Friday, February 13, 1997
Mike is an engineer at a company that makes disk drives. He's a big guy, ex-football player, square of jaw and wide of shoulder. He bought a townhouse in Santa Clara and hired a decorator - Isabella - who hired me to spiff the place up a bit.
Isabella told Mike he needed a work of art to "energize" the dining room. She then made the mistake of letting Mike choose the art. He bought a gigantic painting of waves breaking over rocks under a moody sky. Framed, it weighed 80 pounds. My job was to hang it and install low voltage lighting to display it. Dramatic lighting.
I was just cleaning up when Mike came home accompanied by a splendid young woman who, you knew in a glance, was fresh and smart and clearly smitten. She was gazing at the breaking waves while Mike set the table with a bottle of wine, a sourdough baguette, a bowl of cherries and a dark chocolate cake. "How do you like the painting?" Mike asked.
"Nice lighting," she said.
Today Mike calls me back to the townhouse. A couple of years have passed. The painting, still nicely lit, remains on the wall. The home seems clean and barely lived in with no sign of female habitation. Mike, looking more than two years older, meets me in a rush and tells me he's working 18 hour days. He says, "I should have noticed sooner, but there's water running down the inside of the kitchen wall whenever it rains. Okay?"
On a ladder I have to remove long strips of Masonite siding. A two-man job. I'm working alone.
I trace the water back to some bad flashing around second-floor windows. There's rot. Worse than rot. Termites are everywhere. I call Mike. "I can fix the flashing," I say, "but you need an exterminator."
"Who do you recommend?"
"It depends on what you want. There are a lot of environmentally friendly companies that use different techniques. Like, there's one that uses microwaves, and there's one that—"
"I want lethal poison. Toxic, high-hazard nuclear waste would be okay. I want them dead."
In less than an hour, I've got Izzie the Exterminator out there to take a look. Izzie says, "Santa Clara used to have the greatest fruit orchards in the world. And you know what lived under those fruit trees? Termites. Now the farms are gone, but the termites are still underground, just waiting."
Tomorrow Izzie will come back, dig trenches around the perimeter of the house, fill the trenches with lethal toxic industrial-strength poison, and cover them. Mike will be very happy.
I soak a couple of rotten 2 by 4's with Copper Green (deadly stuff), install sister studs beside the rotten ones, redo the flashing, flick termites off with my fingers, and spread bounteous caulk around the window. During intermittent sprinkles of rain I re-nail the siding. Gusts of wet wind try to whip the long strips of Masonite out of my hands. Again I'm doing a two-man job, working alone, enjoying the rhythm: lift, whack a nail, whack another. Move the ladder, lift, whack, whack.
A physical challenge. A test of strength and skill. Ladder work can exhaust you. Muscles are shaking.
I finish in darkness. Sore, tired, I feel good about this day, the same satisfied feeling you get after climbing a mountain.
Mike returns. Standing together in the back yard amid concrete-and-Masonite suburbia, we stare at the completed wall. Rushes of wind flap our clothing and roar in our ears. Raindrops strike our skin like pebbles. Wet moody clouds are blowing overhead playing hide-and-seek with the moon.
Inside through the window where it is cozy and quiet, I see the painting bathed in warm light. The art may be a cliché, but clichés come from truth, from trying to express the inexpressible, the relentless force of nature.
"Good job," Mike says. "So I'll have no more problems?"
"For a while."