Nina works long and hard these days. She’s up before the dawn and out the door, leaving me in a pile under the bed covers. She pounds nails and works saws on a huge carpentry project in a distant southern suburb. It’s damn near dusk when she’s off the gnarled highway and, finally, home again.
Our time together is short. I make a dinner and we eat it together. I can make whatever I want. The heartier the better. Protein. There will be no arguments when she’s home. There will be no objections or questions. There will be no salads. I plan the menu. Two nights ago it was beef stew, perfect for the colder winds and shortening days, and to warm up the insides and fill a body with life. Last night was stewed squid with garlic and green peas, a favorite of my late grandfather. I served it with hunks of crusty bread for smearing and a plate of soft, yellow polenta. Morbido. I stirred for half an hour until it was smooth as cake batter, and drizzled over it with olive oil, salt and pepper.
I am a homemaker these days. It’s simple and plain. I do my work, typing and seated, and I do the laundry and clean the house too. Nina is out working her body into a profound exhaustion and I am here to replenish her and help her. I feel tickles of family, and home, in the rhythm of these days. I miss her. I wait by the window for her to return, the table set and a candle lit, eager to hug. The light bulbs are dimmed and the smell of dinner spills into the hallway to meet her. We do hug and we eat and, after her hot shower, she falls asleep on the couch with her foot against my thigh.
[Painting: The Green Diner by Edouard Vuillard, 1891]
I don’t have the words for the gratitude, comfort, and relief I feel when I walk down the hall to our apartment door these evenings, bone weary and covered in sawdust, to smell what Jonah’s cooked, knowing we will eat together and eat so well. I look forward to it all day, our sliver of time together over the grilled bluefish or stew or flattened pork he’s prepared with thought and love. I need food in a different way these days, and when I eat what he’s made I’m nourished in a way that only has part to do with protein and calories, but is as powerful a fuel. I feel grateful, and I feel loved.
The hardest work is over. The framing is done – all the lugging, hoisting, and fastening of long two-by-twelves, finished. Stable and strong. The decking is done – all the cutting and screwing of the fresh black locust. So much screwing. We laughed like middle schoolers in the usual ways: “it’s so much better screwing with three people,” etc. On Friday afternoon, we placed the last piece in. The mood was celebratory. A few folks from the sanctuary stood and took pictures. I felt proud. There’s the rail left to do, and work with cedar trim for the posts and outer frame. At the final stages, the work turns more meticulous and moves slower. On the long drive home on Friday afternoon, in traffic on 93 North, I felt a small tinge of sadness – it’s been such a pleasure working on this, the daily effort of it, all the strength it’s demanded. Now it’s close to done. Soon we won’t return each morning. The work this week won’t require as many muscles. I have never been as strong as I am right now.
In reading a bit about black locust before we started working with it, I learned that it glows in black light. I didn’t think we’d have a chance to test it for ourselves, that I’d just have to imagine and trust. But we got our hands on a black light flashlight and tried it out. In a large, dark boiler room in the basement of the visitors’ center where we’re building this deck, we took a slice of the wood, propped it up, and shone the flashlight on it. The photograph is crap, but we yelled and and whoa’d and holy shitted, because it did glow. A secret power to this wood. Bright and ghosty and I liked to think of wandering through a forest in the night and seeing the woods fluoresce like this.
We got the wood from a man named Blue Sky, out in Western Mass. He deals only with black locust, which will be the decking for this deck we’re building, the part that people will walk upon, will stand upon and look at the pond to the north. It’s paler than I expected, and is still wet — it was only milled a few days ago from trees in a wood a couple hours from here. I’ve heard tell that black locust glows if you shine a black light on it. The Audubon Society, who we’re building the deck for, wanted something sustainable, lasting. As for lifespan, a builder friend quoted his own black locust dealer: “it lasts one day longer than stone.” This thing we’re building will stand long after we do, and there’s a glimmer of immortality in that.
We arrive at around seven each morning, and mist rises off the meadow and the tall grass is damp with dew. Eyes out for goose shit, we cross the meadow and make our way to the back of the visitors center where our deck is in progress. We’re building it for a Mass Audubon property, a sanctuary — with pond and paths and informational signs noting flora and fauna. A whiteboard in the front hall has announcements markered in bright colors. The Duck Derby is coming up. The Mount Watatic hawk watch happens in about a week.
