The Mad Scientist, Part III
“Hello? Hello? Hello? Crash, oh my goodness, there’s blood everywhere! All over the walls! And the floor! Are you alright?”
Donna’s panicked voice came through loud and clear on the answering machine, mid-morning on a bright and sunny spring day.
“What the heck happened here? Looks like someone’s been murdered. All this blood and the front door was wide open.” She paused for a second. “I gotta take Kenny to his doctor’s appointment in Bangor, but I don’t wanna go because I’m worried someone’s been killed.” She paused again. “I guess I’ll try to call you from the road.”
Donna had already proven herself enough of an irritant to warrant screening all her phone calls. From the start, I’d regretted taking the demolition/renovation project at her lousy house on the north end of Eastport. She’d stop by just about every day and sit in the middle of the living room for an hour, almost in a catatonic state, staring at the pile of boxes while her 80-year-old, gout-infested husband talked at us as we worked. And she frequently left long, rambling, annoying messages on my machine. But at least she didn’t blink at paying us each 20 bucks an hour to rip down water-stained ceilings and moldy walls, re-insulate and sheetrock.
The blood must have been the Mad Scientist’s, because he worked the morning shift alone. I joined him after lunch and we’d labor together until he headed home for supper while I worked late and cleaned up the site for the next day. This schedule was great for two reasons. First, it allowed me to spend my mornings writing. Second, my esteemed colleague was a raving lunatic, which made it tough to spend more than five consecutive hours with him. He drove me crazy, but he was my pal.
I jumped on my bike and pedaled furiously across the island. The dude was supposed to be hanging sheetrock, not getting in a knife fight. Arriving on site, I saw the front door was closed and Floyd, the blue Ford pickup, was parked in the driveway. (I’d given Floyd to the Mad Scientist a couple months before, when I decided to abstain from driving and riding in motor vehicles.) I ran across the yard and opened the door. There he stood, using his screw gun to attach a half piece of sheetrock to the hallway wall.
“Crash Barrington,” he said with a wave when the final screw was set. “What are you doing here so early?”
“Uhhh,” I stammered, looking around for signs of carnage. “I got a call from Donna. She was screaming blood and murder.”
“Oh, that,” he said nonchalantly. “Just sliced myself with the razor knife. Ten stitches.” He held up his bandaged forearm. “No big deal, but those assholes at the medical center almost wouldn’t stitch me up. They say I owe ’em money.” He grunted. He owed everyone money. “I told ’em I’d pay, plus I was bleeding all over the place, so they had to take care of me. Hah! Won’t pay ’em for these stitches either. What they gonna do? Take ’em back? Cut me open?” He shook his head. “Screw ’em.”
I needed the Mad Scientist on this job because I was in over my head. I was a demolition man, not a drywaller. And he had some experience hanging rock. But his work ethic – half lazy, half angry – was challenging. And whenever Donna came to visit, he tried to convince her to see the renovation through his eyes. His plans for the place, he felt, were better than hers.
“You don’t need to build a second bathroom downstairs. Just put another toilet in here,” he said, gesturing at the already crowded bathroom. “And we knock down this wall,” he continued, leading her into the kitchen. “And build a new wall here!” He beamed. “Whaddya think?”
She didn’t like the idea. They wanted a second bathroom. Her rejection hurt his feelings. He sullenly walked away and pretended to get back to work, but he just sulked for the rest of the day, complaining and smoking cigarettes.
We labored together on many odd jobs. I’d land the gig, then bring the Mad Scientist aboard. The majority of our customers were out-of-staters, mostly retirees, snatching up real estate deals in the hardscrabble economic landscape of Washington County.
The best gig, by far, was our demo of a small garage. We each made 300 bucks in two hours. First we wrapped a chain around the garage and drove off, pulling it down on itself. Then, using chainsaws, we cut everything into chunks small enough to toss on a trailer and hauled them to the Mad Scientist’s private dump – a heap full of shingles, tires and debris on the backside of his property, behind his crumbling mansion. This eyesore was so hideous that a city official once offered to issue a burn permit, despite the obvious impurities, provided the Mad Scientist lit the fire after dark on a moonless night, so the black plume would be invisible.
Our last job together was the time I hired him to help refinish floors for a couple of Colorado yuppies. The floors were covered in a thick gray marine paint commonly encountered in low-brow Eastport properties. I’d dealt with this sort of paint before and it wasn’t fun. So I brought the Mad Scientist aboard to man a sander and help bring the floors back to bare wood. He showed up for work lugging a pair of hockey goalie pads.
“What are those for?” I asked.
“To protect my knees.”
Problem was, the pads were so thick they lifted him 10 inches off the floor, which meant that while kneeling, he had to bend more. A lot more. He wouldn’t admit his brilliant idea wasn’t working. He insisted his pads were fabulous, better than mine, which I’d bought at the hardware store for 20 bucks. By lunch, he’d taken ’em off and was eyeing my pair of pads.
Such obstinate behavior drove me nuts. That, and his habit of announcing measurements in decimal form, like, “Eighty-two and a hundred and twenty-five thousandths” when “Eighty-two and one-eighth” would do. He claimed it was a technique he’d learned while working in a precision machine shop, but I think he just liked to make everything more difficult.
A couple days into the floor job, I had no choice but to fire him. He was a beast with the sander, over-aggressive and careless, leaving gouges and gashes in his wake. Super-pissed, he left in a huff because I’d promised a week and a half’s worth of work, more than a thousand bucks, which he desperately needed because the city was hounding him for back property taxes. He was counting on the cash and I’d let him down.
I gave him a couple days to cool off before I went to his mansion to pay him. I expected to find a morose madman. Instead, I found him outside, cleaning up his dooryard and drinking his trademark coffee brandy and half-and-half.
“Wilbur called me yesterday,” he said. Wilbur was the rich guy from Portland who tossed the Mad Scientist a couple shekels each summer to be his slave on his 40-acre saltwater farm. “You know what an alpaca is?”
“Something like an expensive llama?”
“Yeah, also related to the guanaco and vicuna,” he said. “Well, Wilbur bought a dozen of ’em and he’s gonna start an alpaca farm. He wants to keep ’em here until he gets a barn on his land. Gonna pay this year’s property tax for me to take care of ’em.”
I looked at the ruins of the building he called home. The land surrounding the mansion was covered in rubble and rubbish: fish nets, abandoned vehicles, half-burned timbers, stacks of rotten plywood, piles of heavy plate steel, remnants of a pig pen. His cinderblock collection was scattered across the side yard.
“I’m gonna start the fence over there and hook into the old ambulance,” he said, pointing to the far corner. “It’s gonna be awesome.”
Pre-order Crash’s new book, Tough Island: True Stories from Matinicus, Maine, illustrated by Patrick Corrigan, at toughisland.com.