By Marilyn Abildskov
Featured Art: Dilapidated House, 1811
She hesitates, then opens the unlocked door. The house is not hers. It’s nobody’s yet. That’s why she’s here. To walk on red tiles in the empty entryway. To see if there’s carpet yet in the bedrooms. To touch the smooth white marble fireplace that reaches the ceiling in the living room. To wander empty rooms before the rooms are filled.
Here in the entranceway of the new empty house she says out loud—hello hello—and listens for something, a spirit maybe, to say something back.
Nothing. Not even an echo.
From the kitchen window, she can see her home, the tip of a modernist triangle roof. In the distance, she can hear her mother playing the piano, lost in the music. Her shoes squeak against the floorboards of the hallway. No carpet. Not yet.
From the large window in the living room that faces the backyard she sees a pile of dirt and beyond that, the green lawn that circles the convent, a five-story brick building that will be leveled in three years. Its bells ring six times. She can see the outlines of nuns in the distance, their robes fluttering behind them in the summer air. They will be going to dinner soon, eating gruel. She’s read her fairy tales.
And now, a hint of darkness begins to envelop the house. She’ll have to leave soon. She can’t hear her mother playing the piano anymore, which means dinner’s started. But she doesn’t want to go. Not yet.
She opens the sliding door off the living room that leads to a balcony. She sees what she did not know, until now, is the reason she came: new cement, dark as a lake. She kneels and touches her finger into the blue-black mud, hesitant at first, then with confidence: her initials, first a J, then an N.
Now she has left a mark. Whoever moves in will have to remember.
Jan Nelson lived across the street. There was a boy in the Nelson family a year or two older than me, a girl a few years younger, and Jan, my brother’s age. She had a crush on my brother, if I’m remembering correctly. Her sister—why do I remember this now?—told me once she liked to eat dirt. We were children at the time. My family had just moved to Utah from upstate New York. We sat on the sidewalk, examining a patch of newly planted grass. School would begin soon. But for now, it was summer and the days were long and dry and there was grass to watch, dirt to eat.
And before that? Before the grass demanded our attention? I was in the car with my family, leaving one place in pursuit of another, my mother driving, my father scowling, my sister between our parents in the front seat, studying French, my brother in the back, reading Mad magazine, my middle sister asking, Are there any baloney sandwiches left?
My brother rolled the window down. The summer heat blazed on. My sister took my small wrist in her hands and drew Xs and Os, a game of Tic Tac Toe to pass the time, and I fell asleep, leaning against who knows who, dreaming of the new house in Utah where I would have my own room, and maybe our neighbor, Jan Nelson, who no one had met yet, was just coming back from church. It was late on Sunday afternoon. She was sitting on the edge of her narrow teenage bed, peeling off her pantyhose, then putting on shorts and a T-shirt, then walking across the street and opening what was soon to be my gate.
Before Jan Nelson made her mark, we lived in a red two-story house in upstate New York. My brother and two sisters and I and our cat and three hamsters. My brother and oldest sister had bedrooms upstairs, my middle sister and I shared a bed in the basement. We had snowsuits and hula hoops and an aboveground pool in the backyard, an elm tree in the front yard, the Slank family next door. Our mother was trying to pack for the move. She was happy because, in Utah, her children would grow up with cousins nearby and now she could help take care of her ailing mother. But right now, as she boxed dishes and books and games and clothes, her children were driving her crazy.
She told my father, Can you get them out of my hair?
And so we wandered around the World’s Fair in Montreal one weekend as our father bought us peanuts and cotton candy and pennants to hang in our new rooms.
Then the movers arrived, manhandling my mother’s Stickley furniture onto a Mayflower van as my mother winced, and we piled into the Oldsmobile station wagon with its faux-wood trim to drive across country, past Lake Erie and through Chicago and across Nebraska and into Wyoming with its scrub oak and oil derricks, then on to Utah, then our new street and our new home, the one with the red-tiled roof and a wrought-iron gate, and our mother spent her days ordering green velvet chairs and a brocade couch from Dinwoody’s and had wool carpet installed in the living room and our father went off to work like he always had and we went to our new schools and Jan Nelson introduced herself to my brother, my handsome dark-haired teenage brother, and that was it. She had a crush on him, lickity split, and started coming over all the time.
