T.A. Noonan is the author of Petticoat Government (Gold Wake Press, 2011) and The Bone Folders (Sundress Publications, forthcoming). Her work has appeared in Ninth Letter, Verse Daily, specs, Phoebe, RHINO, Harpur Palate, and many others. She lives on Florida's Treasure Coast with her husband and is currently at work on a novel.
Although it is now one of the world's leading laminate surfacing brands, Formica didn't begin its life as the countertop material I see every day. Engineer Daniel J. O'Conor invented the product in 1919 as a replacement "for mica," the mineral previously used in electrical insulation. Made from resin-dipped fabric that was cured, pressed, and cut into flat sheets, Formica revolutionized industrial electronics because of its low production cost and durability. It wasn't meant to be decorative, but the corporation quickly realized Formica's design potential and found ways to infuse pigments and patterns into the laminate. They simulated woodgrain, granite, marble, technicolor swirls. Experimented with other polymer combinations for maximum strength. Switched their base material from fabric to paper. Installed their product in Art Deco buildings, cruise ships, diners, suburban homes. Within a few decades, Formica became virtually synonymous with the countertop. So says its corporate website.
Actually, it's 1997, and I don't know any of this yet. What I do know is that today is Wednesday, and the warehouse men have just unloaded the latest shipment from our Formica distributor. They deliver on Mondays and Wednesdays. The other major brand we carry, Wilsonart, arrives on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (Other laminate brands exist, but they're special order only.) Today's batch is pretty large—at least twenty sheets. They lean against the bending table, a press-like contraption that heats the laminate so it can be curved to fit against a counter's back wall. This wall area is known as a "backsplash," and the process of bending laminate to fit the backsplash is called "coving." For years, I will think that the word is actually "curving" with an accent. I won't connect the process to the geographic feature it mimics. I will connect it to the index card taped to the bending table—"Caution: VERY HOT."
Some of the sheets are covered in protective film. Despite laminate's relative toughness, it can be scratched. When customers come into the showroom, we recommend the standard matte finish because it hides scratches better. I can't count the number of times I've seen mirror-finish laminate installed on high-traffic counters. Chefs cutting vegetables directly on the surface. Servers pushing cups across it. Formica wears to reveal its construction in reverse-gloss, then dull color, white underlayer, dirt-brown fibers. The end result looks cheap, not at all like the vibrant stone it's meant to replicate. These people don't realize that if they hold a knife to it, laminate will show cuts the same as mica, zinc, wood, or skin.
Surrounding the new sheets are several five-gallon tubs of glue. On top of those, ball chains strung with two-by-three-inch color chips. A box of solid-surface samples, their matte speckles just visible through a gap in the joints. Three stacks of porcelain tile for an afternoon installation. And I think the rolls of carpet and vinyl on the forklift are part of the same shipment. Wouldn't be the first time our distributors mixed and matched materials.
This is my fourth summer at Termini Tile of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The owner is my mom's live-in boyfriend of five years. His name's John Termini, but everyone calls him Ray—except I add "Mr." before the "Ray" part. He pays me $100 a week under the table, plus lunches and all the Diet Coke I can drink. It's not a bad gig. Plus, I've done it long enough to memorize most of the stock codes. I started working with Mr. Ray in June 1994, the summer I moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans. Back then, I liked physical inventory. I spent hours in the warehouse counting the long laminate sheets in their coded bins, climbing around in the second-floor storage attic, stealing tile boards, sledding the stairs on carpet scraps, and checking my sunburn in glossy samples. That was before I started high school, though. I'm serious now or pretend to be. And I've made social progress. Wearing sample chains as jewelry may have been cute in middle school, but it's not acceptable in high school. (I keep the prettiest ones clipped to my schoolbag.)
I don't have an official title at Termini Tile because I do whatever Mr. Ray tells me to do. Sometimes that means scrubbing the bathrooms. Other times, reorganizing the files. Today's project is correcting the inventory database. The warehouse men haven't done a full count since December, so their numbers don't match the on-hand stock. I've already spent two hours plugging updates into the computer. Ten sheets of 909-10-Black, standard finish. Four five-by-eights, four five-by-tens, two four-by-eights. One sheet of 7008-80-Acajou Mahogany, mirror finish. Five-by-ten. And so on.
Derek, the warehouse manager, sits on a couch beside me. The couch is really the backseat of an old van. I don't know where it came from, but it's been there a long time. The first summer I worked here, I took a nap on it after lunch and woke up with the imprint of a seat buckle on my cheek. Derek teased me for days.
