A woman, a man, and a carpentry obsession

Right next to my trailer is the

nicest house you ever saw. I built it and lived inside it for a week. This was

back when I thought that bliss, like a foal, would grow if you gave it shelter

and warmth.

I had been working as a carpenter

in Nevada. Sweaty days out in the desert, Vegas glimmering in the distance.

After work, cold beers and bleached-blond women who liked my tan and didn't

want to know my name. One of those big developers was paying me good money to

put together Tinker-Toy homes out of cheap pressed wood and particle board.

Retirees loved them, and they usually died before the framing fell apart. But I

didn't consider that building. It was manufacturing. Finally I got tired of

filling the desert with crap, and I drove around until I got here. Woodland

Park, CO. Altitude and population both seven thousand.

I saw her at the County Market,

buying goat cheese with her crinkly hair swept back, the highlights glowing red

and gold like autumn leaves. I could tell from her hands that she'd never

handled a tool or piece of lumber in her life. But she seemed like the kind of

woman who would appreciate the way a dovetail joins two pieces of wood to look

like one.

I walked on to the deli counter,

smiling as I thought about her. With women, I’m like that. Just the idea of

them, sometimes, is enough to make me happy.

Out in the parking lot she wrestled

with one of those eighty-pound bags of yuppie dog food, trying to throw it into

the back of her Mazda Miata.

She looked over at me and I

grinned. I hoisted the bag for her and she thanked me. “Nevada,” she said,

looking at my license plates.

I told her I’d just moved here,

realizing only when I opened my mouth that this was true.

“Where are you staying?” I kind of

shrugged. She mentioned a cabin on her mother’s property outside of town. “It’s

a little rough, but…”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “Beats the

bed of my truck.”

Her name was Courtney. I followed

her down a gravel fire road to a dilapidated old cabin. Considering how much of

a dump the place was, I thought about just turning around. But that would mean

driving away from her, too. As it turned out, there was a trailer behind the

cabin. Since her mother had died, the cabin was often vandalized.

“I need someone to stay out here

and keep an eye on things,” Courtney said.

I moved in that night. The trailer

was small and noisy when it rained. The sound of water bouncing on the tin roof

and echoing in the empty spaces kept me up at night. My German Shepherd pound

dog, Boxer, slept outside. The next day I got a job running trail rides for the

Winnebago crowd from Texas. I'd never spent time with horses, but figured it

couldn't be too different from framing. If you had patience and calm hands, you

could make wood do exactly what you wanted. After a few weeks, the horses were

the same way.

I didn't see Courtney again until

the last day of summer, when I ran into her at Home Depot down in the Springs.

The noise in the trailer was driving me nuts and I'd gone to see about

insulation. She was looking for some wood glue. One of the legs on her kitchen

table kept coming loose.

Before I knew it, I'd told her not

to bother with glue. “I'll build you something,” I said. “A good kitchen table

is the key to a home.”

She walked beside me as I looked

for the right insulation but didn't find it. We went out to the parking lot

together. I'd draw up a design, I said, and come back later to get the wood.

“Should be done in a couple weeks.”

“You're very nice,” Courtney said,

reaching out to squeeze my hand.

 

At Home Depot on my next shopping

trip, the guy in the tools department remembered my name. I guess I've got that

look about me: This man will buy every last scrap of building material in

the store if you convince him he needs it.


Not that I needed that much

convincing. I like tools. The heft of them in my hand, the tiny little

vibrations that kick in when you turn on something powerful. The job goes so

much easier when you've got the right tool.

I know people who say Home Depot is

squeezing the neighborhood hardware store, the place you see in the Norman

Rockwell painting, the two old coots sitting outside next to an old Studebaker,

chewing tobacco. One of them keeps a stockpile of old washers in a box in back,

and knows just the one to fix your runny toilet.

But I don't think it's like that.

If Phil didn't keep a box of old washers in the back, I was betting he had a

new tool in front that would work even better. A power screwdriver, a router

with just the right bit for carving tongue-in-groove fittings for a new table.

I needed all of those things. The

week before I left Vegas, someone had smashed the window on my truck topper and

stolen all my tools. Three thousand dollars down the drain.

