A Craft and an Art,
originally published in "The Clackamas Review," October 2001
Before my fifth year, I can pull up few memories of my fatherB-unless he's that faceless shadow that menaced childhood dreams and that even today I glimpse in the dark corners of my imagination. Later, he loomed as a remote authority figure, too busy struggling for survival to deal with a self-absorbed adolescent son. At last, as he plummeted toward old age, he wanted to explain his childhood, his youth, his life, but by then I resisted listening to tales of his youthful frustrations and the pains of his working existence and was blind to the one jewel he held onto during his battered life: his pride in his craft.
Now, as I try to understand the man who was my father, I find that I return to that Easter Sunday when he decided that his fourteen year-old son was going to see and appreciate what he did all day. Whether I wanted to, or not.
"Son,@ he announced, leaning recklessly over his mashed potatoes and slab of Easter ham, Ayou're coming with me tomorrow to find out how your old man puts food on this table."
"What?" My fork with its wedge of pink ham hung in front of my mouth.
"You have the week off,@ he replied with that don=t argue with me tone I=d learned to recognize, but then unaccountably he softened it with an almost pleading note. AYou know you won=t be doing anything except riding your bike all day."
Actually, I was writing an epic science fiction novel, full of weird aliens, shrewd heroines, and horny heroes, illustrating it in my best Captain Marvel style, but I never would've told him.
"Your mother'll pack you a lunch and you can eat with me and the boys.@ He was back on track, now, taking no arguments from the riff-raff. ARest of the time, you'll have to stay out of the way, but you'll see how a house is put together. Cheap, lousy houses, but still houses."
"It'll be interesting," my mother warned me.
Shoving the bite of ham into my mouth, I chewed and swallowed. I could think of nothing less interesting than a day following my Dad around his job. A few times over the years, he=d ferried my mother, sister, and me across town to admire theaters, apartment buildings, and homes in which he'd worked: the completed artifact, the perfection of his labors, but none of us had ever witnessed him at work. The prospect was frightening, as well as boring.
My father was a journeyman tile setter. This was his craft and what he worked at, except during World War Two and the Korean War, when he labored at Mare Island Naval Ship Yard. When I was small, he installed fancy tile decorations in movie theaters and elaborate bathrooms and kitchens in custom-designed executive homes, but times were changing. This was the era of fin-tailed cars, picture windows, and pink and beige living rooms, the era of a new station wagon in the driveway and Father Knows Best on the new Magnavox, when populations were on the move-Bthe era of baby boomers and instant gratification.
I remember when I was still a little kid being taken to admire a giant Indian Chief's head composed of hundreds of tiny tiles on the foyer floor of the Chief Theatre. The great feathered headdress radiated at least six feet across the entrance in complicated shades of red and ocher, orange and blue. When I glared at a pair of high heels striding over the multi-hued tile feathers, he assured me that the tile was so solidly put down it would tolerate any number of feet tramping over it.
As he got older and the California economy changed, he was forced to adapt his skill and experience to tract developments, where he was judged on how much he could produce, not how well he did it. Entire subdivisions were hurled up in a few weeks, from surveying the land to moving families into those flabby collections of Aspaces for living.@ Today, I wonder how he coped as well as he did with the burden of his history and responsibility.
To look at himB-a stocky man of average height wearing round safety lenses in wire-framed glasses, his thinning black hair combed straight back from a high, scarred forehead-Byou wouldn't have guessed this was a man who clung fiercely to a personal vision of what it was to be a male, but some dogged ideal drove my father, making him what he was, and contributing to what I was to become. I can dredge from the murky waters of memory bits of those days before he sank to subdivision tract work, glimpses of evenings when he came home crowing over praise he'd received-Bespecially if it came from a wealthy customer he was doing a fancy bathroom or kitchen for.
"He said I'm an artist. And he's a millionaire. He said he's never seen tile work like I'm doing for him! He said it oughta be in a museum."
My father had served his apprenticeship in the old days, before World War Two, progressing to journeyman and union member only after proving his skill. He was proud of his union status until the day he died. This forged his identity. Whatever disappointments he'd already tasted, whatever came later, he had this: he knew his trade and had been respected for his knowledge and mastery of his craft.
* * *
Although Monday morning's work shirt-blue sky was wrung out after weekend rain, Sunny Acres remained a squishy sea of oozing mud.