It's not even ten o'clock, but his t-shirt is already soaked with sweat and clings to his chest. "Man, it's too early to be this hot," he says.
I smile a little. "It's summer. It's Louisiana. What did you expect?"
"Snow." He mops his forehead with a glove. His hands are dark, callused. "You gonna play on that computer all day?"
"I'm not playing. This thing is ancient. Doesn't even have solitaire." I tap the monitor, its cursor blinking green-on-black in the right corner. The warehouse terminals haven't been upgraded since Barry, the computer guy, installed them a few years back. Mr. Ray will recommend Barry when I buy my first computer next summer. Despite my better judgment, I will give him $1,000 out of my savings and a detailed description of what I want. In return, he will ignore my specifications and build a second-rate machine housed in a third-rate tower. I'll spend the next five years holding the computer together with tape and prayer, cursing his name every time the damned thing crashes.
"Bet you could make it play solitaire," Derek says. He nods, as if assuring me that part of his job is to rib me. I don't mind because he doesn't mean any harm. We go back and forth like this every day; this could be any warehouse conversation we've exchanged over the years.
He bunches his lips together before asking, "How's school?" Derek always asks about school because his twin sister was my freshman English teacher. If I did poorly—lower than a B-plus—on a paper or test, he knew before I did. Which meant that Mom and Mr. Ray knew before I did. Punishment was swift.
Now, he has to rely on what I tell him. "Okay, I guess. I got good grades."
"When do you go back?"
"Not till August."
"You like living away from home?"
I go to a boarding school for juniors and seniors called The Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. LSMSA, for short. LSMSA is located on the Northwestern State University campus in Natchitoches. Home of Steel Magnolias, the Christmas Lights Festival, and (so I'm told) the biggest Wal-Mart in the state. About 200 miles away from Baton Rouge. Not the farthest I've ever been from home, but definitely the farthest I've been without my family.
"Yeah, I guess." I'm always this noncommittal when I talk about school. I don't want anyone to know I've already had my first "nervous breakdown" there—actually a panic attack, though I won't know the term until college. I don't want people to look at my hair and see the gray already creeping in. To notice that I've chewed my nails to the quick.
But most importantly, I can't say that I like it. So I add, "It's kinda scary sometimes."
"You'll be okay." Derek flashes a thousand-watt smile. He has such nice teeth. "You can tell them what kind of tile to put in the bathroom."
This is a running gag among my classmates. Whenever we go out, I play "Name That Countertop." I point to an electric, faux-marble pattern and say, "This is Wilsonart 1753, Canyon Blu. It's really popular." They look at me funny but tolerate my random outbursts because they're all nerds, teenagers who talk about Einstein's theory of special relativity in the same breath as Big Trouble in Little China. We're brethren, even if our areas of trivial knowledge don't match.
Mr. Ray pokes his head into the warehouse. "Hey, babe." He calls most women he knows "babe," even me-though the way he says it, it sounds like "bay." He's old-school, at least twenty years older than my mother. I won't realize that for another ten years. "Do we have any Wilsonart 4551, Blackstar Granite?"
Derek knows the answer to this one. "We got a five-by-ten now and some on order. Should be delivered tomorrow."
"That's fine. I'm gonna bring this lady back to see it, make sure that's what she wants." He disappears behind the door back into the showroom.
Derek grabs a hand clamp, which looks like a pair of oversized barbecue tongs, from the desk where I'm sitting and jogs to the storage bins. While he's not looking, I go over to the table beside the Coke machine. It's one of those cheap, pressboard models you can buy at any Wal-Mart or Sam's Club. Another piece of furniture that's been in the warehouse forever. The middle is slightly bowed from years of humidity, but Mr. Ray keeps the office coffee pot in the right corner where the surface is still flat. Next to the pot is a mug filled with dirty water and several spoons, including the one I'm looking for-flat with deep gouges in the handle. I take it out, shake the water off, and jam the handle end into the Coke machine's keyhole. A half-turn counterclockwise, and the latch gives with a metallic creak. Inside are dozens of curvy glass bottles-old-school, just like Mr. Ray. There are three columns of Coke, two Diet Coke, one Dr. Pepper, one Barq's Root Beer, and one Sunkist Orange. I grab a Diet Coke, re-lock the machine, and pop the cap off with a bottle opener.
