A Non-Smoking House


It was dumb luck that I got introduced to Patterson. He was maybe ten years older and spent most of his free time at the bar out in Fairfax where my girl worked, a big and hippy button-nosed waitress whose attraction to me was mysterious but not unprecedented. She was also, without question, my type—the type that feeds her Eggo to stray cats and takes the three-legged dog home from the shelter. Some might say I was taking advantage of the girl, but when you’re the only white man sitting on the curb outside 7-11 in the fifteen-degree dawn with those fresh-off-the-boat Hondurans waiting for a fat man in an oversized pickup to offer you a gig ripping out AC ducts or hauling trash, you stop worrying about what’s best for everybody else. 

I’d spent a fair amount of time in construction, especially the independent contracting that was Patterson’s bread and butter. My girl told me Patterson had work, and when I pulled up a barstool next to him, he said that this was so, his eyes on a day-old copy of the Post crossword puzzle. I offered up my services as calmly as I could, and I knew that even though the job wasn’t enough to set me straight—it wasn’t the answer—it would do. I was just about old enough to know that there was no answer. I was twenty-three, and I was dead tired. 

It was eight in the morning when Patterson and I had finally set up at the job site, a big old Victorian not a half mile from the Metro, what with McDonald’s for the breakfast muffins and then Home Depot for the nail clips and pry bar on account of Patterson misplacing his own. If you’ve never had the pleasure, Home Depot first thing in the morning is not a place for the casual shopper—not a place for the guy that’s looking for a can of deck stain or a pack of lightbulbs. Home Depot first thing in the morning is a serious place full of serious men, quiet and desperate men trying to get over. Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, and the occasional grizzled white dude in a stained t-shirt with fear plastered all over his face because he knows the day already balances on the edge of defeat. 

I’d been on the job for three weeks, and Patterson and I were well past the honeymoon phase—that had lasted about twenty minutes. We were now into the part of the relationship where he was trying to get me to quit so he could say I’d been given a fair shot. I could see he hated working with someone else, but I could also see that this Victorian was a two-person job and he was behind for the month, maybe for the year. For as much as he didn’t want to show it, I could see that money-fear stamped across his forehead as clear as a brand. 

We found the pry bars and were on the road by seven, which put us almost smack in the middle of rush hour. This wound up Patterson even more, the miles per gallon of his powerstroke diesel dropping like a stone in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Gas was up to three dollars by this point. 

“From Purcellville to your house is twenty minutes,” he told me, “and I can’t do over sixty with these cops down every access road.” 

“I know it,” I said. 

“Every single access road. They’re all night catching the working man coming home from the bar and they’re all morning catching the working man humping into town.” 

“I know it.” 

“From your house to Home Depot is another ten, then out to Arlington is forth-five. At least. You do math, don’t you?” 

“I do.” 

“So that’s—” 

“A lot.” 

“An hour fifteen,” Patterson said, fiddling a cigarette out of the pack jammed down in the cupholder. When Patterson was pissed, he uncorked one of these little diatribes against the local football team, the federal government, particular women, whomever he was sitting next to. And he was pissed more often than he wasn’t. 

“You mind if I bum one?” I said, watching his thick fingers handle the cigarette. I’d made myself quit based on the cost of the things, but Patterson smoked like a furnace and his whole vibe had me itchy. 

“Buy your own damn cancer,” Patterson mumbled as he lit the cig in his cupped hands, his knees pressed up against the wheel. He took a drag and sat back, and the diesel jumped underneath us as he stomped down on the gas. 

“Hour fifteen out, hour back,” Patterson said. “I’d kill a man to save the fifteen every day.” He turned to me with the glowing cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth. “I’d kill him graveyard dead.” 

I was running the box cutter down the top of the baseboard molding when Patterson’s Nokia started to chirp, echoing around us in the empty room. I tried to ignore it and focus on the job at hand. There’s real pleasure in the first steps, in taking a house apart piece-by-piece, especially the sections that lock into place when you first put them down. All you’ve got to do is lean into those bits just a little and they pop right out like a rotten tooth. You get the razorblade started with a little wiggle into the caulk, and then there’s this suggestive drop as it falls down behind to that space you had to know was there to find. After that you’ve got a long and slow and even draw all the way down to the corner of the room, just like opening a present. 

