Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Gingerly, creeping, my mother drives her “safe” back way home, winding through the subdivisions bordering downtown Orlando, Florida. The little truck doesn’t have air conditioning. I stretch my arm out the window as if I might be able to feel the Spanish moss hanging from the trees like witch hair.
“Please, please, keep yourself inside,” my mother insists, afraid I will lose my arm.
My arm swims in, then goes right back out to touch the world.
Between the 1950s and ’60s houses, I occasionally glimpse straight rows of citrus trees, their leathery leaves shining. The old groves, not yet fully covered by development, show how this place used to be.
At the edge of our neighborhood, my mother pulls into the full-service gas station. She won’t let the tank get below 7/8 in case of a hurricane. We top off here every day. Earl, the owner, smokes behind filmy glass in the office while the attendant pumps. My mother holds her purse to her chest and follows the young man’s every move. When he says to pop the hood, she does and gets out. She wants to see the fluid levels herself. She wants to see exactly what the gauge says for each tire. She is concerned about a blowout. She’s concerned about tampering. She saw someone doing something near the tires. Does the attendant detect any evidence of foul play?
I sink down until my face is below the window. Right on schedule, Earl leans against my side of the truck. I cover myself by drawing my knees to my chest.
While my mother is busy worrying about air pressure, Earl offers to show me the mattress in the back of his van. “After school tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll be watching for you.” His voice is low, flat. He always says the same thing: Mattress. Van. “You real pretty, girl.”
I do not look up. In my peripheral vision I see the veins and spots on the back of his hand, which rests on the door, where the window would be if it were rolled up. What if I started rolling the window up now? I fold down into myself until I’m all the way balled up and slumped. There’s nowhere to go. The last time my mother filled up the truck, Earl slipped me five dollars. I didn’t know what to do with the bill, so I stuck it under the passenger seat.
“You’re a lifesaver, Mr. Earl!” my mother says brightly, climbing in. She leans over me to give him two thumbs up.
Earl looks at me hard, then makes a clicking noise with his tongue, like you do when you want a horse to go faster: chk-chk. He eases away from the truck.
As we drive off, I realize that I ache all over. “Why do you talk to him?” I ask my mother.
“You’re living your life,” she says in her most jaded voice. “Let me live mine.”
“That makes no sense.”
“It does to me,” she says.
“You’re nice to everyone but me!”
“I’m nice to those who are nice to me.”
I threaten to jump out of the truck, something I threaten to do a lot these days. I feel as if I could explode, there’s so much hot anger inside me. Earl’s words — I’ll be watching for you — are going to be with me for a long time: tonight, the entire school day tomorrow, on the walk home from school.
But at this point, trapped in the truck’s cab with my mother, who is humming a tune, I try to forget about the van, the invitation.
We drive past concrete-block bungalows — pink, white, blue, green, yellow, and tan. Yards have palms, scrub oaks, century plants, a cactus like a dull-gray sword that will shear through your skin if you are pushed onto one. No sidewalks. Campers huddle in driveways, in side yards, in the street, peeking from backyards like captive animals. A shirtless guy lies under a car, a wrench on the pavement nearby. An old man sits on a lawn chair with the newspaper in his lap: white undershirt, plaid shorts, black socks.
Some of the homes have a swimming pool, often choked with leaves or covered with a sagging blue tarp or drained and filled with branches and discarded Christmas trees, home to opossums, raccoons, skunks, rats, rabbits, or maybe a wild pig.
Most houses are well cared for, and lights are on in the kitchens, where, behind green or yellow cafe curtains, women are making meatloaf or spaghetti. Men are coming home from work in sedans. The lawns are mowed, siding freshly painted, hedges trimmed.
But there’s one house in every neighborhood whose windows are dark, a permanent FOR SALE sign in front. The house where the murder took place. The house where the baby died suddenly, and afterward the home itself seemed to die of grief, the family turned to ghosts. Not condemned, not abandoned, but showing deep neglect, slanting or falling in on itself in some way. Windows covered by bushes or vines. A pile of blankets in the yard. Beer cans on the roof.
We pull up to the dark house on our street, the windows lined with tinfoil. No one can see the doll mildewing in the hedge where, one afternoon a long time ago, she and I had a tea of Tang. But I know where her body is, and it weighs on me like a telltale heart.
