He surveyed the clearing in the early light of the spring morning. After so many years, he could see the ghost of the completed house standing in the center of what was now merely scrubby grass, bushes and dirt. The road to this place was little more than a dusty track and his old pick up had rattled and rocked the whole way. Grabbing the smooth wooden stakes and the fraying, carefully measured lengths of string from the toolbox, he made his way to the place where the phantom house stood in his mind’s eye.
The ground resisted the stakes at first, but a quick stomp from the heel of his work boot set the first without much trouble. He looped the string around the dark wood and began slowly walking backwards until the string was taut between his fingers. He plucked it, an unconscious smile spreading across his tanned face at the familiar bass thrum. This process was repeated three more times with ritualistic reverence, the first step in conjuring the house into reality now complete.
He spent the rest of the day clearing and leveling the ground within that square of string, tamping the bare earth flat here, building it up there. The sun had almost disappeared completely below the trees by the time the old pick up was rattling back down the dirt track. The man clicked the radio on and searched through the static for a channel, finally stopping when “What a Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke broke through the noise.
Dawn found the truck back in the clearing and the man digging the four holes that would eventually contain the footings of the house. He took a break for lunch in the shade of the trees around noon, sipping cold coffee from a battered thermos and slowly consuming a sandwich with little thought given to the taste beyond the energy it would provide. The metal drum creaked as he mixed the concrete and water inside, muscles like braided steel cable rippling beneath the sweaty skin. He tipped the oatmeal-like slurry into the holes and then proceeded to sink the thick, six foot pylons into the holes. About a foot of the reddish tinged wood stuck out above the ground.
The man wiped his hands on the stained and faded jeans and set about pulling up the stakes, carefully coiling the lengths of string around them and placing them back in their accustomed places in his toolbox. Although by now he knew the measurements for what came next like the lines of his calloused palms, he still took the measuring tape from the toolbox and noted down the distances emblazoned in fading black numbers on the yellow tongue of of metal in his little notebook. Tomorrow would see the gridwork of beams that would eventually form the foundation of the house, sitting atop the pylons. The truck rattled back down the dirt road accompanied by Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling”.
The third day saw the crisscrossing of thick timber beams begin to cover the bare, level earth. During a brief lunch, he sketched the layout of the first floor, making careful note of doorways and the location of the staircase that would lead to the second story, The last few houses he had built for himself had lacked a front porch of any kind and he planned to remedy that this time around. As a younger man, he hadn’t seen the reason for a place to just sit and enjoy the quiet hum of a summer afternoon or the gentle drumming of spring rain on the roof. Such things had seemed to him a waste of space that could be better used as interior rooms, but now he knew better. He absently whistled “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads as he sketched.
Straightening up from his shady spot, the man ambled back to the truck and selected another long beam to add to his gridwork. He measured off a twelve foot length and then set to cutting, the saw gnawing its relentless way through the grain. He continued to whistle the song over the course of the day and even found himself singing it as the truck rolled back down the dirt road away from what now looked like a good sized deck without planking in the little clearing. The tools and supplies in the dented and dinged truck bed rattled a little less each day as the truck’s tires wore the rutted road flat, but never enough that the man consciously noticed.
The next day saw the floor laid and the out walls begin to go up. Using a pulley, some rope and the truck, he was able to raise the walls with little trouble. As before, years of trial and error had eventually blessed him with the technique.
“This must be the place,” the man remarked to the surrounding trees. They did not seem impressed with his progress. The first floor had been framed by the time the little beat-up pick-up rattled back down the dirt track, cicadas buzzing away in the trees that glowered over the dusty road leading back to the highway.
The next day found the man back at work again, this time on the frame of the second floor. The pitched rafters for the roof soon followed. He paused in the shade for a few bites of the peanut butter sandwich he had wrapped in a napkin early that morning, letting the summer sun beat down on the small clearing with impunity. In his youth, he had cursed the sun for blistering his skin, but it had slowly become an old, friendly rival rather than a hated enemy.
The flat boards of the roof were carefully nailed in place the following morning, soon joined by the sticky, black tar paper the would form the base for the asphalt shingles. He made the requisite cuts for ventilation and a simple metal chimney, then began the work of shingling the steeply angled roof. He enjoyed this process, the satisfying thock of the nail sinking through the shingle and into the wood below, the repetition that bordered on meditation. As the sun dipped below the tops of the trees and the first fireflies began to signal their loneliness into the gathering dusk, the man descended the ladder, pausing to draw a sweat-grimed forearm across his forehead. His exhalation was slow and deliberate, almost celebratory. The shingles were done. What used to take him nearly three full days now only verged on one, but then again, the houses he built were not grand, sweeping mansions, but carefully crafted little Cape Cods. The hammer thudded into the toolbox, the roofing nails (he had bought too many, he always overestimated) clattered into a bucket with other odds and ends. As the pick-up rattled down the dirt road, the man smiled at his reflection in the driver’s side mirror. Windows tomorrow. The whistled first few bars of Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” mingled with the pop and crunch of the gravel beneath the truck’s tires.
