The Old Farmer’s Almanac forecasts the first fall frost in Cambridge will be on November 7, with a 50% probability. We’ve got some plants that live outside, and need to make some space for them inside our small apartment. To bring them in would create a jungle on the floor, crowd already crowded space. “Let’s build shelves,” Jonah posed. I had oak floorboards in mind, ones I’d grabbed from a job M. and I had done, pulling up old floors and putting down new ones. Sturdy, thick, strong, dirty on the sides where a century’s worth of dust and dirt and human skin collected between the boards, but easy to clean up. “How about these?” Jonah said, picking up scraps from a big round table I made out of reclaimed chestnut. “Perfect. Perfect.” An inch and a half thick, and curved, so no one will bump their shoulder or their eye on a corner on the way into the bathroom of our small place. I love the way they look, and was pleased with Jonah’s vision for the wood.
At my grandmother’s house, which was sold last fall to the rich man next door, there was a secret path under the shrubs that lead down the hill to a clearing. The tunnel of bushes closed in so you had to duck a bit and mind the blackberry brambles which thorned dress straps and bare arms. Always at the bottom it felt different than the top, as though you’d traveled through the wardrobe, entering some secret realm. Late summer last year, and everything was almost done, a final time at this house before it was sold and gutted beyond recognition, the ghosts displaced, the spirit of the house killed dead. Late summer last year, in the grass in the clearing after the path, bones and fur. There are other paths, yes? There are other paths, I tell myself. “Even good girls die,” I was told late at night, as if this house was one of them, or I was, and as if I didn’t know.
A lot of people, mostly men, when I say I work as a carpenter, ask me about a toolbelt. I never owned one. I’ve envied and admired M’s, which is worn in like a good pair of boots, but it never felt right to buy myself one, all fresh and stiff. After all, I can shove nails in my front pockets, a pencil in the back, clip a tape to my right hip. And maybe more so it was a doubting if I’d earned one yet.
For this deck project we just finished, we worked with M’s old boss. We arrived at work one early morning and he said, “Got a present for you,” and he pulled out this belt that used to be his and I didn’t think it could really be for me, that maybe it was on loan for the day. I put it on, around my hips, and loved the way it felt, soft and strong, well worn, experienced, an experienced belt. “It’s yours to keep if you want it,” he said. It’s an object that feels instilled with something, some power, used and useful, and I couldn’t believe how cool it felt to wear. I said thank you, thank you, which didn’t do justice to how grateful, flattered, and surprised I was by this good gift.
Before, during, after. We finished the deck on Friday afternoon amidst bustle at the Sandy Brook sanctuary, preparations for their annual fall fair. No matter how great the work is, no matter how kind and friendly and funny the people we’re working for are (and the folks at Audubon were all of the above), no matter how proud and satisfied the work has made us (this brought both, bigtime), always the feeling of the last hours is let this be over, let’s get this done. M. and I put the last detail in, packed the van tight with tools, and went in to the visitors’ center to say our goodbyes. There were hugs, laughs, come-back-and-visits. We will. I’d like to see the view from the deck when the trees are turning and walk the path around the pond.
Neat news! The American Booksellers Association chose HAMMER HEAD as one of ten books for their “Indies Introduce” list for the winter/spring season.
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.