What Blue Actually Looks Like
It was May of last year, but I cannot tell you if I was walking or running the morning they demolished Drexel Heritage Furniture Plant No. 1. I am not a sports girl or a gym girl and so I take what exercise I get on a loop of sidewalk early in the morning, before anyone else in my house is awake. The loop is conveniently one mile long, and the deal I have made with myself is three passes. I can walk, jog, crawl, or ballerina-leap as long as I make those three miles.
The loop starts at my house, rises to pass a stretch of other houses, the rec center, and two laundromats, then apexes at the once-elementary, now-alternative school. From there, the sidewalk declines and the going is easy. There are a few downtown shops, a restaurant that was once a pizza place with spastic Saturday night gospel singing, a bank-turned-Hispanic-Pentecostal-church, the Drexel barber shop, famed for Saturday morning picking sessions, and a little stand of trees where I once encountered a young man searching for his flyaway parakeet. It is here, just beyond this stand of trees, that I stop to watch what’s happening across the way. The old furniture plant on the other side of the railroad tracks has been partially torn down. A pair of compact bulldozers idle in the midst of the rubble. It’s early morning, the sky white turning gold and pink before me, still gray behind. May in North Carolina means hot weather by midday, but now, in the relatively quiet, still sleepy morning, the air is yet cool.
If they first cracked open the building with a demolition ball or dynamite or some other thrilling means of destruction, I’ve missed that. I didn’t even know the building was coming down until this moment. I’d heard the whine of the truck engines earlier on my route, but I hadn’t known what it was. What surprises me now is that the roar of the trucks straining to hoist their mechanized appendages is louder than the crush of cinder block crashing down around its steel beams. I am reminded of how the things in life that I imagine to be miraculous or magical, or at the very least supremely complicated, are often revealed to be astoundingly simple. Ridiculously mechanical. A force or system of forces acts on an object or a system of objects and said object or system of objects is moved. In this way, cars motor down the street and airplanes are expelled through the sky. Skyscrapers and furniture factories are built and destroyed. Invisible atoms and subatomic particles collide and spin, thus making every material thing we know possible. Blood is pushed through the veins inside my body as I stand here now, watching.
Drexel Heritage Furniture, a quintessential American furniture manufacturer, began more than a hundred years ago. Here, truckloads of rough-planed wood were cut, glued, sanded, and polished into grand pieces of furniture and then shipped off to sights unseen. Rumor has it that Drexel Furniture once custom-designed and built a desk for General Douglas MacArthur. They also furnished many a hospital room and classroom. They produced Italian-style bedroom suites and high-end dining room tables.
But when my husband and I first arrived as newlyweds in 2000, the factory had already been standing empty for several years. We moved here because the interstate is close and easy to get to and because real estate in this area, especially since the decline of the furniture industry, is cheap. Before we moved to Drexel, we’d never even heard of the place.
Like every other house on Main Street, ours was built in the 1940s. The rooms were large for an old house but seriously ugly and in terrible disrepair. We were young, though, and childless, and we dove in with gusto and a kind of naïveté that now seems both endearing—to remember our young and hopeful selves—and pathetic. Embarrassing, really. There were three to fifteen layers of wallpaper in the kitchen, depending on which wall you were attacking and how much of it had disintegrated away. All of the window frames had to be scraped and painted. The exterior walls were mildewed, as was every ceiling joist in the basement. The bathroom was cotton-candy blue on every side, including the ceiling. The sink vanity was completely rotted through. The house’s wiring was antiquated. It blew out my desktop computer in the first month. There was asbestos in the kitchen linoleum. In the living room and bedrooms, the wood floors beneath the dirt-brown shag carpet were covered in an inch or more of old floor wax. The floors slanted. I swept up little black specks—they looked like seeds of some kind—off the kitchen floor. I was stupid enough not to know what they were. What had made the little hole in the baseboard in one of the bedrooms was equally a mystery to me. I didn’t know mice made those holes in real life and not just in cartoons.
