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07.24.18
Done to Scale
The Front Hall

First, an unsteady tree of clothing inside the door: the coat rack, heaped with jackets, scarfs and furs, most torn, buttons missing, some stained, all rarely worn as few ever go out—for what is outside the house but another house?

    Hats pin the walls. No one in the house wears hats. Cockroaches bigger than hats sometimes scurry the floors. They come and go as they please, skittering round the shoes.

    Those are mismatched and scattered, partner-less. Though the girl can’t bear to toss any, not the high heels, the plastic loafers or boots. The flip-flops. The sneakers. Anyway, no shoes on in the house. Father likes quiet. Father has to think. He’s a professional thinker, as he says. The clack of heels, the squeak of soles ascending stairs, a dropped sandal, any of that could make him, as he says, fly off the handle.

    Going in the house, the girl guides the rare guest through the front hall. She makes the mother cross her lips with a finger. The mother gestures toward their feet, then removes the guest’s shoes herself, placing them on the painted oval rug.

    Sometimes their shoes are lost. Sometimes guests, like the No-Face woman, never leave.

The Living Room

When the girl was three, and the house brand new, the mother told her this was called the “living room.” The concept still itches the girl at seven. If people live in this room, what are they doing in the other rooms?  Some nights she wonders: Is there a dying room?

    The orange sectional couch elbows a corner. A resting spaniel never leaves it. The spaniel has a name but the girl forgot it. She’s forgotten most of the animals’ names. There is a piano that doesn’t play and a television showing a woman on a beach. When the girl follows the woman’s gaze from the screen, the woman stares at the spaniel curled on the couch.

    The woman is on the beach but she cannot lie down. She must forever stand, because she is a picture—evermore stuck with that fake, stupid smile and too-big sunglasses. Trapped in the sun.

    Still, the girl envies her. The girl longs to stand on a beach, any beach. She’s violently curious to feel the sand under her heels, the ocean in her nose. But the girl is also trapped.

    Sometimes the girl makes the Beach Woman envy the spaniel. The spaniel can leave the couch, though it never does. The spaniel could bark, though it’s silent. The Beach Woman cannot make a sound. Daddy’s perfect woman.

    Once, the girl allowed the Beach Woman to escape the TV and become someone else. The Other Woman and her father walked through the front hall and exited the house. Never to return. About this scenario, the girl is still unsure what she feels.

    The fire in the fireplace once flickered. Two lights blinked behind a colored piece of orange and red plastic. The illusion of flames. The girl knows because she disassembled it. She probed the mysteries of fire and broke it. Now there’s no illusion of anything.

    She’d been younger. She doesn’t break things anymore. Not by accident.

The Kitchen

Coffee and burnt toast. A sour milk scent that can’t be traced. Fresh bread. For the girl, the odors work like protective spells. She wonders if the mother had also thought herself protected in the kitchen.

    The girl investigates the ashtray incident, varying details and outcomes: 

    1) The father freezes. He repeats the word “accident” three times. He apologizes/blames the mother, rushes for car keys, to drive to the emergency room, for the seven stitches to the forehead.

    2) The father palms the ashtray from the floor and beats the mother until she dies. Until he, as he says, resolves the issue.

    3) The mother catches the ashtray and throws it back. She strikes the father dead with a lucky blow. The girl doesn’t cry in this version. Neither does the mother. The mother says, “He wanted quiet. Now he has eternal peace.”

    The girl is proud of the line. She wonders if her father would appreciate it, not that he cares about her versions. Anyway, in this one he’s dead. So the girl stuffs him in the attic.

    Sometimes, the mother’s brother, the girl’s uncle, moves in and is her new daddy. They dance and dance and squeal their siren screeches, as the father would have said, palming his temple.

    The uncle and the mother and the girl, they dance as much and as loud as they wish.

The Dining Room

A pink handkerchief—stolen from her mother—forms a tablecloth. Once spotless, butter and ketchup soiled the monogrammed silk. Grape juice left a France-shaped stain.

    The girl knows all the capitals of all the countries in the world. But the mother was unimpressed by the stain’s shape.

    The mother forbid real food in the house. The girl settles for plastic chicken and pot roast. Those tiny sandwiches filled with mysterious strips of color. A bowl of peas that cannot spill.

    Father sits at one end of the table, mother at the other. The girl and her brother square it. The brother might kick the girl under the table. Mostly, he doesn’t dare. Mostly, he pretends to eat the pretend chicken and peas. The father eats and reads The Economist or The Philosophical Quarterly. He chews his food to dust. He drains his empty cup. The mother smiles and serves and smiles.

