The Gray Attic
Sitting cross-legged in the confines of my gray attic, memories thread every corner and curve. Soft, decaying cardboard boxes backbone empty spaces. There is a deep chill in the darkness; mellow incandescent light beams bend around my breath with each exhale. My fingertips trace the flimsy, yellowed-with-age tape on the boxes. I wish the boxes could be locked with a key, sealed for all time. Instead, the tape disintegrates, and the sides of the boxes are losing their tight seal and right angles; their ribs are becoming exposed and letting out that which was intended to stay contained. Resting my head on a smaller, soft box, curled up, looking out one of the two small attic windows; my eyes opening and closing methodically pre-sleep, fixated on the chalky crescent in the slate-colored sky. Asleep or awake now, it doesn’t matter.
The filament flickers wildly, harkening another era, and a different attic space. The two spaces are physically separate but inextricably linked, at least during certain points of convergence in time and space. This is an adventure that I remember well, though it was long ago. To think of the climb to reach this attic, which now seems so ancient, is to recall a painful ascent on stairs of cascading sheets of black, ribbed mats. To go up this staircase, of many steps, caused significant discomfort, even on calloused-childhood-summer-feet. The urgency in climbing the staircase each time outweighed going back for any kind of proper foot protection. The vicissitudes of life in the attic, could not, would not wait for shoes, and wincing along this journey upwards seemed to make complete sense to me, and certainly did not seem out of the ordinary.
I reached the upper-midsection of the house, getting much closer to my destination, and stand face to face with a door. The door had a chipped, black, very-loose-handle….so loose it reminded me of my lower deciduous tooth, which was hanging on by only a root or two. Even though the wiggly handle was essentially serving no purpose, especially not the misaligned keyhole, the door was still not easy to open. It was very difficult actually, given my small stature and because the paint liked to hold the door tightly to the surrounding wall, and I daresay that the carpenter left too much door for the allotted space. My physical elevation was inversely compensated by downright determination, and after a few tries, I willed it open with every ounce of strength in my eight year-old body. Behind this doorway, was another set of stairs stacked in front of me. I sheepishly admit to enjoying the feel of the previous dark and rugged staircase leading up to this point. But now my feet needed to accommodate a slick, unswept, tawny terrain. With shoes or no shoes, and of course, there were no shoes; this next level required a slow-down and a hand, or both, climbing in a sideways manner, on the railing the whole way up.
To reach the top, meant little change for the feet, as the attic floor was identical to the stairs, except for being mostly flat instead of jagged. At this point, the feet can take a break as only any attached part of the body is able to while at rest. This point of transition from journey to destination being now led inside the mind. I believed that after the flight up these two staircases, that the destination, this attic, would provide me with abundant answers in the objects it contained about the past, present and future. But seeing that my mind was only eight years old, I was certain that there were answers to such questions, and that questions should have answers. I didn’t ponder the meaning of my existence or that of everyone and everything I encountered. I was eight years old, searching for attic treasures, and these treasures were going to be the best treasures, and I was going to be the one to find them, and then they would be my treasures. I knew enough to understand that these kind of findings can’t be found out in the open, in obvious places. No, no way! They had to be hidden in cryptic places, where the air smelled musty and the dust was so thick that I couldn’t go more than six seconds, on the second, without double or triple sneezing. These are things that get placed in the confines of boxes that no one else thought to look in for ages and then become meaningful and extra important. You have to think to look for it, and then actually go and look for it. I thought, like seeing a decent-sized stone partially buried in the earth and knowing the surface doesn’t show us nearly as much as what lies underneath. For underneath there is abundant life: rolly pollys, centipedes, crickets, ants, worms, slugs and such things from which I found incredible wonderment. You see, to a child, it’s all about the treasure, with little or no thought given to gains made during the journey. The “getting there” and any subsequent consequences of actions are not of any consideration. And, of course the realization that it is impossible to really own and control anything or anyone, treasures included, hopefully arrives with time and maturity. It’s an exciting, carefree mental space to be in, but does not often serve well in adulthood, most of the time. I do not remember what I found in that attic now, but my being remembers the journey.
Morning sunlight replaces incandescent light, and creates much more beauty and drama with light and shadows. Appearing nearly grabbable, rods of dusty rays hold my eyes for what seems like ages. The ungraspable beams are composed of decades of sloughing life, and the always constant, never failing, 4.5 billion year old star of stars. To be awake or asleep this morning is of no concern, the morning moisture made more intense from a night of rain, and oppressive yet comforting mustiness and petrichor fill the air all the same. The smell is so specific- it’s grandma and grandpa’s attic, and exists no where else in the world and at no other time. It can never be this attic again… But now, left with a morning unlike all the ones before it, I descend the first set of stairs, still layered in a coat of blonde soot-dust-ash-layer of things past, but still here.
