Underneath It All, There's Carpeting
a fiction about friction, family,
and The Price Is Right
This is one of my favorites of my stories, published in The Los Angeles Review in 2007. It was inspired by childhood viewings of The Price Is Right and that magical moment when the showcase included “The Price Is Right presents The Table of Gold!” All those golden plates and forks and serving platters— “And underneath it all,” the announcer always declared, “there’s carpeting!” As if carpeting would be anywhere else …
The issue didn’t get widely distributed, so I’m sharing the piece here. You don’t even have to bid on it.
And here it begins ...
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I am delighted to take the floor tonight, so to speak, though I’ll also be giving it away (thank you, the joke is my own, and I’m glad we can share a laugh). I’m sure we all thank the Fresno Elementary School Media Club for hosting this event, and the Mothers’ Optimists Club for the refreshments; personally, I am touched that Kay Matthews went to the trouble to bake a marble pound cake herself, knowing it is my favorite. Mind you don’t spill anything.
In just a minute I’ll be introducing you to my sister, Tracy, whom you have invited to be your keynote speaker. You will also see her momentarily in a videotape that will be available for purchase at the end of the evening. The slides I’m going to show you are from my private collection, and I’m willing to copy them off for anyone who’s interested—it’s always a pleasure to give to people who appreciate it.
You elementary schoolers have formed this Club in order to pursue your dreams of being on television and in movies, to fulfill yourselves and maybe make some money. And as many of the grown-ups know, it had long been my dream to sit in a television auditorium in Los Angeles and hear these words: “Rhonda Burns, come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right!” But with two small children, my job at Farm Feeds, and a big fat mortgage, I couldn’t even chip in for the gas to get there. So five months ago it was Tracy who got to go with our friend Joan (hi there, Joan, glad you could make it), and who heard the announcer call her name. Tracy was the one who got to run down the aisle screaming with her hands and bosoms waving in the air, and she was the one who got to kiss Bob Barker and eventually spun the wheel and won a thousand dollars—a thousand dollars!—by landing on the space marked one dollar. That was how she got her pick of showcases to bid on, and how she ended up winning a package called “The Price Is Right presents The Table of Gold.”
Many of us here tonight have had the privilege of admiring and using Tracy’s Table of Gold: the gold-rimmed dishes and gold-tone flatware, gilded glasses, gold-stitched linens, the mahogany-veneer table and chairs and matching buffet. I myself have enjoyed marble pound cake on the dessert plates, as you can see in this slide taken at LuLu Weatherford’s tenth anniversary reception (you’ll also notice I’ve lost a few pounds since then, which was another dream of mine). It is only too bad that Tracy couldn’t bring some of the dishes down for us to eat off tonight, but as I understand it she has already set the table for her ladies’ club luncheon tomorrow afternoon, when everybody will need those dishes to talk about that book that just won the national prize. We don’t grudge her that for a minute, and paper plates and napkins do us just fine. Somebody might pass one to Tracy now so she can scrub that bit of lipstick off her teeth.
Of course, there was more to the prize package than just the things on the table. When he was describing the showcase, the announcer put this at the very end, like the best part of a long dinner that was nothing but dessert: “Underneath it all, there’s carpeting!”
Friends, I admit that when I watched the program for the first time, during its television broadcast, I felt a mix of emotions. “Where else would the carpeting be?” I actually said this out loud, though there was no one to hear me. Sarah and John-John (who are with their father tonight, bless them) were down for their naps and I was all alone in what was then my living-dining room, what the realtors call a greatroom. Just awful to think of now, the orange corduroy sofa and the cracked plastic table that the kids’ crayons had scribbled all over, their toys lying everywhere. You will understand why I do not have a slide photo of this to show you. And underneath it all, I had the worst rug in the world. Avocado green shag, which probably dated back to the 1970s and was ripped in several places. My ex-husband, Victor Oderwald, had mended those rips with duct tape that was impossible to pull off.
