Telling: Altars & Artifacts


floor adventure

And the time came in this rehab project, for our floors to be sanded and finished. The entire first floor and up the stairs to the second. The contractor said, "The job will be done, all in one day. There will be a couple of hours at the end, during which you cannot cross the floor, you will need to stay, either in or out."

I said, "We'll need to go to a hotel."

The contractor said, "Not necessary. It'll only be one and a half to two hours."

I felt foolish and aware of my tendency to over-complicate, over-compensate, my need for comfort and security and set plans. Still, the hotel sounded like a good idea to me.

We set the date for Thursday, November 5. In the meantime, Renee, the painter, would finish staining the trim and paint the ceiling while Fred, the contractor, was going to be out of town on vacation. Things did not go smoothly with Renee. He didn't show up as much as he was supposed to. He also did not speak much English and I had no luck discussing the progress of the job with him. As Thursday approached, I had no way of assessing the progress of his work. It didn't look done to me. I called Fred several times, but he did not return my calls. I began to doubt that the sanding would proceed as planned. Then, on Thursday, as I herded the boys out the door to school, the sander's arrived. They spoke a bit more English than Renee had. I confessed my uncertainty to them.

I said, "Have you talked to Fred?"

They said, "Who's Fred?"

"The contractor," I answered, looking aggrieved.

They assured me that everything would be alright. They said they'd move the construction debris off the living room floor into the kitchen, then when I got back from school, we could talk. As I walked out the door, one man called after me, "You want high gloss? What color we do?"

I could only shake my head and assure him I would be right back. Tucker was looking pale with red rings under his eyes. He was working on a hefty cough. I would have liked to keep him home, but not in a home where the floors are being sanded. I dropped the boys, returned. The sander assured me he'd talked to his boss, everything was ok. He knew what we were after. "You want natural," he said, "Ok. We do."

"I'm going to try Fred again," I said, retreating to my office. Fred called me first. I had forgotten his vacation. He had returned the night before, got all my calls, was concerned. I apologized. (Why can't I remember anything anymore?) Explained my concerns. Fred assured me that going ahead with the sanding was the right thing to do. He'd come by the next day to walk through with me.

I went back down to the first floor to ask about timing. Could they predict when they'd reach the finishing stage which would require me being out of the house? "No. Impossible to predict. All depends. This floor pretty bad." Ok. I will remain flexible. I go back upstairs to work. The air begins to prick and scrape my lungs. Air thick with wood dust, varnish dust. I call Jenny to ask if I might work from her living room for the day. She says sure. So I begin to pack, fielding phone calls and collecting all the materials necessary for me to continue working on the month end reports. And then too, to pack an overnight bag for all of us in case we need to take that route. I call Watt to ask if there's anything in particular he'd like me to put in the overnight bag for him. He answers that he doesn't want to go to a hotel. He thinks we ought to think of something to do, see a movie, then go home when it's time.

It's 12 by the time I get out of the house, feeling like an emigrant, carrying what I need away with me. I ask the men again, if they can predict the timing of the floor finishing. They sit with their backs against two different walls, legs stretched out before them, drinking from thermoses and eating something warm and fragrant. They shrug and shake their heads. "Can't know."

"I have to plan what to do with the kids." I explain, "I mean, I don't know if it's going to be 10 or what."

"Oh no, not so late. 6 or 8 maybe."

"For you to finish? Or for us to come back in?"

"For the final coat. No later than 8."

"But you see, that puts us back here at 10."

"Oh yes," he acknowledges, nodding gravely.

I am shaking. I haven't eaten anything since the granola bar I had on rising at 4:30. I get thai food and go to Jenny's. Jenny's house is clean and quiet. Her floors are gleaming and smooth. There are no stacks of papers or clothes or toys. Every surface holds an arrangement of objects, an arrangement of her own devising, a reflection of herself, rather than the cosmic chaos. I love being at Jenny's.

