Issue #6: Nonfiction
In January of 1983 Parent I and Parent II—not parents quite yet, of course, but what else to call them?—purchase a house in Ossining, New York. One and a half stories, it features a generous living room with vaulted ceilings and a wall of windows in which, for ten years, Parent II will string up lines of white Christmas lights in the shape of a star each winter, casting a warm glow across the room when the sun goes down. The galley kitchen features yellow linoleum countertops which, by contemporary standards, are certainly in need of updating, but when they make the home purchase, Parents I and II don’t even notice the color, fawning over the open feel the kitchen/living room combo creates. Years later, when Child A decides he is a writer, this layout will dwell in his brain and seep into his stories because of the shadows that throw themselves against the walls, such as the one he will see when he is six, on the night of Holy Saturday, when he is convinced he catches a glimpse of the Easter Bunny’s outline.
The house has only one bathroom, stuffed next to the door to the side yard. It features a pink toilet and green wallpaper that is etched with a jungle landscape, giraffes and elephants chewing on fronds and tall grass. The parents plan to remove it but never will. When they first buy the house, they don’t imagine crowding three children around the single sink to brush their teeth. They don’t picture the frustration of giving one child a bath while another demands to go pee, the third fiddling with the sink handles and crying for a snack or a stuffed animal. One large bedroom sits at the back of the house, the parents’ private space where they set up a crib at the foot of their king-size bed for their first-born (and, eventually, second- and third-born) and they will turn the single large second-floor room into the bedroom their three children will eventually share.
Child A—Son, no number needed as he is the only son, first son and last son—is born in 1985, and Child B—Daughter 1—and Child C—Daughter 2—follow in 1987 and 1989. When he is older, in his early twenties, Child A will remember how old Daughters 1 and 2 are by subtracting two and four years from his life, respectively. As infants, they are each kept in the same crib one after the next, and when each outgrows it, they are moved upstairs to the large room. One of its walls is also a line of thick windows, overlooking the side yard and the line of pine trees separating the property from the neighbors’. When Child A begins sleeping in that room, he takes up an entire queen size bed, once owned by Parent I’s grandmother. It creaks when he rolls over, sprawled out in sleep. As Child B outgrows her crib, she is given a smaller twin bed that is wedged against the wall next to Child A’s bed, but when Child C is moved upstairs, Child A and Child B trade places, Son relegated to the twin bed, where he will often curl up against the wall, leaving an expanse of bed open next to him to recreate the sensation of the excess emptiness on the larger mattress, while Daughters 1 and 2 share the more spacious bed.
When the branch of McDonell Douglas Parent II works for closes down, he is given three choices: transfer to the office in California; the one in Missouri; find another job. When Parent I refuses to move all the way to the western border, he chooses option two. Daughters 1 and 2 are too young to understand the idea of leaving part of life behind, but Child A realizes, even at eight years old, that his life is changing, that this is a permanent, deep shift. He lives next door to his best friend, and only a few weeks before the family boxes up all of their possessions to travel all the way from New York to Missouri, Child A and his best friend find a litter of stray kittens in the best friend’s back yard. Child A begs to keep one, but Parents I and II say no, gently, explaining that they already have two cats, and that is enough.
Years later, Child A will wonder: he’ll know that his father’s place of work really did shut down, that packing up and moving across the country was a real necessity. But he will marvel at the timing: how long can an eight-year-old boy share a bedroom with his two younger sisters? When do children need to expand, have their own small worlds within the walls of their houses? How does that home really mean something without a private space to call one’s own?
The day before the move, Child A wakes up and finds Parents I and II sitting on the couch in the living room pocked with stuffed cardboard boxes. He is full of nervous glee despite knowing he will be saying goodbye to his best friend for the last time. But then his parents tell him that they can’t leave for Missouri the next day. No, instead they must pack up their Dodge Caravan and drive down the east coast to North Carolina. Parent I’s father has passed away.
