Want to become a poet? Spend a summer roofing under the Florida sun.
The summer I was fifteen, my younger brothers and I were instructed to replace the roof on our house. Dane was thirteen, Shawn eleven—the asphalt shingles, weathered and crumbling, were older than all of us. Rainwater had been running in and ruining the drywall. If we wanted, our mom said, we could ask our friends to help with the repairs. She’d buy the materials, rent the tools and make sure we had all the sandwiches we could eat and the Gatorade we could drink.
My brothers and I gathered in secret to mount a counterargument. As the eldest it fell to me to present our case: “We’re kids, Mom. How do you expect us to replace the roof?”
“How? Easy, that’s how.”
“Figure it out. You’re not idiots. And it’s not rocket science.”
So it went, back and forth, for a full month. Our impending responsibility literally loomed over our heads, ushering in a terrific dread where the excitement of the approach of summer vacation should have been instead.
Our labors were needed to maintain our own safety and security—our own shelter—concerns that didn’t usually fall to kids, at least not in this country in this century, but that didn’t faze our mom. When she was Shawn’s age she’d troweled mortar as her father, a mason, laid the bricks that became their house. Our mom couldn’t afford a sense of shame, so, trying another angle, I appealed to her work ethic and sense of duty: “Mom, some of us have jobs. We can’t just take off.”
“Jay, you tell that boss of yours he can find someone else to stock the toilet paper aisle for a few weeks. I got you that part-time job, and worst comes to worst, I’ll help you find another one. Besides, you’ll be the foreman of the roofing crew, and I’ll pay you what they’re paying you at Winn-Dixie.”
I was tempted by the idea of bossing my brothers around under contract, but I’d been doing so on a volunteer basis since our dad went deadbeat, and I knew that a motherly directive wouldn’t sway them to obey my orders.
I tried again to get us out of it: “Mom, you can’t expect us to ask our friends to spend their summer working manual labor.”
“Why not? Those friends of yours’re here day and night. They eat us out of house and home. They can pitch in for a change. Otherwise, they can start hanging out somewhere else. I don’t work sixty hours a week to feed other people’s sons, and we didn’t relocate to Florida to be washed out by some rain.”
In 1987, the year our mom and her sister moved us out of a duplex a mile from the biohazardous Jersey Shore to the picturesque Gulf Coast, the Great International Beach Challenge awarded Siesta Beach a notation for the “whitest and finest sand in the world,” quartz pulverized into a sugary white powder that’s ever cool and squeaks underfoot. This was one of the points our mom used to hard-sell us on our new hometown. But we didn’t even need the beach; we had an in-ground pool in our backyard—in Florida even the shanties come decked out with swimming pools—and after renting the house for a year, our mom bought it for $77,000 thanks to a thirty-year mortgage. Months later, she went in arrears on the loan payments.
The house had been built in 1975 as a two-bedroom, one-bath ranch under a simple gable roof. In 1979, the original owners did an out-of-code renovation. They added a bedroom in what had been the garage. Two more bedrooms, a bathroom, and a lanai were built from scratch along the rear of the house under a pebble-over-tar roof that had no pitch. By 1992, the house was separating along that seam. A ramshackle five-bedroom ranch in Sarasota, Florida, it stood out as maybe the shoddiest structure in a subdivision of stucco-over-block single-story homes on quarter-acre lots parceled off and built in the sixties and seventies. We were only twenty minutes from the Gulf of Mexico and Siesta Beach, but we were a couple of social classes away from its manicured condominium culture.
Whenever we drove along the Gulf, we were reminded that our house was a shithole. We wanted to spend just one night in a condo with a name like the Seabreeze. It would be tidy and well kept. We’d break in if we had to, and when we did, we wouldn’t find roaches as plump as Brazil nuts warming themselves under the crumby toaster, seventies-era puke-toned shag carpets, a septic system that backed up whenever it rained and a roof that leaked buckets.
Shithole that our house was, though, my brothers and I each had our own room and no Jersey Shore landlady screaming through the walls at us in Chinese to shut up. We’d been cramped renters since our parents divorced when I was five. As a single mother getting zero child support, our mom spent seven years climbing out from the have-not ranks of renters, we three sons weighing her down with peer-pressured demands for Izod shirts and Nike sneakers. Her slow, determined ascent required help from her sister, the welfare system, and a short-run second husband before she could afford to live beneath a roof she ostensibly owned.
