Broadside #30 (Spring 2013 / 13.8)
The ladder leading to the attic hung from the ceiling like a crooked spine. Tessa Thorne had not even realized the abandoned three-story row house had an attic. Attics were for treasures, for preserving family memories, and after two weeks of picking up spent syringes and rusty cans from the first floor, she needed to believe a family once lived there. But the path to the third floor landing seemed miles away, the opening from which the ladder hung impossibly far.
Clearing the way to the second floor seemed a Herculean task. Someone had ripped out entire steps. Graffiti stretched up the stairway walls, red and black spray painted words that felt like slaps. Tessa wearied easily, the baby lying in her like a weight. She would rest, hands settled on her lower back, at the foot of the broken stairs, panic growing in her bigger than the gaping holes between treads, sharper than the nails protruding from the railing ripped from the wall.
She considered leaving, returning to Winstead and her grandmother and her assembly-line job of packing bullets into rectangular boxes that reminded her of miniature caskets. There, she could continue to be invisible, a state which felt safer but which admitted defeat. Tessa had no choice—she had to stay. After all, she had invested in the row house , this was her home. Who cared if the investment amounted to a dollar, cheaper than a cup of coffee, cheaper than a diaper? She and Todd had split the difference, chipping in two quarters each. Besides, when she looked at the railing posts of turned cherry, the marble threshold, the intricate carved moldings, she felt the tug of the building’s potential beauty smothered under years of dirt and neglect.
“Excellent bones,” Todd had told her the day they passed papers committing them to the city’s urban renewal contract. “A diamond in the rough.”
In less than a month, scared by gunshots and the campfire flickering from the first floor of the house across the street, Todd left, taking his Volvo, wedding band, and clichés with him. At first, Tessa felt paralyzed, afraid to venture beyond the first floor of the ramshackle row house. For days she floated aimlessly from kitchen to sitting room to the dining room they had cobbled into a bedroom of sorts—a futon mattress, suitcases shoved into built-in book shelves, blankets flung over windows to darken the room for sleep. When her tears exhausted her, she flopped onto the mattress. She had felt safe sleeping in Todd’s arms at night, the soft tinkle of crystal above her when cool drafts whispered through the house, his hand wandering over the swell of her belly. After Todd left, the bed seemed a cairn. Lying there alone, she imagined the breaths of air were ghosts of prior owners watching her, encouraging her to return the foreclosed home to its former life.
The baby had kicked her lower ribs, hard, punishing, as if their predicament was Tessa’s fault. She rose, rubbing her gently rounded stomach, and saw the bed for what it was—a lumpy cotton mattress—and the memory of Todd prodded her back to work, first from sadness but later, as the days passed, from a thin, hard anger that tasted like warm iron in her mouth.
A week following Todd’s abandonment, Tessa walked two blocks to the Ace Hardware store and bought a hammer, a saw, and a half-pound of tenpenny nails. She did not pass anyone on the sidewalk, coming or going, only brick and Formstone row houses, windows blindfolded with do not enter signs, facing the reservoir. Weeping willows greened the edge of the water, the fleeting color of new leaves Tessa had always thought of as absurdly hopeful. Once she cleared her way to the second floor, she would have that view, too.
But the second floor rooms were small and dark and smelled of dirty laundry. Char and mildew streaked the peeling wallpaper. Plaster covered the two west-facing windows. Tessa swallowed her dismay and looked up the back staircase to the top floor. The ladder beckoned. She tumbled bags filled with trash down the stairs to the foyer. She bought paint the color of garnets. At night, bones aching, she painted over the ugly words as far as she could reach. If she stood still and quiet enough, she could feel the cool thread of air rushing down, the whir of it whistling through a crack or chink in some wall or window somewhere far above her.
She nailed down the curling floorboards and covered the holes with plywood salvaged from the basement. When she secured the top two steps, she stood on the third-floor landing. Rose-colored paper covered the third floor walls. Two rooms with closets smaller than the Volvo’s trunk faced the back. In between, a full bath with a claw-foot tub. Rust stained the porcelain. When Tessa turned on the water, the faucet hiccupped before spitting out brown water. In the third room, a lavender set of drawers covered in cobwebs, a doll’s cradle in the corner. Light streamed through the window; the bottom cracked a half-inch to the outside. In the distance, pillows of green floated above the blue of the reservoir. This will be the baby’s room, she thought.
She returned to the landing. The ladder hung above her. For an instant she wished Todd was beside her, to share in this moment of discovery. She did not know what the attic contained, but she hoped it held secrets of a gentler kind, books and letters perhaps, or old toys and moth-balled coats. Or just air, once breathed. A family had lived there, she was certain, and that knowledge was enough to tether her. The baby kicked, a quiet ripple flowing through her belly, and Tessa pulled the bottom rung.
ROW HOUSE emerged from a writing prompt, the first line provided by a classmate for a writing assignment: “The ladder to the attic hung from the ceiling.” I spent days agonizing over what to write. Then, on the weekend, my family and I did a Baltimore garden tour which took us to Druid Hill. Beautiful old homes surrounded by derelict others, a neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. I wondered what it would be like to live there, and the story was born, with different characters, situation, and in a far shorter version. I pulled the story out of the drawer around Christmas–I had a dream about fixing up a row house–and returned to it. In revision, I aimed for creating a sensory world, to plunking the reader into the innards of this abandoned and even dangerous building: the graffiti, the stale air, the smothered past. As a result, the story itself is very interior. Even though this is a quiet piece, I also wanted to imbue it with tension, and hope the puzzle of the ladder helped to frame that tension. After writing this, I find myself intrigued by Tessa and am working on telling more of her story.