Envoy: To Build a Deck
When I was eleven there was a real push in my family to build a deck over our backyard, out from the kitchen on the second floor. This was a real motion, like the time when my father said that he was considering getting a dog for my brother and me, though that never actually materialized. But the building of the deck looked real, obstacled only by the old-man berry tree in the garden plot and the basketball hoop whose base was filled with sand. Joe, who lived next door, had promised to help us build it. Or else he knew a guy.
Building a deck meant staying on Avenue R for a summer, a real decision because usually my parents, teachers, saved what they could so we could go away for a few weeks while we were all off school. Both of them had travelled extensively in their youth and it was something of a tradition. This was a priority, more important than new furniture, or painting the kitchen, or going out to dinner. But to build a deck we’d need to stay put for a while, to save the travel money, at least for a year or two.
Joe had been advocating the construction of a deck in our backyard for years, in no small part because he couldn’t wait to be the one who personally cut down the berry tree. It was on the edge of our backyard, right next to the fence, meaning that, to be fair, at least half of it grew over into Joe’s own property. The snow in the winter made the branches crack and fall and in the summer, berries: ones that no amount of scrubbing the carpet or yelling at rulebreakers to take their shoes off could help. Though they smelled wonderful when crushed, purple and everlasting.
Building a deck was serious business on Avenue R, still is. There is an alleyway that runs behind our backyards that was built, so they say, for the garbage trucks to come through and do their business. Which means that we have this illusion of space, enclosed by fences, backyards jutting out to a long asphalt alleyway even in the middle of Brooklyn. We have our berry tree. Most of the houses have basketball hoops and in the alley we play football, tackle, when it snows. The houses touch on either side and Avenue R at our front entrances rumbles citylike by, but out here, where the deck would go, it feels like perpetual country summer. My mother swears that it’s ten degrees more temperate “in the back.”
Which is why everyone wants a deck, to double their living space, to extend their second floors into the outdoors, to have this little quiet area to take the sun and barbecue and listen to Spanish radio. The couple on the end hangs their laundry there. The next one over has lots of plants and vines. Joe on our immediate right has a nice and simple one, just the barbecue and a few lawn chairs, but he likes to stand for hours at the edge of his and watch what’s going on, up and down the alleyway, like at the helm of a ship.
What’s going on Joe?
Same old, he says.
When Joe was younger he was a cop. Those were tough days to wear blue, back in the sixties. Some people liked you, sure, but you also had lots of enemies. It didn’t help if your last name was Castellano. He told me that he’d only had to draw his gun once, thank God, but had never shot it, though there were some chases, and guns pulled on him.
There’s a story he sometimes tells that everyone used to know in the city, though most people have forgotten now, about when a city councilman brought a friend into City Hall, and no one patted him down. And then the friend took his place up in the gallery, and stood up and took a shot at the city councilman on the floor. But the real part of the story, what’s crazy, is that there was a cop, a regular police detective, who was plainclothes in the lower level: and he took one look up at the shooter and shot him, surrounded by people, dead, one bullet. It’s a great and gruesome story, but I particularly like the way that Joe tells it: with great sensitivity to the angle of the police detective’s shot, how he was from below, the jutting out of the upper balcony, the levered supports, the force of gravity. These are things he took into consideration when he built his own deck, or oversaw the guys doing it, I forget which: for Joe it amounts to the same thing, him maintaining a terrible disdain for people who can’t or won’t do their own work.
Joe has a lot of respect for the United States Army and fond memories of his days serving in part because it allowed him to get to Europe as a young man, the only time he ever traveled. He was stationed in Germany for a while after the war: not so much fighting as policing, or giving tours, wherever they went. But this seems to have done it for him: he’s satisfied with what he’s seen. The extended family comes to Avenue R on holidays, when his wife Angie cooks enormous dinners at the stove in the kitchen overlooking the deck. He doesn’t like to stay overnight in other places, doesn’t even like to drive so much anymore—once he told me a terrifying story about how sometimes red lights look green to him. Yeah you know, they just look green? he said. It didn’t seem to bother him too much. He likes his time at home.
The thing about a deck on Avenue R is that it stands for stationary. These things aren’t quite legal, by city law, and they cost a lot to do, so it’s not like you’d just move out a couple of years after the last two-by-four’s put down. Decks are for summer afternoons, for people to sit on deck chairs and look up at the smog. From here the cars on the other side of the houses sound like rushing water, or waves, just like you’re on a beach. There aren’t many restaurants in this part of Brooklyn because everyone cooks their own dinners, then eat them out on the decks, staggering dinnertimes so neighbors don’t overlap. The Q train is a car-ride away, so getting into the city is hard—easier to stay out here and relax.
The older my brother and I got on Avenue R, the more decks there were. When we were little there was just the one that was a homerun if you hit a Whiffle ball on top. Then they started popping up like Bloomberg campaign posters. We kept putting it off. Next year, next year. That summer when I was eleven or so was the culmination. There were heated discussions about the construction: my father especially didn’t want to be tethered down. He’d always loved the city across the river and wanted to be as close to it as possible. This was a distant second. This was the year my uncle died, and I remember peering from the stairwell and watching my mother say to the mirror: My world is falling apart.
We never built a deck behind our house and in a way it’s good, because then there’d be five decks in a row with no separation, and we’d really be stepping on each others’ toes. But somehow it signifies that we haven’t put our roots down yet, even though my brother and I have lived here all our lives. We’re afraid to. There’s something of the frightened nomad in us. We could leave anytime. We’d leave nothing behind.
To build a deck, first you have to measure and lay out the site. You have to install the ledger, and pour the footings, and set the posts. There is a point in the middle of the process where you lay the decking. Then the railings, then the sweet-smelling paint that keeps the thing from rotting away. I can imagine Joe building it with me. I can see Joe with a t-shirt tucked into his pants, tossing me a bottle of water, asking me why I went away. Everything’s here. You can even keep the goddamn tree, if you want: it’ll just be a short deck.
I love that tree, the berries, the face of an old man growing out the middle of the trunk. I used to love looking at it when we’d park the car in the backyard after some trip. While Dad got the bags out of the back I’d stand in front of it and let it scare me a little. The face always looks like it’s yelling. I’d stick a twig inside its mouth. Home, I’d say.