I dig another nailhead out of the old siding with the cat’s-paw, slip a crowbar around it, and then draw the 16d sinker out. The squawk of the nail letting go jangles my nerves. If an unwelcome memory wanted to announce itself with a noise, the cry of a rusty nail would do the job.
“Elliot, hand me my hammer.”
He fetches the tool, then sits in the corner jingling a coffee can full of bent nails.
We’re detaching the eight-foot-square lean-to room I once cobbled onto the side of the shop. We’re planning to jack the room up, slide some skids under it, and tow it with the pickup to its new home next to Elliot’s swing set. After I add a miniature porch and a mattress-sized loft, it will become his playhouse, a present for his sixth birthday. My wife, Kapa, plans to sew him some curtains and help Elliot paint a mural on the walls. But first all the hardware that holds the room to its past use has to be carefully removed.
“Can I pull a nail?” Elliot asks.
“Sure. Let’s try this smaller nail. Here, take the cat’s-paw. . . .”
“Why is it called a cat’s-paw?”
“Well, see how the end curls under like a cat’s paw? And it claws out nails.”
“I get it.”
“Hold it at an angle — like this — against the wood, so the sharp edge of the paw will dig in under the nailhead; then tap the back of the paw with your hammer. Here, try it.”
There’s a knack to it, of course, managing two tools with the proper tension. Once, twice, the cat’s-paw slides off, but on the third try Elliot gets the edge started right, and the tool buries itself neatly in the wood and curls under the head. He levers out the nail.
“I did it!” he says, inspecting his trophy. “Can I keep this nail?”
He shrugs. “Just to show I could do it.”
A week later, it’s early May, and the apple trees are blooming in the orchard. Instead of the flowers’ fragrance, though, there’s a burnt-rubber odor in the air, from the pickup’s toasted clutch. Towing the clubhouse — Elliot insists we call it a clubhouse, rather than a playhouse — was almost more than the Toyota could handle. The wheels spun, the clutch slipped, Elliot and Kapa yelled encouragement, and finally, grudgingly, the old room moved. Now it sits beside its new foundation, a hexagram of four-by-six floor joists on concrete pier blocks, awaiting the next step.
Some of our friends are supposed to stop by at two o’clock and help us lift the clubhouse onto its foundation. I’ve bolted on a pair of handles — twelve-foot-long two-by-fours, one on each side of the room — for us all to grab on to. Right on time Russell shows up, then Joan, Gregg, Joe, Sharon, and Larry, several of them with a child or two in tow.
This job could take five minutes, or it may not work at all — the room may be just too heavy. We line up along the handles like pallbearers beside a coffin, I count three, and we hoist the clumsy old room straight up, shuffle forward, slide it onto the new floor joists, and, voilà, a clubhouse. The kids cheer, then jostle inside, stomping on the floor, screaming at the top of their lungs as if performing some kind of shock-cleaning, scouring ghosts out of the corners.
It’s a month later, mid-June. School’s out and Elliot’s home all day, but he has shown little interest in his clubhouse. Occasionally he and his playmates will crayon elaborate membership cards at the kitchen table, vote for officers, and run to the clubhouse. But, a few minutes later, they’re back outside again, climbing the willow, or kicking the soccer ball, or flipping the canoe upright in the grass and paddling off on another fantasy. I think Elliot likes having the clubhouse, but he doesn’t want to use it. Maybe in another few years, when he needs a little more distance from Kapa and me.
I keep wanting things for Elliot that he doesn’t want yet, and may never want. Last year, it was a swing set. The year before that, roller skates. This year, the clubhouse, with its nifty kid-sized door, two windows that really open, even a little front porch. But I can see now that it just doesn’t captivate him the way it does me. The other day he said he wanted to put a shelf by the window. I praised his simple design and helped him select a board, saw it to length, attach a pair of brackets, and screw the brackets to the wall. It came out pretty well, but the only prize possession he’s placed on it so far is the bent nail. Meanwhile, I’ve begun to sort through the old memories still clinging to the room and have realized that some of them are stories I need to pass on to Elliot.
