Roofing A House

(Originally penned 2/20/1985)

I remember my grandfather. He was loads of fun at times, but he spent a lot of time hinting that I needed to do various things around the house–his house in the silk-stocking neighborhood of Belle Meade located in Nashville, Tennessee, that is. I lived just up the street with my family, so I was there quite a bit checking on him, my grandmother, and my mother. They all lived there, and I felt kind of responsible for them.

One day I went up to see Grandad (we pronounced it Grindead). He was upstairs, and when he saw me he blinked through his thick bifocals, scratched his tuft of snow-white hair, tucked a hand in between his profuse belly and his braces, and said with his central south, ‘Aw, shucks!’ drawl, “Ya know, the roof is leaking.” I knew what that meant and doubted that I should offer anything, but my brain had not hardened adequately at that point in my life. I weakly suggested that maybe I could do it. Grandad wasn’t the kind of person to ever discourage his grandchildren from attempting any kind of endeavor, no matter how dangerous it might have been, so he gave me the name of a lumber yard where he had an account and suggested I try it.

Of course, he wasn’t about to help, being seventy-six or so, diabetic, and generally adverse toward any thing that might make him sweat. So I set about to get the job done, regardless of my apprehensions, by getting this equally soft-headed friend of mine named Richard to help. I knew that at that time Richard was hankering to learn the manly skills of construction, so it was not hard to talk him into helping. The money I offered him wasn’t so bad either. I also offered money to my next-door neighbor’s son, Jim, to help, and he agreed. Once the materials were delivered, we were ready to go.

Remarkably, Richard and Jim showed up on the appointed day. We figured that we should do the garage first to learn on, and also as a trial to see if we could do it. Lingering deep down inside was the doubt that we wouldn’t succeed, but outwardly I remained optimistic. At that point Grandad came out onto the backporch to supervise and casually mentioned that the old roofs had to come off, since there were three separate layers on the house and garage, the maximum allowed by code.

“No problem, Grandad.” I chirped. “We can handle it.”

We climbed up a ladder onto the roof of the garage and started to pull the old roof off with hammers and pry bars. The garage was only one story, and the pitch of the roof was only about 30 degrees, but the temperature was about 90 degrees and climbing. Also, at one corner of the garage, Jim’s parents kept a pen of chow chows, enormous, slavering, bear-like dogs of Chinese origin, that displayed the unnerving habit of staring at us quietly and hungrily. Like Chinese Tong killers, they would stand off from the garage, waiting with expressionless faces. When one of us slipped a bit on the roof, the chows would perk up and move forward slightly, opening their mouths to show blue tongues and sharp teeth. Since it was only a corner of the garage roof that hung over the chow pit, we weren’t too worried. We let Jim do that part of the roof, figuring that even if he did fall, they were his dogs, and they probably wouldn’t eat him.

The temperature continued to rise. Around eleven o’clock it began to dawn on me that August in Tennessee was a bad time to roof a doghouse, much less a garage and a house. I climbed down from the roof saying that I had to repair some stucco inside the garage. The stucco had been busted up pretty badly–my grandfather had done it a while back when he stopped his Lincoln in front of the garage, forgot to cut it off, forgot to take it out of gear, forgot to put the brake on, and then got out. He had been lucky; the car hadn’t run over him, and I was kind of glad he had done it, since it was now giving me an excuse to get out of the sun. Richard and Jim bought that story without a lot of grumbling, so I started the stucco repair inside the garage.

About an hour later, Richard poured off the roof looking as if he had just spent a month crossing the Gobi desert on foot. Muttering something about how next job he was going to be stucco-man, he stumbled over to some shade and collapsed on his face in the dirt. Grandad, still on the porch, stared at him a while, then disappeared into the house. He came back directly, called me up to the porch, handed me a brand-new outdoor thermometer still in the package (it read 96 degrees and it had been in the house), and quietly remarked with deep sincerity, “Ya know, no one in their right mind would roof on a day like this.” I didn’t say a word; I just took the thermometer out to Richard and showed it to him. He put his head in his hands and shook convulsively for two or three minutes. He got up a little while later and seemed to be okay.

Finishing the garage the next day wasn’t so bad since the temperature had plummeted to around 92 degrees. We spent the first part of the day hauling the old roofing to the dump, from which we brought back almost as much as we had taken: old books, pieces of wood that we might find useful one day, half of a slide, and other garbage that we thought valuable. We carefully stored it in the garage. The second half of the day we spent roofing the garage.