In the driveway my mom locks the truck and quietly asks if I think we were followed.
“Of course not,” I say. Privately, though, I wonder: Were we followed? There’s always a car on our bumper, but that’s because my mother drives like a turtle. I wonder if the men who work at the gas station know where we live. Surely they do.
I don’t want to go inside, but I follow her into the dark house, carrying groceries. I don’t want to be in this place. Lately even reading, which lets me enter another world, has become impossible here.
For safety my mother has nailed all the windows closed. And she’s nailed shut the door to my old bedroom, because a wild creature is trapped in there, and we’re not to open the door because who knows what it is. At night we hear it racing around.
In the kitchen I set the grocery bags on the floor. My mother doesn’t like things from the outside world on the counter. The room is hot, stuffy, dusty. I turn on the light: a bare bulb over a small table. My mother is capable of functioning in darkness, but I’m not.
She goes to her room, and I sit under the bare bulb at the table. The sliding glass doors in the kitchen are covered with bedsheets and blankets. It’s like living in a tent. Not safe inside. Not safe outside.
I sit for a long time, wondering about many things. I don’t feel awake or asleep. I feel wrong. The wrongest girl in the world. I imagine this house is under a spell, like in a fairy tale.
How, in a fairy tale, does anyone from the dark house ever make it out of the story?
I have to find my father.
One year later.
My father thinks he’s picking me up for pizza, to get reacquainted. His new Oldsmobile rumbles in the driveway. I hold my suitcase and face off against my mother in the foyer.
“You can’t come running back,” she says.
“Why not?” I don’t plan to ever come back, but her words still hurt.
“Be certain this is what you want,” she says. I’m shocked she is letting me go.
“I can’t live with you,” I tell her. “I’m sorry.”
But I’m not sorry. And I’m not certain about anything. I just want to try my dad out. Maybe just for a week. Maybe just for an hour. I don’t know much about my father. I haven’t seen him since I was ten. He was wild and fun and funny then. He let me sip his beer. He bit my finger, too hard.
I’m unaware how much this is about getting away from Earl.
I don’t know how to get away except to move. And I’ll have my own room at my father’s. As I walk out of the dark house, the little girl in me weeps to leave my mother, and another part of me knows my father is going to need my help.
“What’s this?” he says, looking at my suitcase.
“Don’t worry,” I say, even though I worry, opening the back door and setting the suitcase inside.
My father drives fast and drinks a clear liquid on ice from a cut-glass tumbler between his legs. It’s not water — the smell is sharp and sour. But it’s the cigarette smoke I complain about. I roll down my window and lean my head out.
“No, no, no,” he says. Unlike my mother, he’s not worried about me getting hurt. “We’re losing all our good, cold air. Roll up the window.”
His windows are electric — you press a tiny lever, and up it goes. This is my first time using automatic windows, and I raise and lower it until my father yells at me to knock it off. Already life has become both more difficult and more interesting.
We drive across the west side of Orlando to Rossi’s for pizza. I love what my father likes: Anchovies. Extra olives. Red pepper. I order a Coke. Breadsticks that come with red sauce. This may be the best meal of my life so far. My father cries at the table. Other diners stare. I wish I could make them understand: this is a big day for us.
Now my father is laughing as tears stream down his cheeks. He seems bereft and bursting with joy all at once. Because of me? Nothing is clear. When the waitress brings the check, he grabs her breast. She steps away but seems more bored than mad. He slides me the check. I tell him I have no money.
“What do you mean, you don’t have any money?” He wonders how I am planning to pay for my room and board.
I get up and sit on his side of the booth. I lean against him. I have missed him so much.
In the Oldsmobile he reaches for a gallon bottle of liquor in the back and fills his glass.
“One for the road,” he says. “Taste?”
I shake my head. We drive farther west. The setting sun is so bright I have to close my eyes. There are fewer flowers in this part of town. It’s drier, browner, poorer.
On a wide street, so long and perfectly straight it disappears over the horizon, he pulls into a driveway. Inexplicably there’s a full-size swimming pool in the front yard. Some of the windows are covered with snake cactuses. Awnings hang askew over the front windows, making the house seem as if its eyes are closed.
