Laura McCullough
The Tool Collector

He was a artist of air, he said, meaning the space people moved in, and the rehab would be unlike anything I'd ever lived in, but first he had to lift the house, and he lifted his arms, bending them, looking at his muscles, and laughed. "I can't lift a whole house." He laughed again. "But I have guy that can."

I knew he meant he'd hire a man with a crane, a good business to be in after the storm, and likely to be good for a while, the need to lift houses and build pilons underneath so the next time the ocean crashed the dunes, the houses would be okay.

In wet countries, I read once that they store their dead bodies in honey during the rainy season since they can't be buried until the world dries out. In Venice, where I've never been either, I hear the canals smell now, everything washed into the water, effluviant. Recently a marine biologist invented a process that lights up water, so waste can be spotted. She found out the local golf course had actually done a great job at reducing chemical run off—its wash into the local river turning a cool, environmentally happy blue. The world is a funny place.

He said, "You will like the spaces through which you will move in the new house I will make you." He was packing up some materials, rolling papers I didn't get, with squiggles and arrows that I was sure didn't mark most architects' plans, and little tools with rusty parts, shining only at the oiled hinges. "First, we will move your front door." He gathered a pack over his shoulder and glided across the broken floor boards as if he were quite happy to move over such destruction. "Instead of to the front, it will be to the side, away from the sun, away from the wind, an alcove of safety, and I will trim it in blue like the sea on a good day and paint the door like the Tuscan sun, and build an arch where vines will grow, and you will love it."

All I could say was, "Really." Not a question, even, just a statement, rather in awe.

He'd been recommended by Judy. Her guy, she called him. And the work had been great, attention to detail, but conventional, conservative even. Everything as she wanted, but moreso, she'd said, and it made her happy, his perfection, the crispness of everything. Even his workers never left a mess, no dust, no marks.

When he'd come to see me, I'd expected him more buttoned up, reserved, since he catered, I assumed, to the moneyed upper middle class, the ones with shore houses, modest second ones, or decent first ones, the kids and spouses living their lives while the other spouse hit the city every day taking the shoreline train in or else went in on Sunday night or Monday morning, coming home Friday evening in the tidal exodus out of the city to enjoy their shore town, their kids' games or performances, catch up the with the spouse who held it all together while they were away.

Now I stood imagining this arch, flowered vines, hummingbirds dipping, a secret entrance to my remodeled home, the crazy door, the colors. I watched him eyeing my broken walls open to the world, the sorrow of my dismantled life, its artifacts in piles at the crumbled and still crumbling curb. He waved an arm. He was smiling, turning around and around. "Yes. Yes," he said. "You can see it, right?" He stopped and peered at me, his eyes gleaming. I noticed the irises were shot through with yellow, the whites with red. "This room—see how it shows us it must be open? We will do all glass here. This will be your public room, the room that lets nature in, not secret, but wide open to the sky and the landscape." He paused, put a finger up, shaking, and then shaking it at me. "And I will get you the best landscaper." He stressed the word "will" landing on it with his full voice and dipping his chin. He was giddy, almost breathless.

What could I do?

"You see these colors?" He said more calmly as if he'd seen I was shaken by his enthusiasm. I nodded. The grays and blacks, the browns, all sea-rotten everything, but I had the sense he didn't mean just the effects of the storm; he meant what I'd had here before. "Too dark," he said. "for you." He skipped a beat, took two steps forward in it, and turned. "For you," he said, his face bright, "this will be better than before. It will reflect you."

Whatever that means, I thought, and he saw my face crunching in on itself, brows together, lips pursing, my uncertainty, lack of trust.

He unslung his pack, held it against one knee bent up, so he was balanced on one foot on my waterlogged and warped floor, what was left of it. The wind was picking up coming in off the ocean a block away. It made a tarp flap lift and snap, a tiny whistling, too. He jostled through the pack and finally lifted out a tool, slinging the pack back, gaining his footing again, a wide stance, and held the tool up almost at arm's length. It looked like a directional arrow, like a ONE WAY sign. He fingered the name "Stanley" in raised letters said, "Ten tools in one. Level. Depth gauge. Try square. Even has a compass." He weighed in it one hand bouncing it. "This is an original, a hundred years old at least."

She wasn't sure why he was showing her, waited to see if he were going to do something with it.

"A layout tool," he said. "I collect them. Tools, I mean." He watched her face for signs of comprehension. He spoke slowly, nodding his head up and down. "I collect tools." He turned his head sideways back and forth. "No?"

She still didn't follow. "Yes?"

He smiled, stomped his feet, pulled his bag around to the front, and hauled out a large wooden and metal tool. "Timber scribe," he told her. "Eighteenth century. Like a permanent marker. They used it to number the ends of beams in timber frame construction."

This, she found interesting enough to produce a sound. "Ugh."

He snugged it back into his bag. "Yeah. In old houses with exposed beams, if you ever see a carved Roman Numeral on the end, this is what they did it with."

She was glad he'd put it back. It looked as if it could do some damage if used as a weapon. "How many tools do you carry in there," she asked pointing at his shoulder strap indicating the bag.

He shrugged. "I like tools." He sniffed.

She sniffed, too; the air was salty, moist, but a whiff of gas and rot had come in on a wind.

"So," she said.

"So," he said, smiling again, "I am an artist of air. You will be happy in the spaces I make."

How could she argue with that? He seemed so strange, too buoyant, happy, untouched by the storm they had all endured. How could that be? But how could she argue. You will be happyÉ She liked that. "The kitchen?"

He nodded, and she took that to mean she should show him, and she went through the doorway, or what had been a doorway, but now only had one side, and he followed her into the space.

It looked like a kitchen. More precisely, it looked like half a kitchen, and the side that was intact had cabinets and drawers.

"Tell me about what you want," he said.

It was such a question, she thought, the most important question in the world. Did she know what she wanted? She wasn't sure. She stammered. She walked around in a tiny circle. She touched the gritty countertop.

"I bake cakes," she said. "Do you like cake?"

He snorted. "Who doesn't like cake?"

"You like tools," she said, touching her index finger to her lips, tapping. Tapping and thinking. She started opening drawers, pulling them hard, the wood and laminate swollen. Not right, but she couldn't reclose them once opened. She put both hands on her face, one on each cheek. Then it came to her. "Yes!" She whirled and found a shallow drawer, pulled. It wouldn't slide. She pulled again. She looked at him. "Stuck!"

He lunged forward and pulled the handle hard, once, twice, jiggling it one way, than the other to shimmie it out. Then he stood back, out of her personal space.

"Thanks," she said, then turned to the draw. There it was. Her cake cutter. The good one. She lifted it out and turned to him.

Holding it up with one hand, she let him look at it: curvy, one piece of continues stainless steel like a long comma, but in a loop, one end narrow to be held in the hand, the other end wider. She could see his eyes narrow as he apprehended it, then widen as he got its use, then his smile broke to one side. "Yes," he said. "You lay the fat end on the cake and—"

"Push down," she finished.

"—squeeze this end"—he pointed at the narrower end in her palm—"to create pressure to—"

"Lift the slice out!"

"Nice," he said.

"Not a timber scribe, but. . . ." she trailed off.

"But not too bad," he said.

This made her feel good. "Cake," she said, then held the tool out to him. "You want it?"

He looked puzzled, tilted his jaw to the left.

She waved it at him, pointed it toward the bag. "For your collection."