Building - Memoir by Pat West

July 1986

Two paintings in three days and pretty good ones I think (now). Worked on them till time to pick up girls in town. Had Cunninghame help me bring some windows up from the horse shed for me to work on tomorrow. A mud dauber’s nest was on a glass pane. I went to brush it off with my hand and only ripped off the top. The mud tube was divided into neat little chambers. In each cell was a feebly wavy spider lying on its back with a tiny green egg on its belly. I felt a moment of blind panic. Who’s side am I on in this battle? I like spiders. I like wasps. This is a horrible thing and this is life, death, and we all eat each other, all the time, everywhere. I took a deep breath, brushed the doomed spiders and the wasps’ children into the dust. Told my child to pick up the other end and let’s move this window.

It’s raining hard now. Hope the plastic is holding up down the hill. Started working on my windows today. But first I got high.

I really got into my windows. Hadn’t had the time before to really see and touch them. Love the wavy old glass. I’m learning how to putty like I learn everything- by doing it. It’s messier than I thought- slower too (surprise). Painting them is not so slow but cleaning them will be awful. I’m not sure at all about the color paint I have for them but it will have to do for now.

Wiping spiders off the windows reminded me of the day our tarantula didn’t get to go to school for Pet Day. The girls were all excited about showing him off even though I wouldn’t let them take him on the school bus. The day before I was to drive happy girls and big hairy spider to school, Pet Day was abruptly canceled. When Tarant died a year later, Pet Days were resumed.

Rain coming down in great windy blasts. It’s going to be a muddy mess down the hill and I’m sure the floor is soaked.

Just got back from a rescue call. It was a woman my age. I’m sure doing a lot better than her. Don’t think I could live through the 6 weeks in bed with leg in traction that she’s facing. But then I don’t drive without my seat-belt like she did.

Rained till noon and by noon I knew I had the wrong color for the windows. I need a much softer color. A sort of blue gray was the best I could find at the store tonight.

I was busy chastising myself for even thinking a dark color would ever have been acceptable when John brought a man down with some sad story of a sick wife, radiotherapy and no dope. John knows I don’t sell. I gave them two joints, sent them away. I was upset and angry at John for telling a stranger I grew dope. I had worked up quite a rage by the time he came bounding back down to ask if I could come over to his house. I wanted to say, “You sorry, troublesome, puffed up little punk.” Instead, I said, “I’m sorry, but building this studio is all I care about now. I have no energy left for sex.” The puffed up punk’s face turned purple. Choking, almost spitting, he told me the only way I could possibly stay sane was to keep sleeping with him. Good God. It was too much. I began to laugh and John fled back up the hill. What I told him was mostly true: all I really want now is to have the windows done. The work is long and dull.

A lovely woodpecker knocked himself out flying into a window this morning. I brought him down the hill with me and kept him in a dark, quiet place. About noon I thought him well enough. Watched him fly away to the walnut tree. Heard a scream and looked back to see a hawk carrying off my struggling woodpecker. I felt the same awful importance as when the happy ceremony of introducing the octopus into the saltwater tank turned into kid screams as he immediately ate our beloved hermit crab, or when a rat grabbed a 3-day old chick and ran down his hole with it. I can still hear that chick’s cries coming from deep down that rat hole.

The rest of the day was twelve hours of working mostly on windows. My arm feels like I would be better off if it just went ahead and fell off. Every time I close my eyes I see windows. Sure am glad I changed the color. I want to cover up the dark paint as fast as possible. At least the wrong paint is easier to get out of my life than the wrong man. Spent two hours and two cans of paint remover trying to get the paint off the old door I found in Mary’s barn. It still looks a mess. The floorboards are cupping so much from rain and sun that they look like they’re trying to get up and leave. Nailing doesn’t help-just gives me more nail heads to look at.

Mike called saying we might be able to build the roof next week-HOPE-

I can’t find the type of rolled metal Mike said to get and I can’t get in touch with him to ask what to do.

It’s taking forever to strip and clean the front door. Should have just painted it.

There’s a big hawk that circles high above my unroofed house, maybe 6 or 7 times a day. His screams fill the sky, are sharper and more far-reaching than the tree hugging locusts. At first I thought him a fine thing to have soaring in and out of my day, thought he shouted blessings on me. Now that my mood has gone sour with waiting and wanting and windows, Hawk’s voice is now harsh, insistent, critical. He is as irritating as a cuckoo clock, marking the passage of unproductive time.

Working on the windows is getting to be a complete bore, even with Arthur coming out to help almost every day.

Drove the old blue truck to Roanoke for my roofing metal and stove pipe/$300. The pipe cost more than my $40 wood stove. Also got two more gallons of paint and some nails. Mike is to be here at 8:30 to start my roof.

