“He grew up on a pig farm in the middle of Kansas,” Scott told me of my new boss. “His brother started…” he leaned in, “molesting him… when he was just nine years old. Horrible. It went on for years, until he ran away. Can you believe that? He’s been seeing a shrink about it for years. Now he can’t, you know, perform, as often as he’d like. That was fine with me for a while, there’s plenty of ways around that. What kind of person am I if I can’t be understanding about that kind of thing? But it turns out he’s just a boring guy. I need more excitement in my life. I need to move,” he said, bumping his hips side to side. “He could never date anyone for very long anyway, with a condition like that.”
“How long did you date him for?” I asked.
“About two weeks,” Scott answered.
“When’s the last time you dated somebody for more than two weeks?”
“I just get bored easily. And he was so boring,” he said, and let his chin drop. “And those houses of his are always so awful. The only thing he showed me about refinishing houses is that it’s boring and gross. You need the job, though, and I’m glad I could help.”
I was, in fact, more grateful than that. My car was on the verge of getting repossessed, and the nice folks at Fannie Mae Student Loans were making plans to harvest my kidneys.
The job site was an old colonial that my boss, Brian, hopefully paid no more for than the change under his car seats. I walked into the living room to find the house empty of most of its furniture, and it looked and smelled as if it had been soaking in a giant bucket of urine. The rest of the contents of the house were piled into a dumpster that was blocking the driveway.
After a moment of assessing the varying shades of brown spread across the once white walls, I noticed a dulled green, floral sofa in a corner of the living room. It looked like it had melted into its spot, or sunk a bit into the floor, and there was a hole in the seat cushion that was maybe ten inches across, decayed around the edges, and went straight through to the hardwood floor. This was the first piece of furniture that had ever frightened me.
Next to the sofa was a windowsill that had been gouged a full inch into the raw wood, as if someone had raked it with a wire brush back and forth obsessively, and there was a heavy eyebolt screwed into the sill at the center of the damage. The floor under the window was stained in a black circle so deeply that I imagined I’d be able to see the same spot looking up from the basement. The sound of creaky steps told me someone was coming down the stairs, and I was facing the foyer when Brian walked into the room.
“Morning. What do you think?” He grinned and spread his arms as if he was trying to sell me the place. “It takes an eye for potential, but I couldn’t pass up the deal,” he said, gazing across the ceiling. He was wearing only a baseball hat, a tee shirt and boxer shorts.
“Do you sleep here?” I asked.
“I had to sell my last house to get into this one,” he said. “The taxes are easier if I live in a place while I’m getting it together. I have to move three or four times a year, but I don’t mind.” I turned my head around the room to avoid staring at his outfit. “An old lady lived here alone,” he grinned and widened his eyes as if that alone explained this much decay. “I had to rent a dumpster because there was so much to throw out. Some of the furniture might be salvageable, but most of it’s rotten. I tried to lift that thing,” he pointed toward the sofa, “but it started to come apart on me.” He grabbed it by the armrest and shook it, and it wiggled like a boiled chicken, held together by only the skin.
I nodded toward the hole in the seat. “Was there a fire?” I knew no fire had caused that hole, but didn’t know how else to ask the question without betraying my repulsion.
“That’s where she sat to watch TV. She lost control of her bladder a long time before she died.” He grinned again and waved his hand in front of his nose. “There are two other spots where she would sit. You can tell by the stains in the floor. There was a lounge chair in her bedroom that I had to pry up with a dolly. Otherwise, it’s not so bad upstairs.” He walked over and rubbed the gouge in the windowsill. “She had a rottweiler chained up here,” he said, and nodded downward to the stain on which he was now standing in his bare feet.
He began walking around the room, inspecting the walls, and rubbing the stains with his hands. His underwear sagged over his pale and sinewy legs, and the fly hung loosely open as he shifted around. I studied each aspect of the job, squinting and nodding as he explained it to me. It wasn’t very complicated, but I was trying to not notice that my new foreman was walking me through the job site in his underwear.