I'd gone outside just before

sunrise to search through the glove box for the spare condom I kept there. From

the front step I could see the pebbles of broken safety glass scattered around

the back wheels. Instead of rooting through the glove box I stood at the

tailgate and examined the empty metal bed. The thief had taken everything but a

single leather work glove and the chuck to my DeWalt cordless drill.

I must have stood there for a long

time, because when I turned around the woman I'd left in bed was at the front

door, looking on in bemusement, or scorn,

Unexpectedly, I felt myself

shattering. Even now I don't know what it was. The heat, the break-in, the

bimbo who probably would have lifted my tools herself if she'd known how much

they were worth. I cussed, and then cussed louder. Finally I bellowed: “Fuck.”

And I drew back my foot and slammed the toe of my boot into the rear quarter

panel.

The woman -- I'd give her name if

I'd ever known it -- was on the sofa, wearing my only button-down shirt and

watching “Good Morning America” when I came back inside. “Did you find the

condom?” she said, giving me a seductive leer.

That was it for me. She had no idea

what I was about and didn’t care. Neither did anyone I worked or drank with, or

come to think of it, anyone I’d known since I got out of the SeaBees six years

before. Four days later I was on the interstate with my clothes and the dog in

back of the truck. Heading out of town when I passed one of those billboards

lit up like a house afire: “Quick N' Easy: Marriages and Divorces.”

I was thirty-seven and had never

been in need of either. But if I was going to get married, I figured, Las Vegas

wasn't the place. Staking your claim in the desert sand was a good way to lose

it the first time a stiff breeze came through.

 

Phil showed me a radial arm saw, a

power drill, a sander. “This one will give you a finish like glass,” he said,

caressing it the same way I sometimes patted the horses at work.

The lumber yard was a mess. Snow

coated the waterlogged timbers and a guy on a forklift tooled around the stacks

like he was cutting corners at the Indy 500. The yard hands worked in dungarees

and tank tops. LL Cool J blared from a boom box on the loading dock.

“A man doesn't choose a woman. A

woman chooses a man. I'm the best, bust to my master plan.”
Or something. I hate rap

We sidestepped the forklift and

found the perfect piece of mahogany. Five feet long, four feet wide, a grain

pattern like the striated cloud layers that stacked behind the Front Range in

the late afternoon.

Back inside, I started thinking

about bookshelves, too. I'd never been much of a reader. Mostly I just looked

at the newspaper, or thumbed through Stub's copy of Rodeomagazine after he was done with it. But Courtney was

a reporter for the local newspaper, and loved books. In her apartment, she'd

stacked them across one entire side of the bedroom. On the day I'd been over

to measure for the new table, I noticed they blocked the view of Pikes Peak

from her window.

She'd mentioned New York, New

Orleans, Los Angeles, her voice rich with certainty that there was a place --

dozens of places -- better than this. Was it possible, I wondered, to darken

the present so the future would look brighter?

I pushed my cart down Aisle 14 --

lumber, stakes and moldings. I bought two-by-fours, dowels, a half-dozen pieces

of fancy molding to dress up the front.

That Sunday I started on the table.

Courtney didn't know about the shelves yet, so I hid the wood for them around

back when she came over to watch. We made coffee on my tiny propane stove and then

went out to the yard. I smoked, cut lumber, sanded and figured angles. She

liked sawdust, the smell of fresh-cut wood. She pushed the mahogany shavings

across the hard dirt with her toe, bending to pick them up and bring them to

her face, letting them slip through her fingers and twirl back to the floor

like a kind of subdued confetti.

It took me a little longer than I'd

figured to finish both pieces. In early October, the Texans showed up in one

big herd, all wanting to ride up into the hills and look at the foliage. The

trail boss, Stub, had me working fourteen hours a day. Finally, though, I put

the shelves out in the yard to let the varnish dry. Courtney's roommate, Nancy

-- the one I didn't like -- answered the phone when I called to see if I could

bring them over.

“She's out of town,” Nancy said.

“Arthur took her up to Vail to see the foliage.”

Arthur was the city editor at the

paper. He'd been to New Orleans before, spent a year working for a paper near

Los Angeles. Courtney listened raptly every time he talked, as if his voice

carried music from some faraway city.

