EACH MORNING I WOKE with dirt beneath my fingernails, lungs heavy from plaster dust. It would still be dark, none of my roommates with jobs, all of them under warm blankets with hours of snoozing to go before getting up. And even then only to take a piss. The previous occupant of my room, a sculptor or dancer or documentary filmmaker, had split for a better apartment and paying job–abandoning the notion, like all the hipsters before him–that he’d eventually find a way to commodify his art.
The early Mission bus was always packed, full and wet, fog and sweat, lunch buckets on laps, women in hairnets stoic as the diesel yawed around double-parked lowriders.
It took an hour to get to the site. Few of the carpenters spoke to me, eyes on the long hair I was too vain to cut. I spent the first week sledging chimneys beneath a row of wrecked tenements, a thousand trips up and down a ladder, hauling bricks in a paint bucket. Afterward the foreman admitted it was a test. They could have just built a ramp and given me a wheelbarrow.
Six months in, the bosses stood on a mound of gravel and announced their biggest commission to date, the renovation of the Spreckles Mansion. The Spreckles were turn-of-the-century sugar barons and plantation owners who parlayed their date rape of Hawaii into a columnar Gothic turd atop the most scenic hill in San Francisco. Danielle Steel and her shipping magnate husband had just purchased it for thirteen million and change. Like most people untroubled by the notion of living in a monument to someone else’s profligacy, the Steels opted for the lowball construction bid. Our inept, booze-ruined, Marlboro-soft-pack crew was on the job.
The first day I wandered the opulent coil. There were 55 rooms, a Louis XVI ballroom, eighteen bathrooms, inlaid mosaic floors, two elevators, a terrarium, suspended stained-glass ceilings, three huge kitchens, and an enclosed pool house with a hydraulic roof. The rumor was they’d bought a smaller house down the street to store their clothes until they were ready to move in.
Saturday nights I slept with Kara, who continually reminded me I wasn’t her boyfriend. She was an angry-arty painter, wore old socks like debutante gloves, rode a thrashed ten-speed to her job downtown, dancing in a glass booth for quarters. She was not amused by my construction stories. Her invective for privilege, for rampant carpetbaggery, soaked through us and into the futon. Every Sunday there was a column in the paper called The Swells. It featured poorly-offset candids of galas and parties and the opera red carpet. Your various Gettys and Fishers and Steels leaning into the flash. Plenitude. Certainty. Tuxed obliviousness. We spent hours drawing mustaches on Roselyn Cissy Swig and Carole Shorenstein Hays.
Once the Spreckles’ heirlooms were secure, I was given a crowbar and a jackhammer and told to demo one wing down to the framing. This meant free reign to rip, smash, and axe-kick generations of superfluous decorations, appliances, and fixtures. I felt like an extra from Alexander Nevsky. It was ridiculously fulfilling tossing armloads of fresh debris out the giant picture window, into an orange chute that extended over a trash pile on the sidewalk far below. The guts of the mansion slammed into itself. Dust rose. Pedestrians flinched. When the pile got too high we carted it off and started a new one.
There were many artifacts to be found under floorboards, behind walls, and stuffed into the backs of closets. Riding crops, twenties smut mags, newspapers trumpeting the McKinley administration. Each one allowed me a glimpse of what it must have been like back then, the divans and antimacassars, the gimlets and glazed hams and trips to Marienbad on a luxury Cunard. It’s hard to remember sugar rationing now, but being a Spreckles before the Depression was probably not unlike being the king of France before Robespierre and his posse started lopping off heads.
After destruction comes renewal. We began to build the walls back up. Deliveries of rare poached mahogany and Frantz Fanon teak arrived on the hour. Indigenous Genocide planks and Old World knurls were installed. Mooseheads arrived crated, recalling the glory days of taxidermy. Sarcophagi were looted, their pottery shards used as clever sconces. The pool was drained and refilled with the tears of orphans.
A few weeks later I was perched in the sub-roofing of a nearly finished bedroom, cutting holes for light fixtures, when Danielle Steel appeared below me. She was very small, hair pulled back in a severe bun, wearing a coat made of something unusual, perhaps fetal llama. One sleeve appeared to have brushed against freshly mudded Sheetrock. The crew eyeballed their steeltoes while Mrs. Steel gesticulated, as if chewing them a collective ass. I was ten feet above, crouched like a gargoyle, the circular saw in my sweaty palm. I couldn’t hear her, but I didn’t need to. The crew nodded in unison, hands in bib pockets, taking their medicine like children. These were men who barely spoke to me, absurdly proud of their bruised trucks and unfinished tats and years in on a job they hated. Even so, I felt protective of them. They wouldn’t have accepted my protection, would have rejected it in the same fag-joke Esperanto in which they summed up my skills with a hammer. But it didn’t matter. The temptation to drop the saw onto the center of Danielle Steel’s head was overwhelming.
