Living Room (1969)
The grandmother, Feban, was always an artist. Artist doesn’t sound right. There are too many stigmas with it—of a scene, of being trendy, of wearing hats with dodging peacock feathers and coarse fur shawls made of fox. Feban and her husband arrived to Pittsburgh from Hungary. The couple were neither eager nor not eager about the whole thing. It was what everyone in their class did, moved to America.
In Pittsburgh, Feban’s husband worked in a steel mill while she worked in a candy shop. Pressing down warm caramels with her clean thumb. Placing the hard dots on the tray under the glass in the front where the mothers and children came in to buy sacks of treats. Teenage boys and girls came in together to flirt with one another. The manager allowed this so long as they bought something. A malt-shake, an almond joy. A boy pressed his knee slowly back and forth between the legs of a girl. Near the front corner behind the stand of marzipan, the girl’s head tilted back against the wall. Feban watched it through the glass of the front counter, where she was kneeling on the floor placing the caramels. The girl’s eyes let go, shut. So this is pleasure, Feban thought. The high pitch holler of the manager, an old crow, broke it all up. The children ran out of the store in a loud flock. The bell roped to the door continued to clammer after the door had closed.
Feban painted canvases in the basement after the children went to sleep. She painted other things too, practical like the walls and ornaments and lamps. Her paintings, mostly nature scenes, rested against the basement walls, one against the other. No one in the family ever spoke of her art like you might have imagined, how people talk about artists now. No one was particularly proud of it but no one was embarrassed by it either. It just was.
“Margaret, Margaret, get out of the car he’s dead. Daddy’s dead!” Henry, Feban’s son—almost 19, wailed to his sister, Margaret four years older.
Margaret’s long skirt was stuck in the seat. She began tugging at it, then ripping it all the while this animal sound was coming out of her. Her finance was in the driver’s seat of their new, used car—they had just arrived for a visit. Her father wasn’t even sick. Her finance could not figure out if the proper thing was to get out himself and walk around to help his wife, or to help her from inside of the car. The sound escaping from her was steady and baritone, was horrible.
It was worse inside. Feban’s husband, Margaret and Henry’s father, sitting stonily at the kitchen table with his forehead steady on the white laced cloth. His white collared shirt tucked into khaki pants. Socks but no shoes. Feban was on the ground, pulling herself with her arms as if her legs didn’t work. Her mousey brown hair had come out of its bun. They were all too young then. Margaret’s finance rang the police from the living room phone. Margaret, Henry, and Feban had all fallen on top of each other like a pile of broken statues all over the kitchen floor. The dead man alone at the table. The finance did not know what to do. He stayed with the phone to his ear in the living room after the operator assured him that the ambulance was coming, after the operator had hung up. He pretended she was still on the other end, he was afraid of the kitchen.
Later, Feban took to the task of painting the mural on north wall of the living room before Margaret and her husband had moved in but after Henry had moved out. In the in between time when Feban was alone with the empty rooms. When the emptiness of those rooms felt more present than all of the people in the world.
The mural is the first thing you see when you enter through the front door; it covers the entire wall above the fireplace. It’s a mural of her husband, Peter, dressed in a neat brown suit and a matching hat. He is striding into the deep, green woods. His back is towards the living room, or the people in it– Feban, Margaret, Henry, Margaret’s children, whoever happens to be there and looking. Feban painted Peter there, stopped in the act of leaving everyone behind.
K.C. is six years old and has taken up the habit of considering her younger brother, Sandy, age three, to be one of her play things. She has dressed him up in her tiara and ballet leotard; “Now Sandy you hold the drawer handle if you need to and get on your toes. Like this! Like this,” she claps, doing some strange thing with her feet. Sandy nods, begins to try until K.C. claps interrupting it again. “You aren’t listening correctly Sandy!” Sandy bows his head with his glittering tiara, casting his heavy eyelashes over his eyes and his thick blond bowl cut towards the floor.
Margaret just rolls her eyes at it, though her husband has said a word or two. Concern over K.C. being too controlling, Sandy too puppy dog. Once, when they were out to dinner at the nice restaurant– up on the hill in the late fall with the cold, pregnant pumpkins piled out front and the thick cream window pains– her husband after most a bottle of wine remarked hesitantly, looking both ways and then leaning his chest into the table towards Margaret, “K.C. is a bit of a royal bitch isn’t she?” Margaret laughed so hard four big tears rolled down her cheeks.
