Devil's Lake

Spring 2010 Issue

John Holliday: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Drywall

In my father’s case, it was an all-encompassing knowledge of drywall and drywall repair. Because on the night he apparently discovered I’d left school and fled to some undisclosed location unannounced, on this night, my mother tells me, my father barricaded himself in the home library and proceeded to make much noise, which turned out to be him punching holes in the wall, as became evident the next morning, when, library door ajar, my mother found him inside, hand bandaged, spackling silently.

First off, it was odd, my mother says, to see my father doing any kind of handiwork. Though an engineer, he hated being an engineer, and anyway, wasn’t even a "real" engineer, as both the engineering world and general public think of the profession. Rather, my father was an industrial engineer, an "imaginary" engineer, as the greater engineering world puts it, an engineer who doesn’t deal in drafting plans for some piece of machinery, or the act of building some piece of machinery, or whatever else we associate with the modern mathematically inclined craftsperson, such as childhood memories of wave radio kits, model airplanes, and general tech savvy. Rather, as an IE, my father dealt in people, layout, and distribution, was a glorified logistician and mediocre statistician, and had the status of a mathematically advanced businessman. Or maybe he still does. But the point is that in being an industrial engineer, my father wasn’t therefore necessarily prone to being a household handyman. And, in fact, he hated handiwork and all things related to handiwork and household maintenance. So, it was shocking to see him at a job with "handyman" written all over it.

Second, though he’d been nightly locking himself in the library since around the time my paper was published in Synthese under his name, my father hadn’t been making much of any noise, and wasn’t an aggressive man in character. So, it was also shocking that he’d been punching through the wall, that he’d been putting his heart into punching anything, for that matter. But the first thing that popped into my mother’s mind, she claims, was how odd it was to see my father engaged in no-joke household handiwork, and doing so without complaint or any noticeable display of annoyance. (How my father obtained drywall supplies in the middle of the night is anyone’s guess.)

And this is how it went for over three weeks, till the night my father himself fled to some undisclosed location unannounced. And every time my mother tried to address the subject of me, the publishing fiasco, or that holes were being punched in the wall nightly, my father only gave increasing information on drywall and all he was learning about drywall and how he could see drywall in his professional future. In fact, over the few meals my parents ate together during those weeks before my father somehow vanished in the midnight hours with four 100-pound-plus file cabinets containing all the academic work I’d produced since kindergarten, over these few meals, my father often almost lectured, fully dominated the airspace with information about drywall, wallboard, plasterboard, gypsum board, sackett board, sheetrock, about how it’s fire-resistant due to high crystalline water content, surprisingly easy to work with, and yet took a long time to catch on as the building staple it’s become, how gypsum also serves as a fertilizer, food coagulant, and Chinese medicinal agent, and is from the Greek "gypsos," which translates, in part, as "chalk," which, in fact, is another place the mineral finds a useful home, how paper tape and all-purpose joint compound is always the way to go in his book, and on and on.

In all the oddities of the last weeks before my father’s midnight vanishing act, this complete working knowledge of drywall was most in his character. It was my father’s tendency, or rather compulsion, to have a rigorous overview of all subjects he was currently focused on or interested in at his epistemic fingertips as soon as humanly possible, which meant immediately, which usually amounted to him obsessively reading Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles and all notable bibliographic entries of those articles at all moments when he wasn’t giving me a rigorous overview of all subjects he believed I should be concerned with, which were exactly those he was or had been focused on. But it was an endearing compulsion, or maybe I’m just wired to find it endearing, since I too have a compulsive urge with all things I’m interested in, much of which also happens to coincide with my father’s interests. "The philosopher’s burden," my father called it, this compulsion, "something you can have whether you actually do philosophy or not, like a disease." Though, in my father’s case, it might be better characterized as a mad scramble. Because for my father, intellectual investment in much of anything didn’t come till relatively late in life, and so, for him, he was always in the process of catching up while coping with a "hideous profession," as he called it, brought on by "early intellectual torpor." In fact, in the exact opposite fashion of his behavior concerning all he was focused on or interested in, my father did everything to avoid knowing almost anything relevant to his profession, and once, when I was fifteen, brought me along for a day in his plant to demonstrate both how hideous his profession was and how little he knew about it.

I remember the car ride most vividly, as it was the first full hour I’d ever spent with my father in absolute silence. Nothing but the shush of tires on pavement and a morbidity in the air, as if we were off to a funeral or other death-related gathering, not because we were both sleepy or groggy or typically private people in the morning (however ungodly the hour then was), but rather because my father exuded complete, utter, all-encompassing grimness from the moment he woke me at quarter to five with a soft, steady, and parentally warm shake of my shoulder. In fact, my father was the entire opposite of sleepy or groggy, and channeled an unrelenting amount of morbidly grim focus out the windshield and onto the road and at the same time throughout the car and thus into me. In other words, my father was nowhere near any sense of autopilot, despite that he’d been making this burdensomely long drive for the past twenty-some years on all working days.

