David steps into the kitchen, sweat beading his arms, lifts his new workboots and gives them a good shake. Sawdust powders the tiles. I rarely see him dressed this way, straight out of a hardware catalogue. Throw in a yellow hardhat and sturdy lunchpail and the costume’s complete. The truth of the matter is, I’m better with a hammer and nails than he is. But I’m due in three weeks and he isn’t, so I decide to sit this one out. My mother sits across the table, knitting pink booties. My father — who taught me how to handle a plane — is outside, measuring and sawing, happy as a child in a sandbox. He and David are building an extension to the back porch, where we plan to spend a lot of time with the baby.
David asks for two beers; I nod towards the fridge and tell him to help himself. He looks at me, grins, then warns me not to sneak a drink. Alcohol, he frowns, is a no-no. Before he leaves he bends down and plants a wet one on my stomach. My mother beams; knitting needles click like dancing insects.
Everyone says I have her looks: the same round eyes, the same flat, wide smile. She likes to remind me that we can pass for sisters, and I wince when I think of the times we have. Thirty years separate us but she’s aged well. We’re more similar than I care to admit. I wonder if my daughter will come from the same mould. She may end up with David’s grin, which is what caught my eye standing in line at the passport office two years ago. It was a hot enough day, the fans weren’t working, no one was in the mood for small talk. No one wanted to be there. Except David, leaning over the counter, telling some grey-haired civil servant about his trip to Spain, describing a bullfight in great detail. Next thing I know, he’s a matador, holding up his sports jacket like a cape. All eyes are on David; he’s on a roll. He’s good in large groups.
“Still haven’t decided on a name?” my mother asks. She named me before she was married, before she even met my father. She named all five of us when she was still in high school, slouched over a desk beneath a beehive hairdo, dreaming of a house, a husband and a brood of kids. I’m the youngest of five girls, the only one they’re close enough to visit without packing their bags. I thought I’d be the first to leave town, but I waited and waffled. Now I live twenty minutes away from the house I grew up in. I’d have never believed it.
“David likes Hannah.” I feel like I’m eleven years old, in a school yard, talking about classmates and their crushes. David likes Hannah. David likes Ruth.
“Hannah?” My mother stops knitting, wrinkles her nose, bunny-fashion. “What type of name is Hannah?”
She sighs. She thinks I’m being difficult.
“What in God’s name is a palindrome?”
I didn’t know myself until David explained. “A word that’s spelled the same backwards and forwards. Like Bob, or Anna.”
“That’s crazy,” she says. “Choosing a name that works both ways. What’s wrong with a one-way name?”
Maybe the heat’s getting to her. You don’t need a hammer and saw to work up a sweat today. She’s usually not like this. Most of the time she sings about David, offers sugar-dipped descriptions to friends. Today’s heat and humidity have sealed her praise.
“I’m partial to Miranda myself,” I say. “We’re still negotiating.”
“Miranda? What type of name is Miranda?”
Shakespeare’s, but I don’t bother mentioning it. My mother’s only seen one play in her life, a musical my sister Glenda starred in and thought was her ticket to stardom. Today she’s an accountant.
“Miranda sounds like the name of a car,” my mother declares. She’s always favoured sensible names, sensible clothes, a sensible lifestyle. “Why not Martha?” she offers.
The phone rings. I’m saved from commenting on Martha, Mary, or any other names she has up her sensible sleeve. Before I can move from my chair she’s at the phone, the booties speared to her chair.
“Albert!” she hollers. She was destined to marry a man named Albert. Rake-thin with teeth like a hoe, my father was barely nineteen when he loped up my grandmother’s front walk to fix her pipes. He eventually took over the family business, nurturing a plumbing service into a well-drilling operation and two other stores. Dad sold the whole package last year for a pretty sum, and agreed to stay on as a consultant for another tidy amount. He’s semi-retired, though I dread the day he punches in for the last time. He’s not a reader, doesn’t have any real hobbies. He’s got my mother, but that’s not enough.
“Albert!” My mother reddens. She dislikes the new owners, thinks they take advantage of my father, a good-hearted man who rarely says no.
Dad walks in, stopping at the sink to wash his hands. Sawdust clings to him like a second skin. A suit and tie, that would be a costume. He’s happiest in his work pants and hunter green shirt. He must have two dozen green shirts and half a dozen pairs of matching pants. He says it’s easier that way. Mother says its sensible. Gone are the days when he loped like a nineteen year old, but he still has a lot of spring in him. Mom holds the phone like it’s something she’s picked up off the floor, then drops it in my father’s scrubbed hand.
