My father was struck speechless for the first time in his life on the day that my mother fell through the ceiling.
Well, who wouldn’t be struck speechless? My father was contentedly smoking cigars, eating M&Ms, and watching a football game from the comfort of his favorite recliner when my mother’s sneakered foot emerged through the living room ceiling.
But my father’s inability to speak should not be attributed solely to shock. There were deeper philosophical implications. I believe my father was struck speechless because his dark view of life had finally been proven correct beyond any conceivable doubt.
Whatever the reason, the result was that my father stood in the front doorway frantically gesturing and waving his cigar at me. I dropped my rake – it was autumn and one of my youthful chores was raking the leaves, though my father felt there was no ultimate purpose because they would only fall again next year – and entered the house running.
I don’t know what I expected to find. I do know that my mother’s leg dangling through the ceiling was not high on my list of possibilities.
It was definitely my mother’s leg. I recognized her sneaker. And I recognized the tentative, hopeful way her foot kept reaching for a floor that was at least six feet out of reach.
My mother was always an optimist.
“Mom,” I shouted through the jagged hole, “are you okay?” I was standing in a pile of plaster and dust.
“Of course, dear,” her distant voice answered calmly. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m in the attic. I do think I’m stuck, though.”
My father shook his head. He often shook his head when it came to my mother, whose upbeat demeanor struck him as flying in the face of all the evidence.
It’s safe to say that my father was not an optimist.
“I’ll be right there,” I shouted.
The noise of plaster falling and of my shouting had at last roused my brother Paul from behind the closed door of his bedroom. Four years older than me, and infinitely wiser, my brother had long since arrived at the only rational response to growing up in our household: he was stoned most of the time.
I watched his slow double take as I ran up the stairs. I could almost hear the loose gears of his mind slipping and catching. “Is –“
“Yeah,” I said, guessing his thoughts. “It’s real. It’s Mom. Come on, help me!”
We scrambled into the attic together.
Why didn’t my father scramble into the attic with us? Simple: it was a tiny door and he could never squeeze through the opening. He was too big of a guy.
I heard my mother’s voice before I saw her. The attic was lit by one bare bulb and my eyes were still adjusting from the bright daylight outside.
Paul spotted her right away, probably because his pupils were dilated as wide as a cat’s. He ambled gracefully to her side.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, brushing a long strand of blonde hair away from his face and then sitting down cross-legged next to her. “How’s it going? Whatcha doin’ up here?”
She patted her own blond hair. “Paul, didn’t I tell you to get a haircut? I’m looking through my records.”
I’d finally bumped and scraped my way past the boxes of books and photographs, the garment bags hanging from the rafters, the old bed frame, the forgotten toys, and a wide assortment of other dust-coated paraphernalia. I was now coated with dust myself. I was also coughing my lungs out.
“I don’t like that cough,” my mother said. “Are you catching another cold?”
“Mom,” I asked, with more patience than I felt, “do you have any idea what happened? Your leg is poking through the living room ceiling. You were moving your foot before, right? I could see it. So could Dad.”
My mother smiled, as did Paul. I was starting to wonder if they were both stoned. “It is? Your father saw it?”
“Yes. It popped through the ceiling while he was sitting there watching the football game.”
My mother’s lips started to twitch. She couldn’t have been comfortable. She was leaning on her left knee with her right leg disappearing into the insulation below. But she started to laugh.
“Oh, that poor man. He’ll have a heart attack yet.”
My mother’s laughter prompted Paul to start laughing. And then I couldn’t help it. I looked from one to the other and I started laughing, too.
“Is everything all right up there?” my father shouted. He’d found his voice, which boomed in the enclosed space of the attic.
“Yes!” we all shouted back, which made us laugh harder.
“What the hell are you doing up there,” my father shouted.
None of us could catch our breath for long enough to answer.
There was a momentary silence from below. “I live in a Goddamned insane asylum,” said my father.
Why was my mother in the attic looking through her old records? Because she had recently undergone a successful operation to restore the long-lost hearing in her right ear. My Mom was now getting jiggy with every musical genre: classical, rock, country, big band, opera, jazz. She was groovin’ on Miles Davis and tripping to the synthesized chords of art rock bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes. She’d have been hip-hopping to hip-hop, too, if it existed in those 1970s days.
You could locate my mother anywhere in the house by following the long, tangled black cable that led to the Koss headphones on her head. My mother was captivated by the novelty of stereo sound. Her B.S.R. turntable never stopped spinning. The tubes of her Marantz amplifier constantly glowed. Also, I believe music was a great way of not listening to my father. For many years, she could literally turn a deaf ear to him. That was no longer possible. Headphones were the next best thing.
