My brother Howard and I slept upstairs in the attic of the house on Golden Valley Road. Except for the floor, which was simple rough planking, the attic was unfinished. That hardly seemed important to us. All we were going to do was sleep there. There was a whole forested hillside to explore, summer was coming on and we didn’t figure to spend that much time inside anyway.
A door from the kitchen led to a steep stairwell. You had to be careful, something pre-teenage boys are not known to be, when coming down the stairs; they were small and narrow and the well tight and constrictive. More than once, we fell out of the attic as much as we climbed down.
It was early spring and Mom decided it was time to rotate the mattresses. I’m not sure why. It must be a ‘woman’ thing because, some forty years later, every six months or so, my old-world Italian wife insists on a variation of the same thing. We have to flip and reverse our king size mattress. No small task in an upstairs master bedroom where the outside walls slope precipitously downward at an abrupt forty-five degree angle. Good God! The mattress is as wide, nearly, as the room is tall. Add to that my arthritis, stubborn and stupid nature and it’s quite a chore! Anyway, the upstairs mattresses had to come down and the downstairs mattresses had to go up.
I still don’t understand it. Oy!
Have I mentioned that the stairwell was narrow? Does narrow mean the same as claustrophobic? No? Okay, then. The stairwell was claustrophobically narrow– how’s that? And in order to get down it, you had to make a ninety-degree turn around a safety rail in the attic. Oh, yeah, and while doing so, you had to avoid the exposed shingle nails from the roof. I still have puncture scars in my scalp and back. Remember, I said the upstairs was unfinished.
It was 1968, or there about, and mattresses had no springs then; at least the ones we slept on didn’t. They were heavy cloth pinned over clumped cotton ticking and responded to movement more like a drunken overgrown Saint Bernard. I was about twelve, which meant my brother was about ten, so neither of us was what you would call strong. Needless to say, hauling a drunken overgrown Saint Bernard down a claustrophobically narrow stairwell was no small chore. We struggled to the safety rail and then I had a flash of brilliance.
“Howard, why wrestle this thing down?” I asked him. “Why not just toss it over?”
I know I mentioned the stairwell was steep and narrow, but did I mention that the kitchen door opened inward toward the attic stairs? Did I also mention that we had neglected to fix it open? Well, since I hadn’t planned on throwing the mattress over the railing, I didn’t think to block the door open.
Howard and I huffed and puffed, wrestled and wallowed the unwieldy mattress over the banister and gave it a shove. It fell like a suicide to the landing below, where it landed with a dusty thump, impacted the door and wedged it closed tighter than a cork on a moonshine jug. Oops.
Mom called from the kitchen.
“You boys be careful!” She snapped.
You would have thought she would have known better. Howard stared down into the stairwell at the closed door.
“Uhm… I don’t think we should have done that.” He said.
I peered over the dimly lit well.
“Maybe not.” I agreed. “But at least we got it down.”
Howard looked at me.
“Yeah, well, it’s also jammed up against the door.”
I was unconcerned. Many was the night we had snuck out of the house, out the upstairs window, down the roof, down the front porch pillars and off into the forest or the neighbor’s pond. We weren’t stuck. The mattress may have been, but we weren’t. But we still had to get the damn thing out.
We got within six feet of the landing before the mattress avalanche obstructed us. The landing was no larger than the stairwell and the mattress was wider than the well. We couldn’t get to the door without standing on the ticking and we couldn’t drag it out of the way if we couldn’t get under it- a classic conundrum.
We tried pulling, twisting and turning it from the head: no luck. We tried standing on it and prying one side away from the wall so the other could get beneath it: no luck. We pulled, yanked, twisted, sweated, cursed, yelled and fought. The mattress stubbornly refused to budge. Had it been a horse, we would have shot it. Which would have been another mistake because a dead horse wedged tightly in a claustrophobically narrow stairwell is no easier to move than a drunken Saint Bernard mattress wedged tightly in a claustrophobically narrow stairwell.
It wasn’t long before frustration, anger and perceived distance versus actual distance- claustrophobia– got the better of us and the fists and tempers started to fly.
I hit him. He shoved me. I called him stupid; he called me an idiot and said it was all my idea. Mom had finally had enough.
In the old days, when we were still young enough to fool and when the rainy days got to be too much; when the kids were cooped up in the house and driving mom crazy, she used to pile my three sisters, my brother and me into the family car and take us for a long and leisurely drive. It occurs to me that the unscrupulous and unethical in those backward days used a similar tactic to dump unwanted cantankerous dogs. Tempt the poor unsuspecting mongrel into the family car, drive him out into the middle of nowhere; let him out and then drive off and leave him. I wonder if mom was ever tempted to do the same with her querulous children? Two hours of aimless wandering down country roads, signing church hymns and “The Little Blue Man” and by the time we got home, all frustration and pent up aggression had been spent. And if a child continued to act up in the car, mom would threaten in a low rumbling voice,
“If I have to come back there…”
The threat was enough because we knew mom didn’t necessarily have to stop the car in order to reach us. If the squabbling continued beyond the threat, mom would nonchalantly instruct the offender,
“Lean up here a sec’, hon.” She would cheerfully, deceptively chirp.
When the child mindlessly obeyed, she would smack the bickering offender in the forehead with the back of her hand. That trick always worked. At fifty years of age, I still flinch in the car today when driving with my mom. Old habits and conditioned responses die hard.
The point is that mom had a quick hand and threats and nonchalant instructions were not to be taken lightly.
Mom allowed us to quarrel, fight and shove each other until she could stand no more:
“If you boys don’t stop fighting,” she ominously announced, “I’m going to come in there!”
I froze. Howard froze. Panic set in and then just as quickly waned as my brother turned to me and grinned.
“Yeah?” He snickered as he questioned her. “How are you going to get in?” He called through the door.
We waited but only heard silence in the kitchen. We had her and she knew it. No trip in the family car singing hymns and “The Little Blue Man” was going to rectify this. We knew that in order for the threat to be real, there had to be the reasonable expectation of punishment and pain.
“Yeah,” I chimed in, “if you could get in, we wouldn’t be stuck!”
Howard started laughing. I started laughing. Mom tried not to laugh but did in spite of herself.
“All right you, two,” she chuckled, “but just remember, when you finally do get out, I’ll still be here.”
Howard froze. I froze. Oops. We hadn’t thought of that. Just like we hadn’t thought to wedge the door open before we hadn’t thought it a bad idea to throw the mattress down the claustrophobically narrow stairwell.
Howard hit me. I shoved him. He called me stupid; I called him an idiot, he said it was my idea…