We eat. Jenny goes back to work. I go to the kitchen to make one last necessary phone call. Jenny's cats begin to fight at my feet. My nose begins to run mercilessly. Jenny puts Joan Armitrading on the stereo. I get very nostalgic. I don't want to work. I want to curl up on the couch and just be in this clean, quiet, other place. I do work, though, realizing that I don't want to write my reports for October because so many bad, scary, hard things happened and I don't want to look back over it just yet. I want to move on.

Jenny advises that if we have to stay out till 10 it would be better to see an 8:00 show and kill time before it, than a 6:00 show when there's no good place to hang out with the kids after. Brilliant. I begin to be able to imagine the evening on the town as a grand adventure. I begin to rise to it.

I pick up boys. We stop by the house for a final consultation with the sanders. There are signs posted on trees all down the block:

No parking Friday 6am-5pm. Tree trimming.

So I won't be able to park when we get home, I'll have to hunt down a spot. It's almost funny now how many complications I have to absorb. The sander says, "We call you when we're done." I say, "I won't be anywhere there's a phone." "Ok," they repeat, "out by eight. We leave windows open so the smell go out. We leave note on door telling what time you come back in case maybe it's different." Ok. I check the paper for show times for Antz, settle on the 8:15 show, make reservations for 5:30 at the Rainforest cafe, call Watt and tell him we're coming to pick him up.

I actually find a legal parking spot a block and a half from Watt's office. It's a dark, gritty spot, under the train track. I'm proud to have found it. But as we lock up and walk away, I realize I'm leaving my laptop there, no way I'm hauling my laptop all across town with me, but I fear for it's safety. This day seems all about this kind of decision, having to choose between unpleasant choices and then live with the tension of the choice.

It is a cool, crisp night. It's fun walking under all the bright lights, city lights. We're on an adventure. The rain forest cafe is like a theme park. Waterfalls and starry skies and animitronic beasts that bellow occasionally. In the wall behind Jacob, directly in my line a view, an ape that periodically stands and beats his chest. The boys wander and return with tales of strange fish and elephants. The food's actually pretty good. The cost is probably what we'd have had to pay for a hotel room for the night.

On the walk back to the car, Tucker begins to tire. I carry him piggy-back. He breaks the strap of my purse. Jacob picks up nails from the sidewalk, gives one each to his brothers to use for action figure swords. The car is where we left it. Nothing stolen. We drive to the theater. We're an hour early for the move. The boys browse a card shop. Watt buys them each a pack of super hero cards. I change Tucker into a pullup and some soft pants incase he falls asleep. We hang out in the theatre lobby. The boys lust after video games. I give in, give them each a couple of quarters. They lose quickly and are disheartened. They spread their new cards out on the floor and study and compare. There are several groups of people hanging out in the lobby. We aren't the only ones. And a number with small children. They don't feel uprooted as I do. This is not a brave adventure for them. This is something people choose to do. Go out with the kids on a Thursday night, hang out at the movie theater. In my routine, it's time to start getting ready for bed, washing up, picking books to read. I feel out of whack sitting in the plush theater lobby. I feel fugitive.

When it's time, we buy drinks, but no candy or popcorn. The movie is fun. Tucker sits in my lap, occasionally shifting onto Watt's lap and then back. Some of the time he just stands in the space between my knees and Watt's. When he asks questions or makes comments, Watt shushes him, even though there are only 4 people other than us in the theater and I don't imagine they're much bothered by Tucker's commentary. During the battle scene between the ants and the termites Tucker flees into the aisle, turning his back on the screen and crouching down, head to carpet, to keep from seeing the carnage.

It's almost 10:00 when the movie ends. I'd thought Tucker might sleep, but he hadn't. Walking out through the lobby, he demands candy. "No, no," we say, "It's time to go home now." Tucker kicks and screams and hurls his body down. All his glory. I manage to scoop him up, carry him out and across the parking lot. He rips my glasses from my face and throws them down on the pavement. Are we having fun yet?

It's ok, I think. We've done good, and now it's over and we can go home. It's ok. We can just go home and go to bed in our own beds.

