I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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My boyfriend, Tony, tells me he remembers seeing Muddy Waters sitting in a chair on Maxwell Street in Chicago playing the blues. He says it was a Sunday morning and Muddy was playing alone. Now the Maxwell Street market shines with the silver circles of cleaned hubcaps, hanging for sale. Atop the hubcap stand, speakers blare out electric blues, and rap music thumps out from the car next to ours. People in the streets jostle each other between the cars, as if looking for a place to settle.
Tony has invited me down from Wisconsin, picking up the thread of our old relationship like an interrupted conversation. Now we are following his friends Suzanne and Jim to their old landlady Carrie’s house down on Canalport to lay linoleum as a favor for her. Yesterday, Friday, they took me on a driving tour of Chicago. We drove up the lake shore and saw the suburb of Winnetka, where Suzanne caters rich people’s weddings. We saw the domed Bahai Temple and took pictures of ourselves on the steps, pretending we were European tourists. We drove by the slums, which have a name I don’t remember (probably because we didn’t stop to take pictures). I remember glimpses of Lake Michigan in the distance like camera flashes. We didn’t see the Sears Tower. We didn’t see Comiskey Park. The baseball players are all on strike, and no one seems to care; no one is even angry, just bored with the extravagant salaries. The paper says the postmaster spent millions of dollars putting a Jacuzzi in her newly redecorated office while postal workers were dumping mail in basements — or were they burning it? No one seems to care.
We get out of my rental car across the street from a small Mexican restaurant built in the shape of a triangle, like an old drive-in. Outside it, some guys are selling palm trees. They take one by the waist and lift it into the trunk of a buyer’s car. The palm tree sways like a woman in a dress slow dancing. Then the men jam the top of the tree down and slam the trunk closed. Sometimes they can’t slam the trunk and the palm leaves flutter out behind the car as it pulls away.
The young couple downstairs from Carrie aren’t home, but their garden is; it seems to wait for them like a pet beside the little white plastic table and chairs, so very coffeehouse-sidewalk. They’ve got an awning over their slate patio, which, Suzanne tells me, they got down on their hands and knees and laid themselves, and which, successfully completed, merited a pesto dinner and an extra bottle of wine down at Lucille’s. My father would have said, Son of a bitch. Why would you want to kill yourself laying down slate when you could get someone to pour you some nice concrete pretty cheap, and it’d be flat and you wouldn’t be tripping every five fucking seconds over the cracks, and, to top it all off, you wouldn’t have to pour lye every year to kill the damn grass? But of course the couple probably like catching their Keds on the stone, laughing and posing like an investment ad in the Sunday New York Times.
I want to lie down in their square back yard and become part of the sod, let grass grow from my nose and ears and eyes, and whisper things to them as they sit on their patio in the evening, listening to Bill Evans from the speakers they’ve pushed up against the screen door. I want to whisper that their yard isn’t a cruise ship. I want to show them the view of I-94 from Carrie’s upstairs kitchen window and say, See, there is the highway, the cement slabs on the overpass bouncing under the eighteen-wheelers, and right here at our elbows is Maxwell Street, which the University of Illinois is buying up lock, stock, and barrel. See, you think you’re on a cruise ship but someone’s moving the ocean.
We’ve come to put down flooring in Carrie’s kitchen and bathroom, and in the bedroom that one of her tenants, an old, thin black man, rents from her. Last weekend, Suzanne and Jim were here pulling up the old flooring, trying to sweep away the mouse (rat?) droppings. They nailed down some plywood in the bedroom, which is where I’m going to start laying the self-adhesive tile squares. In the living room, with its red shag rug like worn stuffed-animal fur, Carrie’s emaciated cat sits on my feet. I pick the cat up and its rib cage sags. Carrie is a friendly, old black woman with a cane. I don’t know what to say to her as we watch Jim and Tony move the mattresses from the bedroom. She tells me about driving down South with her brother, seeing the country, says it’s better from a car than from a train because in a car you can pull over, and that the best thing was how green it all was, how green Tennessee was, especially. Like Kentucky, I say, though I’ve never been to either place. I believe her that somehow Tennessee is greener than anywhere else in the whole world. She says Tennessee is horse country. I picture Tennessee as one big, long stretch of green grass with horses standing on it.