In the back of the warehouse, Derek finds the sheet of Blackstar Granite and yanks it out of the upright inventory bin with the clamp. We can both do this one-handed. When I first started working at Termini, I needed to use two hands to pull the laminate. Now, after a few months of weight training, I can put my linebacker build to some use. Even from this distance, I can see—or at least imagine—Derek's taut muscles working beneath his sweat-damp shirt. The map of scars on his arms. Nicks from the forklift, burns from the bending table, one too many brushes against a sharp laminate edge. The scars don't bother me. Derek is a good-looking man. I feel strange thinking this because I am white, and he is black. I know Mr. Ray would not approve. Not that I want to date Derek; he's much older, at least ten years older than me. But when I look at him, I appreciate how attractive he is—much more so than my current boyfriend.
The most popular color of Formica is 949, White. Many of the other popular shades are variations on white-Mission White, Sail White, Neutral White, Dover White, Brite White, Ivory, Pearl. They are boring, and I see white all the time. I prefer the fantasy sparkle of patterns like Jade Diffusion (7175), Black Quasar (7178), or Lux Travertino (7144). If I could be Formica, I would be Acajou Mahogany because I love its imaginary burls. The real thing, Honduras Mahogany, has a fine, even grain. Formica's idea of Acajou Mahogany doesn't exist in nature, but that doesn't stop me from finding it beautiful.
But white is neutral. It goes with any dcor. Plus, Mr. Ray can see white. He's red-green colorblind, so he has trouble distinguishing the complex, richly colored patterns in many Formica and Wilsonart surfaces. I tell him that I wish his colorblindness extended to people. He says his biases stem from personal experience. He grew up in a time where his brand of casual racism was common, even accepted. I love Mr. Ray, but I know that he'd flip if I ever brought home a black boyfriend. It wouldn't matter how handsome he was, how well we matched. I like to think I can file away Mr. Ray's rough edges with my sentiment. So far, all I've managed to accomplish is curb his use of the "n word." Years later, he will tell me that he wouldn't mind if I married someone like Will Smith. I will mark this as progress.
I've been thinking of all the different meanings of "colorblindness" lately. Maybe because I recently met father, my real father, for the first time. He works for the New Orleans Police Department and is also colorblind. The man I thought was my father-actually my mom's ex-husband who adopted me when they married-is not colorblind. I still remember the Benetton sweatshirt I wore in the only photograph I have of him. The knit is neon purple, and the brand name is canary yellow. In it, I look sallow and grouchy. He smiles. His skin is lightly tanned. We hook our arms around each other but do not look related. Everything about us clashes.
Mr. Ray is in the warehouse now, showing his customer the sheet of Blackstar Granite. There are no red or green bits in the pattern to confuse his eyes, so he speaks with authority on its appearance. According to him, Blackstar Granite will match her cabinets and appliances perfectly. She must have a black fridge.
While they chatter about installation, Derek sneaks up and pops me lightly on the back of the head. "What did I tell you about drinking all that Diet Coke?"
"Mr. Ray doesn't mind."
"You drink it, you gotta pay for it."
"It comes out of my salary."
"It comes out of the Coke machine, which takes money."
"No, it takes the spoon."
"Hey, I invented it, so you gotta pay royalties on the spoon."
"How'd you come up with that?"
"African engineering," he says. "In Africa, we don't have a lot of stuff, so we gotta make due with what we have. Here, we don't have a key, but we have a spoon."
I love the explanation, his use of "we"—as if the two of us share the same heritage. And the phrase "African engineering" delights me. It enters my lexicon immediately. Years later, I will use it to refer to the makeshift construction of my first futon. The package will not come with the correct screws; my movers will put it together using nails, pegs, and leftover bits from other ready-to-assemble furnishings. When I call the completed futon "a wonder of African engineering," my then-fiance will pull me aside and call me a racist. I'll think back to Derek, Mr. Ray's tacit approval of Will Smith, and my mother's penchant for colorblind men.
Lunch begins just after noon. Because it's Wednesday, Mr. Ray takes me to the Chinese restaurant a few blocks from the office. I don't know its real name but call it "The Buff-uff-ay." A misspelling on the back wall of the restaurant—red-on-white block letters—proclaims "Mongolian Grill and Chinese Bufffet." I like to pronounce the third F. It's part of my pattern, and today is much like any other Wednesday. Mr. Lee, the owner, greets us when we walk in and ushers us to the back room with the television permanently tuned to CNN. All the local businessmen sit here and watch the stocks scroll as they eat. Mr. Ray notices his stocks and either groans or grunts. I don't keep his books or know anything about his investments, but I've figured out that his grunt means approval.
After a few minutes, Mr. Lee returns. "What would you like today?"
"Two buffets." I let Mr. Ray do the ordering.
"Good choice. How's business?"
