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The pecky-cypress paneling in the master bedroom of our house is pitted and scarred, the handiwork of a thousand woodpeckers, or at least that's what I imagined as a five-year-old. When I'd asked Cal about his funny-looking walls, though, he told me the pockmarks weren't the result of woodpeckers or worms or beetles, as many people believed, but rather a rare and little-understood fungus. "What makes pecky hard to find," he said, "is that you can't tell if a cypress is infected until you chop down the tree and cut it open."
When he'd purchased the farm, in 1939, the house wasn't a house, it was a grain barn. He divided the building into rooms and framed doors and windows using wood from an old sharecropper's cabin. After that first drafty winter, Josie shivering next to him in bed, he decided to insulate and panel their bedroom walls. He originally thought he'd get the wood from the Colonel's sawmill, but this was the Depression: Cal couldn't afford to buy lumber, and the Colonel couldn't afford to give it away, not even to his own son. The best he could do was let Cal help himself to the scrap pile, which was where he found, underneath an old tarp, a load of pecky cypress, enough to panel the bedroom and his workshop. In later years, people would develop a taste for pecky and an appreciation for its scarcity, but in those days, it was considered junk wood. Josie didn't care; she said it had low-country charm. Mainly, though, she was pleased that Cal went to all that trouble for her even as he worked twelve-hour days trying to establish their dairy farm. Her gratitude was not lost on him, and for the rest of her life, whenever he wanted to please her, he embarked on some new project to make the house more comfortable. Just before my mother was born, he added on a whole second story, and in later years he expanded the dining room and added a built-in china cabinet, then converted the front porch into a sitting parlor with French doors. In 1969, he was halfway done painting the house a minty shade of green that Josie picked out when doctors discovered the tumor in her breast.
After Josie's death, my grandfather let the house fall into disrepair, but during the fall of my sophomore year, when he first began having trouble with his memory, he sold off several parcels of land and started using the money to fix the place up. Though I didn't know it at the time, he did this for me, for when I inherited the farm.
At seventy-two, he was no longer able to do the work himself, so he hired Lyle on the recommendation of an old army buddy. In those days, Lyle was more handyman than general contractor, but he worked cheap, and my grandfather liked his manners, the fact that his family was well off, the fact that he'd been smart enough for grad school but then turned his back on all that academic baloney. Inside a month, Cal was inviting him to join us for happy hour. By then I already had my eye on Lyle a shirtless guy tuck-pointing a chimney apparently being one of my weaknesses but he seemed more interested in Cal's company than mine, so I played it close to the chest.
That all changed on the afternoon my grandfather told me he was sick. He'd just finished filling me in on his visit to the VA when Lyle and the two guys who worked for him came crawling out from under the house, brushing soil from their jeans. That week they were trying to fix the sloping floor in the living room. The joists beneath the oak floorboards were supported by heavy girders cut from the heartwood of long-leaf pines, and their plan was to reinforce these girders with steel beams, jack them up, and then build concrete pillars to stabilize the floor. After his crew knocked off for the day, Lyle joined us and began to report on their progress, and soon talk turned to the next project, a new roof. My grandfather didn't mention his health again, but I could think of nothing else, and as he and Lyle droned on about shingles and soffits, I stared out at the fields that once fed Cal's registered Guernseys and quietly plowed my way through two more drinks.
Copyright © 2007 by Will Allison