Carrie’s story has no point. She sometimes stops and starts again. But I’m not waiting for a point. I’m good at listening in an aimless way. My father was like this, telling stories that went nowhere. He told me about drives his family took in the early thirties, his mother and father and six children all squeezed into a roadster with wooden-spoked wheels, the boys going to the bathroom in a porcelain pot because his father wouldn’t stop the car; his mother would turn the pot upside down out the window and let the piss fly out onto the dirt roads of upstate New York. The girls just had to hold it. Once, my father tried to pour his piss through the grating in the floor of the car, and the wind brought it back up on his and my Uncle Sean’s pants. His mother just laughed. One time, when the car overheated, his mother said maybe it was the radiator, but his father yelled that she didn’t know a damn thing about cars. When it turned out to be the breather in the radiator, the children said, You were right, Mom; you sure were right. His mother looked out at the high grass by the side of the road and said, Yes, but what good does it do me?
In the bedroom, I crouch down looking for nailheads to pound flush into the floor before I wipe the plywood clean of dust and lay down my first piece of linoleum tile. In my hand the hammer feels natural. I know how to hold it close enough to the head that it doesn’t fly out of my hand, but far enough back on the handle to get some leverage, so that when I bring it down there is power in its length. The empty room echoes with its banging. I hit nail after nail, even when they’re not sticking out above the wood, just to hear the sound, like a child. When I was a kid, I made creaking noises with the back of my throat and said, Doesn’t it sound just like a door opening in a horror movie, Mom? Mom, listen. Mom? Once, I stirred my vanilla ice cream until it looked like cake batter and begged to put it in the oven. She wouldn’t let me, but I pleaded with her, and finally she said, We’ll just put it in the oven and see what happens. We’ll just put it in the oven in one of my good bowls, just like that, and (her voice rising menacingly) see what happens. It dried and burned. We left it in there until it began to smoke, and we had to throw the cracked bowl out.
Carrie comes to the doorway every couple of minutes and watches me work, saying it’s a wonder how I can do this. I’ve found the center of the room and penciled a cross on the floor. I peel the backing off the first tile and lay it down. I line up the pattern on the second tile with the first, edge to edge, corner to corner, no crack or crease for anything to fall into. Methodically, I lay down tile after tile, each time lining up the pattern first, making sure the arrows on the back all go the same way, then pressing it down with the flat part of my fist. These are the kinds of jobs I’m really good at, working alone, repeating the same simple task over and over. Crouched down, sweat dripping in between my breasts and down the back of my neck, I make slow progress.
Carrie leans on the door frame and tells me about her physical therapist, how she was in an accident a while back, and he comes to work on her legs. She’s embarrassed and thrilled: it’s been years since her husband died, and this therapist touches her legs. She pats one thigh and smiles at me.
In the kitchen, Tony is on his hands and knees nailing down plywood, his face red and greasy with sweat. I touch his damp back through his T-shirt. He’s got nails between his pursed lips, but he tries to smile and waves me toward the unplugged refrigerator in the center of the room. On top is a six-pack of Mexican beer in red cans. Out on the flat roof, Jim is leaning over a makeshift sawhorse, cutting sheets of plywood, the saw screaming like people on a roller coaster, dust flying. Suzanne leans against the porch railing, smoking and watching. She says we need to go to the hardware store to get some staples for the staple gun, a washer for the hose on the refrigerator, and another hammer.
Suzanne is junkie thin and her lank hair is cut like a boy’s. All day she drinks coffee, smokes cigarettes, and talks on the phone, trying to get work, pacing the kitchen, wiping the counters clean over and over with a sponge. She and Jim have been to Romania, have taken pictures of the buildings and the children. Carrie is her latest project.
Suzanne walks to the hardware store with long, direct strides, talking constantly about how good Carrie was to her and Jim when they were the ones renting downstairs, how she never pressured them when they couldn’t make the rent, how sometimes Carrie would ask them to help figure out her bills, and one time they found she’d been paying too much for an extermination service that hadn’t made a visit in months. Suzanne talks about the neighborhood we’re walking through and asks if I ever read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, because that’s where we are. This neighborhood has always been about people’s beginnings, she says. Now some real-estate guy is buying up the property and gentrifying it for “artists” and young professionals to come and live here. Except she calls it “fuckifying” the neighborhood. I nod a lot. Suzanne never talks without making a point; like me, she’s been to college. I nodded when she asked about The Jungle, but I can’t really remember the book; instead I recall my father telling me how Secaucus, New Jersey, had been one big slaughterhouse, and how he used to save his money from working in the variety store to take the train to see baseball games every Saturday, how it had been a family crisis when his uncle sold their grandfather’s house next door to foreigners — Armenians — and how Uncle Francis, a Jesuit priest learned in classical languages, had come and put it all in perspective for them.
