I’m sitting in the back yard of our house in Phoenix, homesick for my wife and cats, but grateful not to be in Anchor Point too, because the 65 degree sunshine here makes the countdown of days to my impending neck surgery a little more pleasant than the January freeze/thaw cycle ongoing at home might.
Phoenix is a phenomenally noisy place, as maybe all large cities are. Dogs bark ceaselessly from morning to night, their owners gone for the day or simply deaf to it. Jet airplanes roar in and out of Sky Harbor airport with similar constancy; one morning when atmospheric conditions were just right, their persistent white contrails made tick tack toe boards across the sky overhead. Even the birds are noisy here.
OK, nobody can complain about too many birdsongs –not even a known crank like me. In truth, sitting outside all day long here working on my writing (something my heartfelt loathing of snow keeps me from doing at home) I am aware of the noisy feathered buggers in a whole new way. Though I can’t actually hear the gang of chipping sparrows chatting amongst themselves in the pyracantha bush (I can see their lips move) the mockingbird’s constant song, the curve billed thrashers’ pushy shrill, the male grackles’ watery warble might turn me into a real live birder yet. But it is another sound that caught my ear today.
Early each morning as soon as the sun is high enough to hit the curved-back wicker chair under the tangelo tree, I have coffee and listen to the first birds of the day. Today their music was overwhelmed with a sound much more familiar to me: hammers hammering. Later, walking the neighborhood, I found the source: roofers replacing shingles on a home around the corner. It reminded me of something that happened shortly after my first book was published.
In the spring of 2004 I found myself a visiting writer, of all things, at the Interlochen Institue of the Arts in Michigan, a guest of the writer Jack Driscoll who taught there for more than thirty years. Interlochen is a high school for talented young artists and must be endowed rather fabulously by its famous alumnae. Graduates include singers and musicians and actors and writers whose work we have all paid money to hear or watch or read. The campus encompasses acres of gorgeous wooded land and even a lake or two. I arrived in Traverse City late at night, and was delivered to a little guest house sitting on the shore of a lovely small lake. It had a grand piano in the living room. In the morning I would do a reading and Q and A, just like a real writer. I think I fell asleep holding onto my book, worried that the actual author, whoever he was, might show up and take it from me.
That next morning I set out on foot, my book safely under my arm, heading for the writing center a half mile away, walking a woodsy path through clusters of woodsy guest cabins and even woodsier trees. I kept repeating my mantra: They think you are a writer. They think you are a writer. They think you are a writer. I was halfway there when I heard a sound that stopped me: hammers hammering. Actually, it was nail-guns nailing, but the effect was the same. I was in the vicinity of something I actually knew something about: construction.
I followed the Siren sound to the site of a new performing arts building going up, overlooking the little lake. Framers were framing walls, laborers were shoveling debris. A man in a hard hat hoisted a two by twelve up to a carpenter straddling the roof rafters. Somebody ran a chop saw somewhere around the side of the new building. The back-up beeper on the front loader called to me.
All metaphors aside, the path truly did fork. One leg of the Y headed toward the writing center just as Jack had told me it would; the other leg led directly to the job. I’m not really a trained carpenter either, but I had been a union painter and paperhanger since 1972, and I had built my own house by hand. I had put on a hard hat and strapped on a tool belt and worked on construction sites like this nearly every weekday of my adult life. I could fake being a framer just as well as standing in front of a room full of precocious teenage geniuses trying to convince them and myself I belonged there. Maybe better.
I mean, I really wanted to throw my book in the lake and pick up the tools I knew how to use. Really.
Today I finished hand correcting and revising the hard copy of something I’ve been working on for a long time. Tomorrow I need to pick up the manuscript again and go back through it page by page typing the penciled changes into this keyboard, this tool I have had to learn to use because I wrecked my neck bones using those other ones, this tool I’m just now beginning to feel competent with.
Just the same, I hope those guys down the street finish that roof soon.
The noise is bothering the birds.
Rich Chiappone's latest book is Opening Days, a collection of essays, stories and poems.