Joyland

The South |

The House Breathes

by Brandi Wells

Crim has not seen her mother or father in a few weeks. Sometimes she hears them, shuffling in another room, or outside working on the house, but when she rushes to see, there’s nothing. A gutter hangs half attached to the house and swings in nonexistent wind, clapping against the siding, ringing out tinny and hollow. She fights the urge to get a ladder, climb up to that side of the house and hammer the gutter back into place. She’s seen her father make the repair a dozen times. She could swing the hammer and shape the aluminum gutter, but she worries that if she begins to make necessary repairs, she will render her parents useless. There’ll be no reason for them to come back and she’s waiting on them to come back. She climbs into bed every night and hopes that when she wakes, it’ll be to her mother and father inhabiting the space of the house, taking up room, and making their presences known. She falls asleep thinking about the buzz her father’s coffee pot will make in the morning, the little ding of the timer and the almost inaudible humming echo of it.

When Crim wakes, she keeps her eyes shut tight for a long time, because with her eyes closed she can hear her parents, hear them moving and talking. She can hear the way their weight affects the floor, can hear the boards creaking, the wood bending as it cracks and splinters. She can hear her mother’s untied shoelaces clicking against the floor. She can hear her father drag his hand across the wall, leaving behind prints and grease that her mother will fuss over. She can hear her mother’s finger flick the light switch. A simple click and then the whirr of electricity, the warm current emanating from overhead. Crim can hear their weight settle into chairs and those chairs grind against the floor. She can hear the seal of the refrigerator give way when someone opens the door. She can hear the cap unscrew itself from the milk jug and then the swish of liquid, followed by the splash of it. She worries about what will happen when she opens her eyes. She dreads her parents’ absence, dreads living in the house alone with Sal, ever-present and oppressive, as her only companion.

Crim doesn’t miss or need her parents exactly. Not them specifically. But she doesn’t want to inhabit an empty space, because in an empty space there is room for Sal. When her parents were home, her house contained a household with parts that made sense. Father + mother + daughter. This was the formula. Sal could visit. Daughter’s boyfriend or daughter’s friend. But that was all. He was a visitor. But if it’s just Crim in the house, there is no household. She is alone and easily the household can become Crim + Sal. She doesn’t want this. She doesn’t want to be forcibly defined in this way.

She wonders if Sal is making all the house’s noises. Can Sal walk through the house, pressing the floorboards with his feet, applying the same pressure her father used to? Can Sal recreate the sound of her mother’s voice, that little lilt, that near-mumble that indicates that no, Crim’s mother is not fully there, is not listening, and she is just making sounds and hoping that you’ll expend the effort to shape those sounds into meaningful words that will fit into the conversation you are trying to have? Can Sal manage this? Such randomized gibberish seems difficult to imitate, like a doctor’s sloppy signature. How can Sal possibly loop the l correctly or dash the i at exactly the right angle, at the correct speed, with the correct amount of pressure? Can he bend his body this way, bend his body to imitate so carefully? Crim wonders if the scraping of the kitchen chairs across the tile is only Sal. Only ever Sal. She can’t be sure she even remembers what her parents sounded like. Perhaps she only knows what Sal sounds like. These are the only sounds she has.

Crim tries to picture her parents. Her mother sitting at the kitchen table, her father bustling about, making plans, shutting cabinet doors too hard so that Crim’s mother flinches, but doesn’t say anything or look up. She’s appears absorbed in whatever she’s doing, smiling while she does it, perpetually happy but not exactly grounded in the same environment or reality that Crim lives in. Crim wondered how a person can smile so much, but also pay such little attention to anything going on around them. The correlation makes sense to her years later, but at the time, it confuses her. Crim once slammed her hand in the front door and mostly severed the pinky and ring finger on her right hand. She turned, walked into the kitchen and stood bleeding in front of her mother while her mother just sat there, not doing anything in particular, not eating or reading. Just sat there. Her mother’s eyes were glazed over. She finally noticed Crim once Crim dropped to the floor, too dizzy, too shocked to keep her feet beneath her. Her skin was so pale it was nearly see-through, her mother told her later. I could see each of your veins, all the little twists and branches, she said. Crim still has a scar there, but they managed to reattach the fingers and she regained full use of them. She wonders if she can blame her clumsiness on those two fingers. What sort of grip would she have had without that accident?

Crim tries to think about her parents but their faces have gone hazy. She can’t be sure that she remembers their features, their sizes or shapes. Did her mothers’ shoulders slope downward? Maybe that was just some of the time. Maybe it was a posture thing. Maybe Crim doesn’t remember her mother’s shoulders like that at all. Her mother may have had extremely pronounced shoulders, jutting out at clean right angles, so sharp that she could only sustain such a shape by use of shoulder pads. Crim can’t remember if there were shoulder pads. And how did Crim’s father hold his arms? Did they swing wide, away from his body, or did he hold them close, even when he was walking? Were his arms thin? Were they meaty arms, strangely meaty for a slight man? How did Crim’s parents move their hands? Were either of them prone to gesturing? Did they ball their fists as they talked? Crim can’t picture their fingernails or teeth. Aren’t these things she should remember, having seen them daily, several times a day, dozens of times a day for her entire life? Shouldn’t she know if their arms are freckled or if their second toes are longer than their big toes? Shouldn’t she have an idea what their eyebrows look like? Does her mother over pluck hers? Does her father trim his so he’ll look less burly? A slight unibrow, but each hair neatly trimmed so it never curls? She has no idea. It’s too late to know now. She can only create various versions of them that she holds behind her eyelids.

