Painting the house on Scott St. continued for weeks. Color crept across the dullness and the old white house seemed to thicken. The boards were washed blue in the morning, calm purple in the evening, grey as wool in the sunlight. Columns gleamed, the details meticulous, the window sashes precise and the trim refreshed. And when you looked closely, it all needed repeating.
We borrowed scaffolding from down the street. It took a day to carry the pieces over, set them up, and I don’t know if it saved time. Then I had to walk it through the mud like a thirty foot dresser, all by myself too, so I’m guessing it didn’t. We acquired a cherry picker another day being used nearby. Operating a bucket lift had always been a dream of mine.
For the indefinite future it seemed like I would be on the family’s payroll when it came to matters of the paint job. Or fixing the van, hanging hallway doors, whatever came along. When it became clear that I would also be a father at the rate I was painting, I figured it best to consider getting a good couple brushes of my own.
Then I received a phone call. It was a friend with a lead, a mutual friend was looking for extra hands. I decided to call and that was the night before I stepped onto my first roof with a certain man of many names, most of them being in Spanish. “Hombre Peligroso,” “Maestro,” “Hombre Jefe,” or simply Scott the Roof Dancer.
I walked over to Johnny’s in the morning to catch a ride. It was five thirty AM, still dark, and he was idling in a late ‘80s F150 already hitched to his mower trailer. I jumped in the cab and saw a couple McDonalds Bacon Egg and Cheese sandwiches in the seat. Johnny was wide awake and smiling, the green light of the tape player illuminating his enormous yellow dreadlocks. We pulled out into the sleeping street, discussing everything we knew about roofing. Then he put it into second.
Scott was already there. We heard him at the back of the house rattling what sounded like an enormous tarp. A red dumpster sat in driveway and Johnny and I walked around to find Scott setting a ladder against the back of the house.
“Morning Johnny. Levon.” He shook our hands in a dirty glove that looked like the palm and fingers had been dipped in orange plastic.
“Morning,” we said.
“Been on a roof before?”
I started to mention a few things I’d probably done wrong on my own house but said no.
He handed each of us what I guessed to be a barbaric weapon. It had a Y shaped handle, a solid wood shank, and a block of steel with jagged teeth on the end. It was basically a dump truck bucket on a stick. Mine looked like it had also stirred a kettle of nails or something and Johnny’s handle was broken off altogether.
“It’s a roofing shovel,” Scott said. “I’ll show you what you do.” He climbed the ladder and skipped up the roof with Johnny and I behind. He sank the teeth under a shingle which gave a swallowed thud like a nail had popped somewhere. He did it two more times and the shingle scooped like an egg.
“There’s four nails in every shingle and it works best to skip every two rows. The way they overlap you can get two perfectly. Just pop em up and that’s it. They’ll slide from there.”
He handed me the shovel and disappeared down the ladder. Johnny and I looked at the small disruption begun along the peak. Then we looked around us, noting how many shingles remained where we stood.
Johnny and I slammed, beat, pried, hoisted, clamored, stripped layers of clothing, sweated, stretched our backs, fought for footing, and when the sun rose over the trees we had moved the front line back about ten feet. I was amidst a vision, back on a hillside striking the red Tennessee clay with a pick ax, bits of limestone sending shivers up my ears. Those were decking nails.
Scott was on the patio roof by himself. He was building a stair stepped pattern of shingles from one corner. Every few seconds he fired a nail gun, “pap pap pap pap.” A pause, “pap pap pap pap.” I watched him go whenever I could look up.
With tremendous calamity the shingles fell. Some sang off like missiles and cracked into the tarp. Brittle and awkward, ripping at your fingers, they entangled better than spaghetti. A young guy showed up to load the dumpster.
I take great pride in being tough. I know Johnny does too. We were landscapers, never to be out shoveled. Still, we looked at each other with the same thing in our faces: any four letter word you want.
With the tear off almost complete, I got down to clean up. There came a piercing voice over my shoulder. It was one of the sternest lashings I could remember, out of nowhere, and it wasn’t Scott either. Standing in the trees was a short older woman speaking with a thick German accent. She pointed up in the sky and then pointed at the pile of shingles.
“You kill it. You kill them all. My plant. They are here.” Then she wailed.
I looked at the ocean of shingles on the tarps. We’d killed it, she was right. Scott came around the house and so did Johnny. We threw one pile of shingles onto another as the woman stood there moaning. The tarp edge was found and we pulled it back. There was flattened grass and ground covering plants, mangled. Nothing special.
