A Slack Sixteenth
A Slack Sixteenth
By: C. B. Smith
My childhood imagination was always backdropped by fantastical worlds within which I needed to survive. Places plagued by aliens or monsters at my youngest, by war and nuclear apocalypse as I grew. Pillow forts were concrete encampments, tree houses were hidden lookouts and basements were bomb shelters. The act of construction was the ultimate accomplishment to me, a fundamental ability required for survival. I remember watching my father and grandfather build a shed next to my house when I was barely 7. As they nailed together boards which became trusses, studs which became frames, I looked on in awe at the demonstration of what was surely man kind’s greatest accomplishment.
My cousin and I would spend entire summers, in the forests that bordered our houses, creating camps. Whether it was making a gate to block off a rock cut or finding scrap wood to build an independent structure, there was always a scenario existent in the back of my mind: someone or something which we needed camouflage to hide from; a fearsome threat that we needed to build our fort sturdy to stand against.
The belief that construction was one of the most important abilities a human could hold began to recede just as I was old enough to lend hand in the process. Just as I was being taught to swing a hammer, I started to be less concerned with doing so. The fantasy of the pillow fort had lost my interest as the complexity and diversity of humanity began finding it.
To the dismay of my father and grandfather, who held tight, not to the fantasy of forts in a post-apocalyptic world, but, to the belief that complete independence is fundamentally important, I became increasingly disconcerted with my place in their world.
I ran away from Small Town, Middle of Nowhere like the deer they hunted, with the velocity of the hammers they swung. I started a love affair with music, art, books and poems, in the nearest city. A city further from my hometown than the beam of many countries.
My travels and expansion of self, although uncompleted, came to a halt a slack 8th of the way into the 21st century. I returned in the autumn, to find a familiar comfort in the road that guided me to the family cottage, for the first time in years I navigated the truck through the ever expanding potholes the journey was littered with. The A-frame peak of the cottage exposed itself above the shallow tree line as I grew closer, partially blocking the view of its familiar wood planked walls however, was the sharp sight of uncovered OSB, ‘aspenite’.
“Nice to see that you guys didn’t go overboard with it…” I say quietly, with as much sarcasm as a single sentence can allow, while I looked towards the new structure.
My mum, sitting in the passenger seat next to me, is also looking out towards the uncovered building, “I know. It’s bigger than half the cabins up here.”
I sadly accept that she is not exaggerating as she references the hundred or so cabins which littered the surrounding 50 square kilometers, half of them no more than hunting shacks.
As I turn up the gravel driveway the size of the new structure grew ever looming. “It’s bigger than our bloody cabin.” I finally say as I park between the two structures.
She laughs, “Yeah, you might be right.”
I get out and walk towards my father standing inside the new edifice tinkering with one of the smaller remaining parts of its construction. “It is literally bigger than our cabin.” I repeat with more certainty now as I look back and forth between the two, barely bothering to disguise the disappointment in my voice.
“Well, it had to be big enough for the plane.” Dad says defensively with a shrug.
I look at the Murphy Rebel tucked inside the new structure and observe the 6 feet of clearance on either side, the 6 feet above it and further 10 behind it. “I see you made it a tight fit.”
“Well… whatever.” Dad pushes his hands outwards and down dismissively.
My mum begins repeating my statements with satisfaction and it becomes clear that this argument had been frequented in recent months: the cabin’s construction had been a constant discussion of ‘it’s too big’, whilst the hanger which now dwarfed it had been continually considered too small in the building process.
The size was irreversible, regardless of my opinion on it, and with autumn disappearing all too quickly the need to finish the building was evident. The three of us stood looking at the monstrosity and the adjectives one expects to hear when being asked to do something were presented repeatedly: Easy. Simple. Fast. Helpful.
Despite my accepted lack of propensity for construction, a project was suggested, the application of vinyl siding, a covering of protection against the very real and looming threat which was winter.
“You’ll catch on to it quickly. It’s really not hard. It all just locks together.” My D.I.Y. skills were weak enough that his words were not an explanation so much as an effort to convince himself that he was making the right decision in tasking me with the process.
“It’ll be a couple weeks work. That’s all.”
Leaving a home town had lead its way to leaving a home province, that lead it’s way to leaving the country, and that the continent. I had built something of my own, complete with every stud and joist: a novel was tucked under my arm and its words pushed me onwards to pursue showing it to the rest of the world.
Home became more distant with every day spent away, sometimes physically, always culturally. The pride that hung from the antlers of a moose, mounted on a shed wall by the strong and capable, became a lack of perspective, hammered to plywood by the dogmatic and narrow minded.
Years came to pass and eventually the stronghold I had created with my words revealed itself to be nothing more than a pillow fort. Too much criticism and too few sales left me broke and in need of the time and space required to try and make something more palatable. Pride dashed but head held no lower, I moved back to that same hometown I had run from so confidently.
