Each little house was written for a specific person and then sent directly to them. Their names appear before their pieces.
This story takes place at the end of the last century, at the dawn of the internet. Phones aren’t smart. You can’t take them far from their docks on the desks and counters.
We kissed and stalled. I looked through his hair out the windshield and across the small yard to his bedroom window, the light his dad had left on. “In a minute I’m going to be in there, by that light,” he said, “missing you.” I drummed the steering wheel and replied “Yeah, I think about that all the time, dropping people off and then they just, y’know, become little people in their little houses.” “Yeah.” “It’s totally scary.” For me nothing was ever really happening, it was all just wrapping up, especially this.
They stood on top of that parking deck. A real high in these parts. One kid behind the other, wrapping arms around, against a night that wasn’t yet cold. They play-acted the chic spot across the way was theirs, that they were returning home decades later. “How was work?” “Amazing.” “Do we have kids?” “Nope.” “I know.” “Amazing.” The dream apartment, only four floors above a shadow street. The clouds, as far as they were concerned.
As a little guy he requested everything “on the rocks.” Heard somewhere, a way to be grown up. Fruit roll-ups on the rocks, etcetera, absurd. That was back in the age of requests, but that age was over. Now he was home around curfew after everyone else was asleep and pouring his own cereal, rock-like sweet wheat something, a dash of milk. But this wasn’t the ritual. The ritual was all in a dad glass. Three ice cubes, the right proverbial rocks, dropped and a splash of coke on top. Just a splash. A swish before smelling, shooting back. He wasn’t ready for alcohol yet, but he knew this was what it must be like, coming soon. More a part of the family than those asleep around the corner or up the stairs, this savored drink. And another. Looking down at the liquid. I evil love you.
“Reach me the scissors off that desk, Prickly Pear.” She muted her mother. Her mother said nothing. It was late. Her mother probably asked again. In the mute were other voices. You have to obey your mother. What if your mother told you to jump off a bridge? You’d do it. Maybe your mother did tell, maybe you did jump off. Down through air into a thicket of succulents. Now you see all the way up to her, bay at her, a wild animal. You’re covered in spines. They are hot honesty.
His frantic rubbing against Holly Witt in the November 1995 Playboy rattled the bed and woke his brother below. “Go back to bed.” He hissed down, “I love you, okay.” You can’t grow up slow from the bottom bunk.
We never set out to drive past the house of every single person we knew before arriving at hers, but the gas gauge was sometimes full. Every night was a loop, sliding past the Wilsons and the Masons and Jim’s and Collette’s and Frank’s and Jim’s and seeing the lack of lights. The journey always ended at the trampoline, and the trampoline was always deserted. Except. That final time though there she was in the center, like an optical illusion, lying flat. Approached. Do you want to talk about it no I just want to bounce. Bouncing meant something different in those days.
Tonight you’re in the park, and the park is not a house. The park has never really been a house but tonight something of it has to be. A stray dog is the house, its fur clingy, deep like you could try and get lost alongside it. Its breath becomes little bits of your breath, becomes the want, the world.
He waited forever for dialup. Besides that pending window, all onscreen was the background; a house in the snow. This house. His father’s new old house with its swivel chair. The snow had melted outside the actual house but here it was a desktop of pure white and going nowhere. The soft, repeated click of the unconnected internet reminded him of the hush outside on nights when snow fell, the way the lack of sound enveloped space. The way the blanket anticipated its own dirtying.
She wasn’t sure what amphetamines were, but she’d heard of them, and she was dead certain they were coming to get her. She un-tucked the sheets from around the neat mattress and then re-tucked them tight around her body like pie crust. To keep the amphetamines at bay, from wherever they might creep.
You think it’s a house now, but just wait’ll I’ve done some real work on it. Wait’ll I grab the drapes and tie them in knots. Wait’ll I let the neighbors come in and draw endless baths. Wait’ll I take out a third mortgage. Wait’ll you see it with the walls torn down. Oh honey. Wait’ll you see it with the moon dripping blood as red as the whites around your eyes down through the shredded ceiling. Then good lord we can call it a home.
It’s odd that the punishment was he goes and stands in the corner. The way one wall hit the other and they just jam together and stop made the most sense to him of anything in this suffocating place. It’d been hours since Mama stuck him there for spilling. She said she was going out, and that he was to count to six hundred, and then he could turn around, and when he turned around he better think about what he’d done. He was a good counter, maybe the best counter of his age in the county, so he got up to six hundred lickety-split. He stopped counting but stayed there, staring at the corner. He’d be damned if he was going to turn around. He didn’t want to think about what he’d done. He didn’t want to see outside the corner, see her come in, spilling herself. He didn’t want to think about what he was going to do.
