Nine Word Prompt:
The Attic Stairs
Another Nine Word Prompt suggested this story. The words are: search, bottle, park, wait, finish, miracle, buddy, daughter, heat. The present struggle of a friend suggested the story, however most of it is fiction brimming over with snippets from the real lives of lots of people, including my own. Combine fiction and memoir and call it MICTION or FEMOIR.
Story by Kathy Coogan
Charlotte pulled down the folding attic stairs, feeling the heat radiating downward. Stairs is a misnomer. It was actually a ladder, which had a handrail similar to the boarding ladder of a boat. She and John used to argue about the attic.
He hated heights and couldn’t imagine that she didn’t. He insisted that she never go up to the attic unless he was home. She teased that she wouldn’t need a spotter unless she tried the parallel bars or pommel horse. She used the wise wifely way of getting around his dictum by simply never telling him.
Only now that he was gone and she needed to go to the attic, she felt a little scairdy-catty when pulling down the folding staircase. What if she did fall? Who would find her? Should she get one of those little buttons old ladies wore for the times they’ve fallen and can’t get up?
The hell with it, she thought as she climbed upward. She had a deal on the house, had to move in a month and had decided on a John-like plan for clearing out the house. Attic to basement. Top to bottom.
She stopped when her head was level with the attic floor. God, it was hot up here. She could hear John saying, “Heat rises,” in one of the little educational lessons he often repeated and which she always forgot.
She groaned as she viewed the dozens and dozens of boxes of forgettable memorabilia that had been schlepped up here for the last thirty-five years: her lesson plans, John’s policy manuals, her sons’ prizes and works of art. Good old furniture and crappy borderline junk. The attic was the last stop before oblivion.
She had given Eric and Adam a deadline, then another one, to make selections, to see if they wanted anything. The deadlines had passed with no interest so the hell with them. If they wanted disposable IKEA they could have disposable IKEA. Their someday-wives would die when they found out what they might have inherited; the history they might have shared.
Charlotte made a decision right there and then. She learned to do that when John got sick. Make a decision and stick to it. No second- guessing or she’d go crazy. She backed down the stairs, bent down and lifted the bottom one, raised it up and watched the stairway fold effortlessly back into the ceiling, the trapdoor closing automatically one, two, three. Once again she admired the efficiency of the whole shootin’ match, a John-ism. She could operate the mechanism with one hand. Everything else in life should be so easy.
She and John had been so different. They both had foresight but of entirely different kinds. She plucked results out of her imagination, seeing the steps as she took them, willing to go backwards if she made a mistake, an eraser her favorite tool. Lessons plans had been anathema to her.
John used maps and charts and calculators to plan out their lives in phases: their Couple Phase; their Family Phase and their Couple Phase again – the prize for diligence and hard work. She had always admired his wisdom and the clarity of his thinking and he had applauded in wonder and secret pride when her “harebrained schemes” produced miracles.
One of the last nights they shared a bed, John said, “You made our life, you know.” When she tried to interrupt he said, “Shhh. Nope. If it had been up to me, we would have saved our life for later. It was your detours and picnics and awful psychedelic wallpaper in the bathroom and handprints in the new cement sidewalk that made our life.” She could only manage, “I love that wallpaper,” before she rolled over so they could spoon for what became the last time. The next day they brought in a hospital bed.
She went downstairs to the kitchen, her Headquarters, John called it, and ran her index finger, searching, down the notes and phone numbers written on the yellow legal pad, one of many left over from John’s office supplies. “Damn it,” she whispered, then thumbed through the rubber-banded stack of business cards that she collected. She knew she had the number somewhere. “Ah, here it is,” she said. The card read Bob and Betty’s Bounty – We Pack Up and Pick Up.
She parked herself on the bar stool, lifted the phone, punched in a number and waited. “Hello. Yes, I’d like to schedule a pick-up please. Yes, miscellaneous household items, furniture and, and, could hold on a minute please? Thank you.”
She placed the phone against her breast and took a deep quivering breath.
She would not cry. She would not cry. She grabbed a paper towel and blew her nose, took another deep breath and spoke again into the phone. “Sorry, allergies,” she said. “You’ll take everything, no matter its condition? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. And you pay me? Okay, that sounds fine. See you then.” She hung up and wrote 10:00 a.m. on next Tuesday’s calendar block with the shorthand note, B&BB PU. John always said the CIA would never figure out her coded messages.
She stood at the counter and wished she had a daughter. Certainly a daughter would want that steamer trunk filled with embroidered linens or the fernery which had sat in her mother’s bay window filled with orchids or the coatrack from John’s office. And what about the cradle and baby clothes? Oh, God, she couldn’t think about the cradle and baby clothes. A daughter would want them, wouldn’t she? Her boys would regret it someday.
She went into the powder room and peed, thinking, “Okay, attic - finished.” She could scratch it off her list. She stood and pulled up her pants, feeling better, lighter. She washed her hands, avoiding looking at herself in the mirror. She used to fix her hair and put on lipstick for John; not so much lately. Okay, she thought. Back to the lists. Tools.