She had an embarrassed smile on her face. ”I see. Fine.” I thought about saying something pleasant, accustomed to this situation as if we’d found our banking error. Scott was already being nice.
“We’re as careful as we can be, but we have to get the shingles off. Still, we wouldn’t knock them down where we saw plants.
“Ok. Ok. Fine.” And she was gone.
The roof was swept clean as the day it was decked. The brittle paper was in my socks and pockets, the shingle dust a fine grit in my nose. My forearms were raw from the fiberglass. My pants were bunched in sweaty wads behind the knee having crouched to pry a thousand nail heads. My back wouldn’t straighten and it didn’t matter if it did because to stand up straight would be to fall backwards off the roof. I thought we’d really done some work.
It was afternoon when we climbed off the shiny black felt, the red chalk lines newly popped like a runway. Scott said very casually, “Now we gotta get the shingles up.” I said, also very casually, “Cool.”
The pallet of shingles was around front. They were brown paper sacks about the size of a Fender guitar case. I gave one of them a little tug. Another tug. Wow.
Scott walked up, threw a bundle over his shoulder and walked off. I heaved it up the same way, sort of. Kind of like a catfish, I thought. We walked around a million trashed shingles laying on the tarps.
“How many are in here?”
It sounded as if he said 18, but this thing weighed like 100 lbs. He reached the ladder, climbed up, stepped onto the roof, and walked to the ridge. He dropped the bundle halfway to either side with a bang. I did the same thing, sort of. So did Johnny.
Scott was talking math to himself. “Eight, no nine square… We need Pro Starts. Thats what, 27? Okay, we need 24 more. 24, guys.” Johnny and I looked at each other with more unsaid four letter words, might’ve even slipped one out.
The younger guy, Johnny and I started packing bundles up the roof, and when we’d finished they both had to go. Johnny left to mow his yards and I grabbed my Clif bar out of the truck. If there was going to be a lunch break this was it. Johnny told me to have fun. I told him to stretch before he got stuck to a lawnmower.
It was afternoon and the house still had no roof. Scott was either sure of a clear forecast or the rest of this was easier.
“I’m going to build books in the corner,” he said. “Every other row is lined up either to a chalk line or the sawtooth on the shingle.” He showed me what he meant.
“Nail it here, here, here and here. I don’t care how fast you go. We just need it done right.”
“Get a nail too close to an edge, or shoot it too low to be covered, and we got problems.”
I nodded again.
He handed me a gun with a coiled rack of nails. Beginning in the corner, he’d cut shingles that stepped up longways to short like a staircase. I nailed full ones right beside his. He watched me for a while, correcting me a few times. Soon enough I was taking the rows all the way across where they lay wild over the edge.
“You’ll wanna get you a hook blade in your knife,” he told me.
Late that Fall afternoon, after all the tearing and hoisting, I sat on a foam pad and fell into a new rhythm. There was a system of nail patterns repeating, shingles overlapping, edges falling into a particular sequence, with underside glue that would seal upon the next hint of sun. Basically, you have to nail to hide another nail. Chimneys weave into step flashing then get counter flashing. Cut around a boot to make room for a pipe. Two sections of roof come into a valley or can fall over a hip. The ridge vent breaths along the top and all ridges must be capped. Flash into anything. Silicone everything. A finished roof shows no indication of how it is held together and that is precisely why water sheds.
Today we had a straight shot with a chimney at the bottom. Much slower than my teacher, I lined up a shingle, gave it a tight edge and hit it with four bumps of the gun. 100 feet apiece of orange lines ran behind us, over the edge, and from somewhere afar the compressor rumbled. We chased the late sun over the house, climbing our chalk lines to the ridge.
I was sweeping the driveway when the woman came back outside. She apologized and so did I, I suppose for the grass. She brought us a pitcher of lemonade.
On the way home we talked about a few more roofs coming up. I would meet the regular crew then, all of whom had a various reason to miss today. Scott pulled up to my house and I fell out of the truck, bent in half and stuck that way. He paid me better than good for the day’s work and it floored me. Not the money, but the respect. You beg for tips and give away enough music, you start to feel worth about that much. I’ve said that songwriting is a trade that lends itself easily but too much art is inspired by gruntwork. Scott had given me the gun.
I was more tired than I could remember. Still I had to get on my bike and meet Ashley downtown. She had some paintings in a show and there would be food. Looking into the future, riding down my street, I decided on a timeframe for painting the house on Scott St. It may have needed a crew of four, but it had me. And I didn’t want to be an odd job handyman walking to the Kenjo everyday. It was time to paint a house.