Of course, the real question in my mind was always: why on earth are my parents married? My mother never took anything seriously; my father never took anything lightly. As an emergency room nurse, my mother had dealt every day with events much worse than my father’s worst imaginings. Now that she was a school nurse – in the same Trenton high school where my father taught business – my mother was enjoying the calm.
I often imagined a parade of my father’s distraught students – told by him that the marketplace was brutal, competitive, and unforgiving – arriving in the nurse’s office to receive warmth and comfort from my ethereal, smiling mother. I could relate.
“Joe is here!” my father shouted. “Joe is coming up!”
My mother now started laughing so hard that she was actually crying.
“It’s going to cost a thousand dollars to get me out,” she at last managed to say. Paul and I doubled over.
I should pause for a moment here to explain my mother’s comment. Edgar Johannson – Joe, as he called himself, or Mister Ed, as my brother and I liked to call him – was a general handyman originally hired by my father to repair the front steps of our house. There was nothing wrong with the front steps, but this didn’t stop my father.
“Preventive maintenance,” he said. “Those bricks are getting looser every day. It had to be done.”
That phrase was my father’s fatalistic mantra: it had to be done. We’d been hearing it since infancy.
It was clearly a lucrative phrase to Edgar Johannson, who had started on the steps three months before and was now immersed in an assortment of expensive projects throughout the house.
Mr. Johannson charged a flat rate for everything. That rate was one thousand dollars. It didn’t seem to matter what work he performed. Build a new wing for your house? One thousand dollars. Water the roses? One thousand dollars.
Such round numbers appealed to my father, who could now say punchy things like, “Yeah, it cost me a thousand bucks, but I finally got that basement floor refinished. It had to be done.”
The idea of a general handyman in the house made practical sense to my father, since the last time he tried to hang a picture on the wall had led to an ambulance, an emergency room, and eighteen stitches in his thumb and forefinger.
It also made emotional sense. To my father, his home – for that matter, the world – was in an alarming state of decay. Edgar Johannson was the man who could prop it all back up, at least for a while.
Johannson was a short, solid, bull-necked gentleman with a gray crew cut and a missing finger. He had sliced off part of the finger accidentally one day with a table saw. This was long before surgeons were able to reattach fingers, arms, hands, penises, etc. He wrapped the bleeding hand in his shirt and drove himself to the hospital, where he insisted they remove the remainder of the finger. He felt the stump would get in his way. He did not request anesthesia.
Johannson was a pragmatist. He was also crazy. Not to mention authoritarian, rude, intrusive, loud, stubborn, and obnoxious. For instance, he insisted that he was commissioned as a colonel during World War II, though he would only have been in his early teens at the time.
Paul and I looked at each other upon hearing that claim. “For which side?” we both asked.
Among his many gifts, Mr. Johannson had one for putting other people to work – particularly me. Since his arrival, I had dug trenches in the hot sun, hauled bags of cement from the back of his rusting station wagon, dragged heavy furniture around the house, scraped paint from the walls. I felt like an indentured servant. I was being worked to death by a mad tyrant. And I had yet to see my share of Johannson’s exorbitant fees.
I was not fond of Edgar Johannson. Neither was my mother, or Paul.
Naturally, my father liked him. But then my father also liked the one-armed roofer with skin cancer who would only work on rainy days, and the drunken electrician who rewired our house so that you couldn’t run the toaster and vacuum cleaner at the same time without causing a power outage for most of the eastern seaboard.
My father did not have a gift for hiring people.
“What the hell happened?” asked Mr. Johannson, in his unfailingly polite manner.
He was squeezing his way through the entrance to the attic. I heard him curse as he banged his knee on the frame of the door, then curse louder when he stood and banged his head on a rafter.
“Goddamnit, Ted,” he shouted down the stairs, “why don’t you widen this entrance and put a drop ceiling up here?”
I could see the thousand dollars changing hands already.
“Never mind that,” my father shouted back, “get her out of there!”
Johansson forced his way across the cluttered attic floor, grimly kicking aside my childhood heirlooms with a booted heel. He was like a one-man invasion force. I expected a bayonet to be clenched in his teeth. I expected a grenade belt around his waist. I expected to hear air cover circling over the roof. Okay, maybe not air cover. But you get the idea.
“I see you’re having a shitload of problems here, Ma’m.”
My mother smiled brightly. You’d have to know her to recognize that smile as false.
“Hello, Joe. That’s quite a poetic way of putting it,” my mother replied.
Johannson hesitated. Talking to my mother always seemed to confuse him.
