the little hole, but the pain immediately subsided.

“All set,” he said.  Now let’s get back to work.”

==     ==

I CALLED UP from the driveway, “Hey Annie, I brought Pat Maloney with me.”

“I see.  Is he coming in, or is he just going to stand there singing?”

Then Pat saw her in the doorway, hands on her hips.  Immediately he fell silent and stiffened up.  He straightened his hat out and hitched up his trousers.   

“Pat, come on in.  This is Annamarie.”

We clambered into the little trailer house.  I gave Annamarie a peck on a stony cheek.

Pat greeted her.  “Mrs. Wolfe, how do you do?  ‘Sa pleasure to meecha.”  Pat knew we weren’t married, but called her Mrs. Wolfe anyway.  Annamarie grimaced but let it go.  She asked him, “Pat, can I fix you a cup of coffee?”  I was about to have a cup myself.”

He cocked his head toward her and raised one eyebrow, and replied, “No, but I’ll take a beer if you have one.”

I groaned audibly.  “Pat, for crissakes...”

At those words, Pat’s head sank.  The corners of his mouth pulled down, and the twinkle in his eyes vanished.  “That’s right.  Enough is enough.”

We sat down, me on the couch, and Pat in a chair on the opposite side, near the door.  The little trailer house was so narrow, our knees were almost touching.  Annamarie brought in some coffee and sat down next to me, about as far away as the little couch would permit.

So I started telling her about our plans to subcontract the carpentry work for the Gant house.  Pat began to beam again.  Some force filled his sagging body, and his arms and head became animated again.  He rambled on about the plans for the house, how it would be even greater than O’Ryan’s.  About our partnership, and the beginning of creating an enduring relationship.  Through it all, he kept using the term, “something of value.”

But there was something incongruous about it all.  One minute, he seemed stupefied; the next, he was actually making sense.  But I was in no condition to explore the issue.  I felt even drunker than when I had arrived, and Pat’s remarks rolled in my head like the shifting baubles in a kaleidoscope.

Then he talked about how proud his wife, Rosa, was of these prospects.  He wanted to introduce me to her.

“I want you to meet Marcella, too.”  Marcella was his daughter.  “Smart girl; she’s going to Saint Johns.  Beautiful, too.  I think you would like her.”

Annamarie was sitting with her arms folded across her chest and legs crossed.  Except for the slow flexing of her elevated foot, she could have been carved out of a block of stone. 

But I was in another world, imagining the lovely Marcella.  Somewhere in the background, I remember Pat comparing his knockout of a daughter with Annamarie, my Annamarie, who took fierce pride in the severity of her looks; somewhere deep in my suppressed consciousness I knew I should be outraged.  But instead, I just sat there, lapping it up.  Annamarie sat in silence.

Finally I told him it was time to wind it down, and he got up and went out to his car.  Annamarie was still on the couch, still crossarmed and crosslegged, but she had turned her head away, gazing out the south window at the desert beyond.

I started to say something, knowing there was nothing to say.  Then I looked out front and noticed that Pat’s car had not moved.  He had passed out behind the wheel.

So I got up and went outside.  Then I opened the drivers side door and shoved him over, and drove him back to Santa Fe.  Pat rode slumped against the passenger side door, his right arm extended, and his head on his shoulder.  The sun was setting, turning the snow on the Sangre De Cristos a salmon color.  He lived all the way on the other side of town, somewhere way out Agua Fria.  Annamarie followed us, and drove me back.  By this time, the sky was black, and snow on the mountains was luminous.  I chattered lamely, pretending it was all in good fun, a few drinks, a crazy old guy, no?  Maybe she even believed me, a little bit, anyway.

==     ==

I DON”T KNOW how many years, after it was all over with her, it took me to realize what I’d lost, or how much pain I caused.

Why couldn’t I have said to Pat, “Listen up, old man.  Annamarie is my woman, and I’m her man.  She is beautiful to me, and I don’t give a damn what you think.”

It was because I was not a man, not then.  Annamarie, I am weeping.

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