And after sixteen years of riveting rain and unremitting sun, not to mention the occasional hurricane, that roof was giving way to the elements. Every time it stormed, the newer rooms got wet. Shawn and Dane enjoyed pulling out the pots, situating them precisely under drips. What did they care? They slept in the two original bedrooms, both of which stayed dry. In my room and my mom’s room, the sheetrock ceilings grew sodden and discolored. It was my job to climb onto the roof and patch what holes I could find with roofing cement. This was my apprenticeship.
A week before school let out, I swung my feet to the bedroom floor and set them dreamily down into the everglade that was the soggy shag carpet. I was getting desperate. I knew when it came to matters of consequence we were practically incompetent. Our renovation would bring bedlam, and I began resorting to scare tactics and made-up statistics with the hope that she’d bring in hired help.
None of us knew then that the county jail was where we were all headed, in turn, as we hit our respective bottoms, a kind of rite of white trash passage.
“Mold, Mom. People die from that stuff. They call it the Invisible Killer. Or the Airborne Deadly Toxin. They think it’s the cause of autism. That or vaccinations. They’re not sure. Three out of every ten kids die from mold exposure. You got to get someone legit up there to fix the roof.”
“I already got someone. I got three someones.”
School ended, and while we waited for the delivery of the roofing materials we were allowed a summer vacation. Our mom worked six, often seven days a week, so ours was the neighborhood house of least parental resistance. On that first day of summer, we rode our bikes the mile and a half to 7-Eleven, toting empty cups to fill with Slurpees. Our mom was the assistant manager, and she gave us our pick of the two-day-old deli sandwiches before she threw them out. She asked if we were ready to get to work, and I said, “We’ve got nothing to work with,” before pushing into the humid air outside.
On our way home, overburdened on our bikes with soggy hoagies and melting Slurpees, we gawked at the repurposed white school bus, wire mesh over the windows, parked along the roadside, “Sarasota County Correctional Facility” stenciled blackly across it. The chain gangs, on work release from the county jail in their blazing orange jumpers, were digging out the rain gullies as a couple of uniformed guards in dark sunglasses stood menacingly by with pump-action shotguns. That scene captured my sense of our summer-to-be, only we would work unguarded, and we wouldn’t be grateful to be out under the stern glare of the sun.
None of us knew then—though our mom certainly suspected—that the county jail was where we were all headed, in turn, as we hit our respective bottoms, a kind of rite of white trash passage. We would be arrested and processed at different times for odd and sundry nonviolent offenses. Me for trespassing, retail theft, and felony drug possession. Dane for drunk and disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Shawn for shoplifting and a few DUIs, the first before he had a driver’s license. That summer, our hoodlumism was just beginning to take angry hold of us. When we looked around, our lot seemed too damned little, and we were giving first voice to our collective sense of injustice—We were owed. We hadn’t been granted. We would take. Refusing to beg, we became liars, cheats, thieves. As we grew, we grew increasingly impossible for our honest, upright mom to control. But she didn’t give up, that woman, not on us, not ever, and that summer, her plan was to keep us occupied, and thereby out of trouble, while she saved money she didn’t have by paying us a fraction of what she’d pay a roofing crew.
We came home to find in the driveway a Dumpster as big as a tractor-trailer. Beside it in the crabgrass was a pallet stacked with new asphalt shingles. There were a few five-gallon buckets of roofing tar and rolls upon rolls of felt tarred roofing paper.
When she got home from work, Mom told us to get in the car, a ’72 Oldsmobile Toronado, which was about as long, as aerodynamic, and as fuel-efficient as the Dumpster beside it, and she drove us to ASAP Rental Equipment. There, a bemused and burly salesclerk helped us choose our tool: a shingle scraper. We were told, “That’s all you need to get started, that and some back strength.” After we’d removed all the old shingling, we could come pick up an air compressor and a pneumatic nail gun. The tool made the job real in a way that the building materials had not, but it was the promise of a projectile-producing nail gun that made me quiet, stirring my mom’s suspicion: “Jay, don’t go getting any ideas.”
The next day we slept late, got out of bed and ate lunch. It was 90 degrees in the shade. Relative humidity near 70 percent. Heat index over 100, putting the feels-like temperature on the roof at 105 degrees. Sweat didn’t evaporate—nowhere in the saturated, sultry atmosphere for the moisture to go—so our bodies couldn’t cool themselves. If we stayed on the roof long enough, our core temperatures equalized with the feverish air. We guzzled Gatorade so our heat-exhausted heaves weren’t dry. We worked practically naked.
