Room Without a Floor

1

The night before Yancey moved out of his house he called me twice, first to come over for a drink—I did—and second, hours after I’d left, to tell me we were going to destroy his house the next morning.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t understand.”

Yancey mumbled, his voice tumbling away from me as though he was falling into a well.

“I can’t understand what you’re saying, Yancey.”

“Just be here at eight, Pitcher.” He hung up.

2

I found Yancey hugging the toilet in the first-floor bathroom. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and a string of brownish saliva stuck to his lips and spindled into the bowl like a line of spider’s silk. The bumps of his spine protruded along his back, and I could see all the little muscles in his shoulders tense when he breathed.

“Yancey.”

“Not so loud, Pitcher.” He retched. “I may have had a few more drinks after you left.”

“So it would appear. But you’re awake.”

“I said eight and I meant eight.”

“So you’re still destroying your house, then.”

“No, we are.” He stood and brushed past me, wiping his mouth on his arm. “Come on. I unpacked a crowbar for you.”

3

“Where did you sleep?”

“On the floor.”

Yancey’s bedroom was the same robin’s-egg blue his parents painted it thirty years ago when they learned they were having a boy. The room was empty except for an unzipped duffel bag. Depressions in the carpet marked the spots where his furniture had sat.

“You could have stayed at my place.”

“What kind of owner would I be if I spent the last night I had in my house at someone else’s?”

“Well, technically you don’t really own the place anymore.”

Yancey gave me a sidelong look and handed me the crowbar, then pulled a ball peen hammer and a sledgehammer from his duffel bag.

“We’re really doing this?”

He grunted and swung the sledgehammer, smashing a hole the size of his hand in his closet door.

“Any rules?”

“Of course not,” Yancey said, knocking another hole through the door. Then, without hesitation, he turned and smashed the hammer into the wall, a cloud of drywall and plaster pouting out into the air when he pulled it back.

4

We met when my mother took me over to Yancey’s house, holding my hand and walking across the recently-cut grass that clung to my shoes. I don’t remember this first meeting, but I have a photograph of myself and Yancey, me a year younger than him, just learning to walk. In the photo I’m clinging to his hips, mid-tumble, and am about to pull him down with me. A copy of that photograph sat on an end table in Yancey’s house for a long time, but it disappeared after his mother died. Our mothers, so the story goes, watched Yancey and I fall into one another in a heap, laughed, and kept sipping their wine.

5

Yancey took the crowbar and tugged at the carpet until it was a frayed mess rolled up in the corner. I had to convince him to leave the subfloor in tact. I half-expected to find some relic from our childhood together stuffed down there; we’d spent many nights in this bedroom, me tucked into a sleeping bag on the floor while Yancey was on his bed, talking. He was fast with words, a stuttering whirlwind of vocabulary, and I could see his hands swirling in animation as he spoke, tossing shadows against the wall through the moonlight coming in the bare window. I imagined those joggled, asymmetrical shapes were acting out his words as he spoke, dark, one-dimension puppets on a dim stage hanging over him. Yancey would only shush himself if he heard the creaky floor outside his door whine when one of his parents walked by, and I would watch the shifting darkness through the crack beneath the door for their passing shapes.

“They’d kill me if they knew we were still awake.”

6

“Did I ever tell you that my father hit me?”

We were in his parents’ bedroom. The movers had complained about all the dust on the furniture and the fact that Yancey hadn’t removed the bedspread or his parents’ clothes from the dressers. He paid them each a hundred bucks to deal with it, telling them he didn’t care what happened to those things. He’d at least emptied the closet; I’d helped him carry the contents to his truck, and he’d dumped it all off at Good Will.

“Right here,” he said, standing where his parents’ bed had been. “When I was a kid he’d spank me if I did something wrong, and my crying would make him more upset. When I got older, he’d hit me with his knuckles on my thighs. When his wedding ring connected, that hurt bad.”

