Requiem for Rivendell: Sawdust, Glitter, and Methamphetamines
We had not even been on the jobsite long enough to open the front door of the house on a foggy autumn morning when a sheriff deputy’s cruiser came slowly up the gravel driveway and hauled my only employee away in handcuffs. Something about a warrant, a decade old drug charge in Coffee County. I worked that day and 30 more alone while Shawn passed his days and nights in a crowded holding cell on Hwy. 41. For that month the only sounds disrupting the quiet inside the 3-story sandstone mansion off Sewanee’s Natural Bridge Road were the whine of a miter saw and the chatter of a radio station out of Chattanooga.
I never wrote one word of prose inside the walls of the Rivendell Writers Colony, the latest incarnation of the house built in 1905 and once owned by novelist and essayist Walker Percy, but I did record thousands of measurements of those walls long before they sheltered a new class of authors. I never shared a meal with luminaries of the literary scene in the garage-turned-dining-room, but years before their arrival I did eat hundreds of ham sandwiches on the concrete bench at the edge of the escarpment overlooking Lost Cove, trees spread wide and endless into north Alabama and beyond.
I spent nearly a year and half working as the lead carpenter for the duration of Rivendell’s restoration. Fifteen years vacant, it was in a sad state when Shawn and I started in on it — leaking and drafty and with a skunk living in the basement. The original exterior French doors had rotted, the casement windows had broken panes, and the floor had sagged creating visible depressions. The owner was adamant that her new doors and windows have the “wavy glass” befitting a house of its age. So, we bought truckloads of window sashes from Preservation Station in Nashville and removed their antique glass before painstakingly cutting them to size by hand for the new doors and windows. The attic was a dark and hopeless looking place the day we began pulling up the rough sawn oak planks that served as its floor. Then we planed it all down to use as window casing and trim throughout the house which gave the moulding an authentically aged appearance on account of all the nail holes and iron streaking. It is a strange kind of beauty, this exposing of bones, blemish as ornament. And it has always felt to me that working on old homes is an act of resurrection, of rolling away the stone and inviting the dead to rise.
Shawn returned to work once his debt to society had been paid. I asked how his “vacation” was. He shook his head and said, “Boring…except for the day the cops pranked a dude. That was fun.”
He told how one of his cell mates received a care package with what was supposed to be methamphetamines stashed inside a stick of deodorant. Only, when he unscrewed the bottom and shook it out he discovered the casing had been packed with glitter. The inmate, crestfallen and covered in a thousand flecks of silver and gold, looked up to find the officers watching through the steel bars and laughing to the point of tears.
If asked, he would tell you he is no writer, but that’s only because he has never put it down on paper. He is a born storyteller. During the work days he kept me rapt with tales of growing up in Grundy County enduring an upbringing I could hardly imagine — cooking moonshine with his aging father, chokeholds and bare-knuckle brawls with his brother who’d stolen money from Shawn’s young son to support an OxyContin habit, and his own addiction to crystal meth and his lengthy struggle to kick.
I have not seen Shawn in many years. The project ended. The economy turned. And I and my family moved off the mountain and north to Nashville. But I still think of him and his wheezing smoker’s laugh. I like to think we gave each other something lasting: I gave him a straight job, taught him a craft; he gave me his stories.
Rivendell Manor has now, after serving a brief 5 years as the home of the Writers Colony, closed its doors. I am told it is soon to reopen as a “spiritual retreat.” I imagine meditative hours and counting breaths — new air for old lungs. I imagine the reclusive introspection of people, seekers all, after some measure of redemption or renewal, come to commune with something larger than themselves, something that will outlast their own hearts, something that weighs of permanence. Like sandstone. Or a story.
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