"The worst part of construction work is the weather," Dad shouted, as the rusty, noisy Ford coupe he used for work bounced and jolted over the soggy, rutted street, grenades of mud bombarding everything unlucky enough to be behind its rear wheels. "If it stays clear for a few days maybe the ground'll be dry by Wednesday, but 'til then it's gonna be a pain in the butt just getting our asses up to the houses."
Slogging through rain and liquid clay, working in unheated houses and apartment buildings, wind howling through open windows and doors, battling to free his car from greedy mud holes, freezing in winter and frying in summer: Dad described it all to me.
"Then there's the pressure: the goddam pressure to work faster and faster, always faster. Maybe that's the worst."
He could think of plenty of worsts about his job. As proud as he was of his skill, he often protested that he should've got into a field with more of a future. He'd had talent; once people had called him a good artist. He had won prizes for his drawings. Why couldn't he have created ads for newspapers and magazines? I didn=t need to be told the answer: the Depression, that was why. And, at fifty, he just needed to hang on 'til retirement. Survival was what life came down to, now.
"It's tough, competing with young bucks who don't give a shit about quality....@ His scarred face stared ahead, like a ruined Roman statue, through the mud-splattered windshield. A...And slap the stuff up without a thought that it'll slide off the goddam walls."
We passed empty lots, then rain-washed foundations and frame skeletons without walls, and finally gawky structures that began to look like houses, with roofs and porches. The army of craftsmen, from the foundation men and carpenters to the roofers, was advancing across the mucky battleground known as Sunny Acres. And it was only seven-thirty in the morning.
"Bet you a nickel, son, Sam'll be late."
Sam was Dad's helper-Blike an apprentice, only not really one, yet. You could work your whole life as a tile setter's helper, but usually young guys started out as helpers and then got accepted by the union as apprentices, working up to become journeymen. Or they moved on to another line of work. According to my father, Sam didn't have a commitment to being a helper. Or to any job. Young guys, he said, didn't respect hard labor any more, or give a damn about responsibility. They did as they pleased, showing up when they felt like it, working as little as they could get away with.
"He better get his ass here soon. I can't mix the mud and grout and do all the dirty work, and put the goddam tile up, too-BI'm too old for the lifting and carrying. In my day, a helper did what his journeyman told him. He didn't screw around.@
I couldn=t think of anything to say, but my father didn=t need or expect a response from me. He was talking to me, but he wasn=t looking at me.
AChuck said on Friday we're supposed to finish six houses a day! Six goddam houses! In the old days, two houses would've been a good day's work for a setter and helper. But they cared how a job looked when it was finished-Band that it would last. We had pride of workmanship, then."
My father cleared his throat and spit out the car window, disgust and pain and a lifetime of disappointment caught up in the spittle that shot toward the gooey mud. Then he parked on a yellow-brown shelf of drying ground between two half-finished houses and, although Sam should've been there to do it for him, began carrying his own buckets and tools into the first house. I helped with some of the smaller tools.
"Good thing you came along today, kid!@ His tongue and false teeth tripped over the words, probably because the cheap, ill-fitting teeth were loose again. AYou might have to be my helper!"
Already, we could hear the clack-clack of the carpenters' hammers in the next block, punctuated by the buzz of a power saw.
"I pity the suckers who pay good money for these so-called ' estates.' They no sooner move in than the places start fallin= apart around 'em. The roofs leak and the walls crack open.@ Dad=s cement-roughened hands drew a picture in the air of a leaking house collapsing in front of us. AI've seen chimneys pull away from walls before the rest of the house is finished!"
He pointed at a house across the street. Randy, the other tile setter, was already slapping up his work over there. He wouldn't have trouble finishing his six houses, but he'd be lucky if his tile stayed on the damn walls >til tomorrow morning. And his grout lines would zig-zag like snail trails.
"If I could forget quality, my life would be a hell of a lot easier. Just get the quantity out and screw the restB-that's what I oughta do. But it ain't how I was trained."
What could I say? I resented the position he was putting me in, but I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.
Splashing steaming coffee from his thermos, Dad looked over the job while he gulped from the plastic thermos top. Not that he needed to give this job any thought. Every house in the tract was like every other. The floor plans alternated, mirror images of each other, but the rooms were the same. He needed the coffee, though. Six a.m. was getting harder and harder for him, but if he didn't get up at six, he'd never make it out here by seven-thirty. And he needed the whole day to meet the quota.
"Christ," he said, leaning on me, his raw, calloused hand digging into my shoulder. "I know I'm gonna end up working late-Band it wouldn't make no difference, even if that bastard Sam was on time."
