The lonely, calloused, plaster-caked ballad of the do-it-yourself renovator.
My husband and I have always been partial to unloved things. Until I met Michael, I didn’t know there were other people in the world who felt sorry for the ugly colors in the crayon box, or who picked a shirt from the drawer because it looked lonely. This type of thinking is how, in 1996, we wound up buying a house in Marfa that was really not much more than walls and a tin roof, along with a peculiar odor that, while not entirely definable, involved something dark and earthy and tended to make people ill at ease. “Um,” I recall a visitor saying as she sidled toward the door during a tour of the house. She was a famous poet in her country. She was smart and found beauty in unexpected, vanquished places. That is, except our house. “It’s, uh,” she said, “um, uh, ah, nice.”
Not that I blame her for this reaction; it wasn’t uncommon. One day, I was standing in the sunblasted yard, with its leafless trees nearly dead from thirst, bleakly considering the crumbling adobe bricks and the 22-foot-long hole in the wall where said adobes had melted over time, when the catcher from my softball team drove by. She slowed to a stop and stuck her head out the window, her mouth turned down and her eyebrows furrowed. “Oh, Sterry, so it’s true? You’re not going to try to live there, are you? Can’t you tear it down and build something? Why, nobody’s lived there for years and years.”
Well, it had been inhabited, just not by people. As we shoveled and demo-ed and shoveled and demo-ed, we found live bats, venomous spiders, dead cats, live cats, lizards, more bats, and mummified skunks in the walls and below the floor. The aforementioned 22-foot hole in the wall had given critters easy access. At nightfall, the wind scorpions came out—a beneficial but malevolent-looking arachnid with feathery forelegs and a hurried, sashaying gait that suggests it’s late meeting friends at the disco. Despite all this, our house had charm. Sunlight poured in through the 8-foot windows. It had big square rooms and tall ceilings. It was easy to breathe there.
Our economic situation demanded that we do almost all the work on our own, but we had strong backs. And we weren’t the only industrious, broke, and novice renovators in town. Half the people we knew, it seemed, were involved in similar, long-standing house projects. We fixer-upper types were easy to spot, wild-haired from adobe dust, with wrenches and hammers jammed in our filthy pockets, a faint cloud of sweat and dirt gathering as we thumbed through bills and tool catalogs outside the post office. We milled around the hardware store like a pod of Pigpens, guzzling Gatorade and trading questions about plaster recipes and running electrical line.
The technical talk was mostly beyond my ken. I am not handy; Michael is. I became an expert at piling debris, then shoveling debris into our long-suffering truck, then driving to the dump, where I’d off-load debris into the appropriate pit. This could take all day, in part because the dump contained a fascinating and ever-changing treasure of castaway goods, making it difficult to leave without picking up a neat, old-timey cabinet or a bike frame that would work great with a new set of tires, a chain, and some banging to straighten the handlebars. Everybody scavenged the dump back then. On sunny Saturday afternoons, you could have prolonged and informative visits with your neighbors or friends while they too rummaged in the metal pile and unearthed a cool typewriter desk that was only a little rusty.
That first summer, we had neither plumbing nor running water in the house. The hose outside worked, so Michael and others wrestled the big claw-foot tub into the yard. This situation brought out an unforeseen prudishness in me. I managed to bathe under the tree once or twice, but soon I gave up and snuck off to friends’ houses to shower. Michael, however, bathed in the yard frequently, causing what little traffic there was to slow as it rolled past. After eight in the evening, when Marfa’s gas stations were closed, our other bathroom needs were taken care of at the jail, whose public facilities off the lobby were conveniently open all night. We’d waltz in, toothbrushes in hand, and wave to the dispatchers behind the safety glass. They always waved right back. No one ever said anything about it, at least not to us.
We set up a bed in the largest, cleanest room and stacked our clothes in milk crates as though we were in college. We shook out our clothes every morning to make sure that a centipede didn’t hitch a ride in our jeans. This all happened before our son, Huck, was born, so he missed out, but there was still plenty of roughing it once he came along. We lived for years without heat. There were holes in the pine floor the size of dinner plates. We had no kitchen cabinets, no closets. Deep cracks coursed across the walls. At one point, all the house’s interior doors were removed and stripped, and we lived for some time without much privacy.
With time, work, and luck, the house shaped up. One morning, we awoke to a couple of fellows standing under our pear tree. I don’t know how they found us, but we needed the help and they knew how to plaster. My Spanish was poor, though buoyed by a recent language class. The more talkative fellow, Rufino, showed Michael over and over how to dash plaster against the adobes. “He says to slap it on like a woman would do it,” I translated helpfully. Rufino’s friend, the other worker, whom our dog that morning had cornered and bitten, scowled at me. “No,” he corrected. “He said, ‘Slap it on like you slap a woman’s ass.’ ”
We painted the hallway and stabilized the back room, which had persisted in trying to slide away from the rest of the house. We fixed windows and stacked courses of adobes. We nailed down a new roof. The finicky heating unit eventually worked. We finally put in pretty ash flooring and baseboards, finished the third bedroom, and added a bathroom. We installed a washer and dryer and put shelving in the kitchen. It was a lovely house, truly. And then, seventeen years into our work on it, we left.
Last summer we moved to the edge of town. This was not planned. The new place had belonged to our friend Tigie, who left her property to us when she died two years ago. We think about this enormous gift every day. We still call the house Tigie’s place. I think most people around here do. Whenever we make plans to meet someone at the house, they usually ask, “At Tigie’s place?” and we don’t correct them.
Actually, there are two houses here, set just five feet apart. Both are small and simple. One is a casita full of Tigie’s things, which we have to sort out someday, and the other is a little farmhouse where we live. This used to be a two-bedroom house, but Tigie rather extravagantly turned one bedroom into a closet, and it’s now a one-bedroom house. When we moved in, my mother puzzled over where Huck, who’s now twelve, would go. She suggested he sleep in the closet until we got a proper room figured out. Good idea, but a closet, even if it’s a really nice closet, with a window and a big round mirror and plenty of room for, say, a bed and a collection of rocks and sci-fi books and a fancy BB gun and the egg sac of a praying mantis carefully tended and hung in a net cage, is still a closet. It struck us as too Joan Crawford to announce to visitors, “And this is Huck’s room, which is the closet.” So instead he sleeps in the kitchen, which is large, open, and friendly. His bed is tucked against the south wall, where he can watch the moon sail across the windowpanes at night. The Russell terrier, Argus, is likely to be with him at bedtime, or our stately yellow cat, Melbourne, named for a family friend.
It was bittersweet, leaving a house we never thought we’d leave. A friend rents it from us now. Not long ago we went to a party at our old house, and her dog greeted us at the door. It wasn’t our house anymore, even though we still own it. That’s okay; slowly, the new place is becoming ours. There are scuffs where someone’s boot scraped the wall during a wrestling match. That wouldn’t have happened when Tigie was here. Fourteen gossipy hens and a loudmouthed rooster parade in the yard like they own the joint. Tigie never had chickens. When my mother phones, she asks about our “ranch,” which makes us laugh. It’s just a little bit of a place, only twenty acres or so. We don’t run cattle, sheep, or goats. But what to call it? It’s not a farm exactly, since we don’t grow anything other than tumbleweeds and manure piles from the horses and donkeys. We’ve experimented with giving it a name: El Rincón, as it’s in the corner of town, or the Teepee, but nothing feels quite right, and since names are important, I suppose we’ll keep calling it our place or Tigie’s place until something that suits it, and us, comes along. Mostly, we’ll just say we’re home.