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Construction News Chapter Two July 27, 2006

Posted by jeanne in construction news, Rough Draft.

Construction News Chapter Two

Velha was having a dream about something, with Altman dozing beside her. They were spooned together under the covers, the windows open, the early morning light turning the grays of night into a spectrum, one color at a time, yellow first, then red. Altman would be getting up soon, to take his first cup of coffee sitting in bed. Velha would consider sleeping on, might get up and have coffee, but might want to have one more dream before rising. Or a few. He would sit propped up on the pillows, sipping coffee, looking at her stretched out next to him, thinking lascivious thoughts and wondering what she’d do if she woke up while he was messing with her.

A chainsaw started up out the back.

Velha grunted and rose on an elbow. ‘It’s too early,’ she protested, and got up to stumble to the bathroom. Then she headed back down determined to go back to sleep. Altman went to turn on the coffee maker.

A bulldozer started up. Its engine revved. Velha ignored it, willing herself down into dreamworld. Altman sipped his coffee. The bulldozer moved. Now there were crunching sounds. Velha fought to keep hold of the feelings of sleep. A dumptruck came down the block with a load of gravel. The house shook.

Beep beep beep. Velha groaned and turned over. Altman rubbed her hip gently. The truck spilled its load with a great scree sound, followed by a loud clank as the driver made damn sure all the rock was dumped. Then the bulldozer came over to spread the gravel. Altman heard the sound of a hundred rainsticks as the rock was scraped over the dirt of the entrance. Then the bulldozer went up to get more gravel. Beep beep beep.

The old lady slept stubbornly on. She kept trying to conjure up a dream image and ride it into subconsciousness, but the beeping kept jerking her back this side of wakefulness. The old man sipped his coffee and thought about the things he wanted to do that day. He was already used to the bulldozer.

Suddenly there came a very loud banging sound, rapid and repetitive, the sound of a petulant giant stomping his foot. Bambambambambam. It stopped, then started up again harder, furious banging that shook the house.

The old lady sat up, wide awake. ‘Damn them,’ she said. ‘They’re doing it on purpose.’ The old man got up to get her a cup of coffee.

They found on their morning dog walk that the scree marked the arrival of the long-expected driveway package. The trouble was that it consisted of huge window-breaker gravel when Forman had ordered baby-chokers, and the trucks were having trouble driving on it.

‘We’re already behind schedule,’ he muttered, gazing off into the distance. ‘This is only the first week.’ Men in kakhis and polo shirts in various pastel shades stood around in their sunglasses, holding clipboards, talking on their cellphones. ‘As soon as the corporate types get back to the office, things will speed up,’ Forman said sourly, ‘but we’re still behind.’ He shook his head seriously. ‘I’m going to kill somebody before this is over.’

‘I think he likes being pissed off,’ Altman observed as the dog pulled them around the corner.

The old lady tried to work as usual during this first day of activity. But she was very disturbed by everything happening out back. Mainly by the noise, at this point, since she couldn’t see anything thru the trees, and couldn’t imagine anything different. From her window, Velha was accustomed to gazing on a vibrant green screen decorated in a purple trunk motif with lots of squirrels chasing each other.

A big semi brought in a crane on treads to help with the trees. A Mexican crew surrounded one of the trees on the northeast edge of the property and threw ropes up into the branches. Beep beep beep. The crane put tension on the ropes while the Mexicans got in close and decapitated the tree.

There came the torturous scream of a chainsaw. Velha could tell by the pitch that they were bearing down, severing tendons and vessels. They were probably swearing at the poor thing they were killing, too.

She heard the beep beep beep of the crane pulling at the branches. The heard the groan of the tree being tugged groundward. Then a sharp crack, and a big choof as the tree walloped the dirt. Plants for blocks around shuddered and wilted with the shock. Velha thought she would go crazy with the noise of the trees’ screams.

All day the trees came down. The engine noises and crunching of the crane and bulldozer moving into position, then silence. Then mad angry chainsaws attacking, then crack and whoompf, then silence. Then more chainsaws, little ones cutting up the limbs. And bulldozers scooping it all up into dump trucks, which then crunched over all the gravel at the street entrance, and rumbled away down the block, shaking the house.