It’s dark inside, and the AC is set to freezing. The first thing I notice when my eyes adjust is a larger-than-life-size portrait of my father wearing a blue suit and a gold afro. He points to the photograph proudly. “That’s the Colonel,” he says. “Isn’t he one good-looking fella?” My father seems to sincerely want an answer. “Goddamn handsome son of a gun, right?” He turns from the photograph to me, over and over.
“Yeah,” I say. “Really nice.”
I look around. Down a short hall are two bedrooms. One is filled with tools, piles of boxes, a lathe. The other has a padlock on the door. I rattle it. Locked tight.
A television plays on the dining-room table. I’m still holding my suitcase and wondering why my father leaves his television on when he isn’t home, and where is he now? On the screen is a close-up of something pink and grotesque, like an undersea creature. A mollusk, maybe. The only sounds are music and moaning. I don’t get it. Then I do.
I set my suitcase down and walk through the rooms, calling for my father.
I don’t want to sleep on the sofa. It’s gold crushed velvet and curved, like a C. If I sleep that way, I’ll grow up bent.
So sleep, he says, on a pallet of blankets on the floor. “Suit yourself.”
That night my father falls asleep on a lounge chair on the glassed-in back porch, watching the mollusks and the pink.
I turn it off. He wakes up instantly, hollering.
I go for a long walk through my new neighborhood with a dime. At the Cumberland Farms on Orange Avenue there’s a pay phone by the road. I dial my mother. She doesn’t pick up for a long time. When she does, she asks how it’s going.
“The house has so many sad features,” I say.
She sounds both alarmed and not surprised. “He got taken advantage of,” my mother says. This is evidently in keeping with my father’s essential nature.
So many sad features. I list them. The broken chunks of concrete for a front walk. The swimming pool in the front yard. The rusty bell. The thick blue shag carpeting, which is damp and smells of smoke. I edit out the stacks of Hustler in every room, the television always on, the fact that my room is the living room and no room at all.
I’ve told her so much that I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything out.
And I feel like we’re together, me and my mom, engaged in a sacred project: loving my father. I never want to lose this feeling, the softness and sweetness in her voice, and I believe the version I tell her, not the one I’ll be returning to.
I go back to my father’s house, where the streetlight reflects off the swimming pool, creating patterns on the living-room ceiling that waver and flicker. I lie on the C-shaped sofa, rolled in a bedsheet, and stare at the unsettled ceiling, and I have a kind of vertigo. My father wakes and comes to sit on the sofa. He puts his hand on my thigh. I freeze. Then I sit up and say loudly, “Go to your room.”
And he does.
Women sometimes stumble out of my father’s bedroom in the morning. I can’t imagine how these relationships work. Sometimes the girlfriends have grown children, husbands, or exes who burst in late at night or are there the whole time, along for the ride. Then there are the family members — cousins, uncles, nephews — and my father’s buddies from the bars. So many people come and go, most of them strangers to me. There’s fighting and yelling and drinking in this dark house. Ribs and collarbones are broken and wrist bones and ankle bones and teeth. Cracks, fissures, fractures, bruises.
More than once I go to school with a black eye or a split lip. One day the PE coach whispers, “I didn’t know you had it so bad at home.”
If someone asked, How are things in your house? every single person in this house would answer with some version of Fine.
Teenagers, my father might say, rolling his eyes, looking mystified.
If given a form and asked to write a description of my family, I would not know what to say. Always I am hoping to be magically airlifted out of this house and taken somewhere safe and far away, somewhere with love and books.
For a long time I tell the story of my parents’ houses this way:
A pretty neighborhood in Orlando, right near Disney. There was always a breeze.
And the story of my parents goes like this:
My mother is from Wisconsin, and she’s very strict, raised Catholic. She had so many rules it was impossible to follow them all. When I was thirteen, I moved in with my dad.
My father is from Kentucky. He’s a super-smart guy, a degree from Northwestern, and he’s always joking around. He’s a writer, a storyteller. A wild and interesting person, like no one you have ever met.
And here’s what I say about myself:
Do the people who raise children in dark houses also come from dark houses themselves? How far back does it go?
