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Monday, Jul. 18, 2005
Early last week I started feeling sorry for Ally. Mother of three and wife to my immobile ass, she hasn’t had any real vacation in quite some time, while I, the outlaw contractor who frequently has days off to loaf, sail along in relative ease during the work week.

Doing that 8 hour grind every day, even in an air conditioned office, tends to wear on you. I know this. I spent many years cooped up just like her, and didn’t relish the experience at all. It’s one of the more delightful aspects of working your own gig. Freedom, baby. Nothing quite like it.

At any rate, I was determined to give her a little down time this past weekend. Take a drive. Visit some potential rural homesites. A nice dinner out and maybe an overnight at a hotel. Some shopping. Stuff we hadn’t done for a while (and in the case of the rural homesites, have never done). She was mightily pleased at the suggestion, told all her friends and employers about it in a “Damn, can you believe I’m actually gonna get away from laundry and housecleaning for a weekend” tone of voice. Told them frequently and with great joy. Talked it up all week with me. “I don’t care where we go. Surprise me, okay?”

Now in the deep dark recesses of the brotherhood of local contractors, a conspiracy was a-brewing. A commercial kitchen at an outpost slated to entertain the trendy was rapidly approaching a schedule that required its walls to be finished and its tiled floor to be done. Lurching irretrievably toward a goal, one of those gotta-get-it-done sort of affairs decided by the powers that be in the construction world. I tend to play nice with those folks, they do have a tendency to give me work. Work which translates into money and well, I do have a company to run. A company made smaller by the departure of my Corporate Partner in recent weeks.

But it wasn’t until Friday morning that the call came in. “Outfoxed? We’ve got a situation here at this kitchen. Got to get the plastic paneling on the walls toot suite. This very weekend, in fact. Helluva mess. Can you come?”

I hadn’t even priced the job. Didn’t have a contract on it. But I found out just how serious they were when I faxxed up a (bloated) figure and they signed off on it and sent it right back. Uh oh. Time to enter into the delicate stage of wife negotiation.

“Um, hey there dear. You’ll never guess what just happened . . .”

“Let’s just see. You got a call to work this weekend, right? So our little jaunt out of town just got derailed.” God I hate when she does that. But never let it be said that I can’t put topspin on the ball when it leaves my racket.

“Depends on how you look at it. It IS out of town. And it IS in Williamsburg with all those cute little shops and restaurants, and hotels . . .”

“Want a helper?”, she asked brightly, and without the slightest delay.

My wife has rarely been on a jobsite with me. I know her to be a willing and able person, hardworking when necessary, but plunging into my world is something I try to shield her from. I’ve said it before, any romantic notions of carpenters working in a happy little sawdust filled environment, neatly tapping nails into wood and whisking curls of wood shaving from a sharp plane are usually poofed away quickly when kneeling on a filthy floor with sweat running into your eyes and glue hardening on calloused hands. It isn’t a place for the meek, or the easily offended. Or for the office worker in general.

But on the other hand, I had promised.

“Okay,” I said. “But wear your worst pair of jeans. It’s gonna be ugly.”

She trotted off to pack a suitcase and I know what she was thinking. “Just how bad can it be? And besides, a night in a hotel! Dinner and shopping! Laundry boycott! Yeah!”

We pulled into the joint at the crack of a very humid dawn on Saturday. Julio, Juan and Pedro had the boom box set to a sound level roughly emulating a jetliner on takeoff, proudly announcing their heritage with a sprightly combination of Mexican polka, salsa and lost love music as they bounced around half finished walls and flung drywall mud with great abandon. I decided to be chipper about it. “See honey? They’ve set up a fiesta just for us. Isn’t this great? Just don‘t step in that . . . never mind.”

She was game, I’ll give her that. I’m usually a pretty quiet fellow around the house but when employed on the battlefield things are a bit different. Having to scream talk loudly above the Monterrey-mix CD from hell didn’t help. Having a floor caked in grease and dirt didn’t either. Getting panel adhesive all over her hands (“It’s gonna happen honey, it washes off, trust me”) and rubbing a hole in her knees wasn’t the best of things. But the heat.

Did I mention it was humid? By the time the sun got to full bore at 10 in the morning, the windowless kitchen turned into a furnace. My ball cap was a soaked rag that eventually got tossed in a corner, my t-shirt a lively potential entry for a fraternity nipple showing contest and even the pants were starting to pool up. Ally wasn’t too far behind me, either. The saw was humming and the chips were flying, settling onto wet forearms and making a nice paste of goo, hands gummed with adhesive from errant trowels, the air heavy with fiberglass shrouds and drywall dust.

The mind numbs when you get into that stage. Measure the panel, cut, smear on the glue, heft into place, repeat. Not brain surgery, but it has its tricks. And the biggest trick of all is to keep at it, cover the nasty ol’ drywall up with clean white plastic and trim it off with a few expertly cut mouldings. Floor to ceiling, corner to corner.

The labor foreman stopped by, wiped a big hand across a sweating brow and was amazed. “Damn, looks good in here. I saw a gang of four grown men do eight sheets in a day once. Hell you’ve got that much up already. Just you and, uh, your lady friend here?”

“Yep. Just me and the lady friend. She’s doing pretty good though.”

I’ll hand it to him, he didn’t leer too much. But he and I both knew that seeing a female on one of these jobs, particularly one weighing less than 130, was a rare event. Even the Mexicans seemed taken aback. I speak damn little Spanish but I know the international nudge in ribs sign pretty well.

“I’ll say. Y’all just let me know if you need anything. Oh, and the floor contractor is here, and he’s pissed.”

I was non-plussed. Floor contractors bother me not. And it so happened I‘d been on jobs with this particular floor man, and already knew that he was a special sort of dick anyway. “So? What‘s his problem?”