Instead of a house, Parents and Children move into a 3-bedroom apartment in St. Charles, Missouri, just west of St. Louis and its tall, metallic gateway-to-the-west Arch. It is 1993. The living room with a small brick fireplace and dining room—which barely holds the table that fit amply in the area between kitchen and living room in their old house—are separated by a short hallway. On the right side of this hall is Child A’s small bedroom with white paint and popcorn ceiling; his bed sits in a corner, familiar and snug against a wall. He has a tiny closet for the first time, and four walls to call his own. When he shuts the door to go to bed the first night, he feels a rush of excitement at this private space, this thing that is his. But then he hears the quiet sound of only one body breathing and it is foreign, frightening, unfamiliar. He has to crack the door.
The hall takes a ninety degree at the bathroom, the room shared by Child B and C to the door’s right, parallel to Child A’s room. Their old, creaky bed has made the trip, and it swallows up the room. The dark vanity with tall mirror Child B looks at in the morning and tall bureau where Child C stuffs her clothes flank each side of the space, crowding the narrow alley left in the bed’s wake. The Daughters rarely play in their bedroom, and if they do, they sit cross-legged on the marshmallow mattress.
The Parents’ bed room is opposite of that of Daughters 1 and 2, down a short hall. Child A, B, and C will all spend nights here, waking from nightmares and sliding under the covers, nestled up under Parent II’s arm. The bed feels large yet intimate to these children, but when they grow up they realize how much they must have cramped and compacted their parents’ sleeping space. But at least the Parents have a bathroom of their own, a shower not dotted with floating rubber toys and baby shampoo; they needn’t worry about a son or daughter pulling a plugged-in hair dryer into a tub full of water.
The end wall of the dining room is a sliding glass door leading to the balcony, where Parent I smokes cigarettes. In the afternoons, she sits with Son and Daughters and asks them about their school days. Parent I was a speech therapist in New York, but she does not get recertified to teach in Missouri. She will never again fix a student’s lateral lisp, will never listen to children recite stories Sally the Seahorse or Zippy the Zebra. She will one day take up work at the children’s grade school, serving lunches in the cafeteria. To Child A’s relief, the school does not make the cooks wear hairnets or paper-looking blue dresses that remind him of an old nurse’s uniform.
Only three people can fit in the apartment’s kitchen at a time, and even though it, too, has a galley window peering into the dining room, the space feels tiny, almost too bright with its white countertops and refrigerator. As with his first home, Child A will picture this cramped space when he imagines the homes of trapped, lonely characters. When he writes about a woman who wants to fall out of her high-rise and swoop through a city like a bird, he thinks of the kitchen. When he envisions a couple arguing in their bare living room, he sees that fireplace. A young man’s desperate hours of loneliness are spent staring at a popcorn ceiling much like the one he looks at when he can’t sleep at night, when bronze light from a streetlamp streaks through his limp Venetian blinds.
After a year and dozens of viewings, Parents I and II finally purchase a house: a three- bedroom with high ceilings like those in their first home. The layout is open: directly across from the hardwood floor foyer are stairs leading to the basement—their first basement—and to the foyer’s right is an open dining room with a swinging door leading to the kitchen. Through the archways leading to and from the dining room one can see the vast living room from the front door, and the tile of the kitchen is separated from the living room’s beige carpet by a thin strip of curved purple grout. One can see the television set from the pantry.
Child A gets his own bedroom, this one with pale blue walls the color of a robin’s egg. His old tiny closet is replaced by one with two mahogany sliding doors, in which Parent I stores her extra dresses and Parent II’s suits that no longer fit; Child A does not yet have enough clothing or shoes to fill it on his own. A window takes up the wall opposite the door, so Child A’s bed, for the first time, touches only one wall, this one at the head of the bed, and he must teach himself not to curl up against the strong inflexibility of a wall anymore, or he will roll off and crash to the carpet.
