of that long summer David had been unable to work. His novel had come
out in the spring, and he had gone out on the road as the writer. Returning
from the hoopla and weirdness of the tour to the rooftop hut in which
he had written, he was no longer sure what he was. The dread of not working
hadn’t gone away, of course, and this alone had locked him to his desk
all summer. But now it was August and still nothing.
Some years before David had rented out
the derelict laundry hut on the roof of his apartment building in San
Francisco. The hut was a ten-by-ten room on a raised platform in the middle
of a small deck, the whole thing enclosed, quaintly enough, by a picket
fence. Here in years past the ladies had hung out their wash. Nowadays
everyone did wash in the parking garage, sometimes loading the washer
in the middle of the night. And David labored in the old laundry hut,
working and now not working on the roof.
Over the years he had furnished the hut
and made a little garden on the deck. He’d put out his succulents first,
then had cajoled a plumbing contractor, in the building to do other work,
into putting a spigot with a hose coupling up there, and David was able
then to keep leafy plants alive in the wind and sun. Driftwood and stones,
brought back from outings, he’d arranged around the deck, so that in the
end—which this seemed to be—David could step from the studio, as he came
to call the place, into a kind of bower, a shady garden inside that picket
fence, the bright terrain of the city rising beyond. In such a setting,
he had managed to do his work.
But then the roof sprang a leak. In bad
storms that winter, rainwater had run down the walls in 301. No easy solution
had presented itself, and the manager informed him that the building would
have to be re-roofed. The deck with its picket fence had to be torn up,
he said, as he suspected that the leak was somewhere beneath it. Even
David’s hut might have to go.
David hadn’t paid much attention to this,
engaged as he was that winter in his work. Besides, he’d thought, it had
taken almost a year for this manager to get around to fixing a small repair
in his apartment. How long would it take him to consider the big job of
the roof? So spring came and David went on tour and came back to summer,
that year unduly hot and dry. Then he had gone dreadfully and fruitlessly
to the studio every clear day for weeks.
The roofers arrived without warning. Early
in the morning on a sunny Monday, they woke him up, clomping across the
ceiling of his apartment, which was on the top floor of that building.
From the sound of it, they’d already begun their demolition on the roof.
David dressed and ran up. The roofers hadn’t bothered to come through
the front door, instead simply setting up their ladders on the street
and climbing to the roof via the fire escape. By the time he got up there
still more of them were climbing over the edge with knives in their black
hands, like pirates boarding a ship. The first ones to arrive had already
begun demolishing the picket fence, that old wood, many times painted,
simply disintegrating beneath the blunt ends of their axes.
The crew boss, a tall thin man with a gray
pony tail and a scowl, pointed at David’s plants. “Gotta move ‘em,” he
said. David noticed that the plants had been already been disarrayed.
One of the big cactuses had a broken stem. “Found it like that,” said
the crew boss.
David felt then that he should get the
plants out of harm’s way immediately, and so, without coffee even, he
started working, hauling each of heavy pots to the safety of the neighboring
roof, as the demolition continued. The crew boss instructed the workers,
barking Spanish at them.
Most of the workers wore baseball caps
and sweatshirts emblazoned in English with commercial emblems. “Reno,”
“The Gap,” “Raging Waters,” read their grimy shirts. These roofers worked
incredibly hard. Some were already removing the old roof, cutting into
it with square shovels, then peeling back the ripped tar and plywood with
their bare hands. David had put on his gardening gloves, just to move
The crew boss spoke in English to one guy,
who had on a buttoned shirt blackened with tar. This guy might have been
the buddy of the boss. The two of them looked like surfers. Maybe they’d
been high school friends, these guys who were by then in their thirties.
David imagined that this other guy, who was short and slight and blond
and balding, had fallen on hard times. Maybe whatever he’d tried to do
after high school hadn’t worked out, and he’d had to go back to this crew
boss, his old high school buddy, a guy whom no one could like as an adult,
to ask for a job. So he worked with them, though he worked apart from
the others. Doug, the crew boss called him. Doug seemed miserable.
Two of the largest cactuses stood in a
concrete tub—the old double wash basin from the laundry shed. When he
had moved all the other plants the blistering sun, David turned his attention
to this tub, but he couldn’t move it. “It must weigh a hundred pounds,”
he told the crew boss. “I’d say two hundred,” he said. “It’s gotta go.”
So David returned to struggle with the
tub. Some of the other workers, one in a Michoacan baseball hat, came
over to lend a hand, though even the four of them could only slide this
tub of dirt and the five-foot San Pedro cactuses in it off the deck onto
the roof proper. From there it wasn’t going anywhere. Probably have to
bust it up,” suggested the crew boss, leaning on his shovel. “It’s gotta
go before noon, though.”
His day shot by then, anyway, David drove
to a garden supply store and bought two big plastic pots, then returned
to the roof with them and a hammer and set to work smashing the big basin
apart. It took some time, and in his mood he worked on it with grim enthusiasm.
The workers watched a little while and then went back to their own labor.
Then the roof rang with the din of things being destroyed.