I was prying old pebbly tar from the roof with the claw of a hammer, Shawn with a garden trowel—Dane had been quick and had called The Tool, the lone shingle scraper, which was like a serrated shovel—or maybe we were taking a breather to pick at the tar on our knees, in our arm hair, when I heard the crash of an overheated body throwing itself off the roof into the pool. Daredevil Dane was invariably first, and cannon-balling down into the kidney-shaped pool we all went, the water just as uncomfortably hot and wet as the air, but that didn’t matter. The thrill was our relief.
When I picked at the blisters on my hands I began to understand the promise of an education: smooth hands, narrow fingers, clean fingernails. Freedom from a life of manual labor and physical drudgery.
Before the afternoon rains, we got in a few hours of demolition work, scraping, leveraging, and shoveling off the age-old tar and pebbles like black peanut brittle. To break up the exhausting monotony of our damnation, we winged old shingles into the Dumpster below, a good level throw as satisfying as a well-skipped stone. Around 3:30 p.m., we giddily watched the clouds tumble in. Rain meant quitting time. When the bolts of lightning in the lightning capital of the country were near enough that the thunder didn’t rumble but cracked—more charged feeling than sound—that was when, lemming-like, we jumped off the roof into the pool. Then we gathered the Visqueen, a thick, construction-grade plastic, and did our inept best to Saran-wrap the plywood parts of the roof we’d exposed to the sopping elements of the Deep South.
The wind picked up and the rain fell, splashing in tremendous, viscous globs like a barrage of hurled eggs. The Visqueen got caught in a gust, great sheets of milky plastic whipping wildly, sailing down the block and winding up in the fronds of a palm tree. When we retrieved the Visqueen, it had holes in it everywhere, and when we did get it secured, it was immediately Slip ’n Slide slick with rainwater. Shawn was the first to go down, our frantic work enlivened by the sound of his Whao! as he slid off the roof, the low eaves depositing him harmlessly, if not painlessly, on the sandy soil. Dane observed that our lives had become like a game of Chutes and Ladders, and Shawn, just getting the hang of sarcasm, said, “Chutes and Ladders my ass—this is Candy Land.”
As the days turned into weeks, I had a tougher time getting out of bed. No matter how much work we did we would never finish. We hadn’t gotten the proper building permits. The bank would foreclose on the house if it didn’t collapse first. We were all sunburned, dehydrated, and heatstroked. The watery blisters on our hands were finally beginning their anguished transformation into hardened calluses, and when I picked at mine I began to understand the promise of an education: smooth hands, narrow fingers, clean fingernails. Freedom from a life of manual labor and physical drudgery.
When we moved to Florida, one of the first things our mom did was enroll us in the newly established Florida Prepaid College Program. There were times we didn’t have phone service. When the phone was on, we functioned as our mom’s secretarial pool, fielding calls while she dodged bill collectors. There was an afternoon when I walked through the front door and switched on the lights. Nothing happened: the electricity had been cut off. Yet every month, our mom, with the help of our aunt, made payments into our respective 2+2 Tuition Plans—two years of community college, two years of a Florida state university. The college education she’d never had for herself, and which didn’t stop her from teaching us that education was more important than electricity.
The roofing job moved into week three and we still hadn’t gotten all the old shingling off. The money our mom was saving by violating child-labor laws shrank as we went through more and more costly Visqueen and as the old plywood sub-roof that wasn’t rotted out and didn’t need replacing began to rot and need replacing. From my bed, half-asleep, I heard the tinny sounds of an unfamiliar ascension—the plink, plink of feet climbing the aluminum ladder. I heard heavy footfalls clomping on the roof accompanied by furious muttering: “Fricka fracken no-good fricka cricka franken hoffen . . .” I pulled the pillow over my head. A Jersey girl, our mom was a world-class curser. “Jay! Jay! Get your lazy ass out of bed, get up on this roof and help me out of this fucking hole! Jay! Goddamnit, Jay!”
I was able to hear her better than I should’ve. I looked up. In one corner of the ceiling, not far from the unbalanced fan wobbling round, was my mom’s leg—tanned and hairless, a pink flip-flop dangling from her toes. As she yelled at me, she started kicking at the air—“Jay! Goddamnit, Jay, I’m stuck!” The flip-fop came flying off and landed on my bed.
Shawn and Dane bolted out of the house and climbed up on the roof. They freed her, and I tore out of bed, pissed. I brandished her sandal as I hollered up through the hole, “Thanks for all your help, Mom!” When no response came, I flung her sandal through the hole. “And don’t forget your flip-flop!”
Shawn was finding a rhythm when an explosion of air, a visible white hiss, burst from the nail gun as the clamp, fastening the hose to it, broke between his legs.
