Every board tells a story if you know how to read it: when it was harvested; where it was harvested; from what part of the tree it was harvested; how it was harvested and prepared; who likely harvested it. The story starts with the tree.
Carpenter & Artist
The first day:
I walk by this neighborhood every day on my way to work, but I have never traveled down this particular street. I don't know how I could have missed it. It's a wonderful street; the houses are mostly old, made of brick or stone, and many of them have wooden shingles on the roofs.
Most of the lawns are green, mowed and devoid of weeds and the shrubbery is trimmed. Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Mercedes fill most of the garages and driveways.
One house in particular catches my eye. It is a white, two story, wooden structure and doesn't quite seem to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. The house could use a new coat of paint, but it isn't to the point of being disgraceful. The trim is forest green and looks fresh. The roof is covered with some sort of dark, asphalt shingles that are beginning to reflect the wear and tear of age and will need replacement in the next year or so. A faded red chimney pokes out of the roof. I circle the house and take the back street—a graveled lane really with no name. The back of the house looks a little shabbier than the front. Leaves from the neighbor's oak and the gumball on the side of the house fill the gutters. The neighboring yard, like most of the back yards along the lane, is enclosed in a cedar fence about six feet tall.
But not this house. The fence is different here.
It is a funny sort of fence—two horizontal, two-by-six boards face down, running parallel, about four feet apart. The bottom one is about a foot off the rocky ground. Anchored into the two boards and standing vertical between them are one-by-six boards, about two inches apart, placed slightly askew to allow for wind flow but to block the small back yard from the direct view of the casual passer-by. However, a careful observer, if he stops and takes the time to look, can see into the yard through the two-inch gaps.
An old man stands next to the fence.
A huge hole, about thirteen feet long, exists where the vertical boards are torn out. A stack of forty or fifty newly cut boards lay neatly stacked at the old man's feet; the old slats are piled haphazardly along the outside of the fence and on the graveled driveway, which dead ends at the gumball tree. The old man measures one of the cut boards between the two horizontal runners. It is at least two inches too short. It occurs to me, as it must occur to the old man that the stack at his feet must all be two inches too short.
I can see the back yard plainly through the hole in the fence. The old man is a gardener of sorts; I see tomato plants, and collard greens, and what looks like onions or garlic. The vegetable garden sits in the middle of the yard, probably to take advantage of whatever sun might get past his neighbor's oak tree and cedar fence. Tucked away in the corner of the yard is a flowerbed; I recognize a few sun-starved zinnias and marigolds. A small concrete patio fronts a sliding glass door. Two white, plastic chairs sit side by side and face the hole in the fence.
The old man looks to be in his seventies—baseball cap slightly askew, silky white hair shoots out from under it, furrowed face, frail body leans slightly forward. He scratches his head with thin, age-splotched hands; the cap teeters precariously on his slightly pointy head. There is a look of uncomprehending incredulity on his face, as if suddenly the laws of physics do not work anymore.
I want to stop and tell the old man that only a fool makes all his cuts without first making a workable model. Instead, I say, "Looks like you missed your mark" in my most neighborly tone.
The old man starts visibly. He gives me a wild, trapped look and then lowers his eyes.
"Yup," he says and shuffles away, still scratching his head.
The second day:
I walk by the old man's fence again. A rusted old Chevrolet is parked in the driveway. An extension cord runs from the pickup to the house. An old Black and Decker circular saw, plugged and ready to go, lies on its side upon the tailgate. The pickup bed is littered with carpentry tools: yardsticks, handsaws, hammers, a toolbox opened and filled with assorted nails and screws. A man, only slightly younger than the old man and wearing a leather tool belt, stands next to the hole in the fence. He holds one of the miss-measured slats and scratches his head, knocking his soiled baseball cap askew, revealing a shock of white hair against a dark skull. I can almost see his mind work.
The old man appears from inside the house. He nods to me as I go by and joins the carpenter. They stand together and stare at the board.