My father and I rarely travel. The cousins, uncles, nephews — they come down in winter or after a traumatic car accident or a stroke or the latest divorce.
When relatives aren’t with us, my father brings home all manner of men from the Winn-Dixie parking lot and the American Legion, men who are not working but are now employed by my father to fix the roof. I come home from school and see my father and his new buddies sitting on the roof in lawn chairs, the pile of beer cans gleaming in the sun.
On my way to school in the morning, I step over men passed out in the driveway or by the pool. More than once there’s a man passed out, fly open, exposed. More than once a completely naked man. More than once my father.
Step over him? Call the police? Lay on the car horn?
Everything works. Nothing works.
The men disappear, diminish, or die. They swerve too soon or swerve too late or don’t swerve at all. The people I encounter in the dark houses seem long past the point of knowing the difference between forward motion and oblivion, long past the point of discerning something as subtle as when to swerve.
The police come to dark houses. In mine they find broken mirrors, broken windows, broken teeth, jagged holes in the wallboard whose outlines always remind me of pieces of a puzzle to be filled in by something vaguely fist-shaped, but that also looks like the state of Texas or Ohio.
Cops are summoned in a chaotic rotation. Sometimes they come and nothing’s happening. Who even called them? So much violence and breakage and wreckage, and sometimes they’re not summoned at all.
Dishes shatter on the kitchen floor or are flung into the yard. Cocktail glasses are hurled at walls, at windows, at women’s heads. Doors are slammed or kicked in. People peel off in cars, then return at four in the morning, roaring back into the driveway, lights blazing in the dark house.
The neighbors call the authorities. Those people. That house.
I call, but not often; the reports make the night so much longer. No officer ever says, It’s going to be OK. No officer ever asks me, How are you holding up? They never smile or help, and I often feel like the entire scenario I’m describing to them was somehow caused by me and therefore could have been prevented by me.
There’s little that’s consistent, but one thing is always true: I shouldn’t have woken him up.
At my father’s house there are places in back where the siding is blackened, as if someone tried to light the house on fire. I always wonder who it was. My mother’s house has the burned patches, too.
My father wants rent money.
He insists I apply for a hostess job at a Mexican chain restaurant near our house. He likes the girls’ uniform: off-the-shoulder tops with white ruffles. The restaurant is across the street from a black concrete-block bar. Out front, girls in bikinis sit on stools and wave.
I work every shift I can. On my third day a man leaving the restaurant bar offers me twenty bucks to walk him to his car.
I look hard at my seating diagram. I straighten the menus.
He touches my arm.
I take a stack of menus and walk into the center of the dining room and stand by a waitress, who, after she finishes taking the order, whispers at me, “What is your problem?”
I actually do not have a problem. I have, in fact, just solved my problem. My problem just walked out the door.
He’ll be back. So many men will ask this favor of the hostesses, but usually at night, not when it’s daytime.
During rush, from 5:30 on, there are always two of us hostessing in long brown skirts and strapless white tops. After the rush, the manager often comes out of his office.
“Do either of you girls want a break? Want to come, uh, hang out?”
I stand behind the podium and make X’s with a grease pencil on a sheet of plastic — busy, busy, busy. Maybe I just didn’t hear.
“I’ve never met anyone as uncool as you before,” the other hostess says.
I want to quit on the spot. I can’t look at her.
She says I’m going to get fired. I have to learn how to get along with people. “Besides,” she says, “it only takes, like, five minutes.”
While she is in the manager’s office, I redraw the seating chart.
The manager — a skinny guy, maybe in his mid-twenties, with a casual way about him — is always polite to me. When the restaurant gets quiet in the late afternoon and I am alone at my podium, staring around the dark cold empty lobby, he opens his office door. “Hey,” he says. “How’s it going?”
“Fine,” I say. I am sixteen years old. I stay behind my podium.
After work I enter my father’s house quietly. I lie in the back bedroom with the dresser pushed in front of the door. Geckos walk the ceiling boldly, and I pour emotion into hating them until I fall asleep. When I wake, it’s time to put on whatever clothes are required by my next job: baby sitter, lawn-mower girl, cashier, hostess.
When I leave the room and go out into the dark house, I turn off every television.