We first nailed the roofing felt to the roof, then started to lay the shingles. Row upon row, we were rapidly covering the garage with a roof. The chows seemed less interested in us, and things were going along without hitch, until my mother started up a fight in the house with my grandmother.

Now I had grown up with their fights and was used to them, but this fight was special. My mother, if she thought there were strangers around, could, according to my grandmother, make Jesus Christ curse. And I half believed it that day. It started somewhat quietly at first, with only some loud talking. We couldn’t see anyone in or around the house, but the noise got louder and louder like the rising wind of a coming hurricane. The loud talking grew to screams and yells, and eventually, amid some of the most creative curse-words ever screeched, you could hear doors slamming, people running up and down stairs, pots and pans crashing, Grandad hollering “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”, and the sound of my grandmother hitting something solid with a broom. Jim was used to all this, as he had grown up next door, but I was a bit worried about what Richard was thinking. Embarrassed, I blandly suggested to him that my mother was explaining nuclear physics to my grandparents and that she lectured this way all the time. Finally, there was a sudden silence, and a few seconds later my mother burst from the back door. Damning my grandmother and all her family to hell, she hopped into her car and shot out of the drive, not to be seen again till long after dark.

Things calmed down after that, but I began to have suspicions about my ability to roof. The heat, the work, the chows, and the screams of the people in the house began to congeal in my mind, along with a vague premonition of doom, into a suspicion that perhaps we had taken on too much. I wisely kept this to myself, though. The garage was Thunderhead Mountain; the house turned out to be Nanga Parbat, south face. From atop the garage, the house didn’t look so tough. The garage was easy, and we had finished it. We could, we felt, handle the house. But then we climbed up there.

The roof could not have been less than 45 degrees. Richard found out, suddenly, that he was afraid of heights. I was still determined and evidently had sun stroke, because I boasted to Richard, “We can do it.” In order to make Richard feel better about his fear of heights, which he tastelessly displayed by roping himself to the top of the roof, I roped myself to the top of the roof. I could tell he appreciated it, so we began to tear off the old roof with shovels and pitchforks. It was my idea to use such tools and it worked quite well. Since the roof was so steep, we would just dig under the roof, loosen it, and roll it over upon itself, after which only a slight shove would cause the rolled up roofing to peel off like a rock slide. At times, large sections of the roof would give way and slide to the ground with a roar. When this happened, it generally scared the wits out of us since we were usually working on, and were supported by that portion of the roof that gave way. But even so, I was beginning to feel positive again, and we finished up the day having removed all of the back roof.

The next day, storm clouds rolled in. Frantically, we worked to get the felt nailed on, which would at least shed most of the impending water. Thunder began to peal in the distance, and the wind began to rise. Then there was a huge crack of lightning close by, and I heard this scuffling sound behind me where Richard was. When I turned around, he was gone.

I called out “Richard?” To my relief, he answered, from inside the garage, that he was okay, and that he was busy removing all metal objects from his person. I kept at the roof, however, as I was thinking about the possibility of the house as my inheritance. I prayed fervently that it would not rain, and it seemed to work. The wind died down, the thunder trailed off, and the lightning stopped. I thanked God and kept nailing. Richard kept cowering in the garage.

Then–KABOOOOM!!–a huge, completely unexpected, terrific clap of thunder disturbed the idyllic vapours right over my head. Richard said later that I threw the hammer and was in the garage before it hit the ground, but I think that’s a bit exaggerated. However, it was at this point that I began to have suspicions about my ability to roof, and if there were any doubts, the skies opened to wash them away. The wind picked up again, and what little felt had been nailed down began to blow away.

I slowly walked into the house to explain to Grandad what had happened. I found him standing in his attic closet where he kept all those special belongings that old people collect over the years and hold dear, watching a cascade of water stream through the roof and pour over his memories. I left quietly, realizing that I didn’t need to say a word.

Next day, I called Grandad on the phone rather than visit (just to be safe), to tell him that maybe he ought to hire a roofing man to come finish the job. The day after that, five or six guys showed up to finish the job. I came by to see how things were going and found several of them lying in the front yard pouring water over their bodies. The outdoor thermometer read 98 degrees. I told them this and quietly remarked with deep sincerity, “Ya know, no one in their right mind would roof on a day like this.”


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