Late one evening this week, in a bit of late-night brooding, I ascended the steps to the attic. I was looking for a typewriter, a writer’s relic. But I didn’t find it. I opened the door and flicked on the bare bulb light. It was just here, I thought, meaning I saw it here perhaps 20 years ago. We likely loaned it out as a prop for a high school play and forgot to reclaim it. And now, when I need it, it’s gone. Do I need it? Not really. But I do want to hear the click of its keys and the whir of its motor and the ring of its return, ribboning back to my past.
“The first six months of retirement,” I said to my wife later, “ will be spent cleaning out the attic.” Someone has been using ours as a hold for the inanimate, a purgatory of what we cannot let go but cannot use. The only things I remember actually using, lately, are the luggage, folding chairs, and air filters; the rest, I don’t know. They washed up on shore, one by one, in successive waves.
“We’re not waiting that long,” she said, from her repose. I looked up. The cast-offs of our lives lay heavy above us.
Fifteen years ago we took care of the cleaning in one fell swoop: a fire burned it all. Local firefighters broke the dormer window and pitched what they could into the yard. We scooped up the charred remains, salvaged pieces. It’s fast, but messy, and there is collateral damage.
But this is a project, this assemblage. Life accretes.
There’s a bulging yellow carrying case of Matchbox cars, old VHS tapes, and a decade of tax returns and financial information (in case I am audited). Add to that a dangling strand of Christmas tree lights, bulb-less lamp, old desk-chair, vacuum cleaner, wicker chest, another lamp, and boxes unapproachable, attic-ed and forgotten. Pink insulation covers the walls, and a silver-serpentine wrap of duct-work snakes above. A furnace lives by the outer wall, alive but sleeping, whirring on when temperature changes summon.
In my childhood home, the attic was a place of hidden treasure. And danger. We climbed the creaky drop-down stairs and ascended to a plywood island from which planks stretched across two by fours traversing a attic-scape of pink, itchy insulation. Quicksand. Fall in and you never come out, just kept falling, falling. Walk the plank and teeter on the brink of hellish doom. Late in life, my elderly mother did indeed fall through, landing softly, providentially, on a sofa below, as if she was just napping, a bit shook up but none the worse for it. We, however, never fell, as we searched for hidden Christmas presents, to peel away a corner of their wrap and have a preview of Santa’s offerings.
I put my hand to the sloping roof, inches from a starry sky, the wood and shingle the thin membrane of infinity. Life, I thought, is pitched towards eternity. “[W]hat is man that you are mindful of him,” says the Psalmist, “and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps. 8:4 ESV). Nothing, and something, I think. And what are all our possessions, our things? Nothing, I think, and something.
“On Ellen’s first night she was assigned a spot in the ‘sky parlor,’ or attic, at the boardinghouse, sharing one of the beds and acclimating to the dim light and lack of heat,” writes Sarah Kilborne, in her biography of textile baron William Skinner. “The place was very cold, but she and her sisters, along with the rest, huddled together under soldiers’ blankets, willingly sacrificing the comforts of home for the freedom of being away from home and earning their own living.” Sky parlor. That’s a word with possibilities, and with that the attic’s edges blur and I imagine that somewhere hidden beneath the detritus of our lives is a missing scrap of paper with a story written in a high school creative writing class, a long-lost letter, childhood coin collection, or some other ancient treasure, demurely waiting to be found, to be awakened from its slumber by the touch of a hand, the embrace of an exclamation. Somewhere, I think, in all these icons of the past, is the key to what’s to come, to what’s been lost and what’s been found and what we are becoming.
But it’s late, too late for such parlor musings, and I’m tired, and I forgot what I am looking for up here, anyway. I switch off the light and carefully descend the stairs, snugly closing the door behind me. I was met by my cat. Even cats long to look into such things, I thought, stooping to run my hand along her back.
“What were you doing up there?” said my wife, looking up from her book.
“Looking for something,” I said. Actually, I thought, looking for anything, looking for possibilities. An old armchair, maybe. A scrap of paper with forgotten words. Or even, a touch of sky.
“Hmmm . . . Did you find it?”