The summer I was thirteen, my cousin, Billy, hired me at his landscaping company. This thrilled me to no end. Having grown up with two older sisters and a chronically disappointed father, Billy was my only male role model, the closest thing I had to an older brother. He was in his mid-twenties at the time, handsome, muscular and intense, with naturally dark Italian skin, brooding eyes, a big smile and a great head of thick, wavy hair. By contrast, I was skinny, fair-skinned and dainty, with hair so straight and downy it couldn’t even hold a part. I did whatever I could to toughen up my image—pushups, ripped jeans, black t-shirts—but it’s hard to be intimidating when your head looks like a dandelion.
Working alongside my cousin—outdoors in the sun, pushing heavy equipment—would grandfather me into the world of toughness. Landscapers were the Roman soldiers of suburban life. They patrolled the streets in green trucks, smoking cigarettes, whistling at girls and listening to classic rock. To ride with them would be a significant leap in masculinity, especially given my current part-time job bagging groceries at Star Market, where I stood like a goof for three hours a day, wearing a blue smock, watching food drift toward me in slow motion.
“You up for this, mush?” Billy said, sitting behind the wheel of his pickup, the engine grumbling. Whenever he wanted to talk to me, or anyone in my family, he just drove his truck into our driveway, honked the horn, lit a cigarette and waited for someone to come out. That’s how cool he was.
“I’ll start you off three days a week, Monday to Wednesday, then we’ll take it from there.” He flicked ash from his cigarette. His palms were calloused and grease-stained, whereas mine were soft and pink. “You’ll be the low man, and you’ll be doing a lot of shit work, but if you stick with it, you’ll get more responsibility. By the time you turn sixteen, you could be driving your own truck, running your own crew.”
Driving my own truck? I envisioned myself jumping from the back of a pickup, wearing a trucker hat and aviator sunglasses. Or hurling tractor-trailer tires one by one onto a pile. Or tearing apart an aluminum shed with a crow bar. The fantasies were endless.
There were three of us in Billy’s crew: Billy, myself, and a 23-year old amateur body-builder named Tommy. We looked like a traveling Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot: two bare-chested models and a random kid that someone threw in for the sake of diversity. While they worked the heavy equipment, like the industrial mower or the weed whacker, I pushed around a small, consumer-grade lawnmower, like the one my dad used at home. My job was to cut the edges of the lawns as well as any narrow sections that the power mower couldn’t reach. This took about fifteen minutes. Then I looked on with envy as the other two operated the real machines. They were surgical, a pair of commandos working in perfect synchronicity. One day, I thought. One day.
“Hey! Dipshit!” Billy walked toward me, carrying the weed whacker like a machine gun, his biceps bulging with veins. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but his voice scared me, so I sat upright in the grass and put my boots back on while he loomed over me. “Huh? Nothing. I’m just waiting for you guys to finish,” I said, gesturing toward the backyard, a half-eaten Fruit Roll-Up in my hand.
“Waiting for us to finish?” Billy repeated in disbelief. “You lay in the grass and take your shoes off while we’re out here working?”
“My feet hurt,” I said. Then, softly: “These are new boots.”
“Jesus Mary Mother of God,” he said, wiping his hand across his face. “Never, absolutely never, should you sit down. If you finish before us you ask ‘what else can I do?’ Or you get on your hands and knees and start pulling up weeds. Or you run to the store and get us cold drinks. You don’t lay down in the sun and eat a fucking fruit snack that your mommy packed for you.” He walked away, shaking his head. “Unfuckingbelievable.”
For the rest of the afternoon I kept my head down and stayed quiet. I took my time with the mower, retracing each path at least twice. When I finished I scoured the lawn for weeds. If I couldn’t find any I’d pick up anything—pebbles, acorns, gum wrappers, blades of discolored grass—and store it in my pocket. I was afraid to stop moving.
That Wednesday I got my first paycheck. A hundred and twenty bucks, cash. Twice as much than I ever made in a week at Star Market. And this was just the beginning.
I felt more comfortable in my second week, a little seasoned, confident that as long as I kept moving I would avoid any scrutiny. I can do this, I thought as I pushed the mower around the fringe of a million-dollar home on Commonwealth Avenue, easing into a nice rhythm. That rhythm came to a grinding halt, however, when I mowed directly onto a rock garden. I would have seen it coming had my eyes been open, but I was lost in a daydream, an imaginary place where I was tanned and muscular and in charge of my own landscaping company.
“It just stopped working?” Billy said, wafting away the black smoke. He tilted the mower on its side and inspected the undercarriage. The blade was mangled. “This just happened out of nowhere? Is that what you’re telling me?” he said, his chest and shoulders heaving up and down as though priming his own rage.