But my brother didn’t like hanging out with Jan Nelson. He didn’t like hanging out with anyone. He was a loner, and having just moved, he had good reason to keep to himself. The kids at school made fun of his accent and my sisters’ and mine too, the way we called our cat, Happy, Hippy.
But Jan Nelson thought it was cute. She liked the way my brother talked, liked that he was a loner, liked that he didn’t care about joining Key Club at Highland High School, liked the way he asked such deep, philosophical questions in Sunday School, wondering whether it’s moral for a man to kill during war.
She was wild about him, my mother says years later.
I was too.
But my brother didn’t notice Jan Nelson. Instead he noticed another girl who was tall and willowy and worked in a fabric store and could sew like nobody’s business and who could keep up with him skiing, too, and the two married before they turned 21 and my sister and I were bridesmaids, wearing matching pink dresses with silky ties at the neck, and Jan Nelson died on I-80 late one night, coming home from her boyfriend’s house, hit by a drunk driver, and my brother and his wife divorced before either one turned 25.
I remember everyone sitting at the kitchen table and my brother telling us. He looked exhausted. She had had an affair.
This is not what he said that night at the kitchen table. It’s what my middle sister told me years later as we stood in the entranceway of the house where we’d grown up, talking the way sisters do, piecing the story together, trying to figure out what had gone wrong. He was so poor then, my mother added some time later, that she worried about him. He’d bought out his ex-wife to hold onto the house. He’d been turning off the lights at eight o’clock to save money.
Once, when we were all young, his wife-to-be came to the door. She and my brother were in high school at the time, a year into their relationship. There had been trouble. Fighting. My brother had called it off.
My mother later told me that he had told her, If she comes, don’t let her in. I can’t take it anymore.
But when she came to the door and my mother said he wasn’t home, she pushed her way in anyway, knocking loudly on my brother’s bedroom door downstairs.
They married two years later.
Forty years later, he’s been married to someone else for forever and has two girls, now grown, five kids between them. But in my mind’s eye, my young and clear-eyed brother is still behind the basement door, trying to hold off the girl who wants to burst in.
My earliest memory: walking with him along the railroad tracks in New York, which seemed a long way from our little two-story house.
Years later, when my sisters and mother and I returned to upstate New York and stood in front of that familiar house—now white but otherwise just as we had remembered, complete with the elm tree in the front yard, the pussy willow in the back—I asked my sisters where the railroad tracks were, and they said, Right there, just down the street. We walked to the edge of the tracks. Two minutes, there and back.
One way to think of him is to think of him in relation to the others. To our oldest sister, for example. He was a boy between girls. The oldest was known as the brainy one. Not that he wasn’t smart. He was. But she had her straight A’s and her National Merit Scholarship. She was aimed toward a PhD and a professor’s life.
He must have hated following her in school, how every teacher said, Oh, you’re her brother! How each school year must have begun with a set of unreasonable expectations, impossible comparisons, minor humiliations (as if there were such a thing as a minor humiliation).
Once our older sister left, though, he was the oldest and the only boy and the one who introduced me to the railroad tracks and the one my middle sister followed faithfully on skateboard and on foot and by car and by skis.
There was a family of four children, in other words, but inside that, like the first of many nesting dolls, also a family of three.
Once, he hooked up a pulley from the upstairs balcony to the edge of our freestanding pool so we could hold on and fly from one story to the next, straight into the pool.
Once, while babysitting my sister and me, he made a pizza and we watched The Twilight Zone and he placed a doll on the stairs and stood underneath them and waited until we wandered down, calling out in an eerie, robotic voice, “My name is Talking Tina,” a phrase that made our hearts explode, our girl-mouths scream.
When I was eight, just learning to ski, the rope tow at Alta somehow ate my red-and-white scarf and while I stood on the side and watched as the scarf traveled downhill, then back up, my brother was the one who saved the day, expertly waiting until just the right minute to retrieve it. When he held that scarf up in the air like a prize, his long dark hair visible from his blue ski hat, the crowd on the slope, who had been watching and waiting, clapped and cheered.