“Yes,” Patterson said into the phone. His voice was soft, like he wasn’t sure what was wrong but he was ready to claim it. I figured he was speaking to a woman, one whose opinion he valued. 

“And you’re right,” he said. “No.” He put down the nail gun and looked at the floor. “You’re taking the dog,” he said. “Where are you?” He ran his hand up his forehead and pushed back his ball cap. “Hello?” 

Patterson took the phone away from his face and held it in front of him like he’d never seen it before. He flipped it closed and stood and he walked to the far wall and reached out and grazed it with his fingers. Then he walked over to the window. “That bitch,” he said quietly, and then he turned on his heel and started running across the room, his hand reaching back behind his ear and drawing into a fist. 

When Patterson punched the wall, it made a sound like a bell wrapped in a mattress. His hand bounced off behind his head, but that hardly slowed him down. The next four punches tore open the drywall like wet paper, the chunks of gypsum popping out with flat little coughing sounds. 

After a second, Patterson stood back and he looked at what he’d done, shaking his hand out at his side. “Sonofabitch,” he said. He raised his hand in front of his face and grit his teeth and he stretched out his fingers until they shook. 

“Shouldna hit the stud,” I said. 

“Goddamnit,” he shouted, holding his hand at his chest and walking in circles around the room. 

Patterson shook out his hand again and stuffed it in the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a lighter with the trembling tips of his fingers. He somehow managed to light another cigarette. 

“Going to be tough getting in work today with a broke hand,” I told him. 

He glared at me. Then he drug out his Nokia again. I could hear it ring. I could hear it go to voicemail. He flipped it closed and shoved it in his pocket. He pulled on the cigarette until it squeaked in his lips. 

My girl’s friends at the bar had told me he was divorced. Recently so. They told me he lived alone in a big empty house in the woods on a decent stake of property, just him and an enormous dog. I’d seen the dog from time to time sitting in the back of Patterson’s pickup outside that very same bar. A big yellow Lab. I’ve always believed that the dumber the dog, the happier he seems and Labradors—being the dumbest of all dogs—have discovered the Zen secret to the simple joy of life-as-lived. Patterson’s dog looked to be about the dumbest Labrador I had ever seen. One afternoon on my way into the bar I saw Patterson standing by the bed of his truck, putting his forehead up against that dog’s and talking to the thing, rubbing the white fur at the hinge of its jaws. It just stood there huge and stupid and mute while Patterson talked to it, its tongue flapping between them in the air. 

“So she took the dog,” I said. 

“Fix that wall,” Patterson hissed as he walked over to the window. 

I told him to clean up his own mess, and I bent back down to the molding. The best part was the next part, when you had to pull out the nails with the pry bar, just so. I slid the nose of the bar down into the slit I’d made with the boxcutter, careful not to touch the wall behind it and make a mark as indicative of incompetence as any in contracting. The pressure necessary to pop out the seating of the nail was variable but predictable, like finding the friction point in a stick shift, and deeply satisfying. I looked up to see Patterson overtop of me, one hand still holding the other at his chest. 

“You do what I say,” he told me, his teeth clenched around the cig. There was anger in his face but it was mixed up with pain. I could tell he was wounded, and probably not a little afraid, so I pulled the pry bar free of the wall and was bringing it up to his face, just to show him, when we heard the downstairs door open. 

“Hello?” A woman’s voice. “Hello?” A lower octave. Jagged. Older. “Patterson? Patterson, where are you?” I hadn’t yet met the owner of the place, but I knew for certain who had just walked in. 

Patterson stood up, his eyes wide. He turned to the open doorway behind us, and then he pulled the cigarette from his mouth and handed it to me. “Take it,” he whispered. 