Possible newspaper headlines:
Disgruntled Worker Halves Heiress.
Saw Slipped, Insists Young Dahmer.
Steel Buys It, Literature No Longer Dead?
Blue Blood Spatters Sugar Walls.
Spreckles Curse Sort Of Like Amityville: Less Horror, More Justice.
Was I being given a chance to make a genuine difference? To rise up from the linoleum proletariat and perform a truly selfless act? I tried to recall something I’d done in the past, even once, that contained a kernel of significance. There was a scenario in college. I was in the cafeteria, boring a dewy sophomore with the half-chapter of Rousseau I’d just skimmed. Behind us, someone yelled that they wanted an apple. Their buddy lifted one from the basket near the register and threw it, far off the mark. My friend Charlie wasn’t paying attention. Everyone else saw the apple coming, red, shiny, hard as a rock. I turned without thought, lurching across the table. Milk spilled. Lasagna flew. The apple smacked into the center of my palm, half an inch from Charlie’s nose. “Hot shit!” someone said. Tables of cynical fem-crit majors and radical-humanism minors broke into a sort of applause. Charlie gave me an exuberant hug. And then everyone went to their next class, forgetting the whole thing.
There it was. The best, most unselfish, instinctual act I’d performed in my entire life.
Could it be that each of us gets one moment where self-interest dissolves, mind and body fusing perfectly, a second in which the dictates of species take precedence over individual desire, never to present itself again? Perhaps for some it happens in the language of cliche, a baby and a burning house. For others on a national stage, sending troops to the front lines, airlifting supplies to the devastated, discovering plutonium.
Could I pass up the chance to strike a blow against the gulag of the national bestseller?
I envisioned a cartoon saw cleaving Danielle Steel in half, two sides peeling away to reveal coal-black innards. Or at the very least a tiny cycloptic alien working levers and gears.
I thought of the dozens of rheumy novels she’d injected into a vulnerable populace: Southern Lights and Golden Moments and Matters of the Heart and A Good Woman and Special Delivery and Now and Forever and Palomino and One Day at a Time. I’d seen them at grocery stores and Walgreen’s aisles, marveled at their pastel covers and embossed lettering and lazily insipid titles. I envisioned thousands of women, hunkered between cats or beneath afghans, burning with the inverse of curiosity as they waded through another chapter of veiled sex and clotted prose.
The saw began to slip. From palm to knuckles to fingertips.
It would be easy enough, I reasoned, to plead accident. The cops would act gruff but inside feel relief, none of them Swells. The news programs would interview me in soft focus, the paparazzi with a Vaseline lens. My paint-speckled face would be sympathetic on Donahue. I could work up some tears and be waxing Geraldo’s mustache by the end of the first segment. Who would bother to question my grip? I might even be able to sue. Danielle Steel’s bisection might well affect my psychological balance to such a degree that anything beyond a state-subsidized couch and crumpled foils of tar heroin would be forever beyond me.
Fear. Inaction. The fear of inaction.
I dropped the saw.
The blade plummeted.
About forty-eight inches, where it revved and stalled, bouncing on its orange cord, plugged in against the far wall, a rubber lifeline wound around the ceiling joist.
No one even looked up.
The foreman rushed over, but not to yell at me. He put on a show of being distraught about the jacket, dabbing at it with a wet cloth, making it worse. Danielle Steel swept from the room with a carriage that spoke of both flawless DNA and thousands of hours aping classic cinema. The rest of the crew followed, hoping for more.
A deeper part of me had known the saw was no danger. I’d knotted the cord myself, not an hour before. Safety was Job One. Or at least Job Five. But had I forgotten, or was it some kind of internal test? A desperate attempt to see, as I leered over Whoville, if my walnut-sized heart might expand to four times its previous size?
At that time I had not published a single book. Not even a short story. I’d acquired no prestige, over numerous years of hump labor amassing zero wealth. Unless you considered a guitar and a notebook full of execrable poetry quality investments. As Charlie Sheen asked himself, during the money shot of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, who was I to sit in judgment? Who was I at all?
Whoever it was unplugged the saw, which released with a whistle, smashing across the marble floor, blade chunking four inches into baseboard. I’d have to fix that later. For the moment it was enough just to sit, feet dangling, covered in sweat and a fine layer of asbestos dust that had only begun to sink in.
Author’s Note: this piece first appeared long ago in different form in The Rumpus.
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