Peter Geye Builds a Patio

Peter Geye, The Lighthouse Road
Photo: Jeff Fifield

The Lighthouse Road, the second novel by Peter Geye, opens strong, with a woman making her way through a late 19th-century blizzard to give birth to her son, then jumps forward 20-some years for another vivid scene where that young man struggles to negotiate a skiff full of bootleg whiskey across a lake in the dead of night—and continues to cross back and forth as the story unfolds. I could give you a clever architecture metaphor for this, but the fact is, Geye’s already got one way better than anything I could come up with, and he shares it in this guest essay about a non-literary activity that turns in a moving description of an experience anyone who’s ever embarked on a big creative project will recognize.

There is, I assure you, more than one way to lay a patio.

This spring, after suffering through a home remodeling project that had consumed our lives for the better part of nine months, I decided to undertake the culminating job of laying the patio in the backyard myself. My wife didn’t like the idea. Not at all.

But I wanted a share of satisfaction in the completed project. I wanted to sweat and wear holes in leather gloves. I wanted to hoist six pallets of bricks from one side of my yard to the other. I wanted to finish laying the patio, crack a cold beer, and sit on that patio, admiring my work. After all, I’d just spent those same nine months finishing my second novel. I was ready to get off my ass. Ready for a new kind of tired. And I was ready, frankly, to find a distraction from the anxiety that came with the inexplicably sudden realization that the new book was out of my hands, and would soon be in the hands of readers. I can’t say if this anxiety greets other authors as they take their hands off their work, but it hit me, well, like a ton of bricks.

I’d taken chances in The Lighthouse Road that I’d not had the courage to in my first novel. I’d ventured into a woman’s point of view. I’d added more than a hundred years of history between my characters and myself. I’d taken on subjects that required serious and difficult research and wrote about topics that scared the hell out of me. I tried to write with a new voice. And I’d told the story in an entirely nonlinear way. As is so often the case in my writing life, these decisions were more happy accidents than deliberate decisions. Which only seemed to make the book more difficult to live with once it was out of my hands. My insecurities were roiling up like a stormy Lake Superior.

So, I grabbed shovel and started digging a hole.

The patio had a simple design. I was going to work strictly with right angles. Simple dimensions: thirty feet wide, ten feet deep, a walkway to the garage. Dig the hole, set up a grid of stakes and twine to ensure the six-inch foundation of class-5 gravel would be graded away from the house, then add two inches of sand before finally, and simply, laying the bricks. Foolproof. Nothing could go wrong. Right.

Before I was on my eighth shovelful of dirt, the problems started. And they had nothing to do with how packed the soil was.

Allow me, for a moment, to speak on behalf of all writers: no matter how ordinary we seem at a glance, no matter how down to earth, how calm and collected, how confident, we’re all harboring glacial insecurities. I can tell when my insecurities are ripest when everything in the world becomes a metaphor for writing. By the time I was five minutes into digging that goddamn hole, I knew I had the white whale of patios on my hands.

The parallels between the work of laying a patio and writing a book were plain to see. I had spent an appropriate number of hours conceptualizing the project. I’d puzzled over the likely pitfalls. I had an outline in my mind, and was prepared to make adjustments as I went. I had the main characters (the bricks, the gravel, the plate compactor, the sand, the level) all visualized. I knew how they were going to work together. I could envision the bricks laid. I could see the grass that would eventually meet the brick. Could see myself sitting at the patio table, on the new patio, enjoying that aforementioned beer, grilling cheeseburgers, watching my kids play on the swing set while my wife playfully apologized for doubting my capabilities.

A better man would have pushed the annoying metaphor out of his mind, but not this guy. Every day the metaphor grew. I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t control it.

When the dirt became resistant first to my spade, then to a pickax, I ordered up a bobcat and had the hole dug for me. When the first dump truck of gravel was delivered into my driveway—a mountain nearly equal the size of the garage—with the promise of more, I realized that I’d ordered materials for a 900 square foot patio, not 350. When, after the stakes and twine were crisscrossing my backyard like an obstacle course for Lilliputians, and I realized that the hole near the house was almost eight inches deeper than it should have been, and that the hole on the outer edge of the patio was some three inches shallower than it should have been, I reckoned I’d just order more gravel if I needed to. After all, I’d had all the dirt (dug by the bobcat) removed from the property. When my antiquated wheelbarrow busted on the second load, I had to go buy a new one. When that new one was ready to roll, the temperature turned a sweltering hundred degrees. You get the idea.

It took more than 100 trips with that wheelbarrow to get the driveway emptied of gravel. Though it seemed impossible to reconcile the pile as it had fallen from the delivery truck with the one now heaped in the hole for my patio, there was no denying the physical evidence: The driveway was empty, the hole full. Or mostly full. In my inexpert leveling and gridding, I’d miscalculated by some not inconsiderably degree. Still a third of the patio, and the entire walkway to the garage, was short of gravel. When I called the hardscape guys to order more, I could tell, by their deep breaths and gentle questioning, that they knew I was in over my head. Still, they delivered another yard of gravel, and that, too, was wheelbarrowed into the hole.

