By Jody Gerbig
John Brady imagined himself an enlightened man—a Renaissance man raised Catholic, tolerant, worldly, and profound—but he couldn’t stand living under old Mrs. Bain, whose name he’d read on the condominium mail slot next to his. He could smell her old lady musk as she shuffled past him on the stairs after retrieving her mail. From a flight below, he thought he glimpsed Renoir watercolor posters in cheap, cracked frames in her front hall, the adjacent wallpaper peeling from the plaster. Sometimes, he imagined he could hear her smacking her gums and clearing her throat late at night, when all else was quiet. After seeing Mrs. Bain, John felt the impulse to wash his hands.
One morning, while reading The Philosopher, John looked up and saw Mrs. Bain shuffling across the condo quad, a crumpled brown bag in her arms, a free finger in her mouth, picking at a front tooth. He shuddered. Why must old people become so dated, so insular, so lonely and pathetic? he thought, putting down his reading, pulling closed his bathrobe, and standing at his picture window. She wasn’t like his own grandparents, whom he’d never met but often imagined, milking the cows in the early morning in their jeans and boots and eating breakfast by the stone hearth. Theirs was a life spent on a farm, staying young to survive, living day by day, in each one uniquely.
He placed his journal on his chair and stopped to plan how he’d live this day uniquely.
“Silly,” he said to himself. “I already have, simply by reading a treatise about authenticity.” This satisfaction prompted him to smooth out his robe and refill his coffee mug, a reward for being so accomplished. But as he sat down again in his chair, he noticed for the first time a loose corner in the brown carpet that had come with the place.
Creeping over to the corner, he inspected it with a tug. The carpet came loose, and he almost fell backward, catching himself but not the hot coffee, which spilled to the floor. “Shit,” he said, shaking his head.
Now, with the stain, the carpet would have to go, he thought, as he pulled at the loose corner. Underneath he found black, moldy padding, and he almost retched, knowing that he’d lived with this surreptitious mess all this time. He pulled again, until a long strip tore away, revealing the original hardwood. It had hardly been touched! Hardly been traipsed on, trodden on, spilled on! His floor smelled of newly-felled trees. Of the outdoors. Of authenticity.
He ripped the carpet in rows, tearing from corner to corner, and rolled the large pieces into manageable reels. Only staples, gunned in randomly by careless carpet-layers, blemished the pristine wood, and these he peeled out and collected in a mug, counting each one as he went. When he finished, he’d amassed a hoard of trash—too big for the building’s compactor. He carried the bags (after the street lights finally went off) past the neighboring property’s security guard, to their large dumpster.
The next morning, the smell of hardwood, and not the putrid waft of molded synthetic fibers, filled the air, and John inhaled deeply. “Better,” he said, sitting down with his coffee and his journal. But, now, where the carpet had once covered the half-inch space between the floor and the wall, a large, hollow gap stared back at him, and he simply couldn’t concentrate on the article about self-actualization before him. He knelt down on the floor and peered into the dark void behind the wall. He’d need to buy quarter-round molding to fill that gap, he thought.
* * *
In the parking lot, Mrs. Bain stood behind her Oldsmobile, shielded by the trunk’s lid, digging around, it seemed, through junk—old paint cans and soiled sheets, dismantled cardboard boxes and scraps of wood. She was merely shuffling items from one place to another and then back again. Killing time, John thought. He dodged between rows of cars, avoiding eye contact when she glanced up, lest he be pulled in to “help her.” These were the type of sad excuses such widows dreamed up to create conversation. To have company. Mrs. Bain no doubt waited out the remainder of her days watching The Price is Right, calling help desks to discuss the weather, and cooking Wonder Bread grilled cheeses every day for lunch.
When John returned from the Home Depot, carrying long, half-round molding slats, a miter box, and a saw, Mrs. Bain was gone, and John was ready for more improvements. Working muscles with names he’d memorized in high school anatomy but never used, he sawed strips to meet at the corners, pieced the slats together and nailed them to the wall. Twice, he banged his own soft nails, sending blood to the edge of his fingertips, which pounded in tacit protest. Thrice he mis-measured the angles and had to re-saw the corner pieces. Despite his many As in high school math, John learned that geometry wasn’t as useful as he’d hoped.
Finishing the molding at the kitchen corner, John noticed that the linoleum kitchen floor, like the carpet, curled at the edges just under the toe kick, where he’d never thought to look before. Using an old knife, he lifted up the edge and peered under it to find bare concrete. I could lay tile, he thought. Tomorrow, I’ll lay tile. That night, he peeled the entire plastic floor from its foundation in jagged, broken pieces, tossing them into large, plastic bags, which he tied neatly together. His heart raced and his palms sweated. Periodically, an earwig scampered across the floor and disappeared under the stove, and John cringed.
