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05 February 2008 @ 12:30 am
Valentine’s Day 1989  
It looks odd as it hits the ceiling and sticks there.  It is similar in consistency to oatmeal.  We mix it in five gallon buckets, forty pounds of dry mix to a scant three and one half gallons of water.  The drill labors under the load, turning the mixing paddle through five gallons of thick mush, but this drill will not burn up the way the first one had.  I selected this drill very carefully after the incendiary demise of the first.  We pour the mixture into the hopper, about a quarter of a bucket at a time, and then lift it over our heads.  The hopper is attached to the top of a pistol.  On the bottom of the pistol is a trigger. 

From the back room comes a loud, persistent chugging.  Air molecules in that room are sucked into a compressor and forced into a thick rubber hose.  Down the long, dark tunnel they race, following the snaky path of the hose, like passengers on a subway.  For them, the line ends at the back of the pistol, and the little commuters scream their protest as they are forced out the aperture at the pistol’s business end.

Now here’s the tricky part.  When we pull the trigger,  the grey sludge in the hopper falls slowly into the hissing path of air imported from the back room.  The stuff flies in pea-sized balls and lumps toward the ceiling, where it sticks in thick, clinging patterns.  They call this process “blowing on an acoustic ceiling.”  This is why I am here, why I have returned once more to my childhood home.

My mom and stepdad are becoming Gypsies.  They’ve bought a twenty-four foot trailer and are selling the house.  Where are they going?  “We thought we might go west for a while,” they said, “but now we think we might go east instead.”  They think they will go east because my mother’s sister has had the bad grace to develop lung cancer, and east is where she lives.  She is the one who taught me the idiom “be that as it may,” an idiom I would come to love during many hours squandered on British comedies.  It is a phrase which has stood me in good stead over the years, a phrase very useful for returning to the subject at hand after a meandering digression.

Be that as it may, my mother and stepfather are moving and there has been a lot of work to be done.  I was asked to help texture the ceilings after they were patched, after the foundation was repaired.  So here I stand in a house full of memories, a house stripped of furniture, listening to the chug of a compressor, the hiss of air, the wet arrhythmic slap of an acoustic ceiling being born, and an occasional ghost.

“Boy, I never imagined it would be so crude,” my stepfather shouts over the din.  “You’d think they could think of a more sophisticated way of doing this.  I mean, I know you told me, but jeez!  Even in surveying we’ve got lasers and computers…”

“And sticks.”


“Sticks.  You’ve got sticks.  With numbers on them.”

“But they’re very accurate numbers.”

We continue making steady, if somewhat primitive, progress and soon the hall and all three bedrooms are done.  We walk through the empty rooms inspecting our work.  Thin plastic drop cloths cover all the walls.  Where the plastic on the floor has torn, Mom has put down newspaper before making her retreat.  There are stray globs of acoustic everywhere, sticking us to the plastic drops.  We peer up at the ceiling through the clear spots on our glasses.  He seems vaguely disappointed.

I had warned him that the acoustic would not completely cover, that he would have to paint afterwards.  But only now, staring up through leprous glasses, is he forced to agree.  It’s not that he didn’t believe me, it’s more like he had been hoping that the universe would give him a break.

“I guess I’m going to have to paint this after all.”  He says this in the tone of a man who is having a good laugh at himself.

“It looks like it,” I say.  The force of stifling the words “I told you so” is muted by the knowledge that he will say them for me.

In a voice of mock regret and repressed laughter he moans, “If only someone had told me.”  And then he laughs.  It is a clean, hearty, Father Christmas sort of laugh.

We decide to stop for lunch before finishing the house, and when he goes to wash his hands and face, I hear his laugh again.  “I always see these guys in McDonald’s and stuff and think ‘They must be the messiest painters in the world.’  Little did I know.” 

He comes out to find me stripping off my shirt.  Underneath there is a clean shirt, suitable for dining.  “I’ve done this before,” I gloat.

“It’s hard to take you seriously when you’ve got those white things all over your mouth,” he replies.

I go to take my turn in the washroom.  I am greeted at the mirror by a creature from a B movie.  Half human, half snowman, he stalks the wintry night, seeking his next victim.  Coming to a theater near you, FrostBite.

We are the only customers in the little Chinese restaurant.  He talks about his father and I talk about mine.  Both stories involve alcoholism and diabetes.  He is worried about Mom’s gall bladder.  It’s been acting up a bit.  His own mother died of gall bladder troubles.  The day before he was supposed to leave for college, she asked him to take her to the doctor.  An ambulance took her from the doctor to a hospital, where she died a month later.  Hey, presto!  Now you see her, now you don’t.  Will my mother, his wife, do the same trick?  We have to wonder.

