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Mike noticed he was being watched two hours into first day of the exterior job. He had driven to Marine for sandpaper, sanding discs, good Swedish scrapers, a pair of Wooster brushes, some expensive Dutch oil primer and a new heat gun. He added a couple of big rubber-lined drop-cloths, a nail set, a pot hook (the good kind with the little chain so you could hang it from either side of the ladder) a bag of rags and a box of the good paper dust-masks, with the little yellow air filter nipple on the front.
Dave Congdon had always been amused by the flimsy ones with the blue elastic bands that actually informed you with a sticker on the mask that they would provide no protection of any kind, under any circumstances. “Guess they had a couple law suits happening there,” Dave had remarked.
Mike drove back out to the East end of the island under a harsh blue sky, pleased with his purchases. He felt rich and competent. It was a chill windy day but dry enough to start the prep. April 14th – one day ahead of the IRS deadline. He hadn’t filed. He hadn’t made any money since his return and anyway, it was like Mio always said: “Fuck taxes. We got sweat equity, pandejo.”
Mike had laid the drops over the dormant hydrangeas, set up the big ladder andhad started to disk-sand the peak when he felt the eyes on him. He paused but didn’t turn around. He stared over the roof to the ocean forty feet below the grassy lip of the cliff, gnawing away at the bluff, blue to the horizon, and beyond it, all the way to Portugal. Wind ruffled the surface of the sea, but there was no swell today, just the immense vista of water and sky. Still, he knew the bluff was going, eroding relentlessly despite his spoiled neighbors’ crazy efforts to slow the process with sandbags and seawalls. He thought of King Canute, but the old man got a bad rap: he wasn’t trying to stop the tide, just proving that you couldn’t.
Mike let the icy breeze touch his face, thinking about Carol-Ann Tuttle. It had to be her, next door. He remembered the scrawny red-haired fourteen year-old, the blaze of freckles, the braying laugh, always tearing off on her bike with a day’s supply of string cheese. Her parents had moved to Vermont, a few years ago. They rented their house in the summer: Dave Congdon took care of it in the winter, checking for leaks and broken panes of glass. So many people moved from Nantucket to Vermont. Maybe they were hungry for old growth forest and vertical granite after all those years of flat ocean vistas and wind-crippled scrub pines.
Carol-Ann must have decided to hide out for the winter. He had seen the light on in her bedroom – the smallest room in the house, tucked under the eaves. No renter would stay there.Was she taking a year off between high school and college? Or just trying to decide what to do with herself? Nantucket absorbed ambition and turned it into inertia the way trees turned carbon dioxide into oxygen. Only a fool ignored that photosynthesis, that dizzy atmosphere of procrastination. You breathed it in with the pollen and the smell of the sea and decided to put things off for one more year, one more season. Especially if you were living rent-free in your parents’ house.
If Carol Ann wasn’t careful she might never leave at all.
He hoped she had something better to do than spy on him. If he ignored her, she would probably stay away. She had always been shy around him. In the last four years he had never answered one of her letters. He had treated her like an annoyance, an untrained puppy, in the old days. Why should things be any different now? But he knew the answer to that. She had always been a cute little girl. She could easily have grown into a beautiful young woman. He eased out a breath between gritted teeth. Let her be ugly, let her be fat, let her be gone.
The last thing he wanted was some teen-ager chasing him, asking to hear his stories, grasping at his arm, trying to catch his hand in hers. Carol Ann had always been overly physical, throwing herself into hugs, smothering people with kisses, stroking you while she talked.
She didn’t understand. Mike was like his Aunt Phyllis, who suffered from fibromyalgia. Phyllis wasn’t mean or cold or even rude, it just gave her unendurable pain to be touched. You could feel that way and be perfectly healthy. You could feel that way when there was no physical contact. Mike felt that way just looking another person in the eye and not averting his gaze. The intimacy of an open stare gave him migraines. Or it would if he ever tried it. That was how it felt.
That was why he had come here: to be alone, to see no one, to work.He got back to it now, letting the whine of the sander grind his thoughts into a storm of particulate dust, just like the old paint on his house.
It was important to do things right. That was what Mio and the others had never understood.
