Building - Memoir by Pat West

September 1986


Again the pounding rain made it hard to get up. I have leaks-called Mike and he said new roofs leak and to call him back if it doesn’t stop. Fine by me- I love do nothing solutions.

Worked on blocking the deck door- I tried to do a good job but the door is warped and so are the 4 X 4s that frame it. Had choices of how to do it but none of them gave me ideal results.

Eddie came in the afternoon and we started on the wiring. He said my box would work if I got bigger guts for it. We got most of the wires run in the wall.

Not a very difficult job. Just another trying, takes longer than you thought possible job. I try not to worry whenever Eddie says, “Oh Dear” and starts wildly pulling out wires. Oh dear is right. Think I’d better get a good book and learn this job.

Cunninghame is back from the beach. Maybe I can get him digging on the power ditch tomorrow. 17- year locusts are down to a few panicked screams. Guess they are the ones that never found their true love and the ones that stayed in the ground a little too long and missed the whole show, I think that after 17 years in the ground, a month or so either way would be hard to tell.


First day of school. Girls were up at 6:30 to give themselves time to get their hair right. Bet the ozone layer over Giles County is thinner today from all the hairspray used in every house with schoolgirls. I dislike the smell and will be glad when Tyree and Valen outgrow the need to look just like all their friends.

Gave myself a 15-minute private party after they left for the bus. Went up the hill and waited for husband to come home so I could have the car. Waited till 11:30 then gave up. Probably he was still partying or passed out.

I try never to waste a bad mood (I save cleaning out closets for my worst depressions), so came home to work blocking windows. I did an opening window. Nothing in this house is straight or flush. I try to make the window close tightly against the blocks, but it’s hard and gets me in a temper. Eddie came to pull wires, brought cigarettes, and now I’m a smoker again.

Had to take kids to orthodontist. They were really jacked from school; even Robin was feeling good. Arthur was here when I got back. We worked blocking windows. What else is there in the world but windows needing blocking? Had a dream last night that the blocks all pulled themselves loose and tried to beat me to death.


Eddie worked on the power while I worked windows- and I did it- it’s over! I still can’t believe it but the windows are all blocked.

It rained so hard before dawn that I lay in bed waiting for the house to slide down the hill. I know the house won’t sink into the ground. I dug the footer holes down to bedrock. Having no slaves to bury alive in the holes for good luck, had thought long and hard to find something personal and cheap for blessing the foundation of my house. The best I could come up with was peeing in each freshly dug hole. The house won’t go down, but there is no rebar or other metal inside the stone and cement pillars to withstand lateral pressure.

Went to Christiansburg for rest of electrical parts. $150 less than I thought, but what do I know/ I still lie in bed thinking how much this or that costs, still having not a clue. Got more copper- drill bits, etc. Think and hope I have everything I need till insulation.


My back hurts- my right knee is going out. Still raining- and mud everywhere. Bo keeps standing by the windows and putting his head in the door. I hope a horse head can understand glass. It was lovely to be by myself this morning except for cats, dogs, horses, wasps, etc. Cleaned house in the morning. It looked good; of course it’s a mess again now.

Arthur came, as I was getting ready to start doubling the rafters as Walter insisted on. Got about ¼ of them done before he left. After he left, I found I was wearing panties on my head. This morning I couldn’t find my head rag so had just pulled panties over my hair to keep it back and forgot about it. Arthur had never said a word about it. He will most likely work it into a poem.

Eddie came and did all he could till the damn ditch is done. I nag and nag the boys about it. They move like they’re underwater. Since I found that huge plank at Sonny’s, I want it in place for a small deck out the front door. As usual, I want everything done as soon as I think of it. More and more sky is showing through the trees above the river. Fall is coming and to make sure I sit up and take notice, the walnut tree is lobbing mortar rounds of walnut at my tin roof. Talk about a wake-up call. BANG- winter’s right around the corner. BANG- look alive now. BANG-BANG.


Still raining. Finished doubling the rafters this morning (except for four boards I don’t have). Went to Pembroke for cigarettes- lost that fight again.

Started getting a place ready by the front door for the deck floor plank. Made stone pillars for plank without mortar. Cunninghame, Robin, Tyree and I, slipping and sliding in the mud, carried the huge oak plank up and put if on the pillars. Put an oak 6 X 6 in for a step. I keep going out and standing on the plank- hope the rocks hold. I threw them up fast. It was nice to have my hands on stone again.

