Ingham County, MI
The guy at the hardware, the former owner now hired on, as per his arrangements, as nothing more than one of the guys, wants to know if the cops followed me into town.
I tell him I haven’t been molested in about a week, and he’s glad to know it. He’s a sensible fellow. I bet he even knows that
A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.
But, be that as it may, at the moment he’s helping me to the self-tapping screws that will, in turn, help me finish my gutter job.
Soon I’ll be on a ladder, but thank God for men whose feet are on the ground. You can’t accuse this guy of thinking himself special, or of producing screeds of neo-pubescence.
And should filling his gas cans according to his liking be his portion, or should driving without a seatbelt suit his fancy—or should it fall blissfully to him in his station not to be told by meddling nannies what he “needs” to do—well, then, may heaven bless him.
Twenty self-tapping machine screws at twenty-three cents each, and I’m on my way back to Dumb-Ass Acres, and not a cop in sight, so a lecture on traffic law for second graders isn’t in my immediate future.
Something’s brewing between my ears as I place the level in the gutter and check the bubble for evidence of a slight fall toward the downspout. And what is that?
I wish I knew. The bubble in my level must incline in the opposite direction of the fall I’m after. In other words, for water to go one way air must go another. That’s suggestive of something, I’m certain, but at the moment, with the sun beating down and the mosquitoes swarming my shins, I’m not able to make much of it.
Perhaps I should consult people who object to but don’t know me.
Nah! They’d just disagree, and already there are plenty of people I actually know who are wrong.
A couple of equations to live by: agrees with me = right; disagrees with me = wrong.
On the ladder, high above the ground where the little people walk, I think about being accused of psychopathology on the one hand and of being a libertarian on the other. Being a psychopath might have its advantages, might even be interesting, but one thing’s for sure: I ain’t no goddamned libertarian.
“What?” I hear from below me.
Oops. It’s my daughter, the one I seem not to have blown up at the filling station, where lots of people ground their gas cans before they fill them, though oddly enough no man grounds the actual gas tank in his vehicle before filling it.
Apparently I’m talking to myself again.
“I said, ‘Please remove the gas tank from your truck before filling it. Failure to do so may result in injury, death, or even being instructed on your putative needs by the wives of other men.’”
“No you didn’t. You said a bad word.”
I admit it might have slipped out, the sun glinting off the white aluminum and illuminating a guilty countenance. “Don’t tell your mother. Or my mother. You can see my mind’s in the gutter, can’t you?”
The girl and I are thick as thieves. We love our secrets, and she, for her part, is incorruptible. I’m not afraid for her—not yet, anyway.
“There was a phone call.”
“It’s Mommy. She says be careful on the ladder.”
Thank God for that. I, who hate heights—I, whose every bad dream is about falling—was planning on being reckless—just to see what it feels like to fall off an eight-foot step ladder onto legs composed of brittle bones, sawdust knees, and, at the base of an unreconstructed man, reconstructed ankles.
I drive a gutter screw home—these screws beat hell out of the old gutter spikes—and think to myself, up here above it all, that I should write something, without apologies for irony, titled, “Why I Am Better Than You.” It happens like this, you know. The body goes to work on one problem while the brain goes to work on another. Just the other day, as I was shimming and trimming out a barn sash, it occurred to me that all’s well with the world when openings are larger than the things going into them. It’s when your replacement window is larger than your R.O. that things get difficult. Squaring up the sash I went in search of an opening sentence.
Nothing suitable for print occurred to me.
“Why I Am Better Than You,” I say to myself as the level registers a fall in the gutter. And may it be the only thing that falls.
“It’s not what you’re thinking. It’s not that I’m better looking or more athletic, though I am. It’s not that I have more letters after my name, though I do. (Write your name on the back of an envelope, spill alphabet soup on it, and you’ve got more to be proud of than most people with ‘advanced’ degrees, is my view of all that.”)
It’s a start, but will it go anywhere? I look down, because that’s what people who are afraid of heights do when they’re on ladders. My ankles, I notice, disappear into a pair of very old boots.
“For starters, I’m a true conservationist. Proof whereof, point the first: I wear a pair of boots I bought when I was a sophomore in high school. That was 1980. The boots have a vibrum sole, and they aren’t very comfortable, but, thanks to an annual smear of bear grease, they’ve got the best protection against the morning dew of any pair I can’t seem to part with. I think we called them ‘waffle stompers’ back in the day. You don’t see them anymore, except in pictures of guys with mullets.
“True enough, I have another pair of boots, one of which is completely waterproof, more waterproof than either waffle stomper, but that’s because a hydraulic hose broke and shot hydraulic fluid all over it. It’s several degrees darker than its companion now, but no water penetrates it. Both have holes in the soles. I could get rid of them. But I’m a true conservationist and therefore better than you.”
At this point in the process I usually think of one friend or another whom I’ve probably jonesed at the bar and who is therefore prepared to point out that I’m not a conservationist. I’m a cheap bastard.
“It may be objected that I am not a conservationist but a cheap bastard. This, however, is the objection of someone jealous of my immense popularity as a writer. And it brings me to proof whereof, point the second.”
I hope that by the time I climb down the ladder, move it, climb back up it, and get confirmation from my level that things are still falling, I’ll have thought of the second point.
“Point the second: when I remodeled my master bathroom I put in a shower big enough for two people—and this for the sole purpose of conserving water.
“It may be objected that I planned concupiscently rather than conservatively, but this is clearly the objection of a pervert.”
Yeah. I don’t see this going anywhere. Being on a ladder, like being in an airplane, might help you get religion, but it doesn’t do much for creativity. Even Frost, whose two-pronged ladder still pointed heavenward, got tired of apple-picking, and to write about it he left the branches and came back to earth. But at least I have written a few lines that, with minor modifications to be made on the fly with the aid of my quick wit (which also makes me better than you), will get me some laughs at some dinner invitation somewhere. Surely.
Oops. I’m talking out loud again, and again it’s the girl, this time with her brothers. They’re looking up from the foot of my ladder, hands shading their eyes from the sun.
“Not Shirley. Surely. What is it?”
“There’s a policeman here. He wants to talk to you.”
“Tell him I don’t even own a ball peen hammer.”
I climb down my ladder. For the law to rise, the lawbreaker must descend. That’s the law of the gutter.
I walk out to the front of the house. There’s no cop. I turn around. The kids are laughing at the corner of the house. “You got me,” I say, reaching into my pocket. They’ve won a bet, which, I guess, makes them bettor than I am.
Back on the ladder I discover that the roof line on this outbuilding has a rise to it. My gutter, in relation, is going to look as if it droops hellward. Someone else’s shoddy work is going to make my good work look like shit.
I look down. That girl is everywhere! She’s like Elvis. I can’t even talk to myself without getting into trouble.
“Spit. Look out. I need to spit.” (I am, after all, chewing on a raw garlic clove. It’s my new post-heart-attack regimen.)
“That’s not what you said.”
It’s true. Time to get my mind, my mouth, my whole body out of this gutter. Time to get going on the electrical fence …