Useful Skills by Marcy Campbell

“Everything’s gone to hell,” Dad says.

He’s called at his usual time—9:00 p.m. Tuesday—with a report of his annual physical. He talks of arthritis, his impending knee replacement, acid reflux.

“The doctor’s here don’t know shit!” he yells, and I hold the phone farther from my ear. Because he lives in Florida now instead of Ohio, many more miles away from me in Michigan, Dad seems to think he needs to talk louder for me to hear.

“Move back north,” I say. I say this all the time. “You hate the heat. You don’t golf. You don’t even like water. You can’t swim!”

I know he must be lonely there since Mom died, shuffling around the condo, wearing a path in the carpet from the TV to the kitchen.

He responds with, “How’s work?” and I know that he doesn’t really want an answer, but I give him one anyway.

“Busy. I’ve got a new client, an auto parts manufacturer. I’m writing their annual report.”

“You don’t know nothing about cars.”

“I’ll learn what I need to. I didn’t know anything about robots either, but I worked with that robotics company, remember?”

There’s a pause, and I can picture my dad sitting on the stool by the kitchen counter, looking out the window at the lawn he wishes he could mow himself (the condo manager takes care of it). From where he’s sitting, Dad could reach out his right hand and tap the door to his garage where he’s squirreled away every tool that would fit, then watched them grow dusty from disuse.

“How much they paying you?” he asks.

It’s hard for my dad to visualize a grown man working from home at odd hours, different projects all the time, different clients. I know it seems risky to him, no guarantee of a steady paycheck. All his life, he punched a clock at the assembly plant, time and a half for overtime. On weekends, he puttered around the garage with his tools. Surely, he wanted bigger things for me, wanted to see that my college education had bought me a corner office with windows, a place I would wear a suit to everyday. It doesn’t matter that my marketing business is doing well. I’ve got a home office in the guest bedroom; I’m the only employee. He assumes I get up at noon and work in my underwear, and okay, sometimes I do.

“They pay me enough,” I answer. Whatever figure I give will be too low, so I don’t bother.

“Did you fix the roof yet?”

“No. I’ve been too busy.”

“You know what they say about a stitch in time?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Well, what do they say?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember. Let me worry about the roof, okay? I’ll call someone tomorrow.”

“A stitch in time saves nine. Benjamin Franklin. Nine stitches is what it means. It saves nine stitches.”

I take in a long breath and look at the pail, half-filled with water, in the corner of the living room, left there from the other night’s big rain. The kitchen ceiling, leaking, too, has several dark spots, slowly spreading into shapes that look like animals. There is already one horse and two sheep.

“How about I come up for awhile and help out? Spend some time with my granddaughter,” Dad says. “It wouldn’t take long, even if we have to replace the whole thing. You’ve got a small house.”

This last sentence is like a slap, intended or not. I peek around the corner into Chloe’s room where she’s finally asleep. She goes back to her mother’s tomorrow, which made her even more clingy tonight, asking for one more story then another, then prompting me with the opening lines. “Once upon a time,” she’d say and giggle. That’s as far as she usually gets. She’s only three.

Chloe loves my Dad, and I know she’d be excited to see him, and I really could use his help, as much as I hate to admit it. I don’t want to hire someone to fix it; I don’t need that extra expense. I wouldn’t have any idea how to go about fixing it on my own, and I’m afraid of heights anyway. It’s a one-storey house, but still.

I hear myself saying, “When can you come?”

 

Over the next few days, I speed through the projects I have on my desk: an employee newsletter for the company that makes air conditioning units, a press release announcing a new line of mufflers, the web site copy for a company that specializes in the creation of web sites. I call in a favor to a friend at a company I did some pro bono work for and manage to score a couple great tickets behind the Tigers dugout for me and Dad.

I change the message on my office answering machine, the one that says Keller’s Marketing Services. I keep a separate phone line for business, in my office where Chloe isn’t allowed to play without supervision.