But now it doesn’t matter anymore because both K.C. and Sandy are alive and that’s become the new standard priority. Whatever the worse thing going on is, Margaret has realized, that quite suddenly becomes the new ruler of what is Terrible and what is Alright. Her mother’s cancers are the Terrible. Breast cancer and cancer of the gums. Eating her two ways. Everyone is going to die but why make it cruel and ugly for no reason? Just drop when it’s your time, like Peter.
Feban, her mother, said that—not Margaret. It was July and hot, and the two were sitting in the antique dove chairs in Margaret’s bedroom, which was once her parents’ room until Feban had switched to the smaller bedroom downstairs when Margaret’s family had moved in. Margaret wore a dress with small yellow flowers embroidered delicately on the chest. Margaret was still very set on trying her best to make everything nice then, and lovely.
Feban’s holes had just been wrapped in gauze. Pus was already pushing through blooming into damp round spots on the gauze, but this is how it happens every time so they have stopped worrying about it. The veins on her hands, Margaret has admired, look like tree roots breaking through the soil’s surface. Feban and Margaret sit by the bay window there in the master bedroom and split a tumbler of bourbon mixed with lemonade. As soon as Feban has two swallows she asks for a cigarette. Margaret heaves open the heavy bay window for Feban to direct her cigarette smoke.
“These cancers are irritating,” Feban has her eye out the window, “because they’re pointless.”
Sandy and K.C. stay in the corner of the bedroom on the floor with the My Little Ponies spread out. K.C. is deciding which mother horse belongs to which child horse. Sandy is idly twisting his little fingers in the pink tail and looking towards Feban, not saying a thing.
The day Margaret drove her mother to the city for her final surgery, the one that would either help her or kill her. The one that Margaret was against but Feban said, “I am sick of this and I don’t care.” And then Margaret’s eyes broke and she cried, “But I do,” and in an uncharacteristic burst slammed the serving plate onto the kitchen floor. “I’m sorry mom, I’m sorry,” she ushered in a whisper kneeling to collect the shards in the palm of her hand. Feban fanned it all away, “I don’t care about that plate either,” she laughed. The morning of that surgery Margaret and Feban had to leave the house at 5 in the morning. Margaret’s alarm sounded at 3 am. “So early,” she explained to her husband the night before, “because I have so much to do before we leave.”
Sandy saw it first, on his way to wake his father by curling into his bed. Margaret and Feban had left several hours ago. Sandy froze in the hallway and sucked in a swoop of air, he steadied his little body in a t-shirt that went to his knees by reaching out and grasping the wall and then he hollered loud and long for K.C.
There they were. Dozens and dozens of My Little Ponies, some old, but mostly new ones he had never seen before. In a formation beginning at the doorway of the master bedroom, and then leading out into the hallway, and starting down the staircase. Other toys were involved. Barbies and little animal figurines, cheering with their rotated arms positioned into the air. Marbles and jacks snaking through, a thread of gum drops, Starbursts and two big lollipops all dotted along the parade route. When K.C. arrived the two hopped up and down like jumping beans in the hallway in pajamas with unbrushed hair and sleep crust still in the corners of their eyes. There was sunlight tangled in everything.
Earlier that morning when it was still dark outside, Feban in a flowered moo-moo with a beige jacket, set her small brown suitcase on the bottom step of the staircase. Margaret was still on her knees at the top of the stairs placing the last pony, she turned and looked down the stairs at her mother. “They won’t even remember this when they’re older, will they?” Margaret said as she pushed a loose lock of hair back behind her ear. She stood up, ironed her skirt with her hands. Margaret sighed.
Back Porch (1995)
Now the back porch is a bit shoddy, but it’s still vital for Isaac. There is a patio table and chairs with cushions often water logged and a welcome mat pushed against the glass door that leads into the kitchen. This is all part of the addition Margaret and Isaac put on five or so years ago. They imagined parties, grilling kebobs for dinner, planting a proper garden along the edges of the porch. They imagined the glass doors left open. At that point Isaac was more involved in this scene, living outside the city. Not that he ever wanted to live inside the city, it’s just that when those are your two choices, in or out, who is ever happy with “out?”
