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Construction News Chapter 3.1 – The First Curse August 18, 2006

Posted by jeanne in construction news, Rough Draft.

It was Thing One at the door. ‘Altman’s downstairs,’ Velha said curtly. She’d torn herself from her work and gotten up, which hurt all her joints, and stomped thru the kitchen, living room, and foyer – half the house – fretting over how rapidly she was losing the thread of what she’d been doing, and growing wrathful at the interrupter, whomever it may be. And of course it was Thing One. The imperious way he rapped on the screen door and shouted through the house, the smell of clothes lived and slept and peed in that hit her while she was still in the living room.

He stood in the door fidgetting, his hands scratching the air by his sides, rapidly shuffling his feet and slouching, his eyes darting. He mumbled something she couldn’t hear, a grimy hand tugging at his beard, mouth barely moving. She came closer to the door. The draft sucked his smell past her in waves. He looked her in the eye and repeated himself, louder.

‘How you doing?’ he started, intently examining her. She backed off and turned to go, so he hurried. ‘I, um, I just thought you might be interested in something.’ He scuffed his foot against the door and hung his head. ‘I guess you don’t want to know. I’d better go see your husband. I just thought,’ he broke off. Velha waved him off. She had heard his speils before, and didn’t want to waste her time.

He tried his next angle. ‘You see, I’ve got some kitchen equipment.’ He watched her narrowly. ‘A set of pots and pans, they’re in great shape, no scratches.’ He warmed up. ‘I’d almost swear they came fresh out of a box. I’ve never seen anything like them. A whole set.’ He started to wheedle. ‘I thought you’d want to know. I know you like to cook, and I thought that since you were such a good neighbor,’ he looked her in the eye and grimaced reassuringly, ‘I thought I’d give you the first look. I’m nore than ready to put these choice wares aside and bring them around to show you at your convenience.’ He stopped speaking suddenly, and stared at her intently.

Velha felt the pressure of his look. It was like thick gauze laid over her face and noxious liquid poured on, for her to breathe the fumes and pass out. Nasty fumes, too. She fanned her face. ‘Sure. Bring them by. We’ll see.’ She moved back into the shadows and snuck away from him.

Notable out the back this morning was a crew of Mexicans pushing a giant mower-digger machine all around the edge of the property, where nice looking young surveyors had come by yesterday and put down stakes.

The surveyors hadn’t made hardly any noise except to belllow out ‘Good’ after a reading. These guys’ machine was making a lot of noise, a high pitched whine with frequent loud chokes as the machine ate the large things it passed over and thru. They were clearing a line for the silt fence and cutting an eight inch trench into the ground at the same time. Ten feet this side of the property line, right between her trees.

Velha watched bewildered as they pushed the machine thru the space between her trees, running the fence just this side of her big pecan and another, smaller tree that was beginning to fill out nicely. A short swarthy man in a white t-shirt came along with metal rods that he pounded into the trench with a big mallet. Another little guy in white came along with a roll of black netting and laid it along the rods. Another little guy in a white t-shirt came along unrolling a wire fence in front of that. Velha wan’t sure it wasn’t the same guy, and had to keep checking. Last was a tall, thin as a rail and really young guy, his white t-shirt hanging off his bones, coming along with pins to fasten the net.

Velha watched their progress with annoyance. She was busy pouring over websites that sold medicinal plants, going through online catalogs and taking notes. Drooling over plants she wanted to try in the sunny new soon-to-be-part of the yard. Their progress distracted her. What she was doing was important.

For some reason lost to the mists of time, the alley behind their houses didn’t go all the way thru from Maine to Cyde Street. Years ago the owner of the corner house put up a fence and built his own entrance up a steep hill, and now the alley started at Maine Street, behaved itself until Maggie’s, and then curved thru the other back yards, and ran out in the middle of Velha’s yard. There were trees down the back, and gravel behind the house. But it could be beautiful.

Since before they bought the house, the back yard had been mostly used as a parking lot, and was inches deep in gravel and stained with ancient car fluids. But not for long. She rubbed her hands in anticipation. Practically the only part of her back yard that got any sun at all, wasted for 60 years. It had always bothered her that the driveway got more sun than the rest of her yard, and now this realization left her weak with excitement.

