When I awoke in our apartment the morning after closing on our house, it felt like half the grape-stompers of Burgundy were doing the cancan into the backs of my eyes. “Ouch,” I said. “I drank too much last night. Ouch,” I said. “I feel funny. Ouch, ” I said. “We bought a house.”
We bought a house. Oh, right. I thought we should probably get out of bed and act like homeowners or something (it changes you, doesn’t it?), but, at that moment, apartment-dwelling sloth seemed much more appealing.
Alas, we had no such luxury. The floor refinishers were coming in three short days, and we had miles of shag to go before we could sleep.
I donned what would turn out to be my uniform for the next two weeks: baggy athletic pants, a turtleneck and ripped sweater, worn-out cross trainers and, to top it off, a black Budweiser watchcap (it was essential, I discovered, to never take the cap off, lest my head explode). It was my Hobo Catburgler look. Now, God knows I’m no fashionista, but even this was bad for me. I was a mess, but at least I knew it. Scrawled on one of my millions of lists was, “The end is near. I am going out in public in gym shoes.”
When we arrived at our house (our house), the first thing I noticed was that every paved and pathed surface was covered with ice. Not a skim, mind you – not an “Ooh, there was a little frost last night” covering. I’m talking an Artic ice sheet. We had a crew of men coming, and each one was a potential lawsuit. (OK, now I was getting the hang of thinking like a homeowner.) Something had to be done, and there was clearly no landlord to call to do it. But first, we had carpet to tackle.
I can’t say I was as overcome with despair entering our house for our first full day of homeownship as I had been during the walk-through, but, man, did we have our work cut out for us. Now, you’re probably thinking that this would be the moment when everything coalesced – that all my years of domestic deficiency would evaporate, that some inner homemaker in me would emerge and face the challenge of turning this dump into a showcase (or at least habitable) domicile with cheerful alacrity. Think how Donna Reed’s character, Mary Bailey, single-handedly turned the old Granville place into a cozy nest in It’s a Wonderful Life. All I needed was a neckerchief, a nice wool A-line skirt, a ball cap that I could place on my head at a rakish cant, and a stepladder. A stepladder? Right. Start a new list.
But that is not what happened at all. The first thing I did was try to track down the smell that had manifested since the time we looked at this house and signed our lives away to it. It was not a pervasive smell. The house didn’t stink. And it wasn’t an identifiable odor, like, say, rot and urine. (No, that was upstairs in the bathroom.) It was an orb of something just off, just ready to spoil, and kind of musty – I don’t know, like a lump of Brie in a dirty sock in the bottom of an old lady’s purse. The weird thing is that it moved. We (yes, John smelled it, too – I was not yet totally off my nut) noticed it was strongest in the entryway – and yet, when I put my nose to the sill or the threshold or the frame or the door itself, nothing. And if I stepped a foot away, it was gone. But what killed me was that it seemed to follow me around like Glinda the Stink Bomb. I would catch a whiff halfway down the stairs, but two stairs up or two stairs down, it wasn’t there. The worst was when I tasted it in my coffee. This was not something I wanted to be ingesting.
John, who was already prepping for carpet removal and was probably hoping for a modicum of help, suggested the odor would go away once the floors were done. So, as much as I was determined to track that smell down, I got up off my hands and knees and joined him in the master bedroom.
Before me stretched a sea of two-toned, powder-blue-and-navy, wall-to-wall shag. Because the blinds had never been raised all the time we looked at the house, the colors in daylight shocked me. They were like high school colors, not a décor choice – especially when coupled with the shiny viney/floral wallpaper that went with it.
“Tool!” I barked like a surgeon. It was time for a gackectomy.
And then it happened. We peeled back the first corner of the carpet to expose – not filthy black linoleum, which I would’ve been perfectly prepared for, but – the beautiful maple hardwood that was in the rest of the house. The carpet itself came up with relative ease (until we set about removing the 897,531 staples in the floor), and once we had rolled it up and sent it skidding (my old riverdriving heritage would like to add, “like a log in a sluice”) down the stairs, a moment happened. A moment of hope. Perhaps the first since we had decided to actually buy the house. The floors in the bedroom – our floors in our bedroom – were beautiful.
OK, and then that feeling lasted approximately five minutes, until we set about the staple removal, which, after pulling up three, bored me. But, of course, that was no match for taking up the brown runner on the stairs, which had been affixed – I kid you not – with glue, nails, tacks and staples, in about 1940. “What, were they expecting a typhoon to blow through here?” I carped repeatedly, as I watched John toil. (I have Repetitive Task Syndrome – I can only do chores that involve monotonous drudgery in short spurts.)
Before we left for the day, I had one last thing I needed to do. While I refused to set foot in the skuzzy upstairs bathroom, I did attack the toilet in the basement laundry room with every chemical known to man, and then had a nice pee.
It was beginning to feel like home.
Elizabeth Peavey marks her turf here biweekly.