I swallowed, my mouth feeling like pennies, the metallic taste intermingled with my sweat.

7

Water spewed from the hole where Yancey tore the bathroom sink’s faucet off with one swipe of the ball peen hammer. When the water started dribbling onto the floor he shrugged and stepped around the forming puddle and shattered the mirror. The glass floated in large chunks that looked like unmoored ships.

“I always hated this bathroom. So ugly. Mom hated it too, but Dad liked it,” Yancey said. “Can you believe this shit? Who puts carpet in a bathroom? God, my father was a piece of work.”

He collapsed the shower door with one swoop.

8

I was already exhausted, my shirt three shades darker red from the sweat all over me, my arms ballooned with lead, when we moved downstairs. The sound of water spewing from the broken-off knob in the shower was thunderous above us. As soon as he hit the ground floor Yancey turned to the French doors of his father’s office and shattered them, glass sprinkling across the dark hardwood. He pushed the doors open with the head of the sledgehammer. In the hour we’d spent on the second floor Yancey had developed a smooth transition from one hammer to the other, balancing the head of the one he wasn’t using between his feet while brandishing the other like a sword, slashing down whatever wall or fixture was in his way.

The office was painted forest green on three walls; along the fourth a desk had been built the same color as the mahogany flooring. His father had holed himself up here, working, Yancey’s mother would say when we sat down to dinner on nights I came over, on the family finances.

“You know how I couldn’t go to college?” Yancey said when he was done demolishing the desk, dust from the particle board wafting through the air.

“Yeah. You couldn’t afford it, right?”

“That’s what I thought. That’s what Dad said.” He lifted the sledgehammer and pummeled one of the green walls. “Turns out, we had plenty of money.”

“What?”

“Yep. That’s what the estate attorney or whatever he was said. It so happens we were loaded.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you get it, Pitcher?” Yancey smiled. He was breathing hard. “I’m one rich mother fucker.”

9

The kitchen, next, where Yancey’s mother had stewed for so long before getting sick and dying of breast cancer when we were teenagers. It happened fast, all in one summer during high school. Yancey was learning to drive, and she was teaching him, and then she was too sick to get in the car, or cook, or do anything.

“And of course Dad didn’t cook,” Yancey said, swinging at the kitchen sink. The cabinets were already destroyed, some of them ripped out of the wall entirely, lying on the floor like thrashed cardboard boxes.

“Don’t you think the owners are going to be really pissed?”

“That’s just now occurring to you?”

“Well, I guess not.”

“They’re tearing the place down anyway.”

“They said that?”

Yancey shrugged.

“They didn’t say that?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“How does it not matter?”

Yancey lowered the sledgehammer to the floor and stared at me, as though I should know the answer.

“Why are we doing this, Yancey?”

“A bit too late to ask that, isn’t it, Pitcher?” He tapped the hammer against the floor and, when I said nothing, Yancey turned away, giving his attention to the stove.

10

“Did you ever hear about the guys who come into your house and move everything around?”

“What?”

“Yeah. Supposedly you can call this number and some guys will sneak into your house while you sleep and rearrange your furniture.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“They don’t take anything. They’re not thieves. They just move things around, put your dining room table in your office, take your recliner and jam it into your bathroom, stuff like that.”

“Where did you hear this?”

Yancey shrugged before taking the sledgehammer to the window. We were in the living room now, the only untouched space left. “I don’t remember. I never got the phone number so I never tried. But I should have done it, right after Dad died. Or maybe before, just to piss him off. Maybe woulda given him a heart attack and he’d have died sooner.”

11

It happened on a Friday, mid-day, according to the coroner. Yancey found his father sprawled out on the living room floor: heart attack. For weeks Yancey spent all of his time at my house, shaking his head and staring at the television, saying nothing. He slept in the guest bedroom and took a week’s worth of sick days, spending his hours on my couch, alternating between beer and whiskey, ordering Chinese or pizza. By the time I came home each day cans and cardboard boxes smothered the coffee table. I never asked if he was okay, because I knew he would say yeah, sure, dismissing my concern with a flick of his wrist. Our conversations were monosyllabic blips.