Then I check to see if he’s still living. My father is usually passed out on the sofa or the porch or in his bedroom, one hand holding the remote, the other reaching for his drink, even in sleep.
Please be living.
Sometimes I move back in with my mother, exchanging a damp dark house for a dry dark house.
And we fight and cry and then I move back to my father’s, where I now have a proper bed. But I push the dresser in front of the door.
One day in April of my senior year, my mother appears at my father’s house. Her little green truck idles in the street out front. She won’t set foot inside.
I come out, sit in the cab, both wary and happy to see her. She shows me the newspaper want ad she has been talking about: receptionist, title company.
Then my father comes rolling out of the house. He’s always happy to see my mother. They’ll start arguing in about twenty minutes, but for now the three of us stand in the driveway. I’m barefoot, in high-waisted red shorts and a Hawaiian shirt with parrots. My mother is in her uniform: khaki pants, khaki blouse. My father is, on this day like every other, wearing pantyhose, visible at the ankles under his dress pants, and beneath his guayabera shirt I can make out the straps of his bra. His hair is permed, his cheeks rouged. We do not ever discuss this. We stand in front of his brown house covered with vines, beside the broken walk, yard tools rusting on the grass, the grass gone to seed, and we discuss my future. They need for me to get an apartment nearby. And this job at the title company is right down the street from my mother’s house. I can go part-time to community college in the evenings, she says, and maybe she and my father can loan me, with interest, a small sum so I can buy a car.
Both my parents went to universities. Both my parents have, at this point in their lives, large sums of money in the bank.
“Daddy?” she says, blinking her eyes at my father: her Betty Boop mode.
I do not borrow money from my parents. I do not buy a car.
I do not know what a title company is, and I do not ever want to know.
I have a vague plan, a fragile vision: A beautiful university. Far away from here. New York. I imagine working in a theater. A beautiful chandelier, tall windows. Always I envision a home streaming with light.
Sometimes I leave the dark of my father’s house and swim too long in the sea. Sometimes I float down a river of clear water through a cathedral of cypress trees, feeling my joy, my body, my true self in the world. Sometimes I go to the library. I can never read in a dark house, but in the library I read a book about a girl who runs away from home and gets hooked on drugs and sells her body for money: Go Ask Alice. I am not asking Alice anything. I read Kerouac’s On the Road and Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, and the last thing I want to do is go on the road or be here now. I read Richard Brautigan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, lots of comics and cookbooks, and Better Homes and Gardens floor plans: templates for bright houses.
When my mother drives me to the interview she’s arranged at the title company, I refuse to get out of the truck.
If someone glanced out the window that day, they would see in the cab of a pea-green Datsun pickup a mother and a daughter yelling, talking, crying. They would see the daughter tearing her shirt. They would see the mother banging her head on the steering wheel, over and over.
This is what the mother calls a harangue, as in: “We had quite a harangue.”
A man in a fancy black suit and shiny shoes comes out the front door, walks toward our truck, then pauses. We see him, and he sees us see him, and we are quiet now, staring straight ahead. He turns and goes back inside.
My mother takes me for ice cream after that. We sit on a bench outside the ice-cream place, and she says she is sorry. Some of what has happened, she says, is probably her fault. She says maybe we can each promise to do better. I tell her my father has taken the money I’ve been saving. She says life isn’t always fair. She says I can live with her until my eighteenth birthday, but I do have to pay rent, and after that, the gravy train stops. Do I understand?
I say yes, yes, yes. I don’t mean it. I want only to be kind. I am already gone.
The mother rarely agrees with the father. The father almost never agrees with the mother. But they agree on one thing, which they say over and over: You have to find somewhere else to stay.
At seventeen, at the soonest possible moment, I do.
Heather Sellers’s essay “Dark Houses” [January 2018] made me sad and angry: Sad at the terrible situation the author was in, having to choose between a mentally ill mother who forced her to live in a house with blacked-out windows and a father whose darkness took a dramatically different form. Angry at these two so-called adults who would not take their minds off themselves long enough to provide adequate parenting to this child who relied on them.
There are many children in situations not far removed from Sellers’s. Sometimes those stories have happy endings, but more often they result in damaged children. No child should have to face such impossible challenges.