“And do what?” 

“Take it. This is your fuck-up.” 

I watched him and I didn’t take it. He dropped it on the floor between us. 

“Patterson? Are you upstairs?” 

“Just getting started,” he called out. Patterson’s finger was pointing at the boxcutter, his eyes round and white. “Cut the wall,” he said. 

“I’ll just come up,” she said. 

“No, I’ll be down.” 

“I’m already coming,” she said, annoyed. Hard-soled shoes started up the stairs. 

“Cut the fucking wall,” he whispered, pointing at the coffee-cup sized holes where his fist had been and then he was walking out of the room, shaking his hand at his side. 

I picked up the cig and the boxcutters and opened all the windows and turned on the box fans and threw the cigarette out into the grass. 

Over the roar of the fans I could hear them out in the hallway. Her voice was sharp, persistent. Patterson’s voice hummed back at her. 

“I just wanted to swing by and see where we were,” she said. “I wouldn’t have expected you to still be working on the bedrooms.” 

Hum hum. 

“Well you’re on my way so it just makes sense to drop in, doesn’t it?” 

Hum hum hum. 

“I’m sure you’re very busy, Patterson. You’ve got a lot of work here to get through.” 

I ran over to the busted wall and began to trace out a rough rectangle around the holes. 

“Now, where are you with the upstairs bedroom?” The echo to her voice was gone. They were right around the corner. 

“We’ve just now started,” Patterson said. 

“Why do you think it’s taking so long to finish the bedrooms?” 

“I gotta be honest, we’re ahead of schedule.” 

There was a pause. A good five seconds of nothing but the fan blades running through their cycles. 

And then this: “Whose schedule?” 

“Ma’am?” 

“Do you have some other schedule that contradicts the contract?” 

“No ma’am.” 

“Do I need to see your schedule and compare it to the one we both agreed on?” 

“No ma’am.” 

“I have a lot of work, Patterson. A lot of work around town and I need a competent contractor who can complete it on budget and on time.” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“Don’t make me ask you where I could find one.” 

I popped the thin blade into the wall and bore down with steady pressure, cutting in little stops and starts. Too much force would draw a slice down to my waist before I could rein it back in 

“Why don’t we see where you’re at?” the woman said. 

“Well there’s not much to see.” 

“Let’s just see.” 

Down. Turn. And back across the other way. 

“Oh,” she said as she walked into the room. “Oh.” 

“It’s a two-person job, ma’am,” Patterson shouted over the fans. 

“I’m not paying any more for two people,” she shouted back. 

“No ma’am.” 

“Did you say no?” 

“No.” 

“What?” 

“I’m-” 

The woman shooed Patterson away with the back of her hand. She was somewhere past sixty, and dressed like she was on her way to high tea. I could tell in two seconds that she had the real money, had probably been running this hustle and dealing with pricks like us for decades. It was also obvious that she enjoyed this, enjoyed her anger and its righteous deployment against the help. She wore sunglasses inside. A scarf on a summer day. As she waved her hand around the room the silver bangles on her arm slid up and down. 

“Has someone been smoking?” she shouted. 

“No ma’am.” 

“I smell smoke. I wouldn’t want anyone smoking in here.” 

“No ma’am.” 

“This is a non-smoking house.” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“What is he doing?” 

“Rotten drywall,” I said over my shoulder. 

“What did he say?” 

Patterson walked over and turned off the fans. It had no effect on the volume of her voice. 

“What did you say?” she shouted across the room. 

The cut was finished. If you’d had a level and slapped it down all four sides that bubble would’ve laid true in the green and stayed so. I clicked shut the boxcutter and slipped it into my pants. 

“Rotten drywall,” I said, popping the cut-out onto the floor. “Sometimes water can get caught down the backside and swell it up. Got to remediate out a patch, otherwise it can spread.”

The woman stared at me, and then she turned to Patterson. 

“Remediate out,” she said. 

“It was faint,” I added, “but you got to catch it as soon as you can.” 

