Steve and his wife Sherry live in a gorgeous home. Steve and Sherry live in a neighborhood of gorgeous homes. They live in a confusing maze of suburb outside the city, Vancouver. The master bedroom is on the main floor. As of March 20th, 2016 they’ve never used the 3 upstairs bedrooms. He says he’d like to downsize soon. Maybe something smaller, maybe something in Osoyoos. She says she likes the house they’re in just fine, thank you very much.
     Steve’s been ill for three months now. A persistent lung virus ‘took him down a few notches’ during my first week of working for him, and still presents him chest pains when he lifts, bends, stands, walks, talks, sleeps, breathes – you get the idea. Yesterday he winced while lifting a doorframe into place. I saw him wince, and he saw me see him wince. Later, he confessed in confidence that he’s got shingles covering his left side torso – from armpit to waistband. I suggested he see a doctor. He replied with a smile, supposed to be the punchline to a joke I never told.
     “ I’m just not quite back at 100 percent ” he’s been saying since December. “ Have you seen my bottle of Tylenol? I’m totally fine, it’s just the pain that slows me down.”
We install custom window and door systems all over the GVRD. They’re the type of products that add considerable value to a home. They’re high quality steel, tempered glass and vinyl, and are definitely not cheap. The door systems average between 12 thousand to 35 thousand dollars each, some homes ask for more than half a dozen installed. They are an investment in the potential re-sale value of the home and the present owners sense of satisfaction – they’re quite nice, really. Steve habitually works straight through lunch and rarely takes breaks. Every day with this man goes pretty much the same: Around 930 AM he vaguely mentions ‘going for a coffee’. He talks absentmindedly about the phantom coffee at intervals until 3pm. Then the lingering buzz that never was is supplanted by “Let’s start cleaning things up here – I gotta run to another site.”
I wonder if he switches off thinking about windows and doors when he gets home at night.
When he’s out for dinner with friends.
When he finally hangs his hat before bed.
That dusty Mariners ballcap – I’ve almost never seen it off his head. His aged body is well comfortable under it, and under layers of well worn well weathered work shirts. He’s always got on this thermal vest that’s seen years of sawdust and weather and caulking and paint. His pants simultaneously rise and droop on account of a putty spattered, worn soft leather toolpouch. He and that sock have been together at this work for 38 years now.
The pouch sinches him tight at the waist, confessing an almost gaunt figure. The leather is smooth from sweat and rain, years of sticky glue and the nick of sharp blades. It lives in the back corner of the back of the work van. I bring it to him when he calls for it, put it back in its place when the job is done. Every time I pick it up it telegraphs a little bit more of where its been. “ I’m shocked I didn’t get an invite to the Academies last night! ” he says with a sideways grin, acutely aware of his every day appearance. He said the exact same thing at Oscar time, with that same charming grin. He’s always saying things with that grin, it’s part of his allure and one reason he’s so goddamn good with the clients. They love him. He IS lovable.
The reality of the physical world, objects and appearances, is at best an afterthought for Steve. It’s chess pieces he moves around to meet ends and make ends meet. He seems invincibly able to bend time and space to fit in more work and more jobs jobs jobs. As an employee I simultaneously appreciate and abhor this magic. Despite how adept he’s become at cheating time, at 64 years of age he’s fading fast due to an absolutely delusional disregard for his own physical health. He seems reluctant to realize that he does * in fact * consist partly of a body.
“I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” he says, too often.
I think he gets more satisfaction from talking about his poor health than he would from actually doing anything to improve it. So he talks about it often.
It’s 6:30 AM on the way to Abbotsford. I’m not much for small talk today, having left the studio 4 hours ago with just enough time for a quick rest before work. Steve resolves to fill the silence with banter, presumably out of habit.
“Make any money off those paintings???” he asks me, again. He’s asked me this several times so I’ve had a chance to sculpt and re-sculpt my re-ply.
“That’s not really what they’re for, Steve”
I watch my comment rattle around a bit in his upstairs. His eyes search aimlessly in their sockets, mirroring the shiny new pinball of thought in his mind …
He just said….that’s not what they’re for….. They’re not for making money…. –
He’s searching for a familiar slot to fit it in, and doesn’t find one.
“I don’t understand” comes out of his mouth.
No sideways glance. No grin.
Utter sincerity,
and I believe him completely.
Steve is old school. His idea of success is working as often as possible, to make as much money as possible – reality and health be damned. He likes his wife to look after the house during the day and have dinner ready for him after work, every night.