    Sometimes, when the father is in his study or locked in the attic, the girl lets the animals dine, just to see.

    She arranges them on the tabletop around the dishes. Plastic cats and chickens and rabbits. A horse grazes a toppled plate by the china cabinet. A prowling tiger eyes a rabbit.

    Once, when she told it to, the tiger devoured her brother beneath the table. What did the parents do? Nothing. They ate in the usual silence, ignoring the rude smack of the tiger’s jaws.

    Only when the uncle visits are there stories and laughter. The girl wants to live inside his mirth. She is a connoisseur of laughter. Such a rare thing, glee. It must feel splendid to be wasteful with it, like her uncle.

    She puts him at the head of the table, turns the family’s heads toward him, makes them laugh and laugh. Even the father. The father recalls his, as he says, rascally hijinks as a kid.

    Though it never feels quite real to the girl. She can’t believe the father was ever a kid. She can’t imagine him as uncertain or needing a snuggle.

    When the father leaves the table to work in his study, the uncle shares his travels: German castles; fog-topped mountains in Cape Town; moonlit deserts. His stories fill the curvy outlines of the map in her head.

    The girl bends the girl into the table, leaning towards the uncle. She tells him how she kills the father. That she will certainly do it again.

    The uncle messes her hair and tickles her ribs. His laughter pours into her like honeyed tea.

    “Childhood is a prison,” he says. He winks mysteriously.

    The girl, though she tries, still cannot wink.

The Back Porch

The father stays away because of the lawnmowers. Their Moloch screech, as he says. The mother shrugs at their unmown lawn.

    “Every blade of grass has an angel that whispers over it, ‘Grow! Grow!’” she says. “Who are we to undo the work of angels?”

    The back porch seems like a safe place, only it isn’t. A woman dwells there.

    A rare guest, a quiet blond with a laugh like caramel. The woman was the girl’s favorite person for weeks. Until, one day, something bugged the girl.

    Maybe it was the frozen smile, almost like the Beach Woman’s, or the long hair, forever in need of brushing by the girl. Or overhearing the mother say to the father, “I don't want to see that woman again!”

    Whatever it was, one day the girl cut off all the woman’s hair, leaving a pink and patchy scalp. Still, that expression remained. That smile, like a leer when one stared too long. What could she do? Unexpectedly, her brother held the answer.

    He initiated his sister into fire.

    They took the forbidden matches and melted the woman’s face. The girl remembers the sweet smell of burning plastic in her room, and the dizzy minutes after. The girl doesn’t have a name for what the burning made her feel. But the brother’s expression told her he did. He is an expert at destruction.

    Now the woman cannot smile. Her mouth is a blackened pucker. Her nose gone. The girl scraped her eyes off with a safety pin, so she can’t stare.

    Though the girl understands she can never be thrown or given away. The No-Face woman must stay forever to remind the girl what she has done. The bargain is to leave her on the back porch and never go there.

    Though sometimes the girl can’t help herself. She feels drawn. As if fear and guilt tasted sweet.

The Staircase

More ladder than stairs, one must be extra quiet on it. One must be careful, too, not to fall. There’s no railing and accidents happen all the time on the stairs.

    The mother had “taken a tumble” when the father failed to catch her at the top. No emergency room that time. Just ice bags and bruises, and a week on the couch.

    For the first time, the father brought food and magazines. He rubbed the mother’s neck. He dealt Gin Rummy. The girl likes to make the father repeat it. Again and again, he serves the mother.

    Though mostly he falls. The father has broken his neck many times. Once, his head came off. He walked around without it while the girl pretended she’d lost it for good. She replaced it with a woman’s head. Maybe he’d be different, she’d thought. But he was the same—silent and distant and fuming—just with eye shadow and curls.

    Eventually she had to un-lose his head. She knew it could never disappear forever. Even if he died, she knew, he was inside her. She had his blood, and other things she couldn’t name. In everything there is a share of everything, her father says.

    Her father knows everything. He told her stairs had two parts, the rise and the tread. To the girl, the words describe the trudge of monsters.

Master Bedroom

The mother is mostly here, splayed on her back. Her hands cover her face as though she plays peek-a-boo with life. Though she’s not playing.

