The house was on a hill with a red pick-up in the drive, and Groton, an hour west of Cambridge out Route 2, had gotten more snow than we had in the city. We unloaded the big table I’d built for Jon yesterday (again: look at his photographs, follow him). From the back of the rented van and into his kitchen where light came from all directions, and the views out the windows, north east west, were hills, trees, stone walls, a tiny shed on the edge of the snowy yard where deer take shelter and shit.
Black walnut, six feet by four feet. It’s big and strong and imperfect, but it does its job. It stands. And Jon was kind and good to meet, and his home was a comfortable home in that there were piles of books, stacks and stacks, and photographs on the walls, and boxes of Ilford paper around, and rolls of negatives. The table had been living in parts in Cambridge, part of my life now for the last months, and now it’s part of his, in his big bright kitchen. I think maybe I’m starting to believe that certain objects have souls.
The apartment is small. Furniture had to be moved to build the apron and legs for a table, four-feet by six-feet, here in the living room. The skeleton of the table, the bones on which the tabletop will sit, filled the space, and I crawled on all fours underneath it to get to the other side of the room. Some people have workshops. Some people have garages. Some people have yards or sheds or basements that aren’t dark and dirt-floored with green pellets of mouse poison deposited at the base of the stairs. I have a small strip of space outside, where I do much of the table building, and the rooms, kitchen and living, of this small apartment in Cambridge. It’s enough, but barely.
The apron, once done, had to be moved to the basement. It’s light, easy to lift. But the hall is narrow and the corners to turn are sharp. It would’ve been good to find the humor within the gymnastics of moving it out of the apartment, and some days that’s possible, but not this day. Like moving a headless animal in rigor mortis, legs stiff and straight out like you see sometimes on the animals at the side of the road, the apron knocked against walls, ground against doorframes. The upping and downing, tilting and spinning, turning round and round so its legs went one way, into a room where we’d spin it, so the legs faced the opposite way to round another corner. Then by the front door, it jammed, no way forward, dead animal born breech. A low arch and a bookshelf made the space too small to move through. Oh this was discouraging. The sick frustrated panic that I’d built something that could not be moved out of the apartment bloomed and spread. To take it all apart would not have been impossible, but it would’ve been difficult, and the idea of it was frustrating in a way that felt more like the sadness of failure than anything like belligerence and impatience.
With heat in my face, and the familiar urge when patience has dissolved to resort to brute force instead of brains, I muscled the bookshelf out of the way, which opened up enough space to get the apron and legs out the door at last. Some relief, but not much, nervous already about moving it into someone else’s space, and feeling the press, even stronger, of the walls of this place, as it gets dark in the fours, as outside gets less inviting. There’s no crying in carpentry? Sometimes there is.
Three ways to get away from words. (An incomplete list.)
I. Running. When I am in writing mode, as I was for the last five weeks or so, grinding through another draft of the book, there are days that the only reason I leave the house is to run. It is cold now, and starting out with a chill, goosebumps, cold hands, and warming, warming, until I unzip my top and let the cold air touch my neck and finally feel sweat on my back and forehead, is a wild pleasure. On these pre-winter runs, lights become the thing, streetlamps, headlights, blinking and sparkling up the path ahead. The Charles River glitters with Boston above it. Sometimes, the moon. Sometimes, a few stars. To be aware of breath and lungs, knees and quads and calves, ponytail swish, is to be unaware of making sentences, is to be unaware of locating the right words and piling them together in the right ways. This is everyday a relief.
II. Building. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s oft-quoted thing about writing and carpentry in a Paris Review interview goes like this: “Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.” It’s bullshit. For one thing, Marquez admits a few sentences later that he hadn’t done any carpentry. Writing and making a table are nothing like each other. Despite the links in language (nailing a sentence, chiseling away at an essay, hammering out a chapter), writing and carpentry – for me – come from different rooms of the brain. To make a table is to have objects in your hand, wood and tools, real in the world, outside yourself. It is to put something together with a practical use. To write is to muck around in the space inside your skull. It’s to build something, yes, but it is closer to a conjuring. You cannot put your wineglass down on a paragraph, even if that paragraph is perfect. In its best and calmest moments, something as mindless as sanding a board is to be lifted away from language. It is to have an arm, a piece of sandpaper, the scritching sound, and a smoothing piece of wood below. The days in which I balanced writing with doing carpentry were always better days.
III. Fucking. I spent some time with a guy (not very much time) who wore hats and who was kind but also dull and I didn’t laugh much when we hung out. He had dark eyes and a quiet voice. And there we’d be in bed, kissing and naked, and he’d start talking. Your cunt this and my hard cock that, graphic narration all the way through. Each time it surprised me, the outpouring so out of synch with his vanillaness. I have been perked by the right and unexpected placement of a heated word, but not here. How can you fuck someone with so many words involved? When each grope and thrust is named outloud, how can you achieve that exiting, that place beyond language which is the rare best place that sex can take you? How can you, when each action is described, release the fist clutch on which words to use to say what needs to be said? I would like to feel my cunt, your hard cock, and let that be enough.
"I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape — the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show." -Andrew Wyeth
I went to the woodworking store in Cambridge with a table leg I’d made and some questions. A man named Woody, with a grey-white scraggly beard and and a peg leg, spent the better part of an hour talking with me about tables and telling me what he knew. He told me a thing or two about glue. He brought me around the store and showed me hardware and tools. “I call myself a craftsman of necessity,” he said, and I liked the sound of that. He talked about the work sometimes giving you nightmares, and I said it’s funny you say that because I’ve jolted awake a couple times recently because of this table. And he looked at me with these grey-green-blue ocean eyes and smiled and nodded and said, “That’s totally normal.” And I was surprised at how comforted I felt to hear it, and I think I might’ve even blushed.
The finish for this walnut tabletop is combination of polyurethane and tung oil and linseed oil and it smells like apple cider, with the singey smell of turpentine, too, sharp and powerful. I spent time sanding yesterday, and spent time rubbing the finish into the wood today with a torn up piece of a soft pink tanktop I used to wear. The finish looks like honey, and to rub it into the boards makes me feel like I’m feeding the wood and that’s a good way to feel.
Baser Natures The area in the woods next to the shed had already been cleared of brush and the earth was raw and damp and the air smelled like the dark green of ripped leaves. Andre Dubus III, in the first stages of building an extension onto his shed, passed me a bottle of bug spray and headed from the driveway of the house he built with his brother in Newbury, into the shade where the shed stood. “You’ll need this,” he said. Fat horseflies buzzed and got swatted; mosquitoes, at around two on this breezy August afternoon, either weren’t awake, or were deterred by the spray. Dubus held a tape measure and a notebook for measurements. He surveyed the space. “I’m starting to get really excited,” he said.
Andre Dubus III talks sex and carpentry in a piece I wrote for this month’s issue of Boston Magazine. Read it here.
When I lived in Dublin, Ireland for eleven months, I had a German housemate named Jens who loved Lou Reed and who is the only person, male or female, that I’ve encountered who could pull off wearing leather pants. Transformer and The Songs of Leonard Cohen made up the soundtrack of that year, of the pale yellow kitchen in the house on South Circular Road that I shared with Jens, an Italian man named Corrado, and two French guys, broody Christian and fussy Benj. I cannot hear Lou Reed’s voice, and the songs from Transformer in particular, without being transported back to that year in Dublin, that kitchen, the parties we had, the meals we shared, Jens’s leather pants, and recognizing, even then, that this was likely to be the best year I’d ever know.