The Opposite of Death
Skye understands that driving Long Island in winter is tricky, but the opportunity is too good to pass up. He almost feels guilty, as if he’s cheating on his truck, abandoned and neglected in its California parking space. Still, the drive up 27 is lovely and refreshing: long, rolling hills covered in snow and housing, fingers of smoke rising from the chimneys. Farther along, the hills flatten out, he boards the lower jaw of the alligator and the Atlantic makes cameos out his passenger window.
The village of East Hampton looks like the little towns his mom would assemble on the coffee table at Christmas. Christmas! A week away, and no indication that he’ll make it home. But perhaps this is a luxury he has purchased with his erratic behavior. He has lowered the expectations of his family. This could be the year that he sees Christmas in New York.
He manages to spot Liza’s Tea Shop at the end of the strip and turn onto the narrow road just beyond. He punches his trip meter, and a precise 1.7 miles later finds the old bridge that signals his final turn. His expectation of Gatsbyan spires and infinite lawns is magnified by the approach, a long, straight shot between sentry lines of elm, their barren, powdered limbs weaving a canopy of white lace. The partial shelter has kept the road-snow at a moderate level, but Skye sticks to the basics, a nice even roll to avoid slippage. He slows further as he comes into the open, slushing his way onto a circular driveway.
The house is the expected size, but surprisingly haggard, the paint listless and old, the shingles torn off in patches. The feeling is offset by small amusements, a circular tower, a widow’s walk. Skye brings his bags to the porch and raps on a knocker dangling from the mouth of a brass lion.
Chelsea looks a little haggard, too, in torn jeans and a plaid shirt, her hair peeking out from a Yankees cap. She is covered in a film of white, like a scrubby phantom. She smiles.
“What’s the protocol here? Are we still kissing cousins?”
He laughs nervously. “Yes, I…” He kisses her. “Are you baking something?”
“No, why?” She looks at her hands. “Oh! Sorry. I forget what I look like when I… Goodness! Is that yours?”
He follows her gaze to the driveway.
“Oh, um. No. That’s Mickey’s. He insisted I drive it here, and I said yes before he could take it back.”
“Well! We’ll have to drive it into town so I can show off.”
“I would think anyone in this town could afford one of those.”
“Don’t mistake wealth for style, hon. Here, let’s get your bags inside.”
She takes the small bag, he the large, and they settle them in the front parlor, a room of deep red walls and black furnishings. She takes his hand and leads him back across the entryway into what looks like a construction zone. The high ceiling and stone hearth would seem to indicate a living room, but the floor is covered in plywood and the walls are nothing but studs and wires. The far corner sports two neat rectangles of sheetrock.
“Ah, so you are white with gypsum.”
“I planned on greeting you in a cocktail dress, but I finally finished the framing and I couldn’t resist the chance to cover some walls. Are you hungry? Come on, let’s make you a sandwich.”
They adjourn to a spacious kitchen/dining room. Skye sits at the table and looks through a large window at snow-covered dunes with patches of straw-colored grass. The water beyond is flat and gray. Chelsea digs into the fridge for turkey and mayo, settling them on a large island. The kitchen walls are covered in brick-size tiles of marble veined in black and gray.
“Your kitchen is astounding.”
“Thank you. Took forever. You have to be ridiculously precise. And if you find a flaw, you just have to tear it out and do it over or it’ll drive you nuts.”
“Is it hard to find a tile guy who will work to those standards?”
Chelsea gives him a puzzled look, and then snaps out of it.
“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t explain. I do everything myself. I call this place The House of Amateurs. Believe me, my family thinks I’m nuts.” She picks out a leaf of romaine, arranges it atop the turkey, then adds three thin slices of cucumber. “There’s something about working with your hands. Something primal, and sacred.”
“Can I help you? With the sheetrocking?”
She delivers his sandwich on a plate. “Lemonade?”
She fills a glass from a European-looking bottle.
“Do you know anything about sheetrocking?”
“Good. Are you capable of following orders.”
“Excellent. Too many of your kind consider themselves general contractors by right of gender. Still, isn’t this supposed to be your vacation?”
“Hey, I’ve been inside my own head for two months now. Some mindless labor sounds fantastic.”
“Okay. But you tell me when you get tired and we’ll take a break.”
“You got it.” He attacks his sandwich.
