From the lofty perch in his high bed the younger boy looks down and surveys his artistry. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and he’s been blowing chunks all night. He can see his handiwork clearly: spew on the wall, spew on the side of the bed, spew on the drapes, and, of course, spew on the carpet. A question occurs to him. Has he missed anything besides the bucket right next to him?
Ah! he says to himself. The toy box! And—bwup, bwup, blehhhhhhh-plthhh—he nails it dead on! A perfect projectile strike.
By morning there will be nothing that hasn’t been vomited upon. We’ll have in our possession a Picasso-Mapplethorpe original.
All of which is to say that at long last, on this thirteen-degree night, I’m reunited with my family for what is ironically referred to as spring break—much, I imagine, as “happy hour” is often spoken of. Inside this old farm house the fullness of parenting returns to me. There are many things we love about our children, we parents, but middle-of-the-night hurling isn’t one of them. Oh, in memory, sure enough, there’s a laugh to be had somewhere, and in the exquisite expressions of retrospection too, undoubtedly. But at three o’clock in the morning I hear no laughter. I hear yakking. I hear splats.
I love my boy. I don’t love this.
Triage begins in earnest when my espoused saint, the Chief Eye-Roller and Counter of Cocktails, rubs the sleep from her divine orbs and espies me sitting in a chair facing the eastern skyline, long since peach-colored and now clear and blue in this, the winter of our regurgitant. I’m barely visible beneath a stack of nearly eighty exams and essays, and grades are due tomorrow at high noon. We both know what this means: she’s drawn the short straw.
I’ve been at it a while, and she’s just getting started, but our work is analogous. (I used to say this when she changed a diaper as I marked an essay.) The difference is that whereas her work will be short-lived, mine will be short-lived and smelly. Plus mine will take me a little longer.
And, by and by, just like that the term is over, grades are in, the gastric emesis is wiped clean (by God, I’d marry this girl all over again!), and I’m hobbling on a single crutch into a dusty domicile at Dumb-Ass Acres. To my great surprise there are men already gathered here and poised, it would appear, to work, though not working. If barf could translate into progress, my younger boy could show these men a thing or two.
“Here’s Festus,” says the builder.
“Ain’t that right, Matthew,” I say through my nose, and by an allusion I absolve them of their lack of urgency. A month has gone by, and I see what by way of progress? A floor and kitchen cabinets. For the last month I’ve been trying to explain to Honors students what the doctrine of progress has amounted to in the project we call Modernity. I should have brought them here for illustrations.
But, you know, easy come, easy go. I shoot the breeze with the builder and the electrician, who’s an overgrown version of Santa on which children’s Christmas special I can’t remember. I keep expecting this guy to yell, “Herbie!” But his apprentice is “Tommy,” who doesn’t want to be a dentist, and who keeps a jar of change at home because he’s planning to use the scratch to buy a new gun, except that while he was gone the other day his wife emptied the jar and bought a throw-rug.
This story leads to several others, one of which I contribute. There are men who can keep silent on the topic of their wives’ spending, but not on the job site, where no fact-checking wives are around to weigh in. And it would seem that my humor isn’t quite what these guys are used to, or else they really do regard me as the boss, which I can hardly believe. True enough: I write the checks (or my wife does), but I’m just a crippled deputy here. You didn’t like that one? Let me tell you why women close their eyes during sex. (They can’t stand to see a man have a good time.) That gets a laugh. A delayed one.
The tiler arrives, whom I’ve not met yet, so we exchange greetings and a hand-shake. I look him in the eye and I like him, notwithstanding the fact that he represents sweat equity converted into hemorrhaged money. If I weren’t laid-up I’d be laying his tile.
Except of course he goes to work on a shower in a manner I haven’t seen done before, though I’ve done showers, and I’m intrigued by his method. This guy is good. I can tell he doesn’t mind that I’m watching. I can tell he can tell that I admire his craftsmanship. He works in quick deft movements, explaining what he’s doing whenever I ask—and sometimes when I don’t. Orange Ditra is new to me. Last time I put down underlayment it was cement board.
“What sold me was seeing this on expanding concrete,” he says, after admitting his unwillingness to give up the old method. “There weren’t no cracks or nothing in the grout.”