A big semi brought in what looked like a mobile home during the morning. Velha looked up from her work and peered thru the trees at a big white box gleaming in the sun, sitting on the very northwest corner of the property. Workmen were sticking it up on blocks and running electric lines up a nearby pole. During their after-lunch dog walk, Forman gave them a tour of the construction trailer, and told them that it still needed a big portable chemical tank to go under it, and phone service, and complained that hookup was going to be delayed because the phone company couldn’t get there until next week.

Everything was strange all of a sudden. It had always been so private back in the back yard. The old couple’s house was one down from the corner. The corner property ran along Side Street, and the whole back yard was solid trees. The old couple’s back yard was garden and trees. And down at the other end of the block, Maggie’s back yard was mostly trees, too. But the back yards between them were exposed to deadly solar radiation. The Nextors and that nice gay couple had no shade at all, and their ground parched up and died every summer, so there was nothing back there. Onlygrass, because it’s a noxious weed, and kudzu and knotweed, but nothing ornamental, nothing useful. Just a collection of cars in the gay couple’s back yard, and half a dozen huge big stumps in the Nextor’s yard, from when some northerner bought the house and figured that since trees were a bad thing where he came from, it must be the same way here. Velha figured that he mustn’t have realized until it was too late. We need all the shade we can get here in the South. And the closer to the sun the shade occurs, the better.

So old trees is what you want. Sixty, eighty foot tall trees. With 120-foot dripline circles under the canopy. Not as far back as the Civil War, of course, because all of Atlanta’s trees went to build battlements for the seige wall there at the end. But the largest oaks on the block sprung up soon after the utter ruin of the South, and all the other trees grew up in their shadows. A mini forest. Pretty much every block in Atlanta had a mini forest between the streets. That’s what makes this city special. It’s green. Like the forest moon of Endor.

At the moment, the trees she looked out on resembled frightened children. They shiverered together, standing around nervously while little people with loud electric knives ran around hacking them to death, mowing them down. Velha couldn’t accept that these people belonged there. She felt indignant seeing them appear in the brush next door, like they were tresspassing on her land, even tho it was her neighbor’s land, and her neighbor rented the house out and moved to California years ago and couldn’t care less.

She thought of the whole abandoned, overgrown property as hers, because she carerd for it and used it. She tended it, as much as a kudzu-overtaken back parking lot could be tended. She watched over the homeless people who slept in the old gas station and the warehouse next to it. She communed with nature there, her own private jungle of growing things in the midst of a city. She did her rituals there. She harvested medicinal kudzu root every year. This land was her land, and whatever patriotic spirit she has was tied to her love for this land out her back windows. For someone to sell it out from under her and desecrate it like this, it was like being violated.

Right before lunch a dumptruck broke down at the entrance to the property. It was the same truck that made so much noise that morning. Every time it came back across the entrance, it did the same bambambam as it slowly inched over the gravel. It tried to get onto the site one last time, and after a ferocious banging that went on for thirty seconds, the engine sounding more frantic and angry every moment, it broke down right there in the entrance. Busted a transaxle. It took hours to repair, the company sent out a truck, and the dumptruck driver paced up and down while the mechanic tore his truck to pieces right in the entrance. Nobody got through until it was fixed. The rest of the trucks went home, and the bulldozer operator continued to pile up the ex trees that the Mexicans continued to carve up. It gave Velha a certain satisfaction to see the truck lying there dead. That’s what you get for waking people up, she thought.

The Mexican crew spent their lunch in the shade of the old couple’s tall trees, away from the gringos sitting in their trucks or soaking up the A/C in the trailer. Lunch was short, but it was a blissful silence. Velha could hear birds again. She watched two squirrels scrabbling up her big pecan way down at the back of the yard. She sighed and was happy again, and got up to go pee and get another cup of coffee.

By the time she returned to her desk, the crew was back to work taking down the trees. She sat at her computer and watched out of the window in the spare bedroom as little men appeared one by one on the neighbor’s patio, looking up at the canopy. The old lady was suspicious, but was in the middle of a complex search on the internet. She resisted the impulse to go downstairs and get Altman to find out what they were doing out there. Find out if they were supposed to be there in the back yards. Find out if they were fixing to damage anything but the trees they had permits to assassinate.