A week later, when we finally did get the last of the old roofing off, we picked up the nail gun and the air compressor from ASAP, and we nailed down the tarpaper. The nail gun had a safety release in the form of a depressor on the muzzle. You had to pull the trigger and press the muzzle against a surface for a nail to discharge. It took me all of two minutes to figure out I could engage the muzzle depressor with a careful finger and pull the trigger, firing nails a good fifty yards. They carried end-over-end, thwick-ing through the air, and as I stood on the roof, I caught Shawn by surprise in the grass below, commanding, “Dance!” as I rained nails down around him.
I had promised not to let Shawn touch the nail gun. Told I was the man of the house, it was my job to keep my brothers safe. It took Shawn a few days to break me down with his constant nagging, interspersed with threats that he’d tell Mom I’d shot him with the nail gun. “I didn’t shoot you. I shot at you. Besides, what’s Mom going to do, chain me to the roof and make me work myself to death? You want to use the nail gun? Here, use the nail gun.” I handed it over without instruction.
The contraption was clunky and unwieldy, attached by a heavy-gauge air hose to the compressor motoring in the grass. Because it weighed eight pounds fully loaded, he used it more like a jackhammer than a nail gun, holding it with both hands between his legs and slamming it hard against the plywood sub-roof. The sound it made was three syllabled: muzzle against sub-roof, discharge of compressed air, nail driven into wood—knock-sht-thwack, knock-sht-thwack—and Shawn was finding a rhythm when an explosion of air, a visible white hiss, burst from the nail gun as the clamp, fastening the hose to it, broke between his legs. The end of the hose caught him in the crotch. He dropped the gun and doubled over, moaning, “My testes, my testes,” rolling down the roof but not off, as the hose flailed in the air. We laughed till we cried, few things funnier to adolescent boys than knocks to the crotch. While I climbed off the roof to kill the hose by cutting off the compressor, Dane stood before it, pretending to charm it like a snake, belly dancing and singing, “There’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance. There’s a hole in the wall where the men see it all.”
When our mom came home, she saw the waste we were making and screamed, “Why not shingle the whole fucking roof with goddamn dollar bills?!”
We moved into week five, our neighbors complaining about the eyesore Dumpster, the indefinite wreck that was our roof, the shingles and nails littering the length of the block, as if a very selective Category 5 hurricane had struck. On his way home from work, Reggie Hill, who lived in the neighborhood, drove by, checking our progress—he did this from time to time—and as he pulled away, he shook his head, smiling, while Dane shot nails that plinked off his trailer. We knew Reggie to get drunk and slap around his two daughters. Once he punched his wife, and the cops were called, but she, fat-lipped and furious, filed no charges. She probably didn’t want to wind up like our mom—alone with children. At least Reggie was there for his family, even if, from time to time, he stumbled drunkenly around kicking their lovely legs out from under them. He had a landscaping business, drove a rusted-out pickup that towed a rickety trailer filled with lawn mowers, weed whackers, and edgers. There was an aura of pleasant menace about him, maybe because he often smelled like freshly cut grass doused with gasoline. He smoked Marlboro Reds and threw Hail Mary passes to us in tight, high-arcing spirals that stung our chests when we caught them. We liked him because he was a father, and he liked us because we were sons.
We’d nailed down the tarpaper, and were making visible progress, but the application of the new shingling stymied us. We knew enough to start at the bottom and layer our way up, but we had no idea how to lay down a straight row. Our first attempt ran snaking into the gutter, up toward the peak, and back down. We tore up the row and began again. Same crooked result. When our mom came home, she saw the waste we were making and screamed, “Why not shingle the whole fucking roof with goddamn dollar bills?!” She rattled us even though we towered ten feet over her. She’d had enough. The drywall in her room and mine was ruined. There was the leg hole in the ceiling, through which Shawn had retributively shot at me with the nail gun as I lazed in bed. The Dumpster rental was costing her by the day, and at last she understood that what was taking her hapless sons and their useless friends a full month could’ve been accomplished by professionals in a day. She was still saving money, but the emotional costs were bankrupting us all. By the end of her tirade, she was in mute tears, and she stormed into the house and locked herself in her bathroom, the ceiling water-stained and falling in around her.
The next day, Reggie walked into my bedroom at seven in the morning and woke me. He held in his hands what looked like an oversized tape measure. “Get out of bed. Get your brothers up. Meet me on the roof in five minutes.” His command wasn’t angry, yet its sternness was irrefutable. He wasn’t asking. He walked out of my room, leaving the door open, and I heard him assuredly climbing the ladder—tonk, tonk—a moment later.
