The House Story, Part 2

John Cooper, Flickr Creative Commons (edited)


[This is the second and last part of a freewrite for a short story, so you’re coming in near the middle. Go here to start from the beginning.]

I didn’t know how to decorate my parent’s bedroom. A large bed, a dresser. Their bedspread was dark green and furry, like a sheet of moss. A Motorola console stereo, the speaker grilles the same shade of moss green velvet. I picked up what few records I could remember: The Irish Rovers, Camelot, Paint Your Wagon. I couldn’t remember what belonged on the walls. Something else was missing, too, but I couldn’t remember what.

The green station wagon in the driveway eventually attracted a neighbor’s attention. He seemed like a nice kid, early thirties maybe, Latino. I couldn’t tell whether he was kicking tires or just being friendly, but he spent close to an hour out in the driveway examining the car. “These 350’s were bulletproof,” he said, half of his body shoved beneath the long, emerald hood. “Look like it’s original to the car, too. Keep it that way.”

“I plan to,” I said.

“Guys like me, we’ll buy a car like this for the engine and junk the rest. Watch out for us.” His head popped out of the engine bay. I didn’t know whether he was smiling at the car or his honesty. It didn’t really matter.  He stretched out on the cracked driveway and shimmied beneath the beast. “Transmissions were shit, though,” he said.

“I remember,” I said.

“Oh, check that out,” he said. “Somebody put a Tremec in this thing.”

“What does that mean?” I asked the feet peeking out from beneath the car.

“It means you’ll never have a transmission problem. You ever want to sell this thing you call me,” the feet said.

“Didn’t you just tell me to watch out for guys like you?” I asked. The feet said nothing.

Trash day. Flattened shipping boxes lay piled next to the trashcans outside my alley fence. I busied myself assembling a swing set, which drove Black Eyes crazy. “I never seen any kids come and go from your house,” he shouted over the fence. “I ever see one of those kids from the school in your yard don’t think I’m calling the cops. I’ll take care of you myself, you can’t count on that.”

My father never secured our swing set. My sister and I would try to match each other’s rhythm, our shared inertia lifting first the front legs of its tubular A-frame and then the back legs, the whole structure rocking like a hobby horse. Even when she was really ill, our mother would sit on the service porch and watch us try to flip the whole thing over.

I got out my notebook and wrote down “hobby horse.”

On trash days I’d sit on my swing, feet dangling, and wait for the garbage men. When I heard the big truck hit the top of the alley, I’d climb onto the picket fence that marked the edge of our backyard. One trash man drove and the other hung from the side, grabbing galvanized steel cans with his thick, calloused hands and dumping the contents into the back of the truck. He always waved back at me. Sometimes he gave me a discarded toy that he found along his route. Trash day was a scene from a children’s book come to life.

I hung a chain from an S-hook stuck through the A-frame’s crossbar. A big, green truck rumbled down the alley. It stopped behind my house, and a mechanical arm reached down and grabbed my plastic trash can. The claw lifted the can high into the air and dumped its contents into the truck, and then it lowered the can to the ground and returned to its resting position. The truck continued on down the alley. I couldn’t see the driver inside the cab. I waved anyway.

Karen called again, didn’t even say hello, just launched right into it. “Did you think about it?” she said.

“Think about what?” I asked.

“The house.”

“What about it? There’s nothing to think about.”

“I don’t even know why you want it. You never cared,” Karen said.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“You know what it means. When Mama found out she was sick you didn’t even care.”

“Jesus Christ, Karen, what’s the statute of limitations on this bullshit?”

“She was sitting there on the kitchen floor sobbing and you just sat there watching cartoons.”

“I was just a kid,” I said.

“I was, too, but who sat and cried with her?” Karen said. “I did everything for them, but you get the house? That’s not fair.”

“I bought the fucking house. This doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“It has everything to do with me,” she said.

I hung up the telephone. The morning she was talking about was the last time my mother was healthy, or the first time that she was sick, I don’t know. Her last healthy moment was spent sobbing in the very spot that I now stood. That morning my sister rushed out from her bedroom in a Holly Hobbie nightgown, her Mrs. Beasley doll trailing behind her. The two huddled together, tears flowing while I watched Underdog cartoons.