It was hell getting old, my father informed me, as if he=d never said it before, steam from the coffee blurring his face so that only his oversized ears showed clearly. "You work as hard and as fast as you can, but top speed at fifty ain't the same as top speed at thirty.@ He gulped the scalding liquid as if it were the elixir of youth, but nothing changed. AYou run, but you cover less ground. You make your arm fly, but it flies slower. You force your eye to concentrate to line things up just so, but it takes longer to see the differences."
Dumping hot chocolate out of my thermos into the wide-mouthed red plastic cap I used as a cup, I sat on the floor with my father, sniffing the chocolatey steam and listening to the sandpaper sounds of his voice. I hated being made to confront what I could only see as his failure and resented him for making me feel awkward and embarrassed. Fathers weren't supposed to behave this way. They were supposed to be confident and manly and successful. That was how they behaved in movies and on television.
Jim Anderson on Father Knows Best paid for his family=s comfortable middle class life by selling insurance. I don=t think he ever appeared in a single episode without a tie. Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show was a doctor, Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver went off every day to be a Abusinessman,@ Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch was an architect, and as far as anybody could tell Ozzie Nelson never did anything. None of them held down the kinds of jobs my father and the fathers of my friends struggled with week after week. None of them fell asleep with a beer can on the sofa after work.
"Every day's a battle," Dad said again. "Louise don't understand that. Every day I don't fall over dead in a shower stall is a victory. But, sooner or later, they'll find me, my face buried in half-set cement. A tile setter's death."
It sounded like a joke, but no humor lurked among the ridges of his creased, smoker=s face. He finished his coffee, shook the last drops out of the stained plastic cup, and screwed it back onto the thermos bottle.
Did my Dad ever think of not going to the morning=s job? Did he ever want to keep driving? Were there days when he didn=t want to come home and then start his life over again the next morning? Did he, a middle-aged man, ever want to run away?
Twenty minutes later, Sam appeared: freckled, rusty-haired, easy-going, a few years out of high school. He managed to look ashamed, but really couldn't see what the big deal was. The morning sun picked out the bronze hairs on the back of his hands and on his arms as he began slowly and methodically shifting bags of sand and concrete and moving shovels and buckets, but Dad wasn=t going to let him off.
"A fucking half-hour late!" yelled my Dad.
I'd never heard him swear like that before, but it seemed to be what men did when they were together without women. He chewed out Sam as if he were a Dickensian schoolmaster berating a tardy pupil, then set him to mixing cement. Later, he whispered to me that Sam was working deliberately slow, to spite him.
"Sometimes, the kid works good, but not on Mondays. Watch him. He has a hangover and resents being here. When you're twenty and full of piss, you don't realize how lucky you are to have a job."
I watched them work, cigarette smoke hanging like shredded parachutes over their heads, then hiked around outside in the cool morning on the planks that bridged the oozing mud lakes between the new houses. Around me, the Morse code of hammers, the music of saws and drills, the chorus of curses and exclamations, the clatter of portable radios, filled the air. I was bored, but perversely fascinated. And, anyway, I was stuck there all day.
Balancing on the boards floating across the gray muck, I let my gaze ricochet over the unfinished housetops and spindly telephone poles jutting like toothpicks out of muddy cocktails. Then I saw my father. He was climbing into his old Ford coupe parked out on the street. It was too soon for a break and I couldn=t tell what he was doing as he slouched in the car, but I didn=t much care. Maybe he needed to rest or maybe he checked the time on the radio.
After a while, he shuffled back into the unfinished house.
Later, standing in the bathroom doorway, I watched Sam and him nail chicken wire on the floor and walls. The diamond-patterned wire sheets, he explained over his shoulder, were to hold the "mud" to the floor and walls. Without it, the cement and tile would have nothing to adhere to, so they=d slide and slip like lava down the side of a volcano.
Outside, Sam mixed the mud in a wooden trough too big to fit through the doors, with one sloping end to make it easier to use the wide, blunt shovel to scoop up the gray gumbo. He poured mixtures of sand and cement in the box and used a hose connected to a faucet to add water as he blended the ingredients with a garden hoe. This grainy batter had to be smooth, my father told me, or the finished wall would be uneven.
APut more elbow grease in it, dammit!@ he yelled at Sam, and told him to get out the damn lumps!
Was my Dad staging this show to impress me, I wondered, or did he always make such a production out of every little bit of his job?