If she lies in bed too long, Sal comes and stands beside her. Wake up, Sal says. Crim tries to lie still and even out her breathing. She tries to keep her eyes shut, but not shut so tightly that Sal can see her effort and have proof that she is awake. She can feel herself start to sweat and she tries to relax her muscles. Unclench, unclench, unclench, she thinks. She tries to zone out, tries to think of anything else. She feels like she’s pretty convincing. She’s gotten good at pretending to be asleep. Sal shakes her though, grabs her roughly by her arms and then her throat and it jars her so she can feel it through her whole body. Her ankles make a snapping sound and it feels like her feet might come right off. Why does it hurt my ankles so much? she thinks and she suspects if he could shake her feet off her body, that it would feel better than this. Wake up, he says again. And she sits up, because there’s no reason to keep suffering. Sal is persistent and convincing.

Sal tells her they should go outside and try to fix the house. He tells her the house looks like it’s falling apart. He tells her he’ll wait for her in the yard.

She tries to say no, but he slips out before she can speak. The room feels oppressive now, feels like it’s bearing down, tightening, constricting. The walls bend in and the ceiling sinks.

Since her parents have been gone, the house has been looking unfamiliar. She thought she knew all the rooms but sometimes she walks into a room and it doesn’t look familiar at all. It’s the wrong shape or size. Or there’s a room in a completely unexpected place, a place where there was no room before, a place where there was no door or window, but then suddenly a room. And then later when she goes back to check, the room is gone. No trace of it. Even if she runs through the house as quickly as she can, from room to room to room, it still rearranges itself. Rooms swell and shrink. Rooms rearrange. There’s no way to navigate it. She runs into walls and her arms and legs are constantly bruised or welted. Sometimes she bruises a welt. Even if she moves slowly, carefully, the house changes so quickly that she still hits a wall or a rogue piece of furniture. There’s no stopping it. The only thing that seems to stop it is Sal.

Sal has a grip on things. Sal sees the world in a more manageable way. She has tried to talk to him about it, but she couldn’t string her words into sensible sentences and Sal didn’t have any patience for a stutter. She has also tried to talk to Sal about the wild animals, but he ignores her, tells her she doesn’t make any sense. At first it’s just rats, and those worry her because she is afraid of rats, but at least rats they don’t feel that strange, because she certainly isn’t keeping the house clean. But then larger things creep in. Bunnies, squirrels, and the occasional raccoon or possum. Things she’d consider pests. She checks and cannot locate any holes in the house, though she knows this doesn’t mean anything, not when the house is always changing and disorienting her, moving itself and therefore moving her. The animals keep coming and she tries to get used to them. She’s heard of pet bunnies or even pet squirrels, so still it is manageable.

But then there are a few chickens, which strikes her as odd, because she’s never seen a chicken before, not up close. This isn’t the kind of place chickens live. She imagines they stay out in the country. There must be ordinances about having farm animals in town. These chickens don’t seem right. She’s only seen pictures of chickens or sometimes chickens in movies, but still, these chickens don’t seem right. These chickens move differently than she imagines a chicken should move. They are fast and jerky. Their bodies blur with the room. There’s no way to tell what’s a stationary object and what’s a chicken. The whole room is coming to life with the chickens and the chickens are getting jerkier and jerkier, less alive. They are fuzzy and hard to see. She tries to touch one and her hand goes blurry. Many of the chickens quit moving entirely and then there’s just a shuddering of the bookcase, an unsettling of the floor, like it might peel up. There’s something strangely animated in the way the objects begin to skitter about the house. Crim has to shake herself, pat her face, do something to jar her vision, so she can realign. So she can distinguish a living entity from a nonliving entity. It’s always been hard to do, she thinks.

Crim, Sal yells. Come outside.

Crim turns to go outside, but the door has moved itself. The door isn’t a door. It’s just wall and the wall’s moving itself further and further away from Crim.

I’m coming, she calls out to the wall.

Sal opens the bedroom door, now oddly situated beneath her, and pulls her outside, knocking her elbows against the door’s frame. She clings to him and he drags her across the yard and points up at the roof. The gutters, he says.

Sal props a ladder against the side of the house and Crim climbs up, carrying a hammer under her arm. If she drops the hammer, it will probably hit her leg on the way down and leave a huge bruise or welt, but it’d be difficult to tell because her body is so banged up. Her mother used to really get on her about her clumsiness. Sometimes she’d yell and that made Crim nervous and clumsier. Crim could never really keep things straight, dropping things, hurting herself. Her body felt, at least to her, poorly put together.

Steady, Sal calls out.

Okay, Crim says and she pushes the crinkled aluminum back into position and hooks it onto the guide that wraps around the roof’s edge. Then she hammers it into place, shaping and reshaping it until it looks like a gutter again. Okay, Crim says. It feels unmanageable, because she finds the aluminum is moldable, easy to change. If she over-corrects, she can hammer it back the other way and fix it. The house lives.

But now, outside, the house is motionless. Sal stands below and shouts at her to keep going. Crim’s hands shake. She presses one hand in the other, willing her body to correct itself, to reshape itself. Her hands shake. Her hands shake.