The Mexicans were all standing around on the patio watching one of their own throwing a weighted rope into the branches. He missed the first try. They lit cigarettes and talked in the shade of the woods. The thrower missed the next try. They talked and joked around. They acted like they were related, but Velha didn’t know many Mexican work crews, so she was only guessing. The thrower missed again. He was the stockiest of them, probably the alpha male. So he did the work and they admired his skill. Actually, they seemed to be taunting him. But he kept throwing, saying nothing to them, softly cursing.

The crew were having fun. Someone started singing a Spanish song and they all joined in. The old lady watched them pair off and dance while they sang, holding the tips of each other’s fingers like Greeks and other manly men. Or brothers and cousins. Or guys on a work crew whiling the time away under the trees, while the silly bosses strutted around in the hot sun up on the street. The thrower missed again. They sang another song. The thrower tried another time. The boys shared a joint. The thrower tried again.

Finally he hooked a limb. It was sixty feet in the air. The boys cheered. Then they got to work hoisting up larger ropes. A guy came down to the base of the tree, carrying climbing gear reverently, like it was a torreador’s costume. The chunky thrower slipped it on, looking very macho as the straps went around his crotch. He couldn’t appreciate the effect because he couldn’t see over the curve of his belly, but it felt impressive. The boys were impressed. He got to go up into the tree and do all the cool stuff. They were just helpers.

It took three of them to hoist him up to where he began using his ascenders to climb. They reverently latched a chainsaw to his harness and backed away. He climbed slowly to about fifteen feet and clambered onto a low branch. The branch was three feet thick where it joined the trunk, and eighteen inches thick along most of its length. The guy walked out to the end of it, his ropes swaying from the high branch. Then he whipped up his chainsaw and pulled the starter.

Velha hated that noise. It set her teeth grinding and pulled her stomach into a knot. The guy started sawing off chunks of limb, which slammed to the ground. He worked his way back to the trunk, cutting off eight feet of life at a time. Velha felt sick hearing pieces of the limb thumping to the ground, again and again. The house shook.

As they tied the tree to the crane and started sawing at the base of the trunk, Velha felt vicious anger overcome her. Like dogs howling as a siren passes, she found herself screaming with the chainsaw as not more than 75 feet from her, it killed the largest tree on the block. The motor stopped suddenly and the tree crashed to the ground. It sounded to Velha like the men were surprised.

She peered out the back window. The tree was lying on the hill, its sawn trunk six feet thick, the gleaming yellow disk of the cut facing her, weeping. She noticed that it was the size of a dining room table. She noticed a large, dark brown cavity in the core of the tree. She noticed that its top was lying in the street. It had obviously fallen in a direction that neither the crane and ropes nor the angle of the cut had meant it to go. Defiance in death. Maybe it crushed Forman’s car, she thought bitterly. The fact that the tree was rotten to the core didn’t make her any less angry. She felt it should have been left to die and fall on its own schedule, home to birds and bugs and squirrels for years to come.

She was interrupted by the doorbell. It was Thing One, looking for Altman, who was always downstairs in the basement at this time of day. She answered the door with some irritation. He stammered, ‘Oh, is he downstairs?’ He looked annoyed, as if he were inconvenienced by this, as if it were her fault that her husband spent all his time in the basement. She must have told Thing One a thousand times to check down there first, but he came to the front door every time, and no matter how much annoyance she showed, he never learned.

She asked Altman what Thing One had wanted, when he came upstairs for lunch. They sat in the kitchen over a ham sandwich and sweet tea. Atlman ran his fingers thru his beard. ‘Oh, I didn’t pay any attention to what he wanted,’ he said. ‘He’s always going on about Thing Two. Something about a stash of clothes and things that got tossed while he wasn’t looking.’

Thing Two worked restoring a house down the block. He was just as homeless as Thing One, but he was a skilled carpenter, and earned his spot on the front porch. Thing Two was banned by the owner of the house from coming onto the property, but actually spent many hours a day hanging out discussing philosophy with Thing Two. They’d been cohorts since the ’80s, but you’d never know it by the way they talked about each other behind their backs. It annoyed Velha, the way they went on.