Child B and C share the second bedroom, the layout nearly identical to that of their previous one: the bed overwhelms the room, the vanity and bureau squeezed against the walls again. Their room is yellow, just lighter than a banana, and is directly across from Child A’s. These rooms are at the end of the house’s one long hallway to the left of the stairs to the basement, and the laundry room, den, and linen closet all branch from it. A small hallway just before the Daughters’ bedroom leads to the first bathroom and ends in the master bedroom.
Parents I and II have enough space for their king-size bed, a massive bookshelf, her four- drawer tall bureau and his squat three-drawer-by-three-drawer vanity with a mirror they both check their hair in. Throughout the years, their bedroom will house a second bookshelf, a piano bench, an ottoman, a rocking chair whose straw bottom frays and eventually breaks, a second, cushioned bench with a floral patterned pillow, and basket after basket of laundry. Parent I’s nightstand will fill and bulge with the children’s report cards and artwork.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, Child A demands bunk beds. For whatever reason, and after wandering through dozens of furniture stores, Parents I and II acquiesce and make the purchase: a wooden pair of beds with thick slats and a built-in ladder on the foot-end. Child A’s entire room is rearranged: the bureau moves to where the bed was, a small writing desk is shifted to a corner, a box of toys is moved to the basement. Despite being assembled by professionals from the store, the bunk sways just so when Child A climbs atop it. For a few months he sleeps on the upper bunk, looking down at his dark room at night. He affixes glow-in-the-dark stars to his ceiling and stares at them until his eyes droop with sleep. When he peers out the window from atop the bed, the way shadows hit the grass is unfamiliar, and the shapes he sees are different, new. Then, when he tires of this view, he sleeps on the lower of the two beds, staring at the waxy material on the underside of the upper bed’s box spring through the slats of wood. The stuff reminds him of dense cobwebs. Over the next several years, Child A rearranges his furniture once or twice each year, pushing and shoving the heavy desk and bed around, leaving a chaotic mess of clothes, drawers, video game magazines strewn about before establishing a fresh, new order. Along the way, a roll-top desk replaces the rickety writing desk; eventually, that, too, is replaced with one that is computer-friendly and designed for the corner of the room.
Child B and Child C grow too big to share a bed; they flop over, smacking each other with out-of-control palms, ankles crashing into each other in painful smacks. They jostle for the quilted comforter, tear pillows from one another in their sleep. Because there is no fourth bedroom, Child C relocates to the study, which has two entrances: a single door directly across from the small hallway branching off the main hall, and a pair of double doors on the left side of the foyer, directly across from the dining room. Child C spends her nights sleeping on a lumpy pull-out couch inherited by Parent II when his parents die and their possessions are dispersed to him and his eight brothers and sisters. Child B retains the large bed for herself, although Child C’s clothing and toys remain in their bedroom. Child A wonders what Child C views as “her” room. She is bifurcated, her place in the house split in two.
Child A leaves for college in August of 2003, and a waterfall of room changes occurs in his absence: Child B moves out of hers and into Child A’s, abandoning her queen-size bed for a firm day bed with white metal trim. Child C returns to the room she once shared with Child B, and, for a year or two, reclaims the creaky bed that she and her sister can no longer share, but then, when one of the planks in the box spring finally breaks, a new queen-size bed replaces it, but the old squishy mattress is kept. The bed’s frame, along with that of the bunk beds, is stored in the basement. When he comes home during his first college Christmas, Child A finds the rooms different: not only has all of the furniture migrated about, but his pale blue walls have been covered up with a light green; the slimy yellow of his sisters’ room is now a deep red.
He also has no bedroom of his own.
