robertisenberg

On the Home Front

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2009 at 11:37 pm

The bathroom renovation was supposed to take two days. A painless, 48-hour sprint to better bathing.

Four weeks later, I sit in the living room and listen to Harry, one of our renovation guys, murmur to himself upstairs.

“Maaah-velous, simply maaaa-velous,” he sings in a mock British accent. Then something crashes, and he mumbles, “Sliced my hand. No problem. Just sliced my hand.”

Harry’s cell-phone rings now and again, and he grumbles before answering it. The ring itself is a kind of magical tinkling noise. When Harry answers, he argues nasally with someone from work. “Do you know how many times I’ve been laid off? This has got to stop, man.”

I don’t like having Harry in my house. The last time he visited, Harry cited some vague “cracks” in the bathtub, which forced him to leave for the day. Somehow, three different Bathfitters reps had failed to notice this potential crisis. When we called his company to re-schedule, they said there was no possible way that these cracks should stop him from proceeding.

Harry arrived this morning, an hour-and-a-half late, and three weeks after our first appointment.

“I was watching the Pens game last night,” he said jovially, by way of explanation. “I was eating some food, and I didn’t even know I fell asleep. Next thing I knew, I was gettin’ a call from work, saying, ‘Where the hell are ya?’” He laughed breathily at this. “

He’s not the first to stagger the work-effort: Two handymen were recommended for moving the door a few feet farther out, so the bathroom feels less like a tomb. They promised that moving the door, and building a frame around it, would only take “a day.” Nearly a month later, they have skipped three appointments and re-scheduled two. Altogether, we have wasted nearly 20 hours on phone-calls and waiting for them to show up.

When Harry started working, I offered coffee.

“That’ll be good,” he said.

Funny, I thought. Most people say “thank you,” asshole.

Harry is a talker, and although silences make me anxious, Harry’s endless monologues are a rare kind of monotony. He’s mustached and sinewy, and I can picture him, in his youth, being a “scrapper.” He’s been accommodating enough – telling us when the water’s shut off, letting me pass to use the toilet – but every few minutes, there’s a new attempt to break his boredom – odd phrases that make no sense, strange humming: “The Adams Family” theme, ABBA, bits of classical music I know only from Warner Bros. cartoons.

A few hours ago, he whistled the theme to the “Muppet Show.”

In an effort to make nice, I went to the bottom of the staircase and called up. “Is that the theme to ‘The Muppet Show’?”

“I don’t think so,” he called back. “Wait, is it? Yeah, maybe it is. That there was a great show.”

He broke into another song, a trail of off-key melodies. I went back to work.

It’s strange enough having people in your house – or even letting people know where you live. It wasn’t long ago that every family listed its address and phone-number in the Yellow Page, which were free and delivered to every doorstep. Today, I can’t imagine telling strangers my home address, my phone number, or even my full name at first meeting. Even my Internet passwords are intensely encrypted, and my Facebook pictures are scrutinized for content (since I’ve “friended” several of my work-mates and superiors). Ever since we moved into this house, we’ve seen a parade of eccentric workers stumble inside. In an era of full-blown paranoia – of identity theft, serial killers, or simple burglary – the rift between skilled worker and home-owner is already pretty wide.

But there’s another layer of awkwardness: By hiring someone for home improvement, you also inherit their emotional baggage. They carry not only tool-boxes, but also loads of stress and disappointment, regrets and personal dramas. They carry the weight of funerals and pay-cuts and overdue bills. And they trudge this emotion all over your house, filling the air with vanquished sighs.

Harry comes downstairs and starts telling me a story – but he begins in what seems to be the middle of the story.

“…old lady getting ready for Thanksgiving, and she was not happy.”

Wait, what? Is he talking to me? Did I miss something?

“I’m sorry,” I say, “this is your… mother?

“Not happy at all,” Harry continues, as if I haven’t spoken. Then he stomps upstairs, annoyed that he can’t grip the sliding-door, whose installment will finish the project. “Just can’t hold onto it!” he wheezes. “Too much silicon on my hands! Gotta wash it off. I’m gonna get angry.”

Upstairs, trying to affix one connector to another, he curses, “God, I can’t stand this shit!”

It reminds me of living on Ophelia Street, back in my college years, when our broken-down building was being renovated around us. The landlord allowed us to stay – we had nowhere else to go – but we had to sleep on the floor and had no running water for the few first days (the renovation project was supposed to be finished when we first moved in; when we arrived with all our worldly possessions, only one bedroom, on the third floor, had been worked on – a layer of new carpet). My roommates and I awoke each morning to the whir of power-drills and scream of a table-saw.

One day, I woke to hear this worker named Butch hollering in the stairwell.

“FUCKING BITCH! GODDAMN HUSSY! WHY YOU GOTTA BE LIKE THAT? HUH? WALK BY ME LIKE YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW ME? WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT ABOUT? LIKE WE NEVER DID NOTHIN’ TOGETHER? LIKE YOU TOO GOOD FOR ME OR SOMETHING? WELL, FUCK YOU!

I walked to the edge of the staircase, wrapping my bathrobe belt and rubbing my eyes.

“Hey, Butch, you okay?”

Butch whirled around, dropping his hammer. “WHOA!” he screamed. “I didn’t even know you was up there! I was…”

Butch didn’t know what to say. He’d been caught talking – screaming – to himself, in a house he’d thought was empty. He looked down the staircase. “REGGIE? YOU STILL DOWN THERE?” He looked back at me, as if this explained the outburst. “He must’ve left.”

“No problem,” I said, and went to the bathroom, before remembering that the shower wasn’t installed yet.

It pained me that Butch – a friendly guy, by any measure – should harbor so much anger. But nobody living the house had offered to be his therapist, or even his friend. Instead we had to sidestep each other’s private lives, though we existed for weeks and months in the same three-story building. Yet another strangeness of American private lives – we pretend not to know about each other, even when we do.

Harry walks into the room, puts his arms akimbo in a dramatic fashion. “You been typing at that computer all day!” he exclaims. “Your eyeballs are gonna fall out!”

I smile dispassionately. Harry is nearly done, and there’s not much reason to humor him anymore. Soon we’ll part ways and probably never see each other again our lives. He’ll leave, knowing nothing about us, though he’s walked through my house and re-ordered our most intimate room. At most, we might be an anecdote one day. This jagoff sat on his couch and typed at his computer all day. Probably never did a day of work in his life.

And among all the other things, Harry will never know I was writing about him.

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  1. Yes. Let’s never run into “Harry” again.

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