Later, when we’ve finished the living and dining rooms, leaving only the kitchen, my mother reappears.  She strolls catlike through the house, bemused and bewildered.  This had been her home for twenty-odd years.  Now there is only a television and a bed, both covered, like everything else, in clear plastic and spattered white. 

My stepfather gives her the bad news; the plastic has to stay until the ceiling is dry and then painted.  He tries to deflect her resentment from me.  “He probably told me two hundred times that the ceiling would have to be painted…”  She looks around at all the plastic, all the mess.  In all these newly empty rooms there is no place to stretch, no place to curl up, no place to live.  There is this house they are trying to leave.  There is the house they will pull around the country behind them.  But tonight, and probably tomorrow night, this woman who is my mother has no home.  And her sister is dying.  She knows that no one is to blame, but there is a tight weariness behind the smile she gives me on her way back out the door.

She is going to a little pub where my stepfather will join her later.  There, in a place she knows, she is surrounded by the familiar.  She has some art work hanging on the walls for sale.  The fruit of her own, personal labors.  She knows the people, and they know her.  It gives her a sense of belonging.  But it doesn’t really compensate for having no home.

My wife has made dinner reservations, and I call to find out what time I should be home.  She tells me, and she thanks me for the roses.  They were a big hit at work.  Speaking of work, it’s time to get back to it.  See you later.  Yeah, me too.

We finish the kitchen in good time and then go back through the house looking for thin spots.  At one point, I move to step around a piece of furniture that is no longer here.  After twenty-four years that cabinet is gone.

We clean the equipment in cold February air.  “This is just like autumn back home,” he tells me.  “About this cold and wet all the time.”

“Well you could have waited and moved in June when it’s warm out,” I complain.  But soon I am warm enough, standing in a hot shower at home while he goes to meet his wife, my mother, at the tavern.

My wife likes to see me in black, and tonight is for her.  It is a Tuesday and I have quite a bit of homework to do, but it is also Valentine’s Day and she has gone to the trouble to make reservations.  Tonight, at least, I will try to not disappoint her.  I am a little self-conscious about my shoes, which are new.  They are black, high-topped Reeboks.  Heaven help me, I am wearing trendy shoes.  I have resisted this for a long time, but you can only hear so many postal employees talk about comfortable shoes without thinking they know something you don’t.  So I’m wearing yuppie-approved shoes.  I console myself in thinking about the rest of my wardrobe.  I set out black Levis and iron a black cotton dress shirt.  Both were on sale.  My black overcoat was purchased at Goodwill.  The thin leather tie, spoils of a garage sale, I choose to match my earcuff, which is made of burnt copper.  Both are purple.

My wife is wearing a good deal of black, herself:  a black oversized shirt and black leggings over which she wears an ankle-length, green denim skirt.  We look more like we’re going to a funeral than celebrating love.

We have not been to this restaurant before.  We have been to one run by the same family in a neighboring city.  It was very quiet and romantic.  This one is in a busy section of downtown.  We have to park a good distance away and walk through the frosty evening air.  When we get there, we are seated near the door where cold blasts of air are continually let in, so we keep our coats on.  We consider ordering only foods served flaming.

The restaurant is loud and bustling.  Normally, this would be fine, but we had expected quiet and romantic.  A large man waiting for a table is shown to the bar area, which is adjacent to us and a couple steps up.  He leans against a rail, which puts his rear end on a level with my face and only two and a half feet away.  Again we consider ordering flaming foods.  Let’s bring a little color to those cheeks, shall we.  But part of the railing support gives way and, rather than risk joining us at our table, he moves away.

There are crayons for coloring the paper tablecloth.  My wife draws a picture of herself, a picture of me, and a heart between them.  She loves me.  Less artistic, I draw large block letters:  “ I [heart] U 2 ”  I realize afterwards that the message is ambiguous.  It can mean “You love me, and I love you as well,” “I love you as well as loving someone else,”  or even “I really like this particular Irish rock band.”  Given the context, though, it can be safely interpreted in the first sense.  Context can make all the difference.

And tonight when this little debacle is over, my wife and I will go home and insert ourselves back into our own little context, a context of books and plants and furniture and cats.  But this woman who is my mother, what will she do?  Into what context does she fit?  She is between worlds, between lives, between contexts.

Soon she will have a context again, a home, a place all her own.  It will be filled with her art and her music and even her cat.  It will have the added charm of being portable.  My mother the Gypsy, the wandering minstrel will pack up her context and go.  And she will take with her a man whose friendship I have only just discovered.
steliz_ocaycesteliz_ocayce on February 6th, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
Wow, just wow
Thanks for posting that, baby, and for the beautiful way you tell the story. Makes me want to head back to Lombardi's for more flaming food...

Love and mush and luminous times.