PRIEST LAKE, IDAHO
There’s a man who lives on the outskirts of a medium-sized city in Washington State. His street is a cul-de-sac. His house is the one with the black shutters, which were replaced upside down when the house was repainted. Since then, the man has been unable to explain what it is that looks so strange about his house, but he finds, every time he comes home, a deficit in its appearance.
For a living he makes fine, artisan furniture. He specializes in rugged outdoor pieces. Accordingly, he owns many tools, all of which he keeps in a shed in the backyard. The house has been newly painted (yellow with white trim) but the shed has not. Dirty white paint is flaking off the walls of the shed in the rough shapes of familiar geographic bodies—Priest Lake in Idaho, for example, where the man often camped with his family. The roof of the shed is beginning to give, rot, it seems, from the inside out. It dips several inches at its peak, and a whole row of shingles has fallen into a dusty pile atop the long weeds. Or, if we decide this man is tidy and meticulous, replace the weeds with Bergenia.
The man’s wife might be dead. Let’s say that she is. She’s dead. The pain is still familiar and, for this reason, confusing to the man. His work has been suffering. There’s a stack of unused hemlock boards beside the tool shed.
The man speaks of his wife in the present tense, says things like, “My wife enjoys camping.” It’s not that the man has forgotten his wife is dead; it’s only that it’s become his habit to use language to manipulate how he feels. His wife enjoyed camping at Priest Lake in Idaho, and, if the man says it often enough, she does now too. She enjoys it. She exists in this enjoyment.
In the final week of October, on a rare warm evening, the man is sitting out on his back porch. Depending on what sorts of habits we might choose to believe this man has, he’s drinking a glass of wine, or maybe scotch, or maybe he’s smoking a cigar. Behind the man, the fresh paint of his house glows warmly in the dusk. The back of the house faces west, and the sun sets behind a thick row of pines that mark the edge of his property. In the shadow of these trees, the tool shed appears filthy and decrepit. He’s sitting in a chair he made with his own hands. The longer the man looks at the tool shed, the more he becomes convinced that it must be replaced. The painters had offered to paint it using the same pattern as the house, but the man refused. It’s a tool shed, he’d thought then, it’s supposed to look worn out and used. Now, though, he sees it for what it is. It’s old, and it won’t survive for much longer. The man recognizes himself, or some idea of himself, in the shed. Like it, he is old and will, more than likely, not be around all that much longer. He’s already lost his wife. His son—or it could just as well be a daughter—is married and lives back east. He’s alone, apart from the dog I haven’t yet mentioned.
Inside the shed, he keeps the means of his livelihood. Without his tools he could not do his job. There are dowel jigs, miter saws, and other, more fantastic, pieces of equipment. The man is wrapped up in this job. He makes fine furniture. It’s what he does. Until one day it will be what he used to do.
He gets up slowly from the chair, goes to the garage for the gas can he keeps filled for the lawnmower he uses once a week in the summer, and returns to the backyard. Now it is dark. The pines are tall silhouettes. Or he might instead notice the orange glow of the security light, only just turned on, at the neighbor’s house. He might hear a ringing phone from an open window, or a siren from a few blocks over. Some kind of sensory detail that makes clear to the man that the world is bigger than just his yard seems appropriate here.
The man drains the gas can onto the shed. He splashes the gas on the peeling walls. More flakes of paint fall. He might be happy about what he’s doing, whistling or smiling, perhaps, or he might be upset, or he might not feel much of anything at all. Who can say? He takes a lighter from his pocket and looks around for something to light. If the man is a careful sort of person, he will go into his house and find a newspaper or maybe one of the old quilting magazines his wife used to get and light this first and use it to set the shed to flames. Or he will find a stick or a pile of dried grass. What is not a question is that he will light the tool shed on fire, and that it will burn to the ground. Smoke, first a thin gray cloud of it, but soon, when the thinners and stains in the shed become fuel, darker and then black, rising acrid and dense into the sky. The man takes a step back. The heat is still on his face so he takes another step back. Then another. And another. In this way he goes about the task of building something new.
Jensen Beach's For Out of the Heart Proceed is forthcoming from Dark Sky Books.
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