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Saturday, Apr. 10, 2004
Days, long days. Standing in big buildings with a whirling saw or two, cramped with a heavy bag hung on hips and held with suspenders. A pile of lumber, big boards, and the saw. Big boards becoming smaller ones. Numbers, lists, plumb and level, repetition. I stand in the sawdust, I breathe sawdust, it attaches to me.

I have this sort of double helix trick when trimming out a big set of doors, entry doors usually. The kind with a transom, and a pair of sidelites and much ado about mullions and the caning in glass. The trick involves the fitting of the wood bar above the doors, the horizontal piece. It’s a wide board that separates the doors from the transom and jumps between the vertical casings, and today’s contestant topped out at just under 12 feet. Pretty big board. A two-man thing involving ladders or scaffold you would think. Why, just to measure the length is a two-man thing. ‘Cause, of course, if you take your metal tape measure and feed it out gradually by yourself you’ll find that it “breaks” at just about 11 feet. And then you curse.

I can hear Stu like he was standing right here. “Don’t forget to come get me when you set the transom bar, lad. You always try doing that yourself. No point in it. Gonna hurt yourself one day.” He’s been saying this for untold years, and I’ve yet to come get him.

So part of the trick is not to measure it at all. Oh, I know about what the length is. Within an eighth or so. I mean, after all, did I not just cut similar and associated extension jambs within the same door frame? So I prop the 1 x 8 on the saw, mash down with the left hand and grab the miter handle with the right and squeeze the trigger and the deed is done. I grab the resultant forty pounds of awkwardness at one end and hop on the little scaffold. Which is where the second part of the trick comes in. Notice that I’m holding the board at the end. Two feet above the floor. On a narrow scaffold plank that’s festooned with extra nails, a sacred level that I dare not kick off, somebody’s lunch bag and a pair of Stu’s “reading” glasses.

I hold the now wavering board and aim for the casing at the far side of the door, sighting in on a ridiculously small pencil mark as a target. I hit the mark, bend the board outward and jam my end into the casing near me. Fitting the horizontal between two verticals.

And there’s this sound.

It’s a kind of a “pop” or maybe a “whoosh” but you only hear it at certain times. When a wide, long wood board settles into its home with a sigh, and the joints are so tight there is little need for nails, the seams are not even seams at all, the grain is tight and the room smells of pine and sawdust. You stand on your little scaffold and fiddle with the wood, unnecessarily, you fiddle. You hold it and it soothes, it is crisp and clean, at right angles to its neighbor and the world. Maybe you draw a tiny sliver off with your knife, in a place no one will ever notice. Leaving a mark, a dimple of some kind. And there is traffic, there is thumping and banging and Stu in the next room singing a bawdy song, but the aura around you is quiet, the sawdust hanging heavy in the air on a sunny afternoon.

I breathe that sawdust, I linger in it and let it settle on my hat, on the sunglasses perched rakishly on the hat. I go to the next set of doors and do the same. Hour after hour I hear the “whoosh” and the “pop” and occasionally a “click”. The saw sings and nails fly like darts and thorns into softness of wood and you set them in a pattern of regularity, so that the painter will chuckle when he paints, and be glad of a job made easier for him.

I grab a broom at day’s end and sweep. Sweep the sawdust and many small droppings of wood in a pile, sweep to the middle of the room so that some unnamed and unseen elf will be glad to pick it up for me and take it all away. I take a handful of fuzzy sawdust and rub it between my hands, to leave the sweet smell there, and to make it a part of me.

It is what I do and sometimes it’s all I have, this wood, and the walls and floors I cover with it. I go to buildings and take wood to them and make a wholeness there, a smiling place to be seen and touched. I do this for years and years and the miles of wood stretch behind me, the rooms, the saws and the smooth leather of bags that hold familiar things.

And sometimes I’ll go back, when the time calls for it, and look at the wood, coated in paint or stain, and remember without remembering, the day. The smell, the sawdust. And the tiny missing sliver of wood right up there.

Where no one else can see.

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