Isaac started to buy pot from a woman he worked with downtown at the Bank of America branch. At first Isaac wasn’t sure what he was more nervous about being caught with, the weed or the woman. Not that he was doing anything sexual, or wanted to, it was just that he knew he’d have an awful lot of explaining to do with Margaret if he was caught driving to this woman’s house at night when he said he was going to be late at work, for instance. After a few months it was the weed he was caught with first, but now it doesn’t matter anymore. I mean, it does. It matters in some ways. In the way Margaret gets upset after a glass of wine or two. Says he’s lost the will to harbor joy and contentment naturally in life.
“Jesus Margaret,” Isaac will start, “I’m just trying to relax, this is just to relax.” Margaret will sniff her nose and ever so slightly shake her head in that way, as if he’s a bad smell and not her husband, and then he’ll go, “What’s that wine for then?” It’s a lame point because Margaret doesn’t often drink wine, not that he has anything against wine, it’s just that he wants to find a way to plug her up because that whole notion– where her mind goes– makes Isaac so damn uncomfortable. Because really none of this does matter, the house, the money, the addition, it’s all just for providing various background colors to the routines and sameness of their lives. It makes Isaac uncomfortable in his stomach to think this way so he tries to plug Margaret up before his mind has to go there.
But a distance has started. Isaac imagines it like water. A small stream between them, Margaret and Isaac are standing on either sides going about their day-to-day, and as the stream grows into a river, the current makes it harder and harder to cross– and worse, on their separate sides it becomes apparent that Margaret and Isaac can in fact, continue on alone.
Suppose we can continue on any damn way though? People continue on in far shitter situations, that’s for sure. Isaac thinks, inhales deeply– he is sitting up on the wide railing of the porch with his bank against the house, staring out at the grass that leads off into the dark trees. It has just became night. There is a square of light from the kitchen sitting on the porch. They have all eaten dinner. K.C. is upstairs doing homework, Sandy playing in the basement, Margaret doing something quiet. Or not.
“If you’re so curious, go out and ask your daddy what’s he doing then K.C.” Margaret says in a loud, stern voice. Isaac quickly stabs the joint on the wood railing. He keeps pressing at it a few moments too long and curses when he realizes he probably won’t be able to scrub the black circle off the railing later. Isaac tosses the joint in the grass fanning air. Does K.C. know what pot smells like yet, at 16? Probably, is he nuts? He’ll say a skunk. It does actually sort of… What the hell is Margaret doing, yelling like that? Doing this? In their mental separation, which they’ve never actually addressed but in Isaac’s mind it is definitely a thing, something has definitely separated between them, Isaac had assumed some sort of understanding was silently established between them– and this was part of it, these 30 minutes of the after-family-dinner day, he understood was a secure time for him. And from 6 in the morning until 6:30 am he would never let anyone interrupt her doing whatever she does in the bathroom. Isaac could have sworn this was a silent agreement.
He probably should have put more stock into the idea that the kids would eventually catch him. He really only schemed for Margaret, before she caught him he had most of what he’d say rehearsed. Why didn’t he consider the kids? Sandy’s too young and K.C. is just too damn good. Even if she had an inclination Isaac didn’t read her as the type to confront him. She still calls him Daddy for Christ’s sake. When they are watching television she’ll put her head on his leg and fall asleep. Will the skunk thing work? He could start off with it, pretend like he just saw it scamper into the trees. A family! He saw two baby skunks and their mother! It was adorable! He was about to call the kids to come outside to look at the adorable family of skunks, but– but he was nervous. Rabies! Are skunks supposed to be nocturnal or… wait, what’s the opposite of nocturnal?
“Daddy,” K.C. says as she slides open the glass door. She steps outside and closes the door behind her. She is in her pajamas with bare feet, her hair is wet and brushed from a shower. He can actually smell her cleanliness. Isaac could die.
“I know you smoke marijuana out here,” she says, leaning her back against the glass door and sliding down it until she reaches the Welcome Mat. She wraps her arms around her knees and stares off at the backyard. Isaac could die.
“Why do you do it?” she asks, not turning to look at him.
“It relaxes me, K.C. In the way wine relaxes some people, or yoga, it just relaxes me after a long day at work.”
He was telling her the same thing he told Margaret. The thing he thinks is mostly true, but he is not sure if it’s all of the way true.