After that it was the sick house, everything glowing with the green pallor of encroaching death. When my parents weren’t talking about my mother’s health they were talking about their money problems. My father tried to remain positive for both of them. He brought home a poster depicting a kitten hanging from a tree branch. “Hang in there, baby” read the poster’s lettering. They hung the poster in their bedroom.

She still had good days occasionally, days where it was like nothing was wrong. I sat on her bedroom floor, playing with my Batman action figure while she ironed and sang along with her records: “They Call the Wind Mariah,” “The Unicorn,” “I Loved You Once In Silence.” And then she’d be sick again, or more bills would arrive.

I wrote in my notebook: Ironing board, poster, Batman.

Karen’s bedroom was easy: A pink canopy bed with a matching dust ruffle; an Easy-Bake Oven and a Spirograph; a David Cassidy pin-up from Tiger Beat; a Mrs. Beasley doll. I took the green station wagon up to the mountains and looked for a couple of giant pine cones to set on either side of the ballerina music box atop her white dresser. The Latino kid was right: the wagon’s big engine felt strong, the transmission reliable. The bulky car handled the mountain roads without any problems. It’s a pleasure to drive, a completely different car than the one I remember from the back seat.

Nothing remained to do but my bedroom. I already had many of the toys: the Vertibird Coast Guard Rescue set; the SSP Smash-Up Derby and the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. I even threw away a piece of the Evel Knievel puzzle when it arrived, just like the one I had as a kid. The bed concerned me. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fit my tired frame into a race car bed.

I sat on the floor, surrounded by Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs. “Hey Kids,” Mickey Mouse chirped from the lid of the little phonograph, its tonearm literally Mickey’s arm. I should have put on one of the cereal box records, but instead I slid the Irish Rovers onto the hard plastic platter. I hit the switch and Mickey’s noisy motor hummed to life. His arm rose and fell as the record slowly turned, but I didn’t hear the Rovers. It was my mother’s voice that filled the room:

Then Noah looked out through the driving rain

Them unicorns was hiding, playing silly games

Kicking and splashing while the rain was pouring

Oh, them silly unicorns.

The doorbell rang. I flipped Mickey’s switch and walked to the living room. She was back. “Hi, Doc,” I said.

“May I come in?” Dr. Hubler asked.

“Sure,” I said, and I motioned her inside.

“You’ve built quite a museum here,” she said. It didn’t sound sarcastic, but it didn’t sound like a compliment, either.

“What can I do for you?”

“I heard your concerns,” Dr. Hubler said. “I want you to know that. And I trust that you heard mine. You will die without treatment.”

“I’ll die with treatment, too. We all do, eventually.”

“Flippancy is a sort of denial, Richard. Anyway, I’ve been doing some research. You’re an ideal candidate for a trial that’s going on in Philadelphia. I’ve arranged a spot for you.”

“What’s the cost?”

“No cost. I told you, I heard your concerns. Frankly, I agree with you. Patients shouldn’t have to choose between death and poverty.”

“Kind of cutting your own throat, aren’t you?”

“The Hippocratic Oath never mentions a salary,” Dr. Hubler shrugged. She set a manila folder on top of the Look magazines on the coffee table.  “Look through the materials and give it some thought, that’s all I’m asking. It’s your choice. You don’t even need to tell me what you decide. Just promise me you’ll consider it.”

“I promise,” I said, and she left.

Last night I remembered the night we left. I never forgot it, but in that twilight space that separates wakefulness from sleep I remembered it differently: My father lifting me from my race car bed and squatting to grab my little suitcase; Karen standing in the doorway, her eyes puffy and her hair tangled. She held her bag in one hand and her Mrs. Beasley doll in the other. He walked us out to the station wagon, its cargo area packed with suitcases, boxes, an ice chest.

“Where are we going, Daddy?” I asked.

“I don’t know, son,” he said.

“How long will we be gone?”

He pulled the seat belt across my lap and latched it. “Forever. We’re going to start fresh.”

“What about my toys?”

“We’ll get you new toys.”

“What about our things?”

“We’ll get new things.”

“What about Mama?”