Jenny, before she left me, wasn’t really allowed to poke around in there either, come to think of it. I was worried something would get moved, and I wouldn’t be able to find it when I had a client on the phone. Once, as she approached the room with a rag and a can of Pledge, I met her at the doorway. “I’ll do it,” I said, “I’ll clean my office.” “Do the rest of the house while you’re at it,” she answered, handing me the can.

It’s true, I’m a bit touchy about my work situation. Despite the fact that working from home is becoming quite common, I still have a few friends who wonder what I’m really doing all day. And of course the whole idea is a foreign concept to my father who was stuck, for decades, with a factory job he hated. When I was in high school, after quitting a job at a landscaper’s that I worked at for a grand total of two weeks, Dad got into one of his preachy moods. “I worked on an assembly line for 35 years,” he said. “Hated every minute of it.”  There was pride in his voice, as if any job worth having was worth hating. “It’s work,” he was fond of saying, “it’s not supposed to be fun. Work is work. Fun is fun.”

 

With Chloe at Jenny’s, I flip through a home improvement book I checked out from the library and force myself not to get too distracted by the faux painting techniques in the first chapter. Amazing what people can do nowadays with paint and some sponges, rags, feathers. Looks like something Jenny would have done, had we not separated just three months after moving into this house. I can imagine her long, black hair tied back in a bandana, paint-splotched arms. She would have dived right in after looking at the pictures, not even bothering to read the directions, always been impulsive that way, like packing up a suitcase in the night to move out with Chloe. I skip to the roofing section that promises me “You Can Do It Yourself, For Less!”

 

Just two weeks after Dad talked about coming, he’s here in my living room, and the book is still sitting on the table where I left it, its bright blue cover featuring a smiling man and woman with their hands on their hips, both wearing tool belts. Dad sets his can of Coke, his daily shot of caffeine, on the book leaving a wet ring of condensation.

“Those damn books make it look so easy,” he says. “Truth is, some people won’t ever be able to do it on their own, and other people will do it, but it’ll just end up looking like crap.”

He picks the Coke back up, drains it, then crackles the can into a metal pancake. He’s already seen the spot in the living room, so I next lead him to the kitchen to show him the horse and two sheep. He pulls a small, green flashlight from one of the many pockets in his work pants, this one a long, thin pocket on the side of his leg.

“We’re going up to the attic,” he says, and I can tell by the expression on his face that he does not like the look of my ceiling animals. “Got some hangers?”

In the attic, Dad shines his flashlight into all the corners. “The water stains mean nothing,” he says. “Leaks rarely appear directly below where they originate.” I almost feel like I should have a notepad or something, as if at any moment, he’ll say “Are you getting this?” and I’ll be caught late for the exam without a pencil.

We see several spots of daylight coming through the attic ceiling. He twists the hangers and pokes the metal through. “So we can see it from outside,” he says when I give him a puzzled look. He then spends an hour walking around outside, periodically standing back with his hands on his hips. “Checking for sags,” he says.

Soon, he’s up on the one creaky, wooden ladder I own, climbing easily with no concern for his many ailments.

“Your gutters are full of leaves!” he says. “Don’t you ever clean your gutters?”

I don’t respond. I have never actually thought about my gutters until now. I wait patiently for his pronouncement, and eventually he comes back down and stands in front of me, blocking out the sun. Dad’s all shadow with just a halo of light peeking over the little tufts of gray on his head.

“You need a new roof,” he says.

 

The Dad I remember from my youth was muscled, frequently without a shirt, and just as frequently covered powdered in sawdust. Today, he has on a threadbare denim button-down, and there’s not any sawdust on him, yet, but the lines on his face are deep and dark, like some of it may have taken up permanent residence. He’s still fit. There’s no pudge on this guy, none of the beer belly so common on men over 60.

I used to love watching him build things when I was a kid — a hutch for Mom’s china, a couple bookcases. I’d tag along while he fixed everything that needed fixing. One day he would be patching a hole in the drywall, the next he’d be completely gutting the upstairs bathroom and starting from scratch.