This is also how I picture him during the act of putting his fist through the one exposed wall of the home library in which I was for all intents and purposes raised, he completely, utterly, unrelentingly focused, with the morbid grimness replaced by aggressive zeal. And apparently, as deduced from my mother’s reports on the matter, he did get better at punching holes in the wall, because somewhere in the middle of the second week my father had been having at it, my mother never saw his hands bandaged again, and at most noticed minor cuts and abrasions from there on. So it seems my picture of him completely and utterly focused at least fits the empirical data as witnessed by my mother. Though, unlike with the business of drywall and drywall repair and his all-encompassing knowledge of it, my father never had anything to say about any uncanny focus on punching through the library wall as fueled by great aggressive but bridled zeal, nor anything about his experience or knowledge of punching through drywall altogether, for that matter, so says my mother. So he may very well have been acting in uncharacteristic fits of unfocused rage and furiously physical displays of emotional pain, regret, and self-loathing. And he also may very well have not been punching at all, but rather using puncturing implements or projectiles. (It’s also again worth noting he never had anything to say about taking a paper I wrote in the second semester of my third undergraduate year on the Löwenheim-Skolem theorem and submitting it for publication under his name.)

Or possibly the car ride is most memorable rather than most vivid. Because I still vividly recall the strong smell of metal you could smell even in the parking lot, and that there, in the parking lot of the automotive giant whose thumb he’d been under for twenty-some years, my father took, through the nose and out the mouth, one of those big, burly, loud breaths often taken before making some remark on the present air, odor, or day’s vitality and remarked on the "utter hideousness" of the smell we were together smelling, and how the hideousness of the smell and all the smell represented and emanated from at times haunted him in moments of solitude, how it sometimes "snuck up into" his nostrils when he least expected it, and how after that day it was an odor he suggested I "avoid at all costs" for as long as I live, thus breaking the hour-long period of unadulterated silence and complete focus.

All white-collar employees entered the plant’s fenced grounds around back through one of three rotundas at which you had to swipe your badge, and rather than walk me through the front doors that protruded out from all the fencing topped with barbed wire, wherein I would need to sign in with security as an official visitor and then sit through thirty minutes of low-quality safety videos and thus make my experience "more hideous than necessary," we would simply use my father’s badge twice, once person passing it through the rotunda to the other, whereafter my father could give me a pair of safety glasses and slap a "damn tag that says ’visitor’" on my chest. As for where all the assembly—or whom my father earnestly called "actual"—workers entered the plant’s grounds, he just waved his hand in a generally west direction, not so as to dismiss the blue-collar employees, but rather to begin demonstrating how little he knew about things.

Once we were through an unassuming metal door and had completed our "repulsive descent" down a small set of steps, putting us slightly underground, with the only natural light of the barely rising sun somewhat streaming through small, rectangular windows set up against the ceiling as basement windows typically are, we took a quick left and entered a relatively small, "grotesquely carpeted" room with, I think, sixteen cubicles and four proper offices bathed in the yellow glow of "nauseatingly filtered fluorescent light" helped little by the sunlight filtered by the "sickeningly filthy basement windows." Here, at my father’s cubicle, we got me outfitted with safety glasses, a visitor’s tag, and a clipboard to look the industrial engineer part, and my father powered up his computer and had me try out "the one unhideous thing" about his job, namely his chair, which was extremely comfortable and ergonomically correct and gave my father more reason to stay at his desk "as much as professionally possible." We then walked down the hall, whose polished concrete floor was "deceptively shiny in all its monstrous filth," to another small, carpeted room without windows to put on a pot of "revolting but necessary" coffee, and spent the next thirty or so minutes speaking (or, in my case, listening) freely about the "hideous and wholly oppressive" aspects of my father’s profession. Because part of the reason we woke at the ungodly hour we did was so we could have the industrial engineering office and most of the white-collar wing to ourselves for a bit, in order to both speak freely and be justified in being the first of the industrial engineers to leave for the day, something my father made a practice of despite coming from the farthest distance of all his coworkers. Because he simply couldn’t stand spending anymore supervised time at the plant than he absolutely had to.

