Friday, January 16, 1987
I'm supposed to remove four fixed-pane windows, replace the wood that's framing them, then re-install the window glass. The problem: they used a permanent adhesive. The glass is bonded to the wood. Carefully I work a knife around the edge, then a chisel, but the glue is solid. I pry.
The first pane cracks. They used regular glass. These days, you have to use tempered. It will cost $115 for one sheet. And then there's unexpected rot inside the wall. And then two more panes crack.
I woefully underestimated this job. I quoted $350 and it's going to cost $1600.
Fortunately, it's a house in Atherton where money pours like wine. Arlene understands.
"Since you have to replace the panes anyway, would you like insulated glass? There's a lot of heat loss here."
"It will double the cost."
She's older than me, bespectacled, wrinkly, grandmotherly while wearing a cable knit sweater, blue jeans, and jogging shoes. She sits in an easy chair reading a book, occasionally glancing up to watch me work.
I cover the openings. The room becomes dark. From the plywood comes the smell of urea formaldehyde glue. Arlene takes her book to another room.
At noon she goes out to Arby's, returns with an extra turkey sandwich. "Take a break," she says. "Join me."
In the dining room surrounded by photos of children, grandchildren, weddings and birthdays, we sit in plush black chairs on opposite sides of the table.
"What are you reading?" I ask.
With an embarrassed little giggle, she shows me a book called The Male Member. "It's about penises," she says. "Or is it peni?" She smiles. "It's mostly crap. Did you know the Russians claim that Hitler had only one testicle?"
"Uh, no. I didn't know that."
"The author's an artist. I'm a scientist." Arelene shrugs. "According to the author, Rasputin had a thirteen incher. Now it's in an ornate wooden box on top of a dresser in Paris. Supposedly it looks like an overripe banana." She laughs. She's animated. "Napoleon's shrank to one inch as he was dying of arsenic. Havelock Ellis - you know who he is?"
"He invented narcissism. That is, he named it. But also he wrote and researched about sex simply to learn what it was like. He was impotent. At age sixty he cured his impotence and promptly stopped writing about sex. Freud was impotent also, from cocaine." She pauses, thinking. "Now that I believe."
In repair work, I enter people's houses. It's always slightly, awkwardly intimate. But there are certain invisible shields you try to maintain between employer and employed, between man and woman, between aged and young. Arlene is shattering all of them.
What next? Is she going to ask about my, uh, member? I could tell her I'm less than Rasputin but more than Napoleon.
In the spirit of the conversation I have one diverting fact at my disposal, something I've recently learned in a random discussion about body sugar, so I ask, "Does that book talk about semen?"
"I don't know," she says. "I've been skipping around."
"Did you know that semen contains fructose? It causes the sperm to take off like a shot."
"Where'd you learn that?"
"From my doctor."
Arlene frowns. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"No no, I'm fine," I say.
From then on, she seems to treat me with pity. Which is a relief, actually. The shields seem to be back in place.
When I return a few days later to install the new panes, on her coffee table is a different book: You're Only Old Once. It's by Dr. Seuss.