It snowed that afternoon and I sat

outside on the rickety front step of the trailer, wearing a chamois shirt. The

flakes clung to my arms and dissolved into the thick fabric. The snow covered

the bookshelves, leaving harsh water marks that ran deeper than the grain of

the wood.

At first I thought I was done. Done

with the table and shelves, done with her. I went by when nobody was home the

next day and dropped both pieces in the garage. But two weeks later she called.

Her roommates-- they were young, early twenties, not the type to invest in

coasters -- had friends over and left a cold six-pack on the table.

“It was so beautiful,” she said. “I

thought of you every time I had breakfast. And now it's all scuffed up.”

That table turned into a

never-ending project, like trying to corral heifers in a fenceless yard. I'd

give it a final coat of lacquer. It would gleam. Courtney would take it back,

and kiss me. Days or weeks would go by, and then I would take it home wrapped

in a blanket, strip it down, refinish it, bring it back.

The last time this happened, she

grabbed my hand as I got up from the table I'd just re-installed in the

kitchen. “Victor, let's do something this weekend. Nothing to do with

furniture. I want to go on a trail ride. I'll make a picnic.”

Stub set it up so we could have the

two best horses. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and Courtney brought

cheese, fresh-baked bread and a bottle of wine. I took her up to the Crags,

which was a terrible ride in the summer because of all the tourists. Now it was

deserted. About two hundred yards below the top, we had to tie up the horses

and walk because of the rocks. Atop the pinnacle we could see for miles, out to

Colorado Springs and toward Denver.

“Look, there's my house.” I pointed

to a spot shadowed by Pikes Peak.

“It looks like a shack, even from

here,” she said. “Why don't you fix up the cabin and move in?”

Off to the west, a wildfire burned.

Thick smoke billowed from an iris of orange. It looked to be about an acre

wide. “Out of season,” she said. During the summer, sometimes it didn't make

any sense coming up here. The smoke from so many fires in the canyon made it

impossible to see anything. But this was just the one, burning away on a cold fall

afternoon.

“I hate to think of all that wood

burning,” she said.

“Stub told me it's actually good.

Takes the woods back to where they started, so they can build up stronger.”

“I still don't like it. Is it

moving toward us?”

The fire stayed where it was, for

the most part. When we got down into the valley, I could taste the smoke in the

air that separated my lips from hers. Then I kissed her.

“I think I love you,” I said.

Courtney acted like she didn't hear me, like the smoke was thick cotton in her

ears.

 

 

Home Depot was closed on

Thanksgiving, so I went the day after. I wasn't sure what I was looking for, so

I walked the aisles, thinking about board feet, fasteners, varnishes, tools.

“Big project, Victor?”

It was Phil, sliding out from

behind the key-making booth. “Not sure,” I said. “Maybe a wood stove.” I'd

been through the cabin the other day, and found that the only serious problem

was a broken propane furnace.

We walked. “Stoves,” he said,

kneeling in front of a squat iron model.

“It's got to have exactly the right

kind of heat. Make you feel like you've just come in from a day of hunting and

you're warming your socks by it.”

Phil showed me modern, gleaming

contraptions that burned pellets. I wanted a stove that took real wood. I liked

everything about wood. I could see myself outside on a cool day honing the axe.

Stroking back and forth to get a glistening edge. Sharp sounds of metal on

metal would carry over the hills. Courtney would be inside cooking dinner. I

would split one piece after another, until a cold sweat came between me and my

shirt. Inside, she would touch her warm hands to my face.

“My grandfather's got one like

that,” Phil said. “It's just sitting out back in his shed. He'd probably let

you have it for cheap.”

That's what I like about Phil. He's

out to make sure I get what I want, even if it means I don't buy a spiffy new

stove. “Let's call him up.”

We went to the back room and he

pulled the phone off a desk crammed with invoices, tool company calendars and

half-opened boxes of faucet assemblies that had been returned. He dialed up to

Cripple Creek, where his grandfather was a rancher and justice of the peace.

“You still got that woodstove?”

He did, and wouldn't mind parting

with it. All I had to do was come get it.

“It'll be a relief for him to get

rid of some of that crap he's got out back. He dies, it's going to take a bulldozer

to clean that place out. Either that, or light it all on fire. Most of it's

nothing but junk.”