It was going to break her back to rake off the gravel and prepare the soil for plants. She thought greedily of the million and one flowering things that love sunshine even in the South, and contrasted it with what she’d always had – mostly leafy plants that thrive in the deep shade of a house surrounded by 110-year old trees.

She was coming into hundreds of square feet of what amounted to full sun. She was so excited she could hardly contain herself. She went off to find Altman to help relieve the stress.

At various times thru the morning, she stood at the back window drawing charts of the patterns of sun and shade passing thru her back yard. She was studying the patterns patterns. It surprised her to realize that she’d never done this in all the years she’d lived there. Her backyard had been a source of sadness to her, wasted space that she ignored and forgot. She had a chance to take back the whole area now that they were moving the alley to the back of the properties, where the map said it ran.

The kids were gone now. Nobody parked back there anymore. There was nothing to stop them from turning it into a proper garden except the sheer effort it was going to take. Maybe she should hire Thing Two for the hard stuff. she was getting too old for tat kind of work. And she didn’t want Altman working in the hot sun. But she’d have to watch over Thing Two like a hawk, and she couldn’t pay him a penny until the job was done. Something as simple as raking he might be able to handle; maybe a little tilling. He’s not touching anything he can kill, she promised herself.

She decided to tell Forman that he needed to remind the bulldozer guy that it was her tree, and he shouldn’t be thinking it was their tree. As she stalked over to the construction trailer she wondered if she shouldn’t have a word with the bulldozer guy herself. In paranoid moments she wondered if they were planning to take her tree down anyway and just not tell her.

‘You’re not going to take my tree down,’ she stated with the barest question in her voice. She felt cold standing in the air conditioned trailer.

To Forman she sounded like his mother. ‘No m’am,’ he assured her. ‘I like that tree.’ The all liked it. It was shade on a construction site, and everybody knows the value of that. It was, however, inconvenient, being on their side of the silt fence like it was. It would have been better to have an easement that was clear, but there were ordinances about tree removal.

A big flatbed semi came rumbling to a stop out front of their house. She saw it thru the living room window as she was getting more coffee – a big blue tractor-trailer driven by a big burly guy, then nothing, as the flatbed passed beneath her vision, and then a huge yellow arm folded up and a huge bubble cab on treads, then nothing. It was like a circus parade past her house. It was some yellow elephant, or giant spider, coming to play in her back yard. They rolled it off the flatbed in the middle of the ex field.

A Cat, it said so on the side. Designed by someone who was good in 2-D. The sides and corners were angled rather than tapered, the whole thing looked squashed and ungainly. She looked it up.

The guy who drove the spider shovel walked out to his excavator wearing a white cowboy hat. He climbed in with assurance and powered it up, and then blew his rap by fucking up on the controls. The machine lurched forward, and the guy did slow donuts around the lot while he concentrated on a survey of the switches and levers.

He stopped suddenly, and the cab gave a great lurch that sent the arm whanging to the ground. He stopped and extended the arm with a jerk, and then somehow got the jaws of the shovel opening and closing rapidly. It took several minutes of jaw snapping to figure out how turn it off.. Unless the guy was really sitting in there making the damn thing chew.

The clangs were deafening even across the hundred and fifty feet of yard separating them. Only a hundred and fifty feet. Velha looked up into the canopy of her back yard, and imagined a parking deck peeking thru gaps in the leaves. And oh the joy of truck deliveries. She resumed her study of fast-growing trees on the net. She even entertained thoughts of bamboo.

She watched the guy manoeuver the crane and shovel. The learning curve on one of those machines must be staggering, Velha thought. There’s like eight different levers and a bunch of buttons and switches and dials. She’d soon know for sure because she and Altman would go out and inspect it thoroughly, later.

The guy was extending and retracting the arm the next time she looked up from her work. Every now and then he grabbed the stick and swivelled the cab around violently, the body tuning on the treads, the arm and shovel whipping around and rattling to a halt. Maybe he was sitting in his air conditioned cab with the A/C on, playing the Allmans and nipping from a pocket flask. He certainly looked unsteady.

He inched the spider to the side of the artificial hill about 30 feet from her trees. Dangerously close, given his apparent expertise. He was up on the hill, treads parallel, but the spiderlike body loomed over the side and the arm reached out to claw at the dirt side, over and over, without actually taking any dirt. Practicing. Eventually he took a few desultory shovelsfull of dirt and deposited them on the other side of his cab.

