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It’s morning, you’ve made a fire, you’re writing a poem about a friend who has cancer, your left hand’s moving across the page, the lamplight bright on the paper, your brain engaged in the word radiation, but all the while you’re writing, the siren song of work is calling, too: you of the unstoppered ears.
Soon you’ll be seventy-four, and the song’s not diminished, song of body, use of body—sometimes abuse, but body nonetheless.
Today you’ll work in the room behind the barn. For years there’s been a stain on the sheetrock where the rain drips in, and the place smells of rot, and when the other day you yanked off a chunk of sheetrock, thinking might be rotten wood in there, thinking you’d maybe have to replace a few studs, you found, in that damp place, everything rotten. Today you’ll go in, the wall will come out, a new one to be framed.
You give your friend a false name in the poem. You’re not happy with the name yet, not happy with the poem. You’re distracted. You’ll give it another go tomorrow. You get into your work clothes, go up to the barn: leather gloves, mask & goggles, ladder, hammer, wrecking bar, sledge. You start in.
Each stud cratered & pocked, some turning powder at your touch, like bread loaves filled with sawdust, only a crust holding the ceiling up.
This is a land of earthquakes. If one happens tonight, the place will fall, then there’ll be more work, months of it you do not want to do. So brace, then.
You go outside, find a sound 2×4, climb the ladder, hoist the wood up, screw it to the rafters, get four more, screw them in, then run verticals to the floor.
Now up the ladder with the wrecking bar, and the tear-out begins. Powder clouding the air. You get down, put on the mask, go back up, tear. Look at what your body is doing: sure, tearing down a wall you built twenty-five years before, but the roof leaked, and you ignored it, and now what. Now you can still do this. Still!
One-by-one you grab studs and yank, and sometimes they come out solo, sometimes bring a chunk of the top plate, and that’s extra, that’s great.
Toss the wrecked wood to the floor, not bothering to bend down the nails—rattlesnakes, your friend David calls them.
In this way you’re a careless worker, and you know that, but you have momentum now and can’t stop—tearing, slamming the Stanley sledge sideways against the studs, at times struggling, jamming the prybar into the joints and twisting, no luck, fetching the smaller sledge—“persuaders,” your brother calls them, then pounding until the stud flips out—this one smashes into your nose & goggles—glad you have them on!—and this is not bad, this is good, this is progress, this is your body in the world working, this is somehow for your son & daughter.
You yank another piece toward you and a nail pierces your leather glove at the meat of your palm. You take off the glove, wait to see if you’ll bleed. Not a bad one, but yes, blood, and now more blood. Tetanus up to date—no worry there—but for the first time today you’ve hurt yourself, and now pain comes, your body tells you that you are hurting yourself in the world.
And today’s the day you come to recognize the ritual.
You and your bloody hand go down to the house. Your wife is not home. You get the Band-aids, the bottle of peroxide, wash your hands in hot water then pour on the peroxide, feel its sting & watch it bubble white where the world went in. Then you dry your hand with your wife’s hair dryer & put a double Band-aid on. It won’t last long in the work, but it’s good for now.
That’s not the ritual, though. The ritual is having bled a little on the white tile counter, leaving it there, and leaving the Band-aid wrappers, all of it to the left of the sink, leaving the peroxide bottle out, too, and later your wife will come home, and you’ll come down for water, and she’ll say, You must have cut yourself—let’s see, and that’s the ritual, and you’ve been here forty-five years building and destroying this place and the ritual’s been going for that long, and though at last you always clean up your own mess, this is another way of the body, of hurt, somehow bound up with family, intimacy. You love this.
Back now, distracted, when you enter the room you see the tremendous amount of work you’ve done, your shoulders sore, your forearms hard as lumber, wood strewn everywhere and you should clean up, you’re not working smart, you should stop a little and sweep and clear, but no, the rest of the wall is there; it must go.
From here you’re seeing the inside of the boards that cover the building on the outside, and you notice now the fungus, six feet high across those boards, white, one-dimensional against them like some great flat lichen, spiraling and stretching, growing upward, outward, its roots in the rich soil below. It found its way through wet wood to soil, and now keeps it wet, consuming it, and would destroy the whole barn, eating it from the inside, were you not here, this day, this year, in this body, to pull it away.
And the termites, too: they must smell soft wood, fungus a co-host at the great cellulose feast, the bugs finding their way up the wall to where the softest wood is—they tunnel between the grain, follow the river of grain, sometimes one tunnel, sometimes many, skilled miners, making air holes—but no live bugs are here, they’ve gone, left frass in their wake.
It’s getting late, light fading. and you’re still tearing—most of the top plate not bad: should it stay? No—it’s got to go or you’ll be back here in five years. So it’s the Sawzall now with its foot-long blade that cuts through nails and wood, and the blade bends, and though it’s bent you still keep working it—through wood, through nails, stopping & prying, wood flying to the floor, then Sawzall again and glad again for the goggles, for the mask, and in the corner you see where the rats have gotten in, the nest of insulation, and sweep it away with your glove—more for the floor, and as you’re sawing, slicing piece by piece, you plan a way to stop the rats this time—close them off with pressure-treated wood, use rigid insulation, not the fiberglass blankets they like to make their goddamn nests in.
You lean now, lose your balance on the ladder, half-fall, half-jump, feel a nail lodge in your boot, sloppy worker, but these are good boots, thick-soled, steel-toed, and you’re glad you bought them, and you bend down and pry away the wood & nail and know it’s time to quit, to clean up, stop your body, go down to the house, strip, shower, wash the sawdust and the single black spider from your hair, feel the warm water envelop you, dry, dress, have a glass of wine, sit down and eat dinner, a little tired, you say, and your shoulders are glowing, and your neck—like the muscles in your belly—beautifully sore, and you’ll sleep well, and life is good, you who are almost seventy-four.
Copyright 2021 Gerald Fleming
Gerald Fleming’s books include One published by Hanging Loose Press. His new book of prose poems, The Bastard and the Bishop, is due out from Hanging Loose in early fall.