I hadn’t painted the bedroom in … well, I don’t even remember. I hoped it had been more recently than 21 years ago, when I moved in and my dad came up to help me because I’d never painted before. I planned to spruce up the room last spring. Alas, I fell ill, and everything went on hold. By the time I could tackle the job the following winter, painting grew into a mission.
I agonized over colors, settling on a glossy white for the crown molding and trim and light blue for the walls. But before I could dip brush into paint, there was the matter of fixing a crack high on the wall facing the bed.
I never considered myself very handy. That’s what a dad and the Yellow Pages were for. But that jagged Z in the dingy beige plaster had taunted me for months when I could do nothing about it. The sneering seam was Moby Dick to my Ahab. Newly recovered, I needed this challenge. The battle was joined.
I Googled “fixing plaster cracks” and read about spackling. Then I consulted the trusty maintenance guys, Brian and Ken, where I work. I described the crack, told them what I’d researched, and asked their opinion.
They certainly had one. Rather than just patch the crack only to watch it reappear in a few months, they suggested stopping the menace in its tracks. To do this, they said I’d need to drill pilot holes to find where the plaster ended and the lath began. I’d know the spot because I’d see wood dust instead of plaster dust. Then I’d get a level, trace that distance over to the crack, drill slightly above and below the crack, and insert drywall screws. This, my experts said, would reanchor the plaster. Brian demonstrated on a piece of ceiling tile. Then he said to apply drywall tape, mud it up, sand it down, and paint.
Drilling, using the level—it sounded complicated. But I didn’t let on. “I can do this,” I told the guys. Brian and Ken exchanged a glance. The next day, I set out to hunt my whale. In the world of metaphors, drill bits are spears, and a wall is water. After a dozen forays into the deep, I did not hit any lath in the wall.
I ended my first day as frustrated as the whaling captain.
“Maybe there’s no lath there,” said a friend who took a rooting interest. Maybe it’s a drywall patch, put up years ago to cover where gaslights had been. The house was built in 1919, so it was possible.
“How long has the crack been there?” he asked.
“Years,” I said.
“Why the obsession? Just sand it, patch it, paint it, and see what happens,” he said.
“No,” I said. This was personal. I vowed to wipe that smirk off the wall.
Back I went to the guys at work, this time with photos on my cell phone so that they could see the problem. Either the plaster had pulled too far from the lath (but there was no telltale bulge); or my friend was right and the section had been patched with drywall many years ago. Brian and Ken had one more suggestion: Insert a long drywall screw, and see whether I’d hit lath.
Once more I harpooned the wall. No wood. My quest appeared over.
I didn’t admit defeat, only compromise. I would rely on the mud.
I might be the only person who has ever read the instructions on the roll of drywall tape and the tub of joint compound. Dutifully, I did each step. Once the mud dried, I sanded till the fine dust drove me to distraction. I applied the second coat of mud, better this time as I leaned into the putty knife. Things looked promising. But I still had to paint.
After the first coat of paint, the crack had dimmed. After the second coat, it was gone. I ran my hand over the wall. Like a baby’s bottom. I stood smugly in front of the wall, admiring my handiwork.
It was time to put the room back together. As I rehung photos, my eye caught a ripple in the fresh paint. There, on the opposite wall, a new crack mocked me with a crooked grin.
Drawing by: Jackie Rogers