Yes, even on The Price Is Right, just like here in the Media Club room, the floor is the only logical place for carpeting. On TV that day, the camera swooped down and spent some time loving on that new Berber carpet. It spread smooth and white underneath the shiny table and chairs and all the golden dishes and servingware and linens on top of them. It was so bright it seemed to have its own lights buried inside, and for all I know the people on the program had rigged such a thing up. My eyes fell from the TV to my own rug. One realtor after another had told me that the carpet alone would bring down the price of the house, even if it was a 1940s bungalow located close to downtown, in a neighborhood that was becoming good. I offer you this slide showing a map of Fresno’s urban decay and plan for renewal; you will see that my house, which I have marked with a star, is right in the path of improvements.
Yes, I was selling the house. I couldn’t afford the mortgage that Victor and I had taken on in the real estate “bubble” some years back, not on my pay from Farm Foods (with all respect to Tina and Roberto, who I know have always done their best for their employees). But the house is not my main point just now.
When I show you the Price Is Right videotape, I want you to pay particular attention to the bidding. You will notice that the audience is shouting out a lot of different numbers. This is how Joan got her voice on TV too; she is the one who called out “Twenty-three thousand!” and that’s the number Tracy finally went with.
Sitting there in my rotten greatroom, in spite of everything I already knew, I felt certain that price was much too high, that Tracy had overbid and wouldn’t win anything at all—that’s how it works on the show, you just can’t overprice. But we all know the outcome of this story. After the commercial break, Bob Barker revealed that Tracy had actually gone under by almost two thousand, and she won the Table of Gold. She got to kiss Bob again, and then Joan came up on stage and the two of them stood grinning and waving good-bye while Bob Barker reminded viewers to have their pets spayed or neutered, and the credits rolled over Joan and Tracy’s matching brown pixie haircuts and T-shirts that read “Fresno’s Ready to Come On Down!” The same shirts they’re wearing tonight.
I want to point out one more thing about Joan and Tracy that day: they had just got their hair cut, because they thought they might end up on camera. That’s optimism for you, mothers. You may also notice, those of you who know me, that since then I have had my hair layered, with highlights put in too. Tracy is not a big fan of this style, but it goes over well at evening presentations like this one.
A few weeks after the taping, once the paperwork was complete, the Price Is Right people packed up everything that was a part of the Table of Gold and sent it to Tracy in a truck. She sold her old dinette set to Mary Bridge for a hundred dollars (Mary, may it last you a lifetime), and then she threw a party. It was the first of many parties that she would hold to give as many people as possible the chance to enjoy that Table, right on up to some ladies who work in the mayor’s office.
This party, which was as I said the first, began with everybody watching the very tape I’m going to show you. We saw Tracy’s parts several times and listened to her and Joan analyzing the game moment by moment. When they had finished, we all moved into the dining room for dinner and stood around admiring all the golden dishes and the wood veneer and even the silly huge popcorn machine that she’d won in the first round, the one that got her up onstage and gave her a chance to win a new car (which she lost) and then the thousand dollars and then everything that went with the Table of Gold.
Except the carpeting. Nobody admired the new carpeting. But this was only for the simple reason that it was not there: Tracy’s husband, Bill, is allergic to dust, and he has refused to let anybody lay down wall-to-wall in his house, even if the rooms do look cold and naked without it.
“What will you do with it?” asked our friend Nina—yes, she’s the gal in the back there, the blonde who works at the bridal boutique on Route 12. She was helping Tracy serve the food, and the two of them were peeling the plastic wrap off golden platefuls of sandwiches they’d cut the crusts off of, and yellow potato salad and wet-looking meatballs stuck through with toothpicks. Nina went on, “I mean, it has to be worth something—wool Berber and all.”
Joan said, “They don’t Jew you on Price Is Right.” Some of you might not think this was very nice of Joan to say, and please don’t turn around and stare at her, but in fact she was right. The Price Is Right doesn’t cut any corners. And Joan raised an interesting question that I for one intend to take up with the producers of the show: Do we ever see any Jews on contestants’ row? Sometimes there’s a black or Mexican person, but if the show is supposed to represent America, maybe there are some parts they are leaving out.