The woman didn’t move from beside Patterson, who stood looking at me like a man at the bottom of a well. She was waiting for me to say something else, waiting for me to talk too much. I knew what I looked like to her. I just kept standing there with the cut drywall at my feet, looking like that. 

“Thank you,” she said finally. Then she turned back to Patterson. “I imagine you’ll start on the bathroom by this afternoon,” she said, and walked out into the hall. 

Patterson stood in the doorway. “We’ve got to frame the closets,” he called after her. 

“You haven’t framed the closets?” 

“We still need the wood.” 

“I’ve paid you for that.” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“When I come back tomorrow I need you started on the bathroom.” 

Patterson took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “What time do you think that’d be?” 

Another pause. By this point I couldn’t help but smile. 

“Whenever I can find a spare second, Patterson. Will that work for you?” 

“Yes ma’am.” 

“I don’t have the time to talk about things I’ve already paid for. The day is full of enough surprises as is.” 

To be honest she was lucky to have us. I didn’t much care for Patterson as a person but he was a fine carpenter. You’ve got electricians and painters and plumbers but the best work, the real work, is done by the carpenter. He’s the one who puts up the bones of the place. He’s the one doing honest labor. If you’re the carpenter you start it all, from scratch. You sit down, and you measure. You cut the pieces like you think they should be cut. You piece together the pieces you’ve made. You put up a thing that wasn’t there before but once it goes up, if it goes up right, it looks natural and true. There’s the way the measuring tape jerks in your hand when it slaps back into a coil, or the way the pencil vibrates against your fingers when you lay a mark across the grain of the wood. There’s the smell of the cut lumber and the jump of the gun when the nail drives in and at the end of it all you’ve done something, and it’s in front of you, and if you’ve taken the time to get it right you’ve got no reason at all to be ashamed. 

Patterson sat quiet in the truck, his busted hand laying in his lap like a dead bird. I looked out at 66 curving in front of us like a scythe, packed tight with traffic. I thought about the things I could’ve said to him but I didn’t say them. Because here was a guy in obvious trouble. A guy I needed. A guy I couldn’t leave behind or work around or change or fix. 

“She took the dog,” I said. 

“Fuck off.” 

I figured I’d try again. 

“Why’d she take the dog?” 

He looked out the window and cleared his throat and started looking for another cigarette. 

“It ain’t her dog to take,” he mumbled. 

“She’s taking it to fuck with you.” That seemed right. That was behavior I could understand. 

“She’s fucked with me enough,” he said, lighting up a fresh one. 

“Can I ask you a question?” 

Patterson laughed. He took the cigarette from his mouth and held it out the window. The traffic had begun to break up. 

“No.” 

“I’ve never been married,” I said. “So I’ve always wondered about this. I want to know when you know it’s done.” 

Patterson crumpled up his forehead, his eyes out on the road. He pulled on the cigarette and tapped the ash into the cold coffee cup in the holder. He put the cigarette back in his teeth and he punched on the radio and turned it up loud. Sports talk. NFL camp. I looked out the window as the arguments blasted through the truck. Who’d shown up in shape. Who’d taken the summer off. All of a sudden Patterson began to shout over the noise. 

“I never should’ve in the first place,” he said. 

“Never what?” 

“And I told her that.” He looked over at me for the first time. “That’s what’s so fucked up about it. I told her.” 

“So why’d you do it?” 

“It’s just,” he squinted up his face, “her sisters got involved. And her mother.” He took a drag. “Everybody starts making their own little plans,” he said, wiggling his fingers at the windshield. “Shit just starts happening and you don’t have no control over it.” 

“So if you told her, why’d she go through with it?” 

He pulled hard again on the cigarette. “She thought—.” Then he looked over at me, and a sneer crawled up the side of his face. “Fuck,” he said. He flicked off more ash and then pointed his finger at me. “I’ll be lucky to break even on this gig with your ass dragging along like dead weight. I’d drop you by the side of the road except I need somebody to carry the goddamned lumber.” Patterson sat back in the seat and slammed on the gas. “Christ,” he said, throwing the cigarette out the window. 