She had half a mind to not even mention John’s tools to the boys. “Hah - boys,” she thought, “one 29, one 31, not boys.” Let Bob and Betty add the tools to their bounty. But she’d give her sons another chance. She called Eric first. Machine of course. Associate attorneys never picked up. “Eric, it’s Mom. If you want any of Dad’s tools you’ve gotta come by this weekend. I’ve got people coming on Tuesday to help me pack up for the move. Let me know. Love you. Bye.”
Next Adam’s cell. He answered. “Hi Mom, what’s up. I’m driving so if I lose you…”
“What’s up is that I’ve got people coming on Tuesday to pick up stuff I don’t want to move. Can you come over before that to take some of Dad’s tools? If you want them?”
“Yes, but you need to come before that. Maybe Sunday? I’ll feed you. Or Saturday, maybe?”
“You moving already?”
“Well, as I mentioned last week,” (God she hated when she got passive aggressive), “I’m not actually moving till next month but there’s tons to do. These people are going to buy some things I don’t want to take with me,” she repeated. “You want some of dad’s tools?”
“Or his books? Maybe his books?”
“I’ve got tons of books. I don’t know.”
“Okay, I just thought...”
“Listen, I’m here. I’m running late. I’ve got to go in. Maybe I’ll stop by this weekend. I’ve got clients though. Let me know when you’re actually moving, okay?”
“Gotta go. Love ya.”
Charlotte pictured him dropping his cell phone into his pocket, his mother already forgotten, as he ran inside, his gym bag over his shoulder. Adam never walked anywhere. When he was little his dad christened him Roadrunner then eventually shortened that to Beep-beep then just Beep, which stuck. Now, a personal trainer, he seemed compelled to always be in motion.
Adam calling his customers “clients” always pissed off Eric the Lawyer. “Only professionals have clients, Baby Brother,” Eric would say.
And Adam would say, “I am a professional – a professional personal trainer and you could use my help with that gut, Buddy.”
And Eric would retaliate, “After I draft you a liability agreement with the gym in case you drop a free weight on your customer’s foot like you did mine in high school.”
“I did not.”
And on and on.
John saw their sniping as simple sibling rivalry - each unable to compete in the other’s arena but wanting to be acknowledged for the success in his own. John, the runner with a bad back, sought advice from son Adam. John, the businessman, turned to son Eric for contractual difficulties. Each knew he had his father’s respect and needed it. Charlotte wondered what they needed or wanted from her.
All through John’s dying - for he started dying before he was officially diagnosed; pancreatic cancer is that way – Eric and Adam came by every day. Time stopped being broken into the normal compartments of living. Before work, after work, mealtime, bedtime all ran together as life dribbled away.
The new brackets of time were now divided into: almost time for meds, meds, not quite time for meds, meds.
So the boys came by at all hours just to sit with their dad whether he was awake or not. It was a bonus if they could talk. (It broke her heart to hear John ask in his weak voice, “How’s the exercise business, Beep?” or to Eric, “Kept any crooks outa jail, Counselor?”) The occasional laughter made denial possible. Reality kept them coming back.
Charlotte left them to it, staying on the periphery of their visits out of necessity: a chance for her to shower or rest or go for a walk and have a cleansing cry. Her neighbor Judy often joined Charlotte on those walks, silently lengthening or shortening her stride to match her friend’s exhausted pace or frantic fearful jog.
Charlotte found that Adam and Eric were often hungry, having skipped meals to be with their dad so she fed them the food delivered by her invaluable, ever-present, behind-the-scenes girlfriends (a couple of widows among them - it was that time in their lives): lasagna, meatloaf, chicken cacciatore, enchiladas made with Campbell’s soup.
After the funeral, for a couple of weeks the boys still stopped by but the visits came farther apart until they became phone calls and then she began calling them, “Hi, it’s Mom, just calling to see how you’re doing. I’m fine.” A lie of course. On the sixth month anniversary, she stuck a For Sale by Owner sign in the yard throwing down the gauntlet to everybody who had advised, “Don’t make any decisions for a year.”
Eric was offended at not being consulted when he happened to stop in on the way home from work one night and saw the sign which had been up for two weeks. She knew she sounded passive-aggressive when she said, “But you’re so busy.” She agreed to let him know if she got an offer so he could help her negotiate and do the contract. Eric told Adam, who called to remind her of the One Year Rule. His girlfriend’s mother (neither of whom Charlotte had met) was a widow too and swore that it took a year to be sane again.
Charlotte felt sane. Sad but sane. Everywhere she looked John was there. But not there enough. He wasn’t there to unplug the disposal or to change the furnace filter or to warn her about the attic stairs. He wasn’t there to take the cork out of the wine bottle or to share the newspaper or to tell her Mary Chambers’ husband’s name. He especially wasn’t there to slip into the shower with or to rub her back when she was too tired to fall asleep.
In a different house, she’d expect to find no comfort, no familiarity, no John. When the offer on the house came she let Eric handle the details after she determined that the price was acceptable. Now she would move out and into the condo she rented on Little Lake.
These last days in the house would fly by like a too long bus tour: long days of doing too much, too fast, trundling along to get where she was going. All the good memories that would ever be made here had been made. The condo that had no attic would be her Next Phase.
She flipped to the last page of her notes. At the bottom she wrote: Don’t let B&BB PU the cradle. Then she went up to the attic, carried it down the stairs, holding onto the handrail for dear life and placed it in the garage with all the other unforgettables she couldn’t part with.
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