1 - By Hammer and By Hand
I fired the BFG.
Ka-schtonk! Ninety millimeters of cold-galvanized steel, slammed though a two-by-six header.
Krikey! Blasting a wall full of nails with that big framing gun was beyond satisfying.
I stood back. Admired the future wall. It was a skeletal frame of heavy lumber at the time, but it was sound. I gave it a good yank or two. Nothing came lose, crashed down, or flattened me.
Restoration of my Arts and Crafts bungalow had gotten a lot easier since Ralph -- that's the neighbor across the street with his own 1912 Craftsman -- convinced me to drop a few hundred bucks on a nail gun. The neighborhood got a lot quieter too. One good ka-schtonk! instead of a bunch of hammer blows and a blue streak of bad words, was all it took to drive a four inch nail.
Speaking of language, I was weirdly into counting things in Russian. Like studs: vertical, wooden struts that hold up the wall. I counted a lot of studs. "Ah-deen, de-vah, tree, quatre... bollocks! Quatre is French. What comes after three? Come on. Think!" I pulled off a glove, poked at a laptop on a table-saw. "Ah hah! Che-teary... che-teary, che-tier-ee." Took me long enough, but maybe I'd pick up some Russian vocabulary. Eventually.
Okay, let's leave the BFG and Russian for a sec. I ought to tell you a little bit about myself. Did I just hear a groan? Yah, yah, yah. I'll keep it brief. It is, however, fundamental motivation for what's ahead. You might want to take notes. Get comfy. Pour yourself a scotch. Might as well kill the phone while you're at it. Okay, all ready? Here goes.
I grew up in a typically middle-class family. We were a safely well-off, yet wildly dysfunctional bunch. Like what family isn't? Dad was violently alcoholic, super intelligent, highly respected, very successful and an absolute psychopath. His roots were somewhere in Ukraine -- or Russia, or Poland, or depending on the year, Nazi Germany. My mom's ancestral lineage traced a long line back to Scotland.
Hey you! Yeah, you in the recliner. I could hear you snoring halfway to Key West. Come on... stay with me or we'll never get through this.
Where was I? Scotland... right. This ancient history matters insomuch as it deals with culture. We didn't have any. Unless the North American culture of no-culture counts. It doesn't. Maybe us boomlets: babies of boomers, didn't really want culture foisted on us. I mean, let a kid decide between Super Mario, and loud, stinky, abusive, horrifying culture from the old country, and it was no contest.
My father's contribution to culture were his parents. A couple of zombies we had to call, Baba and Djee-djee. In weirdly erratic orbits around our Ukrainian grandparents were countless uncles and aunts from the old-country.
Dad demanded we visit his house-of-horrors side of the family as payback for any time we got to spend with my Mom's parents and relatives. The thing is, we absolutely adored Mom's parents, which drove Dad into paroxysms of borderline, narcissistic rage. Gram and Grandpa -- Mom's folks -- were cultureless Canadians from like before the end of the last ice-age. They didn't stink, chain-smoke, spit, scream at each other in Polish-Russian-Ukrainian Creole. Run over one of their offspring. Pass out drunk and choke on their own vomit. Blast shotgun holes in the walls. Drive pickup trucks through taverns. Die of a subdural hematoma in the guest bedroom. Or kill one of their kids for being gay.
Doing hard-time with Dad's side of the family usually went like this: Baba -- that's Slavic for granny -- wailing hysterically in something that sounded like Klingon, at grandchildren she didn't recognize; us kids gagging on gristly mystery-meat that Dad encouraged we, "Choke down, or so-help-you-god!" And Djee-djee -- Slavo-Klingon for grandpa -- catatonic, shit-faced drunk, perched on a plastic covered sofa, staring at a dead console TV festooned with Jesus figurines. Thinking back -- which tends to require emergency psychotherapy -- it's no wonder us kids so desperately preferred Mom's side of the family. Poor Dad, such a battle he fought to enforce equal visitation with those members of his family that weren't dead, deranged, dangerous or incarcerated.
When us kids fled the nest, Mom and Dad divorced. They eventually re-married, but good ol' Pops just kept on drinking himself to ruin. He wiped out a brilliant career in medicine and medical research. Then, no big surprise, his next marriage failed and he drank himself to death. Good ol' Pops and the house went down in flames... literally. Lawyers picked the estate clean, leaving just enough of its smoldering carcass for each kid to buy a house of her own.