On the way to the hardware store, Suzanne and I skirt some broken glass and a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk. The hardware store is small and old, with a faded wooden floor, and dusty, like it’s been closed up for years. Nothing is in any kind of order. Merchandise is just laid out in the boxes it came in, with black marker telling you that they’re two-inch nails, so many for a dollar. Suzanne says she loves old places like this, with only one or two people working behind the counter, in this case an old Italian man and a boy who might be his grandson. Suzanne seems to love the idea of old stuff, old places, but I don’t know. Isn’t that just romanticizing the past? The old man and his grandson (his helper? his boy?) don’t seem all that happy to be here in this piecemeal hardware store. They look to the side a lot, as if waiting for a bus. I get the feeling they might like to just burn the store to the ground, its pegboard walls and shelves, its unmatchable items. I wouldn’t be surprised if the old man let a can of kerosene spill and dropped his cigarette in it, and then went out and got good and drunk, collected the insurance money, and left Chicago. Suzanne says this is it, the real city, then tells me about her first husband, a carpenter, and how she doesn’t ever think of him except when she comes into a hardware store like this one, and how she left him with only what she could fit into her suitcase.
When I was a kid, the old man would disappear for a while and my mother would give us the speech about how we all had to pull together and be a family, but nothing ever really changed because my father always came back and never did anything more than throw cups of coffee around and swear and sit with his head in his hands. My sister and I knew that nothing would change, except maybe my oldest brother would pick up the drinking slack, would stop trying to hide it when he came in at night; we’d hear him pissing and pissing and pissing in the bathroom upstairs because he never shut the door.
Then, I spent my time leaving notes around the house for future tenants — notes about who I was and who we were and how we’d lived in this rented house for so long. I wrote the notes on the back of gum wrappers because they were just the right size to fold into the cracks in the stairs or into the molding behind the couch, places nobody would think to look. I hated that house, where all seven of us lived, including my grandmother (my father’s mother), whose stomach looked like she was hiding a basketball, who put a walnut in her ear to help her hear, who stayed in the back room on the first floor, forever crocheting lace.
Our landlady, a bumpy woman like a fat, gnarled, old log (a hedgehog, a fat, lumpy rat), all hunched over in her see-through floral housedress and her terry-cloth slippers, would come and take the spoon from the stove and, under pretense of stirring, taste our dinner, holding the pot top in one hand, blowing on the sauce, then sticking the spoon all the way into her mouth. I’d stand there thinking, I’m not eating that now, wondering how come my mother let her do that, wondering how come my mother didn’t just grab the spoon from that woman’s hand and slap her face. But I also knew that the landlady wasn’t too happy about the seven of us living in this little house, wasn’t happy that my brothers had busted the garage windows, wasn’t happy with all the cars in the yard, or with the way we sat out on the front porch after dinner with our bare feet up on the railing, drinking coffee and eating ice cream from mismatched bowls (we spent all the good-weather days on that porch), or how sometimes, on warm summer nights, my father or one of my brothers would come home drunk and just fall into the glider and sleep there, so the morning commuters coming down Montgomery Road would see their bare feet hanging over the side. It probably confirmed everything for our landlady when my father walked out onto the porch in the mornings, a cup of coffee in one hand, scratching himself through his boxer shorts with the other, right there on that quiet New England street, where mothers didn’t leave their houses without makeup and nobody walked anywhere, everybody drove. She probably knew she was right about us when cars flew down the street honking their horns, the boys inside screaming out my sister’s or my name.
Back at the apartment, Carrie is standing on the new tile, leaning into her cane. She asks if I’ll get her a beer. I do, then show her how I’ll measure around the edges of the room and cut the tiles with a razor to fit them into the uneven spaces where the floor meets the wall. I tell her the room is crooked and slanted. The old black man shows up at the doorway in his cap and sneakers and corduroy pants that end two inches above the ankle. He doesn’t say a word. I don’t feel right kneeling on the new tile in his bedroom. It occurs to me that maybe he didn’t want new tile, that our moving all his things around is an annoyance. He leaves and Carrie tells me not to mind him, that he’s just looking for his radio, that he usually takes a nap in the afternoon, that he doesn’t talk to anybody, not even her, so I shouldn’t take it personally. I don’t take it personally, I tell her, and then to prove it I let silence fall between us, leaving only the sound of the staple gun in the next room. She says if he comes back not to pay him any attention. We haven’t put him out, she says; he just comes and goes as he pleases.
The times when my father came home he would take my brothers fishing down in the Long Island Sound, wading in up to their waists. They’d get up at 4:30 and leave in the dark. My sister, my mother, and I would have English muffins and tea and fresh grapefruit on the front porch. Then the men would return, tracking sand through the house, cutting up fish from a bucket on the cement stoop in back. There would be blood on the back steps. They’d bury the heads and tails and guts in the garden, but the cat would dig it all up and be seen for days batting around fish tails, or crossing the driveway with an eyeless fish head in its mouth, or chewing busily on fish guts.