Then he inched it further along, and came upon a slab of concrete. This captivated him for the longest time. He painstakingly positioned the shovel in front of him and pointed down with the claw, and then raised the arm and lowered it and pounded the slab twenty or thirty times before taking a break. Each impact travelled thru the earth to Velha’s house and made the dishes rattle in the cabinets.

All day it was like that. Sickening crunches, shattering limbs, cracking logs. Breaking rocks. Once in awhile a really big thump set the jars clinking, until Velha got up on top of the cupbourd and separated them, muttering all the while.

She got so nervous when the house shook. Whenever the ground wasn’t steady under her she freaked out. Riding the roller coaster would be like going to hell. Riding a bike was out of the question. Even climbing up on the stool to stop the jars clinking gave her vertigo. She even went barefoot most of the year, in order to keep in maximum contact with the ground. Maybe her connection to life energy was so fragile that she had to take extreme measures, when normal people have energy to spare. Maybe she was just weird. And how did she come to be such an old breakable thing?

The old lady tried to express her anxiety to Forman when they went out on their after-lunch dog walk. He was back to hanging out in his truck. The A/C wasn’t on in the trailer, some malfunction they had to get a guy out to fix. The passenger seat was covered with a stack of thick books, his laptop balanced on the edge, a monster drink cup in danger below.

He was anxious himself. He kept reaching up to scratch his bald head. Velha started asking for assurances that they knew what they were doing when they put the silt fence between her trees instead of in front of them.

He didn’t seem to hear her. He told them how far behind schedule he was, and then berated the electrician who came out to fix the A/C and didn’t have the pieces, and had to go over to Home Depot and pay retail. Then he launched into a complaint about the engineers and the wisdom of hooking up new 24″ pipes to existing 18″ pipes down at Maine Street. He cursed the civil engineer who drew up the plans without ever visiting the site.

Somewhere in his manner Velha got the assurance she was seeking, that he was aware of the sloppy ways of the bulldozer guy, that even tho the guy was in fact an idiot, he was under control. They knew what they were doing, they respected how important the trees were. Everything will be alright, don’t worry your little head about it.

After lunch, when the bosses went to Daddy D’s, a barbeque joynt, and the Mexicans reclined under the shade of her trees eating from their lunchboxes, they went back to clearing ex branches and roots, digging holes and filling dumpsters with block and debris and even a little dirt from what looked like exploratory holes. She wondered about the aimless digging. Still getting in touch with his inner Tonka?

Finally, it made sense. They were being random on purpose. They struck a storage tank. Oddly, when they spoke to Forman later, it turned out that it was one of the storage tanks some company was paid to come out and dig up and dispose of, last year. They’d filled it with sand and left it there. If they’d reported it to the company, they’d neglected to tell him, and he was red-faced and agitated when they saw him on their dog walk. They’d never seen anybody digging up anything back there, but they didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so they didn’t say anything.

Velha was up at 7:15 the next morning, with the first cough of the excavator. She glimpsed it thru mostly closed eyes as she bumped her way to the bathroom. They’d found two other storage tanks after that first one yesterday. Already the big yellow spider thing was digging up a bunch of dirt and making a hill with it in the middle of the ex field. Dumptrucks were lining up on the property and the bulldozer was shoveling in branches, concrete chunks, dirt, and the trash accumulated on the site over the past thirty years.

As she sat in the bathroom yawning, she thought of what the neighborhood was like in the ’70s, when they first moved here. She remembered a time when prosperity was supposed to last forever but instead they had stagflation. The gas crisis. Vietnam. Work was hard to come by but rents were low. Everybody was just getting by. Life seemed slower then. She remembered the bicentennial celebrations and Jimmy Carter. She and Altman were raising their kids in a city full of desperately poor people, in neighborhoods around the center of the city that had been abandoned by those who could afford to leave. Most of them were paying rent, their neighborhoods were redlined by the banks so they couldn’t get a mortgage. The houses sat there and deteriorated.

Those ex buildings on the construction site – the gas station, the warehouse – they were barely getting by in those days. Nothing coming in or going out. The men sat around all day in the heat because there was no option. There was nothing to do, and it was too hot to get out there and hustle, and wasn’t nothing going on but the rent anyhow.

