Ingham County, MI
… being an installment on a work-in-progress tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass
There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.
So saith the lord Hamlet, expressing the comic vision of his creator, who, even in his tragedies (Macbeth perhaps excepted), remains a comic artist to the end (or “comedic,” rather, if “comic” makes you think of Seinfeld). In most of the tragedies you will find a comic turn, because there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends, and because human history is a divine comedy, and because Shakespeare’s vision is essentially comic.
Now I think my own view of human history is as comic as the next guy’s. I see the arc of history as a movement from chaos to order. The Bible, for example, is a comedy. It ends not in dissolution but in a marriage feast, that great ceremony of order and cohesion, and with all the drinking and dancing (etc.) that attend such high festival.
But here in the graveyard, shy of Act V, with naught but a gravedigger to converse with—he who tells you that a tanner “will last you nine year” and serves as living proof that equivocation will undo us—it’s sometimes hard to think that there’s such a Divinity shaping our ends. It seems, rather, as if there’s a Divinity putting an end to our shapes.
Hang with me here.
A year ago this very day I returned to the Porch after a brief hiatus (four readers demanded my return—and did so with menacing threats directed at Mark Mitchell’s person) to describe a proper New Year’s Eve spent in the woods by a fire:
At long last the house in the distance is dark: that is, safe for re-entry. I drain the flask, collect the shovels and flashlight, and head toward ambient warmth and soft personnel. Around the country people are making a new start—or would be if they had a different calendar, a better askesis, and rituals to hold them to their resolutions.
I wrote this as any man might: unaware of what a year might bring.
And then, in piece title “Deathwatcher,” which was ignored in record-setting numbers, I wondered how a man, seeking the thing he most desires—and that a right good thing—might come to grief:
So tonight, amid the sawdust and the stud walls, absent the pine planks, the candlelight, and the bosky bite of bourbon, I can’t help but wonder whether I have hastened my own demise. A man could wake up ready to climb a forty-foot ladder and not know that he’s about to drink his last two cups of coffee over the box scores he’s checking for the last time, that he’s about to leave an Eye-Roller to raise three children on her own in a house half-finished behind which, maybe, neither goats nor chickens will ever produce any milk or eggs.
Not much after that paragraph clanked off the rim I sent up an air ball: “can it get any more dumb-assed than this?” I asked.
And, not thinking that the question “What next?” ought not to be asked, lest it be answered, I ventured a week ago to speak of setting out into the darkness on Christmas morn and, surveying the ravages of an ice storm, to opine that
It doesn’t appear to me that things are falling advantageously into place on this day set aside to vindicate the flesh. I’d say there’s a heap of misery awaiting me.
Little did I know.
The readiness may be all, but don’t underestimate the importance of context. So here’s a little context: I’m supposed to close on a house next week, vacate it, and close the curtains on one scene that is turning out to be the farce to end all farces—a farce to be reckoned with. Things are in order … sort of. But the buyer wants me to do things for him I wouldn’t dream of doing for myself, proof that where realtors and lawyers are involved—that is, where trust disappears—all manner of silly compromise is in order. Think re-doing breaker boxes. Think covering exposed Romex in conduit. (Who doesn’t have exposed Romex in basements, garages, and attics?) Think installing more smoke alarms (because eleventy million aren’t enough.)
But a day before leaving the stagnation at Dumb-Ass Acres to dot the is and cross the ts of this dumb-assed campaign, I find myself in the cold regions of Methlehem, looking for something to do before the builder arrives to accept yet another check for what appears to me to be pretty much no progress whatsoever. I see that the dry-wall (delivered yesterday and requiring a do-si-do of trucks I served caller to) is leaning against the south wall.
I also notice that the dry-wall is partially covering a blue switch box I nailed to a naked stud, a box I intended to drop speaker wires from but never got round to doing. I check to see if I can get my drill in the narrow opening to put a one-inch hole through the base plate.
I grab the whole battlement of dry wall, twenty or twenty-five sheets in all, most of them twelve-footers, to see if they can be stood up and held while a guy gets the drilling done.
Turns out they can be stood up–and that they can start tipping the other way. I am alone in the house, mind you, and about a thousand pounds of construction material are at this moment inclining toward 150-pounds of human resistance.
Looking back now on the next instant of my dumb-assed exitence I can divide what’s about to happen into two half-second units. During the first unit I get a real sense of how much this dry-wall weighs and I realize that I can’t get it heading back away from me to lean once again against the wall. During the second unit I realize it’s all going to fall on me, that I’m alone, that this could be really bad, that the builder will be here in about five minutes in case I’m still alive and can be dug out from under the dry-wall, and that I should at least turn sideways.
Which I do. And then the wave crashes.
I don’t have time to quote myself—“it doesn’t appear to me that things are falling advantageously into place. . . . I’d say there’s a heap of misery awaiting me”—but I do have time to cry out to the lord Jesus, only he’s still away in a manger, counting his gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
I land on a half-sheet of OSB under one end of which are two 2 x 6s. I land, that is, on something like a ramp, the low end at my feet and the high end at my shoulder. My ankle is at the low end—right where the ramp begins. That’s the bad news, because the weight of the dry-wall, which lands for the most part on my right fibula, drives that ankle to the floor, where foot and leg form an angle that conforms to the angle of the ramp, my ankle serving as hinge.
The good news is that the ramp works somewhat like a trampoline. I crash to the floor, but in that half-second–the second half-second–I realize I might be able to get out from under the dry-wall as it rebounds. Or maybe I just respond instinctively to the pain and roll out.