When I go out at night to pee, I have always looked at the house. Tonight I saw what the light did to the landscape. Everything was cut up into squares of light. Paintings everywhere I look. But I’m not doing any painting. Just a big house sculpture. I’m building a house the same way I build sculpture- starting it without enough knowledge or parts- nice sense of animation; poor workmanship. Where is my carpenter in white shining armor?


A train is passing down by the river. My house is trembling. Will it shake apart and fall down the hill? I worry about this a lot- even have escape plans for the girls. Me, I will go down with my house. The train tracks runs over limestone bedrock; same rock my pillars sit on. The train vibration comes up my stone pillars and shakes my house. I have felt this before, but never so much as tonight.

Today I made the little rock walls between the rooms under the tiny windows. First all the sides had to be copper flashed. My stonework under the girl’s bed turned out kind of nice, but the one under the stairs by the deck was a bitch and doesn’t look so good. Guess which one I will have to look at the most? If Gordon would bring me my round window I would be closed in and could start insulating. Woke to sunlight streaming through the windows for the first time in weeks.


Another dawn rescue call- first light is when lots of night accidents are first seen. This man had lain for hours on his windshield- 20 feet from his upside down pickup truck- with his legs bent the wrong way. Another person who didn’t use his seat-belt.

I seldom find out what happens to people after we drop them at E.R. Only one person has ever sought me out later to say thank you. He is a forest ranger who had a heart attack near the top of a mountain during a forest fire. I had gotten to him first with the oxygen bottle only because I was in better shape and 50 pounds lighter than anyone on that day’s crew.

Got lots of stars tonight.


Took truck up to bring down my desk and bookcase. Wish I could bring down all my things, but don’t want to alarm anyone and with all the building mess here, it would just be in the way. I want to play house but I’m a long way from deciding where the rugs go. Don’t think husband even knows I’m gone.

Got to Shock/Trauma class late and left early to get to food store before it closed. Smoked far too many cigarettes- must try to quit again soon.


Went to town looking for stovepipe- everyone sold out of the kind I needed. When I got back, Arthur, John, and Mary were here. I was hoping Arthur and Mary might hit it off since they’re both poets, but there were no sparks. So my matchmaking fizzled. Mary took some of the leftover Pembroke school windows for her new kitchen. After Mary left, I asked John and Arthur if they wanted to walk to Sinking Creek. This creek is kind enough to disappear every summer, laying bare its treasure of stones for me to glean. The creek’s not so kind to its fish. It disappears overnight, leaving every puddle thick with the doomed. Next day every low place holds a pile of silver fish. A few days later, all that remains is their smell.

We brought back some large flat stones for under the wood stove. They look pretty, cemented in place. But now I want the whole floor made of lovely river stones. God, would that ever be a job- but looking for stones is my idea of fun and maybe the weight of a heavy floor would hold my house tighter to the earth. Maybe some year I can think more about making stone floors, but not now.

This evening I scrubbed the stones with muriatic acid- cleaned and blackened the wood stove and put it on the stones.

Have got to clean the big house starting tomorrow. My Mom and dad are coming.


Started cleaning the big house this morning. Did the deck, one bathroom and husband’s bedroom. I was unprepared for the stabs of memories even the bathroom held. Once, I’d gotten so fed up with the kids always running off with my hairbrush that I’d chained it to the wall. But I’d been the one to rip the chain off the wall, grabbing the brush when leaping into the shower, my hair alive with angry bees.

I looked at the paintings on the shower wall while scrubbing away at mildew. Years ago I’d wanted to enlarge the cramped bathroom into a greenhouse, but the best I could do was paint the shower stall to look as if it stood inside a greenhouse. Felt I was sucked dry of energy and had to stumble back down the hill for sustenance. Over a cup of tea I thought about my old wish for a bathroom filled with sunlight and plants. Hell- I should have just built it- why did I settle for just a stupid painting of a wish.

Mom and Dad are coming in a week. They know only that I’m building a studio. When they find out I sleep down here, they will know something is going on. If they only knew the half of it. I was not an easy child- then I turned against their politics- their religion- now I’m going to cause them even more unrest. I won’t go back, not even to make things appear normal for them. But I’m sure going to have to take a lot of time off for big time cleaning of the big house. I remember telling them on the phone once how excited I was about some art thing I was doing and Dad said, “That’s fine, but don’t let your house go.”

I always scrub out the icebox the day before they get here and, without fail, the first time Mom looks in it, she offers to clean it. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” she says. I have disappointed her in both.