It may not be necessary to attach a story to a place. It may be that stories have plenty of body themselves. But this particular story is housed in this clubhouse in our backyard. Maybe it will still be there someday when Elliot really needs it.
Elliot’s clubhouse was originally my writing shack. I knocked it together one weekend soon after Kapa moved in with me. I called it the Hovel, my hideaway, and I spent a couple of hours there every day. It was furnished with a card table, a straight-backed chair I’d bought from a convent, a little space heater, and an ashtray. I went there to write, to smoke, to drink, to be alone.
These days I prefer to write in the very early morning, before Kapa and Elliot are awake, with a cup of strong coffee coaxing me over the threshold between dream and thought. I like thresholds, in-between places, the moments when reality shifts and creaks, when veins of molten eternity gush into the sedimentary layers of time. I like solid prose that all of a sudden goes weird-flavored and musical, because in those morning hours at my desk, that’s how life tastes and sounds.
When I was still a bachelor, my favorite threshold was early evening. I worked all day as a gardener, and after eight hours of manual labor had siphoned away my rationality, reduced me to a dumb animal — abrutissement, the French call it — I’d get a six-pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes, and I’d write. The nicotine would constrict my blood vessels, the sugars in the beer would perk up my slack body, the alcohol would induce a dreamy fluidity, and I’d get in a good hour or two of happy scribbling before sagging into stale stupidity.
But when Kapa moved into the house with me, it cramped my evening ritual. She couldn’t abide the smoke, or the sight of me turning every night from an alert human being into a grinning effigy. So I built the Hovel, where I could carry on my career unobserved. Meanwhile, alone in the house, stiff-armed by my habit, Kapa fumed.
My father was such a sweet drunk. At neighborhood cocktail parties, at holiday gatherings, or on long, lazy Saturday afternoons, he swizzled old-fashioneds or gin-and-tonics, becoming first playful and giddy, then mushy and remote, then stumbling and defensive, then slurrily contrite. There must have been late-night confrontations when my mother tried to reason with him, plead with him, shame him. I can imagine her, in desperation, pummeling my father with all sorts of names — Drunkard! Coward! Selfish bastard! — but I can only hear my father whimper in response. Did he try to appease her, or did he bully her? I can’t imagine him striking her, can’t even picture him lambasting her with profanity, but I know that in the grip of his drug he may have become unrecognizable to me. Before I was ten, my father was gone, moved away to California, where his brother had found him a job.
There may have been some horrible scenes, and I may have overheard a few of them, but I don’t remember. I don’t remember much at all from those years — far less, it seems, than my friends remember of their childhoods. I can picture the faces of my schoolmates, but can’t recall many names. My poor memory is aggravated, I suspect, by how often we moved when I was a child. After my mother and father split up, my mother went to work managing cafeterias at small colleges in Ohio and Illinois. She was good at this, so she got promoted and transferred to a new job every year. From third grade through high school, I attended twelve different schools. I had to work at learning new names, not remembering old ones. I would never see those friends again anyway, and remembering them only made me feel miserable.
Elliot wants to know what the spirit level is for.
“The level shows us if our studs are standing vertical, or ‘plumb,’ ” I explain.
“Are they?” he asks.
“Well, let’s see. Hold it this way — plumb tube up — along this stud. See the two lines on the tube? Is the bubble exactly between the lines?”
“So this stud is out of plumb; it’s not vertical, not straight up and down.”
“Why isn’t it plumb? Will it hurt anything?”
Oh, Elliot, you ask such good questions. When I nailed up this wall, I think I knew, hoped, that my drinking days were numbered. When Kapa moved into the house with me, I could feel a gathering of momentum toward family and domesticity, and though I was scared of it — scared of my bad habits being exposed, scared of losing my solitude, scared of being responsible for anyone but myself — I wanted a chance to be a husband and a father.
