Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The lord of all creation

The bones of our house creak at me in mockery.

You know as well as I that houses live; not in the way you and I do, of course.

Nor in the way — my belief, anyway — that its raw materials live: The wood and sand and ore and oil and various seeps and amalgams. Left alone, they exist with the earth, of the earth, and will exist long after all of us until, long after us, they become something else of the earth.

Houses, too, live long and patiently, though with the jaundiced resignation they'll come apart again, eventually. Houses know their pieces will become lesser than the sum of their whole, damaged and misused but ultimately outliving their human occupants.

Not our house, though. Our house mocks because it senses itself dying before we do.

We bought it well taken care of; it was the main reason we bought it. Our first house was a purchase of romance in the American Dream, the Starter House in which one Sets Roots and Learns How and Laughs and Cries and Makes Memories.®™© This dream brought to you by everyone who can make money off you because of it.

It was a kind of Weasley house before the muggle-minded family even existed in J.K. Rowling's mind. It was ramshackle and jury-rigged. The garage was turned into a carpeted room, and a sort of shed was tacked permanently to the former garage behind, textured in a silver-blue frosting substance and all done poorly (done the way I would have done it, frankly) and apparently without permits.

Legal forgivenesses had to be extended so that the owners could sell the house to us, American Dreamers.

With our meager and mismatched tools and skills we were going to fix it up. We watched "This Old House" on public television. The main tool required in the televised house rehabs seemed to be massive amounts of unfettered cash, so we soon lost our fixer-up passion.

Most of what we did to the house extended its function (a new sewer line so the toilets could keep flushing!) and remained invisible. Very little could be chalked up to "curb appeal."

We fixed it up as best we could when it came time to sell, and I felt like a failure as caretaker.

This home we live in now has good bones, a phrase you'll hear on the home improvement shows if you dare listen. Good bones, I reasoned, would endure me.

It is becoming a tight race now.

The house needs painting and cosmetic work around the outside. We have officially labeled it "deferred maintenance," and given it another year. Then another. Urgent matters keep cutting in line.

The kitchen floor creaks, and I imagine the day when one of our feet will flat go through it, weakened by termites. I wonder if we'll laugh when that moment happens. The previous owner had replaced the kitchen flooring and supports because of termite damage. We were told to have regular inspections, because termites seemed to favor this neighborhood or something. We'll get to it, someday.

We replaced birch trees in front, but have let the front lawn go brown — now ashen — in the drought. Our dog walks around the edges, looking for any grass to eat. The grass in the backyard disappeared long ago in deference to the giant oak tree that dominates. It is forever dropping leaves, giving me A Thing I Can Do.

This time of year I climb to the roof and clean the gutters. I obsess over this chore. It's as if the changing seasons call me to the task, and fill my dreams with images of me tripping on the guy wires supporting the aerial antenna on the roof and falling off the edge. I wake up resolving to wear sturdy non-slip shoes when I do this Thing I Can Do.

I amass my tools and commit myself to three hours on the roof, lifting the interlocking mesh screens that cover the gutters and scooping out the muck that the screens are supposed to screen out. I scooch along the roof line, buckets ahead of me, and enjoy the satisfying sweep of the plastic scooper catching a long encrusted slab of compressed leaves and lifting it to the bucket.

At some point I sit on the roof and look out on the neighborhood passing its unremarkable afternoon. In the autumn afternoon sun I think of Red Redding in The Shawshank Redemption, enjoying beer on the roof of the prison after the inmates had finished tarring it, who in turn is thinking of free men on the roofs of their own houses, the "lords of all creation."

It's a deluded security to feel the roof holding my weight, not leaking — for now — containing and sheltering all the dilapidation below me. I convince myself that keeping the gutters free and flowing thus saves the entire structure. That all below the roofline is safe because of it.

The house creaks as I climb off the roof.

My sister reminds me that Dad died 11 years ago yesterday. Birthdays I remember. Death days, I have to ask or be reminded. I don't keep track of them.

It's fitting, though, that on the anniversary of his death I was buying home improvement stuff at the hardware store: Plywood and handles.

The pest inspectors, confirming rats once again in our attic, broke the little hatch to the attic entrance while they were looking around. The hatch was made out of something barely more substantial than whipped cream anyway, so I decided to replace it with a sturdy door.

Today I will set a trap ("Just a tiny tiny bit of peanut butter," the pest inspector said. "Make the rat work for it") and set it nearest the hatch in the dark unsubstantiated attic, contorting myself over the closet shelf below the hatch, and wondering for the umpteenth time why such a door could not have been made in the hallway, where it'd have been easy to get to.

I pulled out my circular saw, last used six years ago when our son was working on his Eagle project. I tried to note how the saw lay in its plastic case, because it took a half-hour last time to get it to fit back in.

At first I was going to use a handsaw, a Thing I Know How to Use, if poorly, but then something (maybe my dad's voice) told me to get a grip and just get out the power saw. It's not that hard; try.

Dad was Can Do. He went after a task with determined solemnity and a quiver of curses. When he didn't know how to do something he didn't quit, but figured out another way. It wasn't always pretty but it got done. Blood dripped from his knuckles as he went in afterward, for a sandwich and a soda.

Yesterday I screwed screens to the holes where the pest inspector says the rats are obviously getting into the house ("Put your fingers in there," he told me.) A veteran rat avenger, I had stored a square yard of metal screen to work from, just for moments like these.

Last night my family could hear scurrying above them in the living room. It sounded frantic, they said.

Today the trap gets set. Maybe next week I'll summon the guts to check it. Later this week I may change the air filters, another Thing I Can Do.

The lord of all creation.

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