I took that exchange as a victory. 

“Ten miles to the store,” he said. “Ten miles out and ten miles back.” 

“This ain’t straight.” Patterson threw the wood back into the bin. He picked up another 2×4 and laid it against the wrist of his bad hand and sighted down the edge. “This one ain’t straight neither.” When you throw lumber like that it makes a ringing sound you wouldn’t expect, like a hard dull gong. “Ain’t straight.” Clung. “Ain’t straight.” Clung. 

One of the orange-bibbed employees came around the corner, a thin man in Skechers. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said to us, as though everything today were going completely according to plan. “How can I help you?” 

“This here ain’t nothing but a bunch of bullshit,” Patterson explained. 

“Yessir,” said the man. He looked haggard but calm, like he’d been through a hard stretch and barely made it out alive. The big gray hands at his sides told me he was an ex-contractor, one of those poor suckers who punched a timecard for the steady fifteen bucks an hour, but some of those guys still remembered what the job was, and this guy seemed to know what this right in front of him was. I took a step away from Patterson and back into the crowd that had already begun to form around us. 

“I don’t think you can help me, no,” Patterson said. “I need about twelve straight 2x4s and you ain’t got a single one in the bin. I doubt you got one in the whole fucking store.” 

“Sir,” the haggard guy said, “I’d be happy to help you, but I’d ask you to watch your language.” 

“My language?” Patterson stuffed his bad hand down in his hip pocket like he was delivering some sort of ludicrous opening argument. “Watch my language when you’ve got some cross-eyed retard back there on quality control sticking his thumb up his butt while this whole place goes to shit?” Clung. 

Then Patterson was off down the aisle in his flip-flops, unlit cigarette between his teeth. “Is there anyone here,” he was shouting now, down in front of the cash registers, “anyone here who knows how to do his goddamn job?” Two more orange bibs came running around the corner, young fat kids, completely unprepared. 

“As much money as I spend in this place,” Patterson shouted, right on the verge of a state I hadn’t seen a man achieve sober. 

“Sir.” 

“You call me sir one more time and I’ll shove my foot up your ass.” 

The haggard guy was shadowing us down and back, and now he took a step forward and opened those big gray hands. “Buddy,” he said, his voice lower, his knees bent, his attitude changed completely. “You need to take a few deep breaths.” 

Patterson froze, his eyes wide on the man who now slid one Skecher shoe just a few inches forward. 

“You’re scaring everybody,” the man said, and he moved his chin gently to indicate the crowd gathering behind him. “Look,” he said. “You’re scaring the women.” 

Patterson’s face crunched up like tin foil. “Fuck you,” he shouted, and he started walking toward the man who then quickly backed up into the crowd, his big hands held high and open, his lined face slack. 

By this point the orange bibs had Patterson surrounded. Employees of all ages and ethnicities had aligned to contain him. The dads with lightbulbs and housewives with garden hoses had indeed all stopped their shopping to watch as everyone started to move in a little closer, but not too close. All I could think of was news footage of a wild animal escaping the zoo. 

Patterson was nearing a full panic. He was bending at the waist to scream about lumber, his broken hand shoved deep down in his shorts. Two cigarettes spilled out of his shirt pocket and bounced on the concrete floor. 

“None of you motherfuckers has any idea what a pile of shit this place is.” Patterson turned at a rep and feinted at him—an older man, short with a white mustache. One of the fat kids tried to grab on to Patterson’s back but jumped away at the last second, baring his teeth. 

I heard a rep behind me say something about the police. 

“This is the last time for me,” Patterson shouted. “This is the last time.” 

I walked up through the circle and came straight at him. His back was to me but he could hear my boots on the floor and he turned. I made sure my back foot was planted and I got enough of my hip into it and he’s taller so I gauged for it and caught him right in the chin. His hat and sunglasses went clattering up the aisle. 

“Motherfucker,” he said, and grabbed me by the shirt. 

