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“The Plonkswald Floor”

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The House Is Always The House
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Whenever I visit home,  it’s changed,  and yet it’s still the house I grew up in.  Rooms migrate,  rugs swap places,  the hallways leading to bathrooms get longer,  antique bureaus materialize,  and random bric-a-brac turns up all over.  However,  the house always has three stories, with a half-story in between the second and third stories.  And the house is always the house.

I have gone through it all so many times,  but somehow it fades every time. The family doesn’t talk about the half-floor,  and before I get home I wind up unsure whether it’s really there, and often doubting it. 

On my most recent visit home, I was feeling a bit indifferent about the half-floor—I was landing agnostic-skeptical as to whether it existed and was preoccupied with things happening in my work life and personal life, anyway; so the half-floor was not one of my major concerns, whether it was real or not.  But my first day back—when I was lounging around on the ground floor, drinking coffee and OJ and reading the news in the midst of all of mom and dad’s furniture, with sunlight pouring in the windows—that morning it happened that dad had left a book on the art of G.H. Plonkswald out on the glass-topped coffee table. 

This was brazen.  The half-story is dominated by a set of five Plonkswald masks—one for each of us,  you might think, but actually the set was commissioned by granddad in the nineteen-thirties,  before any of us five were around.  They’ve come down to us,  though,  clearly—our family alone has owned the masks, and they are unknown to the museum curators who assemble catalogues of Plonkswald’s work. 

The masks are always displayed on the half-floor,  though of course how they’re mounted shifts around.  Once, I saw all five masks lined up in a row. Often, you’ll find two masks to a wall;  other times, there are hardly two masks to a room;  and other times still,  the entire half-story is one great unpartitioned space, like a loft, with the masks distributed across the long walls at varying depths and heights. 

These Plonkswald masks are supplely carved from wood—beech, balsa, and maple.  They demonstrate multiple carving techniques—one mask’s surface and inside curve so smoothly that the eye cannot distinguish any one cut from another,  it is as if the wood all around the mask had just been peeled away;  another is all clearly delineated cuts, a patchwork surface like a face made up of swatches of paint in a Picasso.  Another appears to be rock.  The masks don't look African or European or Chinese.  You cannot miss that they are devil-masks and spirit-masks. 

So here was dad leaving a book on Plonkswald out in a conspicuous spot, all but bringing up the half-floor during a conversation at a meal.  Moreover, the book’s cover reproduced a detail from a wooden carving bearing a clear resemblance to the most snake-like of the masks upstairs—the one with the forked tongue and spiral-nose coming out of its face. This mask has the surprising characteristic of appearing to have eyes embedded in it already,  but then visibly taking on the eyes of whoever puts it on.

appearing to have eyes embedded in it already

Its so weird when you come upon the half-floor for the first time in a while, how that feeling of time suspended is always still there.  I said before that the masks dominate the half-story,  but that is not really correct—green dominates the half-story,  the particular grand, deep and faded green – sun-drenched even when the curtains are drawn – of the half-floors upholstery and rugs and carpets.  Dust motes tumble through sunbeams.  Its always as if youd once witnessed some weird thing happen here, something you had imagined doing yourself without ever consciously realizing you were imagining doing it until now,  upon seeing that weird thing being done and so learning that you are not the only person to have ever thought of it.

Eric and I used to talk about the half-floor when we were teenagers; sometimes mom would come in while we were saying something about it, and wed go suspiciously quiet, and shed tease us, What are you boys talking about?,  and wed say Nothing,  and mom would keep on teasing,  Nothing? Are you sure?—and it seemed perfectly clear,  then,  that mom of course knew what we had been talking about and knew that we knew that she knew,  so that all of our keeping quiet on the subject of the half-story was a self-aware performance full of winks and nudges, rather than a real conspiracy of denial.  It wasnt unusual back then,  either, for me and Eric to meet up on the half-story—not in a scheduled way, but having both gone up (or down) on an impulse.  Wed never talk very much when we were up there, wed just murmur our greetings and then occasional expressions and observations.  Wed sit beside each other—on the floor,  slumped against a wall, or on an ottoman or couch—leaning into the others arm or resting a head  on a shoulder,  like puppies—sit and read together, usually our own books, sometimes jointly poring over some fat art book.

The frank way I remember us acknowledging each other in those days – one walking up to the other, the exchange of Heys, and then the collapse from standing to sprawling – is so unlike how Eric and I adjust and orient to each other on the occasions nowadays when we both wind up on the half-floor.  We always know that the other is there right away,  before looking,  even before the last step has been gone up.  But now we say nothing—we make eye contact and in the look that passes between us, we each release the other from any further fear of disruption.  We sit separately,  often reading but sometimes just thinking – just existing.  Eventually, one of us gets up and becomes the first to go. 

You could say that what dominates the half-floor is neither the set of Plonkswald masks nor that green in the drapes and on the floors and the old upholstered chairs with the rosebush patterns – but rather is the underwater feeling of that space.  But then, thats intangible.

But not totally intangible.  Why does silence tend naturally to prevail on the half-floor,  why does one speak hushedly up there without having ever been so admonished?  Do you know,  I have seen it happen – even in recent years –  that all five of us will be up there at once,  one or two or three lingering,  two or three or four passing through on our way to another story—and though we do keep our eyes lowered as we drift around one another, it is the underwater-ness of the half-floor that swallows up our experience and sucks it back into a never-mentioned place even as our paths are still converging.  Certain underwater places dont want to be spoken about,  and so their currents lift you up and spin you and carry you off to places better suited to ordinary conversation.

Certain underwater spaces don't want to be spoken about

The Plonkswald Floor

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Whenever I visit home
the one with the forked tongue
Certain underwater places
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