And once, when my father was drunk and angry—not an uncommon occurrence then—my brother stood up to him. My father had gotten furious because my sister had failed to pick up his dry cleaning, had had an accident on the way, tripping on the sidewalk and pulling the ligaments in one leg. My father yelled at my sister afterward, Can’t you do anything right? My brother said, You can’t talk to her like that, it was an accident, it’s just dry cleaning for crying out loud.
My sister and I went outside and sat on the brick retaining wall that separated our house from our neighbors, where we waited and wept.
Was that the night my father pushed him down the stairs?
My father loved my oldest sister best, my brother least. As I say this, I know I am asserting without offering evidence. But aren’t there truths understood in every family that run freely, as if part of the water?
And I remember my father once saying, Daughters, I understand, but your brother—
And I remember my father saying, I don’t know why he doesn’t like me, and I thought, well, those stairs. For starters. But I said nothing.
The stairs in my parents’ house are steep and sharp and made of tile. The entranceway is similarly tiled. Red tiles with a Mediterranean feel. It’s hard to separate the stairs from the entranceway, the entranceway from the door. The door is white and arched and flanked by two windows of similar shape. Outside is a wrought iron gate. Inside the entranceway is a wrought-iron railing overlooking the stairs, the same wrought-iron that makes up the bannister going down the stairs. I remember running up the stairs as a girl and slipping and gashing a knee, because there was no cushion to fall on, just cold hard tiles.
A memory of sorts: Before I was born, when we still lived in upstate New York, my brother drilled a hole in the wall between the wall of his bedroom and our parents’. Or so the story goes.
Why did you do it? my mother asked.
I wanted to see what was going on, he said.
Or is it better to begin later, toward the end?
My father is ninety now, my mother the same. They shuffle from kitchen to study to bedroom to bathroom, their backs sloped permanently. They never go downstairs. Stairs are treacherous for people their age.
When my mother wakes, my father asks, Are you alive? And when he talks to me, he speaks of the past with the preface, Back when I was alive—
My brother does not visit often. He rarely calls.
Sometimes, in desperation, my mother calls him and asks for help when her computer’s acting up. He’ll come up to the house then.
Mostly, though, we follow a familiar script: the girls, childless and middle-aged now, attend to the elderly parents, clinging to the family of the past; the boy, bald and with a gray beard now, a grandfather of five, disappears into another family, the one he made, leaving ours.
My mother used to say to people worried about having boys, Oh, boys are wonderful. They bring you frogs instead of flowers. Now she says, What happened? Did I do something? Her voice is plaintive, wistful. She says she wishes she knew.
In childhood, then adolescence, separations are visible. Someone writes down the date of the baby who crawled yesterday, who took two or three wobbly steps today. A girl raises her shirt to show her sister the hard pebble underneath the skin of her chest. A boy looks at the marks on the wall in the garage that serve as evidence he has, in fact, as his mother says, grown four inches, shot right up. But later? Later changes happen slowly. Imperceptibly. Later no one is keeping track.
We did not have a falling out so much as a gradual falling away: days that became weeks and weeks that became months and months that became years where we both arrived at our parents’ house for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for his girls’ birthday parties, and throughout the serving of the pieces of pumpkin pie or the opening of wrapped gifts or the photo-taking of his two girls as they grew up, and later, as they brought to the house babies of their own, we had little, then less, then nothing to say.
One Thanksgiving—was it the year our mother’s new kitten jumped and landed on a piece of pie?—I asked him ten questions, counting them up. He gave one-word answers or none at all. Fine. No. Yes. Sometimes he just looked at me as if we were children in the middle of a staring contest and he was waiting for me to blink first. So? I blinked. I stopped asking. For years. This bothered me. Then, again gradually, this stopped bothering me. Then there was nothing. Not even an echo.
A memory: When Jan Nelson died, I went to the triangle house across the street to take a hamburger casserole, the kind you make with two cans of cream of mushroom soup, because that’s what we did in those days, those of us who shared a place in the congregation at church.
I did not think of Jan or the crush she’d had on my brother years before, how she must have lingered outside her house at dusk some nights that fall, after my family first arrived, how she must have hoped to glimpse the boy who had just moved in, the one she’d met and liked at school. Had he noticed her initials written in cement? Had he seen them yet?