By now I was two weeks into a project that I thought would take a week to finish. For five days in a row the temperatures were in the upper 90s, with sopping dew points. I was drinking water by the gallon. When I went to the hardware store to rent the plate compactor I’d reserved, they didn’t have it. I screamed at the guy, then walked out. When I got to the next equipment rental place, after they’d helped me hoist the 300-pound compactor into the back of my truck, they explained how it worked. Hit the choke, shift this lever, pull this cord. Adjust here. Keep your toes out from under it. Great. I drove home, pulled into the driveway, and opened the hatch on the truck. There it was, all 300 pounds. Reeking of gasoline. No brawny college kid to help me get it off the truck. Just my four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter staring at me, as though I were capable of anything. I got that beast off the truck, into the wheelbarrow, and across the driveway.

The problem through all of this was not that things were not going according to plan. Remember, I’d allowed for that likelihood, even if I’d underestimated the degree to which things might go awry. The problem was that every time a had to call an audible, I brought to mind not the patio, but the new book. Had I called the right audibles with it? Was I an idiot for thinking I could write from the woman’s point of view? Were those historical details accurate? Was that character really capable of his heinous behavior? These and a thousand questions more, none of which have answers. They’ll never have answers.

Better to be a bricklayer, which is where I was in the project. I’d brought in the sand, wheelbarrowed it not unlike the gravel (though there was less of it, and though it was considerably easier to shovel). My wife, insisting that her patio be laid with bricks that would match the style of our hundred-year-old house, chose a style that incorporated three different sized pavers. Equal numbers of each sat ready at strategically placed locations on the sand. My leather gloves were ready. So was the level.

Six hours a day, I laid bricks. The impossible geography of it all aside, I made progress. At the end of the second day, two thirds of the patio itself was laid. My wife had arrived home too late in the evening on the first day to see my progress. When she pulled up on the second day, and sauntered into the backyard to have a look, her expression said more than she ever could with words. Jesus Christ, you should have listened to me. We should have hired someone to do this. A professional. You idiot.

What she actually said was, “It looks great! Maybe a little, um, uneven.”

“It needs to slant away from the house. For runoff. We don’t want water seeping through the foundation

She walked to the other side of the patio and took in the new vantage. “The bricks look great. Is there a pattern?”

“No, no pattern. I’m going freestyle.”

She smiled. Shook her head in agreement. “Why is there that bowl-like area there?”

I joined her on the other side of the patio. It looked wavy indeed. “I’ll have to take those up and re-level that spot. I’ll do that.”

She kissed me.

The next day I re-laid the whole two-thirds of the patio I’d already put down. About six-square-feet at a time, I pulled the bricks up, removed or added leveling sand, and then put the bricks back in place. It was the ultimate revision.

Two days later, all the bricks were laid. The project, except for a little clean up, done. Done. When my wife got home from work that evening, she came around to the backyard again. She said hello to the kids. She took a long look at the patio.

“You fixed the waves.”

“I tried.”

“It looks great.”

“It’s imperfect, but at least I can say I did it. Believe me, it ain’t going anywhere.”

“I mean it, it looks great. Thank you.”

She kissed me again.

Late that night, after she’d gone to bed, I got a bottle of beer from the fridge and went out onto the patio. I drank that beer as I crisscrossed the bricks. I thought, in the moonlight, with a warm summer breeze riffling the maple leaves, that it was a great patio. I still think that, even as I’ve come to know its faults like I know my own.

I can’t tell you how often I stand in my office or bedroom window up on the second floor of our house, looking down on the patio. It looks just exactly like a patio. All the foibles that went into the building of it, they’re there, of course. It’s imperfect, like I told her. But its imperfections are what make it mine, and I’m happy to own them. When I’m seventy years old and it’s time to sell the old house and move into a retirement community, the last thing I’ll do is take a walk on my patio. I’ll try to recall all those foibles, and all I’ll see is the patio we’ve been living with for three decades. We’ll have had more beers and more barbeques on that slab of bricks than will be possible to imagine.

When I hold The Lighthouse Road in my hands, I regard it in just this same way. I love this book in the same way I love my patio. Believe me, there’s positively not an ounce of vanity in that statement. It’s got some waves, too. Just like the patio. But they’re the waves of my best effort, and I stand by them. When I’m seventy years old, I’ll still be standing by them. And in the meantime, I’ve already forgotten the anxiety I caused myself.

In fact, I’m thinking about building a tree house for the kids. When I told my wife this, she smiled and rolled her eyes.

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4 October 2012 | guest authors |