The day before we take Maggie back to college I'm roping an oak table into the back of a rented trailer. Not just any oak table. It was the kitchen table from my childhood home. I did my elementary school artwork on it. My elbows were on its surface when I decided to go to the UW-Madison. Now it's headed to the University of Minnesota. I need extra bungees for the symbolism.
The mojo-laden table is headed to Maggie's first apartment. First apartments are like first loves: bursting with potential and you only see the good parts. When we pull up to the three-flat off Como Avenue in Minneapolis, I'm thinking the apartment is collegiate Shangri-La, too. Set back on a quiet street lined with ginkgo trees, draped in a vest of green ivy, the brown stucco house looks darn near distinguished.
We make our way up the wooden front steps toward the double front doors. If you're expecting the other shoe to drop, your wait is over. The front doors, which look like they were pried from the Munsters' house, are loosely connected to the frame, as though they've been trying to escape the place. Even if they stay, they'll give the front hallway the insulation this winter of your average chicken shack.
The front foyer is a cracked compilation of stained wood and plaster walls with so many holes and patches it looks almost artistic. "Maggie!" cheers Gillian, one of Maggie's two roommates. We start unloading our van and the trailer that Gillian's dad drove up from Madison.
Out on the front porch I take a second look around. Across the street a forgotten basketball court grows moss. In front of the house, hostas grow wild at the feet of some sad-looking hemlocks.
The kitchen table will have to be taken apart to fit around the tight bend in the front hall. We place it top-down in the grass. Inside, the living room blooms boxes of all shapes and sizes. Maggie has her own room; her housemates will share. In order to get to Maggie's room you have to go through a kitchen with a floor that is so sloped a chairlift could be installed.
Like a funhouse at the State Fair, there's no dominant direction to the slope in the kitchen. If you placed a marble in the center of the room on the floor, it wouldn't be able to decide which direction to roll first. Its eventual path would be challenged by leaves of asbestos-flaked linoleum squares chipped and missing in all directions.
The bathroom is a mold machine. A steel medicine cabinet hangs tight on the wall next to a hillbilly tub/shower setup. Maggie's room has potential were it not for the fissure in one corner large enough to use as an emergency exit. A rusty radiator hunches between battered window frames like an old wet dog. She's worried about hanging pictures because she says the landlord ordered no nail holes in the walls. We immediately begin to pound in the nails.
"Ron's here!" we hear from the living room. Ron is the landlord. We find him standing in the living room with an aura of pride and ownership that catches me off guard. Like he was standing in the lobby of the Trump Towers or something.
"Everything going all right?" he asks.
"Okay if I come up later this fall with supplies and paint Maggie's room?" her mom asks him.
Ron shifts his weight from one foot to the other and lets out a little breath. "Well then," he says. "I'd have to ask my wife about that. She does all the interior work, and she's pretty picky."
Ron leaves and we return to slamming nails into his wife's walls. I disassemble the kitchen table out in the yard. The sun is hot. The screws coming loose in the oak produce satisfying little squeaks. The table fits back together nicely and looks perfect in the coolest location in the whole apartment: a little kitchen nook. It soon fills up with boxes.
I feel more connected to Maggie in this space (warts and all) than I did from afar last year when she was in a dorm. Her new place is filled with us. The donated chair from our living room. Those lamps. Dishes given to us at our wedding 24 years ago and retrieved from the attic.
And then there's the kitchen table. In good times and bad, doing homework or eating breakfast or fretting about boys or exams or money, she won't be alone there, and I'm warmed by that thought. Three generations of her family will be there with her.