Going down, the feet have a recollection of both sets of stairs to the point of reflex. They know what to expect and with anticipation of the first set. It is so much like a slide, and I am aware of the possible outcome of falling down, though it is not anything of a deterrent to an ornery and fearless eight year-old. The second set, gets a bit of a stare down, a holding of the breath while still signaling to my feet it will be alright. I just have to go, and go now, or go nowhere ever.
I began to wander outside of the confines of the attic, to other levels of the house, and then I went outside it’s walls. Feeling a bit alone and isolated post-journey, I sought solace from the non-humans that always brought me the most comfort. As the porch door slammed behind me, a ginger cat named Felicity came swaggering towards me. Some call this breed of feline “marbled” due to their orange-and-white-dreamsicle color palette. I wanted to call her Felicity-Marmalade and pet her and talk to her for at least awhile. I gave her a treat of actual marmalade for her to lick with her pumice-stone tongue off my pinky finger. To repay my kind, not-at-all-mocking gesture, she led me to her window-well. Crouched down like a vertical turtle, I would, for an amount of time that could never be correctly guessed at then or now, play with the snapdragons that bordered her window-well on the side of my grandparent’s house.
Snapdragons, also called dragon flowers, or antirrhinum, love a gentle squeeze in the base of their necks; or they hate it; so they either smile back, or bark back at the squeezer diabolically. Depending on their mood they are either happy with, or violently opposed to, their self-incompatibility. I talk for the snapdragons, pinching and pinching, I say “Wendy, Wendy, you are a good girl, good dog, Wendy!”
“WOOF” Wendy barked, guarding the front porch of my grandparents house while sitting next to Uncle Dave. Uncle Dave says “Geez! Wendy, TOO loud!” The human she was most attached to was my Uncle Dave; and some would say, she was the creature, universally, with whom he was most connected. Wendy was better than properly watered, walked and fed, and so too then was Uncle Dave. She was his charge and he needed that when he awoke every morning, just as the town-folk of Port Clinton needed their paper and morning coffee. Dave diligently delivered their paper to them every daybreak, of course with Wendy alongside his shuffling sneakers. After they delivered the morning rounds of the Port Clinton News-Herald they returned to the porch. I pet Wendy between her ears and told her she was a good girl, she looked at Uncle Dave for actual affirmation. If she had known that there were more than 500 million dogs in the world, some being flawless looking show-dogs, some having the ability to sniff out a impending seizure in their humans and save their lives, some assisting police in fighting crime, some being cast in movies and commercials, some being bred and continuously creating more life, she might have felt insecure. On the other hand, maybe she did know, at least subconsciously, but preferred to remain ignorant of such facts that couldn’t bring her happiness. Wendy could only be Wendy, and she was irreplaceable anyway, tail wagging with abundant dog smiles and affectionate eyes, big heart, one brown eye and one blue-green. We can learn a lot from dogs, especially in their ability to love. Wendy’s life-expectancy, like all dogs, was so much shorter than the humans they are attached to, leaving permanent, painful wrinkles in human hearts.
Wendy understood Dave. Dave understood Wendy. That made all the misunderstandings and sideways glances from townsfolk more tolerable. Dave and Wendy walked miles each day, delivering the people rolled-up news, so they could have their morning coffee. Dave didn’t drink coffee, rather he started his morning with a more-than-healthy dose of Metamucil. One would hope that the folks appreciated the very punctual delivery of the paper because the day couldn’t be started without it, so they say. It is one of those things that tends not to be appreciated or noticed until it stops showing up on the doorstep as it did the day before.
Uncle Dave had what society deems to be limitations, specifically in his interactions with other folks. But he took good care of himself and of Wendy. He had an uncanny ability to remember dates, scores of ballgames, and people’s names. Dave had an insatiable appetite for films. That very day, in 1989, after lunch, he would use the money he received from his paper route and go to the movies. Unable to drive, he was dropped off at the theater, grinning ear to ear as he opened the main entrance door, and that first wave of butter-infused popcorn placated his olfactory senses like it did every single time. He bought a ticket for a movie with one-dollar bills and exact change: $4.12. The ticket was being held in a tight grip between his thumb and index finger, their nails bitten to the quick, until it made it’s way to his red and blue flannel shirt pocket. The ticket was really his pass to roam around in all the movies playing that day. Heading toward theater 1, with a medium-sized popcorn bucket in one hand and opening the door with the other, to a hospital scene where Helen (Dianne Wiest) gives life to a baby girl from the movie Parenthood. In theater 3, the word “SHIT!” slips out forcefully from Uncle Buck (John Candy) as he knocks over all the pots and pans in the kitchen interrupting Tia’s and her mother’s embrace promising a loving relationship moving forward. Next, in theater 6, there was Meg Ryan’s notorious performance in Katz’s Delicatessen, after which Estelle Reiner gives one of the most famous movie one-liners of all time “I’ll have what she’s having.” Then onto Sex, Lies and Videotape showing in theater 9, where Graham (James Spader) destroys all the videotapes, signaling his choice to have a real relationship with Ann (Andie MacDowell). Finally he walked into theater 12, just in time to witness the heart wrenching scene where Hooch gets a fatal bullet wound from a drug kingpin, and assists Turner (Tom Hanks) in bringing down the outlaw.