We spend all of Saturday at Carrie’s until eight o’clock, when the sun is only on the highway overpass, and it’s dusk everywhere else. Suzanne and Jim are sweeping the new floors clean of dust. I find Tony sitting on the roof, watching the highway bounce above us, breathing in the cool air as if all day he’s been holding his breath. I tell him that when the air show comes to my town, the B-28 bombers roar over my apartment in formation, their lights winking. I tell him how, when I was a kid, helicopters from the base down by the marshes flew over our house, rattling our windowpanes and, as my father put it, lowering the sky. Tony’s not talking. Back in the kitchen, Carrie says I am a dear. Then she sighs, eyeing the floor very seriously, like it’s a weighty responsibility that Suzanne and the rest of us have thrust upon her.
When we come out of her apartment, the hubcaps on my rental car are gone. It’s no big deal; the car is covered. But Suzanne and Tony rant, walking around and around the car, staring down at the wheels as if staring might bring something back. They look up and down the street as if they’ll see some kid with my shiny hubcaps tucked casually under his arm like a load of schoolbooks. Nobody suggests reporting anything, and we drive back to Jim and Suzanne’s and order pizza.
Sunday night, Suzanne calls Tony and tells him what’s happened to the floor; the old man got up in the night and pissed and shit on it in his sleep. Tony relays this to me angrily, saying how we wasted all that time, how the least the guy could be was respectful. Then Suzanne tells him about Carrie knocking over the bucket of ammonia water that morning, flooding the floor and buckling the cheap tile. I say, Tony, it’s no use getting angry. That man never asked for anything from us, and it wouldn’t matter if he had. It doesn’t matter that Carrie’s old floor was cracked and full of roaches. It doesn’t matter, honey, come here. There’s no use in getting angry.
We lie down on Tony’s flattened futon mattress, and he puts his head on my chest for a moment, then turns away and offers me a piece of the musty black comforter he got second- or thirdhand.
At my father’s funeral, I saw people I hadn’t seen since I was a little kid, people I’d never met before who had my father’s nose or my grandmother’s small eyes. The priest was shaking incense and talking in Latin. I was not asking God for anything, for once. My mother was crying behind her veil, which hung from a black hat I never even knew she owned. Nobody else was crying. At the end of our row, my sister was looking down at the prayer books in their racks on the back of the pew. She was working some dead skin off her lips with her teeth in a distracted way, as if my father’s funeral were a place on the way to somewhere else, as if the dark church were only a station and she were preoccupied with catching the next train. She caught me looking at her, smoothed out her lips with her fingers, and brushed her hair back from her forehead. Her eyes said to me, So?
In the kitchen at the wake, I asked my mother if she was OK, because she hadn’t eaten anything all day, even though there was so much food. She wouldn’t look at me, as if, now that my father was dead, everyone was gone. There’s life, she said, and then there’s death, and there’s no use in getting angry.
During the night, the weather turns cold, just like that. I find myself curling up to Tony’s warmth, pressing my forehead into his back, pulling the comforter over both our shoulders. In the morning, I wake to find him sitting above me in the room’s only chair, reading a magazine and drinking coffee he’s made in a metal camp pot on his hot plate. Driving back to Wisconsin, I watch the sky grow bluer and bluer the farther I go up I-94. Everything seems to open in front of me until Chicago is pushed back by the sheer force of it all.
When I was a kid my mother seemed to iron all the time: in the kitchen, in the dining room, in the living room even. I swear she took ironing in. I remember her standing in front of the board with its ripped pad covered by a frayed blue towel. She was dressed in a bright orange flowered shirt, an old pair of my father’s work pants cut off at the knees, and canvas sneakers without laces. It was late May, just beginning to get hot. Even with her hair pulled back, her forehead and her upper lip glistened.
My father had disappeared, but he would be back. My brothers were still asleep, my sister already gone. My mother showed me how to test the iron by dropping a little water on it. She showed me how to stretch the arm of a shirt over the rounded edge of the board. I remember her telling me that I shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to ask her to iron my blouse because she had other ironing to do, ironing that paid.
I tell her now that I remember more clothes than we ever could have had, clothes on the couch sorted into piles by fabrics — mounds of soft white cottons and dark wools — clothes hanging from the curtain rod of the window, peeking through the heavy brocade curtains like people backstage.
My mother tells me that she never took in ironing.
I tell her I can remember the smell of starch, the hiss of steam as she pressed down and smoothed away the wrinkles from someone else’s shirt.
She says to me, You’re making it up.
No, I tell her, I remember.
Patricia S. Sullivan