TITLE: Maybe I'm the Afterglow
DATE: 10/16/2004 10:32:00 PM
The steaming machine in the other room is whining like a teakettle inside a metal pan, submerged in water. The whining, like a teakettle, means it's ready.
In the living room a blue-grey area rug has been rolled back to expose a beastly orange floral-patterned linoleum, over the gritty wood of the floor. About two feet away from one wall there's a gray circle in the linoleum. That's where we stuck a piece of plastic over the hole in the floor left by a defunct heating vent.
The old lady who lived downstairs from Tim and his dad has succumbed to her dementia and moved to a home. Her son, the owner of the house and their landlord, has offered them the downstairs apartment to rent, too. Tim's dad has taken the apartment, meaning Tim finally will have his own place, but meaning that years upon years of the accumulated sediment of two people--Tim's dad and aforementioned old lady--must be disturbed in the form of moved furniture, disposed-of artifacts (an impressive mountain of black trash bags is gathering in the side yard), and the scraping-down and re-finishing of walls, woodwork and floors.
I was languishing on the couch at my parents' house, watching the Astros-Cardinals game on TV, when I decided to call Tim and offer my (our) services to help with some of the remodeling. It was a kind of random thing for me to do, but, well, sometimes it feels good to work.
Stripped of the crowd of furniture that has given the room its dimensions since I met Tim the summer after I graduated high school, lit more thoroughly than usual by an overhead light (normally it's dark and warm and filled with the humming of Tim's computer like a cozy cave), the pocks in the sloping ceiling standing out, and the living room room looks somehow naked and mortified. You can see decades of cigarette smoke in the wallpaper and on the opaque curtain. Its yellowish stain actually appears to be dripping slowly down the wallpaper. The wallpaper itself looks up close like birch bark.
"The wallpaper's pretty dry," Tim says, sliding the blade of a putty knife under it with a deft curving stroke, "We can probably get some of it off before we use the steamer."
I set to work, peeling away the birch-bark paper and exposing greasy grey wall underneath. Bits of plaster come off at times. Putty from before the last papering becomes visible, white and shiny like scar tissue.
I discover I can work the knife under the paper in a methodic semicircle, lifting it carefully with the sticky sound of its crumbling glue letting go, until one corner of the knife, sliding over a glued-down spot, punches its way through the surface; when this has happened in several places I take one hand and draw a large flake of the wallpaper away from the wall, tossing it to the floor.
Tim has dragged the steamer, a flat red metal rectangle with a wooden handle mounted on it like an old-fashioned clothes iron, into the room, attached to its hissing orange rubber hose. He presses it to the stubborn sections of paper on the adjacent wall till water seeps down in rivulets, and the wall looks like a tear-stained face. When he draws the steamer back again, moving on to the next section, Steve comes in behind him with his putty knife to peel away the soggy steamed paper in smooth, clean sheets like skin.
After the first easy chunks of paper have come off my dry wall, the remaining patches are more stubborn. Biting my lip, I scrape gingerly at their edges with the putty knife, looking for a way underneath them. Every so often the corner of the knife will slide under the paper, and, with great care, I'll set about getting as much of it to peel away as possible. This has all the satisfaction of picking at a scab, and, in a way, a similar texture.
We work in this quiet rhythm for a while. Then, suddenly, it dawns on me. I stand back from the wall where scraps from my latest endeavor are still hanging, waiting to be plucked away.
"Oh, my God, you guys," I say. Steve and Tim stop their work, turning to look over their shoulders at me with their hands still on the wall.
"What?" Two pairs of blue eyes widen as they look at me.
"I...just realized..." I can feel my own eyes widening.