(Note: I've combined what what I originally posted over two separate days, February 19 and 20, into this one post. They belong together.)
Monday, February 19, 1990
It's President's Day, a holiday. Not being a president, I'm working.
The house has a FOR SALE sign out front. With two stories and a wraparound porch, it looks like an old-fashioned farmhouse except:
1) it's gigantic;
2) it's in Atherton, a town of major money; and
3) access is controlled by a security gate.
The owners are Rayette and Billy Ray. They wear sweatshirts; they're somewhat overweight; their hair is tousled. They are about as glamorous as the muffler on my truck. I like them instantly. While Billy Ray with an Okie drawl gripes on the phone about an $80 furnace repair bill, I tell Rayette that her plans to light up her kitchen will cost several thousand dollars. "Sure thang," she says without batting an eye.
I ask, "Is this to make the house more attractive to a buyer?"
"No," she says, "it's to make it more attractive to me. We're askin' a stu-oo-pid price. Maybe we'll find a stu-oo-pid buyer. Meanwhile, I'm the cook, and this kitchen is too dark."
So I begin cutting holes and running Romex. Rayette goes outside and fertilizes the lawn from a hand-pushed spreader. Billy Ray crawls under their Mercedes on his back, changing the oil. His other car is a baby-blue 1924 Cadillac.
The next time I return, nobody is home. I'm installing 14 recessed lights in the ceiling plus a couple of undercabinet fluorescents. It's mostly ladder work, but often it's easier to stand on the countertops. I like working alone. I get into the flow of the job, singing to myself a Hank Williams song - my hair's still curly and my eyes are still blue - daydreaming, running wires when suddenly I have a vision of falling - of forgetting I'm standing on a countertop, taking a step to the side - cracking my head and dying, all alone among my tools in the kitchen of some blue-collar millionaires.
A moment after this vision, somebody walks into the kitchen. Teenager, female, fat. In a glance I can tell she's totally at ease with her body. I like her instantly. I'm still standing on the countertop wearing my tool belt. My hair and clothes are powdered with gypsum dust from cutting holes in the ceiling.
She gazes up at me. "You all right?" she asks.
"I was studyin' upstairs? And you were singin'? And then suddenly I thought I'd better check up on you like maybe you'd electrocuted yourself."
"Amazing! I was just thinking something like that."
"I guess you stopped singin'."
"So if I'd fallen and cracked my head and my brains were oozing out on the floor, you would have held my hand and comforted me so I wouldn't die alone?"
For a few seconds, she studies me with furrowed eyebrows. "No, actually, I would've called for an ambulance."
"I appreciate that. But I guess you won't have to."
She grins. "Maybe I should call a psychiatrist?"
Wednesday, February 20, 1991
A year later, Rayette calls and asks me to do some electric work at their business, a plating company. It's a grubby-looking warehouse in the industrial section of a town that is the opposite of Atherton. Inside the air smells of chemical fumes. In one corner Rayette and Billy Ray have desks piled with papers and ringing telephones surrounded by vats containing bubbling liquids of eerie colors - chartreuse, yellow and blue. Into those strange tubs, workers are dipping electrodes and shiny metal plates. "Be careful what you touch," Rayette says.
I have a vision of accidentally placing my hand in one of those brightly colored vats and having the fingers disappear in a swirl of bubbles.
I need to stop these visions.
I repair a heater, replace a circuit breaker. Billy Ray writes out a check. On a small table like a nightstand next to his desk, the only uncluttered space in the entire warehouse, sits an enormous Bible with Billy Ray's name embossed in gold.
Billy Ray sends me back to their house on the other side of the world to repair the security gate.
The FOR SALE sign has a SOLD slapped on it. They found a stu-oo-pid buyer. Or else inflation caught up with their price.
As I'm puzzling over the gate motor, the daughter (whose name is Rayna) drives up in a dark green Jaguar with a Stanford sticker on the window. The gate is closed with the motor disconnected, so she waits. "Cracked your head yet?" she asks.
"No. Actually, I was more worried about dissolving my hand today."
"Wouldn't dissolve. But it might get plated with silver."
I point at the SOLD sign. "Where will you go?"
"Mom says for what we're gettin', we can buy a whole town in Oklahoma. We've got family there."
"What about the plating business?"
"They're givin' it to the workers. It's like givin' away a headache? Then they'll tinker with cars and putter in the garden wherever they go. That's all they want."
"And what'll you do?"
"I'll get a doctorate in chemistry. Like they did." She smiles. "It's a family tradition."