Coffee bean was the colour of the 12 and a half foot pieces of PVC being installed, the task rest on the shoulders of my grandfather, retired after a lifetime spent with a hammer in hand, and myself, by the standards of my hometown: inexcusably unemployed and available for free labour.
As I was lectured on the amount of space that should be left between the siding and building’s edge I quickly became aware of the spaces between those pleasant adjectives my father had used to describe the task.
The days were not long, rarely reaching the cabin before ten, always back for 5 o’clock dinner; retirement work hours. From my perspective these were hours entirely consumed by a meaningless task strategically placed in the middle of the day, to create the greatest interruption of my attempts at writing, possible.
“36” I say to my grandfather.
Both of us stood on a makeshift platform, 2 boards of 2×10 stacked upon each other and spread between two step ladders.
He looked at me quizzically for a moment, the uncertainty in his gaze born somewhere between distrust of my ability to read a measuring tape and simply distrusting that the next piece needed to be cut at an even 3 feet. He walked towards me across the plank and again I felt my heart beat increase as his toes came just a little too close to the front edge, and in the next step his heels too close to the back.
He looked down at the well-used measuring tape I held, “That’s 36 and a sixteenth.” He said.
“That’s not a 16th” I say monotonously, trying not to roll my eyes at the size of the difference we were discussing.
He doesn’t look at me as he struggles slightly to step down from the tedious construct and cut the next piece. “We’ll call it a slack sixteenth”
I look down the last row of siding to the hidden gap that was left on either end. ‘Always leave room for expansion and contraction’ I had been told when we had installed the starter strip, leaving me actively questioning the importance of a ‘slack sixteenth’
I sighed, as the sound of a grinder whined behind me, pressing my fingers against the flimsy material we were cutting so precisely with an emotion somewhere between disgust and disdain. I thought idly of the countless ways I could be better spending my time and of all the words I was not writing, silently cursing my parents for not hiring contractors to do the work.
Another row manages to be nailed in place, and then another. Our 2×10 is moved a couple rungs higher on the ladder. A full length piece of vinyl is locked in place and nailed at its centre. We both work outwards from the first nail to our respective sides. He finishes before me and then watches as another nail is lost to fumbling fingers failing their fight against gravity. When my awkward efforts finally finish their job I notice him no longer looking at me but at the wall itself. I lean back to see what could be catching his eye.
“That’s dropped down an awful lot there, luh.” He says pointing to the section of siding I had just finished nailing. I leaned back to try and see what he was referring to. He makes to pass by me on the narrow board. I stepped back and out around him, I could not help but notice the quick shifting in his hips as he briefly lost and regained his balance.
Repositioned now he brought callused hands up to the siding and shifted it in its place, “That’s not locked in there, sure.” He said, and quickly began taking out my nails before slamming the heel of his palm into the siding’s bottom edge, snapping it into its correct position. “You’re not nailing it in right,” he explained as he took his hammer from his tool belt, “look at how I does it,” he said as he held the nail between thumb and pointer finger, middle finger tucked beneath the sidings edge to hold it up.
“Pop, that is what I’m doing. I just hadn’t realized that it wasn’t locked in properly.” I retort, having already painstakingly struggled to replicate his method of nailing and believing I had succeeded.
“No, it’s not.” He said, without looking at me while shaking his head. “Listen, I did this stuff for a lot of years. I know what I’m talking about.”
I didn’t bother responding, I simply resigned to apply more force in effort to hold the siding up in place.
The day ended early, just as the day before it had. I did not suggest we stay and get more done, despite knowing that continued early abandonments just added entire days of work in the future. Instead I relished in escaping the fruitless project for the rest of the day.
Piece by piece, foot by foot we climbed the hanger wall, horizontal pieces so slowly giving us our vertical gain. The process of spending my days doing something I was terrible at, something that was trivial in comparison to that which I actually had aptitude for, grew increasingly frustrating.
“118 and seven eights” I shouted down from the upper section of the wall. Our means of elevation had progressed from its amateur form of plank placed between step ladders, it was now plank placed between rusted steel which offered us some 12 feet of debatably sustainable and precariously acquired height off the ground. The weathered frame rocked back and forth a questionable amount as I walked across the plank that spanned the space between them. I looked up and down at the progress we had made on the final wall of the hanger, some two and a half months into our two week project.
“Why don’t you put the level on that and check it now while I does this.” Pop said to me as he walked to his makeshift cutting station, a combination of boards and tools spread between two work horses, insistently set up every morning and disassembled each afternoon.
I lay the one meter level along the top edge of the most recently added piece of siding. The bubble floated unerringly in the very center of the level’s marks. I hear the grinder stop and set the level down as my grandfather hands me the freshly cut piece of siding.