“He ever do marriages?”

“What?”

“Marriages. You know how judges

sometimes do weddings?”

Somehow I'd got it in my head that

Courtney and I would go up for the stove. The judge would get to telling us

about how he'd picked it out with his first wife, how it'd kept their baby warm

when he was little, how the soothing crackle would get him to sleep at night

when he was crying. And that the judge would marry us.

I got to thinking about the stove,

and I realized the living room was all wrong. The floor was wrong, the kitchen

was wrong, the cabinets were wrong.

“Kitchen stuff,” I said.

“Pots and pans are on Aisle 5.”

“What about cabinets?”

“What'd, the wife cut you off?” he

asked.

“Not entirely,” I said. “But we're

expecting a baby, and I want to have the kitchen finished before he drops.” As

we walked, I tried to figure out why I'd lied.

Every time that Jimmy, my boss in

Vegas, had to fire someone he’d listen to their story and shake his head. “I was

stuck in traffic…I didn’t steal those tools…Would never hit Hector on the

shoulder with a pry bar…” He’d nod and say: “Not much difference between a lie

and a wish. Take care, now.”

Phil was talking. “Sounds like

you'll need a cart.”

“Yessir. This is maybe a two- or

three-cart job.”

“You sure about doing this all at

once? Sometimes it's better to take on one project at a time.”

I hesitated, but couldn't get the

idea out of my head. The perfect home. So perfect that it would glisten in her

mind like the lights of New York. Phil paused for a moment, as if surveying a

complicated map. “Okay. Here's what we'll do. Start at the east end. We'll work

our way back here. You got a list?”

I didn't. The idea of doing this

had been in the back of my mind, I guess, but I didn't want to flesh it out on

paper. That would have only proven how foolish I was. Even so, I didn't want to

sound crazy.

“Had one, but I left it at home. It

wasn't worth much,” I said. “You ever try to plan a job and the first thing you

think of is the last thing you need? You think of the finish, and what you want

to start with is the foundation?”

“The first thing I ever built,”

Phil said. “A treehouse. I had drawings all over the page, graph paper coming

out my ears, plans so big you'd of thought they were for a mansion. I did it on

the sly, saving money from selling hot dogs at the high school football games.

I didn't want my dad to know until it was done, then he could see it. See how

beautiful it was. I went out and bought all that stuff, took up everything I'd

saved. And it was too big for the tree.” He laughed.

“After that, I decided something that

actually worked was more fun than having an idea about building something even

better.”

We pushed the carts across the

floor, a two-man calvary rumbling into a battle. In my mind I pictured the

finished product. A house on a hill, a deck sweeping off to the side. Tight

wood inside, eaves tucked down over the log walls like a hand reaching down

from the sky, sheltering, protecting, holding in the warmth.

I thought ahead to our first dinner

there. Venison. Me outside, wearing a jacket because of the light snow, tending

the grill. Courtney inside, gently moving her torso in tiny circles to match

her wrist as she whisked a sauce.

I supposed I could have brought her

with me so she could say what kind of cabinets she liked. But I didn't want

her to see what I was doing any more than would take your kids with you to pick

out their Christmas presents.

Courtney liked natural wood,

butcher block and similar things. I favored a clean white Formica with glass

front. You could see what was in each cabinet without opening it, knowing what

was inside without having to wonder. I went with butcher block.

“What do you think I'll need to get

the cabinets in?” When I was in Nevada, the cabinets had come pre-assembled off

of a truck. I'd never done them by hand. There had to be some tools that went

along with the job.

“Not much,” said Phil. “Hammer,

nails, screws.”

“That's all? I mean.... It's a

complicated thing, cabinets.”

He thought for a minute. “Well, I

suppose you could use a level.”

We walked over to the tools. He

stopped at a phone when the loudspeaker called his name. “It's her again,” said

the voice from overhead.

Phil picked up. “Yeah.....

Yeah..... Look, you've got to stop calling me here..... I know you're

hungry.... Try some of the popsicles. They're in the fridge, under the

chicken.... I know a popsicle isn't ice cream, but it's frozen and it's

sweet.... I know, honey. I know. But I can't buy you any right now. I'll bring

some home.”

