Building - Memoir by Pat West

May 1986

Finished the stone and cement pillars today. I wore out 12 pairs of rubber gloves. My fingers are raw and bleeding; to even think of touching anything is painful. My best pillar is 9 feet tall and I made it in one go without waiting for the lower parts to dry. What a pleasure to feel it tremble like a live thing while I went up with it- poking- patting- smoothing- adding more cement and rubble rocks to its quivering mass. The 16 pillars on the hillside look like they want to dance. Shit- they look like they’ve already started the 2 step. Sometimes I think they’re quite lovely, but mostly I know if a real mason made them, he’d be drummed out of his guild. What if they don’t work and my house falls down? If one fails, will the whole be lost?

Pillars, painting by Pat West

Before I went up the hill to cook supper, I celebrated the end of cement work by putting a worn out glove over the sill pins at the top of each pillar. My kids are tired of me telling them that luck can find you better if you get out of bed and wave from a hillside. Maybe I should put lights on my waving pillars and make a night landing field for Luck.

Tomorrow I go to the sawmill to order my floor wood. I think my math is right on how many 2×6’s are needed for the substructure (sills, joists, blocking), but I’m not at all sure I figured in enough 1×6 boards for the floor.

When I first stared on the stonework, I had harsh attacks of doubt. My fears made the rocks heavy- me slow. So to cease doddering, to get going, I made this deal with myself; I would go ahead and build all 16 columns, but if I came up with some better way to change my life by the time they were done, then I’d just have a big new sculpture in the lower pasture. But if I came to the end of stone work without a new plan and stared on the wood floors, then quitting would no longer be an option.

Putting off any final decisions did serve to get me going, but I knew I was going to keep building long before the foundations were done. It seemed the best plan. I could keep my land, be even closer to the river, and the children would be with me or close by. I liked the work, the feel of doing something big. And best of all, husband had yet to come down the hill. He still has not even asked what I have been doing outside every day that was above freezing and not raining for the last four months. I love it down there.

Tonight my fears are dimmer- crowded out- overshadowed by finally getting up off my ass.

Got to the sawmill early. Sonny was just climbing up into the cab of his front loader. I asked after his wife, sympathized. Gave Sonny my wood order. Asked that it please be sawed from oak logs.

The rest of the day I didn’t do as well. Flopped about uncentered. Have to snap out of this stupor, climb back into this moment, catch up with myself. I have to make sure everything appears normal. Must give no one cause for alarm- must keep my story straight. I am just building a “small studio” down there. That’s what I’ve already told my kids and the building inspector. This is going to be harder than hiding a lover.

I can’t seem to get a deep enough breath.

This morning I still felt loosely knitted together. Tried tackling an ugly piece of housework, finally putting everyone’s winter stuff away. I’d open a closet (mothballs and plastic bags in hand) and the next thing I knew, I’d be down the hill, petting a pillar, making sure it was still there where I’d left it. But by noon I was carrying my painting gear down, all charged up by the prospect of keeping a painting record of my building. I lapsed into solving the familiar problems of setting up to paint outside. By the time the school bus came down the road, I had a good start on the canvas and a pretty good hold on myself.

My plan for the day was this: I would go down, work on the painting of the pillars till everyone cleared out of the house (kids to school- husband to work). Then I’d come back up, clean house for one hour, race back down, paint for two hours, and so on, till the painting was done and the house was passable.

What happened was this: First off- down the hill I find I’d left all my painting stuff uncovered. It is soppy wet from the dew. Then Goldie Horse sees I’m using one of her grain buckets to hold up my glass palette. She knocks over the palette. It lands upside down in the weeds. She gets green paint all over her nose and I get royally pissed off.

Back up at the house, while cleaning a fishbowl, the bubble- eyed goldfish slips through my fingers. Flops into the sink. Disappears down the drain hole. I dash about looking for the pipe wrench, finally find it and nearly rip off the plastic trap under the sink. No fish. No great save. Just another notch on my “But I didn’t mean to kill it” belt.

I go back down to try painting again. It starts to go well. I’m just trying to decide if a horse belongs in the painting when boyfriend John shows up asking me to go bounce around in the hayloft. I send him away, not very gently reminding him about calling first. But the interruption has made me lose my hold on the painting.

Went back up the hill and cleaned house till my Volunteer Rescue Squad pager went off. Knew I’d better respond since I’d run only a few calls while I was covered in cement dust. Got trapped into running three calls. First was a scared old lady with all the signs of a MI. She wouldn’t let us start on a IV till I fed her aged dog by the back door. While still at the ER with her, another call went off. When we got back to the hospital with the second person, I checked on the old lady. She was dying. Another call caught me before I could get to my car and hide. Back to the ER again: the old lady was dead and already in the cooler.

Husband only teaches two days a week. Not only was he home all day today, but he was grading freshman English papers. His grading is punctuated by table slamming, screams, throwing really bad papers across the living room. I went down the hill to paint all day. If it’s going to be a whole day of screaming, then I pick hearing the locusts, not husband: these locust only scream one summer every 17 years.