“Maybe I hit a rock, I don’t know,” I said, my lip quivering.
“Maybe you hit a rock?” he said. It occurred to me that most of our dialogue consisted of me saying something and then Billy repeating it in disbelief.
There was nothing else to do but shrug. Billy pushed the broken mower back to his truck, loaded it onto the trailer and then drove off, returning an hour later with a replacement model.
“You just set us back two houses,” Billy said as he gave me the new mower. “From now on, fucking pay attention.”
My next paycheck was eighty bucks, forty less than my regular wage. When I told my father, he said that was most likely the cost of the lawnmower repair, deducted from my salary. “Being an idiot has consequences, son. How long have I been telling you this?”
“Can’t people make mistakes?” I asked.
“Of course,” my mother said. “As long as they learn from them.”
After that conversation I gained a new appreciation for mistakes, and thus I went easier on myself when I made them. “From now on, never fill up the mower’s gas tank on the lawn, in case there’s a leak,” I said, looking down at a circle of burnt yellow grass, the size of a manhole cover. When I forgot to load the leaf blower onto the trailer one day after a job, I made a mental note to check at least once before saying I was “absolutely positive” about something. “Now I know,” I said to myself, while Billy drove back to retrieve the blower from the last house, three towns over.
By the end of June my schedule had dropped from three days a week to two. Billy said it was only temporary, until he secured some more clients. By mid-July it was down to one day a week. “Summer’s a slow time of year for landscaping,” he said, but I think it had something to do with Mr. Cosgrove’s bed of daffodils, which I mistook for weeds and subsequently ripped from the soil, one by one.
As my schedule shrank, so did my responsibilities. I spent less time cutting grass and more time guarding the trailer, which, up until then, had not been a concern. Most of the equipment was in use while the truck was parked, so all I really protected were a stack of orange cones. “You can never be too cautious in some neighborhoods,” Billy shouted as he disappeared over the rolling hills of a three-acre front lawn.
Finally, in late July, I quit. “I’d like to devote more time to my friends,” I told Billy. “This is the last summer we have before high school.” The truth, of course, was that I was incompetent, and I finally owned up to it. Being incompetent is one thing, but actually knowing you’re incompetent is a hard reality to face.
At the end of August I went to Star Market and got back my job as a grocery bagger. They gave me a twenty-five cent raise and said in three months I could get promoted to cashier, which paid five-fifty an hour. Cashiers had always intimidated me; they knew all types of register codes by memory and were responsible for depositing their cash in a rubber bag that was then locked and signed over to a manager. With proper training, though, I knew I could do it. What’s more, cashiers didn’t wear blue smocks, just a white collared shirt with a nametag and necktie. Maybe I was more suited for the white-collar world, after all. There was no shame in that.
By October I forgot all about landscaping. There were fleeting moments, up in the Star Market break room, when I imagined Billy, Tommy and myself, sitting on our Igloo coolers, eating Italian subs, smelling freshly cut grass and talking about the Red Sox. Then I’d snap out of it and bring my attention back to the break room, where I shared a table with Heather, Michelle, Caitlin and Brenda, listening to another of their fierce debates on who was better, Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul.
* * * *
It’s been over twenty-five years, and I’ve long since accepted my ineptitude when it comes to anything handy. In 2006 I bought a fixer-upper condo in South Boston at a great price, and the only upgrades I’ve done in ten years were replacing a screen door and assembling three bookshelves that I bought at Target. The screen door was a surprising success, but the bookshelves have buckled and leaned over time. They were intended to be an astute symbol of knowledge, but have instead become a haunting foreshadow of old age.
My lack of interest in renovating was likely due to my dependency on drugs and alcohol, a habit that required a great deal of time and money to maintain on a daily basis. When I got sober, in 2013, I rededicated my home improvement efforts, starting with a bathroom update. I bought new fixtures, ceramic tiles and a gallon of paint. Then I found a handyman on Angie’s List and paid him $1500 to do all the work. He finished it in one weekend, and it looked great. It was time for the next project: my condo’s front door. This I tackled sixteen months later.
The door had been an eyesore from day one. It’s shade of dark brown went out of style in the 1600s, a time when “plain” was fashionable and aesthetics were seen as devil worship. The knob and deadbolt were reinforced with steel plating, presumably to safeguard against burglars, or, considering my neighborhood, Drug Enforcement Agents. The wood in the frame had decayed so much over the last century that the screws would no longer hold the hinges. This made the door uneven, so it could only open forty-five degrees before it got stuck against the floor. I’ve heard real estate people say that a modern kitchen sets the tone for an entire house, but in my experience nothing says “welcome home” like a quality front door, the premium kind that opens and closes.
