House

Rich lived in a house with grandeur of the sort that gives permission and makes you feel taller on opening each door rather than diminished by the height of the ceilings or the breadth of space. Its exterior was of a non-descript style; stone manor with three chimneys and a carriage port, but no grand driveway. The front door was nearly double width and swung heavily inward to a square foyer defined only by a few columns and an iron chandelier. There was a side entrance to the kitchen, with a breakfast nook and benches large enough for nine to crowd around, and large black pots hanging over a butcher block counter. There was neither linoleum nor Formica to date it; but it had a white porcelain farmhouse sink and a double supply of utensils. Four people could comfortably cook there. The living space was centered on a six foot tall fireplace that had no mantel because it would have been useless. The eight foot long dining table stretched across a raised platform opposite, black in silhouette against the ceiling-height windows that lined the east facing front of the house. It was sometimes covered in loose piles of important papers. Persian carpets were scattered across the stone floors, the smaller ones dragged here and there to preferred spots for lying down. Around the fireplace were two deep sofas in mocha wool, and several arm chairs. Everything was soft. By the grand piano, and in most corners, were music stands and instruments – a melodeon, fiddles, a cello and bass viola, guitars, a banjo, flute and penny whistles, a trumpet, and various drums.

Outside, to the north and about fifty yards away, was a barn. It had stalls for two horses and a pony, and a wren of lofts on the upper level with homemade rope ladders dangling down. The chicken coop and its brood of nine cooed in shade along the northern wall. Behind the house and inspectable from the covered back porch was a large garden, half planted with greens, herbs, sugar snaps, heavy tomatoes, and berry bushes. Beyond the garden, woods stretched away, a thin canopy of middling-aged pines, birches, and oaks. Three walking paths were visible, tracing back to the house, the barn, and an unseen neighbor’s yard. Just a few hundred feet down any path would yield the creek, which widened and deepened at two points just enough to wade and swim in.

The house was not in the country or in a city, but on the edge of a town, somewhere in the Northeast. The winters were harsh and white, which was why the families gathered so often inside the double walls of the house. But in summer, it didn’t get so hot that you couldn’t think, and they could open tall windows on either side to catch cross winds. Visitors came often, all important and most casual. There was a pastor, scientists, and government officials, who were professional but warm and devoted to Rich. There were friends from far-away places just flying through. There were foreigners with Northern and Eastern European accents, and an occasional military officer with a message to deliver. But mostly, there were musicians. They sometimes came to take a break from tours, or to trade instruments, or just to crash. There was always enough room to bed them. After a communal meal, the fireplace would be lit and the chairs pushed back, the small children changed into pajamas just in time to fall asleep as shadows danced and anyone who could claim an instrument jammed into the night.

That year when Michael arrived, there were two families living there. They were vaguely related. Rich and his wife had two toddlers. The other parents had twins Michael’s age – John and a girl named Catherine. There was also a blond boy named Chris who was gay but just on the verge of knowing, related to the others but of unclear parentage.

The toddlers followed Michael like puppies; the others left him space. Rich showed Michael to a small bedroom with one door to the hallway and another to Rich’s bedroom. There was a small wooden desk facing out an eastern window. The bureau had a neat pile of new clothes on it, and three picture frames – two empty and a third with a photograph of Rich standing between Michael’s parents, a long time ago, because his mother was cradling a baby. When Rich left him, Michael unpacked the top layer in his valise. He put his father’s clarinet case on the bookcase, and swapped his coat, heavy boots, and sweater for a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt. He sat down on the bed and recognized the blanket spread on it. It even smelled familiar.

For days he wandered around the house, suppressing his startle reflex whenever someone appeared in the same room. The older children showed him all the secret doors and passageways and let him pick a horse, which he already knew how to mount and ride. His English was respectable; they focused on teaching him idioms and slang and the names for different plants. There was no television in the house, but several kinds of radio. It was hardest getting used to the light, which was clear and sharp and unforgiving. Even at night under dim incandescents, something about the house made it impossible to hide anything. He could clearly see dents in the baseboard of his room while lying under his bed covers, and read titles on the spines of books on the uppermost shelves of the library. He didn’t realize that they could see him in just as much detail.

It was early summer. They had several months before he had to begin school. He learned to find the components of breakfast – oatmeal, eggs from their own chickens, whatever fruit was available. Each morning before the sun was too high he did chores in the garden or barn with the four older children. They fell into various projects. An old radio was half dismantled. Someone was engineering a tower of balsa wood. He played music with everyone else. Rich taught him the first few chords on a three-quarter size guitar and he took off, picking by ear. They gave him a few math problem sheets to gauge his needs, and noted which reading books he landed on. Dinners were a jumble of different cuisines. His body healed and straightened and if he didn’t laugh too often he at least smiled, and looked at peace.

But at night he shrank. After lying awake for many nights in the dark, he got into the habit of turning on the small desk lamp before getting in bed. But the lamp made the walls glow red and the shadows immense. He curled under the covers so that the pillow hid one eye, wallowing in a pool of shame and dread. The dread was so predictable and thick, lacking any beginning or crescendo, that he knew nothing would come of it. It stalked him and the dark and isolation played to its strengths. In the dark, dread was more solid and real than everything he could see in daylight. It filled the air above the bed until the density bore his body down into the mattress foam and he could feel the vague outlines of bedsprings in his ribs. His heart did not palpitate because that is a waste if you are not going to flee.

Then one night, he did flee. After midnight, he stood, still for a minute because his legs were stiff from the fetal position. Then he opened the door to Rich’s room. From there he could see their two forms in the king bed, the geometry of the Gabbeh rug, desk chair with robes and a belt hung on the back, and a winged arm chair by the window. He closed the shame behind him, dragged his bed coverlet to the arm chair and nested there, careful to not get too comfortable. He tried not to fall asleep.