On the drive home Tucker cries a while but does not sleep. Jacob sleeps. We pull up in front of the house with that same sense of relief to find it still standing that I get coming home from a long trip. The house is there. Things can't be too bad. There's a light on in the living room. No note on the door. We tell the kids to stay in the car until we can assess the situation, and Watt and I go up and open the door. The floor is gleaming and yellow. For 8 months it has been grey with construction dust. Now it's back again, recognizable. I bend down and lay my fingers on it. It's dry. The window's are all closed, but the smell is faint. It's ok. Watt and I smile at each other. We made it.

I go and gather Jacob to carry him up to bed. Tucker, unsleeping but unedged, wants to be carried too. I explain that I can't get him out till Jacob's out cause I have to get past Jacob to reach him. So I get Jacob first. Watt's right behind me. Tucker settles for daddy. Jacob has a peaceful, faint smile by which I understand that he's no longer sleeping, but pretending to sleep to prolong the coddling. Ok by me. I play it up, rocking him slightly and humming some soft tune as I carry him into the house.

The fumes from the floor thicken as we rise. By the first landing my head is swimming and my lungs burning. The third floor is a toxic bubble.

I settle Jake down on his bed and panic. This is bad bad bad. I open all the windows in the house. I open windows we haven't been able to open in the ten years we've lived here. I cry. I scare the children. Watt says, "Stop, look at the floor. Isn't it nice?" I can't stop. My house is full of poison. I'm taking my babies into a poison house. I can't stop to look at the floor. I turn on all the air filters and insist that the boys come down from the third floor. Everyone gathers in our room, huddled under blankets, the porch door open wide and fans and air filters blowing. Hall door closed. The air begins to clear. Still I have to go out on the porch every few minutes to get fresh air. There's a new layer of grit and dust thick on everything, everywhere. The toothbrushes, the pillows, the silverware. I am undone. I stand on the porch, looking out into the trees and I think, I can't I can't I can't.

I go move the car.

Jake and Tucker fall asleep on my side of the bed. Gus on the couch. Watt lies reading. I stand hopeless. No where to go. There is no place to put my feet, rest my hand. I go back out on the porch. I cry. I think if I had a sleeping bag I'd sleep out tonight. It is a clear cold night. Tomorrow I will have to wake the boys, clothe and feed them. Prepare lunches. Of course Watt would rather come home than go to a motel, all he has to do is lie in his own bed and read. I am angry with him. Angry with fred for insisting we wouldn't be put out. Angry with myself for acquiescing when I'd known all along what we needed to do. I cry and cry. I feel guilty for leaving my boys inside while I stand outside in the clean air. The prospect of the morning chores overwhelms me. I think two things simultaneously. I think: I cannot go on. I cannot manage. I give up. And I think: I'll wake the boys early. We'll go out for breakfast and order sandwiches to go for lunch.

Then I think: How can I give up and come up with the answer at the same moment? How can I continue feeling desperately sorry for myself, if I come up with brilliant solutions. How can I feel pathetic, when I keep rising above? And isn't it strange, how frequently I've felt I'd reached the end, these last few months, and yet it never is the end.

I go back inside. I get sleeping pads and sleeping bags and set them up in front of the couch. I carry Jake and Tucker down and settle them in. I bundle up, climb into my bed. I confess to Watt that I'm afraid to sleep. Afraid we will all die. They'll find us, cocooned in our blankets, like some kind of yuppie cult thing, sacrificed for the glory of the floor. "We won't die," he assures me. He reads to me from his book on ancient India. I doze off. Waking frequently, I check on the boys. Eventually the air seems clear enough to shut the porch door.

In the morning we all wake up. "Come on," I whisper to the boys, "Let's go to the Golden Nugget for pancakes. You can wear what you've got on. It's ok. Let's go."

At the restaurant, Jacob wants chicken fingers for breakfast and lunch. Gus pulls out his homework and works on it before the food arrives. Tucker pours syrup half on his plate, half on the table. We arrive at school on time, with food in bellies, lunches in hand, and homework complete. We are a brilliant, disheveled success.

And the floor, with the morning sun upon it, gives off the warmest glow imaginable.


A Mother's Journal

field notes from
1997 - 1999