I recognize it right away, what my sisters and I have always called his work voice. My father has two voices, which he slips on as easily as his plaid shirts. A work voice and a home voice. The work voice is like a bowling ball heading down an alley, a steady roll, striking the pins cleanly, without fanfare. The home voice is more passive, more like a sponge sheet that flutters in the wind, soaking up everything that comes its way. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. Both are as much a part of him as his overbite.
“Do you know what our granddaughter may be called?” my mother says when my father hangs up.
He shakes his head, combs his thinning hair back with the wide, self-assured hands I’ve always envied. I hope my daughter has his hands.
“Miranda,” Mom says. “Have you ever heard of someone naming their daughter Miranda?”
She doesn’t wait for a reply.
“That’s her first choice. David is thinking of…what’s it called again, dear?”
“That’s right. He wants to give her a palindrome. You know what a palindrome is?”
My father shakes his head again. I can see him eyeing David outside, who’s milling about waiting for my father. Dad is itching to get back to work, but patiently waits it out.
“That’s a name that’s the same backwards and forwards. Like Bob or Anna.”
My father looks at me and smiles. “You going to name your daughter Bob?”
I grin. My mother shoos my father out of the kitchen. He taps on David’s shoulder, points at something — I can’t tell what — and the two of them laugh. When the saw isn’t whining or they pause between all their hammering I can hear them talk. They talk about porches, they talk about politics, sometimes they hit rock bottom and talk about the weather, though today it’s hot enough to be on a lot of people’s minds. I can hear David, he’s talking about computer software, about how these days a computer can tell you what you need to build a house, right down to the number of nails.
My father’s impressed, I can tell. He thinks David is solid and durable, talks about him like the pipes he used to sell. David knows all about bytes and RAM and hard disks, it’s what he does for a living. Mention computers to my father and his colour drains away, washes out. But a hammer or saw are useless in David’s hands, so that kind of evens things up. Their conversations are always balanced that way. First they’ll talk about a topic weighted in my father’s favour, then switch so David has a chance to keep everything level and fair.
Whenever my father’s around David slips on a mask and plays the role of the son he insists my father always wanted. Growing up in a house with six women, David says, must have only reminded my father of what he was missing. His theory is simple: all fathers want to have sons because of this connection between a father and son that a daughter just can’t provide. Mothers are happy one way or another, according to David. But fathers, they want another man in the house. So when we learned we were having a girl, I asked him how he felt, given his theory and all. He gave me that matador grin of his and claimed he was an exception. If my father was unhappy with only girls, he kept the feeling so hidden he must’ve forgotten it was ever there. Which is why it burns me up to see David wearing that ridiculous mask. Like the sawdust and apron full of nails, it’s part of a costume. He becomes someone else I barely recognize, someone I wouldn’t want around, let alone marry. He treats me like a kid sister instead of his wife, talks to me like I’ve got gyprock for brains.
“Is David going to be there?” My mother’s back at her seat, knitting fast and furious, the pink booties spawning out of her hands as if she were God himself.
“At the hospital. When you give birth.”
We’ve had this discussion before. She charts my decisions like the weather, hoping for a change.
“I told you he’d be there. That’s the way it’s done these days.”
Mom drops her head and sniffs, loud enough to make sure I know she disapproves. “Your father would have fainted watching you come into the world. Besides, I don’t think a man has to be there. What’s the point?”
Before I can stop myself I’ve stepped into the thicket of her hard-held beliefs.
“The point is, he’s the father. He’s not going to sit in some waiting room until a nurse trots out to announce that mother and daughter are well. I want him there, and he wants to be there.”
At prenatal classes he’s the Boy Scout with the polished smile, the teacher’s pet, the one the other mothers-to-be point to as an example for their hubbies to follow. David laps it up. He can be a gem when he wants to be, which is often enough to keep me sane.
“Douglas wasn’t there when Alice had the twins,” my mother pronounces. Alice is my oldest sister. The queen bee. She takes after my mother, except for the double chin that sits like a collar around her neck.
“Douglas wasn’t there when Alice pulled a ligament shovelling snow,” I counter. “Douglas wasn’t there when Stewart was choking on a chicken bone. Douglas wasn’t there the day you and Dad stepped on a plane for the first time in your lives. Seems to me that Douglas hasn’t been there for a lot of occasions.”
I get up and waddle to the fridge.
“You want a cold drink?” I ask.
“I’m fine, thank you.” Knitting needles gnash.
Outside, my father and David are making good progress. They’re too preoccupied to notice me behind the screen door, my daughter rounding my silhouette. Sweat snakes down my back. My breasts feel heavy. I’m counting the days till we can sit out on the new porch. In spite of the heat, or maybe because of it, I wish I was out there now, prying old planks off with a crowbar, pinching nails between my lips, slipping a pencil behind my ear.
