I ran out of money one late spring and had to go back home, full of nothing. The only thing I could carry from the apartment I was evicted from was a duffel bag of clothes. My parents looked at me like I was someone else as I walked through the door, talking in the tone of voice they use for visitors. I found a job at a construction company that taught me how to put up houses.
At first I thought it was mundane, the constant hammering, the endless lumber hauls, all to fill a lot with houses that look exactly the same. The entire work area was a cloud of dust that none of us could breathe in, and you worked the majority of the day. Noon was unbearable with the heat. I remember once I collapsed from exhaustion and they sent me home with nothing left to give.
I began to notice the houses as they were becoming more finished. Something happened when the walls went up. The site would develop into something real, that had a purpose. It wasn’t just a nail-ridden eyesore anymore, but a plot of unmarked potential. I knew a million things would happen in the unfinished houses I walked through. Families would grow bigger, dinners would be made, puppies would be brought home, relationships might end and break the windows I installed. I thought of all the mothers, fathers, and children that I was making homes for. They would never know that I helped create them.
I started bringing a small notebook and a pen. In every house I helped put up, I would slip a note into the walls before they were completely sealed up. It began with just my name and the date, a little time stamp for whoever happened to find it. Maybe a family would decide to knock down a wall and find the scrap of paper in the rubble. I wanted them to pick it up and say “Hey, look. Someone left something.”
After a while, the people who would live here was the only thing I could think about. I began to look forward to the work in the morning, and I noticed that my work showed improvement. I couldn’t just meet the task anymore, I had to create a lasting foundation. The time stamps I left became more personal, with details about who I was and my hopes that whoever found them was very happy. I wrote down advice, words of support, all the things I thought of while hammering boards together or sweeping up debris.
On the last day of the job there was only one house left unfinished. Since the job was so small it was just me, and my boss, Mr. Howard.
“The last thing that needs to be done is the bathroom tiling,” he said, walking up to the trailer. “and don’t forget to patch up that hole Brooks made on the shower wall before you lay it down.”
“You’re not coming, too? Don’t I need to be supervised or something?” I asked. I had never been on one of the sites alone before.
Now walking up the stairs to the trailer, without looking back, Mr. Howard said, “Kid, you’re the only one who wants to be here.”
I stared at the hole for a while after I found it. I pulled the notebook out of my back pocket and noticed for the first time that a good chunk of the pages were missing. I had done a lot of work. I opened it and wrote the final message I left in any of the houses:
“I helped build the house you’re standing in, and your neighbor’s houses. I came back to this town with nothing, as nothing. I was an empty lot that needed houses.”