White clapboard houses | Daily News


White clapboard houses

When I was nineteen years old, I dropped out of the Berklee College of Music, where I’d been studying guitar—the one thing I’d ever been halfway good at—to tour with a band that wanted a screaming lead player, and when that all got too stupid and wasted, I moved back in with my parents in Connecticut, stayed in my room trying to get scales and modes and arpeggios up to speed and coming to realize that never in a million years. My father was at me to go to work for him and start regular college in the fall; he owned a chain of furniture stores, and a salesman had quit at the one in Westport.

Then Mike, my hippie older brother, called from the hill town in Western Mass where he was living in a cabin on a dairy farm, doing chores in exchange for rent, and said I should come hang out; it was a cool place, with a small lake and a bar, and maybe I could get a job playing.

This was the summer of 1975. Mike picked me up at the bus in Greenfield, and I remember driving with him up along the river and the train tracks, through Martin’s Falls and Crowsfield, then taking the turnoff for Bozrah, over a concrete bridge built by the WPA, onto a narrow road out of the valley, following a brook with white water tumbling over the boulders, then past the town hall and post office, the church with the square steeple, the general store, and the white clapboard houses, and onto a farm at the top of a dirt road, and getting out of his car into the quiet, looking off at the green humpbacked hills, and smelling that good air. It made me think I’d had enough of the world, and I still think so.

Handwritten notice

Mike’s pot was so strong it made me paranoid, and the bar at the lake turned out to be all shitkicker music, so there went those temptations. I helped out some at the farm and put up a handwritten notice at the general store: “Lawns Mowed, Leaves Raked, General Yard Work, Reliable Service,” with Mike’s number repeated across the bottom where you could tear it off.

He told me everybody here did this shit for themselves, but I’d noticed that people with money were discovering the place: two and a half hours from Boston, four from New York. I spent forty dollars on a decent used mower, and if somebody called I’d bring it around in the trunk of Mike’s old Ford Fairlane, which didn’t look too professional. Still, there’s a right and a wrong way to mow a lawn—my father taught me that—and I’d always rake up after, so the weekend people started asking if I also did handyman shit: put up a new gutter, fix a leak around the chimney, replace cracked clapboards, paint the house. Sure, let’s get together on a price.

While I didn’t really know what I was doing, it was all pretty intuitive, and Mike’s farmer let me borrow tools and a ladder. When I got more calls than I could handle by myself, I talked Mike into coming to work for me. On account of my father, businessman always had a bad sound to me, but it turned out that’s what I had a gift for.

My company still does lawns and landscaping, anywhere in a fifty-mile radius; we cut, split, and deliver firewood, plow driveways in the winter. Our main business, though, is construction. I’ll still put on a tool belt myself, but a lot of days I’ll just be driving from one job site to another, making sure stuff ’s getting done right. At any given time I might have up to a dozen people working for me—master carpenter, plumber, electrician, a heavy-equipment operator who doubles as a mechanic, a girl to run the office and answer the phone, and a revolving cast of Asscrack Harrys for the grunt work. Though I’d rather do renovations and additions—I hate to see it getting too built up around here—if somebody comes in and buys five or ten acres and wants to put up a nice log house, I won’t turn away the business. I’ve probably done my own part in fucking up the look of things. I had to put up a metal barn on Watch Hill Road, where I’ve got my office, for all the equipment—backhoe, dozer, tractor and brush hog, plow trucks, a flatbed. I had them leave a row of trees so in the summer you can’t see it when you go by.

Mike moved to Alaska twenty years ago; he said it was getting too suburban here, which I took to be aimed at me, and I don’t hear from him anymore. He’d be sixty-eight, so he’s probably still alive, but I didn’t even know how to get in touch with him when our father died. My main guys now are Myron Stannard, Jesse Biggs, and Johnny Iaconelli. Customers love to watch Myron when he’s doing tree work: he’s a rock star up there in the cherry picker, with an Asscrack Harry as his chain-saw tech to hand up a fresh saw when the one he’s using starts to get dull. Jesse, who does the heavy-equipment piece, moved up here from Hartford to get away from what he called the crime—like there was just one. He’s the only black man in town. Both of them can bang nails and do whatever else, but Johnny’s my master carpenter. He’s not as old as the rest of us—he’s got to be late forties—and he’s been with me the shortest time. Myron warned me he could be hard to handle when he was drinking; still, he’s the best around, and I’ll take a drink myself. So will Jesse. They’re artists, those three. I’m the one who knows how to run a business, though, and how to deal with the clientele; I get why rich people have a hard-on for plank doors, woodstoves, Hoosier cabinets, and eight-over-eight windows. I keep track of sources for salvaged wainscoting and hand-hewn beams, or I can take a drawknife to a beam from the sawmill and make it look hand hewn. - Paris Review

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