Robin is sick-102 degrees. The last thing I need now is a sick kid.

It is really happening! My roof is going up! I’m so excited I might break into a lot of little pieces or maybe just wet myself. It’s going to be so high- 12 feet at the top and I was worried when the 4 x4s were down- they looked so short, but when we put them up- Wow! Mike is a great and fast worker. Cunninghame worked hard all day with the crew. My little boy had the intensity and strength and endurance of a young man. Mike must have thought so too, because he offered Cunnninghame a job. I worked my hardest all day too, but I didn’t get a job offer.

Valen is watching me write this. I have never been so tired.

Couldn’t sleep so was down the hill before the dawn. I danced on my floor while the sun came up. Mike and his helper Lee were there by 8 AM. I began to drag by 9:30 and by 10:30, I could only sit and watch them work.

The rafters are almost up, but rain is moving in.

Rained out- Mike came and packed up his tools- said he had an inside job in town. Husband informed me today I was a monomaniac. That could be so, but if I’m crazy, what about a man who sleeps with a pistol under his pillow and another pistol strapped to the table leg where he sits all day watching other people play games for money on TV. It’s the sound of a car racing that makes me the most crazy. Hour upon hour of the TV spitting out nothing but Vroom- Vroom- Vroom.

The old plastic floor cover is leaking all over the place. Cunninghame, Tyree and Valen have what Robin had the other day. Valen 103 degrees.

Lightning just hit nearby- please stop raining.

I’m inside my dreams and they’re coming true. My roof is ready for its metal top. Oh Happiness—it’s happening! Mike and Lee worked (except for one short rain cover-up) till 7 PM. Lee was so tired his hands shook. A board fell on my big toe and I hit my thumb twice with a hammer, but I didn’t care. This roof- this house is going to happen!

Robin worked from 9 to 5. He doesn’t have Cunninghame’s easy grace. He is so busy watching his feet that he walks into things. Life with his older brother must be like the soft weight of a cat’s paw on the head of a baby rabbit. Mike kept Robin too busy to worry and with back slapping and manly jokes made Robin a part of the crew and happy. Bless him.

Missed writing last night because I was locked out of the house.

My roof was done yesterday at $564. $150 under the estimate. Robin worked all day again (having a wonderful time- no older brother). I love my building people. I love my house- clean lines, tall and proud. Went to see Elizabeth in her new play and she, the play, the whole world was wonderful. Took the kids home then went back to town for party at Ann’s. I started to get really tired, so was back by midnight. Everything was pitch dark. Herb was gone. The door was locked. I slept in the car until he came home at dawn.

The sky is grand from my house- I must have walls and walls of windows to let it in. Feel I should be making paintings but no time now for that. It’s walls I need now.

I was waiting with my wall wood order at the sawmill when Sonny got there. He said that his wife is back home now so he doesn’t like to leave her untended for long, especially now that she needs help getting to the bathroom. I told him all about making the sills. He pulled at his beard and asked why I hadn’t told him I needed help. He would have brought his crew over and put up the big beams for me. “Been no trouble at all,” he said. “Been glad to do it.”

I got all the kids out of bed and we all cleaned house while Herb did his tie-chi exercises. It looks much better but even with my paintings, sculptures, plants and small beasts in jars everywhere- it has no hold on me. Later, Arthur worked on the ditch while I messed with windows. I’m back in the wood-waiting time zone. I want my wall wood now!

After dinner I talked husband into taking all the kids to Blacksburg for a movie. Then I raced back down the hill-set lights up in my house for the first time. Masturbated while I watched the full moon. Thought about how to make walls and had a nice little party of one. Joy to the World.

Started taking Cunninghame to driver’s ed. every day. Great for him- more time on the road and away from building for me. Every morning now I’m going to lose 2 hours of work time.

Tyree is talking on the phone to a new boyfriend. Guess I will know who it is when she starts writing his name all over the place.

I danced with my windows for most of the day- again. I don’t see the lovely wavy glass anymore, just the countless edges, each needing old putty removed, re-glazing, priming, painting, cleaning- 4 X 8=32 X other side = 64 edges per window. At least I got some entertainment again today for the red bird that’s still having such a hard time with me sharing his space. A fine bit of color he is, flitting about trying to drive me away. I tell him I come in peace, but he does not hear me.

I stopped by to pay Sonny the $270 in advance and hopefully prod him to bring my wall wood sooner. He said he’d been just about to call me about the oak 4 X 4’s on my list because he’s worried that his green oak might twist when it dried, breaking my windows. So he wondered if I would like a nice dry cherry instead. Cherry is the queen of hardwoods- beautiful, easy to work with and very pricey. I asked the cost. “But, of course, the same price as the oak,” Sonny said. He’s just been worried about my windows.