He hung up. “She's pregnant. Calls

me four, five times a day, just to say hi, she wants some ice cream. Worst

thing I ever did was put a phone in every room of the house.

“Levels,” he said. “Do we want

computerized or the old-fashioned bubble kind?”

“What do you think?”

“Not much of a difference.

Computerized one might be a bit more accurate. Forty-seven dollars worth of

accurate.” He already had the computerized one in the cart. Like I said, Phil

knows me. We moved on to tiles.

There were scores of them, grouted

into little floor patches hanging on the wall, piled loose in bins, like gems

for sale at a street bazaar. I dug my hands into one of the containers, felt

the cold ceramics, the clean edges, the clicking noise they made when they fell

one on top of the other. I imagined them under my feet, the pads of my toes

pressing against their smoothness, rubbing over the grout lines. You know

you're home when you feel that.

I chose a geometric pattern. The

color of rich mud alternating with a milk-laced coffee tone. She pours the milk

into her cup first, then adds the coffee until it looks just like that.

“You have kids yet?” Phil wanted to

know.

“No.”

“Anything you can buy in brown,

you're doing yourself a favor.”

Dirt. Our kids would track dirt

through the house. I knew that was a few years down the road. But it made sense

to buy with that in mind. We would have big, boisterous kids. She was tall.

They would have my big bones, Courtney's blue eyes.

Phil left to stack everything by

the back loading dock. I pulled around and met him there. He started figuring

with a calculator and handed me a slip. “You ready for this? I think we might

need to whittle this down a little.”

I examined the difference between

the bill and my wallet. “What about some more credit?”

“We could maybe do that. What're

you, the owner of those stables up there?”

For a moment I almost told the

truth. But then I realized I'd have to give everything back. “In business

twenty years,” I said. Outside, I backed the Suburu up to the dock, but Phil

had already sized up the load and the car.

“Not gonna happen,” he said.

He was right. “You keep it all

here,” I said. “I'll rent a truck and come back.”

 

By the time I got the new stove in,

it was April. Winter stuck around like the last few days of the flu. It was

gone, but you could tell it had just left. Tire ruts had cut into the mud and

frozen there, turning the yard was a miniature topography of hills and

valleys.. Walking across them at night was dangerous business, and it left dirt

turds on the new tile floor.

She liked a clean house, and spent

two hours on hands and knees, in jeans and a loose white T-shirt, scrubbing

the floor until my boot prints faded into the glowing brown ceramic. I watched,

wondering why Courtney cared so much, why it was so important to have no trace

of dust in the kitchen.

Stub once told me that dust is

mostly skin, the leavings of ourselves that coat the surface of a home. She

doesn't want any part of it. I thought this while sitting in a chair perched on

the doorjamb so as not to muddy the wet floor with its metal feet. I watched

her sway. She really moved with that brush. Back and forth, the muscles in her

arms clenching and relaxing until she was sweaty.

Courtney stopped, noticed me

watching, staring really, and she looked at me. I thought about taking her,

right there, on the clean kitchen floor. I could have just knelt down there

behind her, undone the snap on her jeans. I saw my hand over hers, getting her

to drop the brush in the pail.

“What are you looking at?” she

said.

“You missed a spot.”

After the floor was done, the

cabinets went in with a small amount of cussing and sweating. With the

computerized level, straightening them off was no problem.

She marveled at their smooth wood

faces, then spent an afternoon scrubbing them inside, removing the dust and

grime, along with my dirty hand prints.

Finally, Courtney put down the rag

and leaned against the counter. She wiped her head and looked around.

“I never thought the place could

look this beautiful,” she said. “It's a lot of work for you to stay here all

alone.”

I nodded, trying to keep my face

straight. “I never quite thought of it that way,” I said.

 

With the cabinets in and little

else to fix, I fell into a low spell. Courtney was away for the weekend with

Hart, a music teacher at the community college. I watched TV late into the

night, slept until noon and didn't cook a thing in the new kitchen. On Monday I

blew off work, but Stub found me nonetheless.

“You sick, or what?

“What,” I said.

“Tell her about the strip in

Vegas.”

“What?”

“Tell her about Vegas. She's never

been with a guy who hasn't come from somewhere else. She uses them like travel

guides, and on to the next one.”

