The idea came to me from nowhere, as many of my ideas do. One morning it was just there in my head on the drive to work. It was one of those ideas that kept it up, hanging out in the back of my mind, gnawing on my free moments like a puppy with a new toy. You should build a house. You don’t know how but you should learn. It makes a man whole.
I think my brain might’ve been Ernest Hemingway.
Anyway it stuck around for weeks, and it seemed more and more like a thing I ought to do. I tried to talk to her about it, but in this story she was the sensible one. We liked to trade that job, as it so often felt like a job. When I said to her at breakfast one morning that I was thinking of building a house, she looked around our kitchen, twisted her body over the chair back to look into the den. Then she shrugged. “Seems like we already have a house, babe.”
Of all the endearments, babe was the worst out of her mouth. She employed it as punctuation for her sarcasm or scorn. Like are you literally a baby. Like do you need momma’s milk.
Still, the urge lingered, and when the weather turned nice the idea made more and more space for itself in my mind. If you start now, it said. Or now. Even now.
When I started, there was no keeping it a secret, so I didn’t bother. I rented a trailer and a dumpster. I filled the trailer with wood and other supplies. I bought the tools I thought I would need on credit. She watched me drive up from her spot at the kitchen window with no expression on her face, as though she wasn’t even there looking. Then she stepped out of the frame for a time.
I staked out the whole front yard and then dug it out to up against the property line on each side and the sidewalk out front. The hedgerow kept me from getting as close to the original house as I wanted, but after weighing my options, I thought better of tearing it out. She loved those hydrangeas. I tried to do it right, set out the little pink flags at the edges of the large square I’d made, so that if I ended up failing, at least she would see that I was serious. I didn’t hit a gas main like I feared, but I did have to have the cable guy out after I severed the cord with a shovel. A freak accident. I thought I’d moved it aside.
He and I had a long talk about permits, which I knew about but hadn’t bothered with yet. He was wearing a light blue polo shirt with the company logo on it. He looked official, with a razor-knicked face. He looked also like a tattler. So: I bothered with them, the permits, which took a while. In the meantime I framed and poured the foundation. Through all of this, I didn’t see her at the window, and I didn’t see her leave the house. I had taken to sleeping outside, or in my truck. Neither of us went to work. We were both involved in our own project — I was busy building a house, she was busy being not a part of my building a house.
I had a bunch of new terminology. Joist. Rough-in. Rat sill. I liked their hardness, their use. I tried them out in my mouth as I hammered together the framing walls. I kept time with them. Mantra, I thought, wasn’t a good enough word for it. There must be a better one, somewhere. I read manuals I’d bought from the used bookstore, webpages on my phone, looking for what to do next. When each nail was flush against its board I felt a little closer to something. I guess I was.
I got up early every morning and started with the dawn. I tried starting earlier, but the neighbors said they would have the cops out. I was out there all day, working until the sun was deep in the sky. It was gorgeous to see after a day of building. It seemed to me a reminder that nothing you do is ever pointless. Here it was, this whole time in the suburbs, the kind of sunset promised.
“Promised by what?” she called from the window.
I hadn’t heard her open it.
“You should come see,” I said.
“I can see it.”
I scowled at her. She scowled back. We both thought our dark and shitty thoughts. Then I picked up my hammer.
I didn’t see her for most of the rest of the summer. I lost weight, and my skin hung off me in places like pizza dough. I became a deep reddish tan that I’d never been. I ate Powerbars and oranges, drank Gatorade. The idea for the oranges was from when I was a kid at soccer camp, how they kept you hydrated. Of course, I don’t know if that was true. But it seemed true, and that was good enough. I had other things to be worried about.
One day, when I was framing the second story, a guy pulled up in his truck. He was wearing a shirt that advertised a local dirtbag honky tonk. Underneath the name of the place it said a great place for dancin’ and glancin’. I thought she would’ve gotten a kick out of the shirt is the only reason I mention it.
He asked me how it was going in the cadence of a car salesman or door-to-door missionary. I knew he wanted something from me. I had three or four nails in my mouth, point first, so I just shrugged and turned back to my work.
“You hiring?” He asked. I said no.
“It’s a good job you’re doing,” he said. I nodded.
“But why, I wonder.” I ignored him.
“Just seems a man doing something for no reason is really doing nothing.”
I told him to get lost. He stuck around for a while, sat in his truck bed and ate lunch. Later she poked her head out the window. “Did you see that guy’s shirt?” she asked. We had a laugh about it. She shimmied her shoulders, stopped, gave me a sideways look. “You think like that? Or both at once? Dancin’ and glancin’, or dancin’ then glancin’?”
“Seems safer to do one then the other.” I started up my ladder.
“Right,” she said. “Safety first.” When I got up to the second story she was gone from the window again.
Once the skeleton of wood was done I saw how my house was going to tower over our house. It would block the sun from the afternoon on into evening. But the workmanship was good, and the frame solid, so I kept on. The downstairs walls were up before the nights turned cold, before fall went fully ugly and orangey-red. The man came around a time or two, but I shooed him off. I did it all myself.
The house was all walled in before Thanksgiving, the doors hung. I opened my back door, which stood a few feet away from our front door, and knocked. She opened it, blank-faced and waiting, and I invited her to come in and see. She came out and stopped at the threshold, poked her head in. I saw that her hydrangeas weren’t doing that well. What a shit metaphor, I thought, and then looked back at the house I’d built. The woman I loved stood at the entrance, one bare foot with its toes curled up over the door jamb. She stood there for a long time, so long that stood there became stands there, meaning enough time passed without either of us moving that we caught up to now, to the telling of the story, and I’m looking at the back of her, wondering what she thinks of what I’ve done. Her hydrangeas would die from lack of light. The joints in my hands and knees ache all the time. Even so, in moments like this one I like to think that not everything is ruined about the world. I like to think I still have time to build.