“How is she?” he asked in reference to the level’s reading.
“Perfect” I responded as I put in place the piece he had just cut for me. “Not even off by a hair.”
“Perfect eh? Good, good.”
I look down to see a bright smile on his face, a distinct look of pride at us having maintained a perfectly horizontal edge despite the sloppy nature of the materials used.
I turn my attention back to the piece of siding in my hands. I lock it into place, and then realize that it came some 10 inches short of its destination. Before I had a chance to ask what length he had cut the piece in my hands, my grandfather had already taken notice.
“What, it’s not too short is it? See, that’s a piece ruined now. Too short.”
I search for some kind of a response and take my measuring tape out of my tool belt again. He is already on his way up the scaffolding. “I don’t understand, Brandon. I just don’t understand.” He mutters as he climbs up to where I was.
“How a young man, not even a young man anymore, 25 years old and can’t even use a measuring tape.” He said now walking towards me.
I cringe as I watch him move across the scaffolding. The last week had saved me from my concerns of his bad balance, the increased height of our work had caused efficiency to be found in him remaining on the ground to measure and cut.
“Here, give the tape here, luh.”
“Pop, the measurement was right.” I say as I hand over the tape.
“Here, put that tight to the end, make sure it’s right tight.” He says, handing me the hooked metal end of the tape.
“118 and seven eights” he says matter-of-factly to me.
“Pop, that’s what I said.”
“No, it isn’t, Brandon. I’ve been doing this for a lot of years alright, so listen to me when I tells ya.” He pulls the short piece of siding from its place on the wall and measures it, “See, 107 and an eighth.”
I feel myself clenching my jaw in frustration. He refused to consider the possibility that he had cut it wrong, refused to accept that I had done something right. Part of me wanted to shout this at him, shout at him that it was all ridiculous anyway, that the trees didn’t care whether or not the siding was perfectly level on a big shed in the middle of the woods. Instead I looked to the few strips that remained and said nothing but, “I’m sorry pop. I’ll try harder next time.”
“That’s alright.” He said, voice more resigned now, anger replaced by exasperation “We all makes mistakes. But, you’ve gotta be more careful. I know you don’t do this stuff Brandon, I know you’re not good at it, but you’ve gotta learn.”
No, I thought to myself, in no way do I need to learn any of this.
I sigh and nod, I avoid eye contact with him.
He climbs back down to cut another piece. “That’s alright, we can use that piece somewhere else.” He adds, as if trying to comfort me over my own stupidity.
Foot by tedious foot the scaffolding climbed higher, through one of my concerns and another handful of his complaints we gained another rung on the scaffolding. A half a dozen more days of my ignorant efforts and his tired explanations and the last couple feet were finally gained. The wall finally came to meet the eve and the end was in sight at long last.
I stood now at full extension as I tried to screw soffit into place along the eve. The drill whined suddenly louder as my hand slipped and a screw was lost from sight, falling through the air to find a permanent home hidden between uneven rocks far beneath me.
“You’ve gotta keep the drill straight up and down.” I hear called up from below. I exhale slow and hard as I find another screw in my pouch, fingers growing numb in the November air. I was aware of how pitiful my progress was, that I was moving far slower than I should be for such a simple task. Yet, any attempts at moving faster granted me with more frequent shouts from below, as even more screws were lost. The remarks made over my lack of speed were less angry than those made over me wasting material, so I proceeded at a painstaking pace.
The last piece of soffit finally came to have a sharp piece of threaded metal pressed through it. A corner piece now needed to be measured, cut and nailed into place.
I took out the measuring tape and knelt upon the 2 x 10, but before the tape was even extended my grandfather called up “No, you won’t get a proper measurement like that.”
I looked back in mild confusion but acceptance, as he climbed part way up the scaffolding to hand me two different templates.
My grandfather began trying to explain to me how to hold the two pieces of template against the corner of the wall and then score one with a piece of chalk. The concept seemed simple enough as he handed me the pieces, but as I realized that they would not fit against the wall in the way he described, the process began to grow more complex.
“No, not like that. You needs the good edge butt up against it.”
I tried to shuffle the pieces in my hands in compliance.
“No. It needs to be able to fit tight in there.”
“Pop, I can’t, it won’t fit in there before it’s cut.”
“Yes, it will. I’ve been doing this a lot of years my son; I know what I’m talking about.”
Frustration grew in me as I fumbled again and again to achieve what he asked of me and his frustration became increasingly apparent as he was forced again and again to explain. His repetition of the words ‘edge’ and ‘it’, without indicating which ‘edge’ or ‘it’ made my attempts at deciphering what he wanted increasingly futile. With 12 feet of empty air between us, I found my words falling upon deaf ears, if not literally, then figuratively. Both the hearing and the stubbornness of age became more prominent, while in turn, my lack of construction experience and aptitude grew magnified.