“C’mon,” he said, walking out of the room. “I’m pretty sure we can salvage the floors.” His raised voice echoed through the house. “We’ll give it a try in the tough spots, and we’ll just seal it up and put down carpeting if it doesn’t work out.” We walked through an empty dining room and into the kitchen. It was as dark and rotted as the other rooms, and there were paper bags on the counter, filled with groceries. All the cabinets were open and empty. The only appliances were a refrigerator and a microwave oven, and they were as new to the house as Brian was. “We’re going to tear out the wall around this window and put in some sliding glass doors to the back yard. If we have time, we’ll put up a deck before I sell,” he said, as he spread his arms in a box pattern of what would be the doors. He was standing in the middle of the second of the three stains. I looked at my feet, silently appreciating my battered army surplus boots.
The rooms upstairs were as stained and dark, and Brian was wrong about the smell not being so bad. Through a hole in the ceiling, there was an attic of blackened air. A clean mattress with rumpled blankets rested on the floor of the first bedroom, and a bureau sat several feet away from the wall. I peered in quickly and headed to the only other bedroom. The floor in this room was not only stained worst of all, but was warped in areas.
“This is where she slept,” Brian said, as he walked comfortably around the room, and stomped on the warped areas with his heel. “We may have to replace the whole floor in here, but I hope not. I’ll only make money if I can turn it around cheap.” He opened a set of accordion doors to a closet. “The closet floor was piled with her clothes. It all rotted off the hangers, and her bureau was still filled with underwear and stuff. It was so gross.” He walked to the window. “When I was clearing out the place, things were falling apart in my hands. I ended up kicking everything to pieces and scooping it out the window with a shovel.” He nodded toward the bay window.
We walked back into the hallway, and he pointed to the hole in the ceiling. “You can clear out the attic. It’s pretty dirty up there, and you’ll need a work light. You might want to wear a dusk mask and goggles.” He smiled at me as if this was some kind of fun I was about to get myself into. “There’s a ladder and everything else you’ll need in the basement. There are no windows, or I’d have you just throw stuff onto the lawn. See if there’s anything valuable, but it looks like the son went through it all before we closed.”
I made my way to the basement, which was comparatively pleasant. It had the smell of a mossy riverbed, with stone foundation walls that looked remarkably solid. Old, wooden furniture was neatly placed in a corner. A dining room table and chairs, some end tables, coffee tables, and an ornately carved bed frame leaning against the wall. Most of the varnish was aged to dust, but it was all nicely put together. I dug through the crates of building supplies and grabbed a box of garbage bags and a work light. It took me a while to find the mask and goggles, but I figured I would appreciate them once I settled into the day’s work. As I navigated the stepladder through the main floor, I saw Brian pulling away in his undersized pickup truck. I had no idea where he was headed. A supply run, maybe. I hoped he had put on some pants.
The attic ceiling sloped sharply, and I could only stand up straight along the peak. Even then, I had to keep my chin to my chest, all the while balancing on exposed joists. There were no lights or windows, and I guessed the temperature was maybe at a hundred and ten. As my balancing act stirred the air, giant clumps of gray dust began to float across the flashlight beam, and I felt as if I was standing inside some huge and hideous novelty snow globe. The floor was a sea of papers and clothing, which had been disturbed recently. Dozens of boxes had been torn open, and milk crates were overturned. I grabbed a milk crate to sit on, and settled into sifting through these piles and dropping garbage bags through the hole in the floor.
After a while, I couldn’t tell the time of day, and my only company was the work light beam and the sound of my own breathing into the dusk mask as I sweated through it. I came across stacks of faded magazines from the 1940’s, ‘Fashion for Today,’ ‘Modern Woman’ and ‘Homemade Clothing Style,’ mostly rotted through or soaked and dried over and over, now solid. Folded yards of fabric, also solid, with an occasional square of color or pattern visible in the flashlight beam, where a box had somehow shielded it from time. Christmas ornaments lay broken in the pile where they had been dumped, some still cupped in newspaper, now stiff and faded, like dead hands. An instruction book on how to make stuffed dolls from the 1950’s. A few books on child rearing by Dr. Spock, and a dozen or so instruction books on furniture making, now thickened like sponges floating on the insulation. Any value to these items had been drained away or crushed.
Late one afternoon, Brian and I lifted the living room sofa, and it came apart in our hands. We stood there for a moment, each holding an exposed end, and we ended up dragging it out the door, one piece at a time. The wood had rotted and broken along the frame, and the stuffing fell like a path of breadcrumbs to the dumpster. But the joints remained intact, still at right angles. I checked for metal support rods or springs that by now would have rusted and become dangerous, and there were none. Wooden dowels had been pounded into wide drill holes, and sawed off by hand. No nails had been used. As each section crashed into the dumpster, the joints defiantly held the rotted long boards at perfect angles.
