CARPENTER ON THE ROOF, 1991

CITY-LIFE.CARPENTER

I smash a fingernail, yelping in pain. Curt walks over, asks have I ever done carpentry before, and when I admit I have not he scowls and kicks at some rubble and paces around, muttering aloud.

by Dell Franklin

My woman is losing patience with my boozing and negative attitude after being turned down for job after job, especially since I’ve quit or been canned from my last three. Finally, she suggests I ask my friend, Ethan, an accomplished and fully equipped carpenter, if he can find me a gig pounding nails. Whenever something is amiss in our cottage, she calls on Ethan to fix it before I try—and destroy things.

“You sure about this?” Ethan asks me. “It’s hard work, especially in the beginning. Tough on the old body—like boot camp.”

“I’ve been to boot camp, boy. You haven’t.”

“Dell, this is a different kind of boot camp. You’ll use muscles you never worked before, and you’re almost fifty years old.”

“I’m stronger than you, and I’m not afraid of hard work.”

He flashes a knowing grin. “Oh yes you are, and you know it.”

Within a week he has me hooked up with a man named Curt who needs somebody to help him in the hills around Paso Robles, 25 miles from Cayucos, Calif., where I live a block from the beach. I call Curt and he says we’ll be putting on the finishing touches of a structure and gives me directions. His right-hand man is out with an arthritic elbow from thirty years of pounding nails.

I drive my 1950 Chevy pickup and find the structure on a knoll surrounded by oak-dotted hills. Curt drives a big, dusty pickup stacked in the back with ladders, cabling, power tools, cans of nails, every hand tool imaginable. He explains that the structure is to be a large art studio/rec room for the wife of the owner of the Taco Bell-like mansion atop another knoll a hundred yards up a driveway, where a huge pickup, Mercedes and SUV are parked out front.

Curt sizes me up. “So where’s your tool belt?” he asks.

“I don’t have one.”

“You don’t have one,” he repeats to himself. A lean, weathered man with a brush mustache, huge veins popping from wrists and forearms, he wears a neoprene sleeve around his right elbow, is perhaps 40. I’m 47. “What about tools? Are you equipped?”

“I have no tools at this time,” I confess, feeling sheepish.

He sighs. “Jesus Christ, who recommended you?”

“Ethan Pearson.”

“Okay, follow me.” He leads me to his truck, where he rummages about and tosses me a tool belt. “This was my first tool belt. Don’t lose it. You can return it when you buy your own.”

I wrap on the belt, but it hangs awkwardly to my knees. Curt adjusts it, hands me a hammer, which I shove in the belt. Wearing shorts and a sweatshirt, I shiver in the morning cold, fingers already numb. Curt hands me some long nails, which I stuff in pockets of the belt, and he leads me to the side of the skeletal structure, tells me to pound nails along the side to further strengthen the frame. I bend most of them and have to pull them out. I smash a fingernail, yelping in pain. Curt walks over, asks have I ever done carpentry before, and when I admit I have not he scowls and kicks at some rubble and paces around, muttering aloud.

“Bill Bright told me Ethan was sending me a goddamn carpenter, not a fucking novice. I can’t train you. I got to get this fucker built, so I can move on to my next job. I got mouths to feed. I got two boys eatin’ me outta house and home and a wife wantsa new car….” He comes over and shows me how to hammer correctly. I watch him closely, nervous, wanting to please Curt and keep my $12-an-hour gig. He observes me hammer a few nails, nods, walks off, goes to work. He hammers fluidly, nails in mouth, an effortless human assembly line, like myself tending bar. I go up and down the side frame, lost in a daydreaming zone, pounding nails until Curt returns to check my progress and throws a fit. “You pounded the wrong goddamn side! You didn’t listen to me!”

“I thought….”

“You thought? That’s the problem. Just do as I do, go where I go, don’t fucking THINK!” He glares at me, incredulous, then stares at the ground. He meditates a few seconds, then points to a pile of rubble off to the side and orders me to go over there and find lumber, mostly two-by-fours, and extract nails from them, then pile the wood in a wheelbarrow and move it to where the good lumber is stacked. Can I do that? I nod. He warns me not to walk on any nails, glancing sourly at my sneakers and snorting.

“Why you wearin’ them goddamn things?”

