To Build a Floor
Take everything that can be moved out of the room.
My first summer doing home repair in Appalachia, I meet Alice, a woman with age drawn into the skin that hangs loosely on her cheeks. Her home is at the top of a steep driveway in Pike County, Kentucky, and the floor in her kitchen is layered with crumbs, nibbles of cat food, and clumps of dried mud that falls from the crevices in our work boots. I spend a week at her home.
On Monday, my work crew and I dig holes for a wheelchair ramp and catch our breath on the bumper of a white passenger van. Alice invites us inside for lunch, but we came with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so we do not go. Before we leave at the end of the day, she hollers that we shouldn’t bring lunch tomorrow – she wants to cook us a real meal. The next day, around mid-morning, she stands on her porch and calls us inside. I climb the steps that lead to her front door, kick my boots against the stoop, and sit down at her table. Long and wooden, it wears bowls of mashed potatoes and plates of biscuits comfortably. I wonder how often laughter has bounced between her walls, how many stories have settled like the table on top of her wood floor. At the end of the week, I leave the mountains to head back north, and I know Appalachia will be a place I call home.
Throughout college, I spend my summers in the hills, working for a non-profit home repair organization, the Appalachia Service Project, which seeks to eradicate substandard housing in central Appalachia. Behind the wheel of a pickup truck, I travel between families who want home repair, families who know their homes are a place of love.
I experience a new type of heartbreak when I tell a boy how eating makes me feel ugly. I want the world, the strange men on the train into the city and the leaves that knock against large houses, to watch me walk and find me beautiful. Months after this conversation, he tells me I am beautiful as he lifts me from the floor. In the air, his hands hold my ribs, and I soar above his head. He turns in a circle, slowly, and I realize I feel comfortable without being grounded. When he lowers me back to the floor, he looks me in the eyes.
“You are tiny,” he says, he laughs, and I am beautiful. In his hands, I ask his strength to root us both.
Remove the existing floor covering using a prybar. Start at the edges of the room and work into the middle to try and pull off large chunks.
My second summer working in Appalachia, I meet Kevin Evans. The first time I walk up the little hill to his front door, my feet encased in the stiff walls of steel-toed work boots, a shirtless man hollers down at me.
“Did you bring my breakfast?” he laughs, the chuckle getting caught in his throat before crackling into a cough.
“Breakfast?” I say, “I thought you were cooking for me!”
He hobbles to the space where the railing opens for the stairs and throws his arms out to either side, displaying in full light the brown curls pulling away from his chest, “I like you already–you that Appalachia Service girl or what?”
I nod my head yes, and he extends a tan hand, his thumb wrapped in a bandage that looks like it used to be white, but is now tinged with the colors of sweat, dirt, and children.
“Kevin Evans. Don’t mind the bandage,” he says as he sees my eyes linger, “something’s always giving me trouble.”
At Kevin and Karri Evans’ home, the bathroom floor is the first major project. After the volunteers spend a few days clearing the room of extra towels, cabinets filled with nail polish, toothpaste, and rolls of toilet paper, they begin peeling back the floor’s layers. First, the vinyl covering. Second, the subfloor. Third, the joists. Usually, the corner of a home is supported by a sill plate, a band joist, a footer, by something man-made and sure to hold the weight of a family. The corner of the Evans’ home is supported by a rock, dangling on its tip like the ending of a scary story, but it has lasted for years, and surely it won’t give out now. We spend an afternoon in the sun, crouching in mud that smells like childhood as we talk about how to lift a home off an immovable boulder, reposition it on a joist, and keep the floors level; how to keep the board games flat for when the kids spread them between bedrooms in the hallway.
I am trying to keep my eyelids from fluttering open. The yoga instructor speaks slowly. He turns down the lights and tells us to center our bodies and minds. He tells us to thank ourselves for coming to the mat, and as we become warriors and pigeons, I know my body can be strong. We return to ourselves at the end of the practice, my back pressing into the floor. I am rooted to the studio’s hardwood, the belly breaths and flyaway farts from people around me. I try to let my body be a body.
Once all the floor coverings are removed, begin the removal of the subfloor with a circular saw. Set the blade to ¾-inch. Cut as close to the wall and other immovable items as possible.
When I walk into the Evans’ kitchen on a warm Saturday night in July, Karri has her hand in a large bowl.