“If I were you I’d probably do yoga instead, Daddy. Then you could relax while you lost some of your belly.”
“My belly,” he said, putting a hand on his small, but slightly protruding midsection, “I wouldn’t give up this guy for the world.”
K.C. giggled in spite of herself but her eyes stayed on the trees in the woods. Isaac looked down at the black stain he had made on the railing with his joint. He wiped at it with his thumb. He was right, it wasn’t going to come off.
First Floor Bedroom (1999)
Sandy is standing squarely on the center of garage roof facing the back trees. The moon is out and is big and full. Sandy’s arms are outstretched on either side and his palms, stained with the scribbling of a phone number and a forget-me-not, face the sky. He keeps his head hanging low with his thick blonde hair falling over his eyes. For a moment he holds his eyes closed and then pushes his hair back and he runs.
“For Freedom!” He screams like Braveheart and is off the roof. He pulls his knees into his chest as he careens through all that tepid suburban night air and, to Kate watching from the lawn, this moment seems to last for an extraordinarily long time. She swallows a big gulp of her water and it goes down her throat squarely like a rock. Sandy hits the trampoline and it shoots him hard onto the grass. A small tear rolls down one of Kate’s cheeks, from that big swallow of water.
Sandy does two fast front rolls and then the momentum turns off. He lays on his back giggling, arms and legs spread out like a starfish.
“That hurt,” he laughs in that horsed way, the way he’s always laughed.
“You are giving me heart attacks, Sandy,” Kate says, walking slowly in her bare feet to his body. She stands over him looking down. Perspiration from her water glass drips onto his neck.
Kate lives across the street. She is sixteen, one year younger than Sandy. They are best friends when they are at home but when they are at school they mostly ignore each other. Not in a rude way, Sandy says what-up in the hallway, Kate will do some sort of half wave that just comes off as awkward. She is a grade lower. Sandy is friends with people who spray paint their backpacks and sometimes do acid on the weekends. Kate is friends with girls who have sleepovers and gossip. It’s just different. That, and Kate likes the separation. She likes having the two distinct compartments. It allows her to take high school and all those politics less seriously. Because she doesn’t consider that the part of the day that really counts. This counts. This time with Sandy.
Kate is worried though that someday Sandy will stop. That he’ll get really into his school friends and then he’ll realize that he doesn’t need to hangout with his neighbor. Last year Kate’s mother said, “What will you do when Sandy gets too old for all this?” She said that after Kate and Sandy had put Mrs. Albertson’s plastic geese in the neighbor’s trees. Kate’s parents were angry at her about that, but Sandy’s parents didn’t care. They weren’t as involved in things. For the last year Sandy’s mom had been traveling a lot for work. And it was easier to get away with things with his dad, who was there but never really seemed to be paying any attention.
Kate’s mom had told Kate what she thought was going on there, said that she didn’t think it all added up how much Margaret had been away this year. Kate mostly ignored it, told her mom to mind her own business and then Kate would storm off somewhere.
First Sandy found out, by accident, and then a few weeks later Margaret told Isaac, that it was true. There was someone else and she had been involved with him for over a year and she thought she may love him. She said that she did not understand how Isaac hadn’t figured it out. That she had left clues all over, purposefully. That their relationship had dried out years ago and she was still a human and was still entitled to feel things, to not dry up. And how hadn’t he taken up with someone, she began to accuse him. Thereby having effectively turned the tables. And Isaac stood there, open mouthed and unbelieving and then he started to realize that, Oh, this is what this feels like.
Kate imagined the news, hitting Sandy and Isaac, and then she assumed someone must have called K.C. safe and away to college to tell her. Kate imagined it like this: Margaret was the bow and the other man was the arrow. The bow pulled back and then the arrow shot Sandy, and then Isaac, and then K.C. And one person fell after the next.
It was at this point when Kate took to the responsibility of repeatedly saving Sandy.
Sandy’s bedroom was on the first floor and years ago Sandy and Kate had whittled off the lock on the side window with a screw driver. Effecting that window as the place they both came and went as they pleased, not having to go by anyone. A person was able to stand on the back porch railing, shove open the window and, holding the wall, step, or at least fall, into the room. Sandy and Kate had used this as their main entrance for years. But now it had become Kate’s only route to check-in on Sandy.