Velha went back to bed. But it was unsucessful because of the banging and creaking and that damned beep beep beep. So she sat up and had a cup of coffee with Altman, who was on his second and impatient to tell her his dreams. Which were weird, with nervous voices shouting in confusion from the underworld.

She sipped her coffee and snuggled closer. ‘I’m worried about the trees. Those construction guys are so careless.’

‘I spoke with them last night.’

She knew he wasn’t talking about the construction guys. Or another dream. He’d been journeying. ‘Is it a full moon?’ she asked mildly.

‘They’re afraid. They expect us to protect them.’

‘I need to confront Forman about the damage,’ she said, wishing he would offer to do it for her. Lately she’d been reluctant to go out in public, to do anything around other people. Velha resolved to speak to Forman about it hersef. To gather her courage and demand attention. Why was she reluctant to speak, to challenge authority? Some idea drummed into her at an early age – people in charge mustn’t feel threatened, don’t question authority. She knew that when she was younger she would have fought that idea to the death, but these days she didn’t have the energy. She felt like a coward at heart. She avoided confrontation and insisted she’d rather use indirect methods. ‘I’m working up a spell of protection. When’s full moon?’

‘Tomorrow.’ This answer frustrated her. She wanted to know the very minute, but he knew she would forget it in five minutes, and besides, he had an instinctive sense of timing where she relied on precision. She’d draw up an horary chart later.

They drank their coffee for a few minutes. ‘The foxgloves are in bloom, I must collect them soon.’ She thought about harvesting, tying into bundles and drying at the peak of flowering. Not that she had a need for digitalis. And she couldn’t in good conscience sell it to the health food store, because the city was a polluted place, and her plants were peed on by hundreds of dogs a week. So she triple washed it and turned it into concoctions along with all the other things in her garden. It was one of her ongoing passions, plant pharmacology. It was one of the things she had in common with Thing Two.

The old man rubbed his skull. ‘I remember how you hung them upside down in the kitchen last year.’

‘I was thinking about that. Maybe I should dry them in the spare room, over the washing machine?’ He looked at her. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘the back hall. Fine.’ Velha sighed. ‘You know, I wish there were some way to just stop all this destruction, the noise all day long, the house shaking. I think I’m seeing cracks in the plaster. I don’t know if i can take it.’

‘Well, it’s not too late to stop it.’

‘It’s too late for public hearings. We’d have to sue them to get them to stop.’ She began thinking of all the grounds for lawsuit.


‘Oh. You mean stop it stop it.’

‘What if they found something unexpected, something that’d make them call everything to a halt for weeks. They’d have to get in experts to painstakingly investigate it.’

‘CSI Hardhat.’

‘Something totally out there, like evidence of an earlier civilization. Something so they’ll have to abandon the project and build a museum right there.’

‘What, are you going to conjure a gravesite?’

‘I thought I’d use my Incan statues as a starting point for something.’

‘How is this going to stop the project, anyway?’

‘Maybe we can somehow cause them to dry up and disappear. You know, magic.’

‘They’ll just give up and go away.’

‘We could slow them down considerably.’

‘What about ethics?’

He paused. ‘Wiseman’s Handbook says it’s not good to wish bad things on anyone. Curses and evil spells are to be avoided at all costs. Simply wish that they get what they want and leave you alone, or if you’re the unforgiving type, that they get what they deserve.’

‘But I just want to kill someone for damaging my trees.’

‘I notice you’re pretty mild when it comes to expressing that, say, to Forman.’

‘I don’t want to bother him with things that look foundless when I’m standing there talking to him.’

‘Hmm. So your reasons for wanting to sabotage the construction are what?’

She thought. ‘Because they’re stupid and lazy and sloppy and don’t respect living things, and I’m opposed to everything they stand for. Wiping out what is already there and putting up cheap substandard atrocities for profit is a heinous crime that should be punished.’

‘Wow, you need your sleep, don’t you? How about if instead of raping the land they’re making it possible for hundreds of people to call our neighborhood their home, our wonderful peaceful part of the old city? Wouldn’t that be a good thing?’

‘I guess I’m just mourning the loss of the vacant lot. It was like it was mine.’

‘But look at all the space you’ll get for your garden once they move the driveway.’

He looked at her and traced a finger along her thigh. ‘Are you ready for our morning exercises?’ She smiled at him and swung out of bed. She sat cross legged on the rug in front of the floor-length mirror, waiting for him.



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