Child A isn’t caught off-guard by this: Parent I, during a weekly phone call, has told him about the new arrangement, so he isn’t surprised to be told that his old bed frame and mattress are in the basement, where he will sleep for three weeks before returning to school. But he is surprised by the strange feeling of having no enclosed space of his own—the basement is accessed simply by stairs, with no door separating it from the main floor—no place to which he can retreat and escape the blare of the living room television or the chatter of his siblings. He has grown used to being away from them, of having just one roommate—who, it turns out, is rarely around during his first semester—but most of all he is used to having a private space where he is surrounded by his things. Instead, in the basement, he finds the old crib, crammed full of old stuffed animals that he and his sisters have no use for; a metal desk with one of his father’s many old computers on it; shelves full of the young adult novels he no longer reads and his father’s dusty chemistry
textbooks. Nothing of his: they either never were or they have ceased to be.
A stuffed bear that used to perch on his pillow during the day now faces him at night, staring through the bars of the crib.
The basement is cold. He has to wear socks to bed.
Two years after Child A leaves for college, Child B follows suit. Her bedroom, the room formerly Child A’s, is not supplanted. Child C remains in her room with her spacious bed, and whenever Child B returns home, she finds her day bed made with fresh sheets, her art supplies and box full of crafting materials where she remembers it. Her possessions remain intact, and she visits frequently. Three semesters in, she decides to change schools, spending one semester at a community college at home. She returns to her bedroom. Whether she rearranges the furniture with the regularity her brother did is unclear to Child A; his visits are rare, and he remains at college or travels most summers.
By the time Child C begins college, Child A has started graduate school and Child B lives only ninety miles away from home. The house, Parent I notices, is empty. No longer do five people sit around the kitchen table for dinner, Child A wedged into the space nearest the door leading into the garage. At one point, the garage housed a large wicker chair that Parent I would sit on to smoke and read mystery novels while her children lingered around—Child B and Child C on lawn chairs, Child A on the steps leading to the door—and talked to her about school. When Parent I quit smoking shortly after Child A went away to college, the stories stopped.
Now Parents I and II sit in the living room, Parent I on the floor, tucked between a sofa and the coffee table, Parent II on a puffy green recliner. They watch Wheel of Fortune and the news, and Parent I waits for Child C to call as she does every night. Child A calls only once each week, usually on Sundays, and when he forgets, he thinks of the regularity of Child C’s calls— later, when he is back at home, he will hear Parent I wonder if Child C is alright when she fails to call at the usual time—and he feels guilty. A single call in seven days: that is all he offers, and Parent I never asks for more. How can he forget so easily?
Parent I still makes the same meals she made when the children were in the house: barbecued chicken and fresh-mashed potatoes, hamburgers always slightly overcooked, pasta with meat sauce. She no longer has to worry about what Child B and Child C will eat (they both, at different stages of their adolescence and for different reasons, went vegetarian) and only has to prepare one dish for herself and Parent II. But she tells Child A once when he is visiting that she misses that complication, that extra work. She misses pondering how to make her children happy.
Child B moves back into the house in May 2009, taking a job at a nearby country club. She reclaims the bedroom she left behind when she left. She comes with a new full-size bed; the day bed joins the twin bed once used by Child A in the basement. Child A follows, returning home six months later when a temporary teaching job ends and he finds work close enough to home to move back in. No questions are asked. No rent is requested. Instead of taking the room containing Child C’s belongings, Child A moves into the basement, bringing a television set, reclining chair, and computer desk that he manages to fit in among the shelves and memorabilia crowded onto the carpet. He also brings his own full-size bed; now the basement holds three of them. Old life and new, youth and adulthood, come together in a strange pastiche of bedding and memories.
Child C remains away at college, always off-pattern: once the only child at home, she is now the only one away.
Things happen quickly then: Child A is accepted into a doctoral program and plans to move to Louisiana after only six months back at home, but only two weeks prior to his planned move, Parent I gets a phone call: her widowed mother is ailing; she has collapsed and is in the hospital. She and Child C, who is visiting during summer break, drive to North Carolina to care for her. Child A is reminded of the previous big move in his life, when he was eight years old and walked into the living room that seemed so large then to find out that his grandfather had died. He is standing in another high-ceilinged, expansive living room when Parent I receives the phone call about her mother. He looks around the room and is unsure whether this living room, with its vaulted ceilings and wet bar in the corner near the door to the back porch, is smaller, or if he has simply gotten much bigger.
