Ingham County, MI
Dumb-Ass Acres resembles a real farm in at least one way: you have to make hay while the sun shines.
And while the sun shines I aim to be in the out-of-doors doing the rough equivalent of making hay. I don’t have a hay field to mow or bale (though I’ve got a barn loft with no hay in it), but there’s God’s plenty to do, and by that I mean manly things—things I deem necessary: putting up fencing, for example, or hanging new gutters where they’re needed, or running like a bat out of hell into the front yard at five in the morning, sandals slapping the ground and robe a-flying, to scare off the thieving sure-footed little faun who’s eating the variegated hastas I just put in.
(I’ve just returned, panting, from doing exactly that, and now my trembling moist fingertips quiver above the keyboard. It’s almost as if I’ve forgotten about my heart attack.)
But I think I speak for all married men everywhere when I say there is a force in the universe that no husband can stand up to, a judgment handed down from the highest of courts that will prevent his making the necessary hay, whatever form the hay may take.
I mean that curious distaff use of the first-person plural pronoun, as in, “When can we get that trim put on the stairs?”
“Can you put the trim on the stairs? I’m sick of looking at them like that.”
So “we” means “you,” which means “I.” And, with the ambiguity thus cleared way, I embark upon a tedious job while, all around me, sunlight falls in volumes hitherto unknown to men in bands of gold.
Well, I should be fair, though that’s never first on my list, as perhaps the children can attest. (“He gets to ride the dirt bike?” I’ll often hear from the piano bench, whence issues more complaining than music. “That’s not fair!”) I postponed this tedious stair job a day or two by setting about to re-wire the lights on the trailer–not thinking that tail lights might be all anyone sees of me soon. By the time I got to the front of the trailer I discovered that of course the light kit had a different four-plug configuration from the one dangling off the hitch on my pick-up.
Good news and bad: bad news because I have more work to do, good news because I have more work to do, which means “we” can’t put the trim on the stairs just yet.
In vain I search for a converter that the two different plugs can agree on, which means I’ve got two options: change the plug on the truck or cut the new plug off the trailer and change that one.
In the auto-parts store, where I’m thinking about setting up a tent and a sleeping bag—where, indeed, I am so honored and well-known that I’ve recently become the recipient of a free NAPA ball cap—I hit upon a third option: I’ll splice a new plug into the trailer so that it has it has both assemblies, should ill-fortune or want or famine ever find me in need of one or the other.
But at home, garage radio blaring classic hits some of which I don’t need to hear (“workin’ too hard can give you a heart attack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack”), I ought to know by now that nothing’s as easy as it seems. I’ve got five wires coming off the trailer but only four coming out of the plug. In my mis en place I carefully place four diagrams and go to work figuring out this mess. And when at last I come up with a configuration that must be right, a plan than which none other is more sensible, I take to cutting, stripping, conjoining, and crimping wires.
And now for the test.
Nothing but the right-side turn signal works. No tail lights, no brake lights, no marker lights, no left-turn signal, no license plate illuminator, no hazards. One for seven. Better than Wilt or Shaq at the free-throw line, but not good enough for all the Barney Fifes around these parts.
Now what? I risk putting the problem aside to think about it. And what is the risk? The risk is that I will have created a vacuum into which the royal distaff “we” will enter, which it does.
“Can we get those stairs done? I want to get the stairs done.”
“Have at it” would be the wrong response, so I point out that it’s not raining. “I can’t do indoor work while the sun shines.”
Whereupon God sends a crack of lighting, a long peal of thunder, and a steady rain shower.
Just whose side is he on? When “it is not good that man should be alone” crossed the divine mind, making love became possible but making hay got complicated.
I’ve got a good saw for this job, and the trim lies poised in the garage. “We’re” putting a kind of crown moulding at the top of the risers and returning it along the edges of the five bottom steps, which are exposed to view. But, as usual, “we” don’t have all the tools “we” need for this job. Ever try getting the head of a hammer onto a brad that’s in that little corner under a stair tread? And getting the brad to go home when half the risers are intent on trampolining the brad right back at you? “We” need a pneumatic brad nailer but don’t have one.
