Thursday, August 4, 2011

365 Jobs, Day 216: The Community of Parents

Summer, 1977

Her name was Betty.  She had a broken water heater and a de-hinged door.  The heater just needed a new thermocouple.  The door had been closed with a broom handle wedged into the hinge side, ripping it off the wall.  I rehung it.  I probably only charged her about $20.  I was a beginner handyman, working cheap. 

I liked Betty immediately, and I could tell she liked me too.  We were about the same age - I was 30 - but she was ahead of me in the child-raising department.  I had one boy, 9 months old.  She was divorced and raising 3 boys of 8, 10, and 12 years who had nearly destroyed her house - the broom in the door being only the latest escapade.

Betty offered me a cup of coffee.  We talked in her kitchen.  She lived in an Eichler in South Palo Alto.  Eichlers were 1950-era tract houses.  Betty's was typical: cinderblock walls with big windows, a flat roof, and an open floor plan that gave an airy feel in spite of the chunky construction.  It sat on a concrete slab with radiant heat pipes built into the floor.  She said, "Eichler was notoriously cheap.  All the houses are badly built."

"So you don't like it?"

"No, I like it.  The trade-off is that I could buy it at low cost.  And I love the open design.  From the kitchen I can see the living room and the yard and which boy is killing who."

One thing she didn't like was the radiant heat.  She slept on a waterbed for her bad back.  In winter the heat from the floor kept the bed too hot, so even with an electric fan it was a muggy southern night on top of the covers.  She said, "It's like something out of a Tennessee Williams play."

Words fail to describe the interaction between man and woman.  The glance held just a moment too long.  The distance between bodies as we talk.  The twitch of a lip.  The tiny beads of perspiration, the sudden wave of pheromones, the gesture of tucking one's hair behind one's ear, the fluttery feeling at the pit of one's belly.

Somehow Betty had hinted - without actually saying - that she slept naked on top of her waterbed, sweating next to an electric fan.  Was she flirting with me?  She looked abashed, as if she hadn't intended. 

She had a boyfriend; I had a marriage.  Neither of us were looking for a relationship.  I was new to parenthood but already aware of the changed rules, the more cautious behavior where the stakes are higher.  I'd entered the alternate world of mothers and fathers.   

A month later, Betty called me back.  She wanted my ideas for an inexpensive way to spiff up her kitchen.  The original Eichler cabinets were cheapo metal, ugly.  She wanted wood cabinets but suspected she couldn't afford them.

I suggested refacing the cabinets with simple wooden doors and drawer fronts.  She couldn't afford it.  Then I suggested just refacing the drawer fronts.  She went for it.  Meanwhile, I couldn't help but ask why there was a massage table in the kitchen.

"I'm taking a class in massage," Betty said.  "I'm draining the waterbed right now.  Then I'll put in a smaller bed so there will be room for the table."

"For your back?"

"Yes.  Of course I need a partner.  You can't massage your own back."

"I've always meant to learn massage."

Our eyes met.  A moment.  Betty said, "You'd need a partner.  You and your wife should take a class together."

Had we flirted again?  Had I put a move on her?  If so, it was uncalculated, spontaneous.  Neither of us wanted it.  We were separate members in the community of parenthood which is built like a tract of Eichlers: solid blocks but fragile windows, cozy homes with an open feel, vulnerable to broom handles and shoddy construction.

I took measurements in the kitchen and went home to build the drawer fronts.  As I was cutting wood that evening, I heard the news:  Sierra had drowned.

Sierra was a little girl living at Struggle Mountain, a hippie commune in the hills above Palo Alto.  I'd dispute the words "hippie" and "commune" to describe that place, but in the popular mind it was.  In any case, the people who lived there were my friends.  Sierra's father, Kim, had been watching her when somehow his truck caught on fire.  In the five frantic minutes of putting out the fire, Sierra had climbed - or slipped - or fallen into a pool.  She was at Stanford Hospital on life support.

A few days later, they took her off life support.  In blazing afternoon heat I returned to Betty's Eichler and installed the new facings.

The house was baking.  Betty was flushed.  For some reason she was wearing a rag around her hair.  "You seem quiet today," Betty said.

I told her about Sierra, that she had just died.

At arms length, Betty put her hands on both my shoulders.  Standing like that, she cried.  Silently.  A few tears, mixed with sweat.  Then we stepped apart.  We had evolved - there was no longer any chance of flirtation, whether calculated or not.  And yet we were bonded.

That simple fix, just a few wooden drawer fronts, enlivened the whole kitchen.  I was proud.  Betty was delighted.  I charged her $200.  Looking back, I can't believe I worked so cheaply.  Standing at the front door before leaving I said, "That was a fun job.  Thank you for letting me do it."

How could I speak of fun when Sierra had just died?  It happened.  I did.  The world doesn't stop.  Betty's youngest boy set off a string of firecrackers that hopped into a trash can and accidentally set some papers on fire.  I grabbed a frying pan from the sink and dropped water, drowning the flames.  Then I left.

A while later Kim, Sierra's father, gave me a Tibetan prayer flag.  Kim was giving them to all the young parents he knew.  There were many.  Our friends were of that age, bearing children, settling down.  I couldn't read the symbols, but Kim said the flag was a prayer for the good health and well-being of children.  The wind would spread its blessings.

Maybe it worked.  I hung the flag to the outside wall of my Montgomery Ward cottage.  When we moved to La Honda, I moved the flag as well.  Today, 34 years later, it's still hanging outside my kitchen door.  It's dirty after all those years - never washed - and shows the track of a slug who recently passed over it.  It's such a permanent feature that I stopped noticing it long ago.

I guess things went well with Betty and her Eichler and her massage partner.  I never heard from her again.  Her boys must now be 42, 44, and 46.  My children are now grown, independent, flourishing. 

Today Sierra would be 36.  Her spirit is in the wind.

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