"Load-Bearing," Winner of the First Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition
We are publishing "Load-Bearing" by Marko Lubarda ('11), the winner in the prose fiction category of the first annual Filitsa Sofianou-Mullen Creative Writing Competition.
That morning I thought of an old mathematical problem of calculating how far a stack of even-sized books can protrude over the edge of a desk without collapsing. So I empty my shelf and start the experiment by constructing a leaning tower of neoclassicism, while deciding what kind of present would be appropriate for Vesna (surely not a book), when Father suddenly appears exactly where my door was a second ago:
“Son, you are putting the AC in your mother’s room today.”
I picture myself in overalls, on a ladder, tools in hand, while Vesna watches. I come down and place my sinewy arm under her blouse, as both of us imbibe the freshness of processed air. Father does not like to repeat himself, so he just turns and leaves.
Mother’s room is on the ground floor, and while descending, I wonder why the first book to topple down the tower was that of Dryden’s poems, yellowish and pig-eared. Why Dryden? What would Dryden do for Vesna’s birthday? I feel clots of tingling qualms bouncing off my insides, like feral animals in a cage trap.
Father is already waiting downstairs, carrying a flat suitcase and a graphite pencil, scratching his thick moustache with the pencil’s ferrule:
“Like I said, the last thing your mother needs is two of us causing rumpus around, but there is no other way, the heat will finish her off, the poor thing. And it’ll be a good chance for you to finally engage in something worthwhile.”
As we enter, my sister Ana looks up and greets us with a colorless smile. Everyone is already used to her sedentary figure beside mother’s bed, next to a plastic washbowl, damp cloths and a tea maker. Maybe that’s what I could get Vesna, so we can enjoy a cup of oolong after a barrage of coital intertwinement. What, tea, in July? That’s what you would get her? I start shaking my head at my own inadequacy.
“Don’t you start shaking your head, boy, d’youhear? Today you will actually learn something instead of being slouched in your den all day. Here, grab the pencil while I open this sucker.”
He delivers the AC from its cardboard placenta, placing it lovingly at the bottom of his feet.
“Now you’ll see how easy this is, just do what I say.”
From each side of his moustache, two drops of sweat are racing to get unstuck from their hairy nest and plummet to the linoleum floor.
“Look at it, son. The latest model, German. Zoran gave it to us, at a discount. Eco-freon, EU energetic standards, even got the photocatalytic filter. I will make you comfortable Milena, even if it was the last thing I do. You’ll feel like in a five star hotel. Boy, where is that pencil I gave you?”
My mother Milena has spent the last three months in bed, unable to move, her gaze fixed at the unpainted ceiling. We have grown accustomed to her daily cycle: a morning fever, delirium at noon, and then, around sunset, well, then that thing would happen. And she would leave a lake of sweat behind, with Ana having to clean up and gently wipe the surface of mother’s skin, as if slowly erasing her from existence. Tropical July waves would make this cycle even more unbearable, so Father finally decided to channel his helplessness into procuring an air conditioner. I figured he would want to mount it on the side of the room opposite of my mother’s bed, straight on the thick, load-bearing wall which supports the structure of our house. A position he thinks is perfect for the optimal performance of a temperature-regulating device. I also figured that making a handyman out of me would conclude his bucket list for the day.
But the only thing I couldn’t figure out was what to give Vesna. While I’m on the stepladder, doing measurements, using the pencil to mark the points for setting up the internal unit, I start considering the idea of buying her a small cooling fan. In half-jest, of course, to show her how creative and non sequitur I am. How off the wall I can be. To make her laugh, stir the juices wild. Unless she just interprets it as juvenile and clownish and starts avoiding me again.
Father’s eyes are transfixed on my work. He spurts out occasional instructions. I fail to sense whether he thinks the commotion would disturb my mother, whether, perhaps, this whole operation would cause that thing to happen sooner than usual. But she remains in her invisible capsule, indifferent to our reality and Ana’s careful strokes.
“Ok, Picasso, are you done with the pencil already? Let’s see how you handle the drill, see you with some real tools for a change.”
A fragile, quiet yelp is heard in the back. Perhaps she does mind us being here. And maybe that thing will happen right now. Since Vesna left me and then changed her mind after a week, I’ve become clueless about women. Father opens the small suitcase and takes out the electric power drill, showing me how to connect appropriate extension rods.
“Watch, you hold the top and then you screw it on this thing, just pull the lever slightly and it slides in beautifully. You use the thinner extension bit to make the first dent, and then use the big one to drill in deeper. Off you go then, the outlet is right over there, I take it you at least know how to plug it in.”
