Homeownership is presented as a schizophrenic dream, and I remain surprised that grown people do not speak of the irony. It is physical proof of one’s judicious work and sensibility, of delayed gratification, of attainment of the right kind of class. Purchase of even the most modest home is an almost transcendental act that makes one at most prudent, forward-looking, patriotic, and spiritual. Or was, until recently, when people realized that homes were just one more physical object subject to the laws of thermodynamics, and that even the new ones are running down. Kids today are walking away from college, hanging out in their bedrooms, working slum jobs and playing in bands. What’s the point of going to college for a questionable degree that leads to no job for a lifetime of debt? they want to know. It’s a wise question their parents still refuse to ask about owning a house.
I am prudent, which in buying a house is a nice way of saying cheap, which should not be confused with shoddy. I bought a place because the house payment would be as much as rent, especially given rent’s universal increase given all those walking away (or tossed out of) the homes they formerly owned. I had to provide for books, a few bits of furniture, and a cat with no particular tastes. I didn’t need granite countertops or central heat or a multitude of bathrooms. That somebody else went broke and sold the place for a West Coast song is serendipity that I tripped over.
Maintenance is one of those things people grouse about, and deservedly so, though for me this is more from time consumed and less so money. (Rest assured spending is carefully, sometimes ruefully, watched too.) In general, I can fix and maintain things myself; my ex and I did all the remodeling work on our previous houses and tended to all but the most technical or specialized work ourselves. Of course it doesn’t pay to have a licensed, bonded and insured professional come out for every little thing–it would be ruinous! With the interwebs there is no excuse. Everything else is found in a hardware store.
Still, like the lawn, there are some things I resent. Our single-family house had a large deck, and taking care of it and sealing it took several days. Subsequent years proved the 5-year stain guarantee worthless and every year the cleaning, scrubbing, painting. Some combination of it being outside work (where the lawn is) and my mother’s annual annoying quest to paint the interior in yet another coat of indistinguishable white make taking care of decks the worst kind of work.
So of course the new place, with its tiny bit of side yard, also has a fence. The builder cheaped out on its construction, the guys across the street tell me, their fence freshly stained a pleasing redwood color. Wood’s already aging, greying, cracking. Oughta seal it.
Finally beyond Ikea trips and long, pained excursions to the hardware store, I would like it to be done. I don’t want to weed or buy bark or prune two whole trees, as much as I ended up finding worth and quiet in that work. I do not want to return to the Saturdays of childhood, spent up early with Dad to get to Payless Cashways to get the stuff to do the work before the weekend ran out. The task is always longer, more expensive, more drawn out with errors and Dad’s swearing and Mom’s meddling and carping, than the weekend is long. I had homework to do but I am out in the sun with my father and shovels and hammers and I can’t remember what, fretting about Monday’s multiplication test while I am digging a hole.
Now I am 41 and my precious free time, still depleted from such youthful wastage, should no longer be required to care for the place that’s supposed to shelter me. But here it is, apparent with the neighbors’ red stain. Ignoring it will only cost more in the future: the cheap person spends the most. So another trip to the hardware megastore, another half-hour spent untangling the overwhelming options. I get a jug of cleaner stuff, a four-inch brush, a gallon of some eco-friendlier oil stain, and a quart of less-hazardous paint thinner. I could save two bucks on the cheaper traditional petrochemical stuff, but like organic food, I’m well off enough to afford health.
The stuff sits for a couple weeks owing to rain, but then the sun comes out. I get the dollar-store bucket I got in October, the new hose still coiled tight from my first coupon-induced Lowe’s trip, some old brushes, and squint at instructions so small I could have barely read as a tween.
I don’t think to take pictures of the before state. This is the closest, with the stain already halfway on:
Cleaning is pure work. The cleaner is diluted and sprayed on, then scrubbed with the deck brush left over from our first house. Wood foams and grey-black glop seeps out of the wood as I imagine my grandfather stressing put your back into it. I hate it: the pointless task I’ll have to redo every year, the expense, the time. Why did the builder cheap out with such materials? I’m ending up the one that pays the most, not him.
Leverage doesn’t work in the vertical. Getting any bite into the wood is a struggle for the bottom half of the boards. The painted panel above is stained at the bottom, the boards cut too long and only a few millimeters above the ground. Algae is in there and I don’t want to buy something else, read more instructions, buy more tools, wait. I spray more stuff and scrub harder, repeatedly.