“Well, seems he was told he could get in here and finish this floor today. Some kinda scheduling foul up. Isn’t too happy with you right now.”

“Breaks my heart. Send him in here if you want. I’ll learn ‘em”, with just a brush of fingers along the 16 oz. hammer, the little tell-tale quick draw sign.

The foreman giggled. “Naw, you’re already set up. I don’t think he’s gonna fool with you today. Just thought I’d let you know.”

“Well, I appreciate it.” And I turned back to the mess. “Never seen it to fail. Room will stand empty for six weeks and as soon as the carpenter shows up, everybody wants in. Then they get weird when I start trampling them underfoot.” It’s true, finish trades are forever in each others way. But it’s also true that the rule of first come, first served is observed with almost religious devotion. I happened to be there first, and was on a roll.

It was a long and unbelievably uncomfortable day, and nobody was happier than Ally when I hung the 20th sheet at 4 pm and remarked, “That’s it, enough. Pack it up for the day. We ought to finish this room easy tomorrow at this pace.” She backed up the mighty Ford (should be noted that not every helper gets that honor), we schlepped tools and turned out the lights.

The hotel was just down the road, a lofty vision of cold showers and large beds beckoning. Nothing ever feels quite like that first bite of water on sweaty flesh, or that frosty nip of a Coors Lite from deep within the ice of an old cooler. Or the slipping on of sandals and shorts after a day of steel toes and khakis.

“Feeling civilized again?” I grinned at her. “How about taking a spin and finding the best gin and tonic in town? The one with the crab hanging from the ceiling and the tin roof and all?” I was very much in the mood, that out-here-in-the-fields feeling of working out of town and ready for dinner mood.

“I’m up for it. Let’s go, partner.”

We did indeed find the best in town, and ate like a pair of trenchermen with a spread of butterfly shrimp and fries and a lobster tail to die for. Rum with the parrot on the bottle. A salad so crisp it made your teeth ache. A cool breeze from a nattering fan above and a roughsawn wood décor to eyeball. Perfect.

“You know, I think I could’ve eaten just about anything but that was just . . . super“, she said with a smile, laying her hand on my arm. “Now, let’s go shoppin’.”

I couldn’t say no. Besides, the lobster in my gut was talking to my brain and the two of them were exchanging high fives all the way to the Outlet Mall. Men with lobster in gut make very good shoppers, she was pleased to note.

We woke up to another sultry sky, another promise of a 115 degree heat index, and I stretched hugely. “Let’s go kick this thing in the ass, sweetie. I’m feeling particularly healthy this morning. Breakfast?”

“Coffee. Give me coffee right this very instant.” Ally was moving around slowly, with a grimace. I wouldn’t say she was crippled, exactly. But sometimes you have to humor your helpers. Motivate a little.

“Feeling a little squeaky this morning, are we? Not to worry, coffee coming right up. Soon as you get your work boots on,” and she moaned that little moan that made me know she was feeling the burn of carpenter’s helper syndrome. I’ve had a touch of it myself at times.

We rumbled up to the site and started to reverse the process of the day before, tools out and the trek into the kitchen area. Pulling a few more sheets of plastic from the pile as a dozen Mexicans stared sleepily from their perch near the door and the radio started up a Sunday morning serenade.

I was just about to hook up and plug in when I noticed Ally having an animated conversation with a Julio (or was it a Juan) over by the doorway, her face perplexed as she tried to make out what he was saying, and eventually pointing toward me with a shrug.

“What’s up there, amigo?” I called.

“No, no. We work today. We work for you today. La cantina, por favor.”

“You’re gonna work for me? I don’t think so, sport.”

“No! No no! You must go, we must work . . . together! We must grout the floor!”

We were back to the 'who gets in the room first' law. Although, having worked the room the day before, I was theoretically entitled to the room. Law of the land, don’t you know. But one thing about imported labor, they don’t always know the law of the land, much less construction history down here in the South. “You must get out, I’ll be fired!” he pleaded.

Huh. Well no little tile setter was gonna boot ME out of a room . . .

Of course, that was when I looked behind me to see ten more little tile setters. And they looked rather grim, for a Sunday morning and all. Couple of them even had hammers, and they were flipping them around in that casual sort of way.

“Senor, please. My boss say he was to be in this room yesterday,” Julio said. “We must do this, you must go.” He was all of 5 feet tall, likely the only one of his gang to speak English at all, and he was trying almighty hard to convey his concerns. He wasn’t the one who bothered me, either. I figured that, in a pinch, I could’ve whacked a couple of ‘em with the straight claw before I got swarmed.

But then, I had a lady present. A very attentive one at that.

“Hokey dokey,” and I actually smiled and grasped Julio’s hand. “Y’all go ahead. I’ll be back another day.” And to his credit, he jabbered at the crew and they instantly sprang to help pack my tools out in the Latin version of the bum’s rush. But as fast as they moved, Ally moved even faster. I swear, you’d think she wanted to get off that jobsite or something. I don’t think I so much as lifted a finger to load that truck.

The blast of salsa music was fading and Julio lifted a cheery wave to us as the Ford lurched down the gravel drive. Ally popped me a cold one without prompting and remarked, “Well, guess I’ll be doing laundry today after all. Shame you couldn’t get in there and finish.”

“Yeah, this is a real problem. Those guys are gonna have that room shut down for days with all that grouting and drying time. Gonna put a helluva crimp in somebody’s schedule, and . . .”

She wasn’t listening. She had a smile on, and a face turned toward the window, and if I didn’t know any better I could swear she was humming a tune as she adjusted the a/c louver and directed the flow up just a little. The cold air filled the cab quickly.

It was a damn humid day, and it surely felt good.

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