the short course in home improvement

I had lived in the house three years and didn’t even know there was such an organization, much less that these mysterious people despised things aquatic….”


by j.r. salling


When grandfather willed the house to me with enough cash to cover the taxes, I was as shocked as the rest of the family. I think he must have realized that I’d never own one any other way. I wish he had thrown in the furnishings. The others picked the house bone clean to the cries of “daddy promised me this” and “me-maw promised me that.” I have a hard time believing that the mildewed shower curtain had been intended for anyone, but I never complained, silenced by guilt over my luck. I take baths instead.

I sleep on an army surplus cot and have grown to like the smell of rotting canvas. Since the house lacks central air, I move it around according to the season, the cool basement in summer, the attic room in winter, or somewhere in between. I worry because it’s beginning to split at the stress points.

Maybe it was the responsibility of being a homeowner, I don’t know, but finally, at the age of thirty-six last year, I stopped drinking and took a full time job, becoming a meter reader for the water department. A regular paycheck has given me other ideas for improvement. So I went to one of those home improvement warehouses. I had no idea where to start. My place needs all kinds of repairs. Then I saw a mail box that looked like a rainbow bass.

“Hey, there’s a good project for a beginner,” I thought.

As soon as I got home with my purchase, I replaced the old rusted, misshapen one, using a hammer and nails my family had somehow missed in stripping the basement. You can imagine my pleasure to have a mailbox shaped like a fish.

The first thing to arrive in my new mailbox, however, was a letter from some of my neighbors, none of whom I had ever met. Apparently my improvement violated some rule of the homeowner’s association that said you had to have a black metal mail receptacle. I had lived in the house three years and didn’t even know there was such an organization, much less that these mysterious people despised things aquatic.

Why were they looking over here, anyway, I wondered. Why couldn’t they just leave me alone as before, pretend I didn’t exist?

With this idea in mind, I dug up and returned my poor bass to the home place, exchanging it for several buckets of exterior paint. I selected a pleasant combination of brown and olive green. Over the following weekend, I painted the entire house in army camouflage. Did it all by myself. The accomplishment made me feel terrific.

Although my plan had seemed brilliant to me, it only took a few days before several members of the committee arrived on my doorstep to deliver a new complaint.

“Damn,” I said, marching past them to the street. They waited as I looked over my work again, looking for places I’d missed. Satisfied that I’d done an excellent job, I shrugged. “You still spotted it, huh?”

At least I could be sure they would not bomb my house from the air. The risk of collateral damage would be too great. Still, these poor excuses for neighbors threatened to take me to court, force me to paint yet again. “It’s plain meanness,” my grandmother would have said, but she died a long time ago. I headed back inside and closed the door without answering, not wanting to lose my temper and do anything foolish like I used to do. I’m a responsible homeowner now. I must fight back in a civilized manner.

Won’t they be surprised, for example, when they get their water bills.

Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Five
February 2005


J.R. Salling is a teacher of mathematics, which should not imply any special ability in the discipline. His stories, for example, don’t always add up in the end. Publication credits include Pindeldyboz, Opium Magazine, Yankee Pot Roast, Facsimilation, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Insolent Rudder, The Dead Mule, uber, Ten Thousand Monkeys, Copperfield Review, Rumble, Skive, Subterranean Quarterly, Defenestration & Thieves Jargon.


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