When the cement was mixed and transported bucket by bucket into the house, my father and Sam troweled it over the chicken wire. Once the mud was spread and set, Dad pushed the ceramic tiles in place before it hardened, planning so that any tiles that needed to be cut to fit would be hidden on the bottom or in a corner. His tile cutter's guillotine-like blade could sever a tile perfectly. For especially difficult spaces, he used nippers to trim the tiles to fit. Sharp little chips of tile shot through the room as if propelled from a weapon.
"Each piece of tile should look like it was born to live where you put it," he announced. Each individual step had to be done right or the job as a whole would end up a mess. And if you hurried any one step, you sabotaged yourself. "That's what those speed-demons do. They rush, but then their work slides all over hell and the lines won't stay straight."
He was referring to Randy across the street.
"Yeah," said Sam, "but Randy quits at a decent hour."
“You can recognize quality work,” my father said, ignoring Sam=s remark, “because the tile’s flat on the surface with no bulges or valleys--and the grout lines are as straight as a bookkeeper=s ledger. Straighter.”
He showed me how to make sure the rows of tile on the wall were true, lining up the bubbles in the little clear tubes on the steel-framed level. I could tell that he got a kick out of teaching me the tricks of his craft, but I was too old and sophisticated, at least in my own mind, to let him see that I was impressed.
Later, after the cement was hard, my father or Sam went back to rub in the grout between the tiles. Sometimes, the grout was white, but often it was colored, to either blend in with or contrast with the color of the tile.
“Housewives like colored grout,” he said, “because it doesn't show dirt, but give me old-fashioned white grout. You can=t cheat with white grout.@
Once the grout was on, Sam polished the tile with a rag, so the grout lines stood out between the shining tilesB-this was when you saw clearly if the tile had been set straight.
"The moment of truth," Dad said, tapping a tile on one corner with his trowel handle to make it settle more evenly into the mud, "is when you step back and see how straight your lines are!"
"Ain't got time for 'moments of truth,'" said Sam. "We got three-and-a-half more fucking houses to do by four-thirty!"
I left my father and Sam alone. I didn't want to be the cause of them not making their quota. But for the first time I was starting to feel a grudging respect for what Dad did every day-Bnot exactly for his skill, because the work didn't really seem to my eye so complicated or challenging, but more for his endurance. To do such a boring job every working day for more than twenty years was an accomplishment, even if a perverse one.
By mid-morning, the sun was sucking moisture out of the ooze around the houses. At eleven-thirty, Dad, Sam, and I got our lunches from the cars, joining Randy, the other setter, and Roy, his helper, on one of the concrete driveways and letting the sun's rays soak into us. The two helpers pulled off their sweaty tee shirts and sprawled against the garage door, devouring their sandwiches and chugalugging thermoses of milk as if they were at the beach.
Randy, although not much older, maintained his status, sitting apart from the helpers. A good-looking young guy, with shrewd eyes set in a dark, foreign-looking face, he managed to appear both laid back and ambitious-Bhe was going to amount to something in this life, but would never let anybody know how much it mattered to him.
The men kidded around and told dirty stories. Dad told a joke he'd picked up someplace, but it wasn't funny and the others laughed only to be polite. The younger guys acted tough, but still tried not to hurt his feelings. I liked them for that.
Roy and Sam talked about going out on dates after work. They had some hot girls lined up, or said they did. My father shook his head: after a day on the job, it was enough to stay awake long enough to eat. All he wanted was to be unconscious so the pain would stop.
The others had heard it before: I could tell from the way they ignored him, now, and went on with their own conversation, talking about girl friends and cars, their "real" lives away from work. But he explained to me how all the kneeling and lifting and bending was getting at his back. His arms were still strong, but if your legs and back gave out, you weren't much good for anything. And all the years of working in cement had poisoned his hands >til they resembled the ground beef my mother bought at Safeway.
"I never stop hurting," he said. "My shoulder, my knees, my spine, my hands, someplace." As if to illustrate his words, his knees cracked loudly as he shifted his weight.
The rays of the sun slanted past the half-shingled roof of the house next door, turning the pock-marked earth around the houses into a science fiction landscape.
Why, I wondered, had my father become a tile setter? How did Sam and Roy and Randy decide to do this for a living? Or any of the men working on these houses? It was a mystery to me how a person ended up with some job for the rest of his life, so he could stay alive, have a family. Did you simply fall into a job and a life and get stuck with it? It seemed unbearably depressing to me. If that was what existence was all about, why didn't everyone commit suicide?