    Sometimes the girl has the girl crawl into bed with the mother. If the mother turns her back on the girl, animals pile on the bed. Rabbits and cats gather at the mother’s feet. A penguin perches by her head. The bed can hold many animals, if the girl balances them patiently.

    If the mother is especially sad the girl covers her completely. A living, breathing, blanket of animals heap atop the mother.

    Animals are never sad. Animals never have regrets or doubts, or have to take pills “to feel more myself.” Animals are always themselves.

    At night, the father comes. The girl makes the father’s voice a deep rumble. It tickles her chest. Sometimes the father shouts or bangs the thin walls. If the parents don’t fight, the girl makes them have sex.

    Her cousin showed her how. She explained how a man and a woman fit together like a handshake. Her cousin makes her own family have sex in her fancier house. She makes them do it all the time. Her cousin’s house is “real wood, not ass-garbage plastic from China.” The uncle buys her cousin Biedermeier china cabinets and rocking chairs. Her bedrooms have real curtains.

    Just as the cousin does, the girl makes the father climb on the mother.

    They make love. He rubs until a baby comes.

    There have been many babies, none of them allowed to stay. Human babies cannot take care of themselves. Not like animals. Human babies only cry and the father can’t stand the noise. The babies are thrown out the window or drowned in the tub. Unlike the brother and sister, the babies are not real. Unlike them, the babies are free.

The Study

This is the father’s room and only his. When the girl knocks at the door, the father mutters, “Later. Not now.” She stopped waiting for “later” to arrive. She never stops pondering what he does in there. She only knows the burnt-cherry pipe smoke is the smell of his thinking.

    The bookshelf is a picture on the wall, the books wrong-way bricks of three colors—blue, yellow and black. There is a desk and a chair on which the father sits. Tiny papers cover his desk. She made him an ashtray from a bottle cap. A globe from Play-Doh.

    When she sits the father in the study, she’s unsure what to do. There is nothing to do. No toys. No TV. Only books that can’t be removed or read. Not like her cousin’s house. Her cousin’s books can be pulled from their shelves. Even opened.

    Eyes closed, clutching the father in her fist, she thinks inside his head. She tries to imagine the father thinking of her. How he used to tuck her in. How he promised he’d teach her to swim.

    Sometimes her thoughts scale the walls of her age. In the study, in the father, she understood a house is an echo of the people inside it. Not just the orange couch or the kitchen cabinets, or the shag carpet the mother chose. It’s also the cracks in the walls. The broken window. The umowed lawn. The bloody tissues in the bathroom trash. Those parts of oneself nobody chooses or wants.

    The girl doesn’t go to the study much. She sits the father in his chair, alone to think his burnt-cherry thoughts. She closes his door. The whole world seems to happen on the other side of closed doors.

    The girl makes the girl trudge very quietly, very slowly, past his door.

Bathroom

The bathroom is a private room. Not for living, but for peeing and crying.

    In a way, the bathroom is the mother’s study. She spends a good deal of time alone there, behind another closed door, thinking whatever she thinks.

    Mostly the mother cries. Though sometimes she poops and does crosswords. She squats on the toilet made from a dental floss box and a shampoo cap. Sometimes she stares in the mirror.

    Sometimes the girl poses the mother like an old photo from the back of her mother’s closet. The girl has been through all her mother’s things, every secret inch of shoeboxes and drawers. In this photo, the mother stands with her arms spread toward the sun, like she could catch it. The girl raises the mother’s arms and tilts her gaze. From down to up, exactly like the photo.

    Sometimes the father or the brother dies in the bathtub. It’s usually an accident. The animals are thirsty or want to swim. They bound in: cows, horses, pigs, hippos and more. They pile on the father and the brother until they drown them. It’s the animals’ fault. But animals are innocent, so it’s nobody’s fault.

The Girl’s Bedroom

The brother is forbidden or he’ll get in trouble. Still he comes. Sometimes she makes him a monkey. Sometimes a bull. He upsets the order of her house. He breaks things.

    Once, he released a cockroach in her dining room. She screamed as the cockroach scuttled the table, ignoring the plastic food. Cockroaches have no imagination. Their dining room is drains and dark spaces behind walls.

    The brother squished the cockroach on the printed painting of flowers in a vase. It left a faint stain, the exact shape of Crete.

    The brother said, “For every cockroach you see, there are a thousand you don’t.”

    The girl knows what the cockroaches know. That it’s safest in the dark. She also knows not everything that is there can be seen.