And here’s the thing: on a job like this you get to hear the American language spoken in ways you don’t hear in the academy—and won’t tolerate on exams and essays. And I love hearing it. I’ve come to recognize, expect, and anticipate the builder’s distinctive idioms. He’s got a narrative pace and a few summative expressions I’ve become accustomed to, and I enjoy hearing them. But this tiler has brought a whole nuther vocabulary and narrative arc to the site. For example, he uses “them” in the nominative and indicative: “Them are two-inch tiles there. Them there are three-inch.”
“What are those?”
“Those? Them are two-and-a-half square.”
So, in my uselessness, I raise the question of whether there are wolves in Ingham county, because I think I saw one yesterday morning. In a barren field, way out, early, I saw a dog-like creature, solitary, making his way across empty snow-covered corn stubble. A big dog? Unlikely. Dogs don’t usually roam that far out. A coyote? I couldn’t detect a hump in the back or a low nose. This thing seemed bigger than a coyote.
Remember: not born but raised since the age of ten months in this county, I’m no newcomer. But I am the prodigal. I’ve been away since August of ’94. But the builder and tiler side on the side of the DNR, the official stance of which is that there are no wolves in Ingham county.
(In the lower U.P. there are officially no cougars or mountain lions either, but photo evidence provided by independent-minded Michiganders suggests otherwise.)
So discussion turns to other predators. I mention that I saw a dead white-tail hawk in the front pasture.
“My daughter shot a hawk last weekend,” says the tiler. “She saw a hawk eating one of her chickens,” he says, “and she came to me and said, ‘Dad, where’s my gun?’”
“It’s where I always keep it. Why? And she said, ‘That damn hawk is eating my chicken!’ So she shot it.”
And I say, “How old is your daughter?”
“Eight,” he says. “My girls are eight and five. And they know more about guns than most adults.”
I believe this, but I’d like to know about their judgment as compared to that of, say, an adult. But I withhold that question. This man is installing a second-storey shower, and I don’t think that pissing him off is my best move.
And at this moment he moves on to a new topic. If he doesn’t go ice-fishing this afternoon, he’s going to scare up some dinner and shoot it dead. I think he means rabbits, so I ask him. And he says, “rabbits.”
And I admire him, because Dumb-Ass Acres isn’t fully operational, and like the one-crutch sissy that I am I’m going to have to buy my supper.
Later in the day I return to the job site with some light fixtures. I can at least stand on a ladder and install those. There are some things I need a high-priced electrician for, even if he’d rather talk than work—and even if he goes around telling Herbie to give up his dream of being a dentist—but installing fixtures isn’t one of them.
I’m waiting for him to say, “you’re an elf, and elves make toys!”
(That’s another thing about these sub-contractors. Some of them are experts on everything, and in this respect they do resemble the morons who keep time in the academy. “You don’t want them tiles. Them tiles are no good.” “But you’re the electrician.” “I’m telling you, them tiles’ll show everything.” My Chief Eye-Roller’s response to this kind of behavior is to do the opposite of what these guys say. And sometimes she can get uncharitable in a manner I love. “There’s a reason he has tattoos and twists wire nuts,” she explains to me later, recounting the day’s arguments and parting with her best mot d’escalier. “I’ll pick whatever damn tile I want,” she says, reaching for that half-glass of Riesling that gets her so chatty and feisty.)
As I step into the house I hear the builder’s radio. If I am not mistaken, it’s Rush Limbaugh. My initiation into excellence in broadcasting confirms a suspicion: this guy is an idiot of the first water.
But by and by his show gives way to “Dr.” Michael Savage’s. I didn’t think it possible for anyone to be stupider than Rush, but this jack ass has him in spades. From my lofty one-legged perch on the ladder, as I wire in what the electrician calls a “boob light,” I think about blowing chunks in the manner of my younger boy. I’m like Hamlet’s father: poison has entered me by way of my ear. Are there two men who hate their country more than Limbaugh and Savage?
And soon, no doubt, I will blow chunks, because now, a day later, the goddess has the misery. It’s going to blast the whole house. That’s how it works. And usually I use the breaks in the academic calendar to get sick anyway.
“I hope you get this before you have to go back,” she says to me later on.
“So I can take care of you.”
I look at her lasciviously and ask if her husband’s home. The eyes roll. That’s my girl!