I bought a door from Home Depot and hired my handyman to install it. “No problem,” he said. “Shouldn’t take more than a few hours.” But the job wasn’t that easy. He couldn’t get the door to shut, no matter how much he measured and shaved and sanded. It fit perfectly in the frame, but once he attached the hinges it overshot the jamb by a half inch. “This door is exactly the same goddamn size as that door,” he said, pointing to the old door that leaned against my kitchen wall. Over and over the handyman went through the same ordeal: he removed the door, sanded the edges down, then put it back on, but still it banged against the jamb, refusing to shut. Eventually he tried forcing it in, growling as he leaned into it with all his weight. “Goddammit!” he screamed. “The fuck is wrong with you?!”
By ten o’clock he was on his knees, trembling, whispering to the door, asking how it could be so fucking cruel.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he finally said. “The old door fits. The new one doesn’t. They’re both the same size. I can’t explain it.” His voice was shaky, the way a person talks when nobody believes them about the flying saucer or the talking chair.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, getting my checkbook. I was tired and frustrated just from watching him. “How much do I owe you?”
“I can’t charge you,” he said. “I didn’t do the job.”
I offered to pay him half his quote but he refused. Still, I had to give him something for the effort, so I handed him all the cash I had on me. “At least buy yourself some dinner,” I said. “Or pick up some flowers for your girlfriend.”
He looked down at the twelve bucks in his hand. “Thanks. This is…generous.”
“Why don’t you just call my dad?” my wife, Amanda, said when she got home and found me sitting in the dark, holding my brand new stainless steel deadbolt, turning the lock in and out, in and out. Click-click, click-click.
“He’ll know what to do,” she said. “He could probably finish the door in an afternoon, and then we’ll take him out to dinner afterward. He loves helping out family.”
My father-in-law, Armand, is a contractor. He knows how to build things, and he understands how things work. If he comes across something he doesn’t understand, he will study it and tinker with it until it makes sense to him. He is naturally curious and patient. When he walks down a city block he stops and looks up at things: buildings, scaffolding, highway overpasses, anything. My brain does not work this way. I am naturally impetuous. If I come across something I don’t understand, I figure it must not be important. When I walk down the street I ignore the wonders of everyday life, opting instead to talk to myself and craft elaborate insults for use in later conversations.
“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s call him.” I should have done this from the start, as my wife suggested three weeks ago, but I didn’t want to bother him with what I assumed would be a menial task. That and I wanted him to think I was capable. Or at least capable enough to hire someone else to do a decent job.
My in-laws drove up the following Sunday. As soon as Armand hopped out of his Dodge Ram I felt at ease. He was dressed for work: flannel shirt, Wrangler jeans, a tape measure and cell phone clipped to his belt and a pencil behind his ear. This was a professional, unlike my handyman, who showed up in sweatpants and an Ed Hardy t-shirt.
Once we got up to my condo, I offered him a drink. “Can I get you anything? We have coffee, soda, Perrier…” But he was already inspecting the door, slowly opening and closing it, carefully watching the hinges.
“The new door won’t fit because the hinges stick out,” my father-in-law said. “See that? On the old door, the hinges are mortised, which means they’re set into the wood, flush against the edge of the door.”
He had figured this out in thirty seconds. The handyman spent six hours agonizing over it and it nearly drove him insane. “That’s amazing,” I said. “Can we fix it?”
“Sure, we just cut mortises in the new door.”
“What’s a mortise?” I said.
He took a breath, then explained it again.
“Do you have a mortise-cutting tool?”
“We chisel them out,” he said.
“With what?” I said.
“With a chisel. But first we need to deal with this frame. It’s in rough shape. We’ll reinforce the wood, fill in all these cracks with Durabond, and then deal with those holes.” He pointed to the bottom hinge. “Those screws won’t hold the hinges firm against the doorjamb because the wood has been drilled and re-drilled so many times. So we’ll fix that, too.”
“Sounds great,” I said. “What can I do?”
“You can run down to my truck and get some more tools. Do you have a power drill?”
“I have a screwdriver,” I said. “A Philips head, I think. Will that work?”
Armand handed me his keys. “That’s okay. On the front-left side of the pickup is a case that says Dewalt. Grab that. Behind that you’ll see a blue tote bag. Inside there’s a box of wooden matchsticks and some Elmer’s glue. Just grab the whole bag. On the other side of the truck you’ll see my gray toolbox. Under the tray is a plastic bag filled with four-inch toggle screws. Bring those. Then, on the floor of the back seat, there’s an impact gun. And that’s all we need.”
