Wednesday, Jan 1, 1986
Yes, I worked holidays. Weekends, too.
On this particular New Year's morn, 1986, I am extending the fences of a dog run in the shadow of a palace. The mongrel belongs to Mrs. M — and only to Mrs. M. The palace belongs to Mrs. M and her husband Dr. M, who happens to be a Professor of Economics at Stanford. Dr. M calls the mongrel a "million dollar dog" because of all the money Mrs. M has paid me to build - and now raise - the fences of the pen. I've actually earned somewhat less than a million dollars on this job, but you do not quibble over statistics with a Stanford economist who was once an adviser to President Nixon.
Mrs. M would strike you on first meeting as a silly old lady wearing a flowery old hat, a relic of a simpler era. Meanwhile I struck her on first meeting as something more than a hippie carpenter. She asked, "Why don't you go back to school?"
"What for? I've got a B.A."
"Oh really? I could tell you weren't run of the mill. But I assumed you were a dropout."
"I'm a writer. This is my day job."
"I get it. You should meet my housepainter. He's a lawyer who got sick of lawyering."
For Mrs. M over a span of years I built an office, a greenhouse, an above-ground wine cellar, and a dog pen as well as a long string of unusual or impractical projects such as raising all her office furniture one inch above floor level in case the washing machine in the hallway should ever overflow (it never did). I removed sixty pounds of honey from between the studs of an exterior wall (the bees had already departed but the honey was seeping through the interior wallpaper). I custom-built an immense cabinet in her garage so she could store soda pop, which she purchased by the truckload. I custom-built an outdoor phone booth, a delivery box, and a garbage truck (that's what she called it) so she could wheel her garbage cans down the driveway once a week. She was, quite simply, eccentric. And rich.
I came to admire her. From the beginning she told me she expected materials "of the highest quality." Price seemed no problem. She was kind, generous, and nakedly emotional. As a child on a farm in Illinois, she had taken baths in a metal washtub with water heated on a wood stove in the kitchen. Now she was expected to behave with the dignity befitting a distinguished professor's wife.
Dr. M liked to argue with tradesmen or anybody else who stumbled into his path, though he was never condescending. We were expected to debate as equals. On my first day of work, he insisted on helping me unload the heavy radial arm saw from the back of my truck. He sent angry letters to President Reagan and received, via courier, idiotic replies written by underlings, which he showed me.
Dr. M loved cigars, solitude, and his backyard swimming pool which he skimmed himself, by hand, every day. I never saw him swim. That blue pool on a hilltop surrounded by brilliant flowers tended by a Japanese gardener in the warm California sun seemed to manifest all the awards and accomplishments of this boy from the tenements. He often returned from speaking engagements in a chauffeured limousine. For personal travel, he drove a Cadillac land yacht with a bad muffler, broken air conditioner, and door trim that was falling off. One time in his kitchen he offered me a cup of coffee.
"No thanks," I said. "I prefer plain hot water."
He frowned. "You're as bad as a Buddhist monk," he said.
As for the dog, it was a mutt, an undisciplined stray who had somehow wandered into Mrs. M's manicured world. She neither petted nor played with it. She felt obliged, though, to provide food and shelter. And she would not shirk her obligations even though the dog was an escape artist who wasn't to be contained by a five foot fence.
We placed the dog in his newly remodeled run. He studied the fence, now eight feet high, and then promptly climbed - not jumped, but climbed - the woven-wire until he was perched atop a four-by-four post. With a contemptuous snuff, he leaped to the ground and ran away.
"He's a genius," Dr. M exclaimed. "Worthless. But a genius."
Ignoring her husband, Mrs. M turned to me. "If I get him back, you will build a roof for this pen."
"Gladly," I said.
Dr. M rolled his eyes but said nothing. I always had the impression that he'd given his entire fortune to his wife to use as she saw fit. On one thing he and I agreed: she was worth it.