My sister pulled a pair of gold-tone salad tongs out of the manufacturer’s plastic bag and spoke very loudly. “Right now that carpet’s rolled up and sitting in my garage.” She stuck the tongs in a bowl with three-bean salad. “We were thinking we could sell it and get the money to pay the tax on my prizes—you know, the IRS treats anything you win just like income.”
At the time, I thought that was the tackiest thing I’d ever seen, leaving the tongs in the bag until they were ready to be used, just so everyone there would see that they were the kind of tongs that actually came in a bag rather than hanging out in the grocery store with a plastic loop holding them and the price together. This is the kind of thought I was having back then, but I have since revised my thinking. I’ve seen much tackier.
“But Bill had a great idea,” Tracy said, even louder. She smiled down first at her husband, who had had this idea, and then at me. “We’re going to give it to my sister.”
This was as much news to me as it was to you; Tracy always was one for seizing the dramatic moment, ever since that acting class she took in community college. All of the guests sat back and then forward again, marveling at how generous and kind Tracy was. The taxes on twenty-six thousand dollars’ worth of prizes must be enormous. Nina, I think you had a harder time smiling than most people did; maybe you hoped for something different. But Tracy folded her arms under her bosoms and announced, “Rhonda has to sell her house, poor thing, and she’ll do so much better if she has some new carpet.”
I felt for a moment like I wasn’t even there, and then I felt all of our friends, many of you, looking at me. Of course you knew about the divorce; everybody knew. You knew about Victor’s new girlfriend and the condo they’d rented in the already nice part of town too. So now everybody knew a final fact, that I was poor and had ugly rugs.
Excuse me while I have a sip of water and nibble some of that delicious pound cake.
Well, it was true: The Berber carpeting would help. The realtor I went with, Marti, told me that having it in at least one or two rooms, right when prospective buyers walked in, could mean a difference of up to ten thousand dollars. It was the same sort of thinking by which Marti told me to clean the house from top to bottom and put the kids’ toys in boxes in the crawlspace. A clean fresh house is a house other people will want to live in, never mind the backups in the old iron pipes or the misfirings in the electrical. I knew Marti was right, even though she hadn’t sold a house in over four months, so I accepted Tracy’s gift as gracefully as I could. But I made sure the children were awake and I was plenty busy, was even glad they were fighting, when Tracy and Bill brought over that giant roll of carpet in their pickup.
Tracy was wearing her “Fresno’s Ready to Come On Down!” T-shirt again, and sweating through it already. We were close to midsummer by this point. Despite the kids screaming and getting in the way, we moved all the furniture out on the lawn and Bill gave the carpet a test layout over the greatroom floor. It was a fat roll, sure, but once it was spread out there was enough only for that room—and then again there was a little too much, such that the rug curled up against the wall by several inches all the way around. Bill took out his Swiss Army knife and began hacking away at it, though even that little bit of work on new carpet made his allergies act up and pretty soon he was sneezing all over it.
Within a few strokes, he’d broken the blade, and he stood up rubbing the knife against his jeans and looking at me as if I’d done this to him on purpose. He said, “You need a special tool, I guess.”
“I guess so,” I said, but I said it quick because I had to reach out and grab John-John before he managed to pull Sarah’s hair out. My son shouted for me to set him loose again, and the words he used came mostly from his father’s vocabulary.
“Jiminy Christmas, Rhonda!” Bill acted like this was a personal insult to himself. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”
Under normal circumstances I would have punished both the kids, but today I just kissed their foreheads and sent them off to the freezer for ice cream sandwiches. “You know,” I said, “kids will be kids.”
Tracy bent down and tried to catch Sarah in a hug, but my daughter wasn’t having any of it.