The following week, Brian put me to work outside. The lawn had only a few patches of grass, which were tall enough to go to seed. He apologized that the job had not yet involved any skilled labor, but I welcomed a few days free of picking thick layers of black dust out of my nostrils. He knelt by a five and a half-foot wooden fence, and pulled on a length of buried chicken wire that was blocking a four-inch gap from the fence to the ground. It didn’t seem to be doing any harm, and I didn’t even notice it until I got on my knees as well.
“Dig this out. Then we’ll go from there.”
After a morning of digging and pulling, I had gotten most of the chicken wire up, and already I had to pick a thick layer of black dust out of my nostrils. A chubby, middle-aged woman came running out of the house on the other side of the fence. She was wearing a bathrobe, and her hair was set in huge, pink curlers. A tiny, white dog bolted out the door behind her. It pulled itself under the fence where the chicken wire was now gone, and yapped at me while charging back and forth from a safe distance.
“Young man, young man, stop that! That fence is not your property! What is your name, please?” She was at the fence and out of breath. “You can’t do that, young man! What you’re doing is vandalism, and I’ll call the police! Do you hear me? You leave my dog alone! Bury that wire back down right now!” She was negotiating her head back and forth between the slats, and all I could see was one top curler angling at me like a periscope during the few moments I took my eyes off the dog.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I don’t live here,” I said, keeping the shovel between the dog and me. “I work for the owner.” Like most other mornings, Brian was not around. “I was told to dig this up, so I’m sure the owner thinks this is his property. I’ll stop until you two can talk it over.” I tried to keep a polite tone as I imagined how easily I could quiet her dog with the shovel.
“You will bury that wire back down right this very minute, or I’ll call my son over here, and he’ll be sure you do it, believe me. He put that wire down there in the first place, and he’ll be damned if he has to do it again. My son looks after me, not like you people neglected that poor old mother of yours. Interested in cleaning up now, are you? After the way you let her suffer? You’re just here for the money now that she’s finally dead and gone. You’re not fooling anyone. It’s a sin the way you treated her. I paid a visit once and saw for myself. I could not believe my eyes, the way she lived! Well, you won’t ruin my property in the meantime. I’m going to call my son right now. You just wait and see how fast you bury that wire back down then, young man.” The dog was not yet tiring.
“Ma’am.” I tried to measure my tone. “The house has already changed hands. I’m simply following instructions.” This woman was correct in assuming I didn’t want to meet her son. But if he did show up, at least I had the shovel. “Could you please call your dog, Ma’am.”
“You harm my dog and I’ll have you up on charges! The cops will drag you out of here in handcuffs! Do you hear me? They should anyway, the way you treated that poor woman. You just stop that digging and go inside then. That’s Winston, and he’ll come back over when he sees I’m in no danger. He might think I am, but believe you me I’m not. I can take care of myself, and don’t you forget it. And my son takes care of me, too.”
“I’ll tell the new owner when he gets back, ma’am,” I said, and headed for the door, dragging the shovel behind me as the dog darted back and forth at my heels, still yapping.
Later that afternoon, I watched from the window as Brian had a long and sometimes heated discussion with his new neighbor and her fat son, who had the hairstyle and beard stubble of a man who spent most of the day sleeping. He wore a sweat suit whose only workout was to contain a huge mass of flesh. Brian came in for copies of his property drawings, and dug around for some sort of written proof of ownership of the fence. Both parties finally went inside.
“I got them to agree that the fence is mine, but you have to bury the chicken wire again. Sorry,” Brian said. “It was the only way to shut them up.” It was fine with me. Brian was paying me by the hour, and I would have been happy to spend a month digging in the yard.
The next morning, I got an early start burying the chicken wire, and the woman was soon standing on the other side of the fence. All I saw were a few high curlers under a continuous cloud of cigarette smoke, and the dirty tips of fuzzy slippers. She talked through the fence, and sucked on each cigarette so hard, I could hear it burn. At least the dog was inside, and the son was back to his own life of napping under a blanket of potato chip crumbs.