Patterson leaned back and tried to connect with his good hand but my arm was in the way. I got my shoulder up in time so he only hit my ear, which still stung like a sonofabitch. We had one another’s shirts and were circling around like dancing bears. My foot crushed and slipped on a cigarette. I gave him a quick punch to the ribs. 

“Motherfucker,” he said again, and took out his bad hand and started to push me with both. The cash register caught the middle of my back and Patterson let go of me as I fell to the floor. A woman screamed. The metal corner had stuck me right in the center of the muscle and it felt like getting jabbed with the head of a broom. The circle had moved around us now, with Patterson’s back to the bay doors. His eyes were wild with the fight and I couldn’t tell if he got where this was all going. 

“C’mon,” he shouted, trying to ball both his hands up into fists. “C’mon.” I moved in low toward him and grabbed his shirt with my left while his broken right came down on my shoulder again and I came up and got him under the chin. Not too hard but just enough. Patterson leaned forward and held on to me, his face in the crook of my neck, and I felt on my ribcage two quick taps from his open hand, the sort of thing you’d see WWF wrestlers pull in the old days before throwing one another into the ropes. I swung him toward the doors and he swung along with me, breathing hard into my neck as I pushed him into daylight, holding on to his shirt just to make sure he didn’t fall. 

By the time we were out of the loading bay’s shadow and into the sunlight, Patterson had turned completely and was sprinting to the truck, cackling high and wild as his flip-flops spun out in the air and landed on the asphalt beside me. I heard the voices from the doorway but we were fast, and I just made it into the cab as Patterson cranked the ignition and peeled out of the parking spot, pulled hard around the turn, ran the red light at the bottom of the hill and pow, we were on the interstate. 

Patterson cut loose a scream. 

Yeah,” he said, long and hard, his face lit up with joy. He dropped his bad hand on my shoulder, like the pain for just that moment was completely gone. “We got them motherfuckers!” He shoved me against the side of the door so hard I was afraid it was going to pop open. “That’s my man,” he shouted at me, his face red and eyes blazing. He looked over his shoulder and then back to me as the truck tore through the lunchtime traffic. “You’re scaring the women!” he mocked. “Fuck that old cocksucker, am I right? What do you say, brother? C’mon man, what do you say?” 

I looked at him. At that face of his twisted up into something I was sure I was never going to see. It felt like a double-barreled shotgun pointed at me where I huddled against the door. I was half-sick and set to pop and I had no idea what I was going to say. I reached up and grabbed the seatbelt and jammed it home and pulled it hard once—twice—until it caught, and then I turned away from him. Because I knew what I didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to say that we still had to get lumber. 

I didn’t want to say that we’d need to work all night and him with a broke-ass hand to get the closets done by whenever it was they needed them by. I didn’t want to say that we didn’t get anybody or anything because there’s no use in saying that when you’re in as deep as you are and all you can do is put your head down and finish the goddamn job. So I just sat there, feeling my ear swell up and staring at the dash with him looking right at me, waiting for me to say something. 

And then I turned back. 

“You know what we need to do?” I said. 

“What’s that?” 

The glow had started to fade from Patterson’s face, but it was still a little on his cheeks, an unlit cigarette tight between his teeth. 

So I asked him for one. He shook the pack twice and he handed it over, the lighter stuck down in the cellophane. I took the pack out of his hand and looked down at the pale little butts where they nestled up together. I jogged them around and drew one and fished out the lighter, and when I lit the thing I saw more than felt the old smoke open and roll like a dark cool campfire all the way down into every forgotten nook and cranny of my chest. Then I sat back, and I rolled down the window. 

“What we need to do,” I said, “is go get that goddamn dog.”


Cameron MacKenzie’s work has appeared in CutBank, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, The Rumpus, and Able Muse, among other places. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career (MadHat), and monograph Badiou and American Modernist Poetics (Palgrave Macmillan) were both published in 2018. He writes for The Roanoke Review and teaches at Ferrum College.

J Journal

Department of English

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

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