Business is good, but not for much longer. Not long before I graduate from college, Mr. Ray will retire and sell the company to his son-in-law, Dave. In less than two years, Dave and his brother, Tom, will run it into the ground and declare bankruptcy. Forced out of retirement, Mr. Ray will take over again and spend more than double that time re-establishing the success he knows now.
Termini Tile has always been family-owned and operated, which is part of the reason why it's so successful. People trust the Terminis; they've been a part of the Baton Rouge community for decades. Mr. Ray started the shop after learning the trade from his father, an installer who worked on the Louisiana State Capitol. I visited the capitol building for a sophomore history class once. The tour guide was quick to point out the usual features. The first thirteen steps symbolizing the original colonies. The remaining thirty-six steps for the other states. Alaska and Hawaii, admitted after the completion of the capitol, scrunched alongside the state motto and E Pluribus Unum on the last step. The bronze relief map of Louisiana. Mount Vesuvius ash in the floors. And, of course, the still-visible bullet holes from Huey P. Long's assassination.
But I was more interested in the stonework than its unrepaired holes. It was incredible, even if I couldn't pick out the elder Termini's specific contributions. The tour guide didn't say so, but the Mississippi Valley Railroad built a spur just to handle the influx of materials for the capitol's construction. Over 2,500 carloads of building equipment shipped to the site. Of those loads, over half were for ornamental materials like tile, marble, granite, and iron. Twenty for terrazzo alone. I've seen huge shipments come into the store, but I can't imagine twenty railcars worth. Nor can I imagine the man who worked with it.
Originally, Venetian artisans made terrazzo by embedding marble chips into clay and used goat's milk to give it a slick, polished finish. After the development of polymer-based terrazzo centuries later, installers switched to an epoxy blend because it-like Formica-was cheaper, more durable, and available in a wider variety of colors. Nowadays, almost all terrazzo is synthetic, and it comes in a variety of aggregates. I've seen everything from plastic to glass, marble to metal, granite to mother-of-pearl. During graduate school, I will temp at a terrazzo company-a position I'll get because of my experience at Termini Tile-and learn more about the installation process than I ever wanted to know.
Mr. Ray doesn't work in terrazzo anymore. Which is a shame, because it's very elegant when done right. Most people think terrazzo is junk-trashy motel flooring, twelve-by-twelve tiles jammed across a kindergarten classroom. That's not terrazzo; that's vinyl composition tile, or VCT. The stuff I see whenever Mr. Lee's servers burst into the dining area from the kitchen. Made to simulate, but never be, a fine floor. It's functional, though. Otherwise, Mr. Lee would not have such a good restaurant.
As Mr. Ray and Mr. Lee discuss the local goings-on, I head to the buffet and fill my plate with sesame chicken, fried rice, noodles, dumplings, and grilled pork. Everything smells like peanuts and duck sauce, even the Laughing Buddha beside the foyer. (For all I know, that slick, golden glaze on his belly is duck sauce.) An elderly couple sits in the far corner, quietly slurping twin bowls of wonton soup. There's nothing weird about them, and they're not bothering anybody. Hell, they could be regulars. But I resent them. The buff-uff-ay is my Wednesday lunch spot, not theirs. The fact that I've never seen them before means they've invaded my space, disrupted my pattern.
I like things to connect in semi-predictable ways so I can be prepared. I want to be able to talk to people in town and discover, in five steps or less, how I know them. I'll buy my first car five years later and learn that the dealer is Mr. Lee's son. The owner of the dealership will remember Mr. Ray as the former baseball coach at Tara High School. This is how life works in Baton Rouge.
Today, however, these unknowns intrude on my Wednesday and sour my mood. I walk heavier than usual as I return to the table.
"What's wrong?" Mr. Ray asks.
"Nothing. Just grumpy."
I've never told Mr. Ray how comforting it is to know that he knows everyone, how much it bothers me when I can't connect the dots between us and what surrounds. When I move out for the first time in 2000, I will freak because his taut line won't link me to the entire city anymore. Or at least I'll think so.
"Inventory's all messed up. I'm not gonna finish today."
"Don't worry about it, babe. You got the rest of the week to finish."
"Okay," I say between forkfuls of fried rice.