I should insist that part of the deal of each new job is that I get a new tool, but the penny jar at Dumb-Ass Acres is empty.
Way too many hours into this job, as one brad after another bends under the pressure of my counter sink, I apparently part with an oath.
“Daddy!” I hear from the piano bench. “I can’t play when you’re swearing like that!”
“And I can’t swear when you’re playing like that!”
Oops! Did I say that or just think it? I meant just to think it. And, at any rate, given the strong possibility in this post-heart-attack era I’ve now entered that I might soon be taking the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire, I ought to clean things up a bit.
So “we” keep the oaths muted and finish the job without a brad to spare. Now “we” can prime, paint, and at long last pull up the tape. The stairs leading up will appear as they should, even though all appearances suggest that my own destiny leads down.
To my local auto mechanic I go. He’s loaned me a lug-nut remover that he promised would grip the 13/16 lug nuts that won’t come off the rims of an old truck frame that got left here when we bought the place. And he was right. That plus a breaker bar plus a four-foot piece of pipe, and I’ve got a lug nut on my work bench. I’ve also got the stud the tool took with it. So much for Plan A. Plan B is to find someone who can cut the lug nuts off. If I’m going to make hay while the sun shines, which is to say convert this old thing into a useful hauler, I’ll need to put tires on it.
“What are we going to use that ugly old thing for?” asks the goddess excellently bright.
“‘We’ll’ think of something.”
“We should just get rid of it.”
“But if ‘we’ got rid of it, ‘we’d’ have to do all those indoor jobs ‘we’ want me to do.”
“Whatever.” And … wait for it … the eyes roll! What a girl! It’s worth it just to see her walk away!
So I race in to see my local mechanic, return his lug-nut (and lug bolt) remover, and ask him if he can test the plug dangling from my hitch. (I thought to hook up the re-wired trailer–as distinct from the old truck frame I’m also wasting “our” time on–to another truck, or the truck up to another trailer, to see if I did in fact get the wiring correct, which I’m stubbornly sure of having done, but I don’t have a surfeit of trucks and trailers here at Dumb-Ass Acres, and, as I said, the penny jar is empty.) My mechanic tests the plug, and the diagnosis is that I need to redo the wiring on the truck too.
Back home in the garage, classic hits blaring (“she said, ‘Sonny, move out to the country”), I think my man must be wrong. I go inside and grab an old plastic bowl. I shake some baking soda into it, fill it with hot water, and stir.
“Can we … ?”
“Double, double, toil and trouble!” I say, ignoring by loud incantation the wielder of the royal distaff “we.”
And out to the Ford I go. I’m not ready to trade the Ranger or the Ram (a.k.a. The Babe Magnet) for a Cadillac-ac-ac-ac-ac-ac just yet. “In the name of the Ford, Lincoln, and Obsolete Mercury,” I say, “I baptize you, plug, dangling there from my trailer hitch, in the laver of this soda bath.” I keep the plug under water for a good long time just to be sure the mysteries take.
And when I hook up the lights again voila! I’m seven for seven.
New wiring on the truck indeed! Not for this cheap bastard!
I go out back and fire up The Babe Magnet. I haven’t had a trailer hooked up to the ’83 Dodge in probably twenty-five years. I baptize the plug dangling from its hitch, again protracting the rite so that the old corrosive nature might be buried and the plug raised in newness of life, clothed in conductors of incorruption.
I hook it up to the trailer and voila!
I hear the door open. “Can we … ?”
But I break into song: “Look what you get for your money!”
They eyes roll and the door closes. What a girl! She knows she’s getting nowhere with me right now. To the garage fridge I go to crack a celebratory beer. “We’ve” done the stairs and wired the trailer for cheap. There’s going to be something good in this for me.
I sit in my lawn chair in the cool of the garage, my feet up on the bumper of the Ranger, and think about being alive rather than dead. (My dad, notwithstanding his ailments and the usual ravages of age, says it’s good to be on this side of the sod.)