As it turns out, Skye is just the help Chelsea needs. He holds the large panels in place as she drills them to the studs, each screwhead forming a dimple in the paper surface. Her true skill is revealed in the way that she carves the openings for the light switches and outlets, carefully measuring, penciling the cutout, slicing into the gypsum with a box-cutter then punching out a hole that fits perfectly, every time.
“You’re an artist.” He holds firm as she fetches the drill. She takes a moment to smile at him, a smudge of white powder striping her cheek.
“Summer after college. Habitat for Humanity. I just wanted to pound nails, but they forced me to try sheetrocking. I must have screwed up twenty cuts, but after I got it I was their most valuable volunteer.”
“So the sheetrocker is king?”
“Drywall covers a host of sins.” She sets a screw and hits the gun.
One panel further and they’ve hit the end of the wall. Chelsea eyes their work and claps the powder from her hands. “I’ve got a rule. Don’t do any one thing so long that you get bored. Come on. I’ve got something special for you.”
She stops for two beers and takes him to the garage. The spaces are occupied by a large truck, a silver Audi and a pair of sawhorses holding an old door with an inset mirror. Chelsea takes a swig from her beer and eyes the patient.
“Got this at an estate sale. A beautiful antique door with a beautiful antique mirror. And what are we gonna do with it?”
“Paint it? Strip it?”
She shoots him a grin. “Smash it!”
“Isn’t that seven years’ bad luck?”
“Not if you do it on purpose. Now. Grab one of these and do what I do.”
She hands him a heavy duty plastic bag, then takes one for herself and wraps it around the top half of the door. Skye covers the bottom. Chelsea goes to the tool bench for two rubber mallets.
“Now. I don’t think you need to hit it too hard. Just punch it every few inches.”
She holds her mallet a foot from the surface and delivers a firm strike, then peeks under the bag to reveal the smash, irregular triangles emanating from the center.
“Okay. That’s about right. Go to it.”
Skye feels for the edge of the inset and places his punches. After a couple of minutes, they slide away the bags to reveal a field of jagged silver.
“Beautiful!” says Chelsea. She pulls out her cell phone and takes a few photos of the surface. “Stay right there. I want a cubist portrait of Skye.” She shows him the result, five noses, seven eyes, a chin, three ears. Then she hands him the phone so he can take a shot of her.
She gives him a pair of heavy leather gloves and a plastic bucket. “I want pieces about an inch to three inches. If they’re still too big, put a piece of the bag over it and give it another punch. Oh, and definitely these…”
She hands him a pair of safety glasses and dons a pair for herself. They spend the next fifteen minutes collecting their booty. Once they’re done, she uses a shop vac to get the microshards.
“Here. Hold up your bucket like you’re a prospector who’s just hit it big.”
Skye puts on his best rascally smile. Chelsea takes the shot.
“Okay! Bring yer booty and walk this way.”
He follows her up a broad staircase and leftward to a bedroom with walls of Tuscan orange. Across the way is a bathroom with one wall covered in primer.
“Have a seat,” she says. Skye looks around and sits on the edge of the bathtub. Chelsea picks up a plastic container and pops the lid, revealing a cream-colored paste.
“This,” she says, “is tiling mastic. There’s a village named Mastic just a few miles from here, isn’t that funny? Anyway, what I want you to do is pick out a piece of mirror, completely at random, place about a teaspoon of mastic on the back of it, and hand it up to me. Here, use this putty knife.”
He takes a piece and slides some mastic on it like peanut butter on toast. Chelsea dabs a little off with her finger and wipes it on her jeans.
“Just a little less.”
She places a footstool at the right-hand edge of the wall, and places the shard at the topmost corner. This gives Skye an excellent opportunity to study Chelsea’s ass. She arches her back to give him a better look.
“Much as I appreciate the appreciation, you might want to use this time to pick out another piece.”
“I apologize for nothing,” says Skye.
“I don’t want apologies. I want another piece.”
He laughs at the dominatrix tone and gets to work. Chelsea builds a two-foot stripe across the top, talking as she goes.
“The thing is, I want the idea of mirrors without the obnoxious extra reflection, so I’m leaving a little more space than usual between the pieces. Half inch, quarter inch, and purposely irregular.”
She arrives at the left side and dispenses with the footstool, working another stripe at eye level and then a final one from a kneeling position. She has covered the wall in an impressive hour and a half.
“That,” says Skye, “is one hell of a wall.”