Actually, almost everything annoyed Velha at the moment. Starting with the wholesale destruction going on in the back. And it was possible that she was the only one annoyed by it. Her husband was enjoying the disruption. He was excited by the idea of having a new building, new residents. It gave him something to look forward to every day. The neighbors on the corner didn’t even know anything was going on. They slept all day and partied all night, and never paid any attention to their surroundings. The rest of the neighbors went to work in the morning and came home at night, and never heard the scream of the chainsaw or the banging of the dump trucks. Only her. Only Velha to mourn the passing of the trees, to think vengeful thoughts, to care.

Along the block, the neighbors were coming home after work. Actually, the kids in the house on the corner were just waking up after a day resting up from the party of the night before. Or something. The Nextors weren’t home yet, and most of the time they weren’t consistent about their comings and goings. Their movements puzzled the old lady. The nice gay couple were home by this time; they made table saw noises whenever they were home, and Velha assumed they were hard at work renovating. Or something. She got a great deal of satisfaction out of speculating what everyone was up to. The only neighbor Velha was sure of was Maggie.

Maggie had a job cooking for the homeless all day in a shelter downtown, and would often stop by and sit on the front porch to tell her about her day. Two hundred dinners plated, pot roast and potatoes and salad. Dessert provided by Kroger because a bunch of fruit jello packs expired. A fight in the dining room. Velha didn’t envy Maggie her job, but it seemed to give her the kind of satisfaction working in an office or a store couldn’t. So Velha listened politely and asked interested questions. But chats with Maggie about her work always left her fatigued, as if she’d washed 200 plates by herself.

This night, Maggie just drove by with a wave, looking tired. It was later than she usually got home; undoubtedly there had been some crisis, because Maggie had the closing procedures down to a science, and never wasted time getting home. Velha waved back and returned to her cookbook. Now that the construction noise had stopped, she was happy, and doubly enjoyed the sounds fo the birds and the wind thru the leaves. She’d decided to make something special for dinner, and was leafing thru the book trying to decide what to do with some of the baby eggplants and green tomatoes Thing Two had brought her from his garden.

Maggie got out of her car, a banged up 20-year-old Volvo, and dragged herself inside. The house was quiet, empty, cool, and smelled of the spaghetti she’d had in a crockpot all day. She checked the mailbox; there was nothing but junk, which she was delighted to chuck in the trash. She poured herself a glass of wine and went to change her clothes and take a bong hit.

Maggie walked into the kitchen to stir the pot, and glanced at the clock. It was almost eight. The kids were due any moment. The sauce was sticking. The sun was going behind the trees. She’d drunk most of her wine. She wondered if she should call them. She stood at the sink and loaded dishes into the washer. She stirred the pot again.

Barney came in, rapping loudly on the screen door and hallooing thru the house. He walked over to Maggie and gave her a big hug. They’d known each other for a long time. Barney was her ex. Not Star’s dad, but her most important relationship since, and her last serious thing. She’d practiced catch-and-release since then.

Barney brought a large satchel in with him. ‘I’ll go thru this later,’ he said with a wink, and took it into the back room. Maggie wondered if he was going to want to stay the night. He never said he did, but she couldn’t be sure. They hadn’t been broken up all that long, and Barney didn’t think it should make any difference.

The kids showed up a few minutes later, Star and Gordon and a pair of roustabouts that seemed to be living rent free on the couch. Weezer and Slim Jim. They all came barging thru the screen door laughing and shoutung. Maggie felt a thrill as they walked into the house. She loved having the kids to dinner, and not just because it was the only time she ever saw Star. They sprawled around a large wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, their feet up, their chairs back. The kitchen was suddenly loud and crowded, the way it should be.

Maggie’s kitchen was your typical earthmother den. There wasn’t a matching dish, glass, or fork anywhere; everything came from the thrift store except the pieces Star had made and decorated when she was at pottery camp, years ago. The windows had plants and old-fashioned crystal baubles hanging in them, there was a handmade rug on the floor, a bunch of assorted chairs and stools, a wobbly handbuilt kitchen table. On the counter flour and sugar cannisters contested for space with a juicer, a pasta maker, a bread machine, and a cookie jar, none of which were ever used. The walls were grimy with years of cooking on an old industrial stove rescued from a failed restaurant. The pots and pans were all hung from the ceiling on hooks. There was a collection of kitchen knives on a magnet strip. And cookbooks. Maggie’s passion was collecting cookbooks. Everything from LaRousse to the Joy of Cooking to hand-printed volumes of society lady heirloom recipes.

