"Couldn’t you hire someone to do this?”Fred was standing in the bedroom doorway watching his wife rip up the carpet. She had that determined look that was all too familiar to him.
“Nope. I tried. Everyone I talked to either said they were too busy or it sounded like too much work.”
Last night, he had helped her dismantle the bed and move the dresser and bed out of the guest room so she could start taking out the carpet first thing this morning.
“What’s wrong with the carpet anyway?” She gave him an incredulous look, by way of reply.
“I just wondered. It still looks pretty good to me.”
“It’s old,” she said as she ran an Exacto knife along a seam. “And dirty.”
“Not that old, is it?”
“Twenty-six years,” she paused, “and four dogs.” She pointed to a greenish stain in the tan carpet that faded to yellow in the center. Looking up at him she said. “That’s 182 dog years in case you are wondering. Besides, this carpet is infested with dust mites!”
He looked more closely at the carpet. “Dust mites?”
“Oh, you can’t see ‘em but, trust me, they’re there.” She sat back on her heels. “They’re gross looking. I bet you’ve seen pictures of them in the Sunday supplement. They look like lobsters. ” She rocked forward and went back to work.
“Oh, and they’re really bad for anyone with allergies.” That pointed remark was intended for him; he had allergies and she didn’t.
So throughout the weekend, the dust mite driven project continued apace until the three upstairs bedrooms had been stripped of the carpet, along with the pad and the wooden strips filled with sharp staples. Fred made three trips to the land fill and each time he returned to find another pile of carpet or padding on the ground waiting to be hauled off.
On Saturday evening he said. “You work harder than any woman I know!” It was true and he meant it as a compliment but he immediately regretted saying it.
“Is that so?” Her eyes narrowed as she fixed him with a penetrating look. “Well just name me one man you know who would take this on.”
She was right and that was part of the problem. Actually, it was the problem - with the project specifically and with his wife in general. Once she made up her mind there was no dissuading her. If he brought up the matter of expense, he knew she would dismiss it by informing him that one’s children and one’s home were the best investments you could make. Frankly, though he’d never admit it to her, he wasn’t really sure he agreed; still he knew it would be churlish to suggest that a nice vacation and some well chosen toys should be right up there.
Mary was as strong as she was fearless – qualities that he couldn’t help but admire. It was just that sometimes he wished he could admire these qualities at more of a distance - say in somebody else’s wife. Besides, all her work made him feel guilty. He really didn’t like that.
On Sunday, after the second run to the landfill, he stopped by the marina to commiserate with his friends. It was Labor Day weekend, warm and sunny – perfect conditions for fishing or sailing or just hanging out.
“Where’s Mary?” someone asked. “Is she still taking out carpet?”
“Yah. When I left, she had started on the master bedroom.”
“You camping out tonight, Fred?” Everyone laughed. His wife’s affinity for projects was the stuff of local legend. Everyone in the neighborhood knew of the time the contractor came out to confer with her on repairing the flat roof over the family room and they ended up with a major remodel.
“Well,” Mary later explained, “when he told me he wouldn’t guarantee his work on a flat roof it only made sense to go up.” So up they went with a new bedroom over the family room that now was part of a fully renovated kitchen, topped off with a new roof that matched the pitch on the other half of the house.
By Monday afternoon all vestiges of the carpet were gone, exposing the plywood subfloor. On Tuesday, they both went back to work, and the following weekend Fred packed up his truck and headed down to Death Valley on what Mary referred to as his ‘fall migration.’ When he returned ten days later, cork flooring that mimicked burled maple had been installed. The new floor felt cold when he padded into the bathroom in the morning in his bare feet.
“This isn’t a criticism, but I just wondered why we didn’t just put down new carpet?”
“Dust mites. Cork is hypo-allergenic and it will last forever.” She brought him a cup of coffee, then enlightened him further. “You know, there are wineries in Italy and France where the cork floors have been down over a hundred years.”
“Well, I don’t expect to be here another hundred years but in the meantime, I am going to have cold feet in the mornings.”
“Wear your slippers.”
Fred sighed and returned to the Sudoku. In most respects he knew they were compatible. Everything would be great if it weren’t for her penchant for projects. As it was, he could never fully relax, knowing that just when it seemed that there was nothing left for her to tamper with, he would come home and be met by workers. Several times he had tried to talk to her about it.
“I really like change,” she always told him. “I think it’s fun and exciting.” When he pressed her on this, she replied. “Of course, I don’t want to make major changes – don’t want a new house, don’t want to switch you out. But when it comes to the “little stuff “– well, it seems as if there is always some room for improvement.”
Naturally, he was relieved that she didn’t have him on her ‘punch list.’ Of course, he didn’t want to move or get remarried either, though if he had to choose, marriage would be preferable, provided he could stay put! He admitted he didn’t like change. He couldn’t think of anyone, except Mary, who did. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ carried the day for him.
Once these projects were over with and the workers had gone home, he always came around. Further, he made a point of telling her how much he liked the end results. But getting there was so painful – the mess, the delays, the hammering and digging that often was still going on when he got home from work. That was by far the worst part. It threw his routine off and made him feel guilty to boot, like he should grab a hammer and join them when what he wanted to do was put on his shorts, crack a beer and sit in the front yard and read Sports Illustrated.