Before dinner I made 2 pies from one of the many pails of blackberries Robin has picked. I put the pies out on the deck to cool. Robin came darting in with another bucket of berries, asked after his pies, and went sauntering out the deck door to inspect them. He stepped right into one pie, jumped back in horror, and landed smack on the other pie. Purple up past both ankles, he stood on the deck crying, “I didn’t do it- I didn’t do it.”

Had a lot of fun with the kids driving to and from town. We even decided Robin had been brilliant in his 2-step, pie stomping dance.

Hope my wood comes tomorrow.

My wood came- Sonny brought some cedar 4 X 4’s too. Cedar smells good; maybe it will help cut the smell of my sweat that has surrounded me this summer. Got my rock and roll radio station to come in at last.

Worked till 10 pm. Moon is great- don’t miss trees at all. Never lived under the open sky before. Got a start on the south wall- going to be all windows.

This is worth pulling my notebook out from under the bed to write about. Husband just pulled that “I Haven’t had anything to say to you all day but now that my mouth is full of mouthwash I must urgently communicate something to you now – quickly- guess what my grunts and impatient gestures mean.” And in the middle of his dripping gyrations I waved him off. Told him to go spit and come back. All these years I’d thought it was something the mouthwash did to his brain that would send him rushing to do his teeth-rinsing dance in front of me, but just now I saw it differently. Every argument, every discussion we had started with his hands on hips demand that I speak up, use the right words ( he was my english professor). In any discourse, he tore apart my words, avoiding my meanings. All attempts at communication ended with me crying and stuttering, “But- but,” frustrated and humiliated by my inability to rapidly fling words around. I now think this mouthwash charade is just another way to keep me humbled. A way for him to show me that he doesn’t even need words to make me feel inadequate. I think he is afraid of me, and always has been.

Wall making has already stopped being great fun. It’s hard work of the kind I do poorly. Have to do lots of careful measuring and notch cutting. Sometimes on both sides of the 4 X 4. I must know where every window goes and how big it is and make everything fit together. I suck at measuring.

Schematic: South Wall, upper room

While driving the kids to karate tonight, I decided to rip out my most offending 4 X 4 and try it again. It would make me feel much better to do (try) it right (better). Worked on windows till 10 pm. I would like to be reading the new Far Side book, but the girls have it now.

Worked from 7 am to 9 pm- with short break to drive kids and cook. South wall is almost ready for some windows. Sometimes today I thought the damn wall would do me in. Why do I feel like I should be able to tap dance through life? The wall is not too bad looking. Almost fell asleep after drinking the two cold beers Tyree brought down for me. Drove up the road to Basil’s farm to ask about his table saw. He said I could have it for a few days. He was probably relieved I’d only come for a saw and not his truck again. I need a table saw badly- have lots and lots and lots of window stop to cut.

Wish I had an icebox.

Four windows set in (three big ones; one small one). I couldn’t get the table saw to work this morning. So tried hooking it up to an old washing machine motor. The horsepower in the motor is too low and the saw cuts poorly.

I’m back in love with my windows- feel like I can really do this.

This is such slow work. Only got three windows in today. Broke the glass in one of my best windows trying to get it back out so I could fix the stop I’d fucked up. Arthur helped cut stops on the slowly turning, badly cutting, jamming table saw. He gave me a poem about my windows- guess he wasn’t wasting all the time he spent cleaning them. Will have to go to food store tomorrow- guess I should go to the junkyard for copper too. Much rather use copper for flashing than aluminum. Copper gets a nice patina, blending well with the stones while aluminum stays garish. Hate to take so much time off from building.

Thunderstorms came and went all day. One storm chased Lynn and the girls out of the river and back to what shelter my wall-less house can give. The twins put their rubber swim fins back on, thinking they would protect them from the lightning. They looked pretty cute- sort of a cross between child, woman, and frog. Wind blew rain all over everything. I need walls.

Drove to Pulaski this morning for copper. Junkyard price was 78 cents a pound as to $2.50 a pound at the store. The guys in the yard are good to me, sometimes saving a weird part they think I might like. It was 1 pm before I could get back to work. Tomorrow will put plastic up over the holes in the south wall- give that wall a rest and start on the west wall. It’s raining hard again- hope it doesn’t blow.

7 to 5—10 hours. Fair working day. Got 8 feet of west wall framed up.

But best of all I got some much needed ideas about what to do for some of the more difficult parts. I hope it won’t be too much past my skills. A neighbor and his dad came up to check me out. The old man was impressed (hell- I’m impressed) but I got the feeling that the fact that I was a woman building a house was what really impressed him (new times- old man).