I ran down to the truck, grabbed the tools and carried them back up. “This is the impact gun, right?” I said, holding it in the air.
“That’s a bicycle pump.” He laughed. “It’s okay. No big deal.” He looked into the tote bag. “You couldn’t find the toggle screws?”
“That’s right, I forgot to ask; what’s a toggle screw?”
He described it to me. I ran down, grabbed the impact gun and the toggle screws, and ran back up to the condo. “Toggle screws?” I said, holding my palm out.
Armand smiled. “Nope, those are wall anchors,” he said.
I watched Armand work all morning. He filled in the screw holes by rolling together a handful of matchsticks, dipping them in glue, then hammering them into each hole. He was calm and focused while he worked, staring down over the round eyeglasses that rested on the tip of his nose.
“I wish I knew how to do this kind of stuff,” I said.
“Everyone has their own skillset,” he said. “That’s how the world works. I do my thing; you do yours.” I thought about my thing. The previous Friday I spent the whole day writing copy for Walmart, four pages of announcements that began with “Spring forward with 20% off any purchase…”
Next, Armand used the impact gun to drill the toggle screws through the doorframe and into the wall. The gun made a loud, grinding sound, like a fork caught in a garbage disposal. It vibrated through the entire wall and reminded me of the implants I had done at the dentist, the previous spring.
“Can I try that?” I asked. He handed me the gun and coached me, but when it came time to pull the trigger I hesitated, causing the screw to slip and a piece of the frame to come splintering off.
“We’ll fix that with the Durabond,” he said. “I’ll mix it up when I finish this.”
“I can mix it,” I said. “It’s like pancake batter, right?”
“Sort of,” he said. “How’s this for a plan: I’ll mix the Durabond, and you run down to the truck and grab my iced coffee. It’s in the cup holder. Dark brown liquid, clear plastic cup, straw sticking out.”
At 1:00, my wife grabbed us a couple sandwiches for lunch. “Take a break, Pop,” I yelled from the kitchen, my lips orange from Cool Ranch Doritos. But he politely refused and kept lathering the doorframe with Durabond. “I’ll be over there to help in a minute,” I said, one hand holding my BLT while the other scrolled through my Instagram feed.
Once all the Durabond had dried it was time to hang the door. I held it in place while Armand drilled in the screws. “Please hurry, it’s slipping,” I said, my face turning red.
“All set,” Armand said. I let go of the door, staggered across the living room and flopped down on the couch. “I think I threw out my back,” I said, reaching for the TV remote.
Armand made a few adjustments, and ten minutes later the door was up. He gave it a gentle push. The door opened swung open, straight and smooth. “Wow,” I said from the floor, where I laid across my back roller. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s tight,” Armand said as he closed it. “We need to sand down the edge a little bit.”
We got on our knees and sanded. “This hurts my fingers,” I said. I got a bandana from my bedroom and tied it around my mouth, then I put on my wife’s gardening gloves and resumed the work. “I don’t want to breathe in this shit.” Armand nodded, sanding away with his bare hands while a cloud of sawdust sprayed in his face.
At four o’clock the door was finished. Armand installed the knob and the deadbolt and then handed me the keys. “That should do it,” he said. “It needs to be painted, but I’ll let you take care of that.”
“How about a celebration dinner!” I said. “Let me just wash up first.” An hour later I was showered and ready, wearing jeans, my Timberland boots, a flannel shirt, and the foam wrist brace I sometimes wore for my carpel tunnel. I thought the manual labor might cause it to flare up, and I didn’t want to take any chances.
* * * *
The next time I saw my father-in-law was two months later. He came up to help me fill in a hole in my living room wall. The hole was a vent for a gas heater, but since I don’t own one or plan on buying one, I figured I’d cover it up permanently. My temporary solution, for the last ten years, was a piece of cardboard box, scotch-taped to the wall. This no longer passed my new set of living standards. Call me snobbish, but I wanted my walls to be 100% plaster.
Armand and I went to Home Depot for supplies. We took our time, browsing through each section. I asked about things that had eluded me my whole life, like why it was called a “two-by-four” if it came in different sizes. Armand answered my questions in the simplest possible way, without a trace of sarcasm.
At the register, Armand explained the exact process of filling in that hole in my living room wall. “We’ll patch it with sheetrock and tape, then lay on some Durabond, sand it down and then paint over it. It’ll be like the hole was never even there.”
I thought about that, then I thought about the last thirty years of my life.
“Sound like a plan,” I said.
Daniel Pellegrini is a recovering drug addict with an aggressive form of chronic bowel disease. That means he can't take painkillers after undergoing rectal surgery. He's here to show you just how beautiful life is.
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