“They’re all I have. I play basketball in ‘em.”

“Basketball,” he grumbles. “I hate basketball. Buncha niggers jumpin’ around. I’m a stock car guy.”

Instead of telling him I hate all auto racing, I walk over and begin rooting around in the pile, painstaking labor. I bruise my knuckles. My hands turn raw and ache. I struggle extracting nails, jerking, rooting, cursing. Soon my knuckles bleed. My lower back pinches from the hammering. All my joints are stiff and arthritic from years of sports. I bungle on. By lunch time I’ve de-nailed every last board and wheel-barreled them to the lumber site.

Curt won’t look at me. “Bring your lunch?”

I shrug, having only a power bar and banana.

“Figures. You got half an hour. Ain’t enough time to go into town. Where’s your water? Gets hot in the afternoon and you need a gallon of water. I don’t want you passing out on me.”

He climbs into his truck and turns away from me, opening a big cooler and turning his radio to country western. I sit in my truck, bone-weary, dehydrated, starved, sore, dazed, resisting a strong urge to punch out Curt and flee. After my meager lunch he has me toting double-door-size slabs of siding to the lumber area. These slabs are a mix of plaster and paper and whatever, and heavy, cumbersome, unwieldy. As I haul them I have to peer down at the rocky, irregular terrain to see where I’m going, so that I am like a blind Tom careening and lurching about with these sidings, falling down several times, scraping and gouging my arms, hands raw and bleeding because I have no gloves. Each trip to the lumber area is a perilous ordeal; Curt, up on a ladder, pounding furiously, peers at me occasionally. My sweatshirt is torn and filthy and my knees skinned.

The owner of the estate pulls up in a gigantic pickup, a broad, bulge-gutted, beef-faced man in boots, western shirt, Stetson. He talks in a jovial, familiar manner to Curt, whose attitude becomes solicitous. A school bus pulls up on the country road below and deposits two young girls who walk toward the mansion toting book packs. They are nattily dressed. A young, pretty mother meets them at the door. Minutes later they all pile into the SUV, clad in white tennis outfits, carrying racket cases. After the owner drives off, a rugged-looking guy in a ball cap drives up in another pickup with WALT’S ROOFING on the door. As he and Walt visit, the roofer, from time to time, glances over at me as I stumble along with the siding as if I am a zoo animal. As I try to reach down and snare the belt, it slips to my knees and I go down, landing on my back, gouging my buttocks on a sharp rock, the siding atop me like a triumphant wrestler. I quickly shed the siding and jump to my feet and adjust the tool belt while the roofer and Curt watch me, shaking their heads as I try to balance the siding. I make it to the pile. The roofer drives off. It takes me most of the afternoon to move all the siding.

“Do you know how to operate power tools?” Curt asks me.

“I’m willing to try.”

“Okay. Tomorrow. You look pretty beat. Let’s call it a day.”

I can hardly move. My lady meets me with a beer and a kiss when I return home, and asks me about my big day, and I tell her I’m learning and she says she’s proud of me. “Look at me,” I say. “I really paid. It was like boot camp.”

Ethan calls to ask how my day went. I tell him okay but for the tool belt and Curt. He says he doesn’t know Curt, got me hired through Bright. I tell him Curt’s an asshole, bossing me around, treating me like a moronic peon, sapping what little confidence I have left. Ethan explains that carpenters are proud of their profession and disdainful of novices, an impatient, intolerant lot. I tell him I’ll endure anything, even Curt, because I’m broke.

I have trouble sleeping at night because my arms and face are on fire. At dawn I pack apples, oranges, bananas, power bars, a gallon of water. Curt is waiting when I pull up, and right off he begins showing me how to cut lumber with a power saw, but the loud, rackety saw terrifies the shit out of me and after he watches me nearly saw off a toe he takes it away from me and hands me a power drill and instructs me to drill holes in the cement floor inside the structure, and I do as best I can, feeling my arms and shoulders vibrate while dust flies in my face. Curt asks do I have goggles and a bandana to cover my mouth as I sneeze and cough. I ignore him and when I’m finished drilling holes he has me assisting him placing windows in frames. This is touchy work and I follow his instructions carefully, begin to feel somewhat worthy and competent as we fit in window after window. Then we climb a second-story scaffolding to fit in more windows. The scaffold is uneasy, tilting this way and that, and at one point Curt has to reach out and grab me to keep my ass from pitching off.

