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What'm I Building?

by pen

Warning: This work has been rated 16+.

*** Here's an unfinished story about Tom Waits, or actually his neighbour. Any Tom Waits fans here may know the What's He Building poem. Well, this story is a literary response to that poem. It's from the neighbour's persepective. I thought of it years ago, and it's always been one of my favourite story premises. But it's been years, and I've decided I simply don't want to write it. I just copy/pasted it raw from my iPad word processor. If anyone else wants to run with the premise, go to town. No rights reserved. ***

I remember the first time I saw him, my neighbour: that leering, peering creep. It was the dawn of the morning after the third day of the three day bender that began when I moved into the house on Robert Court. I heard the mailbox door creak open and shut, tearing into my hangover like the jaws of a jumbo excavator bucket. I opened my eyes with some effort, parched as they were from dehydration. Pink light and ache suffused my cranium. I smacked my pasty mouth and rose to gulp from the faucet for a full fifteen seconds before stepping across the room and crashing once again into bed.

To my consternation, I lay awake thinking of Margaret, thinking of Chuck, thinking of the car accident that had brought their beautiful lives to an end. My last thought before I abandoned my sleepless sleep-in was of the magazines that might now be in the mailbox.

From the loose pile of clothes next to my suitcase, I fetched my pyjamas and walked the carpeted stairs to the front door. Outside, the morning was glowing a paler, brighter pink now. The hinges of the mailbox screamed again as I opened it. There, in a white envelope made of some stretchy polymer, were five back-issues of fine woodworking magazine. I had ordered them soon after I discovered I would be moving in to the house on Robert Ct. without my family. I had ordered these issues in particular because they contained articles on moving joints. I had no idea what I was going to build, but I knew I would need to build something or face the pain of mourning alone with nothing to do but drink.

I ripped open the envelope whose odd fabric didn't exactly tear, but yawed open like a mouth as I stretched it. Two of the magazines spilled onto the porch and I stooped to pick them up. I don't know what made me look up, but I did look up at the home across the street, and there he was: black-clad, and glaring stonily through eyes set within a squint that mostly concealed them. He was puffing a cigarette. In his trench coat and weathered black trilby hat he resembled a New York gangster. I can imagine my appearance: haggard and six-days unshaven, eyes as pink as the light they shied from. My neighbour's look of unveiled hostility took me off-guard, but I managed a polite nod. This seemed to decide him on ending his cigarette break, which he did by exhaling a grey plume which curled quickly over his hat brim in the cool morning air and stubbing his smoke on the brick facade. He broke his gaze with me and hastily boarded his car, also black. It was some model of Ford. He peeled roughly out of the drive, and I watched with a kind of wary apprehension as he drove calmly down the court to turn left on Hartnell. That's the first time I saw him.

[He shouldn't have a specific goal from the issues of the magazines - perhaps his order would have been scattershot, grabbing whatever magazines he could]


When I first got the news of her and Chuck's deaths, Margaret had only just closed the deal on the house in Redding. I was two weeks from finishing an irrigation project in Indonesia that would bring water to a newly-established immigrant village who desperately needed water for drinking, bathing, and growing food. I remember the color of the sky when I received the call, the way the air hung with a blue haze that made the mountains seem like clouds: floating, intangible. That tropical world had collapsed upon me, swirling inward like a vicious wind, buffeting me until I could not breathe.

"Your son Chuck, and your wife Margaret have passed. They were caught up in a pileup on the interstate during a freak snowstorm," the voice on the phone had said. The words that followed were lost in the knot of anguish twisting in my gut like the very fist of chaos. I flew home without preamble, explaining to my fellow contractor Carlos that my family had died. His sympathy that day would be the only I received for some time.

Death. He has hovered near me my whole life. His swift harrow claimed my mother, father and only brother when I was eight. Now orphaned of my family, the first man I could talk to about my son and wife after arriving in the United States was the realtor who had sold us the house on Robert Court and had been waiting for my signature. He bleakly explained the situation, and informed me that there was a lengthy legal process I was entitled to pursue, where my domestic situation had suddenly changed. However, a foray into even a mild undergrowth of red tape would have been enough to choke out the remnants of my resolve. I signed off on the mortgage and moved in the same day.

The estate was humble but handsome: perfect for a family. I remember Margaret having sent me a picture of the house from the realtor website. I trusted her judgment. I am a carpenter, but I was happy to live anywhere, as long as it was sound. Prior to her and Chuck's deaths, I had been looking forward to seeing it, but when I got there the idyllic domesticity of the place came crashing up against the pain.