His time in country had taught him the lopsided dichotomy that seemed to rule human life. There were two kinds of people in the world, the people who tried to do as much as they could and the people who tried to do as little. Most of the people Mike had ever met fell into the latter group, including his father. His mother was different. How had they ever gotten married, two people like that, on the opposite sides of the great divide? His Dad, grudgingly doing the dishes, never getting that edge of wine off the rim of the glass, never scrubbing that hardened crumb of congealed gravy off the plate – while his Mom crouched in the garden, pulling every weed by hand.
Dave Congdon had always known the truth, and he hadn’t had to travel any farther than the distance Great Point and Smith’s Point to see it. “On Nantucket,” he liked to say, “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it twice.”
Never enough time to do it right. He remembered watching Mio cleaning his piece, scuffing the crown with the bore brush because he was in a hurry, then running one solvent patch through the barrel with his jag – instead of two, or three, or even four or however many it took, until the surface was clean. The purpose was to clean the surface, not to go through the motions, not to be able to say you did it. And of course he never oiled the barrel afterward. Mio was a genius at doing just enough not to get in trouble. But that could get you killed, and with all the things in an insane universe that could get you killed, why add one more? But of course Mio was twenty years old and assumed he was immortal. He was the exception.
Mike pulled the hammer from the loop on his pants and a nail set from his pocket. He didn’t want to think about Escomio Monterro e Yamurro Guitierrez (“Just call me Bob.”) right now. There was enough laziness right in front of him. This nail for instance. He knew it would be impossible to set, like driving it into steel, the old white pine was so hard. If it had been easy to set, the carpenters would have set it themselves. They only left the tough ones. He set the tip to the head, did the practice tap and then the hard blow -- ta – TACK; nothing. Again, harder; ta TACK. Did he sense a little progress? The next time the nail set slipped off the nail and punctured the wood. One more hole to fill. Mike took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Ta-TACK, ta TACK, TA-TACK! Finally! One more for good measure. If there were enough of these he could be up here until Labor Day.
Leave it for the next guy. Hope no one will notice. Assume no one will care. That’s how the world worked.But it didn’t have to be that way. It was a question of taking all the steps – learning the steps, first, of course, then taking them in order, that was all.
He smiled. We are fixing the world, one un-set nail at a time. It was going to be quite a project.The sash clarified everything, he thought the next day, as he began to work on them. You could leave them in place and just slap some shiny paint on the exposed surfaces and call it a day. People had been doing that at Northern Flicker for generations and the result was the old wood scabbed over and cemented into the window casings with dozens of layers of knobby cracking paint, from calcimite milk paint to the old lead based coatings, the alkyd products and the latex of the last few decades. You could giuve it a quick sanding first, if you wanted to add a step.
Or you could do it right; chip out all the old glazing, work the little metal points out of the wood, mark and set aside all the glass, then soak the frame in turpentine and linseed oil. After that, you primed it, set a bed of glazing for the glass, re-inserted it with the old sharp ended oval points (of course you had saved them: you couldn’t buy them any more, except on eBay), then puttied the glass in place, rolling the narrowing snakes of glazing compound between your palms and laying it against the glass, pushing it tight with your thumb, then flattening it with a stiff putty knife (dipped in thinner from time to time if the putty was dry) and smoothing with the flat of the blade, pulling it down to make sharp corners. After that you waited for a few days, to let the putty skim over. Then you sanded the flats again and re-primed the whole sash, making a thin sharp line with the paint to seal the glazing to the glass. Three coats of finish paint followed, sanding with finer and finer paper between them (120, 220, 300), dusting and tacking when the sanding was done.
That was how you painted a window, if you cared to do it right.Northern Flicker had sixty double-hung six-over-sixwindows, which meant a hundred and twenty sash with seven hundred and twenty individual panes of antique glass. It was Mike’s rainy-day project. He worked on them in the basement, on a house-painter’s easel, jury-rigged by drilling two screws into a sturdy wooden ladder and setting the sash on them.
It was meditation. It was therapy. The building trades had a better word for it; renovation.
He thought of Mio’s gun jamming on an icy night in the mountains, the gathering comprehension in the silence before the final thunder fell.Do things properly or not at all. If you want to speed up, slow down. Old maxims but your life could depend on them. or your pay check, or something else, just as important, maybe more important, some essence of yourself that you diluted at your peril. He didn’t have the words for it and the words didn’t matter. The glazing on the first sash needed to be chipped out.
He picked up his hammer and chisel and began.