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Some Great Thing by Colin McAdam

The following is an excerpt from Some Great Thing by Colin McAdam, published by Harcourt in May 2004.

 

The Story of Jerry McGuinty

Thirteen neighbourhoods, five thousand roofs, thirty thousand outside walls, and a rock-hard pair of hands. That is what I have built. I have laid iron, I have laid iron mesh, I have breathed more iron filings than the men who built the railroads. And I have plastered.

My father was a plasterer. His father was a plasterer. His father's father was a plasterer (and plastering was the death of his father). I, my friend, am a plasterer. Lean forward here and I will show you my card. I am a member of the Plasterer's and Cement Masons' International Association of the United States & Canada, local one-one-five. There are 50,000 members, and I am the best. My father was the best. His father was the best. His father's father was the best. And this is all due to two things: will; and a secret. Only Portland cement goes into my mix, and when it comes to mortar I use barely a pinch of lime. That is my secret.

Will. Until you know what it is like to join ten million bricks, don't say a word about will.

I have covered 5,000 acres with my own creations. That's right. I have choked, raped, and tortured the earth, my friend, and in the end it is mightier than it was. Teach me about nature and I will show you a pair of hands.

We're in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, no less. Now look here at this map. The Oaks: mine. The Hunt: mine. Pine Grove: mine. Much Of It: mine. I will show you more later. I will drive you around them. Edgar Davies helped with one or two of them.

I have no sensation in my left hand's pointer. I have missed more nails than you have opportunities, and I haven't missed a nail in thirty-one years. Frostbite has whitened both of my earlobes and sunburn has turned my forearms to suede. Before steel soles I stepped on five nails and after hard hats I missed death twice.

I have loved a woman.

I own my own company.

I have heard and told 10,000 filthy jokes.

My first day on a site without my father was the day my life began. A January day as cold as a nail. My apprenticeship was over and I was given a job with people who hated me because that's what builders do when they meet new people. 'McGuinty! Ya thick-headed cunt plaster shit on the cock-ass floor-cunt!'

I remember the foreman.

'McGuinty!'

He ate a cat once.

'McGuinty, ya lick-whore cunt drip wall fuck level or I'll eat your ass!'

I couldn't move my fingers and the plaster was slower than time. At lunch I sat with a man, Johnny Cooper, who had just finished five years for GBH. I didn't know that, and he looked lonely.

'You sit any closer and I'll punch your gut through your ass,' he said.

I plastered half a wall and I helped one of the brickies, a guy named Mario.

'Jerry,' I said.

'Mario,' he said.

'What should I do?' I said.

'Eat my cunt,' he said.

The foreman took me aside at the end of the day and stood me next to the half wall I'd plastered (still wet), and he pushed me slowly into it face-first without saying a word. I stepped back and saw an impression of a scared white Jerry McGuinty.

 

I learned how to talk.

'I can't cunt find fuckin nails ass, shit, you seen them, hoor?'

'What?'

 

We built everything in those days. We built hangars for the military and houses for their people. The houses were made of paper, nothing but chipboard and plasterboard, staples and glue.

Let me tell you what it's like building with plasterboard.

I'll tell you later.

It was the time to be in the construction business, I tell you for your interest, and a lot of guys I knew worked hard enough to start their own company later. We built the hangars and houses, convenience stores, gas stations, model homes that lasted for a month. Everyone had a finger in everything, and everyone's finger was gold.

But that first January. Girders stuck to my flesh like frying pans and my toolbox looked at me like a threat. Every hammer, wrench, and trowel I owned found different ways to hurt me. One day I wouldn't feel my fingers, the next they'd be there like a scream. Put your hands in a freezer for a day, if you have the time, and then thread a screw through a nut. Don't tell me how it feels.

'Ouch!'

'McGuinty!'

And the men I worked with. Italian, Irish, Canadian, the usual muddy mix. I was on that first site a week when Johnny Cooper came up out of the blue and clocked me in the jaw. That hurt. Tony Espolito shook my hand so hard when I first met him he pulled my pinkie out of its socket. He killed himself with a hammer once. There were ten of us on that site and there were nine hairy animals too many, I say with no restraint. I thought I knew what a man was.

 

Everyone's finger was gold and the earth was hungry for houses. When I was in the middle of it I didn't realise what I was in the middle of. It took me a few years, a few sleepless smelly years, to realise it was the greatest boom this land has ever seen. One of them, anyway. We couldn't help but make a fortune.

 

I am Jerry McGuinty.

 

You have to have strength and you have to be right. Accurate. No one survives as a builder if he has to do work over. The best builders I've worked with have been like professional athletes. Little ones, big ones, thin ones, thick ones, perfectly made for whatever they did. Chippies have the steadiest hands, and the quickest. Tony Antonioni could put up an A-frame in an hour and a half, if he remembered his tools. He also knew angles. He could cut a plank at exactly 32 degrees with nothing but a hand-saw, if he remembered the wood.

I became an expert brick layer, but it was plaster - plastering anything - that wrapped my pride in a creamy layer of gold. To plaster the simplest wall takes grace, patience, and a solid sense of how the world stands up. Some say it stands up straight. Some say it curves like hips. I say it stands as I tell it to. My walls will change your life.

