For Sale by Owner
There you are. Come right in. Don’t worry about taking off your shoes; it’s just a habit of mine of long standing. No, you’re right on time. I like that.
This is the living room, obviously. Against this wall stood the HiFi; Ellen and I used to strum along on badminton racquets to ” I Love You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” The couch was along this wall and we used to haul one end of the coffee table up onto the couch and slide down it when our parents were still sleeping on Saturday mornings or when they were at bridge club and we could convince the babysitter that our mom and dad always let us do that. There was an end table on this side of the couch, where Mom left a cigarette burning in an ashtray one day and went to the kitchen to stir the chili or something and I took a big old drag on her Virginia Slim and fell to the floor in a fit of coughing. Mom suddenly reappeared above me and asked if I’d tried to smoke. That woman could see through walls.
The recliner was over here–big, blue, and nubbly–and we squeezed into it, Ellen and I, to watch “The Birds” on TV with our arms over our heads to keep the pigeons out of our hair. The piano was over there; I can still hear the kitchen timer ticking beneath Au Clair de la Lune and Clementi sonatas. We used to put the Christmas tree right next to it, even after the cat climbed it one year and brought it down on the piano bench and spilled the water from the stand all over the backboard and right leg.
Through here is the full bath and master bedroom. This little hallway was the scene of parenting lessons in picking battles and then abandoning them–e.g. my mom insisting we wash the walls before my grandparents’ visit and me arguing the whole concept of hierarchy with her from first principles. Sitting on this toilet, I felt the great pathos of Robert E. Lee’s life. I finished his biography and cried, cried real tears for his dilemma. Over there, on the edge of the tub, I was tortured, needlessly I might add, for the sake of beauty, my scalp practically lifted from my skull by the fierce combing my mother put through my newly washed and horrifically tangled hair. Tortured for beauty without ever attaining it. The master bedroom, small, I know, but the scene of several minor crimes: a piggy bank was smashed here by unknown teenaged criminals; a diaper pin was wielded inexpertly by ten-year-old me and jabbed into a little baby’s hip meat. I admit it. The closet in here looks small, but is deceptively deep. It still holds the impress of my mom’s white cloth coat with beaver collar, the faint hint of her perfume. I used to hide in here among the silks and wools, to breathe in adulthood.
Now the kitchen is a little narrow but well laid out, improved by several clever designs of my dad’s: this sliding door pantry where we kept the one box of Lucky Charms we persuaded my dad to buy us, and then refused to eat for about a year until he forced us to finish off the rubbery little green marshmallow bits. This countertop can flip down for more space, flip up as a breakfast nook. And here is the pass-through for dishes from the dining room, which is, as you can see, the best room in the house. The scene of Solomon-like wisdom from my dad: when there was leftover pie or cake to be shared, he decreed, “One cuts, the other chooses.” I believe I can still faithfully bisect any dessert item put before me. Which reminds me, would you like a slice of this pumpkin bread? Okay, maybe later.
The basement’s next, down these stairs, the slats here through which I watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, not really knowing why everyone wanted me to pay attention to them. Smelled like teen psychosis to me. This curtain covers a closet full of shelves that we stocked with games and toys, multi-cultural picture bingo, etc., but of course, you can store anything you like there. We had a massive desk right here, never ever used as a desk that I can remember. The drawers were full of tax receipts and jars of nails and screws and we only ever sat at it to play school. Which we tired of in five minutes. Too much like our own paltry reality to be much fun, I guess. We did set up a steeper slide here using well-varnished shelving boards, though how exactly we anchored them at the bottom, I can’t remember. I ate a whole box of crackers sitting right there. And once I was watching TV down here, got cold and pulled a blanket over me, then without thinking about it really, took off all my clothes and just luxuriated in the warmth and sensual feeling of the blanket on my bare skin. The cleaning lady, Mrs. Gallagher, must have seen me and told my mom, because Mom came down and asked me what I was doing, told me I shouldn’t do it any more whatever it was, and explained that good girls didn’t do that. I suppose a different child would have been shamed or frightened into taking on some measure of guilt, but I felt curiously detached. Somehow I knew that my innocent pleasure was more of a problem for them than for me, more of a problem for Mrs. Gallagher than for my mom. Her protests seemed pro forma to me. We used to bang on the side of the big old black and white TV to get better reception. We thought it helped at the time. Maybe not.
Through here is the laundry room, which will forever be associated with the day I got my period. I think I must have felt that first little scratching scraping discomfort, like being pulled at with a crochet hook deep inside you, right here in front of the dryer and then maybe an hour later discovering that first teaspoonful of rusty brown effluent on my underwear. I wasn’t happy about it. I was eleven and pretty ticked off that not only did I have to be a woman, which seemed boring and pointless to me, passive and froufrou and icky, but this physical disability, this leakage of my physical power was going to both weaken me and be messy to clean up. And every month. Every month. No fair. I was going to have to walk around really carefully, FROM NOW ON, trying not to bleed onto everything. Well, I didn’t agree, but I wasn’t consulted. Again.