The driveway curved past a pepper tree, standing proudly in the yard like a giant broccoli, and ended in a garage behind the large, white and black home whose roof sloped steeply with the upper story windows peeking out: a style that Margaret had called Dutch colonial. The previous tenants had had children, and the remnants of a life like the one my family and I might have had were all around me. There was a plastic toy shopping cart and soccer ball that I quickly disposed of. I found glitter sprinkled in the lawn. Worst for me though was the tire swing that hung, with a stillness that seemed to defy even the strongest gusts, from the pepper tree. It seemed wrong to take it down, but to see it sitting there, lonesome and disused, hour after hour I began to see the reflection of the hole in my heart that gaped ever wider as the reality of this perversely strange and leaden world sunk in ever deeper.

I took down the tire swing from the pepper tree.

That evening I bought a 40 ouncer of the worst liquor I could think of, and got drunk. I was never an alcoholic, I don't think. But I did have a problerm. A problem I hadn't visited since the first year I had been with Margaret. By 8 PM I was fully cross-eyed. I had no songs to sing, I had no tearful lyrics to pen in scraggy drunken hen scratch into some dog-eared journal. I wanted lumber, a table saw, and a jointer. I wanted my tools. And I wanted wood. Then something would be made.

Build something, that will get this gone, this bloody damn sadness, this stupid world.

The world is fucked right all to pieces. That's what I feel. Think. That's what I think and feel. When you're drunk, the pain doesn't go away. Sometimes it does, though. When you've got a club to schmooze, and booze your way around in until you find a soul as desperate for distraction as yourself, and then you either go home and fuck, or you go home and have some kind of awkward dance that suggests the preliminaries of romance and madness.

Damn it right out straight. Something my dad always used to say when I was a kid. He was one of the most bizarre peplle, of course I never really knew it until ....

Then I heard his car, the chug-a-lug of the old Ford. I staggered to my feet, and flicked off the bedroom light. He leered at me enough to make me feel uncomfortable leering baakc. STill it was my right to leer. If he could leer at me, then I could leer at him. I took three zigzagged strides from the light switch to the window.

The engine settled into a low idle, and I could hear music blasting from the speakers in his car. I saw him listening still and attnetive. I couldn't see his face, but I could imagine him deep in concentration. He sat unmoving. OVer a cacaphony of junky-sounding instrumentatino there rose a chorus of what sounded like pirates in a yelling match with a bunch of russian baboushkas. IT's not the they of music I would expect anyone to be listening to, let alone black hat, yet he seemed to be listening attentiveley. Whether he was enjoying it, or whether he enjoyed anything in his life, was anyone's guess.

The 40 was on the floor next to the mattress. I saw the light from the bathroom refract a rusty orange. I drank the last inch of it.

As I wove my way toward a dreamless sleep, images drifted through my head of Margaret and Chuck. Also, the poor boy who had arrived to a new home, fatherless. I know, kid. I know how it feels. You don't deserve it, but it's gonna happen anyway. My thoughts rocked back and forth between the children of ______ and my own departed family. As the q1mercy of sleep at last descended.


The palimpsest: a sheet of parchment, scraped clean to be used for a new purpose. In the middle ages, before the process of paper was discovered by Europeans, a palimpsest was sometimes the only medium for new writings. During shortages of parchment, monks scraped clean what was no longer needed, sometimes especially when it suited the political goals of the church. Secular or heretical writings were replaced with scripture. While it meant the destruction of old text, Margaret felt there was something to be learned from the resourceful efficiency of such a practice, and she was right. It was an obsession, the art of the palimpsest. And when I remember her wisdom, the wisdom that I fell in love with, the wisdom that took me by suprise so often, I remember the palimpsest. When every object is, as a palimpsest, scratched clean of its original purpose and put to new use, humans will have awakened. That was the essence of Margaret's wisdom.

[Had she longed for a way to articulate this truth to the world? Was it my wish to express this somehow, to bring her wisdom to life? Can that go unsaid?]


I could feel her in the Chevy. Perhaps you will think it was just the familiarity of the setting, my sense of her beside me lingering in her absence like a phantom limb, but to me it was her, plain in simple riding in the passenger side, like St. Christopher. I was on a country road somewhere between Redwood and Red Bluff, and I had no idea whether I would discover what I needed, but the drive gave me time to feel like I was making progress. I had a hundred bucks and an empty cargo bed.

I had the window down, and to my left was a thirsty riverbed e and disused, sprawled out to my left. The view was punctuated by thickets of beech and oak? that stretched out in lines like fences between fields of canola, fields of wheat, and fields emptied of their crops and left fallow. I rounded a lazy curve westward, and my heart skipped a beat. Maybe I had found what I was looking for.