 

Dad had driven his truck up from Florida. In the back, there’s a pile of tools: circular saw, miter box, stud finder, others I’ve seen before but can’t pin a name to. Dad has never had any formal training in carpentry, no classes (outside of high school shop) where someone would have taught him to measure and cut and fit things together. It’s all “learn as you go” according to him. “You pick it up as you go along,” he says. I used to fetch his tools, bringing him a flat-head screwdriver when he asked for a Phillip’s. I didn’t pick up anything, except a few slivers.

 

I call a company that rents dumpsters, so we can toss all the old shingles and junk into it, right off the roof. I buy dust masks for both of us and proudly present one to Dad, who looks at it with a mixture of amusement and scorn.

I’m feeling a bit down, as I always do just after Chloe leaves, but I know Jenny will bring her back in a couple days to see my dad, despite the fact that I’m not supposed to have her until the weekend. Jenny’s good like that.

I miss Chloe waking me up in the mornings. Oh, I grumble and put the pillow over my head, but it’s all an act. I even miss the way Jenny used to kick off the covers, and I’d wake up shivering.

As I get ready for bed, I’m hoping that when I get up on the ladder tomorrow, I’ll be able to control my fear of heights. It never used to be a problem and even now, it doesn’t happen all the time, typically just when I’m standing on something unstable, something like my ladder, which I borrowed from a neighbor in order to put up a wallpaper border in our bedroom just before we moved in. Red and pink roses. I wanted to surprise Jenny with something floral and feminine. When she saw it, she shrugged and said, “It’s nice.”

The neighbor told me to keep the ladder since he had a couple newer, better ones anyway. It has a thin piece of plywood that folds out like a shelf to hold a can of paint or something. Emblazoned red across it reads “Not a Step.”  As if someone would be stupid enough to stand on it. The lawyers made them do it, I’m sure. Some fool will step on this little shelf and break a leg and sue us because we didn’t tell them not to, they’d say.

I’m afraid I’ll step on the bottom rung and get the jitters, the same heart palpitations, the clammy skin, that I had when I raced Jenny to the hospital, and Chloe was born a month early. “Panic-attack,” Jenny called my condition. “Just your every day, low-grade panic attack.”

I felt the same clamminess when Jenny told me that she was very, very tired of living with a man who had “no spark.” She was tired of my “emotional tundra.” Called me a Yeti! Some frozen, freaky thing.

As far as mythical monsters go, I’ve always considered myself more of a Nessie, swimming along, not meaning any harm to anybody, kind of a softy. Chloe still so young, she’ll bounce back. Probably won’t even remember it. Once upon a time, mommies and daddies stayed together.

I look closely at myself in the mirror while I’m brushing my teeth. “I am a man who has rented a dumpster,” I say to my reflection.

“What?” Dad calls from his room.

“Nothing,” I say. I feel a little bit better.

 

I wake up to the smell of bacon. Dad’s an early riser, preferring to “get up with the chickens,” not that he’s ever had any chickens to know exactly what time they get up. I walk into the kitchen tugging at my sweat pants with the stretched-out elastic.

“Bad news,” Dad says. He’s already in his work pants and a button-down with a slight sheen to it, probably polyester. He lives in Florida, yet hasn’t discovered cotton. He glances at my sweatpants then nods toward the window. On the horizon are a pile of purple clouds, stacked one on top of the other and moving swiftly, headed east.

“We’re in for some rain, lots of it,” he says.

“Hmmm.” I scratch my head and start the coffee. I may not be Bob Vila, but I know we can’t replace the roof in the rain. I check my pail in the corner, get it into position. Dad and I bump around in the kitchen, pouring cereal, making toast. We share the newspaper while we eat and then move into the living room, me stretched out on the couch, Dad on the recliner. There would be an awkward silence if the rain wasn’t pelting the windows like it is. What to do, what to do. I hadn’t planned any alternate activities, figured the roof would take up all our time.

I ask Dad, “Do you want to play cards? Scrabble? Yahtzee?”

He frowns. “You don’t have to entertain me.”

He turns on the TV, settles on the Game Show Network. I watch with him for awhile, an old rerun of $100,000 Pyramid, thinking how $100,000 ain’t what it used to be. Then again, nothing is.