“Hey girl,” she says, smiling with her teeth, which are white against her tan skin and red cheeks. She says we are going to make her mother’s sweet potato casserole, a family staple. Gesturing towards the bowl with her chin, she says she was in the process of combining brown sugar, flour, pecans, and lots of butter when I walked in. With her hip, she points to a different bowl, full of sweet potatoes.
“Add some sugar, salt, and vanilla in there,” and as I reach for the saltshaker, she remembers this bowl needs a few scoops of butter, too. We laugh as we compile the mash from the two bowls into one, wiping beads of sweat from our foreheads.
I lean against the counter and feel my body settle. My feet are flat against the floor.
“You know we love you, right?” she asks, and I nod.
After thirty minutes of baking and thirty minutes of cooling, we spoon the casserole onto paper plates. We sit on the porch floor, talking about our dream of someday teaching in the same school and sharing lunch in the teacher’s lounge, the women at her current job who don’t make her feel loved, the different ways I have felt out of place, and throughout it all, we eat. I eat more than one plate of sweet potato casserole because I want to, and the evening bugs zipping through the air remind me to exist only in this moment. Even with our stories and laughter pounding on the floor boards, I never question their ability to hold me.
My freshman year of college, I sit on the couch in my dorm’s lobby and feel my weight settle into my stomach. Everything I ate in the past twelve hours races to the forefront of my mind like mussels seeking shelter in the sand after the wave runs back to the sea.
I felt fat for the first time in eighth grade. I had eaten more cookies than the girls in my class who draped skinny legs over desk arms and tilted bodies towards boys who looked at them with interest. I thought it was beautiful, the way my classmate’s bodies looked as though they could fold into themselves.
Maybe that’s what beauty is–the ability to make yourself small. I tell myself this in eighth grade and high school and college. What would it be like to feel small?
Once the floor is open, you can inspect the joists. Check to see which joists are weakest and if they should be sistered or replaced.
The Evans give me a key to their home during our second year of friendship. They hand it to me at a frozen yogurt shop in Hazard, Kentucky, the gold wrapped in pink and white tape.
“So you don’t lose it,” they say, and I tuck the colorful key into my wallet. During my fourth Appalachian summer, I make a trip to their home in mid-June.
“We are going to make soup with vegetables fresh from our garden,” Kevin says in a text message before I arrive. “We are putting beef in ours, but don’t worry, we made you a separate pot.”
I don’t have to use my key for this visit. As I walk up the steps, Kevin is sitting on the front porch, relaxing into a weathered chair. I hear Karri’s voice inside. She excites the kids by announcing my arrival, and moments later, her blonde-haired girl bounds through the door.
“Jamie!” she shrieks and wraps her body around my legs. Her weight attached to my own, I shuffle into the home, and walk through the living room into the kitchen–my favorite room. We ladle soup from the stove into bowls. Karri flavors hers with cracker crumbs and a spoonful of butter. Kevin takes the butter from her when she puts it back on the counter, scoops half into an empty bowl, and pours his soup straight into the tub. I smile as I dip a few crackers into mine.
The evening unfolds as usual–we eat on the floor, sharing stories as fluidly as dreams. They invite me into their home, onto floors that needed help becoming strong. They show me, through homecooked meals and porch conversations, that I am worthy of becoming strong, too.
One of my undergraduate writing professors recommends I start seeing a counselor after she reads an essay I write about anorexia. I take her suggestion and sign up for a session. The woman sits across from me. In a black shirt and black-framed glasses, she asks me why I want to be small, and I tell her I don’t know why I want to be small, but I know I like feeling hungry.
Hunger is open-ended and whispers I am beautiful when I walk lightly across the floor. Hunger’s coos sound like growls to everyone else, my friends on the couch, the students in class, but for me, hunger allows the floor to be a stage where my body is the only thing that matters. I recount the time the boy said I was tiny, and I admit this felt good. She tells me I have to teach myself a new set of truths, truths that praise the things I stand for instead of the way my body looks while standing.
In our next session, I sit on her couch and tell her about the success in my week–I ate a cookie. She nods, asks me what I ate today. I tell her: a banana, some granola, a carrot, a cucumber.
“I wasn’t too hungry,” I state as my stomach growls, and for the first time, hunger does not make me feel light. In this moment, on the couch in my counselor’s office, hunger makes my world feel hazy and uncomfortable.
Sistering a joist means attaching a new, strong joist to an existing, weak joist as a way of providing support to the floor system. In this case, the sistering should help the floor become level. Wrap the new joist in plastic wrap so that water damage or rot does not spread from the old joist to the new joist.