Tyree and Valen showed up to take me to the river but first I had them help put in a high 4 X 4 that I’d tried to get in place for 45 minutes. They went up the wall like monkeys and the whole thing took five minutes.

Schematic: West Wall, upper room

Slowly the Queen of Plod works on. Put windows in the west wall (one even opens). Plodded along contentedly till I started getting a sick feeling that something wasn’t right. I almost screamed when I saw what was wrong. My whole wall was veering grossly out of line. Mike had talked me into letting him inset the middle posts and I had completely forgotten about it. I bolted my poor wall straight to that inset post. My world is lopsided enough already. I didn’t need this. Begging my walls’ forgiveness while I loosened the lag bolts, I detached the wall from the inset post, nudged with my toe and it swung right into place. It knew where it was supposed to be.

Bo- my red gelding- is bored. He keeps following me around, shaking his head, prancing. He want me to try catching him, wants an excuse to do his I am a wild- thing dance. When he was a stallion, Bo had electricity for blood. He danced morning, noon, and night. Just seeing him snort and toss his head in the wind made me forget to breathe. I left him a stud far too long, till he endangered my children. I cried, sitting on his neck while the vet’s face turned red with the effort to pull off his balls.

Got the eight feet of east wall framed up. Would have finished it if the rains hadn’t started. Big thunderstorms with lots of lightning.

Schematic: South Wall, lower room

Every chapter of my building book starts with a description of the easiest way to do a job. I never read past that part. If board and batten is the easiest external wall to build then that’s the wall for me. The directions seemed straightforward enough- just nail up a vertical board- nail another near it- cover the crack with another and keep going. I started board and battering my walls. Arthur arrived later and helped. What a difference a second pair of hands makes! Not trying to hold the board in place with my knees while I nailed it in place. The book didn’t say it was a two-person job. I’m going to drag Cunninghame down to help me tomorrow.

Dear Dog got ripped up again by Wendy Dog. This is no peaceable kingdom.

John came back around today, saying he now wanted to be like a busy little bee and go from woman to woman, bringing happiness. I was able to still my rising gorge by thinking how lucky I’d been never to have been asked to read his novel.

Framed up the eight feet of the north wall. Got Cunninghame to help me board and batten it. Nice to have a solid wall- nice to have a dry corner. Going to try hanging the front door tomorrow.

Walter was out to inspect my roof, to see if it was up to code. It wasn’t. He was pretty nice about it, but I’m still fucked. He said my rafters should have been 2inches thick, not one inch. He said I had to get up there and double all of them. More overhead ladder work. Why didn’t Mike make this to code! I’m really tired- falling asleep as I write this.

Hung the door with Valen’s help and by god it works. Framed in the rest of the east wall. This house comes on like a live thing at its own shambling pace- not at my pace. I would have it all done.

The sky is wonderful from my place.

Husband was extra loud today. He read somewhere that it was bad for a person’s health to keep any stress bottled up. So now Herb bellows and rages with the full approval of the A.M.A. And it’s the five of us that carry the stress.

Ordered more boards at the sawmill/ $410. This is the last of my money. What am I going to do? Found an old wooden ladder for $10. It’s from the prison farm, a ladder with a past. But I can’t live with a ladder painted such an awful prison green. So I painted it my window color to make it all mine.

Work went slowly- had to break and take the girls to orthodontist. East wall is almost done. Worked till way after dark. The room glowing with light felt so warm and inviting. I hated turning everything off and going up the hill.

A big day for Cunninghame. He got his driver’s license. He was filling out the forms at the D.M.V. when he asked out of the side of his mouth what his social security number was. I had no idea. The number was 30 miles away in a lock-box at home. There was no way to call husband for the number because he always takes the phone off the hook as soon as we walk out the door. Cunninghame grew pale. I found a phone, called a friend, asked her to go to the house, find the number and call me back. While all this is going on, Cunninghame stood with pen in hand, frozen over the forms. I got the number; Cunninghame got his license, and is already trying to get the car.

Started making a bed today. Every house has to have a bed and mine will be single size. I will never share my bed (except for sex) or my house with anyone except my kids ever again.

Basil said I could keep his table saw till next weekend. Gave him a roll of copper wire I’d picked up at the junkyard. I made a good choice of a thank- you gift. Basil told me I didn’t owe him anything after the wire was safely put away.

Mike dropped by and told me my deck joists were wrong and would never pass with Walter. Will have to tear it all down tomorrow. Shit. I dream of going away while some good builder rebuilds everything right. They would have to raze everything to the ground and start with the footers. My wood is coming tomorrow too. I hate messing with heavy, two- inch thick boards.

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