Pretty soon, I’m bored and decide maybe I should go check my email. See if I’ve gotten client approval on that last press release. Then I think, on a whim, to invite Dad along for a little field trip.

“Want to see my office?”

He looks startled. “You mean the bedroom? Where I’m sleeping?” But he clicks off the TV and follows me back.

“This is a web site I’m designing.” I’m flipping through the pages of the auto manufacturer’s product line. “See, people can just click on the parts they need and order them right on the computer and have them delivered, the next day if they want.”

I offer him the mouse and he shakes his head no, backs away from it. “Seems like you’ve got to have a computer these days. Can’t even order something over the phone anymore. All’s they’ve got is recordings from people that don’t even speak American.”

I log out of the site and shut down the computer. I was going to tell him about the classes I had taken to learn how to do web design, about how this skill was really going to grow my business, take it in an entirely new direction, but what was the use?

Dad’s looking at the pictures of Chloe on my wall. There’s a picture of Jenny there too in the sweater I gave her for Christmas. I refuse to take it down.

“Folks these days sure seem to know a lot of stuff,” he says to the photos. “But they don’t have any useful skills.” He stuffs his hands in his pockets and walks back toward the kitchen for his morning Coke. I hear him say, “It’s all Greek to me.”

I follow him, tugging up my sweatpants. I’m waiting for him to start laughing, hold up his hands and say just kidding. He takes a swig of the Coke and stares at the side panel of his can, the nutritional content. Zero, zero, zero.

“Put some clothes on,” he says, irritably, as if I’m naked.

I walk dutifully toward the bedroom, do a 360, walk back.

“You could at least pretend to show an interest,” I say and it feels so good.

“Life isn’t all about work, Jay.”

“Huh? Since when did you change your attitude?”

Dad took every opportunity to work overtime at the factory. When he was home, he was watching TV or building something. He acted like he was making all these things because my mom wanted them, but I never heard her ask. What did she need with a wooden wine rack? She didn’t drink!

And then suddenly, I know what this is all about. I know that he blames me for Jenny’s leaving. He’s always taken her side. Always pulling out chairs and opening doors for her when he visits while I stand there slack-jawed. Once upon a time, men were chivalrous.

“Listen,” I say. “If this is about Jenny, don’t even get started.”

“Jenny,” he says to the can. He takes a deep breath, fills up those massive lungs. “If you ignore your wife and don’t take care of things around home, you aren’t going to have a wife. Simple as that.”

“Ignore? Dad, I never ignored Jenny. Jesus, I love her!”

“Then where is she?” He glances wildly around the living room like she might just be hiding behind the chair.

“You don’t know anything about it,” I say.

“I know that women who are happy don’t leave,” he says, and this is the greatest irony of all. I never remembered my mom being especially happy, but where was she going to go? She didn’t have any education, no training that would have allowed her to get a decent job. She wouldn’t even drive their car unless it was an emergency.

I don’t say any of this to him. It would be too cruel coming so fast on the heels of her death. Instead, I storm off to my room, acutely aware of the similarity to my teenage days when I’d sulk off to be alone with my music. I sit on the edge of my bed for awhile, then slowly change into a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt, items of clothing Dad has never owned. Never in my life have I seen him in shorts. He lives in Florida, for Chrissakes. I am 34 years old, and I have never seen my own father’s legs.

 

When I come out of my room, he’s nowhere to be found. I look outside, and his truck is gone, too. I sink down into a chair. Should have just let him watch his game show, but now he’s all pissed off, probably headed home. Truth is, I know I could have probably done more to keep Jenny from leaving. Could probably be a better father, too, although I don’t think Chloe can complain. I love her to death, but it’s hard. I’m doing the best I can.

I feel like calling Jenny and telling her Dad left and Chloe’s not here and you’re gone and I’m lonely, I miss you, come home. I’ve been wanting to try and set up a time to meet with her, to talk things out. Six months is too long to be separated. It’s time enough to figure out what she wants.