I imagine the conversation they must have as I continue on my way.
"The way I see it," the carpenter might say, "you have three choices."
"What are they?" the old man might ask.
"Number one: you could buy some more one by sixes and start all over again and use these boards for something else." He indicates the stack of miss-measured boards with his head.
"Number two: you could tear down the fence and move those two by sixes closer together by two inches or so. You save your boards that way but it would involve a lot of work and you would end up paying me more, of course."
"And my last choice?"
"Your last choice: you could use the good parts of the boards you ripped out as extension pieces."
"Wouldn't that look like shit?"
"Yup, but it's the cheapest way out."
"How long would it take you?"
"The rest of the day."
The old man might hesitate a moment and then give the carpenter the go-ahead.
"Yup," the old man might say. "Might as well get started. Time is money."
The third day:
The old man stands in the lane and admires his rebuilt fence. A paintbrush drips green paint onto the gravel. The hole in the fence has been repaired. Each miss-measured board sports an extension riding piggyback on it. The effect is like the beginning of a domino tumble.
"I see you got it fixed," I say and stand next to the old man.
He looks at me a moment, perhaps wondering who I am and debating whether to strike up a conversation.
"Yup," he says finally.
"Looks like dominoes falling."
"Yup." The old man scratches his head. "It'll do," he adds after a while.
"Yup," I say and continue on my way.
The fourth day:
I pass by the fence again. The old man is not out, or perhaps the fence hides him; I can only catch brief glimpses into the yard between the slats as I walk by. I am in too much of a hurry to stop and look carefully.
Three months later:
The green fence is gone. It was there this morning, but it is no longer standing this afternoon. The house looks naked without it. The compost pile next to the garden is suddenly exposed. A cat scratches in the flowerbed. A pickup truck is parked on the lane near the scar where the fence used to be and a young man tosses slats into the truck. A flatbed truck with the name of a local lumber company is parked in the middle of the lane behind the pickup. Fresh new cedar boards are stacked on it. Two men carefully unload the boards onto the driveway. I look around for the old man, but he is nowhere in sight.
The next morning:
A small tractor with an auger hooked onto the rear end of it drills into the earth. A middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap and coveralls guides it carefully over brightly painted green X's on the grass. Fluorescent yellow and red arrows point out where telephone, gas, and water lines are placed. A young man, also wearing a baseball cap and coveralls, carefully places the four by four posts into the holes.
The new fence is partially up already. The posts are in the ground and the two by four top and bottom runners are up and part of the inside slats are lined up and attached. The tractor is loaded on a trailer hooked behind a new model pickup truck: the auger is raised threateningly into the air. The young man holds a board up while the middle-aged man nails it up using an air gun. The boards have been carefully trimmed to accommodate the uneven ground. There are no spaces between the boards.
The next morning:
The interior slats are all up and part of the exterior is up. The backyard is no longer visible from the road. Only the worn roof is visible. The middle-aged man is busy hanging a gate which opens up onto the driveway, now an alleyway between fences. The young man steadies the gate for him.
The fence is all done. It is a work of art, rising and falling beautifully with the lay of the yard. It runs from the back of the old man's house parallel with his neighbor's fence for about fifty feet. Then it right angles and follows the graveled lane for another sixty feet or so, parallel with the cedar fence across the lane before right angling again to about mid-house. Then it right angles again and runs about ten feet to come to rest against the house. The top of the fence is capped off with two by fours. There are two gates in the fence; one, which opens onto the driveway where a group of men is busily constructing a carport, and the other gate, opens up onto the front yard on the other side of the house. The gates are held up and closed with beautiful, antiquated, black hinges and locking hardware.
The next morning:
The plain white van with Southwest Windows and Siding stenciled across both sides is parked in the back lane. A small army of men is busy installing siding to the house. The carport is nearly finished.