"Her ole man ain't worth shit, boozes all day long, but she won't tell him to go to hell. Feels sorry for her old lady, that's the trouble."
Randy was complaining about his wife's parents. I remembered what Dad said once: "People go on making the same damn mistakes. Nobody ever learns from anybody else's screw ups." He didn't need to be told, he said, that he'd screwed up his life. “But don't forget,” he added, “I had help from the goddam Depression.”
Sure, he'd run into rats who took advantage of him-Bhe had a talent for trusting the wrong people. And Louise hadn't turned out to be what he'd expected, either. She'd never helped him the way a wife ought toB-never encouraged him to do what he needed to do with his life. She was too shy to risk anything on her own; all she'd ever wanted out of life was to be taken care of and watch the soaps.
"She tricked me, son." He was slurring his words, lost in the thicket of his own thoughts. "Her old man and old lady were glad to be rid of her. They must've known what she'd become. I got Louise and her medical bills. She was so cute, but I should've known she'd change once she hooked me. What was I supposed to be, a goddam fortune teller? Look into a crystal ball and see operations and pill bottlesB-how could I see all that?"
"She tries, Dad."
The corners of his mouth turned down, deepening the creases in his cheeks.
"Yeah, I suppose she does."
The only times he managed to be happy, now, were the rare moments he got to a fishing stream.
"Fly fishing's an art, too," he explained. "Like tile setting." He stopped chewing and stared at his half-eaten meat loaf sandwich. "Your mother don't know how to pack a decent lunch. Look at this: the bread's soggy and the meat loaf is disgusting."
He shoved it back into his lunch box and clicked the snaps shut.
"Be back in a minute."
And he heaved himself upright, stumbling down the drive and around the house.
I figured he was going to take a leak. When we'd got there first thing in the morning, he'd told me the men just went outside and pissed into the mud.
"You know what he's gonna do, don't you?" said Roy to Sam.
"Shh!" It was Randy, looking at Roy but nodding toward me.
"Oh, fuck. Who cares?"
I understood that my father had walked to the side of the house where he'd parked his car. Well, so what? He was probably going to get another pack of cigarettes. Then I was distracted by Roy and Sam yelling at each other about something else.
"Hey, what's eatin' ya, man?" Roy complained to Sam.
Roy, Dad had warned me, didn't have much sense of humor; he didn't get it when other guys were joking. And Sam was a big joker.
I left them bickering and walked through the nearly completed house, the smells of fresh wood and wet cement filling the air. Surprisingly, I liked being in that unfinished house, even the way my steps echoed in the empty rooms. I walked through what would be the living room, with its flagstone-skinned fireplace and picture window gazing out at the other houses in the subdivision, and then through the open dining area into a little room my father had said was a breakfast room. I'd never seen a house with a "breakfast room" before. It faced east, with two tiny windows so the morning sun would shine in. We always ate breakfast at the kitchen table. For that matter, we ate supper there, too.
Looking out one of the windows, I saw the lumpy, old-fashioned contours of Dad's rusty two-door Ford. He was sitting behind the steering wheel, a wine bottle to his mouth: a long gulp, then he slumped back, his head against the worn gray upholstery. After a moment, he managed another drink, screwed the lid back on, put the bottle in a paper bag, and slid it under the seat. I hurried through the house and out the front door again to the driveway, where the men were finishing their lunch break. A couple of minutes later, my father trudged around the side of the garage.
Plenty of times, I'd seen him slouched in his coupe in front of our rented duplex after a working day. Supper was ready, my sister and I were hungry, but we waited for him to open the dented door of the Ford, fall out, lunch pail in hand, and shuffle up the walk. Mom didn't understand that her husband had no place to call his own-Bno space where he could escape the agony of his existence-Bexcept his car. Not the family car, but his car, the one he used to carry his tools to and from work. I can still see him sitting in that battered old coupe during those lulls in the constant battle of his existence, raising a crushed paper bag to his mouth.
And what about him? What did he see, sitting alone there, the cheap port warming his belly?
Staring through the divided windshield of the '48 coupe, did he see himself as a boy hitchhiking across the country in '32? Did he see himself Roy's age, sleeping on the Nevada desert between Winnemucca and Reno, using a pea jacket he'd got at the Salvation Army for a pillow and hoping no gila monster or scorpion would chew on his ear during the night? Did he gaze at the crack meandering across the left side of the windshield and imagine that it was like his life: twisted and aimless, starting and stopping without reason?