For Dave, seeing films always left him with an ample appetite. His go-to place for food outside home was Phil’s Inn Restaurant. This dimly-yellow lighted mom-and-pop place smelled like an unusual combination of marinara sauce and apple pie. He took his usual seat in the slightly threadbare vinyl mustard-colored booth by the window in the northwest corner of the diner. The waitress, Jill, gave him a friendly greeting. Dave, not making eye contact, looked at the menu appearing to contemplate his order, though he was only fooling himself. Jill already knew what it would be, as it has never varied, and didn’t need to write it down: Cheeseburger, Fries and a Vanilla shake. He would have preferred a chocolate shake, but his mother, Byronna, warned against ingesting anything chocolate as there were family allergies causing red, blistery rashes on the hands. This is why Dave ate his nightly vanilla ice cream with Aunt Jemima’s syrup on top. As he waited for his food, he tucked a napkin in the collar of his flannel shirt, and made some friendly rounds to fellow frequent Phil’s Inn-goers. He was more readily sociable after seeing films. The days he saw films were his best days, amping him up with joy- likely because the experiences and emotions of the characters he’s just seen in the films, were for at least a short time, tangible to him. Frank was there eating lasagna with his wife Lorraine, who was eating a fried perch sandwich. They switched dinners half-way through to satisfy their cravings for both meals. Frank asked Dave “Have you seen any good films lately, Dave?” Dave replied, still all-big-smiles, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I saw Turner and Hooch today. It was a good film. Tom Hanks was in it. The dog dies at the end.” Frank replied, “Oh, well that sure is sad, Dave. You don’t seem sad about it though.” Dave commented, “Well, well, well, Hooch, he still had puppies. So it’s ok, I guess.”
That day I didn’t go to the movies or out to dinner. I recall sitting on my grandparents porch steps, saddled between two deep cracks in the concrete. I was grasping between my little hands, a mason jar containing my most unusual pet, Loki. I didn’t know what kind of snake it was- brown, white and possibly a little orange, about the length of a licorice stick and the thickness of a large man’s thumb. It’s life had expired in what must have been some kind of horrible accident, leaving him without a head. I imagined it was a Mongoose that bit off it’s head because that’s an animal with a neat-and-tricky name, as it isn’t any kind of goose at all, and they sure love to eat snakes. I didn’t know, or probably care, that they don’t inhabit Ohio, but rather mostly live in Africa and Southeast Asia. Really, it was probably Felicity-Marmalade who was responsible for the snake’s decapitation in an afternoon of instinctual play that got carried away. I was undoubtedly very distraught by the demise of this snake but there was nothing I could do, even an 8 year old understands that heads can’t grow back. Loki was a companion of mine for only a short period of time, until I was forced to bury him properly so nature could continue it’s course of decay and regeneration outside of the mason jar. The appearance of Loki in my life and the subsequent and apparent one-way-attachment was likely unsettling to my folks; perhaps it was a sign of something unusual, off, or possibly dark about my character. Maybe my bonds are aberrant in how they are so few and very visceral, but I will gladly remain naive and put all I have in too few hearts if that’s what will take me beyond the surface and into the deep. As Loki’s serpentine remains went on to nourish the earth, his presence planted the deeply-rooted seeds within me of accepting both the gifts and curses of peculiar personalities. Later, they will sprout into a deeper understanding on all things related to this matter- that the universe works in tandem with inverses. It’s life’s see-saw splintered thighs and calloused hands, with a smile spread across the face. Up and down, up and down…
The church next door to my grandparents’ house has a clock that releases a baritone “duuung-dun-dun-dun” on the hour every hour. It was 8:00pm and I was my own pendulum, occupying a small space going back and forth rhythmically on the only meaningful porch swing of my lifetime, to each tick of the church clock chimes. Somewhere between the loud hour markers, and surrounded by untidy rows self-incompatible snap dragons both behind me and in front of me; I see Uncle Dave in his self-chosen-all-weather uniform: a long sleeved flannel very securely tucked into navy blue dickies and a just-in-case umbrella, Wendy and Felicity-Marmalade prancing, fuzzily down the sidewalk. It doesn’t matter because either way, past or present, dream or reality, it is time for me to slip off the swing slowly, and to go inside, past the glass doors of grandpa Earls’ relic-filled, well-lit parlor on the right. Then taking an immediate left to set out on my solo expedition ascending the stairs once again. I know the way very well, but where it will take me is a place always different than it was before.