Later he has me downstairs and inside on a ladder, pounding nails. The owner shows up and they talk, glancing at my progress. As I turn my head to observe them, I lose my balance and fall backwards off the ladder onto my tail bone, bruising it, but I spring right up as the two men hurry to my aid, insisting I’ve taken many a fall playing basketball. At lunch, Curt marches silently to his truck while I go to mine. He will not look at me.

After lunch he orders me to the roof to pound more nails. I take the ladder up, climb on. The roof is slick, sheet-like wood, and steeply pitched. The roofer drives up, dropping off tiles similar to those on the hilltop mansion. The two converse while I crawl like a crab up the roof, afraid to look back, afraid to get up on my feet. As a kid, I ran along roofs with abandon, jumped off as if my legs were elastic, but now I am petrified, stuck halfway toward the peak, unable to find anything to hold onto for leverage, wondering how the fuck I have ended up here after all my years of avoiding such situations, already dreading my move DOWN the roof to the ladder.

Then I find myself sliding back. I grapple for anything to dig my nails into, gaining downward momentum as I claw frantically for anything, anything, and then I am grasping madly for the edge of the structure and plunging over the ladder and hurling through space, cushioning myself for the crash as I luckily land sideways, cocking my shoulder, in a scrap heap of dusty boards, wiring, tar paper, etc. I am not hurt! I jump off the heap and hug my limbs while Curt and the roofer dash over, concern and shock written all over their faces.

“You all right?” Curt asks, eyes wide with disbelief.

I dust myself off. My arm is cut and bleeding. “Yeh, yeh, I’m fine. I know how to land. I’m an airborne army veteran.”

Curt rolls his eyes. “Looks to me like you’re scared of heights.”

“I’m not scared of shit. Fuck heights.”

“Okay, calm down. Get back inside and nail some of them beams. The high ones. Be careful on that ladder, ey?”

I’m on the verge of punching out Curt and the smirking roofer, a mustachioed muscle-head with an NRA sticker on his bumper. Instead, I slog back to the structure, tool kit again hanging at my fucking knees, hitching it up, hammer falling out, bending down to snatch and shove it in the belt. I climb the ladder and commence hammering big spike nails. By now I am a decent hammerer. But I begin to feel a gnawing soreness in every crevice of my body, and especially my lower back, wondering how the hell guys like Curt and Ethan survive such strife, deadening the mind, pulverizing the body, killing the spirit, and I have to grudgingly respect a bastard like Curt, though, if he, at this point, so much as looks at me wrong, I will beat him into a bloody pulp and make him beg for his meager life.

Back at the cottage, I sit in the shade on my porch and guzzle a six-pack while Miranda, home from work, dabs at my cuts with cotton and peroxide and icepacks my swollen bruises. Ethan calls around seven with the bad news—I am fired!

“Fuck, E-man, I gave that prick everything I have.”

“I know. But he found somebody else. He says you’re too inexperienced.”

“What else did that lowly sonofabitch say about me?”

“You don’t wanna know.”

“I got a right to know. I wanna hear it.”

A pause. “He said if he gets a new man, an experienced framer, he can finish the job in two weeks. If he goes alone, he can finish in three weeks. If he keeps you, he said he might never finish. He doesn’t wanna be responsible for you maiming or killing yourself.”

“Very fucking funny.”

He’s laughing. I curse him. “Listen,” he says. “I take full responsibility. It wasn’t fair to have you start out with that guy, knowing what a demanding prick he is, and you having no experience. If you want, on my next job, I can take you on and train you. You’ll need tools and a belt.”

“Fuck you. I’m fed up. I’m thoroughly humiliated. This is the third straight job I’ve been fired. I’m bordering on suicide.”

I hang up. Miranda massages my stiff neck. “You tried,” she says soothingly. “I’m proud of you. You didn’t quit.”

I know it’ll take me a week to recuperate from my experience in carpentry. It isn’t boot camp. It’s war. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he lives with his mate, Wilbur, a very needy chocolate lab he rescued from the animal shelter. He is the founding publisher of The Rogue Voice and is currently working on a book about his dad, The Ball Player’s Son.

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