Parent I decides that her mother—the last remaining living grandparent of Son and Daughters, known by the family as Mauna after how Child A first pronounced “grandma” when he was young—is unable to live on her own anymore, so Parent I and Child C pack up Mauna’s possessions and move her to Missouri a few weeks after Parents I and II and Child B drive down to Louisiana to help Child A move into his apartment. Mauna takes over Child C’s unoccupied bedroom; Daughter 2’s things are, as always, moved into the basement. The bed remains.
Child B moves into the basement when Child A moves out, and Son jokes about Daughter 1 following him around; soon enough, he tells Parent I on the phone when she tells him about his sister’s move, she’ll be heading down to the bayou. A year later, and despite some resistance from Parent II, Child B moves into an apartment with her boyfriend. Child C, who has been living in Kentucky through all of this, gets married and moves to North Carolina, to a towna few hours from where Parent I’s father died and mother lived for years thereafter.
For months Child A hears reports of his grandmother’s health. She sits in the recliner throughout the day, and at dinner time, Parent II sits on the couch behind the spot where Parent I used to sit. Parent I now sits on the end of the other couch, where Child A would sometimes sit when the family ate dinner in the living room rather than the kitchen. Eventually, when the grandmother is moved to an assisted living home because the parents can no longer offer her the care she needs, Parent I starts sitting in the recliner. Parent II stays on the couch.
The house is empty again, Parent I and Parent II alone with their dinner. Child A imagines them sitting down each night. He cannot picture where they sat in their one-and-a-half story in New York before he was born, before the house was overstuffed. He cannot tell if the emptiness that hovers over the Missouri house is the same kind as that in New York. Is the freshness of filling up the same as the drain of emptying?
At Christmas time, Child A is looking at photographs Parent I keeps on the refrigerator, and as a joke, he moves a circle-shaped photograph of Child C when she was no more than four or five years old over her face in a picture of her with her husband; the fit is uncanny. He points it out to Child B and Parent I, who laugh hard enough that their eyes tear up; Parent I has to lean against a chair at the kitchen table.
Child A, looking at the juxtaposition of the past and the present, thinks about how much time has passed. How his sister, once so young and small is now married, working full-time as a nurse nearly a thousand miles away. How quickly he, too, has grown. Twenty-eight seems like such a large number for his age.
He remembers all of the moves, all of the changes that led him to the kitchen he stands in; he savors them and clings to them. He memorizes the shifts, how, with each change, the house becomes a different place. Everyone, he thinks, has these many houses, these many changing floor plans. Arrangements that one cannot return to except in memory, in picture. He thinks of his childhood, his high school years and the desperate wants that came with them: the love of the girl he fawned over but hasn’t thought of in years; the independence and freedom from his family he now has, but at the cost of a distance he would certainly sacrifice. His time at college and the apartments and dorms and fraternity house rooms he lived in. Where is his home, he wonders. Can he ever go back?
A few months ago, Child A learned from a cousin that Parent II’s childhood home was being put up for sale. Parent II hasn’t set foot in it for at least thirty years, and Child A has never seen the inside of it firsthand. On a visit from Louisiana, Child A shows Parent II pictures on the realtor’s website. Parent II tries to compare the photos to what he remembers, attempts to rectify the renovations and alterations. He tries to find his bedroom among the new carpet and fresh paint.
“Wow,” Parent II says when they are done scrolling through the pictures. “It looks nothing like I remember.”
Joe Baumann possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he currently serves as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and his work has appeared in Tulane Review, Willow Review, Hawai’i Review, and many others, and is forthcoming in Lalitamba and Lindenwood Review. Baumann will be joining the faculty at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, as an assistant professor this fall.