We joined him on the roof. There he demonstrated the simple genius of the chalk line. The oversized tape measure contained a string on a spool, and in the housing was blue chalk. Reggie stood beside Shawn at one end of the roof, told him to take hold of the tab and go long. As he did, the line, dusted blue, ran the length of the roof. Shawn adjusted his end till it was level. They pressed their ends tightly down, maintaining tension, and Reggie plucked the line a few times, snapping it against the black tar paper. It left a straight blue line, which we followed as we laid shingles Reggie then expertly nailed with the nail gun. By the time our friends showed up around noon, we’d covered a quarter of the roof. At the end of the day, we were halfway finished. We wanted to offer him some thanks, but we didn’t know how or we had nothing to give so we pleaded excitedly with him to jump off the roof into the pool with us.
He couldn’t. He had a bum knee, blown in a high school football game. There was sadness in him as he descended the ladder, a melancholy that was then inexplicable, and our response was to drench him with our practiced splashes as he climbed down.
The following day, he was at our house at 7 a.m. again, rousing us and putting us to work. In less than a week, with Reggie working beside us, we were finished. Our job was accomplished, culminating in the sawing off of the peak and securing over it the ridge cap that served as an attic vent. Giddy with pride, we cajoled Reggie more. “Please, please jump off the roof with us. Just this once.” We loved getting adults to do things they didn’t want to do. In the name of celebration and a job done, he did, his boots on and a lit cigarette bitten between his teeth.
Now that we’re adults, my brothers and I can joke about our mom telling us that roofing is not rocket science. I sit nearly twenty years later in the first house I’ve owned, sheltered under a roof raised, literally, by a retired rocket scientist. I’ve come to see Reggie as an example of what I might’ve become had my time on that roof not convinced me there were other ways for a man to make a living than selling his strength and endurance. Dane and I eventually followed through on the guarantee of a college education afforded us by our mom and aunt and the generosity of the state of Florida. We both attended the local community college, transferred to get our bachelor’s degrees elsewhere, and I went on to get a graduate degree. Maybe because he was younger, or maybe because he admired Reggie more than we did, Shawn didn’t see his time on the roof as a deterrent. “Besides,” I can hear Shawn say, “we were brothers working together on a tough job to make Mom happy, what could be better?” Shawn dropped out of high school and worked construction, cashing in his college fund to buy a truck. He poured slab foundations for a time, worked as a machinist in a tool-and-die shop, and is now the foreman of his own specialized crew. They install industrial skylights in military hangars that cover nuclear submarines and space shuttles. Roofing is not rocket science, but even if it were, there’s part of me—put there by my mom and shared by my brothers—that believes if I have the right tools, the help of my brothers, and a little mentoring, we could send something flying who knows how far.
It’s 1,300 miles from Saugerties to Sarasota, from my part of New York to my mom’s part of Florida. Into Google Maps, I enter her address—4040 Prescott St., 34232—click the satellite view, and zoom in. There it is. Her house. The house where my brothers and I grew up, the blue kidney of the pool occupying a good part of the backyard. But the image—taken from an on-high perspective, seen from space—doesn’t capture the house. It’s mostly a picture of a roof, the roof my brothers and I put over our mom’s head, and after almost two decades it has yet to leak.
Jay Baron Nicorvo’s poetry, fiction, criticism, and nonfiction have appeared in The Literary Review, Subtropics, The Believer, and The Iowa Review. “The Roof Beneath Our Feet” will be anthologized in Freud’s Blind Spot: 23 Original Essays on Cherished, Estranged, Lost, Hurtful, Hopeful, Complicated Siblings, to be published by Free Press in November 2010. His first poetry collection, Deadbeat, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. He teaches at Western Michigan University, edits The Ploughshares Blog and is faculty advisor to Third Coast. Recently he moved from Saugerties to Kalamazoo, where he and his wife, Thisbe Nissen, have one newborn, Sonne, two cats, and ten chickens, among them a transgender rooster named Myron (née Myra).
For further reading, here’s An Incomplete List of Best Books about Brothers:
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck.
Weep No More, My Brother by Sterling Watson.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.
Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien.
Wrack and Ruin by Don Lee.
The Odd Sea by Frederick Reiken.
Hold Love Strong by Matthew Aaron Goodman.
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman.
Good Fences: While building a tree house with his father, the author at twelve begins to understand the politics at play in the backyards of his suburb.
To contact Guernica or Jay Baron Nicorvo, please write here.