David clips a measuring tape to his belt and tells my father he wants to take a picture. My husband loves to chronicle change, loves to keep a record of events. He’ll have a “before” and “after” picture of the porch to show to his friends, who’ll compare the difference and agree that he’s done a fine job. He’ll never show the pictures he’s been taking of me every week, like clockwork, my stomach rising like dough. He’s pasted them to a piece of cardboard he keeps rolled like a treasured scroll in the closet. If my mother only knew.
“Look at that,” Mom says. She points with the knitting needle towards the screen door. I’m back in my seat, fingers braided over my daughter. My father is standing in a hole next to the half-finished porch, like he’s sinking into the ground. David is clicking away, a tourist snapping a native for the folks back home. My mother beams again.
“He’s sweet,” she says, sponging her brow with a folded napkin.
“When he wants to be,” I add.
She gives me a look that hasn’t changed since I was three. Her eyes, brows and nose join together in a disapproving knot. “You should be more generous,” she says, shifting tones. She leans over and gently touches my arm, a simple gesture that always thaws my insides, no matter how old I get. I resent her tactics because I know they always work. I use them myself.
“He’s a good enough man,” I continue.
Mom nods, savouring her strategy.
“I just wish he’d be more consistent,” I add, tossing one last log into the fire smouldering between us.
“Consistent?” she says. Her needles are silent and still. “What do you mean?”
I realize I can’t explain. I realize that if I tried to explain what it is I want from David, it would sound exactly like my mother’s recipe for the perfect marriage: stability, no surprises, dependability. Half a dozen synonyms for consistent. I’d be just like her, minus the crow’s feet.
I take a sip of my drink and avoid answering. I lean forward, anxious to hear what the men are talking about. Now they’re on to the price of houses. My father mentions something about quality these days. David snorts.
“Susan phoned yesterday,” my mother says. “Astrid got the lead part in her school play.”
Susan is the middle child, the sister I’m closest to, divorced a year after she married. Double heartache for my mother: a daughter who has a child but no husband, a child who has a name an ocean away from sensible.
“She’s coming up when the baby is born.”
My mother squints, and I know she’s hurt, feels dethroned.
“Coming here?” she asks, as if to confirm her worst fears.
I nod. “She’s offered to give me a hand. And she thinks it would be good for Astrid.”
“Babies are not like plastic dolls,” she declares.
The wound is deep, and I feel for her. “I was thinking of shifts,” I say.
Grey lies, we called them in high school. A lie you tell when a white lie is too obvious.
“You could come in the afternoons and give Susan some time off. I’m sure Astrid would love to spend some time with you and Dad.”
“Your father is getting too old for that type of thing,” Mom says.
That’s her grey lie. Now we’re even. I’ve seen my father with Astrid, and my other nieces and nephews. He’s as comfortable with a grandchild as he is a hand tool. He handles both with healthy portions of love and care. I used to think it was somehow wrong to devote such care to something inanimate, but I’ve come to see that my father can’t seem to distinguish among animal, vegetable and mineral. He’s gentle with everything he handles, whether it’s a granddaughter or a ladder. Mother’s right: he’s consistent.
“He loves spending time with the kids,” I say. “You know that. Besides, you haven’t seen Astrid in ages.”
“That’s no fault of ours,” she says, drawing her lips together to make her point. It’s an on-going complaint of hers that my sisters don’t visit often enough with their kids. My fear is she’ll just about move in with us once mine arrives.
It’s too hot to argue. My back is plastered to the vinyl seat, my legs rest on a hassock that’s splitting at the seams. The heat doesn’t seem to bother my mother; she continues to knit, her hands a blur of fingers and wool. Then she stops, booties dangling from her the needles. “Time to eat,” she announces. A moustache of sweat hangs over her lips, everything on her sags: her hair, her skin, the breasts I once sought. She puts her knitting away and makes for the fridge.
“David made some pasta salad.”
Her slippers stall on the linoleum. She makes a half-hearted pivot, forces a smile.
“Pasta salad? You mean macaroni?”
“I don’t know what he throws in. Fusili, tortellini, spirals and shells. I don’t ask. It’s one of his creations. It’s really good.”
She fidgets with her dress, doesn’t know what to do. I can see she’s torn in half. Part of her loves the fact that David cooks. It fits in nicely with her image of my husband, the demi-god. But a prepared meal leaves her stranded on a kitchen tile. She’s been making lunches for us all her life. Six paper bags stood side by side on the kitchen counter when we grew up: one each for the girls, one for my father. It didn’t matter which one you took, they were all the same. A sandwich, some peeled carrots, a fruit. She’d be up at six, a dozen slices of white bread laid out on the kitchen table, a blank grid she filled with squares of yellow cheese or balls of tuna. When we all moved out she volunteered to prepare meals for shut-ins, seniors who couldn’t get out. Now she stands before me, defenceless and disarmed.