I do, but I don’t know how to plug myself into Vesna. Into her life and thought process. I should get her something practical. Or maybe just take her out somewhere nice. This drill is pretty heavy. I can barely carry it up the ladder. I don’t know if I’ll be able to hold it at shoulder level and maintain enough precision to apply it exactly at the marked spots. I pull the trigger. I did not expect this much noise. Another cry can be heard from my mother’s bed, now slightly stronger.
“Wait, I almost forgot the vacuum cleaner. Ana, go and get it. Come on, nothing will happen if you leave her for a second.”
Mother responds to Ana’s absence, again with something inarticulate. What kinds of thoughts are occupying her paralyzed body? What does she miss the most? I bet it’s the garden. Since that thing started happening and she switched to a permanent horizontal state, the garden has withered, shapeless and abandoned. She used to love that garden. She used to love me as well. Even when I would pluck her roses and take them to Vesna.
Clumsily brandishing the disobedient tool, I somehow manage to make three dents, one on each side and one in the middle, through which the internal and external unit will merge. Ana returns, carrying a small vacuum cleaner like a newborn. As I descend the stepladder, I anticipate Father would stroke his moustache and tell me that now comes the harder part.
“Ok, son, but now comes the harder part,” says he, stroking his moustache. “Take off the first extension…no, not like that, the other way around…just pull the lower part a little bit. No, give me that. See, take the lower part; pull it down like this and then it slides off. Why is this so hard for you? Now connect the larger rod with the drill. That’s right.”
My mother now shifts from sporadic moans to rhythmical, suppressed howling. Ana hurriedly makes use of the cloths and the washbowl. Father takes the vacuum cleaner with his left hand, grabbing its hose with his right, and takes an en garde position, as if repelling a rapier attack. I am back on the ladder, which feels like a mast on a shipwreck.
“Now dig straight into the side dents and then move on to the central one. And mind the wall, only drill at the marked spots!”
I am trying, but the wall won’t give in. I can barely scratch it. While I’m pathetically scraping away, Father’s outstretched arm is right under mine, ready to swallow the discharge of plaster and brick with the vacuum cleaner. He looks astounded by my impotence and tries to encourage me with insults. The following sequence unfolds:
Mother’s groans drown in this concerto written for an electric drill and a vacuum cleaner.
I am surrounded by an infectious cloud of dust and frustration.
The holes in the wall are becoming wider, not deeper.
Realizing the futility of his instructions, Father tells me to switch it off and come down.
I refuse, though.
Someone is stealing oxygen from the room.
Father again orders me to stop, but I do not listen.
His threats evolve into physical attempts to take me off the ladder.
From nowhere, Dryden starts echoing in my head:
Happy the man, and happy he alone, he who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say: Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine, the joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power, but what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
The shouts from mother’s bed are now merely a whistle in a cyclone of skyrocketing decibels.
And as for me, I’m still drilling, drilling and not advancing.
Then, a loud shriek breaks the cyclone in half. I let go off the trigger, Father kills the vacuum cleaner. In abrupt silence, that thing occurs: very slowly and graciously, mother’s legs are lifted in the air, followed by her hips, as if belonging to a ballerina in a trance. Ana gasps and backs off, because what happens next is that the whole body of my mother Milena, still perfectly horizontal, starts floating, about two inches above the bed. A wrinkled veil of solemnity enshrouds the room, while she levitates for about five seconds and then gently nests back into the sheets. And that is it. That has been happening for months now. Once per day. Ana moves forward and performs the standard procedure with the cloth and the washbowl. After taking off from Father’s moustache, ripe pearls of sweat nose-dive with a plop.
I turn my face back to the wall, thrust the dagger of the power drill into the shallow craters, and violently switch it on. This time it works. This time it starts. In a couple of seconds, I have already made a hole the size of a watermelon. But I don't stop there. I keep penetrating. The whole room trembles and caves in. Pieces of the ceiling start falling off, like a solved puzzle being broken off at random spots. Unidentified objects, from above, connect with our flesh. Sidewalls collapse with bricks bleeding everywhere, as the outer world moves into our household. The contours of my family become undiscernible from construction material. I keep on piercing into the spacious nothingness, until a wooden beam knocks me backwards, into what used to be our home.
Some time passes. I regain consciousness and crawl to the foothill of the smoking pile of rubbles, right on the brink of my mother's garden. Every bone in my body feels fractured; my life hurts, as mother used to say after coming back from double shifts at work. Everything is fine now. I'm still clutching the drill, now disconnected and mute. I notice the patterned furrows in the metal rod, which is firmly attached and menacingly solid. All dilemmas have disappeared. Suddenly, I knew exactly what to get Vesna for her birthday.
I slither further away, and lean against an apricot tree. I observe the remnants of our load-bearing wall, with a bottom piece of its shattered structure still standing in the midst of the heap. I playfully throw a clod of earth towards it. The clod explodes against the wall, sowing its content around, over the debris, which stood there until the wind carried it elsewhere.