Maggie stirred the sauce and got out the plates while her guests settled down. Weezer and Slim Jim never said anything, except to laugh at Gordon’s jokes, and she hardly noticed them except for how much they ate. Gordon was unfailingly polite, Yes M’am, No M’am, but his jokes were always racist or sexist, and Maggie found them a little hard to take.

But Star seemed so happy now that she was living with Gordon. She looked so bright and excited when they were together. Animated. She didn’t show any of the sullen teenage behavior that was so hard to live with at home. It was nicer being around her, too. She didn’t make scenes or take her anger out on her relatives as much. Maggy could relax and play like Star was still her loving preteen daughter.

Star was so beautiful. Maggie always wondered where she got it. They shared faces, but while Maggie looked like an ageing hippie, with long graying hair and deepening crow’s feet, Star looked like a model, with a body that would stop a bus, beautiful long brown hair, huge doe eyes, a brilliant smile. When she chose to show it. Mostly she scowled when she was around her mom.

Maggie caught herself beaming at her kid, and knew that Star would have a fit if she caught her simpering, so she busied herself dishing out dinner and handing the plates around. Everybody thanked her and praised the food except for Weezer and Slim Jim, who just shoveled it in and reached for more.

‘I guess you all noticed thar the construction has started behind us,’ she started conversationally.

Gordon exploded. ‘Damn them to hell,’ he thumped his fist on the table, making the plates jump. ‘Yes ma’m, we surely did notice. We were up pretty late last night, and that damned noise woke us out of a sound sleep.’ Maggie saw her daughter looking protective and concerned. ‘Why didn’t they let us know ahead of time?’ he whined. Star patted his knee under the table.

‘We had a meeting with the developer last night,’ Maggie started.

But Gordon was working himself up. ‘They can’t just start making noise at 7 in the morning and get away with it.’ He looked too upset to eat.

Barney put his fork down and leaned across the table at Gordon like a high school teacher fussing at a student who didn’t listen. Gordon sat back and picked up his fork. ‘I have news for you. They have a permit to make noise until the building’s finished.’

The kids acted shocked, and protested that they hadn’t heard anything about construction behind the house. Maggie smiled to herself. Those college kids, she thought always with their noses in a book. ‘Well,’ she explained, ‘here’s the good part. The guy who’s building this big condo complex must have buckets of money, because he’s offering to improve our land just to show his appreciation for all the trouble.’

‘Is he?’ Gordon was suspicious. He sat up straight and stopped shovelling food into his mouth. ‘What if we don’t want nothing done to our back yards? Are they giving out money instead?’

‘I suppose since you’re renters, they’ll get in touch with Miss Richards out in California, and work it out with her.’

He paused a moment. ‘All’s I’m saying is they better not wake me up with the noise again, or I’ll do something about it.’ Star looked at him with admiration. ‘I’ll fuck up their machines. I’ll wreck the site.’

Barney snorted into his napkin. ‘Oh, like what do you know about construction, you think you can go fucking up a jobsite?’ Barney had spent more than a couple of years working construction, and he sensed Gordon bluffing.

Gordon looked superior. ‘I know lots of ways to screw up an engine, and hasn’t an ignition lock been made I can’t break.’

Barney sniffed and continued eating.

Dinner went down fast. Seconds and thirds. As if they never ate except when they came over. Star looked like she was losing weight. For all Maggie knew, they were on a steady diet of mac-and-cheese whenever they didn’t eat at her house. For all she knew – they actually called out for chinese or barbeque when they didn’t eat at her house. They never cooked.

Dinner was over. Barney sat back and picked his teeth with a pocket knife. Gordon whipped out a full bag of weed and began to break up buds. Maggie poured herself some more wine. The kids all lit cigarettes. She turned on the ceiling fan. Except for incense, pot, wood fires, leaves, and barbeque, Maggie didn’t like the smell of smoke, particularly cigarette smoke. She’d been vehemently against it all her life, and had done some demonstrating in the ’90s, so of course her kid would take up the filthy habit. Maggie felt that little subtle negative feeling. She identified it as disapproval. Of her kid? Of all the good her struggles had done? Of anyone who would do such a thing? The feeling puzzled her. She leaned with her elbows on the table, her hands absently cupping her breasts, massaging the soreness where nobody was likely to notice.