I do not remember thinking of that, of her wish for his attention, which he would not give. What I remember is standing in the entranceway of that modern house with its high ceilings and its rooms filled with light. Mrs. Nelson accepted the casserole, still warm under my hands. Mr. Nelson looked coiled tight, as if grief had jammed inside of him. And Jan’s younger brother, Mark, a year or two older than me and one of the most popular boys from high school, someone I barely knew, someone I’d only seen as a glowing figure of good luck and good looks, I remember him sobbing as he hugged me that afternoon, as he held on tight.
Another memory. Winter. A train. A trip from New York to Utah where we’ll visit our relatives. My oldest sister sits next to the window, studying for Geography. She’s just told our mother the difference between a physiographic map and a topographic map. Now she’s working through definitions on flashcards. Steppe. Mesa. Prairie. Gulf. The rest of us are in the dining car, playing cards. Slapjack. Go Fish. I cut the deck in half, then watch as my brother shuffles expertly, creating with a flick of his wrist a little dome—a house!—that rises, then collapses, mesmerizing in its brevity.
My sister and I, who received white go-go boots for Christmas, strut up and down the aisles of the train singing, These boots are made for walkin’ and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you. And when a woman asks my sister, Where did you two girls get your pretty red hair? my sister will grow thoughtful, then say, Our mailman has red hair.
This is the trip where one night my mother wakes with a start and counts her kids. One is missing. My brother. She looks everywhere. Asks everyone.
He couldn’t have gone far, the coach attendant tells her. The train stopped in Omaha but only briefly, for a few minutes. He saw everyone who got on and off. There was no boy, he says. He has to be here.
My mother walks through the cars, one by one. The observation car. The restrooms. Nothing. No sign of him. Then, finally, when she reaches the dining car, there he is, slumped over, a boy who’d been sleepwalking, fast asleep.
Now I wonder, is there a way to slip inside through the door of memory? Sit down at the kitchen table? Hold onto something old and private and aching and deep?
Because he was here. Because we were there.
Because I want to see what’s going on.
It’s a round Stickley table with a Lazy Susan that hums and we like to put the cat up on the Lazy Susan sometimes, spinning him around and around, then watching as we stand him back on the floor to walk away, drunk on four legs and swerving.
This makes us laugh and laugh.
It’s July, 1970, and we’ve lived in Utah two years.
My brother is sixteen, tall and skinny and quiet and smart.
I am ten and wild about my brother and fond of collecting stones from the field in the back of the house.
He has dated the girl he will marry now for nearly a year—the girl who, like a magician, produces quilts and dolls and my perfect white confirmation dress. She has quicksilver hands and a Singer sewing machine. The two take me to drive-in movies. I cry during Beneath the Planet of the Apes, not because I care about the planet and not because I care about the apes but because my brother and his girlfriend sit in the front seat kissing the whole time and I have no idea what this means for me. But they buy me popcorn and I stop crying and, by the next day, I’m over it, quick to recover.
All winter the two of them take me and my middle sister skiing on Friday afternoons where we exhaust ourselves on the black diamond runs so full of moguls, then drink hot chocolate in the car afterward and eat soggy tuna fish sandwiches and listen to Dionne Warwick on the radio who says a little prayer for you.
At night, we gather in the family room. My brother slides a record from its bright green cover, the one with the bald-headed man on the front. My sister turns down the lights. I take my place on the couch, shivering under a blanket. The needle on the record player rises, then turns, then pauses, holding its breath, finally descending, finding its groove.
Alfred Hitchcock’s voice instructs, “Don’t worry about the ghosts getting in. They can slither through keyholes and through doors, you know.”
My middle sister’s favorite is “The Pirate’s Curse.” My favorite is “The Open Window.” My brother’s favorite is the whole thing.
But we don’t listen to any ghost stories tonight. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.
Don’t say anything, my mother says. He feels terrible as is.
He’d bought our mother a hamster as a surprise, but left the space heater on in his large basement bedroom to keep the little guy warm. The hamster died.
So this is what I hold onto now: my brother with acne on his cheeks just beginning to bloom, sitting at the kitchen table that night, hunched over a dinner plate, his mind a million miles away, his eyes swollen and red, his intentions—oh, his intentions, so sweet, so good.
Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award, and honors from the Corporation of Yaddo and the Djerassi Writing Residency. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Sewanee Review, Southern Review, Epoch, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area and teaches in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.