Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Pig Farmer's House

The wind is whipping and I hope the pig farmer who built this place thought of that. Pearl said that all this wind is a new thing. She thinks it’s because they keep bulldozing down all the woods for new houses and fields to feed cows or grow hay and now there is nothing to block it. She said you never used to be able to see that mountain down yonder. “Woods is nice,” she said, “but if you need to feed your cattle...” I was thinking it had to do with something more sinister like global warming. Or maybe it followed me here from Oklahoma like the red dirt encrusted in the tooling on my saddles and in the wheel wells of my truck.

On days like this, even though the windows are new and even though they are closed, the wind comes right through them and blows the plantation shutters open. Kurt is putting up plastic on the windows to try to stop it. To try to make it warmer in here because I am always cold. It comes in a little kit and he uses a blow dryer to vacuum-seal it. I watch the bubbles disappear and the plastic gets tight like Saran Wrap on a mixing bowl. I take my finger like I’m shooting a marble and go ping! I test my breath. I blow out. Nope, I can’t see it. It’s not cold enough for that. Kurt tells me to peel the tape around the windows or get out of his hair. I opt to go downstairs to check the fire.

I wish the plastic could also keep the noise out. The house rattles and bangs. I run outside to see what happened whenever I hear a clunk. One time I chased a piece of siding that was blowing down the street, tumbling like a steel ribbon and threatening to decapitate whoever got in its way. I think Kurt got all the siding fixed now. But I still don’t feel secure knowing the pig farmer didn’t have to get any permits when he built this place.

We used to complain about that up north. You couldn’t turn around without having to get a permit up there. One time we got into trouble because Kurt changed an outlet in the kitchen. In our own house! A simple outlet! The way they had a conniption when they discovered it during a routine visit on another matter, you’d think we illegally disposed of a body or perhaps built a nuclear substation in our backyard. Then we had to jump through hoops and give them all our money, which was called penalties and fees, to make amends, or risk being sent to Rikers Island or Guantanamo Bay, someplace bad, when we got sentenced by the judge, who was the clerk’s brother-in-law and who was still praying she wouldn’t tell her sister about that itty bitty squeeze on the ass.

Defiantly, I decided to see how far they would go. I told them we were thinking about building a little stall for Minnie, about yay high.

“You need a permit for that,” the clerk in the office said.

“About waist high,” I stressed, holding out my hand.

She tapped her fingernails on the counter. I could tell she would have preferred to smack me for my stupidity because clerical jobs in local government offices require workers who are arrogant, self-righteous and have a disturbing lack of patience. Double that if they got the job because they know someone. “You still need a permit,” she said.

“Okay then. What if I build a dog house?” I asked, blinking and ducking.

“You need a permit for that too. If you build it, you need to purchase a permit for it.” Then she threatened me. “Unless you want to get a fine. A big one.”

I should have asked her about permits for birdhouses. And would I need a condo license if it was a purple martin house? It made me so mad, them telling me what to do, overseeing every move we made looking for ways to wring a few more dollars out of us. Pretty soon we’d need a permit to clip our fingernails. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and get to a place where there was some freedom, where you could do what you wanted in your own house.

The ironic thing is, I now realize, after living across the street from the Evils who burned garbage on a regular basis, stacked broken farm machinery and old car tires right outside my kitchen window, and whose fences consisted of ropes and boards and wires—whatever the kids could rig up to try to keep their hungry animals from ransacking everyone else’s property, and never worked—why permits are a necessary evil. Not to be confused with the Evils themselves, who are not necessary to anything but the scourge of neighborhoods. But that’s a whole other story. Permits protect you from discourteous or unruly neighbors, and from yourself, if you are so inclined as to do something stupid like splice together a positive and negative wire or install your well right next to your septic.