Walk over to the nearest wall in your house and knock on it. If it makes a hollow sound it is plasterboard and you should be out earning money. If it is hard hard hard and creamy it is plaster, my friend, and I want you to take down your ugly pictures, stand back from it, put your glasses on or take them off and give that wall a good strong look. Does it make the room bigger? Smaller? Do you feel a little sick? A strong wall is plastered solid at the edges, but the middle is where it lives. A bit of pressure on my trowel can make you love your kids, a bit less and God help you breathe.

Smirk at your peril.

 

For the first year I was still living with my parents, but the next January, always freaking January, my father kicked me out of the nest and my mother shoved me for emphasis. I rented a room in Mrs Brookner's basement, and I learned to like her as much as I liked banging my head on a beam.

Every morning I was up at four thirty and Mrs Brookner made me eggs and ash.

By six I was at the site, no matter where it was, with my eye on a wall and my insides clawing their way to my mouth. Those early days were the hungriest in the history of my stomach. Trucks came by at eight o'clock, on the dot, and I still smell them coming: Jack's Little Griddle; Ye Olde Lunch Wagon. Meals on greasy wheels, my friend, and never were they sweeter. A cup of hot gristle at ten o'clock on a January morning (in those days it was fresh) was our hot milk and honey. At twelve o'clock the grease rolled round again, and once again at four.

 

In the first two years we built a hundred paper house - a hundred holes and a thousand dirty troubles. They were young people's houses, and to everyone but their builders they were dreams. I could put my hand against the inside of a wall - my own wall, the wall I was forced to build - and feel the wind blow through it.

By the time we were putting up the last house the rest had already been filled, and we got a close hard look at our victims. They were older than me, those dreamers who moved in, and I was too young to feel sorry for them. The difference between dreams and plasterboard, I tell you out of wisdom, is their shape.

Doors slammed loose and linoleum cracked, wires fizzled dead, hot and cold, hot and cold, all pipes burst, bottom edges curled in a hot shit-grime. For a while I answered complaints. My foreman sent me over.

'Good morning, ma'am, I've come to rebuild your house.'

All the visits were the same.

'Good morning, sir, I hear you're having a problem with your upstairs window.'

'You're goddamn right I am. There isn't one.'

'There isn't one?'

'There's no goddamn window. Just the frame.'

'Well, I'm here to fix that. Let me go to the truck and see if I can dig up a pane or two.'

And he'd follow me to the truck.

'No goddamn window for six weeks. And my goddamn wife's trying to get pregnant.'

'Well, I'm here to fix that.' And I'd look in my truck and find a window pane to make his wife pregnant.

 

I was never home before ten o'clock and home was never home. Mrs Brookner was always awake in the kitchen cutting up a head or a tongue which I'd find the next day in my sandwich. Even if I wasn't tired there was nothing to stay up for.

But I was tired. I earned a sleep which I cannot describe because nothing ever happened but sleep. Four thirty came again and for thousands of my years it has never stopped coming. I was too tired to be weary and too scared to be tired. But slowly, slowly, I was learning how to live. I made friends.

'Hey, Cooper.'

'What do you want?'

'What?'

'You just said my fuckin name.'

'Sorry.'

And I got stronger. Strength is in the forearm, my friend, and I defy you to come near mine.

***

To save myself time in the future I put extra compound over some of the plasterboard in those first houses. The wind stopped blowing through them and the stupid young couples kept warm. That was the first of my plans.

I took no breaks and I had no time. But there was freedom between my ears, and I don't mean what you think I mean. Building is ten per cent concentration and ninety per cent habit. You have to think about what you're going to do, but you don't while you're doing it. It doesn't matter how busy your body is, your mind is always free. Free if you have good forearms. Once I know where to put it, my trowel moves steady as the waves - habit moves it and my thoughts are free. And that's when you plan.

Johnny Cooper, Mario Calzone, and Tony Espolito, they don't plan. When they're staring at a wall or choking on sawdust, they're thinking this: Woman, Blood, Bone. They're thinking things you'll never know.

But Jerry McGuinty plans.

The future was there one day drying around my fingers.

 

In 1968 I met her and everything white turned red.

 

When you build one hundred shameful houses, day after plasterboard day, you start to think that the world needs nothing better. You start building yourself into them. I caught myself one day, in the middle of Mrs Brookner's breakfast, thinking I would throw up one of those houses for myself. It would get me out of here, I thought. I counted up what the materials would cost and I thought about where I would build, and I even thought about asking the foreman for advice.

They change you, all those Januaries. Those first few years had more than a few of them. I was only in my twenties and I was already growing this here belly. My eyes were always red. I ­suppose I drank a lot of beer, but up yours if you're going to judge me.

You change, you stay the same, or you do something in between. I didn't know what to do. I thought about changing crews - sometimes I'd get a taste of others during little jobs - but the men were all exactly the same. I've seen more Johnny Coopers than you've seen disappointment.

I thought about staying put, but then there was Johnny Cooper.

I thought about doing something in between but I didn't know what that meant.

Building myself an ugly little house seemed the perfect thing to do. I had money (in those days the unions had Strength). I could buy the materials, build the house in my sleep, and by the age of twenty-two have more square feet than my father had at forty.

So there I was, regretting breakfast, staring at a wall, waiting for the courage to come to ask my foreman for advice, when I looked at my hands and it came to me.

Plaster. I felt stupid as a sack of grade-two cement. I'll build a better house, I said. Plaster walls for smarter people.

 

—Excerpted from Some Great Thing by Colin McAdam. © 2004 by Colin McAdam. Excerpted by permission of Harcourt. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

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