by Michael Farris Smith
We stood together and looked at the framed wall. The studs weren’t always equal lengths apart and I’d missed the chalk line on the ceiling and the wall bowed out in the middle. But the doorway was square and I was running a straight line along the floor. The wall was the beginning of turning an upstairs bedroom into a bathroom and a small study and it was the most involved project yet in the process of the renovation of our 130-year old Victorian.
“It’s fubar,” he said. His hands were on his hips and long hair fell out from under a dingy Braves hat. “You know what fubar means, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I know what fubar means. It’s not perfect but it ain’t fubar,” I said and I was more than irritated with this guy. He had been promising for almost two months that he was going to be there tomorrow. So I got tired of waiting and went to work and then he appeared the day after I had the wall up.
He stepped through the doorway and moved across the 12-inch beams I’d set to raise the floor for the plumbing to run underneath. Then he looked into the closet that was eventually being made into a walk-in shower. It had been gutted to studs and the floor ripped up and thrown from the second story window in small pieces.
With each step I’d taken to get this thing moving, he saw his money flaking away.
“I can get on over here Monday probably and get on it. Don’t do nothing else,” he said.
I kinda laughed. “Nope,” I said.
“First thing I’ll do is get that wall straight.”
“Just get the hell outta here.”
He said something else and I said something else but all that mattered was he was out of my house in about the next sixty seconds. I followed him down the stairs and out the door and when he went to get in his truck I heard him yell something and then he was gone.
I trudged back up the stairs and into the room. I looked at the wall. Looked around at the scraps of two by fours and sawdust and the miter saw and nail gun and a couple of empty beer cans, and I was pretty sure this was how it was always going to look.
My wife, my two-year old, and I had been back in Mississippi for about a year and taken on this monster project. Three thousand square feet, two full floors, rotted floors and subfloors from endless drips in bathrooms and kitchen and laundry room. Gaps in windows and along floorboards that kept the winter wind blowing through. Bad roof and mouse holes and ugly linoleum stuck down with tar. It wasn’t my first renovation project, but it was by far the biggest and baddest.
We had been excited about coming back to our home state after being first in France for a little while, and then in east Alabama for several years. As hard as I had tried to run away from Mississippi in my younger years, it had become the place we both now wanted to be.
We made the move in July, got unpacked and went to work on the house, but then spent the autumn months back and forth to Houston where my father-in-law fought like hell to survive both cancer and the intense treatments to kill it. He had licked it once already, but it came back with vehemence, and this time it took him away from us and we said good-bye on a sun-filled day in late October.
A month after my father-in-law passed away, my dog Black got out of the backyard after I accidentally left the gate cracked open late one night, and he disappeared. He was my dog of 12 years, a lab-golden retriever mix, and we had been bachelors together and we had sat together on the back porch of my first, very small house and he had loved my wife and then loved my first daughter. He was the best damn dog, but because of my negligence he had gotten out and vanished and I never saw him again.
At the same time, I was finding out that the job I had accepted which brought us to Mississippi was turning out not to be the same job I had discussed on my job interview back in March. And about once a week, I was getting a rejection note from an agent or editor that essentially repeated the same thing over and over – we love this novella but there is no way our publisher will publish a novella from a first-time author. It’s not you, it’s us.
Everything was out of my control.
I was hurting, and I know that Sabrea was hurting. We were frustrated and we both wondered if we had done the right thing by moving back to Mississippi. There seemed to be anxiety all around us, and though some of that anxiety would have come no matter where we were, some of it wouldn’t have. We were in a new town and didn’t have any real friends as of yet and in less than a year we were ready to make a run for it and begin again somewhere new.
Maybe that’s why for the next six months we threw ourselves so much into the house, because it was something tangible. We could put our hands on it. Hold it, feel it, see it. I could pick up a crowbar or a paint roller and alter the way it looked. I could make it like I wanted to make it. And whether I worked for an hour or twelve hours, when I was done, I could see a result.
That upstairs bathroom wasn’t going to wait any longer. I had never built a wall, but I was going to build it. I had never built a raised floor, but I was going to. I had never built a shower or tiled a shower wall and floor but to hell with it, here we go. And I damn sure wasn’t going to sit around and wait on anyone’s help for another minute.
After the guy yelled whatever he yelled and then cranked his truck and squealed away from the curb, after I climbed the stairs and stood there for I don’t know how long, staring at the fragments of this thing I had begun, after I fought off the despair, after I took a few breathes and tried to figure out what to do next, I picked up a rubber mallet and slid the ladder into place. I climbed up and banged the studs until the top of the wall lined up with the bottom. I measured, checked the level. It was okay.
And then, like we all have to do, I kept going.
Michael Farris Smith moved to Columbus, Mississippi, with his family in the summer of 2007. His home renovation took three years but is finally complete. His first novel, Rivers, was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Book Riot, Hudson Books, The Capital Times and Columbus Dispatch. He is currently working on his second novel. Read our book review and interview with him from last September here.