She stretches up to give him a kiss. “And now, I will reward your obedient assistance by taking you to dinner. Your bedroom is across the hall. And, could you wear the red jacket?”
His room is coolly colored, an accent wall of deep blue, a soft green comforter with gray paisley blossoms, an impressionist seascape over a rough-hewn antique dresser. He indulges in a long bath and conducts a thorough cleaning, wearing the red jacket over a white shirt, a pair of blue jeans and burgundy cowboy boots. He finds Chelsea in the hall, wearing a dress of kelly green and a lavish white overcoat.
“You are a gorgeous hunk of day-laborer.”
“Got the calluses to prove it,” she says. “Now let’s see what that Cadillac can do.”
Driving through town is unnerving: overpriced cars on every curb, waiting to be struck by a neophyte winter driver. Skye steers like a ship’s captain, hands glued to the wheel. Nearing the woodsy darkness at the northern edge of town, Chelsea points him toward a blocky-looking structure on the left.
The name is the Acorn Sweet, offering a pub-looking interior of thick walls, long stripes of wood varnished in deep cinnamon. Chelsea greets the host and makes a whispered request. He smiles and leads them to a back room with a hearth of large blue stones. The walls here seem even sturdier. They’re shown to a table that’s intended for four. Chelsea offers some guidance on the menu.
“They dabble in frilly foods – salads, pastas – but what you really want is meat. These people are highly skilled carnivore ninjas – venison, too.”
Skye gets the chops, and he’s not disappointed. They are virtually buried in mushrooms and caramelized onions, with sides of broccoli with cheddar sauce and rosemary potatoes.
“So I gotta ask,” he says. “Where did you pick up all this home improvement?”
She chews a bite of venison, holding a hand in front of her mouth.
“Being filthy rich, my parents felt the need to always be building things: extensions, pool houses, bathroom renovations, atriums, fountains. From an early age, I saw the troops invading the estate and I was intrigued by the things they were doing. So I ventured out and asked questions. Bless their hearts, they were very patient with me, and almost seemed to enjoy the chance to share their knowledge with someone. I found out later that my father gave them small bonuses to indulge my curiosity.
“Sadly, I ended up with a business degree. It did afford me the skills one needs to, for instance, run a non-profit in the East Village, but I never lost the bug for construction. Anytime a friend had a project going on, I would find some excuse to drop by and pester them with questions. I occasionally even scandalized my social circle by inviting individual workers to dinner so I could pick their brains. Eventually, I began to talk my friends into letting me do their projects, with the understanding that I would probably pay for the supplies myself.
“As my parents grew older and less able to tell me no, I set my sights on the family estate. My father mostly approved, but he worried that I was depriving the local tradesmen of gainful employment. Finally, last year, a month after he passed away, I saw this fixer-upper for sale and I grabbed it. My therapist says I’m using it to work through my grief, and I heartily agree.”
“The opposite of death is creation,” says Skye.
Chelsea stops eating and looks at him. “I think that sentence is breaking my heart.”
She smiles. “Honey. Hearts should be broken on a regular basis.”
“I find your affection for your father to the be the opposite of heartbreaking.”
“I wish you could have met him.”
“I wish you could have met Rachel.”
Chelsea holds a hand to her heart. “I can’t tell you the effect that scroll had on me. I think for women, there’s a point where sadness goes so deep that it becomes sexual. It opens you up, and wounds you, and leaves a mark.”
Skye has grown a little weary of sadness and discussions about sadness. “So. Tomorrow we grout?”
Chelsea’s green eyes flash in the firelight. “More beautiful words have ne’er been spoken.”
“By the way,” she says. “There’s a reason I brought you to this room. This room represents the entirety of the original restaurant, which was built in 1823 and constructed entirely of surplus rail ties.”
Skye studies the wall next to their table. “The rest of the building, too?”
“Yep. The insulation properties are fantastic. Warm in winter, cool in summer.”
“I see a rail-tie rec room in your future.”
“Hey, don’t give me ideas. By the way, I highly recommend the huckleberry crumble.”
He wakes in the cool green sheets, feeling cozy and content. Out the window he sees the beach, covered in a fresh blanket of snow. To a Californian, the intermingling of sand and snow is a wonderland. He takes a long shower and heads downstairs in his work clothes. A lone plate sits on the kitchen counter, piled with pancakes, sausage, eggs and a note.