Stumbling back from his break, he hurled a friendly slap at my shoulder, but lost his balance and brushed against my shirt with his hand. A strangely powerful emotion surged through me, and I stepped sideways with an awkward, frightened gesture. I didn=t know why I was moved so much at that moment, just that I was and that I wished I were home, working on my epic novel.
"Gotta get back to work," he said. I could smell the port on his breath. "Gotta sling that tile. Gotta get them bathrooms finished, so the goddam contractor can make his profit."
Amid shards of laughter and ribald wisecracks, the other workmen scattered among the unfinished houses.
"Gotta go back to work," he said. But he didn't move. He seemed to be paralyzed.
"Hey, Sylvester, what's wrong? You sick, or something?"
"Pete, your Dad sick?"
"He's drunk, that's all. He's pissed."
"Shit, he's gonna get canned."
"He is not drunk!" I defended my father. "He doesn't feel good."
He looked down at me with a peculiar little smile. "I'm fine, son. I'm old, but I'm not sick and not drunk." He stumbled into the house, but turned around, shouting at the unpainted sheet rock walls: "When I was twenty, I could lift a fifty pound bag of cement over my head! With each arm!"
"Hey, Sylvester, snap out of it. Chuck's gonna be after your ass."
"I was settin' tile before you was born.@ He waved an arm in the air, his hand sweeping sideways in a gesture worthy of the Queen of England. AGeorge MacPherson taught me the trade. A first-class journeyman tile setter and marble layer. In those days, we had to know how to do marble, too. He was a cranky old Scot who believed in doin' it right. No shortcuts. No slappin' it up, seein' how much you could do. Do it right and it'll last for eternity, he said.@ Dad=s bandaid-striped forefinger punctured the air in front of his face. A'Sylvester,' he used to tell me, 'they found ceramic tile in Egyptian temples four thousand years old that looks like it was put in yesterday. That's craftsmanship!'"
"Ain't nothing around here gonna last four thousand years. And who gives a shit?" grumbled Sam. "We ain't gonna be here, either."
Dad shook his head. "We were artists. We cared."
The loose skin on his cheeks and under his dark eyes trembled, and he stared tragically at the bags of dry cement piled next to the mixing trough. But I don't think he felt sorry for himself at that moment as much as he pitied a world that no longer recognized quality or cared about creating something beautiful and lasting.
"I ain't got time to listen to this crap." Randy started back to the house he was working in: "Come on, Roy. I wanta get the hell out o= here today."
Roy looked at my father and, pulling his tee shirt over his sunburned chest, followed Randy across the street.
"Well?" Sam smirked at my father, scratching insolently at the dark hair smeared over his flat young belly. "What d=you want me to do?"
"Mix more mud, damn it! We've got that shower stall to finish!"
* * *
On the way home that night, Dad was exhausted, but I had the feeling that my being there helped give him back a little energy.
"Let me be a lesson to you," he said. "I shoulda stayed in school. That was my big mistake. But what does a kid know? And who guessed the Depression was coming? Nobody, that's who."
Like the song in the old movie: "Old Man Depression, you done us wrong."
But this was real life, his life, no movie, and nothing to sing about. The only life he was going to have. He was fifty years old. This was it. The work. The marriage. The responsibilities. The life. The death.
He looked sharply at me.
"Don't misunderstand me, son. My life ain't turned out like I would've wanted it to if I'd had a choice, but I'm proud o= the work I've done." His stubble-darkened chin was drooping and he seemed to be peering at the road through the spokes of the steering wheel. "I've set tile all over the western states and never done a job I was ashamed of. Setting tile don't make you rich and famous, but it's a craft to be proud of. A craft and an art. And it lasts forever."
An expression somewhere between boasting and wistful crossed his weathered features.
"It's like fly fishing: a craft and an art. I oughta go fishing again. I haven't gone after any steelhead for a long time. Too long."
As the sun shattered into pointillist fragments on the filthy windshield, I imagined my Dad wading into a sun-spangled, fast-moving stream. I saw the rush of water against his aching legs, pushing at his thighs. He braced himself against the current, balanced on two wide, slippery rocks, and cast into a deep dark pool at the side of the rapid stream. Flecks of light bounced off the exploding water, dazzling his vision, and he blinked rapidly, fighting the purple spots that danced in front of his tired eyes.