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The Birdhouse Builder, by Len Joy

We’re in the seasonal interregnum. The last winter snow hangs on in the shadows of my parents’ two-story colonial, while the first wave of migratory birds circle the neighborhood, checking out the accommodations. Dad wants to reconstruct the birdhouse. The son of a farmer, he can fix broken things. Build stuff. Use tools the right way. I have none of those skills. As a boy I was his unhappy assistant. “Hand me the needle-nose,” he would say, his arm reaching back, head buried in the bowels of the cranky Maytag washing machine. I would stare at the battlefield of tools surrounding him and try to pick one that resembled a needle nose. I usually guessed wrong. 

He has disassembled the remnants of the old birdhouse. Measured the wood slats and created a spec sheet. He doesn’t trust his memory anymore. It’s less reliable than that little boy who would hand him vise grips instead of pliers. When I was a kid, these projects would start with a trip to Ike’s Hardware in the small town where I grew up, not this resort town where my parents have grown old. Back then Dad never had a spec sheet—usually just a scrap of paper with a few odd numbers on it. Ike’s was full of open bins of screws and bolts and nails and rolls of sandpaper and shelf after shelf of hand tools. It had a metallic, oily smell, different from a Home Depot or Loews or one of those garden-hardware-lumber behemoths.

That’s where we go now. Krendall’s Home Center. It has patio furniture out front. And a greeter. My dad walks slowly, dragging his left leg. He had a hip replaced ten years ago. The greeter asks me if she can help us. My dad says, “Specialty Lumber.” She smiles at him and tells me to go see Ray in the lumberyard behind the store.

Ray looks just like Ike: sandy crewcut and a red hardware apron. But now he’s twenty years younger than me. Dad would usually tell Ike what he was working on and Ike would nod and maybe rub his chin and then hustle off to retrieve the hardware. Dad tries to describe the birdhouse to Ray, but Ray can’t follow him. I can’t either. There is a thin bead of sweat on his upper lip and I want him to wipe it away, but he just starts over, trying to explain his project. Ray turns away from him and asks me what it is we want.

I’m just the boy. Why is he asking me? 

“Show him the paper, Dad.”

He has forgotten about his sheet. Dad pats his pockets, and on his fourth pocket he finds it. Ray looks at Dad’s detailed drawing and the list of pieces and parts and he nods like Ike. 

We bring home a sack of wood slats and black enamel and half-inch wood screws. Dad lays everything out on his work table. He picks up one of the slats and turns it all around. His hands shake and his grip on the piece is tentative as though he doesn’t know what to do with it. My mom calls from the kitchen. Lunch is ready. After lunch Dad takes a nap. 

Three years later, after my dad dies and I move Mom to the assisted living facility, I clean out their house. I find the birdhouse parts stuffed back in their Krendall’s Home Center bag, tucked away in a far corner of the garage.