In Johnson County, Tennessee, Joyce lives alone in her childhood home. Her husband, Bill, was a construction worker. He passed away eighteen years ago from an accident on a job site. When she talks about Bill, she smiles, and I can tell, almost immediately, her smile is sparsely shared. She met Bill at a diner when she was seventeen. She was on a date with another man, but when Bill walked through the door, she knew he was the man she was supposed to love. I sigh and lean back into my chair, the floor creaking as the footers find a way to balance my weight.
We are sitting in her living room. Her fingers busily unravel cigarette papers and she uses a machine to clamp them full with tobacco. Loose buds fall to the floor, and she explains, with wide eyes, that even though she lives alone, Bill is still in the home. Tilting her head toward the sound of volunteers replacing floor joists in the room over, she says the repairs make her feel tickled.
“This place is sentimental,” she says, and I let our conversation pause for a moment. Although we are different, Joyce and I share heartbreak, the feeling of walking through a home and grasping. She is lonely, often surrounded only by the rural mountain silence, and I am relearning what it means to love. I leave her house afloat with her stories and easy love–a love that feels like a timeless remembrance of space and the choice to see beauty.
My sister’s shaky voice fills the speaker as I drive through Kentucky’s curves. She tells me to call our brother. When they spent a weekend together in our childhood home, he spent hours stressing over food, when and how much to eat. I call him later that night. I pace beside the air mattress on the ground in my bedroom. I remember how I used to measure time by the number of days I could stay hungry. He says it is hard to love himself without a run, after a bowl of chips, and I let my knees fall to the floor. I offer my story through the phone to show I want to be a sister for his weak spots.
When we hang up, I go outside. I am in Chavies, Kentucky, staying for a few days at an old building at the top of a gravel hill. Although it is night, the mountains are still darker than the sky’s deepest blue, and I feel small. I feel small as I am cradled in the valleys of Appalachia, but this smallness is not restricting. Here, I am small because I feel well-surrounded. Here, I am surrounded by the beauty of porch conversations, the smell of damp lumber, trees that bow as I walk beneath their bodies, and I do not worry about trying to fit. I whisper to the air, the trees, the humanity I feel here and pray for it all to surround my brother, too.
Attach the particle board with 2” deck screws. They should be screwed down every 8-inches around the room. Each sheet should span across at least two joists so that the weight of floor is adequately distributed, and the seams between sheets should be tight.
My second day with Joyce, we sit on her front porch. The windchimes are singing, subtly swaying with a breeze as they hang from a corner. Joyce is sitting on a roll of insulation when I walk up. She says the rolls are more comfortable than any chair she could ever buy, and she laughs, her body shaking and a cigarette dangling from her fingers. I sit on the floor beside her, my work boots colored with sawdust and a patch of white caulk that I caught earlier in the day.
“This is going to make your house a lot warmer,” I say, nodding at the insulation.
“Shoo, it gets cold here. Cold, cold.”
We sit in stillness for a few minutes, and I imagine what winter would feel like in this home, if cold prefers to seep through the floors or the walls. I spend my summers here, but I have never lived through an Appalachian winter, when weather keeps people indoors, restricts them from rounding sharp curves or backing down steep driveways.
The insulation will make the home much warmer, I repeat in my head, and I hope I am right. I hope she forgets cold’s hostility and the ways it makes her feel frail. When Joyce speaks again, her voice breaks the summer mountain sounds – the cicadas buzzing between trees, the pickup truck sputtering to start deeper in the holler.
“This here is my home,” she says. She smiles.
Joyce’s hands are the first thing that remind me of my grandma. My grandma’s hands were tan, wrinkled, and always offering something – a sandwich, an iced tea, a book of poems, the seat beside her. The fourth of July was her favorite holiday, and every year, she made sandwiches as a snack for the parade. The sandwiches were on slices of French bread, cut into triangles. She spread butter inside the slices, lined one side with cheese, and the other with meat. She always made a few meatless, usually peanut butter and jelly, but even those had a noticeable layer of butter.
One year, I slept over at her house the night before the fourth. I woke up to pancakes on a plate, syrup in the microwave, and sunlight sprawling across the floor. Eat some breakfast, she said, and I did. With her, I forgot to remember to be small.
Jamie Tews is an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and holds a BA in English and Creative Writing from Indiana Wesleyan University. She has contributed work to Appalachian Voices and Appalachia Service Project, among others. Besides being a writer, she is a condiment enthusiast, runner, and Taylor Swift fan.