    Like inside her house there is another girl looking at her own ass-garbage dollhouse, and inside that dollhouse is another girl looking at her dollhouse, just as lost and sad and scared, and so on and so forth ad infinitum, as her father says, till the thought somersaults her head, leaving her faint, though she can’t stop making littler mothers and fathers and brothers and animals and ashtrays, teenier than any eye could reach.

Attic

Attics are where one puts the things they want to forget, her father says.

    She puts her father in the attic all the time. In the corner. The dustiest, cobwebbiest, corner.

    There’s no room to stand, barely room for two, but sometimes the girl lays the girl in the crawl space. Then she thinks about all the things she wants to forget.

    She wants to forget the hollow look in her mother’s eyes. She wants to forget the cockroaches in the walls. She wants to forget the No-Face woman or the word divorce, or the awful quiet, or the lack of laughter. She wants to forget all these things but in the attic she remembers. Remembering feels like swallowing thorns. Like monsters parading her head. Even the babies. She wants to forget the babies. Motherless and hungry, maybe vengeful, babies that could be anywhere, in any room. In the attic she remembers them. They frighten the girl even more than the No-Face woman.

    Then she hears the No-Face woman rise and tread the stairs. A hint of burning plastic spikes the air. Her father’s stare from the corner prickles the girl.

    Monsters are just a metaphor, her father says, though she knows that’s a lie. Stare at any doll’s face long enough, it becomes a monster. She stretches in the dark, giddy with terror. Maybe the attic is the dying room?

    She repeats the magic words, to keep her safe. There isn’t much magic left in her. The girl sees how it disappears—in her parents, even her brother. It evaporates with age.

    Still, she mouths the words and scrunches her eyes shut to believe.

Roof

She ends up on the roof all the time. A place with no ceiling to coop her, where no one stands above. From the roof, she sees far beyond her house and town. To Paris and Mexico and Greenland, country shapes she knows like the shape of her own face.

    In each country, inside its imaginary lines, there are houses and people in those houses: grown ups and children, dogs and cats, even bugs that live in walls and under floors. She sees joyful mothers. Men like her uncle. Brothers who look out for sisters. Fathers who listen and love. Cats and cockroaches dancing together. Everyone laughs.

    When she sees them, she imagines burning her own house. It would join the sky as smoke—she longs to map the sky. But she knows the burnt-plastic smoke would be knit of her family. She can’t escape them through fire.

    Sometimes she jumps to her death. Dying hurts every time, but it also sets her free for a little while.

    Her parents are always very sorry, after. The mother crumples to the floor. The girl folds her into a sobbing ball. The father smashes tiny plates and vases that can’t be broken. He whispers her name. He gapes into space. At last no clever words. At last trapped in the silence of his study.

    Sometimes, she jumps and falls up rather than down. She flies. She joins the birds and clouds. The planes flying to Brazil. She follows and sees everything.

    But even travel, even flying, grows dull and tiresome.

    She never, ever, ever used to get bored. Only boring people get bored, her father says.

    Today, bored on the roof, the girl feels as old as she’s ever felt, though she’s as young as she’ll ever be.

    The girl steps the girl to the edge of the roof. Her bare feet balance at the end of the brown plastic. Bending over, she takes a last look at the house below.

     “Everything is done to scale,” her cousin bragged about her house. “A perfect 1 to 12. It’s all very valuable and you can’t touch anything.”

    The girl knows her house isn’t valuable. She doesn’t know what scale her house is in. She only knows as she gets bigger, the house feels smaller. Too small.

    With a gloomy certainty and a strange sense of relief, she knows she’ll be done with it soon. It’ll go in the back of her closet or the attic. A forgotten thing.

    She says the words. Whispered, so no one can hear, squinting her last drop of magic. She tries not to doubt their power, though just as magic vanishes with age, so does gravity multiply.

    “Sometimes the magic is just gone,” she heard her mother tell a friend.

    She jumps.

    The sky taunts her. Only smoke, only the cawing crows can reach it.

    The carpet, the ground, expands below, as she falls, the parents sound her name, searching from room to room, as she falls, the brother looks up from his war games or insect torture, as she falls, the animals stir, howling for her not to go, as she falls, the No-Face woman manages a smile, wishes her luck, as she falls.

    The girl is almost done with her house.

    She falls, exactly in the way she imagined.
 

Michael Harris Cohen is the author of The Eyes and numerous short stories. He teaches writing and Literature at the American University in Bulgaria.