The large, double paned windows went in without much trouble. The man stood back and surveyed the shell of the house, the front entryway empty. The door would come next, then the porch. He was a bit impatient to begin work on the interior, but then again, he was always excited about what was to come next with any project he was working on. It drove him forward, kept him motivated. With the windows installed, he began to work on the front porch. The supports for the roof were quickly cut and assembled. He dug holes about a foot deep and sank the corner support poles into a slurry of concrete. The framework for the porch roof was assembled next, care taken to ensure that the frame would match up with the anchors he had installed while framing the main house. He had forgotten to pick up the necessary wood for the front door, so construction ended a little earlier than it typically had over the course of the project so far.
The next day, the man had to show a few opportunistic birds and a rather cantankerous racoon out of the shell of the house before he could resume work. With that done, he measured the entryway and then proceeded to cut the wood for the frame. With the frame installed, he drilled the holes for the hinges and mitred the depression for the strike plate on the opposite side. Screwing the hardware into the frame, carefully checking that everything was level to guarantee that the door would hang properly. Doors had given him trouble in the past, measurements had to be precise, otherwise the door would be crooked and worse yet, would not latch. It wouldn’t do to build a house whose main entrance and exit could not be relied upon to work properly.
A slab of oak had been chosen for the front door. The man ran a loving hand over the smooth surface of the wood. The door would have very minimal decoration, he preferred to allow the subtle beauty of the grain and the whorls in the wood to whisper to the observer of its aesthetic merits, rather than elaborate scrollwork that nearly assaulted the eyes with ostentation. He drilled out the holes for the handles and the latch. Knob and hinges in place, the door was ready to be hung. Backing the truck up close to the entryway, the man slid the door out of the bed and stood it against one of the supports of the porch roof. After screwing the hinges into the wood of the frame, the man popped the pins out of the hinges, tucking them carefully into his pocket so they would be easily reachable. He leaned the door back and hefted it into place, executing the complicated balancing act that comprised single-handedly fitting a door onto hinges with very little effort. The first pin slide into place and with a little cajoling, the others soon followed suit. He opened and closed the door a few times to ensure that it was hung properly and wouldn’t stick in the frame. Door propped open, the man began taking measurements to build the staircase to the second floor. After confirming his calculations, he figured he would need twelve risers to make the steps the height he wanted. The afternoon was spent cutting the wood for the risers and treads. He would need to purchase more lumber for the wall and stair stringers that would help frame in and secure the staircase.
He locked the door with a small thrill of satisfaction that was muddled by the wet sock squelch of disappointment that always accompanied this stage of the process. The man could never quite put his finger on the reason for this feeling, and had given up trying to identify it a few builds back. It nagged at him, though, as the house receded into his rearview mirror that late afternoon. The sinking sun created the temporary illusion that the house was surrounded with a red-orange glow, almost like it was burning from the inside out, the flames having not yet grown enough to burst through the windows and gnaw at the exterior walls. “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles twanged and jangled from the radio, the house disappeared around a bend in the dirt road, but the man couldn’t shake the afterimage of that fire-like glow from his mind.
The man was there earlier than usual the next day, anxious to complete the staircase before the afternoon sun transformed the second floor into an inhospitable sweatbox. He worked without stopping until about two PM, then finally broke for a sandwich and some cold gas station coffee in the shade of an old maple.
He surveyed the house from his spot under the irregularly shaped leaves, trying to determine what to do next. All of the major structural elements were in place, now all that was left were the myriad small projects that would transform the shell-like structure into a finished house. Flooring? Scrollwork around the door frames? What sort of cabinetry and lighting fixtures? Paneling or drywall? His mind drowned in the overwhelming sea of minutiae and the time all of those details would require. He sat for a few minutes more, absently sipping at the cold coffee. Eventually he heaved himself up and went over to the truck bed for some supplies.
The stairs creaked a little as he climbed up to the second floor. He whistled Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” as he cracked the windows in the vain hope that they would alleviate the stifling heat of the afternoon. He made his way slowly through the unfinished rooms, the gasoline sloshing sluggishly around the inside of the dented red gas can. When it was empty, he descended the stairs and retrieved its twin, making sure each room on the first floor was adequately doused as well. Over the years, he had determined two five-gallon cans seemed to be sufficient for his purposes. He double-checked that the trail led across the threshold, then withdrew from his pocket a book of matches from one of the local bars. Striking one, he touched it to the rest of the book and once it too caught, carefully lowered the new burning matchbook to the gasoline trail on the porch.
As soon as it caught, the man turned towards the truck. He did a check around the jobsite to make sure he hadn’t left behind any supplies and then climbed into the cab. The old truck rolled down the now smooth dirt road as the flames began to creep out through the cracked windows on the second floor, climbing with newfound strength to the roof. Faces’ “Ooh La La” was on the radio, and the man turned it up, singing along. If he had bothered to look back as the house disappeared around the bend, he would have been satisfied to know that it looked very much like it had the evening before, bathed in a warm, orange glow.