I’m building a project with wood today. I like the sturdy, tightly grained hardwoods—the kind that dull the saw blade but make wonderful heirlooms. Today’s project is nothing so noble. This project is akin to my first proud wood projects: a set of whitewashed steps going into the storehouse out back, and a dangerous catapult of a picnic bench with legs so closely set that it was more like a see-saw than a seat.
Today I am building a sand box for my son. Easy. Make a quasi-rectangle out of boards then bang the corners together with nails, unless you’re fortunate enough to have a twelve-volt-cordless-screwdriver/drill-with-a-spare-battery-that’s-always-charging-complete-with-holster like I’ve always wanted. Otherwise, six-penny nails, a claw hammer, and a sacrificial thumb will finish the job.
I found the wood I needed in Kathy’s garbage. A friend of mine kindly labels this behavior “trolling,” but I have known since my youth that what I do is garbage-picking. Kathy and Rich are moving, but to different places. Rich told me over the phone two weeks ago. I have already said my good-byes with firm hugs, well-wishes, and the exchange of addresses.
By the trash corral behind their house I find six or eight carpets, ten trash bags, and numerous boxes surrounded by the wood of a king-sized waterbed frame. All I see is treasure. I find adequate amounts of wood immediately, and then I continue to shop for books, office supplies, and carpet. In the fourth box I find staplers, with staples in them, functioning. I am happy. I find picture frames with pictures in them.
I slow my search when I realize that I recognize the infant face in those 8x10s. It’s Rich. We’ve known each other for twenty years. He’s always had a lazy eye, and passed it on to his children. I’m held momentarily motionless by the one eye that is looking toward me from the picture frame.
There are other faces beneath this one—a big stack. All framed. All of Rich. I close the box, afraid to look around, feeling like I have peeped through a curtain into the private rooms of someone else’s life. I want to go now without looking behind me at the house.
But in the next box, videos are piled—maybe some kids’ videos, or some we can tape over. The top one has a title written with a feminine flourish: “Father’s Day.” These are not garbage. They are treasures. They are supposed to be important to somebody. Some societies believe that reproducing your photographic image takes part of your life essence away. It is at least true that some aspect of human essence is captured on film. You capture that image to hold and hold, because in one more second, that image will be gone. For good.
I think about calling Kathy out of the house to ask her if there is some mistake, to tell her that these pictures are irreplaceable. But there’s no mistake. I do not call Kathy. I do not call Rich. And I have lost interest in trolling. I cannot take the Father’s Day video. No one should tape over it. It’s supposed to sit on the family shelf for eighteen years until the technology which produced it lapses into obsolescence and the grandkids find it dusty in the garage, digitize it with a hand-held chip, and laugh at how their grandfather could have ever dressed like that.
Who has the nerve to separate the baby pictures from the frames and insert anything in place of that ten-month-old face with the roaming eye? I have no strength for it. I carefully adjust the heirlooms in the frames, and stack them.