One morning, I was wearing a pair of men’s boxer shorts and a tank top, squatting on the kitchen counter while holding a red Solo cup of oil-based paint in one hand and a two-inch paintbrush in the other. I was bra-less and sweating, and my unwashed hair was held back ungracefully with mismatched hair clips. Our old-fashioned doorbell jingled and a moment later, my husband led a small troop of old people into the kitchen. There were three couples. The women wore dresses and pantyhose with sandals, and the men were in button-down shirts and dark trousers. They had known the house since it was built and, hearing there were new residents, had come to see what we were doing with the place. The oldest among them, a shaky old man with watery blue eyes and a strangled voice, stepped forward to announce that he had cut and hung the very cabinet doors I was now painting. He stood with his hands on his hips, taking them in. I made the appropriate sounds of admiration, but really, I was annoyed at the intrusion and embarrassed to be seen in such a state. Also, I was pretty sure I was not qualified, in the old man’s view, to be painting his cabinets.
After they left, Danny and I joked about how the house had been haphazardly constructed. We pictured a rabble of amateur carpenters nailing bits of wood together and plugging up holes with gravel and spit and wads of newspaper. We guessed the cabinet man was the only one who knew what he was doing.
We worked for more than a year, painting, sanding, scraping, hanging dry wall and ceiling tiles, mudding the nail holes and the dry wall seams and redoing the wiring and closing the mouse hole and spraying down the mildew with bleach water. The house became a person we knew. A third member of our marriage. Every repair revealed a layer of the house’s history. A flaw, a stroke of genius, a work of slipshod make-do. I thought again of those old people invading my kitchen. I imagined a boozy house-raising, these men drunk on their youth, if nothing else. The importance of their jobs down at the plant. The booming of the postwar age, the very fact that they were alive to see it. They mixed the concrete with real cinders from the furniture plant and poured them into molds for the cinder blocks, and if they came out a little uneven, by gum, they’d just shove some straw in, or some bits of wood from the trees they’d cleared away for the foundation. They broke dinner plates in the yard in their revelry, dug out a barbecue pit on a moonshine-fueled whim.
I don’t remember if I daydreamed about the babies I would fill the house with while I roller-painted the walls and scrubbed the ancient bathtub. I know I did when we started in on the yard. It was a kind of overgrown Eden with pear, plum, and apple trees and dark-leaved hollies and bright periwinkle vines poking through the crabgrass. The only previous owners, the Puitts, who had lived there for more than fifty years, were famed gardeners who had grown too old to care for all the beautiful things they had planted. Dale Puitt was a machinist at the furniture plant and Ann Puitt a substitute school teacher. He had passed away a decade earlier, and she died in a nursing home while we were in the process of buying the house. They had never had children, but they’d wanted them. Before she died, Ann expressed her wish that the house be sold to a young couple who would raise a family there. Besides broken pieces of china buried here and there in the yard—still a mystery to me, how a few teacup saucers and dinner plates had come to rest tangled in the roots of fifty-year-old bushes—they’d left other relics inside the house. In the mildewy basement, we found a Mexican sombrero in surprisingly good condition. It was made of brightly colored straw, too huge for anyone to have actually worn. They must have danced around it, I told Danny. That image was incongruous with what else we knew of Dale and Ann Puitt, formerly of the Drexel Gardening Club. In the dry, hot attic, I had found a picture cut from a newspaper, as brittle as a dead leaf. It was a photograph of a half-dozen women with the caption, no article attached. The Women’s League of Drexel, a small group, with the members’ names listed. Every one of them took their husbands’ names—Mrs. Allen Hastings, Mrs. William Darnell—except Mrs. Ann Puitt, an unsmiling, staunch-looking woman with dark lipstick in the back row.
We moved in in June of 2000; in August 2001, I had a positive pregnancy test. I was sick and happy. We both were. We called Danny’s uncle, a carpet layer, and chose a beige pile for the upstairs. Downstairs, the original wood flooring had been restored by actual professionals. It was beautiful, perfect in its imperfections, its knotty whorls and discolorations, all the reminders that this was real wood, grown from an actual tree, cut and sanded and fitted by human hands. We’d laid out new linoleum in the kitchen without disturbing the asbestos beneath. Replaced the rotted vanity in the bathroom. Put new hardware on the kitchen cabinets. Filled the rooms with furniture, mostly hand-me-downs and gifts, factory mistakes family members had purchased for a song.