“The way that family treated their poor mother. Well, there ought to be a law. And that dog of hers! My God in Heaven! I couldn’t let Winston outside even once until Robert fixed the fence for me.”
She went on.
“Winston is just naturally friendly, but that monster of hers was down-right indecent with him. Can you imagine such a thing? Thank God they could never have babies! They’d be an abomination! If Winston was a girl, he’d have burst with those puppies inside of him! My God!” I pictured Winston squeezing under the fence to pick a fight, only to become the Rottweiler’s bitch. “One time I had to throw a shoe at that thing just to give Winston a chance to escape! And I never saw that shoe again, I can tell you. I wouldn’t have wanted to either. And I could have forced that old woman to pay, too. I would have been in my rights, but she had no money. Not a dime!”
I would walk away to get a drink, or some new digging tool, and she would pick up where she left off when I came back.
“Robert is between plumbing jobs right now. I always thought he’d be the one in the family to go to college, but he’s just so good with his hands. He started making money and he never looked back. I even offered to have him fix a few things for poor old Mrs. Irwin, but she had no money. Not a dime! Even in her purse! Can you imagine? She didn’t even have food in the cupboards. Her son would leave a fast food bag on her front steps every afternoon, and never even say ‘hello.’ To his own mother! And he would take the mail right out from her mailbox. He said he was paying the bills, but he was after that government check, and he wasn’t fooling anybody, I can tell you that.” She dropped another cigarette to the ground, sucked right to the filter.
“Just one meal of junk food every day! Can you imagine! That son of hers, there ought to be a law against a grown man treating his poor old mother like that.”
The next task was exterior siding repairs. I balanced at the top of an extension ladder with a trowel and a bucket of wet stucco, as the neighbor talked at me from the grass below. She had come around to my side of the fence, now that we were old friends, and I yearned for the silent smells inside.
“The husband was a carpenter. He made furniture in a shop just down the road a bit. On Broadway and Twenty-second. No, twenty-third. The one with the gas station. It’s a liquor store now, full of vagrants and thieves. They get robbed once a week, I’d bet you anything.”
I began to wonder if I could to explain to the authorities how I dropped a thirty-pound bucket of stucco onto a woman’s head.
“I’ve been in this house thirty years, and the Irwin’s were already living here when I moved in. Old Mister Irwin made a nice bureau for my Robert when he was born. Made it with his own hands. Now that’s a fine neighbor. He made all the furniture in that house of theirs. He died a long time ago…. He kept that house in near perfect shape… She just couldn’t afford any, is all. Not one decent sofa to sit on… That would have been the decent thing to do.”
“…Can you believe that? I said, can you believe that?!” I realized I had tuned her out. “I said” she continued. “This neighborhood used to be the best part of town! The best place to raise a family! That’s why we moved here! But then minorities started moving into these nice houses and it’s been dangerous ever since!” She must have realized she was yelling, and she looked over her shoulder as if she was in immediate danger of being beaten to death. She had no idea how right she was.
“Now, I have nothing against anyone, but I just think that even if you’re born with very little, you can make something out of your life, and still obey the law in the meantime. A nice young man, this Brian, and he’s doing a fine thing, fixing up this old place. Maybe now we can get some more nice folks like Brian to move in around here. That would be just glorious.”
I pictured her delivering fresh baked cookies, door to door, to a neighborhood of impotent gay men.
After a few weeks, Brian began spending more time in the house, and we made real progress. One morning, we stood in the kitchen, talking as we knocked down the kitchen wall with sledgehammers.
“I usually work alone,” he said. “Not because it’s cheaper. It’d be cheaper to have steady help. I’ve gotten friends to help before, but most of my friends are gay, and they only want to help when I’m shopping for fabrics.”
“Well, I appreciate the work, either way,” I said, as we began to expose the wall studs.
“I’m glad Scott told you I was looking for someone. You’re definitely saving me money around here,” he said, and then continued after a moment. “Scott is quite a piece of work.”
“Sure is,” I replied. “He’s a little too much for me sometimes, but he’s a good guy, and he’s been a good friend to my girlfriend for a long time.”
“He really gets around,” Brian said, looking for a gap to fit a crowbar into. “We were together for a little while, but his party schedule was too much for me. That’s okay. I grew up on a farm and I like to keep things pretty quiet.”