Besides, he took issue with her idea of what constituted ‘the little stuff.’ Surely the new roof/remodel couldn’t be classified as ‘little stuff’ nor could the front yard renovation that followed the Nisqually Earthquake. ‘Sod to Slate’ he had dubbed the undertaking. The quake left cracks in the basement retaining wall which seemingly could only be repaired by digging up a large part of the front yard.
“Are you sure?” she frowned as she looked at the flower bed whose days were evidently numbered. “What a pain,” as she dug up the lilies and peonies and put them in pots until they could be replanted.
One evening before the anticipated digging had begun, she came out to where he sat reading. “You know I’ve been thinking . . .”she began. At that, an alarm went off and Fred closed his eyes, as if that might block out her voice. Pretending not to hear her was a ruse he’d employed in the past with limited success. When making her case, Mary never hesitated to repeat herself if she suspected she didn’t have his undivided attention.
“I’ve been thinking that while we are at it, we might as well take out all of the grass.”
“So, what would we have in place of grass? Asphalt? A deck?” She ignored his attempted joke with the asphalt and went right on to the deck.
“Well, I considered a deck but I don’t think it would look right. Too modern looking for this old house. Besides, decks get slicker than snot when wet and we both know it’s wet a lot of the time.” Well, that’s a relief, he thought to himself.
“I’m thinking about putting down flagstones.”
With that, she set a couple of books in front of him with pictures of patios and terraces created with large flat stones. They looked heavy and were referred to as “hardscape” he learned as she turned the pages, showing him more designs. “Hmm. That’s interesting,” he said wishing he could just get back to SI and the NBA.
The contractor and his crew showed up a few days later to tackle the wall repair. That night Fred got home from work first and was informed that it wouldn’t be necessary to dig up the front yard after all. Once the men got into it, they discovered they could manage the repair working from the inside. Wow! For once, a reprieve. He could hardly believe it. No real mess involved and they promised to be in and out in a couple of days.
“That’s great!” Mary said when Fred gave her the good news. He could hardly believe his ears. At last, a project she would back away from.
“But the grass is history. I’ve just talked to Mark Osborn and we’ve got a plan. He’s never done flagstones before – just pavers, but is willing to give it a try. I know it will look great.”
As an afterthought she added. “It will be a lot of work to install the slate but once it’s in place, it will be really low maintenance. You’ll see. No more mowing.”
“It only takes Wes ten minutes to mow the grass now.”
“Wes is getting too old to mow.”
“Surely we could find somebody younger then,” he said to her back as she went into the kitchen. But by then it was too late and he knew it; he was just pissing into the wind.
And so the sod came out, the yard was scraped and leveled, a drain system installed and then gravel mixed with sand was smoothed across the surface. Finally, the slabs of Montana Blue slate were put in place. For the rest of the summer Mary spent most every evening and weekend, kneeling on the stones planting moss, thyme, and Corsican mint between the cracks as well as other plants whose names he promptly forgot.
“It’s given me a new appreciation of the term ‘stoop labor’,” she told him one evening at the end of the summer when the planting was complete. By this time, new flower beds had emerged around the perimeter of the slate patio and colorful ceramic pots were placed strategically along the fence and by the front porch.
“It looks great, honey,” he said as he took her hand while they surveyed the front yard. “But you have to admit it took a helluva long time and a lot of work to get here.”
“So did the Sistine Chapel.”
And she was right - it was more practical than grass, where the legs of the lawn chair always sunk in and the picnic table cut deep ruts. But when it came to her claim of low maintenance, she was off the mark. The first year the slate had to be watered regularly to insure that everything took off. From then on it required annual power washing and whenever they threw a party, it had to be ‘vacuumed’ with the blower set on reverse.
A couple of weeks ago, she picked him up and they drove out to the mall. “Tell me again why we’re here?” he asked as she led him past the sofas and entertainment centers to the mattress section at Macy’s.
“We’re getting a new mattress.”
“What’s wrong with the one we have?”
“It’s old,” she replied as they turned the corner and were met by a saleswoman who introduced herself as Elizabeth.
“So? Not that old. It was an expensive mattress, I seem to recall.”
Elizabeth smiled at the two of them. Most likely she had heard this conversation before. “You really should replace your mattress every twelve to fifteen years.”
“Our mattress can’t be that old. Is it?” He looked first at Elizabeth and then at Mary.
“Twice that,” Mary informed him as she kicked off her shoes and stretched out on one of the mattresses. “It is old and saggy and probably full of dust mites!”
A few days later, the new mattress arrived. They both had trouble sleeping that night though neither was sure if they could blame it on the new mattress. It was comfortable enough – it just felt different. As he lay there, getting drowsy, he thought about the dust mites and concluded that they were a lot like his wife’s projects- invisible and stealthy, in equal parts. Just because he couldn’t see them, didn’t mean they weren’t there, poised and ready for attack. On that uncomfortable thought, he rolled over, resigned himself to the inevitable and went to sleep.