 

I sit around for an hour or so, thinking about an article on spark plugs that I need to write and other things I can get started on, now that I have this extra time, when I hear someone pull up the driveway. Dad hurries up to the door, and I open it, letting his wet, grinning self in to shake the rain off like a dog.

“Let’s build something,” he says. “A rocking chair for Chloe.”

There is a big, adult-sized rocking chair in my living room that had been Jenny’s grandma’s. Jenny left it here, along with so many of her things, which gives me hope. Chloe loves to sit in it, dwarfed in it, her little hands clutching the armrests, her feet sticking straight out from the seat. She hardly has enough weight to get the thing going or enough momentum to keep it up.

I help Dad unload the wood he just bought from the Home Depot in town, and he sets up a mini-workshop in my garage, hauls out his tools. The wood gives off a pleasant smell, and it’s cozy in here, while the rain beats down outside. Neither of us says anything about what happened. It’s clear Dad wants to get to work.

“What’s step one?” I ask, and he just shakes his head. I know better than to ask if we need plans, some kind of diagram at least. We work through the morning, break for a quick lunch, and continue through the afternoon. I saw when he tells me to saw, hammer when he points to a nail and, slowly, I can see the thing taking shape. At one point, I say, “Dad. About Jenny.”

“No, no.” He holds up his hands. “It’s none of my business.” He gives me some glue, and I glop it into the holes, fit the posts together. Kind of like a puzzle. Dad says it’s a Shaker-style. “It’s not fancy,” he says. “It’s simple. Simple but sturdy.”

I wonder what Chloe will say when she sees it, always surprising me these days with whatever craziness comes out of her mouth. Recently at breakfast, “I like my blue shirt. More toast. Giraffes have long necks,” in quick succession.

I’d like Jenny to see the chair. “A surprise!” I’ll say. “I built it myself,” I’ll lie. But, it could be difficult to get her into the house. Lately, Jenny has taken to dropping Chloe off at the curb and waiting until I let her in, then pulling away as though she and I are anonymous, as though she was just a tired bus driver with many more stops to make. I give a little wave from the doorway, whether she’s looking or not, and wonder all over again, for the millionth time, what I could have done, what I can still do. If we could just talk. If she could just meet me halfway.

 

The chair only takes one more day to finish. It’s a beauty, standing there in the middle of my dirty garage. But, it’s naked still, so Dad and I stain it a light brown, the color of Chloe’s hair, and cover it with a coat of polyurethane. I bring the chair into Chloe’s room and set one of her dolls in it. Dad and I stand back and admire it, and I give it a nudge, start it rocking.

“You did a great job,” I say.

“You did good, too.”

It’s nice of him to say even if it isn’t true. Earlier, I had smashed my thumb with the hammer and now see a purple ring forming on my nail. I go to the bathroom to wash up while Dad flips on the news, calls the weather report in to me. The rain is almost past, and we’ve got five days of sun, time enough to do the roof.

 

In the morning, we start early, hoping to get a lot done before the real heat of the day sets in. Dad motions for me to go up the ladder first, and I get to the fourth step before the thing starts wobbling a little and I feel a bit faint.

“Watch yourself!” Dad says and grabs hold of the ladder, steadies it. “Go on up.”

I climb slowly, reach the roof, then sit for a minute to calm down, slow my breathing.

“You alright?” Dad calls up.

“I must be out of shape,” I say. He’s in an especially upbeat mood for so early in the morning. He practically hopped out of bed ready to get started, no sign of arthritis that I can see.

“You ready to do some real work?” he yells, almost giddy. He’s gathering some tools from his truck, sticking them in the multitude of pockets in his pants.

“Yup!” I say, not sure at all if I am. I get my dust mask into position and see Dad’s mask is lying crumpled under a tree. The dumpster gapes open below me, ready to be filled.

Dad starts up the ladder, and I joke with him, pointing to the red-lettered caution on the ladder’s shelf.

“Watch out now, Dad, that’s not a step.”

“Damn lawyers,” he mumbles and joins me on the roof.

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