The problem is, I can’t get a feel if the pig farmer put any pride into his work, if he had any actual skills or if he just had to get a roof over their heads, because the woman I bought it from, almost seventy years after the actual building, who bought it from the pig farmer’s kids when they finally moved him out because he was old and the front porch was falling down, stripped it of all it’s original detail. She removed all the Depression-era fixtures, doors and woodwork. If there were any kitchen cabinets, or old porcelain sinks worn smooth like the underside of a shell, or a claw foot tub, she took them out and replaced them with new, but cheaply-made, Home Depot versions direct from the mills and assembly-lines in China. She covered walls in paneling made to look like wood; she paneled around the brick chimney like it was a bump on the wall, creating a big box in the middle of the room; and she laid stick-on tiles on the floor that were supposed to look like the black marble you’d find in a McMansion in Staten Island or in Rome, and not something you’d step on in a little farmhouse in south Virginia.

She was a single mom who enlisted the help of whatever boyfriend she had at the time, victims of circumstance, to install the new windows or cabinets or siding—whatever his area of expertise. If you can call it that. As Kurt insists, everything is done half-ass. I keep telling him to look on the bright side. I keep telling him I’ve got to give her credit, being a single mom and doing all of this. She’s the one who built the barn. He humphs and reminds me it had a hundred leaks. She’s the one who rebuilt the porch. He asks what good is a porch if you can’t lean on the railing on a warm summer day because it’s attached to… nothing? A faux railing, if you will. He has no patience or sympathy. And certainly no admiration. He has to fix it all. Doors were installed incorrectly and don’t close. If you want to turn on the floodlight outside, just plug in the orange extension cord that comes through the hole someone poked in the sheetrock near the ceiling in the upstairs bedroom. Moldings are cheap pine boards stamped with Georgia Pacific or are missing altogether. In fact, there is a piece of molding missing in every single room including the furring strips on the ceilings and the trim around the sliding door on the barn, as if they took the last one to start a new one, kind of like a rib.

Of course all this sounds pretty bad until I remind myself that I could still be living next door to the Evils. Who cares if the old owner sided right over the row of charming back porch windows and put wainscoting up without using nails? And what’s a little wind when I’ve got Pearl next door?

I plan to write about the Evils, who I lived next door to, before we moved here. They were the classic neighbors from hell and they did a lot more to us than burn trash and pile their junk outside my kitchen window. Suffice it to say that they are the reason we call that house the Amityville Horror House and moved here, to Heaven-on-Earth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Santa Sighting

I spotted him. He's in Wal-Mart. It won't be long now.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peeing in the Tractor Shed

Today I almost got caught peeing in the wood guy’s tractor shed. I think he thought I was casing the joint. Kelly and I were there right on time to pick up some wood but Henry was not around. I knocked on the door to the brick house up on the hill. Someone said he’d be back in a spell and slammed the door before I had a chance to ask what “a spell” actually meant. Was a spell a few minutes? Was it an hour? Was it as long as it takes to read the newspaper front to back including all the ads and in the case of the local paper, Odessa Link’s Christian column that comes out on Wednesdays and includes recipes direct from Jesus like Out of this World Meatloaf and Scripture Cake, plus her home telephone number in case you run into trouble.

This was not good. I already had to go to the bathroom. I jigged from leg to leg. I decided to start loading. This way, the minute Henry got back, I could hightail it out of there and if he wasn’t back by the time I was done, well then, I’d leave anyway and leave the check with the people up in the house or else mail it to him because they seemed kind of mean. There was no time to waste when you had irritable bladder. You know the commercial with the traffic cop?—Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go! That’s me.

The field was filled with mounds of wood in various stages of fading and drying. I chose a pile with pieces that looked small and easy to handle, and backed up to it as close as I could get. Kelly and I weren’t too happy about having to load the wood ourselves. We weren’t prepared. We were clean and she had on her new boots. They weren’t working boots. They weren’t cowboy boots, rubber boots or even snow boots. They were boots for good looks only, black vinyl cockroach stompers, as my father would say, with a clunky heel and a pointy toe. They did not function well but elicited oohs and aahs from the girly girls at school, which was the whole point; certainly not comfort or protection. I had on my new white sneakers. Brand spanking white. Plus, we didn’t have any work gloves. Kelly was wearing pink chenille mittens interwoven with silver threads and I had on soft leather gloves, the kind a person wears with a dress coat. I want to call them kid gloves. But I don’t really know what kid gloves are. Are they gloves small children wear? Point being, what we were wearing was not conducive to the grasping of the rugged bark of a hunk of oak or the heaving of a locust log sharp and jagged with splinters.

