In the dusty-aired attic
lit by a bulb hanging from a cord
and streaks of summer sunlight
streaming through the slats
of a 12-inch high air vent,
I held one end of a chalk-cord
on the edge of a plywood plank.
Uncle Bennie held the other end of the cord
on his side of the plank,
and when he was sure that both ends
were on the penciled markings
he had measured carefully with the L-square
that hung from his leather tool belt,
he reached over and plucked up the middle of the cord
between his thumb and forefinger
and snapped it
down upon the plywood plank.
I released my end of the cord
and he reeled it back into
its cylindrical case,
which he promptly clipped
onto his belt.
A thin blue line marked
where he would cut
with the power saw
that he picked up from the floor
thick with a carpet of sawdust.
The saw screeched at a decibel
that rattled my back teeth,
and fattened the back of my tongue.
He slowly, excruciatingly slowly, cut the plank in half,
all the while his face set with determination.
I wore bell-bottom jeans,
a tie-dyed T-shirt,
and Chuck Taylor All Star basketball shoes.
My hair was long,
way over my ears
reaching close to my shoulders.
I sported teardrop photo-grays glasses,
and I wore a leather ring
given to me the day before
by my first real girl friend.
Uncle Bennie’s hair was military cut.
He wore a navy blue shirt
with a Hazel Park Fire Department emblem
embroidered above the left breast pocket,
dark khaki overalls,
and leather workman boots.
Safety goggles covered reading glasses
poised on the tip of his nose.
It was Saturday,
And I was helping Uncle Bennie
convert the attic
into a bedroom
for his third child,
born six months before.
I pictured the dark attic
as it would be,
a white crib,
a dresser dollied with flowers,
toys strewn about,
all bright with light from large windows.
We started ripping out the old insulation,
and I was thinking about my girlfriend,
how we had kissed the day before
on the last day of school,
near the water fountain
in front of the bathrooms,
the hall monitor’s seat empty,
our hall passes clutched
in our hands.
I was sweating
when I started to itch
under my shirt,
under all of my shirt.
The itch slowly changed
to the sensation of a thousand needles
pricking my torso and arms.
I yelped and jumped to my feet.
The needles-prick sensation
quickly changed to a venomous burning,
like a thousand bees had stung me.
I turned and ran down the attic stairs,
out the back door,
and ripped off my shirt
as I leaped off the back porch
into the back yard
not missing a stride as I headed for the plastic kiddy pool
that was inevitably turned over
Screaming, I turned around
to head back toward the house,
toward the bathroom on the ground floor,
the only bathroom in the house that had a shower,
when the hard spray of tepid water hit me
from a garden hose
held by Uncle Bennie.
I spun round and round
under the water as it cooled
and became cold,
extinguishing the fire
on my skin.
I fell to my knees and laughed,
and so did Uncle Bennie,
his reading glasses askew,
from his left ear.
By Stephen Page
All photos courtesy of Shawn Spry