Broken Home

Broken Home

September 12, 2022

 

 

 

Broken Home

by Alan Schulte

 

 

My father sprawls at the kitchen table. It’s not really a table, but a repurposed and weather-beaten wooden spool, four feet across, the kind used for wound industrial-gauge wire. My sister makes herself small, cross-legged on the floor as she twists the frayed strands of an old braided carpet around her fingertips, choking the ragged pink skin to a swollen, fleshy plum. 

My father taps a work-hardened fingernail on the edge of his coffee mug, a gesture traditionally followed by some formal declaration. “I’ve decided I want to be closer to you,” my father says. It is a cool nor’easter making landfall. My sister has bound three fingers into plump purple grapes. “Besides, it looks like you could use some help around here.” 

My mother is still, touching her lips to the edge of her teacup, not sipping, or swallowing, or breathing. Her mouth set in a tight, unwavering line, as my father’s voice is swallowed by the whir of the ceiling fan and her wordless acknowledgment of the exposed knotty-pine trusses that support the vaulted ceiling over our heads. 

Ten years after the divorce, my mother had saved enough to put a down payment on the turn-of-the-century farmhouse. It is a work in progress, but it is ours. The two of us rip away a bygone era of ammonia-scented horsehair plaster and splintered lath that line the walls and ceilings through most of the structure; an incessant white film covers every surface. The kitchen is still in pieces. The double sink, still plumbed to the wall, rests on a 1940’s porcelain enamel tabletop my mother picked up at a yard sale for twenty-five cents, haggling the lady down from a dollar. 

My mother and I work beneath the house in the old root cellar that smells of black earth and overripe potatoes. We work to raise the sagging farmer’s porch overhead and tie it back to the house. It is here I learn to position the tall, rust-colored cylinder jacks that look like military-grade projectiles tipped up on end, spaced apart in four-foot intervals along the perimeter, making sure they sit perfectly level, perpendicular to the ground and the support beam on the underside of the porch. I crawl down below the tired structure, hunched over in that dark, damp place, and turn each threaded pipe inside the cylinder, one full revolution, putting my chest and every ounce of my ten-year-old weight into the large crescent wrench, twisting the screw that presses a broad steel plate against the old wood, gaining a centimeter at a time, raising the piston and slowly lifting our home back into place. 

When the wrench becomes too difficult to turn, my mother shows me how to place a length of pipe over the handle to gain leverage, to make light work of the stubborn jack.  Every twist must be gradual and even, so that with every incremental adjustment, the hundred-year-old wood has time to rest into place. We check our level often to see our progress. Painfully slow. Until the day I am not strong enough to turn the screw. When my mother’s hand is weak. When we find there are some things we cannot fix.

 

 

 

 

 

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 Portrait of Alan Schulte

Alan Schulte is Assistant Professor of English at Franklin Pierce University. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. His work has appeared in JunkLit, The Henniker Review, and UNH Magazine. Alan lives in Bedford, New Hampshire with his wife, their four children, and their dog, Coco.



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