Sold most of my dope this morning. Glad it’s over and I can keep building. Worked most of the day making the opening windows next to the deck door- hopefully to eliminate the need for screen doors. I took it slowly and did a pretty good job. Later was checking the insulation under the floors when I felt strange, bladder- like shapes between the insulation and floorboards. Got a knife, poked into the insulation, tore the black paper and lots of sour water ran down my arm. I went along between the joists stabbing upward. About one third of them had water trapped under the floor (this summer’s rains that got past me and the plastic sheets). Glad I found it before winter- no wonder my floorboards cupped so much- water trapped under them, hot sun above.


I’m all closed in! (Except for a few hundred small holes). Hurray for me- Joy! What a good day!

The Closed In House, by Pat West

This morning I took the kids to the flea market (where at least one of them always spends the $5 I give them on the yearly baby rabbit). When we got back, Gordon P. was there with my old glass plate made into a round window. Brought it down the hill and went right to work on the last bit of wall where it goes. I tried to put it up by myself, but was not strong enough for standing on top of the ladder, holding it in place with one hand and hammering with the other arm. John came down and held it for me. Got the last batten in place as the last light was leaving the sky. The only nails I had left were too long and it was a killer to drive them. NO MORE PLASTIC!!! Just wish I would stop dreaming that my house is sliding down the hill.


Spent the day on the ladder, working on the west wall. Sanded and caulked around all the windows. Looks much better with all my bad cuts covered up. Worked river rocks into the really big holes.

I have been handing a shove to everyone who gets within 20 feet of me, so the power ditch is almost done.

Got to clean the big house before Mom and Dad get here. Got so much to do.


My ditch is done- and guess who dug through the dreaded rock pile. Me! A summer’s worth of nagging for one ditch. Crazy Eddie should finish the wiring tomorrow. Hopefully the outlets will be ready to use this weekend. Will be wonderful to live without long red cords snaking everywhere.

Worked on the big house for an hour and a half, then quit. Couldn’t force myself to start on the kids’ bathroom. My hands were momentarily clean and empty when my pager went off- so I went on call. An old woman had fallen and broken her hip in a back room of her trailer. What a job it was getting her out. I know we hurt her. But the worst part was when she looked at me and said, “I’m dead.” We both knew her fall was very likely the start of her dying.

If the call had happened in the evening, when most of the squad are at home, bored, and ready to jump and run, I would have been left behind. I had misplaced my car keys. It’s enough that as I sprint out of the house, I have to endure husband yelling at my back to let the car warm up. Not being able to find my car keys is like not being able to get out of the starting gate.

Came back from the hospital and went back up the ladder to sand and paint. The longer I’m up there, the more I see to fix and change- have to stop thinking about change now and think only of not freezing this winter, or worse, having to go back up the hill.

The round window keeps surprising me. I think it is the sun. It’s so bright in the house afternoons that I need sunglasses. Looked at the pillars for signs of stress but couldn’t see any. Think I will worry about my house falling down the hill till it does or I die.


Word is my almost underground power line may not be big enough for the box and line changes we made. Called Walter to come tomorrow and give me the word. God I’ll be glad when this power shit is done.

Cleaned the big house till I couldn’t stand it. Then went to Pearisburg for insulation ($300). Came back to Arthur and Crazy Eddie. Eddie hooked up the power on this end while we put up a 4 x4 in the lower room. Robin covered the power line so Walter wouldn’t see it wasn’t as deep in some places as it should be. Cleaned the windows I painted yesterday.

Tyree tearfully handed me a baby rat tonight. It had no hair, its eyes weren’t open yet, and it had a big cut on its nose. “Save it,” she wailed. Shit. So now I’m down to rats. Another small thing to keep warm, get up at night to feed and watch die. A lot of times they hang on till I really think they’re going to live- then the next day they die. I don’t think this ice-cold baby has that long.

Mom and Dad get here Friday. I’m falling behind in the house cleaning- have a test tomorrow- tried working on a painting tonight- no good.


God. Walter saw the electric blankets and got very upset. He said he would take me to court if I was living down here. I got very upset. I know he likes me but doesn’t like being lied to. I like him and hate lying to him. But I know that to legally build a house you have to have water and drain field first. That would have taken all my money. I couldn’t have build legitimately if I’d wanted to.

I won’t go back up the hill. Walter, his friendly down-home voice gone, his face flushed, raged around the studio (house) finding things wrong. Said electric box won’t work ($76 down the drain). Said my building was too small for a house. I said how big does it have to be? He said 500 square feet. I said it’s 512 square feet. He said I would have to put 2 X 6 reinforcements up into the rafters for house code (the one- inch doubling I did was a waste) and the icebox was OK but I could not have a stove. Damn Mike for the rafters (or did I say studio instead of house to him, too?)