Morning, Sleepystud. Following are your instructions:
1. Mangia! (Microwave behind you, juice in fridge, coffee in coffeemaker.)
2. Get your lazy ass to my bathroom.
Love from Generalissima Contractor
He tries to savor his breakfast, but he’s a little distracted by what might be going on upstairs. He arrives to find two upturned buckets, each underside lain out with identical sets of tools and supplies. Chelsea comes in from the balcony and gives his butt a slap.
“Morning, slave boy. Let’s get you rolling. Now. This morning, we’re going to play a game of monkey see, monkey do. And your part is?”
“Good boy!” She gives him a kiss. “Now. Watch this.”
She pours a box of gray powder into a cottage cheese container, adds water from the sink and uses a small stir-stick to mix it up.
“Go a little dry at first. You can always add water. We’re going for a thick mixture, like cookie dough.”
After giving the thumbs-up to Skye’s batch, Chelsea dons the same leather gloves as the day before, boards the footstool and squeezes a wad of grout around the top corner shard.
“Be messy. Overdo it. Grout is incredibly forgiving.”
“Aren’t we going to mess up these gloves?”
“Better these gloves than your fingers.”
“Right.” Skye sets aside the footstool and stretches up to start the top row.
“Goddamn tall people,” says Chelsea. “Don’t fuss it too much. As long as you’re generous it’ll fill in.”
She works the same thirds as before: ladder height, standing height, kneeling height. She finishes before he does and sits on the carpet just outside the door.
“So who’s staring at whose ass now?” he asks.
“I like the way it flexes as you work.”
“Thanks. I practice that.”
“Want some coffee?”
He finishes up just as she returns with two mugs.
“I gave you a little milk and a little sugar.”
He takes a sip and follows her to the balcony.
“Sleep well?” she asks.
“Best in months.”
“My guests say that a lot. Something about the waves, the cold air that surrounds the house.”
“What’s the next step?”
“A long, dramatic kiss.”
He sets his coffee on the railing, lowers her into a dip and spends the next thirty seconds engaged with her mouth. When he brings her back up, she says “Yowza!”
“It couldn’t have been that good. You held on to your coffee.”
“But honey, it’s fresh ground,” she replies, and he completely understands. She turns and gazes over the water. A boat cruises past, a few miles out.
“Now those people, they’re cold.”
She twitches her lips. “I realize…” She stops, and starts again. “I realize you’re in a no-fly zone, Skye. Skye Pelter. But we could really be good together.”
“Lord knows, we grout well.”
“Mmmyes. Skye and Chelsea Groutwell. Let’s have a son and call him Gregory.”
“And a girl named Greta.”
“This is beginning to sound like a children’s book. Anyways, I think your wounded unavailability just makes you that much more irresistible. But I’m trying to be a good girl.”
“Thanks. And even from my blurry mindset, I can see that you’re a rather amazing woman.”
They stand at the railing, arm in arm, and allow a minute to pass in silence. Chelsea finishes her coffee and heads inside.
Their next tools are oversized car-wash sponges. She fills a bucket with water, dips a sponge and applies it to the top row, smoothing it along the grout.
“Let the water do the work. Don’t press down too hard. It’s all right to leave a film over the mirrors – we can clean that later. It’s a little tricky, because you want to take the grout down to the level of the mirrors but you also want to make sure it covers those sharp edges. Watch me a while.”
He sits and picks up all the tricks: smooth, single-direction passes, frequent trips to the sink for clean water. Eventually, the grout between the shards levels out. She touches up a few spots before moving to the middle third. Skye dips his sponge and reaches.
Twenty minutes later, they’ve got it all smoothed out. Chelsea hovers along Skye’s half and dabs at a few spots.
“You… have got a touch. I shouldn’t be surprised. Now, we need to let it dry all the way, and meanwhile I have devised a little adventure.” She heads into her room and returns with a pair of swim trunks. “Change into these.”
Skye feels puzzled – having seen no sign of a hot tub – but he does what he’s told. When he comes downstairs, she’s wearing a floor-length parka and snowboots. She points him toward a similar pairing draped over the couch. The parka ends at mid-shin; the snowboots are too sizes too big.
“I don’t like the looks of this.”
She picks up a camera and gives him a practiced glare. “Dissension in the ranks?”
“No, no. Never.”
They head outside and she gestures to the right. “Be a doll and carry that surfboard.”
