You rip up the old beige carpet, matted down with fifty years of footsteps. Dust whirls up: bantam bits of grandparents and babies and pets and dinosaurs and rocks from space. The history of the universe and yesterday’s Chihuahua dandruff are equal here, spinning gold in the light from the window.
You’ve been wanting to get rid of this ancient carpet for years, but there was safety in the padding, shabby as it was. Your two girls are old enough now; there’s no need to worry about a toddling footstep gone awry. There will be no more babies.
When your youngest daughter was two, she decided to ride her pink plastic pony down the steps. You were grateful for the old carpet then. Bump bump bump bump CRASH! Plenty of tears, but only two spots of blood on her bottom lip where her baby teeth punched through.
What was she thinking at the top? Maybe she felt invincible astride her faithful Petunia. Maybe she thought she could fly. Maybe she was terrified, hovering at the precipice, but felt compelled to go down anyway. Maybe she didn’t understand why. Maybe she had no choice. Maybe she just had to see what would happen.
The tack strips are brittle; careful as you are, they break in pieces more often than not. You wedge the screwdriver under them, pry at them with the hammer claw, pull at them with ineffectual fingers. The nails are sunk as deep as old habits. You creak, groan, and splinter your way up. You leave holes in your path, sharp arrows of Douglas fir, stray tiny nails. The unavoidable mess of restoration.
You don’t know yet if the stairs will be yours or his. Neither of you is ready for the details at this point, the minutiae necessary when dividing one life into two.
Still, you work on them all day.
The tack strips are gone, broken and tossed in a garbage bag next to the collapsed pile of pinkish-brown carpet. You sweep up remnants and run a cool rag along the brow of each step. The chocolate-colored paint is in relatively good condition. The once-white paint on the risers and trim is yellowed and cracked. With a putty knife, you push spackle in rows of tiny holes and scrape it flush with the wood.
The stairs were your favorite place to write when you couldn’t sleep. You’d pull the laptop from under the bed and creep past your sleeping husband. You’d prefer to stay under the warm covers, but you didn’t want to wake him with the light, with the noise of typing. Downstairs was too dark, too cold, too far away from everyone else, so you settled on the top step. Your back against the sixties-era wallpaper with the houses and trees and horses, toes against the posts with too many decades of paint, you wrote whatever called you from your sleep.
You sand down the dried spackle and smooth the rough edges. Once again with the wet cloth, and finally it’s time to paint. The primer streaks white against the old yellow. It reminds you of the unhomogenized whole milk you buy for your daughters before it’s shaken. Eventually, there is more white than yellow. More new than old.
You try to take care as you go, but you’re getting tired. Sloppy and careless. You leave more of a mess than you’d like. No matter how quickly you wipe up the drips, the pale impressions of your mistakes trail behind you.
“I’m painting the stairs,” you tell Grammy about the house that was once hers.
“The inside stairs?”
“Yeah. I pulled up the old carpet and I just finished the last coat of primer. I’ve been working on it all weekend.”
“I just put that carpet down!”
“Grammy, it’s got to be fifty years old.”
“Fifty. I think you laid down that carpet in the sixties.”
Grammy can’t remember where she is or why Granddad isn’t there. She can’t even remember your name. But she does remember the years she spent longing for carpet on the stairs, how long it took to save up the money for it, how hard she worked to put it in. She shakes her head and shrugs.
“You spend all that time working on something, and next thing you know someone comes in and tears it all apart.”
Types of White:
The last coat of paint is finished. When you stand at the top of the staircase and look down, it seems steeper than before. Shiny but perilous. You can understand why Grammy put in that carpet. It’s true that these bare steps are a little cold, a little hard. Your footfalls echo now. They make the house sound empty.
There’s a photo of your family on these stairs. Four generations wrapped in Christmas-red sweaters. A lighted garland twirls down the bannister and falls in gold curls. Some of you smile easier than others. Your mother is one of the easy smilers—always has been. She doesn’t know next Christmas will be her last. The baby is looking away. Your husband stands with his hands in his pockets and you kneel beside him, arms wrapped around your oldest daughter.
No, you’re wrong. His hands are on your shoulders. You just didn’t remember them there.
Elizabeth Vignali is an optician and writer in the Pacific Northwest, where she coproduces the Bellingham Kitchen Sessions reading series. She is the author of Object Permanence and coauthor of Your Body A Bullet. Her work has appeared in Willow Springs, Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Tinderbox, The Literary Review, and elsewhere.