Summers my mother made lists for me of onerous yet petty chores she didn’t want to spend time on. Worst was clean brass, meaning all the brass knicknacks and platters and other Pier One junk store clutter on every flat surface. It took cans of Brasso and piles of rags to get anything close to shining, the rags turning black as shoe polish. I sat in the garage to hide from the heat, rubbing and buffing and working Brasso’s strange fine liquid grit into my hands. The metal warmed as it was scoured, over and over, trying to get all the black off. The Brasso reduced it but there was always more, more to wipe away, more to coax out with more Brasso.
I had so many more important things to do. I was starting to write as as much frightened and confused as inspired by successful writer advice, mostly about writing all the time. Polishing brass is not writing. Polishing brass is not preparing for the SAT, or whatever else I was worried about. Blind summer sun hammered down and all I had was brass that was never all the way clean.
Thirty years later I am on a different coast, in a different life, staring down another dirty inanimate object that will just get dirty again, need more care again. Black glop flies on to my sleeves. Wind sometimes catches sprayed cleaner and blows it in my face. I decide the outside panels facing the street are enough, get the hose, spray the black glop off. Cleaned boards emerge, glowing faded tan. The difference is startling.
This is Friday, with two full days of sun until Sunday, when I expect it to be dry enough to stain, or seal, or whatever the stuff in the can is. The can talks about waiting two weeks for boards to dry, but it’s Seattle–there won’t be two weeks until August, and I’m not scrubbing again. On Sunday the sun is out, the wind less, the boards as dry as wood seems to get this side of the mountains. I shake the can, get the brush, pry the lid off, and start.
It’s more yellow than I thought. It must darken or redden when applied, to match the cedar color of the neighbor’s can. It’s thin as water and runs from the brush, but I get a slat painted, another slat, dipping constantly. It’s very yellow, but a pleasing, sullied yellow. It doesn’t match the neighbors, but the can is open and there’s no stopping.
The work is not like the scrubbing but is still work: repetitive, manual, skill-less. Brilliant sun courses down the street behind me, but the fence will be in the house’s north-face shadow until the solstice, I think. The brush slap-grinds against the bare boards.
Traffic roars up and down the street, people walk by, bikers struggle up or whiz down the hill, and I paint six inches at a time. The wood is thirsty, or ravenous. The repetition, the manual movement, is easy. I don’t slow down but the brush moves with more ease. Something is happening: I am realizing time is different now. Interminable work that had no end to a twelve- or thirteen-year-old is moving right along. Two hours to do four fence panels does seem long, but no that long, to an adult. As an adult there is some satisfaction in seeing the can imperceptibly empty itself, the fence go from baked nakedness to tended. Somebody lives here, somebody who can take care of a fence.
People have been telling me I am too hard on myself. I need to relax, they say. It has occurred to me, at various points, that the determined push to move ahead, stay current, be finished, has been counterproductive.
I remember putting the Ikea shelves together, stopping, slowing down to be with it. By the middle fence panel I am in the sun and grass and freshly laid bark with the brush hushing up and down as the fence turns dirty yellow. It’s all right, it’s working out. Sidewalk people do not say anything but I see them looking, and a couple pulls in the driveway and a woman points and says something I can’t hear.
Brushing is a smooth sound as much as a motion, like music, persisting long after the sound is gone. The wind blows and I hear kids playing and stereos and I am an American guy painting his fence, but not as petulant Tom anxious for escape from it. I wonder what Huck Finn would be like had he grown up, gotten away from his nowhere town, thought a good while about all he’d seen on that raft. Were he to paint a fence then, I think, it would be a serious but carefree doing.
The fence is done:
Cleaning the brush in the enviro-happy paint thinner, the low-odor stain curdles into pudding and washes down the drain. I remember all the brushes my parents kept in coffee cans, occasionally pouring more thinner over them and sloshing them around. They never got clean, run through with paint soup and hard flakes, most drying out into a hardened mass that was still kept on garage shelves. That fate does not await this cheap Chinese-made brush, even if it was intended. The sun streams in and I use plenty of thinner to make the brush as clean and supple as the new brush it is. This is also a job worth doing, manual and plain, work done by people who do real work, and are earnest.
It rained that night but there was enough sun and wind that the wood was dry, and the water beads on the top rail. The fence glows dirty yellow now, buffed and clean (at least on the side everybody sees), like all that brass I polished and polished. I feel calm about it, remembering these two opposites. Even in the here and now we are a little somewhere else.