He Who Planted Pines with God

Christopher Martin


            I’m sitting in the dim, cramped hallway, watching, breathing sawdust, waiting for instruction. My dad is having a hell of a time tearing up planks of red oak flooring, hammering new ones into place.

            I use the phrase “into place” lightly. Really, I ought to say that for each oak plank he tears up, he hammers a new one further out of square. Even I can tell it. Though I don’t know all that much about laying hardwood floors, I know the pattern isn’t supposed to be triangular.

            My dad’s not one to cuss, so I can tell he’s getting frustrated with the first murmur of shit.  The murmur grows, repeats, and before too long hollers of shit have filled the hallway as sure as the dirty air, the fragmented flooring, the piles of rusted staples and nails I’d spent the day pulling up. He stops, takes a breath, assesses the situation. I ask what I can do, knowing I can’t do much. My dad’s the expert here and there’s not room for two to work this spot, anyway.

            “I’m getting frustrated,” he says calmly, like a tool one might pick up from counseling, the practice of naming one’s feelings before it’s possible to properly address them. He wipes his forehead, marks a piece of oak, and asks me if I’d go cut it and bring him a Coke on the way back.

            The new piece fits, but the problem is that it just further accentuates how out of square the floor is getting. We are left with an angled one-inch sliver where a two-and-a-quarter inch piece of wood is supposed to fit.

            My dad forgets his epiphany, that small moment of naming his frustration, and asks for the crowbar. Though he intended to replace only a few pieces of flooring around the air filter grate, he proceeds to dispatch each piece of oak between the grate and the wall, hoping to make room to properly align the pieces. Mutters of shit presently return, and at one point he calls himself a dumbass for cutting a piece of flooring in the wrong place. I hold in my laughter.

            “This would be a whole lot easier,” he says, “if I had my table saw. But I don’t.” So he takes a hammer and chisel and hacks the tongue off a piece of flooring and whacks it into place. Again, I use “into place” lightly.

*          *          *

            A memory: I’m five, maybe six, sitting in the middle seat of our family’s car, looking out the window. My mom is at the wheel. My dad is not there.

            Traffic flashes all about our car on the hazy interstate. I keep my eyes fixed forward, knowing what is around the bend. Presently, Stone Mountain emerges from the suburban horizon like an ashen moon. Scruffy pines cling to its slopes.

            “Mom,” I say, “who put those trees up there?”

            “Well, God did,” she says.

            “Did Daddy help him?”

            She pauses for a second, searching for the right answer to give a five-year-old.  “Well, I don’t know. I guess he did.”

            She confirms what I thought, and I sit there in awe. In the beginning, God made the trees. And Daddy helped plant them.

*          *          *

            My dad is a craftsman. Were it not for him, my wife and I would not have been comfortable enough to buy this home, our first, more than sixty years old, not a complete fixer-upper but in need of work. I know just as well as he does that under better circumstances he could handle this patch of flooring. But it is late. And he doesn’t have his table saw. And a man is coming to sand and stain the floors in the morning, and is probably not expecting to have to navigate over and around holes we’ve left.

            My dad makes ready for one last shot. He gets me to hold the end of a plank while he slices his way through it with a skill saw. He has mangled himself with power tools before, so I try not to flinch as the saw comes my way.

            My father and I still have all our fingers. But the piece doesn’t fit.

            He who planted pine trees with God on Stone Mountain at the very beginning of time just can’t seem to put pieces of red oak into a space of five square feet.

            “You seen the crowbar?” he asks.

            I point to it there beside him on the floor among the scraps and dust that rises and flickers like moths in the pale light. My dad settles back to work, somewhere deep within, perhaps, remembering when the world was new, remembering breaking through granite and setting down roots that morning, remembering the pine needles stirring in the wind that hovered over vernal pools, remembering God looking down from the mountain, the sun rising over the piedmont, the whisper that the world was good.

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Christopher Martin lives with his wife and their two children in the northwest Georgia piedmont, in an old house between Red Top Mountain and Kennesaw Mountain. He is pursuing a Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shambhala Sun, Ruminate Magazine, Still: The Journal, Buddhist Poetry Review, Loose Change Magazine, New Southerner, American Public Media’s On Being blog, and the Elevate / Art Above Underground project in Atlanta. His first chapbook of poetry, A Conference of Birds, is forthcoming with New Native Press in early 2012. Chris is at work on a collection of essays titled Native Moments: An Ecology of Fatherhood, a second poetry chapbook about Kennesaw Mountain, and a handful of projects on the north Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reece. Chris edits the online literary magazine Flycatcher: A Journal of Native Imagination, and he was recently profiled as an emerging writer at the Southern Nature Project.