It’s quiet in the morning, and we take a minute to set up. Ladders, saws, speed squares, hammers, joist hangers, and nails. The first hammerbang, the first scream of the saw, always feels like a corruption of the quiet. Once we start, we go and go, and it is astonishing how much we’ve done in so little time. Fair to say: this might be my favorite project that we’ve worked on. Physically challenging, visually impressive. Big and strong and exciting. Every day we leave with more done than the morning, and I feel a sort of whole-body smile as I walk across the meadow on the way back to the parking lot, exhausted, dirty, satisfied.
In a room used for summer camp, kid-made posters hang on the walls. One breaks down animals by when they’re active. Nocturnal, diurnal, crepuscular. I didn’t know what crepuscular meant and for days it rose in my mind like the morning mist as I hammered and measured. Crepuscular. I imagined seeing it in poetry, in a stanza somewhere, or thought, maybe if I was a poet I would use the word crepuscular in a poem. Crepuscular animals are active at dawn and dusk. In Latin, crepusculum means twilight. When we leave in the late afternoon, I imagine that we’re returning the quiet to the creatures, for their action at dusk, for us to come back and disrupt again, just after dawn.
The nature of sound has changed. We’re working on a deck. My head between two joists, I pound nails with a hammer into pressure-treated pine. After we’ve wrestled these big boards from the stack, after we’ve hoisted them, huge two-by-twelves that frame this massive, beautiful thing we’re building, after we’ve bruised our forearms, sworn, sworn magnificently, after we’ve considered, again, how strong we’re getting, we raise them into place to secure with brackets and joist hangers.
Head between two boards, I stand on a ladder, right arm raised and pounding hard. The hammerbangs are so loud the sound is solid.
I’ve felt music in chest when it’s deep and loud, a thumping in addition to the heart’s, a vibration deep in the guts. The hammerbangs aren’t that. The sound becomes a force, and in my mind its shape is cylindrical, sharp of tip — a bullet is so obvious — and it is hard and hot and it’s almost as if I could catch it with my hand. My shoulder burning, the joist secured, I pause to catch my breath because I hold it while I hammer, and up above a red-tailed hawk circles in the bright September sky, and it screeches, and I think maybe that screech has a shape, too, and the sound of the oak leaves in the breeze, and the noise of the tape measure retreating into its holster. Maybe all the sounds have shapes. I’ve known none so solid as the hammerbangs these last framing days.
The designs for the deck bring to mind paper folded fans, a portion of a seashell, the golden spiral. This is the before.
Today, dismantling what was there, installing flashing, eight feet up on the ladder, arms above the head, lugging twelve-foot pressure-treated four-by-tens across the yard until my forearms screamed, gave a physical introduction of what the next month will hold. And it was all optimism, the freshness of a big new project. We talked of how strong we’ll get, and how beautiful this deck could turn out to be.
It exists now in the imagination alone, like the cool air from a folded fan waved in front of your face.
Her white apron had a little bit of blood on it, and a belt made of chain slung low on her hips. A metal holster hung from the chain holding half a dozen knives, a tool belt like I’d never seen. Cara Nicoletti is a butcher at the Meat Hook in Brooklyn. Her beautiful blog Yummy Books looks at the intersection of food and literature, and her own book Voracious about cooking and reading is due out next summer. We met ten years ago, on my family’s back porch, when Cara was seventeen, and in Brooklyn this weekend, my brothers and I stopped in to the Meat Hook to say hello.
She took us through a heavy door into a dim cool room full of animal parts. “There’s a cow’s head,” she said pointing into a dark corner. It glistened, white and red. “That’s a lamb,” she said pointing to a bin on a low shelf, a pile of cut up parts. She said she thought of something Jonah had written every time she sliced prosciutto. The room didn’t smell the way I remember the butcher zones of grocery stores to smell, a combination of freezer and stale metal, a sticky smell experienced at the back of the throat. This smelled dry, savory, so appetizing, like walking inside a salami.
Cara talked of the dudes she’s worked with at the butcher and in kitchens, always bragging about their scars and burns. They forget, she said, that all those marks mean that they’d fucked up, that they’d gone too fast, that they weren’t doing it right. But they brag anyway. I’ve seen the same with some of the guys in the trades, usually the younger ones, sharing their scar stories as though they’d been in a battle. The sense of pride arises, I think, out of doing a job in which bodily harm is a reality. You don’t get burned in front of a computer screen. You don’t slice your finger to the bone sitting at a desk.
Cara, so sweet, her long black braid slung over her shoulder, sent us off with two chewy sticks of beef jerky packed in brown paper, and went back behind the counter to continue cutting meat, carpentry of flesh.