I wrangled myself a real fixer-upper in a pretentious, Victoria neighborhood. I figured, it would be home if I ever finished it. Which I didn't, preferring to keep the place in a state of perpetual reconstruction. Everyone assumed I would renovate and flip the bungalow for a tidy profit. To prevent friction, I let them think whatever they wanted. An architect told me to bulldoze the thing. A realtor offered more for the lot than I paid for the whole shebang. Over back-deck barbecues, friends laughed at my dumb luck. Yup, an impetuous, real estate deal on a tear-down transformed me -- a misfit, computer geek -- into a real-estate tycoon... or so they thought.
The thing is, I couldn't care less about real-estate development. I was building a new life. Seeing as I couldn't stand my past, I would damn well build a new one. With the bungalow's century of built in history, at least I wasn't starting from scratch. With I-beams and huge hydraulic jacks, house-movers lifted the house off its crumbling foundation. Jackhammers and Bobcats scurried about underneath it, breaking up and carting away the old foundation. A new one was formed and poured, and I signed it with a hand print in the wet cement.
I stopped at nothing to resurrect the bungalow and do it myself. The size of the project was spine-tingling thrilling. With painstaking attention to period detail, I more than doubled the original square footage. By hammer and by hand, I was building my fantasy home. A dream so real even I'd believe it. A place lived in for generations by a family replete with experiences not too painful to recall. By simulating a well-worn antique, I was determined to inherit the memories of a past that never existed.
New England shingle cladding, genuine lath and plaster -- smells like a dead horse when it gets wet -- knob and tube wiring, leaded glass windows. Dreaming it up through the haze of dust and construction carnage, I imagined walls covered with sepia toned photographs in chipped and mismatched frames. Dogs, long gone, staring eagerly out of the past. A classic, yawl-rigged sailboat. Friends with a silver cup and championship grins. A beaming uncle with a big fish taken somewhere Hemingway might have hollered at a bartender. Christmas trees. A huge table loaded with food, surrounded by grinning, tipsy relatives in paper crowns. Toddlers, then kids, then teenagers with bikes, cars, girlfriends, then graduation gowns, then more kids.
The thing about kids, was about my being one, not having them. What I yearned for was a place in that ubiquitous, yet esoterically indefinable, ideal family. When it came to children, I wouldn't wish childhood on anyone. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't completely crazy. I knew there would be no pictures to split the lath or crack the plaster. I didn't actually think I could build myself a home, but by giving it my best shot -- by reproducing details others might miss -- I could at least have the house.
Why in hell couldn't we summer on Cape Cod? It felt like everyone else did. Then all tanned and heroically normal, they'd shingle their walls with Nautica memorabilia. Okay, as an adult I sort of got the idea that not everyone lived misty, sepia-toned lives but it carried over. It left me scratching obsessively for answers -- maybe even meaning -- in all things Russo-Ukrainian. You could say, I was on a forensic quest to the root of that childhood destroying evil. If only to see it for what it was. Face the robber of safety. Make sense of it. Have my Magnolia moment with the asshole past and be done with it.
There was also the intoxicating thrill of the Orange Revolution drawing me back to Ukraine. By then it had lost momentum; like a withering, barely remembered resolution on New Year's day. Still, it was exciting. It was young. It was brash. It was a new Ukraine disowning an uncomfortable past and promising a better future.
I wanted in, so I studied Russian. It covered more territory than Ukrainian. In the end, parroting audio lessons, running software, cramming books, even going to classes only got me so far. Getting real meant communicating with actual Russian speakers. Their amusement was my gain, not to mention a sardonic introduction to the online, Slavic subculture. That was how I ended up chatting -- at first in real-time and then via email -- with Elena, an architect in Ivanovo, Russia.
* * *
It was late. I kindled a fire and curled up with my laptop. Another gloomy, wet, cold Victoria winter was right around the corner. My bungalow was full of holes. The urgent need to plug a few of them had kept me from the Russian chatter-sphere for several weeks. But it was late, and neighbors got petulant over midnight renos. Might as well go online. Good thing I did. An architect from somewhere east of Moscow had written. What she told me was astounding. I read her email again and again. Why had I left it for so long?
It was in English. The architect, someone calling herself Elena, was studying it. Frankly, her English surpassed my Russian by orders of magnitude. She'd attached photos taken on an all-inclusive with her boyfriend in Turkey. Landscapes. Beautifully composed, great resolution, superb color balance. Gorgeous shots. Glaringly though, Elena was missing from every single one of them. Did she copy them from National Geographic?
In passionate detail she described the sites and antiquities of central Turkey. With just as much passion, she told me about hating the man she was with. How she couldn't stand being with him. That she was condemned to marry him. Her life was over. Each time I read her letter it screamed, "Help!"
I banged out a reply on my laptop. Weeks had gone by. I hoped she hadn't given up, or worse.
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