“What sort of farm?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“Hogs, mostly. Some cattle, and some feed grain.” The crowbar pulled off a chunk of the wall.
“How’d you get into fixing houses? Farm life didn’t suit you?” I asked, while I shoveled splintered lath and plaster into a wheelbarrow.
“Not really,” he answered, pulling away some exposed electrical wires. “I guess I miss it sometimes. I just wanted to try something else. When you grow up on a farm, that’s all you know about. I had never even been to a city until I was fifteen. I stayed with my aunt for a while and got a job as a ticket taker at a movie theater. It took a long time to save money,” he paused, and squinted into the new bits of sunlight as he thought. “Ten years, I guess.” This fact seemed to surprise him. “But I wanted my own house. The only place I could afford was a wreck, so I fixed it up. On a farm, if it’s broken, you fix it. It took a long time, because I was working long hours, and I had to buy supplies a little at a time. When I was done I had a friend over, and he liked it so much, he offered me a ton of money for it. That’s how I got the idea, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“Have you ever thought about remodeling for other people?” I asked. “The money’s pretty good, and you wouldn’t have to move around so much.”
“Too many hassles,” he said. “This way, no one bothers me. When I get enough saved, and find a place that really like, then I might stay a while.” The kitchen opened up to the yard, and fresh air began to creep into the house.
After we got the glass doors in, I spent the next few weeks spackling, sanding and priming the walls and ceilings, and chemically stripping sixty years of paint off the interior windows. Brian was working steadily now, mostly sanding the floors, which were turning out surprisingly well. The blackened stains gave way to raw oak, one sander width at a time, as I whitened the walls and ceilings around them. Brian was never in any hurry, and he encouraged the long breaks I needed when the stripping chemicals made me lightheaded. Sometimes, he would join me in the back yard, on a set of cheap plastic lawn chairs.
“Are you serious with your girlfriend?” He asked during one of these breaks.
“Pretty much. I think sometimes Scott is jealous that she’s not so dependent on him anymore.”
“He’s got some issues, that guy,” Brian said, smiling.
“Tell me about it,” I said. “Do you think he’ll ever settle down? I’m all for a good time and everything, but my girlfriend would worry about him less if he didn’t go so crazy all the time.”
“I don’t know. You are who you are, I think. He likes getting attention, that’s for sure, but deep down, I’d say he’d love to settle down. If the right person came along. And if he let himself really trust somebody. You never know.”
One morning, Brian handed me a written list of tasks. “I won’t be around for the next week or so,” he said. “My father’s getting a great price for meat this year, and I’m going to help him get the hogs to market. There’s more than enough to do around here, so just keep at it. I’ll see you in a few days.”
Ten days went by, and I had finished all the painting, and had settled into the detailed work of stripping away thick layers of paint from the intricate crown molding and stairway railings. I had almost reached the top of the stairs when Brian walked in the door, accompanied by a young black man. This man was wearing a dark suit, and I thought for a moment that he might be looking to buy the place. They were both smiling widely, and speaking quietly back and forth.
I came down the stairs to say hello, and Brian said, “This is Ty. We going to get married.” Ty stepped up to me and shook my hand. “Hi,” he said warmly.
“Congratulations,” I said, muffling my surprise.
“Thank you.” Ty said. “We’re very excited.” He was soft spoken, and he cupped my hand in both of his. Brian showed him around the rest of the house for a long time, and then Ty left.
I was taking a break out back, and Brian joined me, smiling to himself. “I can’t believe it,” He said. He was looking off at something.
“Is this unexpected?” I asked.
“To everyone else, it is,” he answered. “To my family it is,” and he laughed. “We’ve been friends for a long time. Ty’s a psychologist, and he’s been helping me for years now. And we got to know each other really well. We’ve felt this way for a long time, but Ty wanted to wait until I didn’t need him as a therapist anymore. This last trip home, I was finally able to have some real conversations with my family. Now I feel like maybe I can get on with some things.
He was quiet for a moment, then continued. “Ty’s going to sell his place and move in here, once it’s fixed up. Then we’ll have some kind of union ceremony. We’re going to see if we can stay here a while. He makes a ton of money, and I’m going to be able to take some time off. I’m going to try to refinish that old furniture in the basement and get it back upstairs. It might take a while, but it looks like it could be pretty nice if I can get it right.”