Not a great day. Sent Eddie for the right box while I went to sawmill to order 2 X 6’s. Money, money- and all I’ve got left to sell is art and people seem to like my dope better- fools! Hoped Eddie would come back to finish up but he didn’t.

Got a 90 on my test- baby rat still alive.


Keep thinking about the altercation with Walter yesterday. Am miserable about looking him in the face and lying. Why can’t I do what I want? I endanger no one but myself. Why does the lying have the feel of women’s lot? Would like to just take a gun and hold them all off at the pass.

Even if I had the money for water and drain field, the law says I couldn’t live in my house till the last outlet was covered. How can they prove I live here? Maybe I just work late. Except for all this shit tripping around in my head, it was a nice day. Herb was at work so I put the radio on loud while I madly cleaned his house. It’s not just Mom and Dad coming that makes me clean his house, but some kind of honor- I still eat food- buy paints, etc – all paid for by Herb’s job. Running his house is still my job. And for my sons I need to put off as long as possible squashing the tiny bit of family that is left.

Eddie finished the power. He was a nervous wreck- kept saying “Oh no!” to himself and re-doing things. I have wires in my walls that go nowhere. I guess you get what you pay for, but it seems to work. Got outside lights too.

Got Basil to bush hog the yard at Herb’s house because I hadn’t mowed it all year. And, of course, husband has never cut the grass in his life, leastwise not that I know of. The full moon lights everything and I’m going to sleep naked, wrapped in my grandmother’s blanket.


Sitting here waiting for my parents to drive in from Nebraska. Things will be very different now. I used to worry when they visited that husband would get drunk and do something like dance naked for them. Now I worry about what they will think of me. It does look like I have left my husband (I still don’t think he is aware of it- he’s never said one word about me being gone.) I will probably take my normal way out of uncomfortable situations and act dumb.

Robin slept down here last night. It was good to have him- wish I had a room for him. After the kids left for school, had a short last morning alone party.

Can’t seem to find much building time. Called Walter this morning and he will come out on Monday. I think I fixed things up some between us on the telephone.

Baby rat died.


Spent the day with Mom and Dad and they spent the day working on my studio (house). Dad’s more disturbed about me sleeping down here than Mom. Daddy worries a lot. He is afraid the wind will blow my studio (house) down. He is full of ideas for holding it to the earth and is busy working out a plan to use bracing so my house (studio) won’t blow away. I think he sees this place not for what it is but for the joy it gives him to have so much to do. He likes to be busy and is in the right place for that. John, daddy and I finished doubling the insulation under the house- another nasty job done (I’m beginning to think there is no end to nasty jobs). I have the new insulation facing the wrong way (no other way to staple it in) – another code broken, but I’ll cut the paper when I put the ½ inch boards up under the house.

Looked at my face closely in the girl’s makeup mirror tonight. So much for any bit of blessed time between pimples and wrinkles.


Today’s visit from Walter was much better. I guess I’m not going to jail. He said things like “ I could live in a house like this only with less glass, of course,” and “I wish my daughter could see this so she would know there are other ways of doing things.” Said he had read the newspaper article on me yesterday. Even told me what to do when I’m ready to change from studio to house coding.

Daddy worked stripping more paint off the door to the deck. But I know what he really wants to be doing is putting up bracing.

At the sawmill this morning, sonny’s Mom was all-abuzz about the newspaper story. Said she was going to put it on her office wall and tell everyone “she got her wood here”. I told her my father was in a hurry for those 4 X 4’s and she put my order on the top of the pile.

I spent $70 on building stuff today. The money is starting to run low again. Mom cooked dinner again tonight- I do love being called to dinner.


Sonny brought my wood today- what service! He cut it this morning before going into the forest for more trees. $226 minus the $156 Dad is paying for his 18 4×4. I love this local wood- can’t imagine feeling the same warmth for wood sent in from afar.

Went looking for some fire retardant material to line the roof’s chimney hole. The only thing I could find was fireproof wallboard that came in 8 X 12 sheets. Didn’t even stay to ask how much it was. Went to the old Pembroke School to look for scraps of fire-board. They were nice enough to let me know that they had just buried three truckloads of it. I don’t know where to find some.

A flock of bluebirds took their rest all around my house this evening. There were hundreds of them. Their color flashing in the slanting light almost stopped my heart. It is the most perfect blue in this world.


When I went to the sawmill to pay Sonny, I saw a pile of wonderful, very large oak blocks. Think I had better take the truck back to get them tomorrow before they are slaughtered for firewood.