This way to the bomb shelter. Yup, I guess the contractor in the late 40s put these little concrete-reinforced bunker rooms into a lot of the houses in this GI bill tract. We came down here when there were tornado warnings, once with a full bowl of popcorn that we polished off way before the all-clear siren sounded. I remember these shelves being lined with homemade canned goods from my grandma. Peaches, tomatoes, pickles, jam. Let’s go back upstairs, shall we?
Here is the door to the garage. Pretty basic. Along these unfinished walls we stored our lawn tools, rakes and such, and here I kept milk cartons full of rocks. My collection. I was standing right here one Saturday afternoon when my sister came through that door, shouting back over her shoulder at my dad. He had been telling her for the third time to get going on some job she was supposed to do and I watched him as she kept talking back, watched his facial expression click past annoyance into anger and then fury as she just kept razoring into him with weapon words like “stupid” and “pointless” until he came after her, grabbed one of her arms and started paddling her behind. She was shocked. She couldn’t believe it! I felt a warm glow of vindication. I too had often had that reaction to her all-too-ready “wit,” if it could be called that. I guess she believed that old chestnut, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” She had no occasion to find out how words hurt, since I could not wield my tongue as she did. I, however, had often been moved to kick her smartly in the shins to get her to shut up, because asking her to didn’t work. Ever. My vindication consisted of finding out I wasn’t the only one who found her mouth infuriating at times. Good. I had thought it was some kind of flaw in my character, something we were encouraged to continually examine in Catholic grade school.
Let’s go this way and back in through the front door. Here on these steps, the teenaged boy my parents volunteered to take in when he was having problems at home used to sit and smoke with his friends and flick the butts into the hydrangeas. My mom hated that. Now this door, obviously, leads upstairs. It was on these carpeted stairs that I realized I had told my first lie. My grandmother had given me a kiss good night and told me to say my prayers and like the good little people-pleaser they were all hoping I’d become, I said, “Yes. I will.” On the steps here it flashed into my mind for the first time that 1) I never prayed, I only repeated words by rote when forced to socially; 2) I had no intention of starting; 3) I did not feel the least bit of guilt or shame about it; and 4) I had no intention of telling anyone about this. And I didn’t. Not until they sent me off to confirmation class. First hint that I was not going to be telling people what they wanted to hear. But you know that already, don’t you? You’ve long been wondering about square footage, plumbing and when the roof was last replaced. We’ll get there. Bear with me.
Also on these steps, Ellen and I used to creep down entirely silently, open the door a crack and try to watch TV after our bedtime, but somehow–we were mystified by this–after one minute of triumph (we’d done it!), my dad would say firmly from the recliner, “Kathy, Ellen, back to bed.” All without turning around. How did he do it? we wondered. These stairs didn’t creak any less in those days. Perhaps rather more.
Two bedrooms up here. The one on the left was the guest bedroom and the crib was in there when my second little sister came along. Then when the teenager came to stay with us for a few months, he was in here. We loved Tim. He was great. We’d never had a big brother and he was tall and strong and taught us how to shuffle cards like card sharks. An excellent older brother. He would babysit us, let us dangle from his biceps, make us bacon and egg sandwiches which we dipped in ketchup, much to my mother’s horror. How déclassé to drench anything in ketchup! One night he asked me to come in here and lay down on his bed and he put the pillow over my eyes and told me to wait. I did. What new trick would he delight me with this time? He asked me to open my mouth, so I did. He put something soft and slightly rubbery in my mouth. It had no taste. I was a little mystified. What was this about? He took it out again and told me to stay still, to leave the pillow over my eyes. And why would I doubt him? A minute or two later, he took the pillow away and said, Off you go.
Much, much later we found out what kinds of problems he was having with his dad at home. His mom had recently died, his father was distraught, and to top it all off he was extremely dyslexic and thought he was stupid. He couldn’t read even a McDonald’s menu as we stood in line. He’d ask us what we were going to have and then extrapolate. Poor guy. He joined the navy and went to Vietnam, but wasn’t traumatized, as far as I know.
I wonder if my own capacity for compassion was begun by that experience. Not right away, of course, but later, when I finally figured out what he had wanted. When I understood better the urges that could make a person try something so outlandish. But the point is, he couldn’t go through with it, could he? Not enough anger, not enough desire to use me as an object. The poor guy.
No way I could really help him with his problem. Not then. Ah, well–and . . .
Down here is the half-bath, where I added to my sins by swearing I had washed my hands after using the toilet when I had done nothing of the kind. The bedroom here is the one I shared with Ellen, first also sharing a double bed and trying to gouge each other’s shins quite inexpertly, once even using a purple crayon to mark her side of the bed from mine on the bottom sheet. Didn’t work. Later we got twin beds. When Tim was staying with us, Olivia’s crib was squeezed in here too and we kept her awake, asking her to pronounce words she couldn’t say and giggling ourselves weak. “Ice Blue Secret!” we’d say. “Ice Blue Shriek-it!” she’d say. We’d dissolve in more giggles. She was a screamer, Olivia, but trainable and much more interesting than a dog or cat. Here’s where we used to set up a TV tray as a little altar and play mass. Ellen especially loved being the priest. Figures, since she was the theatrical one even then. We had some shelves attached to the wall here, for a few books, but dolls and knickknacks took up most of the space. I remember reading through the six volumes of an abridged kids’ encyclopedia, including–most interestingly for me–a parenting guide in the last volume, the black one, which made it seem doubly serious. So you might be able to understand why people behaved so bizarrely, lashed out at people they clearly loved, scolded them for doing exactly what they also did sometimes. This could be understood and analyzed, not just endured dumbly. I was relieved and energized. It could be done. I read on.
