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Man of the House by Chris Erskine

Backyard obsessions and the men who have them

September 11, 2003|Chris Erskine

There is blood on the ladder. I noticed it as I climbed its metal rungs, hot as bacon grease, to the edge of the roof, where I am painting wood so thirsty it virtually sucks the paint from the gallon can, bypassing the brush.

"Good, now I'm dying," I think to myself when I spot the blood. "Now I'll never finish the darn house."

Without obsession, there are no novels. There is no poetry, nor love all-encompassing. No marriage. No fine art. And without obsession, there are no backyard projects like this one, where the passion for finishing outweighs almost every other human need.

"Need anything?" my wife says, emerging from the house and its splendid air conditioning.

"A real painter," I say.

"You're bleeding," she says.

"It's just temporary," I say.

I am in my third weekend of painting the house, an enlightening experience in that it reminds me how fortunate I am not to have to do this all the time. And to appreciate the people who do. Every job makes you bleed in some way or another. But few quite so literally.

"Call me if you need anything?" my wife says, returning to the kids and the air conditioning.

"Like a transfusion?"

"Anything," she says.

"Later, I may need last rites," I say.

"Just yell," she says.

How I was wounded is unclear. It could've been a branch from the bougainvillea, which sits beneath the ladder with its thousand tiny bayonets. Or a roofing nail somewhere up in the eaves. Or the sharp edges of the extension ladder, which I have borrowed now for too long. Could be anything.

I don't even know where I am bleeding. But the west side of the house awaits me, and if I stop to mend myself, the afternoon sun will pounce upon my tortured canvas. My masterpiece will have to wait. You think Michelangelo took a break every time he fell off that stupid scaffold? Obsession.

"Hey, Dad," says the little girl, emerging from the house with her new haircut.

"Hey, what?"

"I can't stop running my fingers through my hair."

"Me neither."

"Need anything?" she asks.

"A cold beer and a thousand bucks," I say.

"OK," the little girl says and runs back inside.

Across town, my buddy Bruce is putting in tile. It gives me comfort that, in this suburb of hired help, Bruce is also sweating out a backyard project in the late-summer sun. Besides me, he may be the only other dad around without a golf club in his delicate, suburban hands.

"I've got most of the patio done," Bruce reports one day at soccer practice.

"I'm almost done painting," I tell him.

"If you ever need a good painter, I know a guy," Bruce says.

"So do I," I tell him.

"Who?"

"Me," I say.

Bruce is a dentist. He spends most of his days staring down a patient's pipe. It's dark in there. Tiny as a toddler's fist. The patient's tongue darts around like a mad oyster. So on weekends, Bruce seeks out the open spaces of his backyard.

When he's not tiling, he's adding a room. When he's not adding a room, he's putting in a barbecue. His regular work is cramped, dark and air-conditioned. His weekends are roomy and bright, with the breeze against his sunburned neck. That's the only way I can explain it.

For me, it's not much more complicated than that. I need the occasional physical buzz of a backyard project, of crawling around the biggest investment I'll probably ever own and making sure the attic vents are tight and the termites aren't eating the trusses. Best of all, I like climbing a ladder and looking down on my snooty neighbors.

"Why'd we pick the hottest time of the year?" Bruce asks one day as we compare calluses.

"Why not?"

Because October is cooler. Because April is too. Because almost any other month would have made more sense for our back-breaking projects than the one just passed. August. In Latin, it means "stay indoors and watch a ballgame."

Yet, out we've come in the last stages of summer, before soccer eats up most of our Saturdays and the NFL steals our Sunday afternoons.

There are eaves to paint and stairs to tile. After that, other obsessions await.

A cold beer, one of them. And the golden afternoons of fall.

*

Chris Erskine can be reached at chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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