“Why can’t I just use the measuring tape?” I ask, exasperated.
“You won’t get a good measurement.”
“Pop, I don’t see how this will do any better.”
“If you weren’t being so stunned you’d see by now.”
“Even if it did fit in there the way that you’re saying, you’ve still got to guess the top edge!”
“Not if you listened to what I’m saying!”
“Pop, I am listening to what you’re saying!”
“Then why aren’t you doing it!”
“Because what you’re saying doesn’t make sense!”
The distance between us leant us cause to be speaking louder than normal from the start. As our misunderstanding deepened it became easy for our voices to grow still louder, justification of distance being lost and stress assuring we did not consciously realize that we had begun shouting at one another.
“Pop, this won’t work. Let me just get a measurement and if that doesn’t work we can try again.”
“That’ll just be a waste of material!”
“This is just a waste of time!”
“Yes it is, because you don’t know what you’re doing and you won’t listen to what I’m telling ya”
I drop one of the templates onto the 2 x 10 beneath me. I kneel to pick it up as I see him throw down the snips he held in hand and begin making his way up the scaffolding. “What you’re telling me doesn’t make sense. This whole thing is a waste of time, putting up all this siding has been.” I say to him as he begins scaling the metal on his way up towards me.
“Better you’re at this than wasting your time at home doing nothing.” He says without looking at me.
I grind my teeth and say nothing.
“At least you’re doing something productive here, learning how to do something useful. A man your age should be able to do something” he says with an emphasis on something.
“If I wasn’t stuck here doing this, I would be doing something, I’d be writing.” I almost spit the words at his turned back.
“Yes, I know you does your writing. But, what’s the good of that if you can’t be at something as simple as this.” He says with a partial head turn and a wide gesture of his hands. He then picks up the pieces of template and begins trying to do the measurement I had failed to.
Within a couple minutes of turning the pieces over he realized there was a problem. He starts climbing back down the ladder.
“What is it?” I ask simply.
“Sure, you coulda told me the piece was too long to fit in there!” he says and shakes his head with enough frustration that he seemed angry.
I opened my mouth, about to shout, my exasperation converting to anger. Anger at his refusal to recognize that I had been right, anger that he somehow thought he had the right to be frustrated. Yet, something held my tongue.
I watched as hands worn with years of work, laid out the piece of PVC onto his workbench. Fingers confident through practise, skilled through experience, moved slowly across the material. He struggled for a moment, to line his square up with the sidings edge: movements slower than they used to be, a simple task, more difficult than it once was.
I watched him, with his words ‘your writing’, hanging in my mind. He had never read a word I’d written, he never would. Not out of disapproval, nor even distaste, what I did was simply not something he understood.
I watched him as he leaned closer to the square, ageing eyes trying to read the measurements on it. How could he not be frustrated?
How could someone who had lived a life doing the precise thing he now watched me struggle to do, not be frustrated with my incompetence? My lack of interest in what was both his livelihood and a prerequisite for his survival, how could it be anything short of infuriating? How could he not be frustrated with a grandson whom by his standards is useless, barely capable of swinging the same hammer he had built his house with?
Yet, that’s not how he thought of me. Even after the painstaking months of slow progress on that project, useless was not near how he considered me. He thought of my values as different, and yet I proved incapable of doing the same for him.
I watched as he finished the cut and sighed. Looking to the scaffolding he was unwilling to admit he struggled to climb. Looking beyond it to the corner piece that needed to be installed, a job once easy, and one with a process that was no longer so clear in his mind. My inability was not what brought about his frustrations; it was his own.
He walked to the scaffolding and hooked elbow in it, pulling himself the first two rungs, and then climbing upwards with the strength and skill only years of experience create, yet with the slowness that only years can create.
It is by the privilege he created, his generation created, that I gained the ability to be so audacious, pretentious, in a pursuit of something I felt was better than what he valued, and something he did not understand well enough to value. What to me was a childhood game, a fantasy that I grew out of, was to him, reality. Construction need not exist to fend off monsters, but instead it needed exist to build the home I grew up on in, and the one my father did before that.
I took the freshly cut piece of siding from his hands as he reached the top of the scaffold. I helped to hold it in place as he now took the measurement he wanted, the one he believed to be more exact.
Our silence clung to our clothing as even the noise of our movements seemed dampened.
I stepped out of the way to give him room to return to the ground. As he was turned away from me, before he began his descent, he spoke while staring at the metal rungs, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to call you stunned, I was just frustrated. Not your fault, Brandon. I just wants to get this done.”
I kept my head turned away from him, I felt hot tears burning cold cheeks. “I’ll put that piece up now, once you cut it.”
“You know how it goes in there now, do ya?” he said as he was making his way down the scaffolding.
“Yeah,” I say, “I just wasn’t looking at it the right way.”