You wake up to a voice. For a few moments you assume you’ve cried out in your sleep, and that, yes, your own voice was the one jolting you up and away from your pillow. One syllable, like a Ha. But no, it couldn’t have been yours. There’s fear there, but also a rush, an escape from solitude in the stepping out of bed and twisting the halogen knob and squinting in the brightness. Light grabs every inch of this room, the only room, and there’s nothing there. No one. You wonder if you heard another person at all. In moments, you forget about danger and want the Ha back. You belt it out yourself and it’s indistinguishable from the strange. You wonder if your neighbor heard it. You picture dominos. Sound is a sick mirror.
She plays God on the morning announcements. At school, 8:30AM sharp, they pump her over a loudspeaker. She starts every weekday for her teachers and fellow students, except one three-day stretch last February when a cold cramped her voice to a harsh gasp. It was the worst three days she can remember. She warms up for the whole thirty-minute drive to school. She doesn’t say she’s God explicitly because this is a religious part of the world and that would probably make people angry. But God is the character, undoubtedly. And at night, before bed, she pictures her persona. Her God is fair and open. They hand her a script, she can’t really go off it, but it’s her voice detailing the wealth of extracurricular, reminding of birthdays, of mortality, teasing chocolate milk, tacos and pineapple. She orders all their small lives. Her God is the good kind of ugly. Her God lives in a city by the sea, narrow streets winding down, like Europe and the grave.
This house is full of colored water pretending to be liquor. This house has pets and children, but they don’t really exist. This house looks a lot like the house of the person whose job it was to draw this house, or at least that memory but filtered through years of hate, years of avoidance. This house is a chamber for drama. This house is a true tragedy. This is where she’ll take a lot of drinks. This is where he’s going to explode. There is, of course, one wall missing. A wall they will peer through; a wall they will walk beyond.
The story goes: the boy stole all the liquor from the liquor cabinet. And then he threw it down the hill. He was painting a still life of a whiskey bottle and was frustrated, infuriated by the brown liquid and the history of alcoholism in his family. He went into an inventive rage and swept all bottles up in a blanket and flung them into the deep diagonal woods. He might have hit a deer. Deer are like flies in this town, you can’t go many places without running into one. But this boy loved deer so he felt terrible. This showed his empathy for the animal kingdom. His tossing the booze, the impulsive, violent rejection of family genes showed his creative spirit, his revolution. That’s all of what he did in the long lie he told his parents when they returned from the hills and reached for a brandy and were revolted. What he really did was have a party. A party is the least interesting thing a boy can have.
It’s so beautiful, and the thoughts it gives you make your eyes water, you feel like it’s singeing your fingertips. But now there are headlights from the slanted driveway pounding your back and creating a silhouette of you on the wall. A silhouette of you, and you holding it, tight. You can’t hide it in a plant. He’ll ruin it with water while you’re at work. You can’t hide it under your mattress. It’s his mattress too. And you share a closet, and a life. You can’t bury it in the yard. He had to have a dog. You can’t hide
There’s always someone above her. She wakes up staring at the weighed down slats of the bed on top. She waits every night to feel the punctuated pressure of someone ascending the wooden ladder, settling in. Then she can sleep. Once, when she was sure the one above wasn’t home, she climbed cautiously up to get a glimpse. But she was too frightened by this trespass to recline. Something grows with every birthday, as she sits in a chair with three simple pink balloons attached. This is a desire to rise. Her helium voice is her real voice.
The night of the move we wrapped all the furniture in plastic. We glued each book in its place on the shelves. We swept up every little speck of dust and hair and put them in boxes, to return later, to give ourselves something to clean. We picked up the house, as a family, and carried it to the flatbed. We painted the wide load sign ourselves and now we follow it forever.
It’s late in the play place. They finished eating a long time ago. All the wrappers are balled up on their table. Now they’re just still, sitting in silence. Maybe they’re deciding if I’m worth it, or if they’re going to leave me here with the fry smell. Maybe they’re dead from heart attacks. Nah. If I put some effort into hiding, I can maybe fool them that I’m gone, that I’ve been abducted by someone who really wants me. But there aren’t enough bright colored balls in this pit for me to sink into. Shit kids threw them out. I’m not deep enough and I keep trying to swirl more toward myself to cover my neck and face. Probably I could drown in them if I worked hard enough. I can see the headlines.
“You look so hot from the front, but then from the side you just look weird.” With that, he had a body. He’d had a body before that, but it was a simple body, built for pimples and for peeing and everything else. But it wasn’t a real body until it had dimensions, angles. A wonderful side and a corrupt side. This was the Imax body, the body in the world. When you receive a body like this you get a pamphlet of questions. What side of me will they see first? What control do I have over that? Fight for your insides.