“Well, let old Joe take a look. I’m sure we can fix it. Like they say, what goes in must come out. Right, Dougie?” He winked at me grotesquely as he crouched next to my mother. “But then you’re too young to know. Me, I’ve been around the block a few times.”
“What happened,” asked Paul, “did you forget your address?”
At first I thought Paul was serious in a stoned sort of way. But then he winked at me, too.
“Huh?” asked Johannson. He was reaching into the flooring around my mother’s leg. “Shit, you’re really wedged in there. I’m not sure why, it’s something about the angle maybe. Damned termites did this, you need a new floor up here.”
“I’m sorry to interrupt your efforts, Joe, but you’re hurting me. Please stop.”
“If I could just reach around—“
My father’s voice boomed through the entrance to the attic. His angry face filled the opening. “That’s enough, Joe. You’re hurting her. Just let go. I’m calling the fire department.”
“I almost have it, Ted. You’ve got termites, by the way. You need a new floor up here.”
He bumped me as he twisted and reached further into the hole.
“I don’t give a damn about termites, Joe,” said my father. “Just let go of her.”
“Maybe if your idiot kids would get out of my way, I’d have some room to work.”
“My children are not idiots, Mr. Johannson,” said my mother icily.
“Coulda fooled me,” said Johannson.
“That wouldn’t be hard,” said Paul.
“That’s enough, everyone!” shouted my mother suddenly. None of us had ever heard her shout before. We fell into stunned silence.
“Joe, step away from here! Ted, go downstairs and call the fire department! Boys, go wait with your father! Everyone out! Do what you’re told now! Gomer!”
I was the only one in the room who knew the meaning of that phrase. My mother the emergency room nurse had told me once.
It means: Get Out of My Emergency Room.
It was a magnificent performance. It was exactly what the situation demanded. Unfortunately, it came a moment too late. Johannson was leaning way too much of his solid weight on the rotted floorboards around my mother while groping around in the hole. It doesn’t take a physicist to figure out what happened next.
There was the crack of splintering wood and the scratchy rasp of tearing insulation and then a sudden desperate clawing movement on the part of Mr. Johannson as he tried to escape the inevitable. But it was too late. The floor gave way and Mr. Johannson and my mother went plummeting through the hole together.
I could barely bring myself to look through that hole. But when I did, I saw something I never expected to see. My mother and Johannson had touched down safely on the couch that my father the pessimist had moved beneath the hole.
My immediate philosophical conclusion? Life requires a combination of optimism, pessimism, and pragmatism.
It’s not exactly Sartre, but I was only twelve.
Paul and I stared wonderingly through the hole for a long moment. Then Paul shook his head. “Little brother,” he said, ruffling my hair, “I think it might be time for me to get straight. You’ve got to be alert around here to survive.”
It didn’t take much alertness to know what was going on when we arrived downstairs. Johannson was busily explaining to my father how much it would cost to repair the ceiling
The living room was a mess. The tasteful green shag rug that covered the floor like some weird alien moss was now coated with splintered wood, plaster, and insulation. Exposed wires hung down like jungle vines. There wasn’t much you could do to make a suburban living room look worse in those years, but ours did.
My mother, on the other hand, looked fine. She smiled at Paul and I, her serene self once more.
My father surveyed the damage. “Are you done, Joe?” he asked.
“Shit, no,” said Joe. “You need a floor in the attic and a ceiling up there and a new entrance with steps and –“
“I think you’re done,” my father said, very evenly. He was gazing down at Johannson from a height advantage of at least a foot and a weight advantage of more than one hundred pounds. “In fact, I think you should take your tools and your attitude and get the hell out of my house.”
“Yes!” Paul and I shouted together, throwing our fists in the air.
It was a Star Wars moment. We quickly positioned ourselves on either side of my father, arms folded. My mother – Princess Leia – watched quietly, confident in her men. Obi, Luke, and Han bravely stared down the Darth Vader of the home repair industry, so that balance and harmony could be restored to a darkening universe. I could feel the light saber in my hand. I could hear the music rise.
Johannson glowered at my father for a long while. Comets flashed past our view port. Then, miraculously, he backed down. He shook his head, snorted, muttered, and left, taking his tools and his attitude with him.
Paul and I cheered and threw our fists in the air when the door slammed shut. My mother hugged my father. Then she hugged us.
My father ignored the ruckus. He navigated his way slowly around the debris, slumping into his recliner and reaching reflexively for the remote control. One leg of the television stand was broken and the television was leaning far to starboard. Pieces of insulation dangled from the antenna like silver confetti. The screen was coated with dust. But that didn’t stop my father. He still had a game to watch.
“It had to be done,” he said.
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