The siding people are still at work. A tree removal service has joined them. A large truck with a cherry picker bucket behind it is backed up against the gumball tree. A man wielding a chainsaw is cutting away at it. Painters and carpet cleaners are parked along the curb in front of the house. A van advertising hardwood floors is leaving.
Two weeks later:
I don't remember what the old man's house used to look like anymore. It has suddenly been transformed from an 'old house" to a sophisticated and modern "home."
The old man stands next to his fence, scratching his head. I have not seen him for a long time.
"Nice new fence," I say, crossing the street toward him. He starts and acknowledges me.
"Yup," he says. "House doesn't seem the same either."
I nod and walk on.
Three days later:
There's a real estate sign in the old man's front yard. I am almost tempted to ask to see the house. A red sports car is parked in the front driveway and a young businessperson talks earnestly with the old man. He notices me in the street and nods.
I nod back.
I see the old man working in his front yard—pulling weeds out of a flowerbed. I tell him hello, and he stops what he is doing and looks up at me.
"Having any luck selling your house?" I say, trying to start a conversation.
The old man stands and dusts off his hands.
"Yup," he says. "Got this hot shot lawyer boy coming this afternoon to sign the papers."
I nod my head up and down for a moment and try to find something to say, but nothing comes to mind.
A week later:
The old man is gone. The real estate sign is gone. Someone sprayed the front yard and completely killed all the grass. I assume they are going to plant a new yard and in a few weeks, I will see a fresh new cover of perennial rye and Kentucky Blue grass. And once every two weeks or so, the lawn care truck will park on the curbside and spray fertilizer and poison to help the new grass along. I wonder how the back yard has changed behind the new fence, but I will never know. I see the lawyer's Mercedes parked in the driveway. He keeps it waxed and cleaned.
The house does not feel the same anymore, so I take to walking along another street.
The next day:
I imagine a conversation I might have had with the old man.
"I didn't want to sell," the old man says breaking the silence between us. "But after I put that new fence up, the old house didn't feel the same."
I nod to show him that I agree.
"Why did you put in the new fence?" I ask.
"My son and daughter-in-law suggested I do that. They said it would add value to my place. But once I started that, then it seemed logical to add the carport, and that led to the siding, which led to the new roof, which in turn led to cutting down the gumball and getting all that work done inside. Before I knew it, I didn't like my place anymore. That's when I decided to sell."
"I'm going to miss seeing your house on my way to work every day."
"Yup," the old man says.
I know that the conversation is faulty; the old man would never say so much.
I am startled from my reverie when a dog runs up to me and sniffs my legs. He is an Irish setter with long reddish brown fur, dark liquid eyes, and floppy ears. He acts somewhat stupid, as if he wants to please but doesn't quite know how. He looks up at me and wags his tail and his whole body wags with it. I drop to one knee and he nudges me with a wet nose. I grab his collar and take him to the old woman with thin silky white hair waiting on the curb.
"Thanks," she says. "He usually comes right back to me. I don't know why he's so excited this morning."
I admire the woman’s house. It is a dark red brick home with green wood trim. The house looks old, like it has been in this neighborhood for a long time. However, it does not look like the rest of the houses in the neighborhood; it is smaller and less modern. I ask the woman about it and indeed the house is old, over fifty years. It was one of the first houses on the street.
I tell her I like it and she thanks me.
There are no fences around her house—only a freshly painted white gate at the end of the front sidewalk. I like that too, and I imagine who could have come up with that concept.
The next day:
The dog comes out to meet me again. I scratch him behind the ear a moment or two and study the house. I try to imagine who first lived in it and what the neighborhood must have looked like. Then I start to build a story around the house, and I know that the story will grow each time I pass by it.
I look forward to the trip.
Houses talk to you. You can easily read the stories in the wallpaper you peel back, or the wood floors you sand, or the walls you tear down and rebuild. Give me an old house any day before a shiny new one. An old house has character; a new house has to live a while before it develops character.
Carpenter & Artist