“She wouldn't like Vegas. It's

too... Vegas.”

“Make something up. Meantime, we

got work to do. Need you to go down to the Springs, pick up a trailer. Roger

backed into the hitch the other day and it's getting welded.”

I went, mostly for the sake of

getting out of the house. At the welding shop I had to wait for a few minutes

while the mechanic checked the brake lights. The garage was hot and noisy. Over

the sound of electricity coursing through the arc welders, they had the stereo

cranked up.

“A man doesn't choose a woman, a

woman chooses a man.”


You'd figure in Colorado that

people would listen to country music, but it's the other way around. The more

you get away from the mountains, the more people want to listen to Gene Autrey

signing about home on the range. When you're in the mountains, people want to

hear about hard brothers and dope fly gear and busting caps in his ass.

On the way back up to Woodland Park

I passed Home Depot. I almost didn't stop because I had the trailer. But the

lot was empty and there was no problem parking.

“Shingles,” I told Phil.

“You're doing shingles?”

I saw myself up on the roof,

skillfully attaching cedar shake to the fresh roofing paper I'd laid. I would

keep her warm and dry. The sun would silhouette my sweaty body. I would look

like a cross on a church top.

“You knew I was doing the roof.

I've told you about the roof all along.”

“You say so. Shingles are out

back.”

Do cedar shingles always smell like

cedar? I'd like it if they did. Out on the deck on the first summery night,

holding hands and quietly sipping beer, the scent of cedar would almost

substitute for the sound of words.

“They do,” said Phil. “Not always

real strong. But they do. You're probably better off with something a little

cheaper.”

I took the cedar. Over the next few

days, I found that roofing is good work for a frustrated man. With a steel claw

hammer, I ripped up the decaying shingles, one by one. I enjoyed the tearing

sound, the jerky motion. I chucked each one to the ground with more force than

necessary.

Stub stopped by to watch. “You ever

thought of just dropping them?” he said. “Be less dangerous for people walking

through the yard. You almost beaned me.”

“Sorry. Didn't know you were

there.”

“What's got your panties in a

bunch? You're up there throwing shingles like John fucking Elway.”

“I'm not mad. I just like watching

them fly.”

“Mmmm. Not mad.” He guffawed and

went inside to make himself coffee.

A week later, I finished. Cedar

wrapped the house in a waterproof embrace. I stood on the crown, shrouded in

the tang of fresh hardwood. Courtney climbed the ladder and joined me with two

beers. I drank mine in one gulp.

"God, it's beautiful up

here."

She nodded, looking off to the

Rampart Range. "I think about leaving, but then I wonder if I'd just spend

all my time remembering how the mountains look."

“Come over next Friday. We'll cook.”

She agreed.

 

Midweek I had a near-disaster. I'd

moved some of my stuff in, and was doing a load of laundry.

It was about nine in the morning,

and the drive-time disc jockeys were blabbing in between the latest Travis

Tritt and Mary Chapin Carpenter songs. At first I was annoyed, but then they

started talking about some lady down near Santa Fe who'd been making tortillas.

“So she's there over the frying

pan,” the guy says. “She's cookin' away, and you know how those tortillas get

the black-and-brown marks in 'em when you cook 'em up. She's watching it, flips

it over and about passes out. The face of Jesus, right there on a tortilla.”

The woman framed the tortilla and

set up a shrine. “She's offering the tourists communion,” the DJ said. His

partner chimed in: “Dunno, Bob. I didn't come down with yesterday's rain. Some

folks will do anything for a buck. What a nut.”

I was inclined to agree. But I

thought about that woman waiting for the tortilla to speak in parables. Waiting

for decades, probably. I put the wash in the dryer and decided that she was

only seeing what she wanted to see. The letdown would come when she gave up.

How much could it hurt to keep hoping? I considered a trip down to New Mexico

-- it'd be nice to drop a dollar in the jar and see the face of Jesus. About

halfway through planning out the route in my head, I heard a loud bang and the

house went dark.

 

The fuse box was in good order.

From the porch I could hear the well-pump churning in the pasture across the

way, and figured there hadn't been a power outage. I called Phil and told him

what had happened. He told me to pull a couple of the fuses from the box and

bring them to the store, along with the diagrams for the wiring I'd installed.