The after dinner joint went around. They all smoked. Maggie had hid her smoking from her daughter when she was young, but some time around thirteen Star started smoking weed, and by fifteen or sixteen they would get high together and discuss the world’s problems. It brought them closer. Bonding thru chemistry. It was certain that they couldn’t talk to each other without being high. Godon and his friends didn’t think anything unusual about smoking in front of Star’s mom, either. But she felt sure others would object.

‘So, how’s everything going over there?’ Maggie asked her daughter, who shrugged and looked away.

‘Fine.’ She didn’t want to talk about it, and Maggie knew if she was pressed, she’d just get up and leave.

She never wanted to talk about it, and it drove Maggie crazy. She wanted to be close to her girl, like they used to be. But she had turned into a stranger. Maggie felt like she knew the old woman down the street better than she knew her own child. She wanted to throw something at her, to shake her, to wake her up. Star always seemed so lackadaisical.

But then, so did every teenager. She was just being a typical kid. Including deciding to drop out of school and get her GED, later. Including sleeping all day and partying all night. They were just being kids. Waiting to grow up. How could she tell them how different it really was?

Well, she couldn’t. She knew that much. She remembered what she’d put her mother through. So she had it coming, that was one way to look at it. Karma. Fine, bring it on, she thought. Then another thought hit her. Just don’t make it too bad, she added.

Outside, the old couple was venturing out on the last dog walk of the night. They turned to go down to Main Street and walk about the block counterclockwise. The old man remarked as they passed the Nextor’s house, ‘Sure do put out a lot of trash every week.’

Three trash cans were filled to overflowing on the sidewalk. ‘I wonder how they manage to use so much stuff if we never see them coming back from the grocery store.’ The old lady mused. ‘Maybe they get it delivered while we’re asleep.’

They spotted a dog standing in the street on the other side of Main Street. A brindled part-pit bull mutt. The old man recognized it. ‘It’s too far away to catch,’ he muttered, speeding up. Their dog surged forward eagerly and yanked Altman down the sidewalk toward a new friend. Velha dragged behind.

The other dog disappeared, so they circled back by the construction site. There were the remains of several trees, piled roughly in the middle of the lot. Their limbs had been stripped and cut into logs. A chipper sat hulking near the small branches. The air was pungent with the smell of freshly ground-up growing things. Velha inhaled deeply. The old man started humming. They entered the lot and walked around the pile of ex trees, Velha muttering, ‘What a shame.’ The old man hummed louder. They circled around the trees slowly. The dog happily peed on every third branch.

In the middle of the night, they were awakened by the sound of a cat screaming, a short snarl, and frantic rustling in the leaves. The old man muttered threats. The old woman said a silent prayer. The rustling stopped.

The chainsaws started up at 7:15 the next morning, cutting up ex trees and hauling them off with a bulldozer and dumptrucks. The chipper whined and spat. Vehla stayed in bed, depressed and weary while Altman took the dog on his morning walk. But she couldn’t sleep, and kept getting up to go look and see what they were doing. The bulldozer kept coming close to her pecan tree and it worried her.

This morning there was a bulldozer working at the back of the property, stripping the artificial hill that had been built up years ago when they leveled off the lot for a service station. The dozer was scraping the little bank clear of bamboo and treelets and kudzu. It was good he was scraping it all away, because that’s the only cure for kudzu, but he was making her nervous because the bulldozer kept slewing close to her trunk.

She kept trying to sleep right up to the moment when the bulldozer went up to the last remaining tree on the site and pushed it over. She rushed to the back window to make sure it wasn’t her pecan, and was just in time to see the bulldozer come along her back property line and push over one of her small trees, right next to the pecan. She screamed with anger and rushed down to get Altman to go out and yell at them. But it was too late. There was twenty years of shade, gone in a moment. Now there was a big patch of red dirt where it had been green just moments before. She cursed them.



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