I started bleeding on a Saturday, but it was just a pale smudge in my underwear, and so I went out to begin our weekend work like normal. I said nothing to Danny. We were spreading grass seed on the long, muddy side yard. It was the first cool day of fall and the cloudless sky was such a deep blue, I couldn’t stop admiring it. I tried to think of the right word for it. We use deep to describe such a color, but the word doesn’t quite mean what it should. Not dark blue or thorough blue or even endless blue. It was the kind of blue that could comfort a girl pushing a seed spreader in narrow stripes over a red-mud stretch of land. Later, I learned that it was a blighted ovum, which means that while an egg had been fertilized, an embryo had never come to be. “The spark of life,” my doctor explained, “simply didn’t spark.”
I searched for a word that conveyed depth, depth of color, depth of sky, depth of hard-packed clay beneath my feet. A word that means something other than a physical dimension. The bleeding was heavier now, but I didn’t stop pushing my spreader. I studied the spreader mechanics. The dull blade channeling grass seed through the hole in the bottom of the bucket, shaped like a miniature wheelbarrow, reminded me of things we play with as children. The bleeding grew heavier still. I went inside to clean up, then returned to the yard. I still said nothing to Danny. The irony of the situation, that I was literally spreading seeds of new life while my body pushed out its first attempt at procreation, did not occur to me. Instead, I thought of grocery carts for toddlers. A commercial I’d seen for a play lawn mower that puffed out a stream of soap bubbles.
All the while, I tried to find blue. The real blue. What blue actually looks like.
I thought of Mrs. Ann Puitt’s blanched and solemn face. Her broken china in the yard. When we’d first looked at the house, before the family had cleared away their things, the attic had been Mrs. Ann Puitt’s enormous closet of cast-off clothing. Clothing rods were hung with wire from the rafters and the rods were stuffed with scratchy polyester. Now, the house, the freshly sown yard, the mildewed basement full of mice, the attic-turned-bedroom, the downstairs rooms made of cool, plastered walls and slanted wood floors, seemed utterly inhospitable. Our attempting to restore things, to actually live here, was laughably stupid.
The problem with having a miscarriage before you’ve had a baby is that you assume there is something wrong with you. When it happens to your friend or your sister, you are sympathetic but practical. Of course your friend or sister did nothing wrong, but you are toxic. You know this. There are two compartments in your brain now. Into one compartment you accept your doctor’s explanation and his assurance that this is actually a good sign. There are so many women, he says, who can’t get pregnant at all. There is no reason to think your next pregnancy won’t be a successful one. Your husband tells you renditions of the same. You did nothing wrong, he says.
The other compartment fills itself with a different set of sure things. The spark did not spark because of some unknowable deficit, molecular and acidic, inside of you. You are made of the wrong chemicals. Possibly, the problem is anatomical. There is a malformation inside you that has been there all along. Or, you brought this on yourself. If you had stopped pushing the spreader across the mud this never would have happened. You should have rested. Things you really want never happen. What you should do now is quit wanting.
This morning, the morning I’m pausing in the midst of my three passes to watch the absurd little bulldozers push through the decades-old cinder block walls, I return home to get my children. I’m thinking they will love this, to watch a machine at work destroying something, that they will understand even if they can’t say it that destruction sometimes is truly beautiful in its absurdity, its bigness, its clouds of dry white dust. I want them to see a set of metal stairs standing alone amidst the rubble.