My father’s eyes reddened and his jaw tightened. “Mama’s gone now, Richie. I’ve told you that.”

“Where did she go?” I asked.

“Nobody knows,” he said, dragging out the O’s like wispy spirits drifting through the ether.

The house was done now. Everything about it, both inside and out, was as close to that night as my memory allowed. All of the shipping boxes were gone. The only remaining evidence of modernity was Dr. Hubler’s envelope and me. The telephone rang.

“Hello?” I said.

“It’s your sister again,” Karen said.

“Well this is a pleasant surprise.”

“Don’t be mean,” she said. “I don’t want to fight anymore.”

“Why stop now?” I said.

“I’m trying to apologize. You’re right. You bought the house, it’s yours. It just hurt my feelings when I found out you bought it without telling me.”

I cradled the phone between my head and shoulder, removed the cereal boxes from the kitchen table and placed them in the cupboard.  “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings,” I said.

The line fell quiet for a moment, followed by the barely audible sniffing and shuddering of Karen’s quiet sobs. “I don’t know what it is about that place. It just feels like a hole in my heart, you know?”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. I looked around at all of the old junk–the lamps and the furniture, the knickknacks and the bulky electronics, the wall hangings, toys, books, and magazines. It was just like I remembered, and it no longer mattered.

“The keys are in the mailbox. The place is yours,” I said, and I hung up before she could reply. The phone rang again, a real brass bell. It was a pleasant sound. I tucked the manila envelope under my arm, stepped outside, and dropped the house key into the black box hanging near the door.

Black Eyes stood next to the wagon, sweaty and filthy, shovel in hand. Mint wilted in the late afternoon sun, clods of dirt clinging to the exposed roots. “I told you not to plant it. I told you not to mess with my wall,” he said.

“Go ahead and dig it up,” I said. I’m done with it.” Besides, he couldn’t kill it all. Mint is tenacious. It always finds a way to thrive. I fired up the wagon and I pointed the long hood eastward. The sun set in my rear view mirror while the little house and the hill and everything fell further and further away, tumbling into a darkened past where they belonged.

[This was a pretty successful freewrite. The original premise, a man buys his childhood home as the location for his death, was pretty bleak and insisted upon a very specific ending. I began writing with his inevitable death in mind and no other business to attend to beyond filling the house with nostalgia. I knew the protagonist would have a sibling, but for no other reason than he needed someone to bounce off of in order to reveal his character. A guy walking around an old house unpacking eBay shipments doesn’t make for much of a story.

The car entered the exercise as no more than a prop, just another piece of window dressing. It had no purpose. The protagonist’s parents didn’t exist previously, either. For a moment I had the impression that the neighbor, Black Eyes, was going to kill Richard before his disease could get him. Perhaps in the final draft Black Eyes won’t be so antagonistic, but I don’t know. Maybe Black Eyes helps to illuminate the point that Richard’s “home” hasn’t been his home for a very long time.

Other stock characters dropped in and spun themselves in interesting ways, revealing themselves as more interesting than their central casting cliches. The “Latino car guy” wasn’t some sinister cholo but rather a nice, honest, neighbor who was interested in old cars. His only purpose story-wise was to help foreshadow that the car that started out as just a prop would become an important part of the story.

Dr. Hubler, a name plucked from a nearby newspaper, was initially a trigger for Richard’s rant about the broken healthcare system, which is in truth my rant about the broken healthcare system. That she turned out to be a woman was a surprise, but even more surprising was that she remained both professional and compassionate. After a rant about how cruddy American healthcare has become it would’ve been easy to make her indifferent.

I had no idea Richard’s mother died when he was young, or that his father swept his children away in the dead of night in an effort to outrun his own grief. Richard’s mother sang “The Unicorn” because my mother sang that song often when I was little. While writing I revisited the song, and when I reached the quoted verse I realized that Richard was, in fact, the unicorn: Dr. Hubler was offering him an ark and he was hiding, playing silly games.

The death that seemed so inevitable from the premise was no longer a foregone conclusion. The little house was no longer a tomb but rather a way station, a necessary step on the road to recovery. In Richard’s case, it was the recovery of his real childhood memories rather than the ones he had manufactured over the decades. It made sense that he would pass the home along to his struggling sister when he was done with it.