That was two years ago. Now we stood in the living room, which looked so much bigger without the plump leather couches or the entertainment center that had engulfed an entire wall.

“Well,” Yancey said. “The last room.”

“Yeah.”

Yancey tapped his foot. “Let’s see what we can’t do about this floor.”

12

It came up easily after the first plank, which took Yancey several grunts, curses, and thwacks with the crowbar to get up. In his frustration he embedded the end of the crowbar into the wall, leaving what looked like teeth marks in the white paint.

After several failed attempts Yancey finally managed to wedge the crowbar between the wall and the floor and pried the floorboard loose. They were the kind that interlock together like puzzle pieces, and once one was out, removing the rest was like knocking down a line of dominos. Yancey ripped up board after board, tossing them over his shoulder. They clattered, some chipping. One errant throw sent a board through the window, glass shimmering down into the bushes that lined the front of the house. As he progressed, Yancey’s tosses grew stronger and more erratic, now heavy fastballs instead of underhanded loops. I ducked out of the way when one sailed toward me.

13

When Yancey turned twenty-two, I realized I was his only friend. He told me as much after his sixth shot of Jack Daniels, which he washed down with half a pint of beer. His eyes were glossed over, his hair disheveled from picking at it as he always did when he drank.

“I’m serious,” he said, finishing the beer.

“No you’re not. You’re drunk.”

“I can be both.”

“Shut up.”

“Who else is here, Pitcher? Why the hell do you think I skipped this last year?” He’d foregone celebrating his twenty-first birthday at a bar because I couldn’t get in with him. He gestured to the bartender for another beer and then hit me in the arm. “You’re it, pal.”

“Come on, Yancey.”

“It’s true.” He got a faraway look in his eyes and stared past my shoulder. I twisted to follow his gaze, but there was nothing to see. “It’s just you.” He smiled and looked me in the eye, almost glaring, squinting as though he was looking over a map, looking for the name of a small village. “It’s always been you.”

14

We left the house in disarray. For a second I thought Yancey might chicken out, save what could be salvaged from the mess. But all Yancey carried out to his truck was the duffel bag with the tools and a few pieces of flooring from the living room.

“I guess I just need to take at least something with me, you know?” he said as he tossed them in the bed of the truck.

“I do.”

“Well.” Yancey’s voice was filled with a startling finality, as though he thought—knew?—we wouldn’t see each other again.

“What about the leftover whiskey?”

Yancey smiled. “Good old Pitcher, always thinking.” He turned and went back inside. When the door shut behind him, I turned to Yancey’s truck.

15

I don’t know how long it took Yancey to notice that the flooring was missing from his truck. I had acted fast, yanking the boards from the truck in the time it took Yancey to trot inside. I tossed them into the trashcan sitting outside the garage, wedging them in and shutting the lid before Yancey returned, hoping he wouldn’t look in the truck bed before he left.

We didn’t hug or really say goodbye.

“One for the road?” Yancey pointed the whiskey bottle at me and we both took a final shot, and then he climbed in the truck and took off. When he was out of sight, I pulled the spare key from my pocket. I knew he’d forget to ask for it.

I went inside and plucked up the rest of the flooring, throwing as many pieces as I could into my trunk. Then I grabbed the ones I’d thrown away and put them atop the nest of planks in my car. I would take them to the dump later, ignoring Yancey’s calls. I knew he would be angry at me for taking them from him, for denying him these small pieces of memory from his house, but I also knew that he needed to let go of that floor, never lay it down on the new one in his new home, a home whose rooms would hopefully forever get to keep their floors.

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Joe Baumann

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, SNReview, Lindenwood Review, and many others. He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks. He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.

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