They are six and ten and reluctant to extract themselves from their Saturday morning, pajamas-as-long-as-we-want-to slump over their cereal bowls. Their father, equally ensconced in his own coffee-and-computer weekend ritual, is little help. Our children are used to living in this weird old house, with its slanted floors and old-fashioned potato bin built right into the cabinets. They’ve woken to the sound of their mother screaming while standing on top of the kitchen table, terrified of the little mouse that just darted from beneath the oven across the linoleum and through a crack in the baseboard beneath the dishwasher. They’ve heard stories of how this house came to be and especially of all the renovations their father and I labored over in the early days. But they weren’t there, of course, when the old people came in. And they don’t know what that horrible carpet looked like. Once, I opened a flap in our kitchen linoleum at the back of our pantry to show them the underlying floor. It was also linoleum, but yellowed with grime. I explained to them that that linoleum was probably older than I was. I said, when this house was built, your Papa, several states away, was only three years old. Your Mimi, I explained, wasn’t even born yet. My daughter, who has a true academic fervor for history, was mildly impressed, but my little boy was unapologetically uninterested. Instead, they want to hear their own stories. My daughter wants me to tell her again and again about how she, as a ten-month-old, crawled into that same pantry when I wasn’t looking and busted open a box of ‘Nilla Wafers. When I arrived, there were cookies scattered across the floor. She sat in the midst of the mess, gazing up at me with nonchalance, her cheeks full of cookies. My little boy, as a toddler, danced naked on Christmas Eve to the applause of family. He made puttering car noises from the time he was six months old. He even made those noises, I tell him, in his sleep.
But finally, this morning, they give in to my urging, and we trudge off to stand at the corner of the street, just beyond the stand of trees, to watch. The sun is up now and the sky is mottled blue and white. We have to squint to make out the machine plowing through the cinder block in its slow, mechanized way. The walls within the factory are revealed; it looks like a play warehouse, the back wall removed to give little hands access to all the rooms. My husband wonders aloud who sanctioned this tear-down. What will they do with the land? My kids watch, transfixed for a moment, and then, they’re jumping across the sidewalk squares. It’s a game to see who can go the farthest in a single leap. They don’t know what they’re seeing—an emblem of an entire industry unceremoniously turned to dust. I start to explain it to them, but I am reminded of my father trying to make my sister and me appreciate the wonder that is Mount Rushmore on a trans-America vacation circa 1982. We were amazed, like my father, at the faces carved into the stone, but it was drizzling and, after a few seconds’ worth of enraptured gazing, I ducked my head under the back of my older sister’s rain jacket. She was a girl with a sister growing out of her back now, and this was riotously funny. Like my own children, we didn’t realize the miracle we were seeing. Like all children, we didn’t realize the miracle we were.
I am reminded of the old people in their summer dresses and nylons, their wet-combed hair and dark pants. These ancient ladies and gentlemen, marveling at our kitchen. I was a sweaty, cranky young woman hunched on a countertop, inhaling paint fumes on an already sweltering morning in July. The old man lifted his palsied hands and remembered what those pieces of wood felt like in his younger, stronger hands. It was a moment of wonder for him, maybe even a kind of worship. He remembered the heft of those cabinet doors, the smooth sureness of newly sanded wood under his palms. He was explaining it to me, but really, what he was doing was trying to return to a moment in his past. It’s an impossible task, but we all do it, we all try to. It’s a brand of magical thinking we never consciously acknowledge. Remembering is a form of returning. Of wishing backward.
My children can’t know what they are to me any more than I can know what I am to my own parents, or what my children’s children will someday be to them. They sense it, they trust it, but they don’t precisely know it. It would be too much for them anyway. It’s better this way, for me to lie down beside them while they’re sleeping and convey little bits. I close my eyes and it’s simply there, this huge, unknowable love. Let them, sleeping children, take in what they need.
After a while, I call them from their play and we all traipse back down the sidewalk, past the stand of trees. Who knows? Maybe the young man’s parakeet is still hiding there in the greening branches. We pass the coin laundry, which seems to do its most robust business this time of day, and the alternative school whose marquee announces awards day and graduation. Back at home, we settle into our normal Saturday activities. The children are already dressed, thanks to my hauling them off on our little expedition, so that’s done. They are free to return to the kitchen table for a second bowl of cereal or to gather round my husband’s desk for whatever computer games those three play without me. The grass seeds I spread more than a decade ago took root and grew; the lawn is thick and a little weedy with the start of spring. It’s almost time to begin mowing for the summer. Maybe we should have already started. We have a concrete half basketball court down there, beyond the sloping lawn, and a vegetable garden, just planted. A tree house. Soon, they’ll be out there, spinning around, running, throwing things, making their whoops and screams and laughs and tortured exhalations of play-defeat. It’s one of those blessed Saturdays when we don’t have any sports events to head off to, no family gatherings or play practices or errands to run. The house is ours, and so is the day. We begin.