I’m going to be a father. I’m going to be a mother. I’m going to be a lawnmower. I’m going to be a homeowner. I’m going to be a lost cat. I’m going to be a roofer. I’m going to be a failure. I’m going to be a sun shower. I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to be a credit cheat. I’m going to be a poster. I’m going to be a complementary beverage. I’m going to be a wonder. I’m going to be a spider’s web. I’m going to be a baby.
You spent your whole prayer praying to be in a story. And now that prayer has been answered. There’s a shape, like a man or woman, grown. It’s emerging from the nightlight, hiding in its glow. You want to believe in it so badly.
Why did they have to tell me I was going to be president someday? Now I’ll never get to sleep. From what I know and what I see is you have to be three things to be president here: 1 a man, 2 old, 3 a rich old man. I was zero on that, but there they still were, giving me hope and keeping me up. Sure I can grab that hope and keep it and think about making a difference. To change all that I’d better be president. Those thoughts are for later. I’ve got other thoughts for bedtime, for now. I’m going to think about how things come around. I’m going to think about hula-hoops and how I can spin one on and on without letting it drop.
What should we have for dinner? I want to kiss you, probably. It’s basically tomorrow, so it’s basically breakfast. To have something, you need to prepare it. My mom and dad used to tell us to leave some olives out with the milk and cookies for Santa. The olives, they said, were for the reindeer. I used to open a box of chocolates and poke a little hole in the bottom of each one so I’d know what was inside. I wasn’t about to leave it up to chance. The olives were for their martinis. I’m at a loss. The aroma makes the house.
There used to be no door, and so I couldn’t lock it. You’d enter any time of day. A broad, accessible bedroom. Then you installed a door with slats, and made a last-minute decision: a little hook-lock. But I wasn’t old enough for isolation. And so I couldn’t lock it, wasn’t allowed. And then, it seemed, once I’d become good and grown and you’d spent time farther away from me, and we had enough distance that you couldn’t hear the subtle clink of hook in circle. I had opportunities to seal myself in. You seemed to sense this adolescent trespass, even out of earshot, and like clockwork you’d knock to check, demanding my presence in the crack of the door, forcing the quietest unlockings on record. And then I got very big and left the room for good and headed out. In this horizon, I install my own locks, and I can break them. I’m a tenured professor of deceit. You made me a lot better than I ever thought.
He brought his work home with him for the first time. He plopped it down on the dining room table, let it sit in the serving dish with the tuna pasta. It mewled and splashed and fought its way out and crawled across the cloth, smearing mayo, and grabbed him by the tie. The tie hadn’t gotten a chance to loosen. “Listen to me,” it groaned. And he listened. It had big plans for them both, likely mad, “Take me to bed, you browbeaten angel, you drone.”
Is a house a liquid asset / Is a house a good investment/ Is a house an asset / Is a house a good investment this year / Is a house an asset or liability / Is a house AC or DC / Is a house centipede harmful / Is a house a place or thing / Is a house personal property / Is a house considered an asset / Is a house a fiction or a science
He heard them all night, every night. Starting at the time he wanted to hear least, the time he wanted to forget about his ears. Around the house, skittering. Living things of all kinds, circling. What he wanted was to be out there, and be one of them, nocturnal. But he realized, after hope, that he was ill-equipped, low on the food chain. And in the morning, he knew, he’d step out into a dew-covered yard to find that a creature of habit had hunted and pounced on and killed a creature of habit.
They put a television in every room of the house. Even the closets had a little bright screen beyond the hanging coats.The content found them, wherever they stepped, slumped or sat. If, at any moment, they couldn’t turn their head and see a glowing rectangle for entertainment, something was wrong. Each family member was glad of this constant. This was a model home, but its purpose wasn’t clear for years. One night the baby disappeared, and reappeared on all the TVs. That’s when they knew they’d birthed a monitor, a miracle.
“Do you want a bedtime story?” “No, Mom.” “No?” “Well, not a book story. Not any of the books.” “Then what?” “I want your story. I want to know what happened to you. I want to know why we had to buy a house like our house. I want to know why there’s nowhere to go up or down. I want to know how you got those extra parts.”
That was the first house she’d ever visited where she could see another part of the house from inside the house. Maria’s, for a playdate. It was in the county, an area she’d never been to before, only through. Maria had someone open the door for her. Maria had made her walk from room to room, each with its own designation, each vast but sparsely furnished. Maria had made a father run from one end of the house to the other, carrying a tray. Maria had made her look at enough chicken wings for an army. Now she was back in her bite-sized house, trying to lean close enough against the one big window to see the siding, the roof. Everything outside the window seemed changed. Was there always a door, standing upright, in the backyard?