A Childhood Memory.
There was a rustling sound as her father smoothed the sheets at the edge of the bed in order to make a place for her to sit. The girl crossed the room and settled in the space by his side. With his large hand, her father smoothed his thinning gray hair, and then rubbed his face. In those years of long nights filled with the sounds of angry voices and the tussle of bodies, he was her touchstone and usually the saner of the two adults living in the house. In those years, his presence offered her a strange kind of comfort. Perhaps it was his consistency, his predictability in the unpredictable world within the walls of 1127 North La Cienega. The girl whispered, "Good morning," and her father answered with raised eyebrows and a lift of his chin, non-verbal language that both acknowledged her greeting and dismissed her in the same gesture.
With this dismissal, the girl headed through the door and down the hallway to the stairs. It was then, surprised, she noticed her mother, still in her nightclothes, struggling with the pictures on the wall. The wall beside the stairs held a series of framed lithographs, which descended to the first floor of the house. There were two empty spaces where, just the night before, pictures had hung. Her gaze then fell to a large cardboard box that sat at her mother's feet. Newspapers were scattered around it. Turning toward the child, the woman clutched the tattered pink housecoat to her throat, a string of torn lace dangling from its collar. Her face was a mask, the previous night's rancor completely erased. The child's parents often fought, with words that cut deep into the viscera--and with fists, as well. Inconsistency was the only constant within the walls of the old Spanish-style house. Still, no matter what had passed during the night, in the morning, her mother had always been up and ready for work. This was something quite different from other fights or even the suicide attempts. As the girl stood and stared, trying to make sense of the scene before her, her mother slowly turned and acknowledged the child's presence. The woman appeared flustered, as if interrupted at some important task.
"He's dead up there," came the woman's disembodied voice. Puckering her lips and lifting her chin toward the general direction of the bedroom she added, "He's dead."
The girl smiled nervously as she fingered the iron banister. Confused, she replied, "No! He's not."
Staring through the child, a ghostlike tone in her voice, the woman was emphatic, "Oh yes, he is. He's dead. Dead. He is dead to me."
With alarm rising in her belly, she watched as her mother removed another picture, carefully wrapped it in newspaper and set it in the box.
"You may be wondering why I'm packing these pictures," the woman continued. "It's because when I was a little girl, when somebody died in a house, we didn't want to live there anymore."
With a note of desperation in her voice, the girl persisted, "But Mom, I just spoke with him. He just told me good morning!"
The woman resumed her work with a slow deliberation. Without so much as an acknowledgment of the child's last remark or any further elaboration on her own strange statements or behavior, she gave the girl her back.
Torn between an impulse to flee and a strange desire to stay and watch, the girl descended the stairs at a snail's pace. She knew they would not be moving. This was just one more manifestation of her mother's unusual behaviors, like the time she struggled to pull a twin-bed mattress all the way from her brother's room down the stairs and into the guest parlor, where it was then nicely made up with crisp sheets, a pillow, pillowcase, and a gold-and-brown plaid mohair blanket. There was a heavy silence between her parents during the following month. Then, as if by magic, the bed disappeared from the parlor and the silence between her parents was broken.
There was also her mother's obsession with the gas stove. Each time mother and daughter left the house together, the woman would stand in front of the old stove and point to each of its five knobs and say, "Off, off, off, off, off."
She would then turn, walk a few paces to the end of the kitchen, do an about face, point again and say, "Off, off, off, off, off."
Once out the back door, the woman would take one last turn, peer through the kitchen window and repeat the same ritual. Assured that the gas was off, mother and daughter would walk to the car. Once the two were seated, the woman would place the key in the ignition, then, without fail, turn to the child and ask, "Did I turn off the gas?"
Then there were the everyday occurrences. In this house, there were no discussions, only arguments--arguments which quickly accelerated into full-fledged battles. During the venomous onslaughts, her father always sat unresponsive in his green leather chair with the matching ottoman. Finally, when he'd reached his limit, he'd leap from the chair and pounce upon the woman, grab her in a headlock, and pummel her head with his fists. Although the scene was a familiar one, it never failed to terrify the girl and each time her mother screamed for help, impotent, the child struggled with the old, black, dial phone, her hand shaking so violently that it took repeated efforts to simply dial "0" for the operator.
Although the girl had no idea how long this latest demonstration would continue, she believed it would pass. Yes, it would pass, but only to be replaced with something equally bizarre. As the child collected her books and reached for the door, her eyes never strayed from her mother's back.
Sunlight spilled into the dark entry hall as she opened the door to the street. The girl squinted and sneezed at the assault to her senses. As her eyes adjusted to the daylight, the slight movement of a black and white cat caught her attention. The cat kept its belly low to the grass as it stalked a nearby sparrow. Its gaze was intent, and its body tense with anticipation. The cat's movements were just barely perceptible, yet, as if by some innate alarm, just as the cat sprang, the sparrow lifted its wings in flight. Into the clear blue sky, the bird rose up and out of danger.
The girl turned her attention once more towards the stairs and her mother. She lifted her head, stood on tiptoe, and raised her eyebrows in an attempt to see over the banister and into her parents' room. Then, abruptly, she faced the open door and set her shoulders. Placing her right foot across the threshold and onto the solid brick landing, the child stepped out into the sunlight. Reaching back with her free hand, she grabbed the brass handle of the heavy green door and pulled it shut behind her.