With each wipe of his wet forehead, John’s shirt sleeve darkened until it wore the same dull yellow of his father’s collar. A stain Mr. Brady had called the badge of hard work.
John thought of his father, then, how proud he’d be of this labor. He regretted that he’d once not recognized the contributions his father had made doing the strange, difficult work he did.
In his summers off school, Mr. Brady sometimes took John to the plant, where John was allowed to pull the levers that sent machines turning and churning. In the morning, when the equipment first moved, they clanked and lurched, like his father’s joints.
“Big Ben needs some o’l,” his father said, patting John’s head with his paw-like hands. He bent over, squared his hands on his knees and looked John in the eye. “You gonna be an engineer and work here like your old man?”
John stared at his father’s dirty, brown tie, swaying before him. He smelled like a mix of stale tobacco, chewed wintergreen gum, Old Spice, sawdust and lube. John shrugged.
“Maybe you’d like to pull one of the levers to test it out?” Mr. Brady said. John looked about the factory floor. The machines cranked, so big, so powerful, with so many buttons. But he only recognized the one: Off/On.
John thought he’d known then that he would major in anything other than engineering. That he was more interested in ethics than mechanics, and that he had no plans to set foot in a factory again. But it wasn’t until his sophomore year in college that he’d said this out loud, sitting at the kitchen table under the black-and-white photo on the wall: a fading brownish portrait of his grandfather, sitting in a rocking chair in front of his farm. Behind him, acres upon acres of soft wheat spread over earth like a silken mane.
His father reacted well, John thought. Better than he’d expected. Mr. Brady simply nodded, reached past his son, grabbed a roll off the table and shoved it in his mouth, licking the butter from his oil-laden fingertips when he finished.
How very mature of me, John thought, standing now in his own kitchen, making his own contribution, thinking of his father’s work. How far he’d come along in his own self-actualization.
John stared at the cement floor expectantly and lined up all of his Home Depot equipment in a neat, little row, like a chef does on television cooking shows. He mixed the base according to the directions and spread the thick concoction over the clean floor. He laid the tiles, using spacers, being careful to get the tiles exactly the same distance from each other. His arms collected a stiff layer of cement, and when he pulled it off, he ripped small hairs from his skin.
In the dawn, John examined his sitting room and decided that the wall color just would not do. In the morning light, the cream, once subtle and warming, now seemed like old mustard on the sleeve of a white shirt. He decided that a soft green, the color of field grass in the fall, would emphasize the wood floor.
As John slid his small paintbrush down the picture-window trim, careful to avoid the glass, he noticed Mrs. Bain, standing by a tree in the courtyard some twenty yards away, facing him, a notebook and pencil in her hand. Did he imagine it, or was she watching him? He stood straighter then, aware now that he was on display, and pulled up his pants, which had fallen past his boxer waistband. Thinking of the tight knots his lips and brows made as he concentrated, he wondered what kind of detail she could see from that distance. “Aww,” he heard himself say. He felt sorry for her, then. Sorry that she probably could no longer take on such labor herself. Sorry that she had probably stopped to watch a young man work and in her envy forgot what it was she had been doing.
* * *
The eleven hundred square feet took shape rapidly, but with each improvement, John noticed more possibilities. He saw cracks in the walls, and he patched them before painting. He saw rust in the window sills, and he sanded them down and primed. Now that the kitchen had new floors, the appliances, a dusty color that was popular in the sixties, stood out oddly. He painted them too.
At the end of the day, the small muscles of John’s back ached and twitched. He took a bath that night—something he normally was against doing, for he avoided sitting in his filth when he could—hoping that it would allow him to be more mobile in the morning when he would work on the bathroom.
Even as he soaked, he worked. His feet he propped up on the faucet, but his eyes examined the areas that he normally missed in the shower. The fixtures needed replacing, including the light, the faucets, and the showerhead. He knew he could do most of it himself in hours, but what would take longer was the tile; the grout had begun to crumble from between the squares, and the caulking, which someone had done too quickly, had begun to mold. As John sat in the tub, he pulled at the corner caulking. It came out in large strips around the perimeter. He found it addicting, like popping package bubbles, or peeling sun-burned skin. He stood up and found another corner. Giving it a yank, he stripped the edge bare, only with the strip came rotten sheetrock from the ceiling. He poked at it, and his finger went clean through. It was wet and soggy and swelled like caked mud over swampy land.
“Shit,” he said as he prodded the mucky wall, knowing that Mrs. Bain had a leak in her bathroom, knowing that he’d have to go talk to her, become trapped in her condo, discussing the weather.