Some of you may have heard the unfortunate news that Tracy will not be having children, and you may be aware that this is mostly Bill’s preference. Some say that this was the first source of marital problems between them. However, Bill did take Tracy on a cruise to Mexico after she had the operation; the next series of six slides shows them at various moments of that vacation. As you can see from this picture of the buffet, we might say that cruise is responsible for the new shape we’ve seen in Tracy recently.
The two of them decided to go to Home Depot to find the special sort of tool that would cut carpet easily. When they were gone, I got myself an ice cream sandwich too, and walked back and forth across the new Berber. While I ate I felt, just for a moment, kind of prosperous. The Berber was soft; it had been treated with special chemicals so it was not scratchy like normal wool, and it smelled like the fertilizers I sold all day long. If someone will turn the lights up, I’ll pass around a sample cut from one corner so you can feel it up close for yourselves. Just imagine all that softness under your bare feet.
Now, stay with me; the most important part of the story is coming.
After I’d licked the last bit of sandwich off my fingers, I sat down in a corner and rolled that nice soft rug over my feet and then my legs. I was acting like Cleopatra, who according to Jeopardy! had once had herself delivered to a future husband this way.
Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, come on down! Oh, it is good to hear all of you laugh.
While I was rolling myself up, I realized that Bill and Tracy had not removed the green shag before they started to install the new carpet. The nasty old rug lay underneath the bright white one like a dirty secret, duct tape seams and all. And just at that moment, the doorbell rang and Marti, my realtor, flipped open the mail slot to call, “Yoohoo! What’s new and exciting?”
She had brought Ralph and Carlotta—that’s the three of them, sitting over by the Super-8 machine. Ralph and Carlotta were looking for their first home purchase, just like Victor and me five years earlier. I’ll admit this: I did not like them right away. I can say it now, as we all have become good friends. Yes, I hated them—just because they were people who wanted to take my house away from me. Carlotta carried a shiny blue vinyl pocketbook and smiled at me like someone who was nervous and perhaps did not speak English well. Or maybe she was quiet because she could guess how I felt about her just then—Carlotta, is that the reason?
Lovely, lovely pound cake, Kay.
I opened the door all the way and let them in. I said to Marti, “I thought you were always supposed to call first.”
“I tried,” she said. She was smiling in that way that realtors do. Even their hair smiles. “But there’s something wrong with your line.”
I remembered the last bill I’d received from the phone company had been edged in red.
Marti used to make me feel ashamed of myself, and she was doing it now by looking around the empty room with that realtor-appraiser eye. “Well,” she said, and turned to Ralph and Carlotta, “as you can see, the house will be getting some brand-new carpet!” She said it in exactly the way that the Price Is Right announcer introduced the Table of Gold. She is a very tra-LAH! kind of realtor and individual.
I noticed then that the Berber, being new and white, showed up the dirt and dinge on the walls and in fact everywhere else inside. The living room would have to have a new paint job to go with the rug. And through the window I saw that Sarah and John-John had gone outside and were jumping from the chairs to the sofa, screaming if they touched earth. They liked to pretend the ground was poisoned, which could have been true if you looked at the condition of the lawn.
“Underneath it all,” I said without thinking.
Marti, Ralph, and Carlotta turned to look at me.
“That’s where the carpet goes,” I said. “Underneath it all, there’s carpeting.” When none of them did anything more than continue to stare at me, I felt I had to explain: “The furniture’s only outside temporarily. We’re going to move it back in when my sister and her husband get back. And then we’ll move it out again”—I was getting flustered—“when someone buys the house.”
“Well then,” Marti said, “let’s have a look!”
Ralph and Carlotta followed after Marti and she marched toward the kitchen, flipping light switches along the way. “Presenting the kitchen,” she said. “Presenting the guest bath.” It was the only bathroom, in fact, and Ralph and Carlotta looked completely unimpressed with the gray honeycomb tiles and the rusty toilet.
They’re poor, I thought as I trailed along behind. They think this is such a dump that maybe they can afford it. But no matter what, they will always think they paid too much.
