Red Lanterns

Last night my aunt pulled two red paper lanterns out of a plastic shopping bag. My cousin and I were sprawled on the couch, she watching “Moneyball” on HBO and I reading a British Vogue I had rented from a small magazine rental shop around the corner. It was more economical to rent foreign magazines for 1USD a week rather than buy the latest issue for 20USD. We both turned to look at my aunt as she pulled the lanterns open with a loud “Braaaap.”

“When’d you get those?” My cousin asked.

“Yesterday,” my aunt said, inspecting the lanterns for any rips. “I watched a news story about lobby decoration.”

My cousin turned to give me a smirk that said, “There she goes again” but my aunt did not see.

“I don’t think the firecrackers are enough. I want to hang these from the lights. The lobby will seem more festive.”

A week ago, my friends and I had come home to find the small Christmas wreath my aunt had hung in the lobby replaced by a giant strand of bright red firecrackers. Merely decorative, of course, to signal the impending Lunar New Year. It was a nice touch, a bit of vibrancy in our otherwise spare and understated lobby. If one can call it even that. Other buildings had doormen, twenty-four hour surveillance systems, sitting areas for guests to wait in and accompanying association fees, but our building was tall and narrow, one unit per floor, the living areas of which were maximized by doing away with all frivolities one associates with “fancy” buildings.  One walked in and in two steps was in front of the elevator. There was no ceremony, no association fees.

My aunt rearranged the tangle tassels that hung below the lanterns and tied gold string to the hooks.

“I’m going down to hang them now,” she said, and dumbly, we nodded.

“I’ll need your help,” she said, “I’m not tall enough.”

Of course not. My aunt is barely 5’1″. I lept up while Karen remained seated, her eyes glued to Brad Pitt’s aging but still handsome face. He looked frustrated.

“I’ll come help you,” I said, and it was my aunt’s turn to give her daughter a smirk.

“Of course you will, Karen will just sit here with her legs crossed like a queen. How useful.”

My cousin protested half-heartedly, “Well it’s not like you need two of us.”

I laughed and grabbed one of the lanterns, “She has to work overtime, all the time,” I said, “I’ll help you hang these up.”

My aunt picked up a little foot stool from her entrance way, the one we sat on to put on our shoes.

“This should be tall enough,” she said.

It wasn’t. I could barely reach the top of the light casing and was feeling oddly…imperiled. The stool shifted a bit with my every breath and I wondered if I would break my neck trying to hang these cheap paper lanterns to liven up our lobby in which no one ever spent more than two minutes, which was how long the elevator usually took to go all the way down. My aunt must have felt my unspoken alarm and after watching a few more of my futile attempts asked me to step down.

“We need a step ladder,” I said, out of breath. I realized how out of shape I was.

“I think we have one on the 8th floor,” my aunt said, “In the stairwell. I’ll go check.”

I waited in the lobby, wondering if I should have gone to get the stepladder instead. The elevator stopped at the 7th floor and the 8th was accessible only by stairs which were dark and dusty. We stored things we didn’t often use in the stairwell, but still it was no place for a woman of my aunt’s age to go poking around. Last I checked there were plenty of heavy things leftover from our building’s remodeling that could topple over and cause serious injury. The minutes dragged by as I waited for my aunt to return. Perhaps the stepladder was very heavy and she could not move it, or perhaps she would fall and clatter with it down the stairs. My aunt was getting older, but not so old that she couldn’t carry a stepladder, but still – it didn’t feel right, even if just an hour earlier at dinner we had shared a good laugh about just how hardy she was.

“When I was pregnant with your cousin Larry your grandpa asked me to hang a picture up in the stairwell of the old house.”

“When you were pregnant?” I said? “How pregnant?”

“Six or seven months,” my aunt said.

“That’s messed up.”

“Yes, well, your grandpa would rather have me get up on the high chair than his beloved son.”

“I would have gotten in a fight with grandpa,” Karen said.