Richard and Karen began as David and Rene. Those names, along with some typos and tense issues, were the only changes I made to this freewrite. I don’t know why Rene seemed like a Karen to me, but once her name changed then David had to become Richard. With all of the early ’70s pop culture decorating the set, how could I not name the brother-sister duo after the Carpenters? It’s an inside joke and a corny one, and the names may not survive a rewrite.

So what now? Now I set the thing aside for some period a time–a week, month, year, decade. Eventually I’ll pull it out and reread it with fresh eyes. Maybe I’ll decide that it isn’t worth tinkering with, or maybe I’ll still feel pretty good about the story’s basic shape. With fresh eyes I’ll be able to see what’s underdeveloped on the page that’s working just fine in my head right now. These notes will remind me what I think is working, by the way.

I’ll spot the pacing problems that you can already clearly see. I’m guessing that the “trash day” scene will get cut, as will the business with the mint, but maybe not. Both move the characters along a little bit. Other scenes will seem too abrupt, as will the lack of transitions connecting them. The parents will probably get more meat on their bones, especially the father. I suspect that he may have died recently, which is the unstated dilemma with which Karen is dealing.

I’ve mentioned before that writing differs from other art forms in that the artist must first create his raw materials. Actors begin with a script, painters with brush and paint, sculptors with clay or marble. But writing begins with the freewrite–getting some words down on paper that can be sculpted into a story or poem. “The House Story” was an exercise in sharing that initial phase with you.

I have my hunk of clay now, and it is even shaped roughly like something. Now I can begin forming it into an actual sculpture, or I can smash back into a blob and start again. How fun is that?]

Categories: fiction

7 replies »

  1. Thanks for sharing some of your writing process. It may help with the memoir I’m struggling to write. In the past, my writing (essay, letter, fiction, Christmas letter, whatever) started with the idea. I let the idea bang around in my head for a while until it began sorting itself into something more coherent. That’s when I more consciously sort through the raw stuff and think in terms of what the final product might look like. It is only then that I put pen to paper or, more accurately, fingers to keyboard and pour out the accumulated word mass onto paper. Once it’s in print, it’s mostly done, with a bit of polishing. I like the idea of a freewrite as something to do early on in the idea head banging part.


  2. By the way, I like where you’ve taken the story. I’m really interested in how to resolve long-past trauma. I know we can’t change anything in the past, but maybe Richard has found a way to change his feelings about it. In the last few years, I’ve revisited past episodes multiple times to understand, not change them. It has been especially helpful regarding my parents. I feel closer to them now than I ever did when they were alive.


  3. My demands!

    No on cutting the “trash day” scene – as a little kid I waved to the garbage collectors and they waved back, and when the mechanical monstrosities took their place, I still waved to an invisible driver, too.
    Where I live now, we have the classic three man team, when we are outside on trash day, I get to holler “Hi!” and “Thank You!” and a real live person smiles and waves and hollers “You’re welcome!” back to me. It makes me happy not so much out of nostalgia, but of how much I despise everything about that mechanical arm. I cannot be the only one.

    No on cutting the mint scene! “Go ahead and dig it up” is such a classy, non-confrontational way to say F.U. to an antagonistically unfriendly neighbor – I love it. And that tenacious mint will forever drive Black Eyes insane long after Richard is gone.

    And… spiriting the two kids out of the house in the middle of their night, seemingly packing only the basics and leaving everything behind….well, that is when I start to cry, so you know you pressed an emotional button there. Again, I cannot be the only one who welled up a bit, right?
    Plus, it does give the reader a sense of why Richard is doing this – not to build a tomb, but to recreate a part of his life that he was yanked out of literally while sleeping. As Bud points out, resolving childhood traumas – we are all doing it in one way or another, but you have come up with such a unique way of doing it in this story.

    I, too, thank you for sharing the workings of your brain on “an idea” and how you initially thought this idea would go here, but instead it went over there, and a big thank you for fictionalizing your healthcare rant, and giving us a wonderful, albeit very fictional doctor we can all only dream of ever finding.

    Liked by 1 person

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