I wished I had something edged in gold lying around, but there was nothing—just more ugly furniture and plastic toys and a set of broken-down beds that since the divorce the kids hadn’t even been using. They’d been sleeping with me, not that I minded. It was some comfort for all of us to be together when their father was out having relations with a young woman barely old enough to drink with him, which is probably what he is doing right now, even though it is his night with the kids.
Once again I’d like to thank the Media Club for giving us the wherewithal to make a DVD of this event tonight so I can mail it to Victor and share this story with him.
And no offense to Ralph and Carlotta, who have fixed their new place up very nice.
While we were heading back to the living-dining room, Bill and Tracy came back carrying some kind of carpet-cutting tool and two big Slushees half drunk away. They were both sweating, and Tracy’s pixie cut had gone limp and plastery, just the opposite of what it is tonight with that frizzy wind-blown look. They shooed Sarah and John-John in from outside.
“Did you know they were jumping on the furniture?” Tracy said, as if this was the result of some kind of irresponsibility on my part. Childless couples often think this way, and as many of you will have noticed, my sister always airs her opinions as soon as she gets them.
“The bottom’s all busted out of that plaid armchair,” Bill told me—no real news, it was Victor’s chair and he busted that bottom years ago when he put on weight, just after Sarah was born and we were both spending a lot of time sitting around worshipping the miracle of our baby.
“Don’t worry,” Marti said to Ralph and Carlotta. “Remember, the furniture’ll all be gone when they move out.” She even winked.
Once again I felt like I wasn’t there, and as if for the first time, it occurred to me that if Marti did her job right that would soon be true. I’d be gone from that house just like my name on the mortgage, and on my marriage license, never existed.
But Carlotta wasn’t paying any attention to Marti or me now; she was staring at Tracy as if Elizabeth Taylor had just walked into the room. “You’re that lady,” she said. “That lady that won The Price Is Right.”
“The Table of Gold,” Tracy told her, twirling the Slushee like she was flirting. “And a popcorn machine and a thousand dollars cash. I’m giving my sister, here, the carpeting from my showcase.”
“High-quality wool,” Marti said, like she was quoting an ad. I could tell she was getting excited about maybe making a sale at last and paying some of her own bills.
Carlotta looked around with a worried expression. “It’s very white. Won’t the kids get it dirty?”
Tracy and Bill glared at me like this was some kind of thought they’d never had before, that two small children will get a carpet dirty. I could see they were rethinking the gift.
“I wonder …” Tracy began, just at the moment when Sarah began to wail because John-John had done something to her again.
And that was it for me. I jumped right in. “Listen,” I said to Tracy, loud enough to drown out Sarah’s screaming, “yes, just this once in your life you are going to listen to me.”
(I wonder if she’s listening now, as I tell it all to you too? Watch her and see.)
I told them the news. I explained that they hadn’t paid anything for the carpet, not a single cent, and I needed it. I explained that I deserved it—after Victor, and me leaving school to marry him and work at Farm Feeds, and Victor’s girlfriend, and then getting overlooked for that trip down to L.A., as if Tracy couldn’t afford to spot me the gas money. As if! And here I was with strangers in my house, and they were going through my belongings and deciding what parts were worth keeping. Well, we could all see it boiled down to one thing. By the time I was done, even John-John was listening.
(Thank you all, by the way, for being such a wonderful audience. Please keep passing that swatch so everybody gets a chance with it.)
I finished up: "I’ll pay you back for that cutting tool, Bill, once I sell this house. You can set it out on your Table of Gold and use it for slicing pizzas. But that carpet is mine. And we are going to put it in today. Because,” I said, “underneath it all, there’s carpeting.”
There was a little silence. Even Sarah and John-John had nothing to say at this point. I had proved beyond anybody’s doubt that the Berber was mine to dispose of as I wished.
Then Ralph asked, “What is underneath? I mean, underneath this green rug here.”
Quiet again. None of us knew; even Victor hadn’t been tempted to look when he was fixing the rips with that duct tape.