He was too tired to hear Rich’s alarm clock. Rich’s wife stroked his arm and pointed to the chair. Rich carried Michael, still asleep, back to his own bed. He asked about it casually in the afternoon, but all Michael mumbled was that he couldn’t sleep in his room. All day, Michael scooted from one room to another with the last person leaving.

The next night he crept next door at 11 o’clock and leapt quietly but urgently into Rich’s bed. He stayed near the bottom and over the covers, huddling between their two pairs of legs. By the time Rich woke in the dark, the boy was fast asleep. Rich pulled him up to the pillows and under the covers, and woke him up gently the next morning to break Michael’s grip on the front of Rich’s pajamas.

On the fourth morning, Rich asked more questions as gently as he could. Does something in his room scare him? Does he have trouble falling asleep? Does the room remind him of something bad? Eyes flickered and Rich’s tone grew sharper. What bad things happened? Michael avoided Rich’s face. He kept his jaws rigid and counted the seconds until Rich gave up.

Two nights later, Michael pushed back his covers as soon as the lights were out. He pulled a canvas backpack from under the bed and placed a rolled up sweater in the bottom for padding. Then he inspected his father’s clarinet before putting it on top of the sweater. The little pocket money he had, a Swiss army knife went into the back pockets of his jeans. He pulled on a tee and flannel shirt, socks and then short boots. He pushed the blinds aside slightly. Late August and the nights had cooled. Moon shadows marked only distant trees and telephone poles with the nearest street lamp a faint glow around a bend in the road; he couldn’t see any houses and could barely make out the textural contrast of asphalt next to grass. What was suppressed in his chest felt cold; not absence of heat but absence of gravity and matter, like the first minute in space after being jettisoned, the cold stretching away in every direction, hissing in lonely doom as body tissues begin their small explosions in the vacuum. He backed from the window and thought about the toddlers and how many questions they ask in a day, and their weight in his lap. In a week Rich would want him to start school. He would wear a backpack like this one, raise his hand in class, and play at recess then bike home, just like everyone else. But the longer he tried to linger on the vision of that routine, the more frequently the interruptions came. Flash. Red, like the inside of his eyelids. Wooden floor in a dark room. He can feel its knots rubbing against his bare knees and hands. The red light glows where a body is moving slowly, and then fades to black at the perimeters of the room. He shivered and his eyes blurred. He let the blinds drop to rub them. He had enough English now to tell anyone who might ask what happened, and his chest caved at the prospect of not being able to play normal anymore; it was time to go.

He thought he could hold his breath until he was clear of the house, but he was so focused on making his boot steps quiet that he did not notice the sliver of light under the study door until it was too late and one of the pine floor boards creaked. Rich opened the door, flooding the stair landing with yellow light, and took in the boy’s gear in one swift glance. Michael looked around Rich to the stairs beyond and made a calculation, panic and shame in his throat. He leapt forward and to the side. But Rich’s left arm stretched across the path and bent him in the middle, and the right arm pulled his struggling legs tight to Rich’s body. His face was drenched. Rich crouched down on the rug and held him tight until the sobs had dwindled to loud mouth breathing. Rich asked a very few questions, and the boy quietly confirmed them. Rich channeled his rage into his jawline, so that Michael would not see it.

I am behind Michael’s eyes.

“How did it feel when Rich finds out?” Blue asks.

“It feels so good, orgasmic even. He rushes from utter despair to total safety. I rewrote and played that scene over and over for years, just to get to that ending. I lingered on it.”

In another version, it is winter and the snow is thick, as high as a 10 year old’s knees. Rich’s suspicions grow and his questions become more persistent. One afternoon, Michael leaves school late and walks a different path. He needed to recoup from Rich’s probing, but couldn’t see past the end of the day. He stops at the small church where the pastor is a friend of the family’s. This seems like the right place to sit with shame. He enters through a side door and scans the hall quickly before choosing a pew along a side aisle, half in shadow from a column. He hunches down there and watches church workers sweeping, rearranging prayer books and refilling vases. Someone picks up a black shawl from the floor. They leave a little past seven o’clock without seeing him. The windows are black and he can hear wind outside. With the human bustle gone, the smell of candle wax and velvet drapes, of floor polish and radiator heat grows denser.

The pastor enters then through the rectory door, but from that side of the column, he catches sight of a small pale face in the pew beyond. Rich and the family had already begun frantic phone calls around the neighborhood. The pastor stands at a distance and asks Michael how he is doing. Is there anything I can do to help? Michael shakes his head and begins to cry. The pastor leans back next to him on the pew and places his hand on the smaller one until the crying stops. What would feel better right now? Michael wants to sleep – just sleep – he wants to go back to the house but not talk about anything. He doesn’t explain that he has not had a full night’s sleep in over two weeks. Come with me into the kitchen and have something to drink? In the rectory kitchen, the pastor lets Michael watch as he dials Rich’s number and explains that Michael is very tired and would like to go home and rest, that he would prefer to not have any discussions that night. They sit together in quiet, nibbling on dried fruit and cookies and sipping warm tea, until Rich arrives to take him home. The story then continues as before.

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2 Responses to House

  1. Kelly says:

    Again, some of these lines are simply stunning. They make me pause, re-read, bask in them for a few moments before continuing on. They’re the lines that strike a deeper chord, that make me think “oh, yessss. so right. so pitch perfect spot on right. and how tremendously fun that it’s my friend Mai who’s the channel for this pitch perfect observation and I get to witness it.”

    In this one, I love: His heart did not palpitate because that is a waste if you are not going to flee.

  2. Jo says:

    Very powerful.

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