So I went back down to the Springs. The drive took me about forty minutes, but

I didn't mind. I had something I was working on. The conversation with Phil was

interesting. I'd never known it made a difference what kind of fuses you had,

what kind of lines running through your house.

“If you've got the wrong box

powering the setup, you're in for a world of trouble,” said Phil. “You'll want

to put in a new one.”

We walked over to where they were

neatly installed on a display wall. “You'll need some copper wiring, a plaster

knife to get into the wall, some spackle, maybe some anchor bolts to make sure

the thing doesn't fall out. Then you just slide the bitch in there and hook her

up.”

It looked like I was all set, but

when I started the job I found that I needed a tiny stepladder to get at some

of the closet wiring, and an electrician's probe to make sure I didn't fry

myself in the process. Another two hours on the road, another chat with Phil,

and I was good to go.

With the power back on, I wished

there was something else to be done. But there wasn't. I sat fidgeting,

outcrafted by my own thoroughness.

On Friday we got our first spring

thunderstorm, and my eyes roved toward the ceiling every few minutes, checking

for leaks. There weren't any. I waited for her to show. I sipped wine. Then I

gulped. The candles burned low. I picked up the phone. Put it down. Picked it

up again. Thought about calling her and cussing her out.

I grunted in frustration. Switched

from wine to whiskey. The dog and I watched “Love Boat.” The picture blurped

and bobbed and filled with snow that made Isaac's smarmy smile extend nearly

all the way across his face.

I drank some more. Down near the

end of the bottle. I cuffed the dog lightly across the snout and rubbed his

nose. “She's not coming,” I said.

I sucked the last drop of whiskey

out of the bottle. Good and drunk, I thought. And alone. The house was filled

with the homey flicker of stove light and the light odor of smoke. The urge to

throw something struck me suddenly, like a wave of nausea. I winged the bottle

at the TV. It went, end over end, until it hit the candlestick sitting on top

of the set.

The bottle teetered and shattered

on the floor. Boxer leapt, trembling, and let out a weak howl. The curtains

enveloped the falling candle, darkening the room until a dusky orange bloomed

from their midst. I stood, swaying, and lurched into the kitchen, where I

filled a bucket of water from the sink.

Back in the living room, the noise

of the flames, the warmth, the smell of burning wood, halted me. Boxer rubbed

against my leg, wheezing from the smoke. Fire played up the wall toward the

soffits.

In my mind I pictured fire leaping

toward the tool shed, tonguing the crest of the roof and then pulling it in. I

thought of my roof folding into the living room, sparks hanging in the smokey

air, twirling, buffeted by the wind. Some of them would carry for miles. But

even if Courtney saw them, she wouldn't care much. To her, the place would always

be her mother's run-down cabin.

With reluctance I heaved the water

at the fire and watched the flames fall like a curtain dropping. The room

filled with the acrid stench of wet, charred wood and cloth. I opened the

window to clear the smoke and surveyed the damage. Fixing it would bother me,

but I knew I'd do it anyway. No way I could bear seeing what I'd built

half-burned and covered with ash.

 

Once or twice a week now, some

realtor drives down the dirt road and asks me about the house. “It's

beautiful,” he'll say. “And vacant.”

I nod, tell him this is so.

“It's in perfect condition. Quite

an opportunity if the property owner was interested.”

No dice, I tell him. I guess

legally I've got no right to do this. She still owns the place, although she

left for New Orleans a while ago. I live in the trailer, close enough to the

house that I can see inside the kitchen window. Close enough so that, when the

wind blows right, the smell of cedar will sometimes drift though the trailer.

Boxer still sleeps outside, and the rain still drums on my sheet metal roof at

night.

Stub thinks I'm an absolute moron.

He's been over once or twice to walk around the outside. I won't let him in,

because I don't want his boot prints on the floor.

“Why don't you just move in?” he

says every time, like the answer will change. He doesn't understand that cities

can inspire love just from the way they look on the map, or that remembering a

dream you once had can make you feel like you're dreaming all over again.

So I say the same thing each time

he asks.

“It was never mine to begin with,”

I tell him. But it sure is beautiful.

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