In this way the writer came to work among
the roofing crew for a time. The crew boss sang a little song, apparently
to amuse them. “My name it is Pancho,” he sang. “I come from the rancho.”
He had a girl named Lucy who was juicy.
The guy Doug, the surfer felled by fortune,
worked by himself, over at the edge of the roof, where he was pulling
up the metal trim. The crew boss went over to instruct him, telling him
that it might work better if he ripped the tar back first. The flashing
will come off easier after that, he said.
At that point one of the other workers
hurt himself. He was throwing some debris over his shoulder when one of
the jagged edges caught his ear. He stamped in pain, holding the ear and
swearing in Spanish. The crew boss threw an arm around the smaller man’s
shoulders. “Dios mio!” he said, “I know how that hurts. Saw a guy tear
his whole ear off like that one time.”
The worker did not appear to be comforted
by this. “You didn’t even cuss much,” said the crew boss. “Doug here—you
should’ve heard him cuss last week when he blistered himself. Didn’t stop
for half an hour, did you, Doug?”
David lay off battering his basin. He’d
broken down its walls by then, and the two big cactuses now stood in clumpy
footings of dirt. When he’d heard about this guy Doug, swearing and hurt,
David was sure that he knew him. Doug had certainly failed at something.
He’d gone through his twenties with dream of some kind--maybe he’d been
a musician. But now it had come to nothing.
David was sure he could see this, just
looking at the man. Now Doug was thirty-four or so, all but middle-aged,
and doing this job, working for this guy, to whom he’d always felt superior,
and who was now his boss. When, on top of all this, he’d been injured—maybe
he’d slopped hot tar down his neck—it had been too much. All that fury,
the hurt from years of fruitless effort, had come pouring out. So he had
sworn and sworn, and jumped up and down, stamping on the black debris
and swearing, impressing even this indomitable hard case of a crew boss.
Just then, Doug was proceeding to tear
at the tar on the edge of the roof, hacking into it with his own square
shovel. He’d abandoned the flashing, as he’d been told. Some part of him
seemed absolutely still in the midst of this work, and his dirty sunburned
face appeared as an impassive mask, behind which David could surely see
the failure, and his own. I am Doug, he thought.
The guy in the Michoacan cap offered to
help him with the delicate, difficult job of lifting the cactuses on their
heavy root balls into the new pots. After he’d finished the transplanting,
David went down to his apartment and showered and went out. Working up
there, with all that going on, was out of the question. So he took a book
and went to a cafe.
That day turned out to be the worst one
for the roofers. They had to rip up the roof and clear the debris, tossing
it down their orange chute into the dump truck, which they filled several
times. When they were done, they swept the exposed boards of the roof,
pink redwood planks that hadn’t seen the sun for fifty years. And by that
evening they’d spread the new tar, shining and seamless from edge to edge.
When David got back, he found the threshold of his little hut higher with
the surrounding platform gone, the structure standing like a stranded
vessel in that fuming black expanse.
The next morning David was already in the
hut when just the crew boss and Doug showed up to finish the job, to hood
the chimneys, install the last of the new flashing—shiny aprons of aluminum—and
spread white gravel over the tar. Doug himself nailed a sheet of metal
onto the hut’s newly-exposed lower walls.
David came out to watch. Doug was banging
on the walls of this box he had worked in, and he acted annoyed that he
could not work in the din, although at that point actually it felt good
to have a concrete reason not to. Really, he thought, he couldn’t care
What was so special about writing, anyway?
he thought. It was like polishing a stone with your hand, just taking
that time and doing that work. Maybe he’d write again, maybe he wouldn’t.
In this frame of mind, David watched the
roofer do his job. Doug knelt at the flashing, overlapping the sheets
and swinging his hammer easily and exactly down on the flat-headed nails.
That day Doug seemed different. Maybe it was just that this part of his
job was clean and required care. Doug was installing this stuff expertly
enough, as if he’d been a roofer forever. Suddenly David doubted the little
history he’d assigned to the roofer. Today Doug’s silence seemed not a
tragic failure, but simply studious, workaday, even a little dull.
Doug spoke to him, finally. Without pausing
at the hammer, Doug asked, “You live here?
“No,” said David, “I just work here. I’m
“That’s good,” Doug said, not seeming too
interested, “because it’s kind of small.” Meaning the hut, not the work
Doug and the crew boss spread the white
gravel over the tar, this work done delicately enough. After that, the
crew boss came over to tell him, formally, that the hut might have to
go, too. “We’ll just have to see,” he said, “when it rains.”
Then they left, Doug and the crew boss
going through the door like gentlemen at last and down the elevator. David
stood in the hut’s seemingly raised threshold, looking out for a time
like a sailor underway. The new, inviolate and seemingly desolate white
expanse stretched away between him and the far edges of the roof. It gave
him a funny feeling, empty but not altogether unpleasant.
He turned back into the shade of the little
hut, which was still his, if only for the moment. Work to do, he thought,
considering the litter of his paper and pens. By then he knew he’d do
it, even if he didn’t.