Sometimes you're blindsided. Sometimes the right thing turns out to be wrong. Sometimes a client goes berserk - cracks - like the earth beneath your feet. In October, 1989, the so-called World Series Earthquake shook La Honda hard. My house sustained damage, but I felt lucky compared to one of my neighbors. One rock-walled side of his house peeled open and fell off, leaving him exposed like a dollhouse.
Suddenly as a contractor I was in demand. After a few weeks dealing with emergencies all over town, I settled into a long-term job rebuilding my neighbor's house.
Kal, my neighbor, was a small man with a competitive instinct. If you jogged with Kal - which I did - he would run slightly faster than you. If you played tennis with him, even if you were a better player - which I was - he'd find a way to beat you. Kal was a vice president at a big corporation. His coworkers called him Kattila the Hun.
Kal had a teenage son named Shane. Kal made a bet that Shane couldn't beat him in a three-mile race. The bet was for a hundred dollars. Shane was already a big strapping boy. Shane trained every day for a month. Shane was taller, legs longer, heart younger - and yet Kal won the race. "It's about desire," Kal said. And he made Shane pay him a hundred dollars.
The money didn't come easy to Shane. Kal wouldn't provide his son with an allowance. Shane ended up working for me on a couple of jobs - digging ditches, carrying lumber - to pay off the bet.
Kal had a vivacious wife, a southern gal. She was his third wife and, he said, his last. He told her with a straight face that he would never divorce her because he had been through two already. Murder, he said, was the only option.
Kal had three vintage cars. Unlike most collectors, he didn't store them as museum pieces in a garage. They were the family vehicles, driven every day to work or school or shopping: a '54 Ford convertible, a '55 Corvette, and a '46 Ford sedan. All three vehicles were fun to look at and brought smiles to bystanders, but when he let me take the Corvette out for a drive, it made me appreciate modern automotive engineering. On our mountain roads, those cars took corners like a bread truck.
The earthquake work went well enough. After seven months I'd exceeded my estimate by about 50%, but I'd uncovered extra damage, and Kal had added several changes. The house looked better than ever. He paid without a problem.
A couple months later, July, Kal asks me to install a new kitchen door. He selects - rightly - a 1 3/4 inch exterior door to replace the old 1 3/8 inch model. After discussing the options, we decide not to replace the existing jamb but rather to rout it to accommodate the thicker door.
On a pleasant sunny day I do the job while nobody is home. There's a special pleasure in carefully performing an exacting task, knowing it's hard but knowing you can do it well. Kal is a stickler for details. I work cautiously, slowly, exactly. The router throws wood chips all over the place, so I sweep the porch and walkway, leaving a tidy site.
A few hours later, Kal pounds on my door. He wants, he says, to have a word with me.
The words are many and foul. "You got sawdust in the fucking garden."
It never occurred to me to worry about that. "It's good mulch," I say. Perhaps not the most useful comment.
He's shouting: "Look at that! White sawdust on dark soil! It looks like sugar on shit!"
"I could wet it down with a hose. It'll darken. I could rake it, mix it in."
"No! You have to spread topsoil over it."
"Okay, I'll do that."
"No! I'll have to do it myself!"
"I'll buy the topsoil."
At this point, I realize we've gone beyond reasoning. The encounter is building like a thunderhead over the Kansas plain. There's the rapid boiling rise, the ominous dark. Now comes the blast of wind. Lightning. Hail.
"YOU'RE A FUCKING SLOB!" He's in my face now, shouting jaw to jaw. "I've been picking up after you for NINE FUCKING MONTHS!"
"I wish you'd said something earlier if you think I'm not cleaning up. This is the first I've heard about - "
"FUCK YOU! FUCK YOUR FAMILY! FUCK YOUR FUCKING DOG!"
Now he's totally lost it. He likes my dog. He's offered to buy that dog from me several times (which, by the way, shows utter cluelessness about family values - my kids love that dog).
So far somehow I've retained my composure. This is my first experience with the military drill sergeant breakdown approach - with Kattila the Hun. He's glaring into my eyes, slightly drooling at the mouth, bouncing on his feet like a boxer.
"Kal," I say, "I wish you were handling this with a little more maturity."
"BULLSHIT ON MATURITY! YOU'RE A FUCKING SLOB. NOW WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO ABOUT IT?"
"WHAT?" There's a look of eager anticipation on his face.
"No wonder Shane hates you."
Kal breaks into a crooked smile. "Nice try," he says. He turns and marches into his house.
I wish I hadn't said that. It's a true statement, and it's exactly what I was thinking at that moment, but my saying it ... he'd won. He'd broken me down.
I was shaking. All evening.
And I'd lost.
Kal always wins.