“I would have told my husband to go up there in my place,” I said, giving my uncle a look. He did not seem to be paying attention to our conversation and was instead, looking at his watch wondering when us women would stop jabbering and head home. He liked to be in bed by 9PM.

“You were seven months pregnant!” we both said.

My aunt shrugged, no big deal. She was the definition of hardy. She could do whatever her husband couldn’t or wouldn’t and more too, like take initiative and put up Chinese New Year decorations in an otherwise mausoleum like lobby. But still, my cousin Larry was nearly thirty now and she shouldn’t be the one fetching step ladders from dark stairwells. I watched the elevator stay on the 7th floor and was just about to run up when it slowly began its descent. I felt like a useless twenty-seven year old who could barely stretch without losing her breath.

The elevator doors slid open and my aunt came out with the ricketiest looking stepladder I had ever seen. It wasn’t even a stepladder, but a wooden painter’s ladder, hand-made, it seemed, by a blind carpenter who had a very rudimentary idea of what ladders looked like and who had only the shittiest bits of wood, the rustiest screws, and the oldest, crustiest bits of rope to work with.

“That looks… decrepit,” I said, “I doubt it can hold my weight.” I suddenly regretted eating the green tea ice cream and the donut I had for dessert.

My aunt waved impatiently at my consternation, “Nonsense, if it can hold all those construction workers it can definitely support you.”

I thought about the wiry Taiwanese construction workers I’d often passed by on the streets, none of whom seemed to weigh more than half of what I weighed. They were always perched lightly upon these same rickety ladders like chimpanzees, working as carefree as though the ladders were extension of their own bodies. I was not so skilled. I studied the ladder and wondered how it even stayed standing – it was haphazardly slapped together with just a single bolt on either side of the “rungs” and with a simple dirty grey rope in between to hold the two sides together.

“You have to lean on it to stabilize it,” my aunt instructed.

I hesitated, and before I could step up my aunt said, “It’s okay, I’ll go up.”

Whoa whoa whoa, auntie, calm down. Sure, she was not pregnant, but she was nearing sixty and I was…not about to let my aunt climb up the world’s oldest hand-made ladder and let her fall and break her hip. Where had my courage gone? I was, at one point in my life, obsessed with climbing trees and doing cartwheels and swimming in icy cold rivers. Now, I was fearful of breaking my neck in the entrance of my home which was just a stone’s throw away from the hospital.

“No,” I said, “I’ll do it. I’ve seen the workers use these ladders and I know how it works.”

Sometimes, lying out loud makes it easier to believe. I climbed the ladder as solidly as I could, feeling the ominous creaking of old wood pressing into rusty screws and realized I wouldn’t just break my neck but also possibly endure the pain of a trillion splinters.

“Steady?” my aunt asked.

Not really, but I nodded and my aunt handed me a lantern and a push pin, which, after much difficulty I pressed into the wood of the light casing.

Gingerly, I hung the lantern up and willed the push pin to hold. It did.

“Okay,” I said.

“Next one,” my aunt said.

Up again, a long, stressful reach and applied pressure to the small head of the pushpin. Another red lantern up. I climbed down from the step ladder one last time and breathed a huge sigh of relief.

The tassels of one of the lanterns was tangled again, but it was low enough for me to adjust it from the ground.

“Now it looks like Chinese New Year,” my aunt said, gazing at our work.

Welcome home. 

It was a simple enough job, and though the minutes up on the step ladder felt interminable, had taken altogether less than ten minutes. I looked at the red lanterns swaying slightly from what, I wasn’t sure – the door was closed and I could feel no draft, but perhaps they were just happy to be out and about, on display for all of ten tenants to enjoy. It did look good, those two simple lanterns in a beige marbled lobby.

My aunt folded the ladder and made to haul it back upstairs.

I grabbed it from her, “I’ll take it back up,” I said. Her work was done, at least for tonight.

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