There’s quite a large closet here, large enough for us to play happily sitting on the floor, our school uniforms hanging above our heads as we tried to sew tiny garments for trolls and other dolls. Here is where our Barbies suffered torture and dismemberment, their heads torn off to get their evening dresses on, our frustration with their stiff legs ending in dented-in boobs. Ah, well. Beauty can be a curse, even for Barbie.
We so wanted this trap door to the crawlspace to be a magic portal to secret and occult worlds, but hey, it was all two-by-fours and asbestos insulation in there, hot and stuffy, with nails poking up threateningly from the wood. Our imaginations were far stronger than the reality around us, which continued mundane despite our heroic efforts.
This door I hid behind to scare Ellen. She tried to do the same to me, but I always saw her toe or heard her breathing, so she’d jump out shouting, “Boo!” and I’d calmly say, “Oh, Ellen, I didn’t see you there. What was it you wanted?” I’d bide my time until she’d forgotten that and I’d lie in wait for her, leap out with my mega-boo and she’d freak out. It was too easy. Before I had to, I decided to stop shooting that particular fish in a barrel. I found out the only way to stop a quid pro quo like that was to bow out unrequited. That I learned in this very room. Probably infuriated her. Ellen, I mean. I stopped playing that game when maybe she wanted to continue. I don’t know. I didn’t ask her or give her a choice, really.
Also over here, standing right here where the old carpet had a paisley-shaped swirl of glue on it, I decided not to keep calling Olivia Ollie. She hated it. Whenever we said it, Ollie, with an intonation both teasing and malicious, she would fly at us and her little fists would try to get at us. Ellen and I both did this. But just here, I suddenly had the thought, she doesn’t like it, what does it cost you to call her Livy, which she does like? And that was it. No more Ollie. What we said hurt her. How could we continue when we’d learned that? She was our little sister whom we loved 90 % of the time, why torture her like that? And just like that, whatever strange pleasure you get from being the teaser, even if you absolutely hate being teased, evaporated.
From this window we shouted down to the Paulson boys as they mowed their lawn, evenings in early summer where we were sent to bed before the sun had set. They always waved; they never shouted back. Watch your head. These dormer ceilings can be treacherous until you get used to them.
Shall we go down? I can show you the backyard if you’d like, if you’re interested. Fenced, a sandbox built by my dad. I hope you’re interested. You seem just the type of person I could imagine selling it to. You’re not planning to flip it, are you? As if that’s possible in this market. You’re probably wondering why we’ve held on to it this long. Good question. Although we moved out long ago, my siblings wouldn’t agree, as if selling it would strip them of their childhood memories. At first I didn’t realize that was what was staying their hands, but once I did, it became easier to convince them. How could anyone forget this stuff? It is not just in the photos, or the old toys, or in these rooms. Each of us is built of these memories, our very sinews and tissues contain the past and can instantly recall us to it. It’s all up here, right between the ears. You can’t sell off a section of your brain for the storage of other people’s memories, can you? I think we have to release the house to allow new memories to be formed here. The palimpsest of ours will continue sub rosa.
They might have been thinking that if they kept the house in the family, they could store their memories here and not have to go through them one by one, choosing which ones to save, which to toss. Which to incorporate fully into who they are, which to listen to as they take care of their own children. I don’t know. As if the hard job of remembering and sorting through your own history for who you could be will be spared them if they can always visit the scene of the crimes.
Here next to this fence is where I chased Ellen with a worm and told her I’d make her eat it. I didn’t. Here by the lilies of the valley is where Ellen caught our tomcat with a chipmunk in his jaws and hit him repeatedly on the head until he released the scared little thing. Bartholomew’s eyes were helpless with betrayal. Here in this opening under the lilacs we took off our shirts and traced circles around each other’s proto-boobs and wondered what form physical love took. We didn’t know. We had no idea. We were so lucky not to be forced to find out before we wanted it.
I do not love this house the way my siblings claim to. They didn’t want to move out. They cannot seem to let go of anything. Lucky for you, you didn’t see the scrum at the yard sale. “You’re selling that bride doll?” But strangely they can’t remember anything until physically stimulated by objects. It’s a strange species of sentimentality that rejects the notion of ever being able to change, to move on, to develop into an adult. Too reminiscent of that truism some people write in each other’s yearbooks: “Stay as sweet as you are! Don’t ever change!” Who would ever wish that on another?
But the beloved old dog has got to go. Is it sad when you have to make the decision to put the old dog down? Or is it a relief?
[BIO]: Julie lives in St. Paul, MN.