The Hovel was my last stand as a hermit. While carpentering the main house, I worked carefully, made sure the studs were plumb and the floor joists level. But I intended the Hovel to be out of square, free of geometry, indifferent to gravity. That’s how I wanted to write, and that’s the kind of place I wanted to write in — or so I told myself every evening with my pens and notebooks, my cigarettes and six-pack. The Hovel represented both stoical solitude and heedless self-indulgence. It was like a medicine cabinet in which I was doctor, patient, and disease. I could take off my masks in the Hovel, I imagined, and be raw me.
I was a small-time addict, to be honest. I never got really ugly, seldom staggered, only occasionally missed work. But tethered to the short leash of my habit, I was ugly enough. I would come home from work with a half case and a pack of cigarettes and, avoiding, if possible, any engagement with Kapa, head for the Hovel to write. I really did fill pages, eked out a meager harvest of poems. But while the quality and quantity of my writing rose and fell, my consumption of alcohol crept upward with a terrible linearity.
My father was not a particularly handy guy. I don’t recall him doing many home-repair or carpentry projects. He liked to grow a few tomato plants in whiskey barrels, and he draped the cherry tree in the backyard with lengths and lengths of garden hose, believing the robins and starlings would mistake the hoses for snakes.
The only time I remember him using a hammer was one Fourth of July when I was four or five: Dad had bought two huge shopping bags full of fireworks and invited friends over for a barbecue. He pulled out a pinwheel, a firework you nailed to a post or a tree, where it would spin, shoot sparks, and whistle. My father didn’t even set down his cocktail to nail the pinwheel to the elm tree, but held both glass and firework in one hand while he hammered with the other. When he lit it, the pinwheel sparked and whirled once, then leaped from the tree directly into one of the paper bags full of fireworks. Instantly, Roman candles and blister rockets and Chinese pagodas blasted in every direction. Kids and adults shouted and dove behind bushes. My father, drink still in hand, turned on the garden hose and doused his hundred-dollar show.
So it’s plain that my interests in carpentry and gardening were not inherited from my father. Two things that I clearly did get from him were my alcoholism and my love of writing.
In 1933, long before I was born, Farrar & Rinehart published my father’s first and only novel, Cotton Cavalier. The book won a prestigious national prize and was serialized in Campus Humor magazine. The protagonist of Cotton Cavalier is a college student named Peter. When the school’s progressive biology teacher is fired for teaching evolutionary theory, Peter and his friends come to the teacher’s defense. But then one of Peter’s girlfriends accuses a Negro of raping her, and Peter and his buddies lynch the innocent man. Though Cotton Cavalier is dated now, caught up in the manners and rituals of small-town college students, the book’s themes were courageous in the Depression-era South.
Some of the best writing in the novel is about drinking. After Peter helps with the lynching, he goes on a long, sustained binge:
By the trial and error method, Peter arrived at what to him was the golden mean of intoxication. He stayed just drunk enough to be agreeably muddled in his thinking. He never quite reached the state that is noticeable to others. Liquor as a sedative, however, had its disadvantages. He had to increase the doses little by little, had to be satisfied with a numbing effect instead of the former glow.
The photo on the dust jacket shows my father in a dark suit and tie, white handkerchief in his coat pocket, a long-stemmed pipe poised in his hand. His high forehead makes him appear brainy, and his lips are full and sensuous. I suspect that he himself wrote the biographical sketch that accompanies the photo: “John Thomas Goodrich was born in Fayetteville, Tennessee, just twenty-six years ago. He matriculated at Bryson College, when it was still practicing the simple tyranny of the Old Testament. . . . Mr. Goodrich, as an expatriate Southerner, still thinks that fried chicken for breakfast is the nuts, and he’ll take corn likker in preference to gin any old day.”
A backsaw is a short, square-bladed finish saw, usually fitted into a miter box. The two-by-four I want Elliot to saw through is a heavier piece of lumber than a backsaw was designed to cut, but the backsaw’s shorter length will make it easier for him to steer, and the saw’s fine teeth, though slow, will be less likely to grab at the grain and bind the saw. By the time he has cut the board clear through, the blond hair on his forehead is sticky with sweat, and his forearms are plastered with sawdust. He shakes his tired right hand as if trying to flick off a bug.
