Saturday, June 16, 2001
I started working for Julie in 1979 when she was a single mother with a teenage boy. From a divorce she had a big old house in Palo Alto but no money for upkeep. She worked full time for low wages as a passionate advocate for troubled children. She was smart, charitable, practical. I was inexpensive and handy. We hit if off.
My first job for her involved repairing a leaky water line in her front yard, a slimy job digging sloppy dirt on a cold day in February. Water restored, one finger bandaged after I clobbered it with a wrench, coated with muck, I stood in Julie's warm kitchen as we talked for an hour about literature and the modern American novel. She thought it was cool that I could work with my hands and my head, that I could be raising children and building my own house and getting published and even getting reviewed in the New York Times (scathingly). "You're living the ideal romantic life," she said. "With mud and books."
Her son watching television was less impressed. "How much money do you make?" he asked. I didn't say anything, but clearly he could guess the answer.
For the next two or three years Julie would call me to repair her gutters, her garage, light switches, whatever broke down. She'd always ask about my writing and what I was working on next.
One time my hammering on one side of a wall caused a large framed mirror to jump off the other side of the wall in a different room. I didn't even know it had happened until Julie showed me. The 3x4 foot mirror had cracked across the middle, two cracks, but didn't shatter. "Looks like I owe you a mirror," I said. And it would cost a day's pay.
Julie looked relieved. If I hadn't taken responsibility, I don't think she would have asked me to replace it. She wasn't assertive that way, though she was extremely assertive about the rights of children in the foster care system. In her personal world, she was gentle, almost shy.
I took that cracked mirror home and mounted it in the newly-built, still unfinished closet in my own house. That would be 1980. If I subsequently had seven years of bad luck, I wasn't aware of it.
Another time I built some drawers to fit under a bench. When I returned the next day, Julie blurted, "I'm really upset about the drawers not fitting right."
I must have looked at her strangely because she next said, "I had an architect visiting here last night, and he told me to say that."
She had a right to say it, even if it was out of character. Sometimes when you build something, you get so close to it that you fail to step back and see the big picture. And in the big picture, the drawers were uneven. I fixed them.
I couldn't help but wonder how her teenage son felt about an architect visiting Julie's bedroom last night. This much I know: a few days later I was working alone in the house when her teenage son came home with another boy and a girl. The big word among them was “I got really bummed last night.” Bummed meant stoned or drunk or wasted. The girl said she was “partying” until 4 a.m. Then she got on the phone and lied for an hour, telling her parents she fell asleep in the Varsity Theater. By phone, they grounded her. She left. With her gone, the boys verbally dissected her body.
I cleaned up and departed and didn't see Julie for about twenty years.
I was installing low voltage lighting at an estate in Atherton. The owner, a wealthy man whose name you would recognize, pulled me off the task to help set up temporary paper globe lighting in some back yard trees for a party that evening. The event planners had underestimated how big the job would be.
I was still on a ladder among the cherry trees when the first guests arrived.
"Is that you?" said a familiar voice. It was Julie, dressed to the nines, looking twenty years older but none the worse for it. She had long lovely silver hair. Accompanying her was a dapper man in a tuxedo.
I wasn't muddy that day, but I was wearing a tool belt and cutoff shorts. "Hey, how ya doing?" I said.
Julie peered at me with concern and perhaps a touch of pity. “Are you still contracting?”
I guess my life no longer seemed so romantic. Here was the high school reunion moment: where did he go wrong? Such promise, unfulfilled.
Her face softened. "We should talk," Julie said.
But we couldn't. I had more lights to string, and then my tool belt and cutoffs would have to disappear from this affair. Already the caterers were wheeling out tables of food, sensational wines.
I'll never know whether Julie wanted to congratulate me for my integrity or scold me for failing to live up to my potential. Either way, she'd be wrong. Maybe she just wanted to discuss the current state of American literature. She seemed happy; I was happy for her. I wanted to ask what became of her son. And then I could have told her that the mirror still hangs in my closet, where every morning I catch a glimpse of myself. Still cracked.