A white farmhouse with a red roof was perched on the top of a shallow rise. Poplars swayed lazily in a row beside a the driveway, and a golden retriever was nosing the grass in front of the barn. A man was working on the siding quickly with a pry bar, I saw him removing the gray boards one by one.

When I pulled in, he was already walking toward the car. I drove slowly to avoid squashing his dog, who jumped circles around the car like it was a new friend. I rolled the window down as he cast an inquiring squint at the stranger in the car.

"I wondered if you would consider selling some of that wood."

All in all I got about 400 boards measuring between 6 and 8 feet, all 1x8. The next day I drove all the way to San Fransisco, and picked up the table saw, the jointer, and the rest of the team. When I got home to Robert Ct., I had time to get set up. At 8 PM, I had installed a new sheet of pegboard in the workshop, and ran a cord into the garage for the jointer and table saw, which seemed to find a cozy home beside the chevy, where we would have parked the Toyota.

I took the planks straight out of the truck and planed them with the jointer one side at a time. Surprisingly, none were badly warped. I finished at about a quarter to midnight, showered, and went to bed next to Margaret's empty space. I passed Chuck's room on the way. Nope. Not ready for that yet. 

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1077 Reviews

Points: 100405
Reviews: 1077

Sun Feb 21, 2016 6:35 am
Mea wrote a review...

Hey there! Let's get this out of the Green Room for you.

So, I've never read the poem or heard of the author that inspired this, but I thought this was an interesting story nonetheless.

The main problem I had, though, was that it wound up dragging a little bit and got a bit boring because of all the exposition you were doing. Exposition is vital to a story, but it becomes boring really easily if you're not careful. Try to liven it up a bit - it may make the story longer, but doing things like going deep inside the character's head and expositing through dialogue or actions rather than straight-up monologue will help make the story more interesting.

One of the other things I noticed was an odd lack of emotion. This man is building things because his wife and child are dead, but the story is told really matter-of-factly, with such little emotion, that it just feels odd and distances the reader from the character and from the story. Remember, since this is a first-person narrative, the story is being told from his perspective, and his emotions and experiences are going to color that even more than they would in a third-person narrative. You do have a bit of anger in there, but I think sadness might be appropriate as well.

The rest of it just feels a bit bland, and I think I know why - you don't vary your sentence structure much. It's all "I did this. I did that." and it makes it sound staccato and robotic.

Something I really quite liked about this was how well you described the absence of something - in this case his wife and son. You articulated very clearly how he almost felt like she was there, but then of course she wasn't.

Anyway, that all I've got for you. Good luck, and keep writing!

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79 Reviews

Points: 250
Reviews: 79

Wed Dec 30, 2015 8:18 pm
Sevro wrote a review...

Hello there, pen! Happy review day.

The first paragraph was phenomenal. Your imagery and sentence structure blew me away. "That leering, peering creep" is awesome! It provides a clear visual of what the neighbor looks like, without you really having to say too much. The next sentence was great, too. "It was the dawn of the morning after the third day of the three day bender that began when I moved into the house on Robert Court." It reminds me of that song, "there's a...flea on the wing on the fly on the frog on the bump on the log in the hole in the middle of the sea, there's a flea on the wing..." Well you get it. The repetition of "the dawn of the morning after the third day of the three day bender" is really fun to read, and it makes the reader think. It makes them have to pause for a moment in order to comprehend what you're trying to say, but in a good way, not in a confused way.

I can tell that you might have gotten a little tired while writing the story, towards the end. As the end drew nearer, more spelling mistakes were prevelant. Maybe you were typing too fast, or something, but don't worry. The mistakes didn't make a dent in the meaning of the story.

I really enjoyed the overall plot. A carpenter's family dies, so he builds things to get them off his mind. However, I'm not really sure what the neighbor had to do with any of this. I even think it may have distracted the reader from the true meaning of the story. Granted, I did read this pretty fast, but I didn't find any connections between the neighbor and the rest of the plot line.

Some things about this story confused me. I suppose it wasn't about the story itself, necessarily, but about how you wrote some of it. Like, for example, the blank you put in the second to last sentence in the 19th paragraph. I thought and thought but I couldn't come up with anything that would fit in that blank. I would appreciate it if you could enlighten me and relieve my curiosity. The bracketed sentences also threw me off. Was it you talking to the reader, or was it just the man's thoughts? I'm not sure. I would suggest that those sentences be placed into the regular paragraphs, unless there is a hidden meaning to the bracketed format.

I thought this was a really great story, pen. I liked the plot line, and I really enjoyed the descriptions and similes you used throughout the story. Keep up the good work, and let me know if this review was helpful to you and your vast literary skills!


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