“ I put in a commercial range when we redid the kitchen oh….5 or so years ago. Sherry Loves it! she can cook anything in there! ”
He tells me this is his third marriage.
I let that one breathe in the front cab of his Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ cargo-van as we pilot Highway 1 East.
“I don’t like to be alone” he offers to the silence.
Fumbling to peel an orange while speeding the winding back roads out of South Surrey, his lack of concentration and speed combination have got me anxious in the passengers seat. He’s on a call with his cellphone wedged between ear and shoulder. The turn signal’s been flashing since 4 minutes, getting rave reviews from morning motorists passing on the inside lane. He doesn’t notice them. The ‘fasten seat belt’ warning buzzes intermittently as he takes another order for a steel door, writing with his fruitless hand, somehow managing to keep the van between the lines. “DOES IT HAVE A PANIC BAR???” he’s asking over the engine rev and piss pouring rain hitting our windshield at 130 kmph. I reach out and grip the steering wheel just as the van veers suddenly toward the shoulder. He takes the opportunity to palm his cellphone and send an invoice with his now free hand. He’s missing three-quarters of a pinky finger on that hand, but I’ve never asked him why.
There are degrees of separation in what constitutes wealth. I consider his position and think:
“ I’m willing to be exhausted for a purpose, something I believe in ”
I’ve forgotten my resolution after the first hour peeling lead paint from an old doorframe at the mornings jobsite. Someone put latex over oil, and it’s a real issue to get off. I sport a full respirator despite the heat and discomfort. What I lose in ‘tough guy points’ I more than make up in the evenings ability to breathe without obstruction and respect for self; I’ve never been much of a tough guy. I’ve also never seen Steve cover his face or wear any type of ear or eye protection since we’ve been working together – I have to assume this has always been his way. The location is some kind of medical centre. There are many bathrooms on its main floor and we’ve removed all doors for sanding, painting, rehanging. Passing through a hallway on my way to the work truck I catch a side view of Steve leaning over one of the large, low sink basins. He’s washing his face and hands clean of the dust and sweat. His ballcap rests on the sink countertop, off his head for the first time I can consciously remember. I drink in the novelty as he leans over the sink with his head bowed, grasping the ceramic sides for support in a back bent posture that I first take to be an expression of exhaustion. His hands rest heavily on either side of the sink, propping up his mortal coil with the only perceivable tension at his shoulders, where it sits fittingly. Water drips from his balding head; sparsely populated with longish, thin white hairs. It moves slowly down the sides of his face and over the tip of his nose, echoing in the half filled sink and out into the empty hallway. It’s one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever seen; he’s immersed in nothing but his own self care.
A little impulse arises to poke fun at him, to say with a half-cocky attitude ‘Didn’t shower at home today, Steve?’ But I catch myself before it comes out – I catch that bubble before it pops. It’s not the time for that kind of joke, not now. This is a very private moment and to jar it would be absolutely inappropriate – the very definition of irresponsible. I feel privileged to be here and realize how tender this time really is. He washes his hands in a slow, relaxed way. He takes care removing the paint and wood filler from under his nails, the drywall dust and sawdust dissolve away under a tiny crystal clear waterfall. I look up to his dampened face and see a look of true joy, communicated primarily by a subtly upturned corner of his mouth and the softness of his eye. The man is no doubt loving this simple moment and the chance to care for himself this way. Looking at his face from this angle I notice for the first time that his nostrils are large and very distinct. They are the nostrils he was born with. Yes they’ve grown over time, undoubtedly – but these are the nostrils he was born with.
I think ‘His mother must have cared for him like this at one time’. She must have cared for his tiny body and gave it love the same way he’s doing right now- with attention, and patience and quiet focus. His head is still wet and dripping, his hands move slowly over and over each other, caring for themselves as they deserve. Everyone is someones child, you know? The hands…..his head……the missing pinky…..the nostrils…. She Loved them, too.
His cellphone rings the characteristic tone I’ve come to recognize as ‘another job’ and his body snaps back to a tension. We’ve got a morning appointment for doors on Wednesday, and another for Friday.
On the drive home he tells me he was interested in Journalism, once. “Cant make any money at that though, unless you’re Anderson Cooper!” he quickly shovels rationalization over top of his admission. “Or Steve Norton!” I say, and I’m serious.
He gives me a halfway grin, that god awful punchline of his. Did I say something you found funny?