Early in the morning a couple of days ago, sitting in my chair at my desk, I feared the wiring job might go unfinished, a testament to the utter fiasco of Dumb-Ass Acres and the last lingering indicator (minus the indicator lights) of a life of failure. In the words of Mauriac, I thought I might be dragging out the fag-end of my existence before taking the final plunge into nothingness.
I was reading and I leaned forward to reach for my coffee. Suddenly I was doubled over and short of breath, a sharp pain wrapping its way around my rib cage.
“It’s the Big One,” I thought. I’m over fifty. At my age even a hang nail is the Big One.
But no sense in panicking, notwithstanding the shortness of breath and the chest pain. With no small effort I opened the laptop, purchased in true cheap bastard fashion the previous century, and turned it on. I fed the gerbil who, from his exercise wheel, powers the ancient machine, and waited.
At long last I was able to do what any self-respecting twenty-first century American would do: type in “heart attack symptoms.” And then I waited some more.
I bethought me to do one last good deed before shuffling off the mortal coil, so I went doubled over like Wordsworth’s leech-gatherer to make the Eye Roller the last cup of coffee tenderly to be stirred by this hand of mine. After putting the water on, I returned to my chair. Still no word on the symptoms of a heart attack.
“The great irony of his life,” I said to myself, as if writing my own eulogy, “is that he died because of a slow internet connection.”
At last I had before me the symptoms of a heart attack, two of which are shortness of breath and chest pain. Right. Time to go upstairs and take one last good look at the nurse and maybe give her a chance to save me.
Up I went with the coffee. The Eye-Roller stirred as I set it down on the night stand.
“Two signs of a heart attack are shortness of breath and chest pain, right?”
“What’s the matter?”
“‘We’ve’ got shortness of breath and chest pain. ‘We’re’ having a heart attack.” If this was moving up, then it looked as if I was moving out. I bought the farm, and now I was buying the farm.
Unimpressed, she took a sip from her coffee. Apparently heart attacks can wait.
I stretched myself out supine, raised my arms above my head, and said, “That’s better.”
“What happened?” she asked, fiddling with something off to her left. I guessed it was that odd gadget that goes by the name “smart phone.” (Never in all of time has there ever been a greater misappropriation or misapplication of the word “smart.”) I seemed able, even in my great distress—indeed, even in my death throes—to remember that this hateful device has a calculator.
“You’re figuring out how much money will be coming your way by the end of the day, aren’t you?”
“I’m turning off the ceiling fan!”
I’d forgotten. One fixture we recycled from the old house was the ceiling fan, which came with a remote control device.
“I got this pain in my side, like a muscle cramp. It pulled me over. It’s the Big One. Tell the kids I love them. Wait at least a week to remarry.”
She said something that involved the phrase “it’s probably just” and an adjectival variant on “pleurisy.” I didn’t catch her meaning. I could barely catch my breath.
“Trust me. After a week the funeral meats will still furnish forth the marriage feast–assuming proper refrigeration. Plus you’ll be rich on life insurance and the new guy’s salary. Don’t worry about the money. You can bag a real doctor, easy.
“The coffee isn’t very hot.”
“‘We’ll’ warm it up as soon as ‘we’re’ feeling better.”
I got up and left with the coffee. It seemed to me then that a stroll up the driveway and back might help. (Monty Python crossed my mind: “I’m feeling much better. I’d like to go for a walk.”) More and more this was feeling like a combination of having the wind knocked out of me and carrying around one of those side cramps that used to settle in at about the half-mile marker of a 5K race, back when my legs were equipped with knees and ankles.
When I returned from my little stroll the Eye Roller was at her fancy new laptop, purchased in this century, sipping her re-heated coffee. Ah! The sight of her in the morning is enough to give a man a heart attack! But by now I was in a different sort of panic. I assumed she was listing my pick-up trucks and my golf clubs on eBay or craigslist.
“Don’t sell my stuff yet,” I said. “I might make it.”
And she, staring intently, not missing a beat, said, “look at this. Here’s an interesting trim kit we could put on the garage doors.”