One of the things I like about getting wood from Henry’s is that he and his helper, Langley, a one hundred-and-thirty-seven-year-old black man who appears out of nowhere in a 1976 Ford truck, the color of grey primer because all the paint has worn off, and who I can’t understand a word of what he’s saying, do all the loading. (For those of you who haven’t had your coffee yet, I really have no idea how old Langley is—he’s old. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know the age of his truck either—it’s also old.) Anyway, you don’t even have to get out of your vehicle—just hand the check out the window when you stop hearing wood clunking in the back. That’s why we weren’t prepared with the proper foot gear or gloves. But I had to pee so there was no choice. We had to hurry.

We got out of the truck and stepped gingerly around the wet, rotted wood sticking up out of the mud. We climbed onto the wood pile, wobbled, and picked out the nice pieces. I tried to toss the logs to the truck but I was afraid I’d hit the outside of it and mess up the crappy Dodge paint job that scratches and chips if you give it a dirty look, or torpedo it through the back window, which would have been even worse. We climbed down from the wood pile cradling three or four logs in our arms, bonking our chins, scuffing our sleeves, and skirted around the wet wood to the side of the truck where we tossed the logs into the bed. They landed with a thud. It was slow going. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Finally, I couldn’t hold it anymore. There was a tractor shed right over yonder as Pearl would say and it was facing away from the house up on the hill. There was old, rusty machinery inside and a scattering of feed sacks, some overflowing with baling strings and trash. I looked around. Not a soul in sight. The only thing I could see were dozens of piles of wood, straw-colored grass sticking up out of the crusty snow in between the piles, and the woods on the edge of the field, covered with frost like rock candy on sticks at the boardwalk. I told Kelly, “Keep loading. I’m going to pee.” Before she had a chance to protest, I hurried over to the tractor shed, ducked inside and squatted lickity-split. I was standing up and zipping in under 30 seconds flat when Kelly cried, “Someone’s coming!” and bugged her eyes wide open in the direction of the old black guy’s truck which had appeared soundlessly from around the curve. I exited the shed, patting down my hair like I just came out of a public restroom and yawned like this was completely normal.

For a split second I wondered if I should admit I was in there peeing. Did he actually see me come out? What if he didn’t? Would I be embarrassing myself unnecessarily? Langley’s hearing wasn’t very good. If I turned myself in, I might have to yell a number of times, “I was in the tractor shed peeing! I have irritable bladder!” And he’d say, “What was that you say? Your bull’s fatter?!”

But even though he was a hundred-and-thirty-seven-years-old, he was still a guy and there are some things a woman and her little girl shouldn’t call attention to out in the middle of a snow-covered field with no one in sight while they are getting wood. I made small talk instead. Langley said something but I didn’t understand what it was so I took a chance it was something entertaining and laughed. I felt like telling him if you guys were here like you were supposed to be I wouldn’t have had to pee inside the tractor shed and look like I was up to no good. But I just kept nodding and smiling in case he was telling me something funny.

I could understand if they thought I was out to steal something. They know I’m a Yankee. We’ve discussed that before. It usually comes up as soon as I open my mouth. They ask right away where I am from. They say, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” like they’re on to me. And I admit it because I sound just like the Sopranos. What am I going to do? But it’s usually not a problem because as soon as they get to know me, they see I’m okay. I’m like no Yankee they’ve ever heard about. I’m not like the ones up in the Wal-Mart in New York who trampled a guy to death because there was a big sale going on. Or like the neighbors who lived right next door to each other for twenty years and didn’t even know each other’s name. Me, I smile and talk to everyone. I’ve even made friends down at the Dumpsters. Anywhere is over the picket fence to me. Plus, I don’t like to shop, never mind trample people. No, I’m not your average Yankee.

But maybe they were wrong about me if I was sniffing around in their tractor shed while they were away. Who knows what I was doing in there? About halfway through the wood loading, Langley couldn’t stand it anymore and he walked over to the tractor shed and went inside. Either he had to pee himself or he was looking around to see what I stole. I kept loading like I didn’t notice. I decided not to say nothing. I was just so happy that I didn’t have to pee anymore I didn’t care what they thought about me.