The bathroom ceiling starting peeling off in long giant curls some months ago. I tried not to look up, to see it deteriorate out of the corner of my eye then press the images out of my mind, concentrating on the face in the mirror, the mouth foaming with toothpaste, N behind me reaching for a q-tip, E asking if we can go downstairs and ride her scooter today.
At one point, we understood the old landlady would try to fix it herself, half-blind with cheap paint an a rickety ladder, trying to put a giant wet band-aid on it hoping it will go away. I said no, that will not happen. We need to scrape things down to where the problem began. Smooth it, seal it, prime it, and then give everything a fresh coat. And while we're at it, yes - the kitchen cabinets are all wobbly, the chairs need some screws and strong wood glue on the joints and yes, we need a new shower head.
A week later I spent half on evening trolling around a giant home improvement store with N, my stomach empty and growling as my voice rose in disbelief, as salesmen sent us on wild goose chases for carpenter's glue, as we passed the same cordless drills time and again until the cart was full of gloves and paint rollers, of magnets and spackle. I used to build things for a living - opera scenery, circus rings, perfume showrooms on the 57th floor. I always had a pencil behind my ear, sawdust caked in my pant cuffs, long red scratches on my rough palms, a yellow jackknife in my pocket that was my grandfather's. I welded in a sweltering Brooklyn warehouse in August, the tiny hot beads popping onto my sleeves and burning little holes in them. I ran plexiglass through table saws, ripped lumber, built walls and contraptions and slept good sleeps. I drank cold beer from cans at the end of the day, admiring the fruit of labor or a well-packed truck.
There were years of this construction, this making-of-things, this understanding of dimensions, of the knot in a board and how it would pull way from the blade. And then one day, I left my bag of tools on the floor never to return. My cherished, sharp chisels, the old Estwing hammer, the nail set, the matte knife, an all-around good plane, spare jigsaw blades and the rest. I thought of them years later, to retrieve them from that small, cold studio on South 6th street in Brooklyn, but then I understood they were long gone.
The paint is dancing off the end of my scraper. It rains onto the hair on my arms as I slide it across the ceiling. There is an eerie sense of relief as the process finally begins. E stands in the door, gazing up at me balanced on the last step of the old lady's ladder.
"Is that gonna take a long time?" She asks me at one point.
"If I do it right, yes." I answer, spitting some dust from my lips. "If I do it bad, not so long."
She nods, her hand on her hip.
"Just tell me if you need me to do something." She announces.
"Tell me when it is five." I tell her. "So we can do down and you can ride your scooter."
"Ok." She chirps, disappearing from the doorway and then popping her head back in.
I look down at her, feeling the muscles in my forearm begin to twitch.
"What." I ask her.
"I love you, Pop." She says, smiling quickly and then going back to the living room.