So I took the cutting tool and sliced into the avocado-green shag. Directly below it was an ancient gray rubber pad, worn almost to dust and thin as a French pancake. It was so soft that I could use my hands to pull it apart. Bill started sneezing immediately, but he didn’t leave the greatroom; he was too curious. He didn’t offer to help me, either; nobody helped me, and so the discovery was all mine.
Down through the pad, past a layer of thick gray dust, to what really lay underneath it all: the hard surface of the floor itself. Not concrete, like you see in new houses, but wood. A little scratched and dusty, but golden-brown in spite of it all: one skinny plank locked into another, side by side, all up and down that 1940s bungalow.
Seeing this, Marti got as excited as a game-show contestant. “Hardwood floors throughout,” she said, as if she was writing a new ad. She grabbed Ralph’s hand. “You just raised the price,” she said. “At least twenty thousand dollars.”
Ralph and Carlotta shifted a little, and Carlotta clutched that blue plastic pocketbook even tighter. I thought she might hit him with it later.
“So wait a minute,” Tracy said in a voice littler than John-John’s, “don’t you want the Berber after all?”
And this, my friends, was the most meaningful moment of my life until then, the moment at which I learned a fundamental truth. This was when I knew that out of all the many blessings of the Table of Gold, perhaps the best, for Tracy, had been the chance to share it with her big sister. Sometimes the best thing you can have in life is something to give away.
I thought about that while I gathered my children to me. And I thought of Sarah and John-John growing up and coming to school, maybe joining a club, later falling in love, and then going out into the world with all their hopes and dreams as big as they could be. I thought about how life just works out for some people and not for others, and it isn’t always tied to whether you’re an optimist or not. Sometimes you really have to dig hard to find anything good at all. And so I decided what I would do.
Together, Tracy and Bill and I rolled up the Berber and put it to wait in the garage. I sent them away that afternoon with their truck full of long scraps of green shag carpet and rotten padding ready for the dump. Next day I got Marti out there with her minivan and a mop, and we cleaned decades’ worth of gunk from the floors, and then we squirted around some wax donated by Farm Feeds, and Marti took most of the old furniture away. The Berber, as you know, stayed in the garage for the time being. The day after that, when all I could do was lie in the backyard exhausted with Sarah and John-John crawling over me like fire ants, Marti brought in another couple and showed them the house and the floors and told them the price was twenty-eight thousand dollars higher than we’d originally said, and they bought it straight out. They even paid cash, because that price really was right.
You’ll forgive my little joke, I hope.
Twenty-eight thousand dollars! In the end I’ve come out ahead of Tracy and her Table of Gold, even after I split the profits with Victor—when you think about it, Tracy has to split hers with Bill, who may have his flaws but is still her husband. I bought a camera of my own. So the next slide I’m going to show you is the apartment complex where Sarah and John-John and I are renting, and in the one after that you’ll see our new living room suite with the Bark Brown carpet and our dining table made of real wood. It’s no Table of Gold, but that’s not how I choose to spend my money. Any of you are welcome to put your feet under that table for a meal; even Tracy can come over, if she ever finds a moment free from her own entertaining.
Meanwhile, those of you who are still growing up and learning how to be the people you want to be, you elementary school optimists and members of the Media Club, you have this fine new carpeting to cover your club-room floor. It was mine to give, as my sister gave it to me, and I offer it to you with an open heart, for giving is a joy. And although you are naming this the Tracy Burns Stanton Room, which some might take as an insult to me, I have nothing but goodwill toward you. After all, Burns is our maiden name, and I’m going back to it after the divorce is final.
And so, my loyal friends, before Tracy combs her hair and fixes her lipstick and gets up here to thank you for naming this club room as you did, I’m going to ask those of you sitting at the front to slouch a little. That’s so everyone can see over you, because you’re going to watch the game that started everything, the pricing game that gave Tracy the Table of Gold and proved to me what is truly underneath it all.
While you watch, I’m going to step out and enjoy some of that pound cake. I have other responsibilities tonight, so I may not be here when Tracy gets up.
Thank you for your kind attention—and please remember to vacuum this fine Berber before you leave.