Imagine a mushroom cloud in miniature. I’m on my hands and knees, choking on swirling sawdust, wondering how many places at once will start itching once I’m in a body cast. I crawl to the stairwell, raise myself to vertical, put some weight on my right leg, and begin to limp around. It appears the leg is not broken.
But I have fallen on my left arm, which shows no appreciation for the duty it has been asked to perform but which seems okay compared to the rib-cage that slammed into it under the weight of several sheets of dry-wall.
Next thing I know I’m in the cold garage, still walking in circles, still taking inventory. I think I might survive.
At length the builder appears. I hand him a check. The motion of retrieving it from my shirt pocket takes my breath away. I tell him what happened, and, in true tradesman’s fashion, he launches into stories of his own dumb-assed injuries.
But I’m having trouble staying upright, so I tell him I’m going to go rest for a bit and see if time won’t heal all wounds. Part-way down the road I realize I’ve left my axe and splitting maul out by the woodpile. Snow’s coming, so I turn around to retrieve them. My left foot is quite at home on the clutch, but working the accelerator and brake pedal with my right foot isn’t any fun at the moment, and when I get out of the truck to find what I’m looking for I discover my right foot has stiffened. It doesn’t want to perform the function that accords with its true end.
So I go back into the house, walk gingerly down the stairs, retrieve an old pair of crutches I hoped never to need again, and head out.
I shower and hit the rack with an ice pack and a book. So far the children don’t notice that much is wrong, and I’m not going to tell them, because they’ll tell their mother when she calls from work, and she will red-line the worry needle when she hears what’s happened.
I read up on the symptoms of punctured lungs and think about checking myself in to an ER on (of all days) New Year’s Eve. But no. I’ve got to meet an insurance adjuster this afternoon, whose job will be to report on my busted boiler so that the insurance company can tell me that boilers are covered only when Jupiter aligns with Mars and someone in your family who has a leap-year birthday and whose name ends in “e” is pregnant—but it has to be a male cousin. Otherwise, you don’t qualify.
Three hours later that insurance scenario plays out exactly as I figured, whereupon I tell my daughter to drive me in the direction of an x-ray machine.
The clinic is remarkably quiet. Soon I’m telling an RN my medical history. “Any surgeries?” she asks.
“How recent?” I ask.
She looks at my chart and, in the smart-ass way of nurses, says, “in the last fifty years.”
I rehearse the list and, once finished, thank her for reminding me that I’m fifty.
The x-ray tech also thinks it’s his job to remind me of my age. “Yup,” he says. “When you turn fifty things just don’t work like they used to.” I hope he’s talking about my right leg.
He takes pictures of my rib-cage first, then of my leg and ankle. I’m sitting on the x-ray table in a kind of hopeful reverie when he shouts from behind his wall, “Got your ankle!”
“Your ankle! It’s broke! Come take a look!”
He shows me the x-ray. “Thirty two years I’ve been doing this, and I’ve only seen this break a couple of times.”
I think I’ve made his day. I tell him I’m happy to oblige. No sense being dour. My job is to cheer up these poor sods who have to work on New Year’s Eve.
Next thing I know I’m back in the exam room. The nurse is there with crutches. I tell her to put them away. I brought my own. The physician appears again. She’s young and plain but very pleasant. Plus she’s wearing a pair of white adidas Superstars with black stripes. Nothing wrong with a woman who’s got the good sense to wear classic sneakers.
“I’m not good at reading ribs,” she tells me, “so I’m going to send these pictures to someone else, but you’re going to have put that foot in a boot and stay off it for six weeks. Here’s a scrip for your boot. Here’s one for 800 milligrams of Motrin. You’re gonna need both.”
“Awesome,” I say.
There’s not much more to do except put on an air cast, take my instructions (follow up with an orthopedic guy), ask the x-ray tech what kind of champagne he recommends for a busted ankle, and hobble out. My daughter carries my stuff, including, ostensibly, John Updike’s Self-Consciousness. I’m reading it maybe at the wrong time.
“Happy New Year!” I say to the staff as the crutches squeak beneath me. Two nurses, an x-ray tech, a physician, and a receptionist, turn, smile, and wish us the same. We’re all in a good mood.
My daughter and I head to my parents, who are waiting with warm food and sympathy. While we’re seated and I’m telling jokes about a capricious God, the phone rings. It’s my wife. The clinic has called her in the twelfth hour of her twelve-hour shift–it’s not Twelfth Night she’s in–with more good news. I’ve got a broken rib on the left side to off-set the broken ankle on the right. No wonder walking on crutches seems more painful now than it did those 127 other times. And tomorrow I leave to load a moving van.
I can’t think of anything to do but laugh at all this, so I do. Even my mom, whose powers of sympathy are endless, lowers her head and laughs in disbelief.
Good. This is what we all need now: a deep belly-laugh. We need comedy in the popular, not in the dramatic (and cosmic), sense, which we’re not getting anyway, near as I can tell. But laughing hurts like hell.
So, how much more dumb-assed can it get? As it happens, a lot more dumb-assed.
What next? My advice: don’t ask. You might find out.
Can a man, pursuing what he loves, hasten his own demise? It would appear so.
Remember what curiosity did to the cat. And remember that, notwithstanding the immutable laws of comedy that are engineered for and built into the very structure of the universe, there’s a divinity that ends our shapes, rough-hew them how we will.
But, to put a new spin on a week-old charity toss, Happy New Year, one and all, from the unlikeliest and most undeserving beneficiary of all good things.