Layers of Memory / Strati di memoria

Steam hisses and water beads pop from the cooling nail. Nearby, a tree trunk slides down a muddy grade that will later form Denny Avenue. Splashing gritty muck in its wake, the trunk is followed by another and another, an unstoppable tide of necessary casualties in the war of urban development. Amidst the clang of industry, sulfur clouds plume in the air.

The meaty grasp of the craftsman’s hands brings the sledgehammer down in pummeling strokes, final and true. The grip worn smooth, the hammer is an extension of himself, brutal and unburdened by conscience.

The first time the woman steps on the floorboard something quickens inside her; she immediately wonders if she is with child. Her husband follows her into the bedroom and clasps his hands on her small shoulders. She knows that such a home is barely within reach, even with his new promotion, but he reassures her with his gentle touch that it will soon be theirs.

The smell of tomatoes and nutmeg fills the hall, hailing the young school girl as she climbs the stairs one by one. Her nose is still cold as she wanders into the kitchen to take her place next to the radiator. Her favorite moment comes quickly: her mother stirs the pot of simmering ragù, wafting the aroma to her nose with a deep sigh.

In the generations that follow, couples light candles on their first night, charmed by the smell of the old wood. With satisfying creaks, they sway slowly from foot to foot in the gathering darkness as the nail and the floorboard dance their own pas de deux beneath them, falling in love again.

The nail remembers the moment it was formed, but before it met the floorboard it had no purpose, no desire, no anime. The floorboard prefers to recall the sensation of the nail driving home inside it, and 70 years of human footsteps that have brought them together—in the angry stomp of lovers, the uneven trod of toddlers in hard sneakers, the slashing scars dealt by stiletto heels, and the pleasurable scratch from sensible loafers.

I think of them as I dress each morning: the men, women and children who have stood in this same spot before me, and what it means to be standing here myself, a post-modern woman in high-heeled black boots. The layers of their lives now intersect with mine, and I wonder what they thought and hoped and struggled with each day that they passed through this room. I wonder if the woman who lives here 20 years from now will ever think about me.

As I pause to feel the creak beneath my foot, I want to ask the nail and the floorboard what they remember. Then, I realize that they have already begun to reveal their stories; I need only to listen…and add my own.

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