The locusts have been out of the ground for a month now. They get louder every day. By the hot days of late July, they will be in full cry. My life has changed since last time they were above ground. I remember being surrounded by their deafening screams when I rode my young horse for the first time into the backwoods. It was like we had blundered into a church at high mass, a million bugs singing their own hallelujah chorus. Now my horse is old, I have four children. The locusts are back, and I want my own life.

Rain and more rain- trapped inside all day. Lucky for me it was a husband workday. Thought about calling Sonny down at the sawmill and trying to hurry my wood order along. But how can I put pressure on a man already so overburdened. Should just feel grateful he can still keep his patched-together, falling apart, jumbled mess of a sawmill running. I didn’t call him. Not yet.

Thought about giving John a call to see if he wanted to come out. But I’m still feeling put off by finding out last week that he isn’t a poor orphan boy. There was no accident that killed his parents, they are alive and well in Alabama. I doubt all his stories now. Handsome as he is, John is probably another mistake.

Didn’t call anyone. Just smoked dope and did heavy duty cleaning on the kitchen and kids’ bathroom.

I need my floor wood now. Got to get building. God knows how long it will take me. What if it takes two years? Or three years?

Another day. Keeping these nightly notes makes me look at my days backwards. They seem to have lasted no more than a few beats of my heart.

Worked on the pillar painting- think I did pretty good work. The mad sex screams of the locusts helped me loosen up. I want to be an abstract painter with a large powerful (but lovely) brush stroke. No, that’s not honest. I really just want the paintings to be done sooner (and have them be wonderful). But till then I seem fated to dick around with them for days till I just abandon them.

Rain came back so had to stop painting. Bought and smoked cigarettes- fool! Took the kids to Karate class- wonder what to do with John- Mr. Black Belt himself. I wonder how my wood order is doing (sawmill must be a swamp).

Almost time for the kids to be out of school for the summer. Already bracing myself for 8 more hours a day, five days a week of their needs and energy bouncing around.

My wood for the floors came today! God that huge pile of fresh oak boards smells good! $700. I do like Sonny and sure am lucky to have his sawmill nearby. Lucky, hell- I couldn’t do this without that sawmill. Lumberyard wood costs twice as much; it wouldn’t be oak, plus there would be a delivery charge. Can’t wait to start on the floors Monday.

Tomorrow I pick up my show at the Fine Arts Center in Pulaski and pack for the big, 2- day outside art show in Roanoke this weekend.

Tyree’s breasts have started to grow- says she is glad about it- she and Valen will be 13 this summer. Cunninghame just turned 16 and his brother Robin is 14 ½. Time started speeding up with the kids were born. Now the Sunday paper seems to come every other day.

Took Dear Dog to the vet’s this morning. Dr. Carter said I was giving her the right treatment but cut the shots back to 1 cc. What a weird dog. And a sad dog- after all these years she still waits for whoever abandoned her on the road to come back for her. Obviously, she was someone’s pet. A spayed middle- aged house-dog. How did she end up being dumped on our dead end road? All the other dogs have shadow pasts too, but I bet Dear Dog’s story might be the most strange.

Rachel Dog’s leg is going to be alright- I hope. Don’t like to see that white shepherd unable to run- she is the fastest, most beautiful running dog I ever had. (I hate to take her to the vets- she always throws up in the car). The kids flat out refuse to ride with her.) Wish Dr. Carter’s office was within walking distance and not 25 miles away. But I would drive 50 miles for his truly caring help and very low prices. He’s made it possible for me to keep my childhood vow of caring for all animals that drag themselves to my door. He’s come again and again to my beast’s rescue- like when I came home from the hospital after having the twins to find my 11 cats lying draped about the house, dying. I called his office while Cunninghame hung onto my legs, Robin pooped his diapers, twins started crying, my milk let down and husband started on the wine. Saying he had a full waiting room, Dr. Carter asked could I bring the cats in? The thought of trying to load four unhappy babies and 11 dying cats into the cab of the pickup truck set me to weeping. Dr. Carter said he would be there in an hour. I forget what he said they had, but he gave them all a shot that made them better fast and charged me two dollars a cat.

Drove to Pulaski and picked up parts of my show. Nothing sold except for the little painting Nancy, the curator, bought. I knew there was little chance of sales when I did the show, but I am always so hopeful. Where are the people with good eyes and some cash? Why can’t more people see that sometimes I’m damn good? Even the newspaper review, calling my work profound, seemed to excite no one but me. After this weekend in Roanoke, I don’t know what chances will come up for people to see my stuff and find out they just can’t live without it.

I’m going to pick up the girls in 40 minutes at their party, then take a sleeping pill and hope to sleep; have to be on the road to Roanoke by 6 am.

Shit- I didn’t win again. Money- what am I going to do to get some? Maybe I will have to sell off my few dope plants. I don’t know.

A long day of looking at people looking at my art. After the city, the green of coming back to the country was a balm for my eyes. Back to Roanoke tomorrow.

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