There was a nervousness that overcame Kate when she would take that step through the window, holding her breath and shaking like a weak thing. She had found Sandy in all sorts of sad positions over the last few months. Drunk off whiskey he stole from his parents, sleeping on his back in his boxers on the floor. Once she saw blood on the floor, smeared around between the slabs, she followed it to Sandy’s arm, he was passed out naked in his bed. Bloodied sewing scissors on the pillow. Kate straddled him and shook at him hard, harder than she had to because she both was angry and scared. Mostly angry. Kate was becoming increasingly angry during this period. Sandy stirred, his eyes opened into two slits and he yelled, “Get the hell off me!” he gripped the scissors. Kate did not move from where she was, over his torso with her hands gripped to his shoulders. Sandy processed who she was then, what was happening. Kate saw it in his eyes like a xerox light scanning one side of the copy to the other. He dropped the scissors and his face cracked up. Ugly, heavy sobs heaving out of him. Kate fell with the entire weight of her body onto his chest, and she rose up and down with his jerking wails, one wave breaking and the next.
And then one night, Sandy’s bedroom was empty. It was Friday, it was the first week of summer vacation. At this point Margaret had moved out. Isaac was like an aloof ghost when he was home. Sweeping quietly and seldomly from one room to the next.
Sandy’s bedroom door was open and Kate walked through it into the kitchen, the lights were turned off. The dishwasher was on and humming. There was a square of light settled in the front hallway, Kate followed it. She stopped there and looked through the entryway into the living room. She saw the backs of Sandy and Isaac’s heads leaning against the couch which faced the fireplace. They were discussing the mural.
“Why did Grandma paint him leaving her behind? You know, she could have just done a portrait.” Sandy says, bringing a glass to his lips and drinking from it.
“I’m—I’m not sure. We never really asked her about it, directly. It seemed too personal or,” Isaac paused. Kate watched Isaac reach up to rub his own shoulder with his hand. “Or something.”
There was one lamp on which sat by the staircase, it was the only light turned on in the house. The shadows that cast were long.
“I never really knew him, your Grandfather,” Isaac went, took a sip from his glass. Then he rested it on the coffee table. “The only time I met him, actually, was when he was dead.
“But your Grandmother, she was a fire cracker,” Isaac started up. “You know she drank whiskey until the day she died—”
By this point Kate was gone. She had let herself out of Sandy’s broken window. She was running across the dark street to her house, outside in that tepid summer suburban night air, her windows all folded in warm yellow light.
Feban and Peter are sitting at the kitchen table smoking cigarettes. It’s late autumn and Feban is half listening to the branches beat against the house with the wind. It is evening and inside it’s mostly quiet. Feban and Peter are figuring taxes together. Feban is better at English than Peter, but Peter is better at math. So Feban will read the statement, and Peter will figure out the numbers. Over and over, they keep passing the tax form back and forth between them. Ashing their cigarettes occasionally.
Feban picks up Peter’s glasses, which are for distance, from the table where they are set. “Do I look silly?” She asks with a wide smile pushing them up her nose.
Before Peter can respond he sees Feban’s face, overcome in worry, the color quickly running out of her cheeks. He turns behind him to where she is facing. And then he sees it.
A red fox in the kitchen. Peter’s head slightly relaxes to the side in bewilderment. The fox is standing below the back window against the row of wide leafed green house plants. A cold, long breeze blows in from the opened back door. It carries a low, sad whistle through the kitchen.
Feban quietly hands Peter his glasses, which he pushes on and continues to stare. “Marvelous,” he says in a hush, in Hungarian. The red fox keeps sniffing her black nose into the house plants.
This thing with the fox, it must only be a minute before Peter stands up, begins to clap loudly to get her out the back door, but to Feban it feels much longer. It feels much longer as Feban and Peter stay put, watching as the fox extends her front paws against the kitchen wall below the window and begins to scratch at it, leaving long thin grooved lines in the wall. The scratches sound like short, repeated moans. “Will you please let me out of here? Will you please?” Feban imagines the fox asking the wall. It feels much longer, this time in between, the time it takes for Peter and Feban to move.
When Peter shoos the fox out the door, she runs through the grass, Feban and Peter watch. When the fox reaches the edge of the dark tangle of woods she pauses but the animal does not look back.