This is a rather astonishing request, but by now his default setting is full obedience. He hooks a hand under the edge of the yellow board and follows his mistress into the wild. They turn at the side of the garage and take a path toward the beach. Skye is surprised to find that the parka and boots are actually keeping him warm, except for the three-inch gap between them. They cross the dunes and the straw-looking grasses and come out to the sand and snow. The breakers are quiet, edged with little ridges of slush.
“Okay,” says Chelsea. “Put the board on the snow, parallel to the water, then sit on top of it and look out to the ocean, like you’re a dejected surfer waiting for the end of winter.”
He does as he’s instructed but draws a disapproving look.
“No, honey. Ditch the trunks.”
He looks up. “Naked?”
“Yes. With the trunks, you’re just a surfer. Naked, you’re art.”
“Art with a surfboard?”
“Why not? Oh, and make sure you set your clothes out of the frame.”
He looks at her, stunned, but eventually sees that he has no choice. He steels himself and lowers his bare buttocks to the board’s icy surface. The cold is so shocking that it doesn’t hit him right away, and Chelsea allows him a few minutes between poses to cower in his parka. She shoots him from behind, one hand on the board, as if he’s about to hit the waves. Then he spikes the board into the snow/sand (the snand?) and stands in front of it, a classic surfer pose; holds it over his head, then a strategic shot with the board hiding his junk. Erection is no problem; in fact, his penis seems to be headed in the opposite direction. After a final scenario, standing atop the board as if he’s actually surfing, she invites him to re-trunk.
“I hope I’m getting union scale for this.”
She ignores his joke and shows him the settings on her camera. “It’s fairly automatic, but you can zoom with this and use these to adjust the focus, then when you’re ready just hit the obvious red button.”
She hands it to him. He is, once again, puzzled. Puzzlement is all he’s got.
“Well you didn’t think I wasn’t going to offer a little turnabout?”
Chelsea unzips her parka and kicks off the boots, leaving not a stitch between her and the North Atlantic.
He’s barely inside the house when she says, “I think you need to take a hike.”
“You’re kicking me out?”
“I mean this literally, darling one. You need to actually take a hike. There’s a great little trail along the back of the dunes.”
“All right if I wear actual clothing?”
“By all means. Oh, and Skye?”
He heads in the general direction of England, streaks of sun cutting through the clouds. And he understands why she told him to scram, because immediately he thinks of Rachel. Not in specific, cerebral terms – more of a slideshow. He stands downhill as she snowboards toward a jump, her face lit up with anticipation. The strangeness of entering her in her zombie-like funk, the layer of desire beneath the deep-lidded eyes. The moment at Half Dome when those eyes finally opened.
It occurs to him that he never asked her age, and he wonders how many years she stood over that lightboard, slicing the pinkies from ink-born women, before her life became tolerable. He nears the edge of an inlet, ribbons of ice left on the sand like frozen ropes. He crunches one of them under his boot and begins to cry.
The walk is longer than he expected; he’s glad he followed the beach, where getting lost is a near-impossibility. The day is solstice-short, and he walks the final mile in near-darkness. He finds Chelsea in the living room, working a trowel over the drywall.
“How cute, he knows the lingo.”
“I pick up what I can.”
She wipes her hands on her jeans and gives him a kiss. “Man, when I tell you to take a hike, you take a hike. I was getting a little worried.”
“You were right. I had a lot of mental digestion to do.”
“Well,” says Chelsea. “I must admit, I was jonesing for a little alone time as well. But it would be a shame if you didn’t take advantage of the contemplative powers of our beach. Come upstairs, I have something to show you.”
Skye snickers. “That is such a line.”
Chelsea makes a show of switching on the light. There it is, a flock of metallic planets against a gray sky. The grout has smoothed out and taken on a dull sheen.
“Chelsea Kormit, you’re a fucking genius.”
“Thank you, kindly assistant. I put some sealant on the grout. Now, let’s try the candle test.”
She lights a large candle and switches off the overheads. The wall is a firelight ballroom, a hundred small flames.
“Planning on romantic dinners in your bathroom?”
“No. But…” She crawls up his chest and kisses him. The kiss grows furtive, her hands wander, her spine serpentines, her hips gyroscope. Skye grabs her arms.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “That wasn’t fair of me.”
“That’s not entirely it,” he says. “I have to go.”
Photo by MJV