Went on a very short rescue call this evening. It was a mess. An old man was slumped in a chair- his son who had called us sat watching T.V. The old man couldn’t talk- couldn’t move half his body- most probably had had a stroke. But when we brought the cot in to load him up, he made it very clear by pushing the cot away with his good arm 3 times that he did not want to be taken to hospital. We can’t move a person without their consent. The son never took his eyes off the T.V. the whole time. Loading the empty cot into the ambulance, Steve said just wait- we’d be back in a few days.

The kids say their art teacher would like me to do a class. A part of me would like to do it and do it well. Would be practice for all the talks I’m sure I will have to give when I’m famous. The kids are already worried about what I will wear.


Dad was down at dawn to start reinforcing the rafters with the 2 X 6’s. He was rained out of working with his bracing. It took all day. I think overhead ladder work is the worst. I’m really tired and I know that my 72-year-old father must be too. Daddy said why not hang the corner support for the girls’ loft from the roof beam. I had never though of it. Would mean no more post in the lower room. Good- the more open space, the better I like it.


Was called back to the old man with the stroke this morning. His son didn’t seem to have moved from his place in front of the TV. The old man was much worse, could only move his eyes now and was lying in his own filth like a neglected baby. Steve said we now had “implied consent” like with an unconscious person. But I could tell by the man’s eyes that he still did not want to leave his home. We took him to hospital anyway and he died while we were unloading him. I don’t think we did the right thing or maybe it’s just that I would rather die at home.

Dad and I made another loft over my front door today and I got this wild idea for stairs to it that wouldn’t take up much space (after discarding the idea of a rope). Got all the cherry 4 x4s cut to the right length but I ran out of spike nails so couldn’t finish. Will run for more spikes tomorrow. I love this kind of job.

When the ground dried this afternoon, I drove the truck to the sawmill for the grand oak blocks. Was in the nick of time to save them from being cut up and sent to the coalmines. They will make great steps to my deck. I love the change having the new loft makes, feeling it over my head when I walk in, sitting in it. I’m like a junkie after a fresh shot.

Dad tries to ask me about living down here and I say something inane and Mom says, “Leave her alone, Hal.”


For want of a spike nail yesterday, the loft stairs were saved: today I decided to curve them- much better- very different, lovely and very unsafe. Still find myself ducking when I walk under the new loft. I assume that will pass.


Daddy and I started working on getting the stovepipe through the roof this morning. Nothing fit right, true or well. Why should I expect it to- nothing has, so far. I was even short a piece, making me have to dash to Pembroke for it.

In the afternoon, Arthur helped us put up 1/3 of the ceiling insulation. Ugh. Another reason to have money- to pay someone to do this job. I don’t need this experience to have a full and rich life. It’s a completely hateful, over your head, high ladder job. My whole body is covered with small cuts and embedded pieces of fiberglass. Dad covered the lot with brown paper for looks and for keeping the fiber glass back- just looking at that stuff makes my skin crawl.

Mom cooked dinner again. I finished painting around the high west window while I watched a thunderstorm build. Rain hit the tin roof with its first uneven beats as I climbed off the ladder. The insulation is starting to soften the rain sounds.


Two- thirds of ceiling insulation up. Daddy, Cunninghame and I worked till it was just too hot up on the ladder. It’s just as awful a job as it was yesterday. I’m ready for this September heat wave to be gone now.

Dad started making me a firewood saw today. I’ve been begging him to make me one. I can cut trees down with my bow saw and drag them in with Goldie, but I need Daddy’s wild and wonderful contraption to cut logs into firewood. An old washing machine motor turns a belt-driven, 4-foot wooden wheel that in turn drives a 7-foot arm back and forth. A weighted bow saw is attached to the end of the arm. It’s sort of like having a very slow, but tireless helper who can’t see or move but will quietly saw forever on logs placed in front of him. I have to have that saw to make it through the winter.

Big red wasps have been bounding their fat bodies against the ceiling all day.


My ceiling is insulated! My neck is broken and I have grown a pelt of fiberglass. The brown paper is good. Dad did a careful job of it.

The sun just slid behind the cliffs above my river- days are getting pretty short. Walnut trees have lost more than half their leaves.


Took Mom to Christiansburg for antiques which she loves- and more building supplies- $83- broke again. I figure $600 is due me for art sold as soon as I can get them finished and out. Worked on chicken and camel sculptures. People keep saying I’m going to freeze in here this winter- well, I’m cooking now. 90 degrees outside and an oven inside. Worried the hamsters might die of the heat.

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