We don't speak much for the rest of lunch. Instead of talking, Mr. Ray flips through a group of customer files, revisiting measurements and specs. There's a large commercial project on deck, plus a few in-home renovations. The afternoon tile job is one of those renovations-a pretty kitchen with granite counters and a porcelain-tile island. The granite is done. All that remains is the island. Still, Mr. Ray is preoccupied with the details. In the early years of Termini Tile, Mr. Ray would probably have installed the tile himself. He's too old now, so he has to rely on independent installers and farm out work to them. Unfortunately, Mr. Ray has hired Francis, one of his most temperamental installers, to do the granite and tile. He wouldn't have considered Francis, except that Francis is the best granite installer Mr. Ray has ever met. But he's also a drug addict who insists on cash prepayments so he can binge before a job.
The same thing happens every time Mr. Ray hires Francis. Mr. Ray agonizes over calling him and considers several other installers. After a few days, he gives in and calls his granite distributor in West Palm Beach, Florida. Mr. Ray and the owner, Francis' father, talk, consider the dangers, and ultimately agree to give the boy a shot. Francis promises to arrive in two days. He takes at least a week to get into town, and when he does, he hits Mr. Ray up for an advance.
"Just to get me a place to stay while I'm here," he says. "I swear I'll do good, Mr. Ray." He also puts "Mr." before the "Ray" part.
Mr. Ray schedules the job, gives Francis a couple hundred bucks to get him set up. Francis then disappears for several days. Work falls behind. The customers complain, threaten to go with a different company. Francis reappears, a little thinner and a lot poorer. He picks up his materials with hardly a word to anyone, goes to the job site, and performs the installation. The work is flawless-the seams, invisible. The customers see the finished product and proclaim it masterful and elegant, as if the granite was a natural feature the house was simply built to showcase.
"It was worth the wait," they say.
Mr. Ray chews Francis out for his behavior and swears never to hire him again. After many apologies and pleas for more work, Francis returns to Florida.
The pattern has already repeated itself, but this time, it has the added wrinkle of the island—which Francis hasn't completed. Mr. Ray hopes he can proceed straight to the end, the part where the customer thanks him for the good work, without any more complications. He doesn't say it out loud, but I know from the deepening wrinkles around his eyes and mouth that he's tired of risking his livelihood for a junkie.
I feel a connection to Francis, despite the fact that he upsets me, too. My drugs are different, but we work the same. I need deadlines, even if I can't keep them. When I move to Boca Raton, a wealthy city just south of his West Palm home, I'll call him and invite him to dinner. He'll offer to visit, help me move, even fix any counters or cabinets that need fixing. When I get the job at the terrazzo place, he'll promise to hook the company up with leftover chips from his father's shop. "Terrazzo's a Florida thing," he'll say. "They should get their stone from a Florida company."
But he'll never come through on any of those promises. I'll only ever see him in Baton Rouge.
After eating, Mr. Ray pays the bill, leaves Mr. Lee a handsome tip, and drives us back to the shop. Waiting in the showroom are Miss Patsy and Mr. Leo, a pair of old friends. Mr. Ray gives Patsy a hug, shakes Leo's hand. They shoot the breeze about people they know. I hear a few names I recognize. Hemba, a barrel-bellied man with a taste for bad jokes and my mother's wet-rub ribs. The Fish Man, who brings fish to Mr. Ray every month. Nyah-Nyah, an installer known for his tendency to complain about every job he takes.
I don't know it now, but Patsy and Leo will buy a new house in a couple of years. They'll move in, tell Mr. Ray about it during one of these debriefing sessions, and discover they're only a few blocks from him. They'll say, "Baton Rouge is the biggest small town in America." And during their next visit, Leo will bring over an expensive replica sword, his latest purchase from the Franklin Mint. I will spend a good hour geeking out with him about Highlander, Kurosawa films, and Renaissance Festivals.
Even though I had plenty to drink at the buff-uff-ay, I go to the warehouse and use the spoon to retrieve another Diet Coke. The first sip feels like a little splash of heaven, thanks to the heat in the warehouse—probably over a hundred degrees by now. Derek tells me we're going to run out of drinks if I keep my pace, but we both know better. There's a Coca-Cola bottler in town, and they deliver their shipments as regularly as the Formica distributors.
Many years later, I will remember Termini Tile and conclude that the reason I think about it so much is because it's a symbol of my desire for connection. This will satisfy me for a time because I can't stand not knowing when something will happen, what it will be, how it fits into my world. Things must be known, foreseeable. I hate surprises.
Several moves later—across the South, back to Florida—I will become dissatisfied with that answer. I'll make plans to visit home, look up old friends. Derek will still work in the warehouse. Patsy and Leo will still live down the road. Mr. Ray will still call me "bay." Then, at last, I'll associate Termini Tile with the man who is and will be more of a father than my birth or adoptive fathers. He will remain. Others will have moved on.