One other "not wholly hideous" thing was that though his coworkers didn’t, like him, despise their profession, many of them were unhappy with numerous aspects of their particular job and work environment, and were also, when it came down to it, generally good-hearted people, and at about 7:00 they began to steadily trickle in. After all the appropriate introductions and false testimony that engineering was one of my professional possibilities, my father and I struck out to the plant floor so I could see where the "actual work" got done "in all its stifling hideousness and horror," I with my clipboard, on which were clipped a number of assembly line job sheets, in order to look the part. And as a matter of experiential fact, looking the part was, in most cases, most of what needed to be done to satisfactorily play the part, and thus most of what had sustained my father for twenty-some years in his professional prison, what allowed him to "avoid, at almost all costs," renting out costly epistemic space in his ever-aging brain to much of any legitimate knowledge of his profession and particular job, and also what allowed him to "eradicate, in its near entirety," memory of the material learned during his IE schooling, my father told me as we ascended up and into the caged world of actual work.

But before we could begin the official tour, on which, my father, though he was sure I didn’t need warning, warned me, I wasn’t to expect many or any of the details you would expect from a seasoned employee such as himself, because, as he was sure I had already gathered, he simply didn’t know many or any of these details and, in fact, considered himself to know less than what a wholly unseasoned employee would know, and so, rather, I should simply be prepared to see the plant for the "oppressively abhorrent enterprise" it plainly was, but before I could see this, we first had to complete one of the most "suffocating" tasks of his job, a task "wholly mind-numbing and yet simultaneously demanding of your attention at the expense of all else," a task that "strangled your brain into utter submission for ten miserable minutes," and yet a task whose honest doing was the pillar of my father’s looking the part sufficiently serving as playing the part in all other cases, the task, namely, of timing the line, or, more specifically, the portion of the line my father was technically in charge of. To paint a picture without describing the mind-numbing details, it was something like timing a turtle while counting its steps. (And I won’t even touch the "unspeakably foul" IE line-balancing software my father and I fiddled with all afternoon.)

Though these details were, in part, what I ended up thinking about when I flew up from my Florida hellhole hideaway to visit my mother after my father’s disappearance, what I found myself meditating on as I stood in the home library, running my hand over the wall that had been spackled and respackled nearly a hundred times, by and because of my father’s hands. These details were, among thousands of others, what I ran over in my head as I sat and stared in the library all night, my eyes almost entirely unfocused, simply soaking the surroundings in, staring at nothing in particular.

And, to get on with the plant tour itself, this is really all I could do, soak it all in in some unfocused haze, the overwhelming smell of metal and grease, the clank of the line, the high-pitched buzz and zip of guns, the undertones of hydraulic hiss, the isolated pockets of full-volume AC/DC, the visual din of metal, PVC, greasy cardboard, tank tops, and faded tattoos, the "overall hideousness of the entire operation." Though one particularly memorable moment of the tour was when we stopped at the trim line, my father’s line, stopped and watched someone install electrical wiring in the dashboard, and watched him do it again and again, without saying a word to each other for five minutes, any of us, till my father spoke up, speaking out almost into nowhere, just speaking, thinking aloud without taking his eyes off the worker, my father for that moment pulling back from all the pure bile that’d been in his voice, pulling back and explaining with a much softer tone how, in college, he’d had a professor who, in his class on quality assurance, told the class, in all seriousness, to go watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times because it was "an example of the perfect assembly plant," and how my father sat there "completely oblivious to how absurd and downright evil this claim was," how he, in his "self-pitying hate of school and feelings of academic entrapment," failed to see that he was "headed toward not just an unsatisfying career, but a morally corrupt and intellectually bankrupt one," how he "just sat there and took one more demonstrable step toward a professional business of fucking up people’s lives." We, my father and I, then moved on and my father snapped back to formal tirades of pure bile on the nature of his work and all things related to his work. But for that moment, I’d witnessed, for the first time, my father in a state of pure vulnerability, me having not yet seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times notwithstanding, because it was all there... the pure vulnerability and remorse and genuine pain, all there in his voice. (I’m not sure if the man installing electrical wiring heard my father, but I know he paused.)

The night my father left, my mother tells me she fell asleep to the sound of him spackling, that it was somehow strangely soothing, the almost metronomic shush of the drywall knife lulling her, and in the morning, he and the file cabinets were gone, but the drywall supplies were still out, not as if he’d left in a hurry, but rather as if he were coming back, not unlike the way my father wanted it to look when we left the plant. We quietly shut down his computer, kept the job sheets and other papers we had out out, casually slung our spring jackets over our forearms, and just left, without a goodbye or acknowledgment of our leaving, making our exact time of exit "as unclear as possible," so that we were in before anyone else, and gone before anyone knew it. "Sometimes," my father said, "I carry a clipboard for added effect."

JOHN HOLLIDAY received an MFA from Syracuse University and now teaches part-time at Rutgers. "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Drywall" is part of something much longer and in progress, other parts of which can be found in Sonora Review and Web Conjunctions. More from this issue >