* * *
Climbing, the next morning, the sixteen stairs in the gaudy, hotel-like hallway, lit dimly with the same halogen lights found in almost every unit, John congratulated himself on having put softer lighting fixtures in his own place. Reluctantly, he knocked twice on the heavy door—just like his, but with one more digit on the number. Mrs. Bain pulled the door open wide. At ten a.m., she still wore her pajamas and a tattered housecoat, which she buttoned all the way to the top as John stood before her.
“Yes?” she asked, like an old woman does, stretching out the word in a roller coaster fashion, as though she’d never suspected anyone to come knocking at her door.
“Mrs. Bain,” John said, trying to keep this visit formal and businesslike, hoping it might wrap up their time together quickly. “I’m your downstairs neighbor.” This introduction made John question why he’d made this trip and not one to the condo office, which could easily send Mrs. Bain a notice. But that could take weeks, he thought, and he was refurbishing. Besides, he was already here, standing in front of a strange, old woman, introducing himself.
“Yes?” she said. John blinked, taken aback, thinking she should probably invite him in, offer him tea, tell him about her day’s shows. Isn’t this what old women did? What neighbors did with one another?
“Well, um, Ma’am, I think your bathroom pipes are leaking. At least, my ceiling is caving in—see, I’m refurbishing? And I started to take apart the bathroom, and the wall, well it’s rather soggy, and so is the ceiling, and that, I think, comes from your pipes.” John realized he’d rambled, that he hadn’t kept this formal but rather made it conversational, giving her the okay to start rambling herself. He took a breath and stood erect, pressing his shirt down on his chest. Mrs. Bain stared blankly at him, staying silent, waiting for him to continue. John looked behind her, at her living room, the same floor plan he had. Only hers seemed open and airy, not stuffy and academic. The walls beyond the front hall were meticulously painted a soft gray. Two art-deco chairs faced the picture window and a third sat under a large pencil etching of a ballerina. Books stacked up in piles like little end tables, and Architectural Digests peppered a hound’s-tooth ottoman. Instead of a television, she had set up a large easel, and on it sat an unfinished oil painting of a man, sitting in his living room armchair among chaos and clutter, wearing only his bathrobe and reading a book.
The place wasn’t fuddy-duddy at all! It was quite modern, quite urbane. He felt momentarily jealous of Mrs. Bain and her tastefully-decorated condo, of her obviously cultured pastime.
He stood silently, staring at the oil painting, thinking the man in it looked very much like himself: the same bathrobe, the same armchair. Mrs. Bain cleared her throat, startling him.
“My pipes,” she said, smiling, her eyes cocked.
“Yes, yes. Your pipes—do they seem to be leaking? I think you’ll have to get them fixed,” he said again, rocking now back and forth. He felt the awkwardness of silence and hoped Mrs. Bain would say something so that he could cut her off, make an excuse to go. “Nice weather we’re having,” he heard himself say, and winced at the realization of it.
“Yes, nice,” she said, now leaning on the door. “Well, thank you.” She nodded over-zealously, John thought.
“Yes, nice,” John said, wringing his hands. He remembered her leaky pipes and wondered how she might go about fixing them. It must be a burden for her. Surely she wouldn’t know whom to call. Most likely the plumber would overcharge her, this little, old lady by herself. He decided to fix the pipes for her. He could figure it out. How hard could it be? After all, he had engineering blood in him. Farming blood. It was the right thing to do—helping old Mrs. Bain out. It was his duty, he thought, just as the philosopher Kant once said: It is one’s duty to constantly improve himself and those around him.
But, just as Mrs. Bain reiterated “Thank you” and said “Goodbye,” John’s eyes locked on the painting, noticing again how many odd similarities existed between its setting and his own condo: the field-green walls, the golden-brown floors, the quarter-round molding. Though, rather than the smooth walls of his living room, this painting showed patches of old, mustardy cream showing through. And instead of perfect untouched floors, it showed marred, uneven slats with dotted black holes. And instead of perfectly-matched quarter-round molding, it portrayed large gaps and overlaps, odd pieces of wood sticking in the air.
“Huh,” he said aloud, no longer noticing Mrs. Bain, who’d slipped behind the heavy door to shut it. A thought occurred to him, then, that her décor was all a ruse—her cultured, contemporary apartment. She didn’t know what beauty was, after all! Could hardly spot perfection through her cataract-sickened eyes. Yes, that must have been why she’d depicted him so pathetically, portrayed his condo in such a mess. That would be the reason.
Really, it was all very sad. So sad that she couldn’t see what’s there, right in front of her, he thought, straining his neck to see the painting again, one last time, before the heavy door shut out the soft-gray light of Mrs. Bain’s living room.
Jody Gerbig received her B.A. from Tulane University and her M.A. from American University. After her first novel, Unmasked, debuted in 2008, she began focusing more on short stories and nonfiction, recently appearing in Scapegoat Review. Jody lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband and two dogs.