Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Men I’ve Killed

“Do you know how many men I’ve killed?” It was our electrician. He often called around midnight and posed his standard question.

“No. How many?” It was my standard answer.

“You’re not man enough to know.”

“Okay. Don’t tell me then.” And then I hung up.

Most of the builders who’ve worked remodeling our house aren’t as strange as the electrician, though they all have their quirks. I called up the door manufacturer to ask why he was late delivering and he responded, “We’re building the locks right now.”

Locks? Estonians didn’t build the locks for those doors. I’d been to his showroom and seen the doors we ordered and knew the locks were made outside Estonia. And it wasn’t like a special lock was built for each door. But I was stunned into silence by his answer. Had he been drinking? Did he really expect me to believe that story? Did he think I was some sort of idiot housewife? Please, don’t answer that.

All of the builders we’ve employed have been at least moderate drinkers. Depending on the season, I either find their empty bottles under a tree or in the corner of their tool shed where they sometimes go to eat lunch—the putka they call it. Usually they’re not too drunk to do their jobs, but on occasion they’ll get blitzed and install a window with the lock facing the garden or drop a sledge hammer on a freshly tiled floor. Then I have to call their boss. Usually, he just quietly sees to it that things are fixed, but once in a while he has to resort to fisticuffs. I’ve watched through the window as he invites the drunken worker into the putka. First, there are muffled shouts, and then the putka starts to rock like a ride at a cheap amusement park. After ten minutes, the boss comes out, dusts off his pants, gets into his truck and drives away. Later, the worker stumbles out with a towel pressed to his bloody face, and then we have no problems for quite some time. It’s a special kind of system they’ve got. But it seems to work.

I’ve also noticed a tendency among builders to scoff at any work another builder has done. One builder describes everything as “porno.” Porno means poorly built, and, as I’ve come to understand, is a gentler way of saying that something is “perses” ("FUBAR" would be the English equivalent). If I ask about the foundation poured by a previous contractor, the builder will tell me it’s “porno.” The boiler the plumber installed? Porno. The weather? It’s porno, too. Complete porno.

The English author Peter Mayle wrote a bestseller about the nutty French builders who remodeled his home. A Year in Provence made him millions describing the foibles and follies of French peasant craftsmen. I’ve thought about writing about our experience, too, but when I try write something longer than a column on the subject, I become terribly depressed. I end up obsessing about all the money I’m spending to do jobs twice. I start to see conspiracy theories, imagining builders calling each other up in the middle of the night taking bets about who can get me to believe the most ridiculous lie: “Your doors are late because a UFO abducted the factory assembly line workers and they’re recovering from anal penetration wounds.”

Estonian builders employ the same tactics that Kremlin propaganda warriors use. They repeat and repeat the most far-fetched rhetoric until you eventually start to wonder whether it might be true. How many men, for instance, had my electrician killed?

The electrician calls about once a week, and every time I hang up on him he calls back in ten minutes. I try not to be mean, because there’s the chance he really did see combat with the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. But I’ve still not figured out why he calls me.

“So ask me how many men I’ve killed!” he goads me.

“But I don’t want to know.”

“What do you mean you don’t want to know?”

“Because I don’t care. Why don’t you ask me how many men I’ve killed?”

“You’ve never killed anybody. You weren’t in the army.”

“How would you know? Go on,” I say, “ask me how many men I’ve killed.”

“Okay,” he finally gives in. “How many men have you killed?”

“You’re not man enough to know.”

And then I hang up. But give him ten minutes and he always calls back. And this time I just let it ring.


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