“It’s not very straight,” he says wearily, “but I did it. Can I stop now?”
“No, not yet. I told you, if you want a loft in here, you have to help me build it.”
“Oh, all right.”
I have him measure off another length, pencil an arrowpoint at exactly 34 5⁄8 inches, hold his plastic try square tight to the long side, and scribe the perpendicular line. When he’s sawed halfway through, he starts to tire, so I relieve him. The wood is incredibly hard.
“Wow, I didn’t realize how dense this old, used lumber is,” I tell him. “This is really difficult, isn’t it?”
Elliot looks at me squint-eyed, tuck-chinned. “You mean, it’s hard for you, too?”
“You bet it is. It’s hard wood, hard work.”
Before nailing the loft together, we predrill the holes: I steady the electric drill in place, and Elliot reaches over my hands to pull the trigger. Next, with a few raps of his ten-ounce hammer, Elliot starts a sinker in each hole, and I drive the big nails home.
The summer between high school and college, I lived with my father in Fresno, California. It had been eight years since I had last seen him, in a hospital bed, sprouting the tubes and wires that were pumping him — slowly, tentatively — back from the brink of death. We’d traded letters over the years, so we knew enough about each other for small talk, but I was wary of him. He was white-haired and gaunt, his eyes bulged a little, and he wheezed with emphysema. But he was still very handsome, his courtly Tennessee manners more florid than ever.
The evening after my arrival I went with my father to one of his regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and sat sheepishly beside him as he introduced us.
“Hello, everyone, I’m Tom. I am an alcoholic. And this is my son.”
It was his sixth AA anniversary, and he gave a short, prepared speech; a confession, really. He talked about growing up in Tennessee, going to college, moving to Chicago — all biographical details I was already familiar with.
When he came to his career as a writer and the publication of his novel, he said, “Success was the worst thing that could have happened to me then. I became a big frog in a very little pond, and I couldn’t drink enough to put things into perspective.”
On the drive home, I asked him if he’d written any novels after Cotton Cavalier. The car slowed down a little. My father stared far out over the steering wheel.
“No,” he finally answered. “Only some fragments of bad ideas. I should never have written at all.”
His voice was quavery — with self-pity, I thought. He seemed to be speaking not to me, but to some vast other, and I didn’t like that.
Every morning in the last year before I quit drinking, I would start thinking about whether to get drunk that evening, and I’d come to the conclusion that that particular day would be a good one not to drink. But come five o’clock, I would drink. Every day. I filled my Hovel notebooks with more and more self-recriminations, less and less poetry.
Kapa and I fought relentlessly about whose turn it was to vacuum, to water the plants, to do the dishes — always avoiding the real issue. Finally, both of us confused and exhausted, Kapa moved out. We didn’t see each other for a year.
I was lucky, in a way, to have my father’s catastrophic example to sober me up. His disaster was my deliverance. Elliot has not had to suffer the confusion and self-doubt of growing up in a household with a boozer for a father — I took my last drink four years before he was born — but he may have inherited a susceptibility to alcoholism; he may have to suffer the disease itself. Knowing that I’ve given him a haunted house to play in, that every father becomes a ghost in his son’s closet, what more can I do than to teach him how to use some basic tools?
There’s a photograph of my father and me I’ve always loved but for many years have kept in a shoe box, because it depicts a closeness that, soon thereafter, vanished forever: I’m five or six, sitting on his lap in the big overstuffed chair by the fireplace in our living room, a storybook open in front of me. One of my father’s long arms is snugged around me while his other hand is pointing up and away, toward the far corner of the ceiling, embellishing the story. I’m riding his voice, peering after his gesture, my lips open a little in wonder, and my eyes wide — a look I’ve seen on Elliot’s face — eager to believe whatever he tells me.