“Some sliced tomatoes might be nice,” I suggest, and she agrees. How things have changed: now I’m the one putting band-aids over her wounds.
“Your father wouldn’t know how to make a pasta salad,” she says, admiring David’s work as she places it on the table.
“That’s because you’ve never let him.”
A high-pitched laugh streams out of her like steam. “Let him? Why wouldn’t I let him?”
Despite the heat, I plough into another dispute.
“Because the kitchen is your territory. Your lair. The last person in the world you want poking through your pantry and using your knives is Daddy.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she says, waving me off with the flash of a blade. One hand holds a tomato to a cutting board. “He can come into the kitchen any time he likes.”
“As long as you’re there to supervise.”
“He doesn’t know where anything goes. I can’t have a whisk sitting in a drawer where it doesn’t belong.”
“Dad’s a quick learner,” I say.
“That’s really not the point, is it?” Mom turns and heads for the cupboard. “Besides,” she continues, holding a plate. “Your father and I both have our place in the home. How often do you see me wandering into his workshop and playing with his tools?”
“He never stopped me from hanging around.”
She’s covered half the plate with tomato slices. “That’s different. You’re his daughter, not his wife.”
Lines are clearly drawn in my mother’s world, as clean and sharp as her front lawn hedges. A daughter can sit by her father’s side and watch him sand a block of wood until it’s a velvet patch, she can take her turn tapping a chisel. A wife can only poke her head through the door and tell him dinner is ready, or there’s a call for him. She’d edge her head through a crack in my father’s workshop door and speak as if on the verge of some sacred territory. Then she’d always throw me a glance that told me I shouldn’t overstay my welcome.
“Jesus H. Christ!” David yells from the yard. My mother winces; she hates to hear people swear, particularly those she admires.
My father walks in, grabs a dishtowel by the sink. “David’s cut himself,” he says, his calmness edged with concern.
“How’d he manage that?” I ask, but my father’s already out the door, my mother trailing behind him.
By the time I reach the accident scene, things are pretty much under control. The cut is deep, everyone agrees he’ll need stitches. My mother insists she drive him to the hospital, and that my father stay behind with me. She’s happiest when she’s nursing the wounded. David makes a willing victim: pale, distraught, already thinking of a story to go with the scar. The two of them make a great pair as she leads him out of the backyard. For some reason I feel I’m the one to blame, that if I’d been out here sawing with my father and David was safe inside yakking with my mother, this wouldn’t have happened.
“How’d he do it?” I ask, retreating to a lawn chair planted in a splattering of shade.
My father joins me by the weeping willow. “He was cutting some tape with a knife. I suppose it must have slipped somehow. It’s a pretty nasty cut.”
“He’ll be all right.”
“For sure,” my father says. “He’s in good hands.” His love for my mother is genuine, solid. “How’re you feeling?”
“Just fine,” I say. “A little hot today, with this load and all.” I wrap my arms around my stomach, embrace my daughter.
“She’ll be here soon,” my father says.
“Not soon enough.”
He laughs, but keeps his lips close to his teeth, a habit from the days when he tried to hide his overbite.
I feel my daughter move, picture her swimming on the spot, eyes closed, hands clenched, struggling in the lightless pool of my body. I take my father’s hand and place it over my stomach. “Do you feel her?”
He nods, letting his fingers rise with the ebb and flow of my daughter’s movements. “Nice,” he says, in a voice I don’t recognize. It’s neither his work voice, nor his home voice, but something else all together, something fresh and peeled that he’s plucked right off the branch above us. Then he lifts his hand and places it over mine. “Why don’t we show her a few things?” he says, in that same voice.
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s show her how to build a porch. It’s not too early, is it?” He doesn’t even bother to wink.
I watch him walk out of our circle of shade and onto the sun-bleached grass. Before I’m out of my chair he’s sizing up another plank. When I reach the half-finished porch he hands me the saw.
I don’t say a thing, not so much as a thank you. I just set to work, drawing the blade back and forth in a steady rhythm. When I finish I hand my father the plank.
“What time do you suppose they’ll be back?” I ask.
He looks at his watch. “Hard to say. Around one, I suppose.”
I figure that gives us at least an hour before I have to head back to the kitchen and pretend I never left. The last thing I need is a lecture on how to behave when you’re nine months pregnant and ready to burst. I’ll do my duty and keep the peace. I’ll help set the table, where we’ll all take our usual seats.
How to Build a Porch was first published in Horizons (Harcourt Brace)