Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wall to Wall

The house stood on a hill that overlooked the road. There was something a little forlorn and raw about it, nothing like the smooth suburban houses my friends lived in. Our house was different the way we were different, the way my parents weren’t American and my father didn’t come home at night.

The hill was short and steep. The house was white with dark green shutters. There were no shutters in the very beginning. They came a little later, my mother’s addition and there was never any question about what color they would be. Shutters were dark green. Houses, rooms and sheets were white.

My mother washed the clothes in the basement and hung them up to dry behind the house and down a wide path that she told me used to be a road, long long ago before there were cars. It was overgrown now. The line for drying the clothes was on a pole that twirled. If you kept going on the overgrown road you came to the neighbors, but I only went that way once or twice.

Everything was rough about our house. You could get splinters from the floorboards. My mother liked the floorboards because, she said, they were wide and only old houses had wide floorboards.

My mother planted our Christmas trees on the slope that led down to the road. She planted other things there, always at random. Dark plants. I don’t remember color there.

Across the street an old man called Old Tony lived in what my mother called a hot dog wagon. It was a dark green truck. Not a pick-up truck, but the kind with a sliding door on the side. There where no windows except up front, the windshield.

I visited Old Tony. Sometimes with my mother, sometimes by myself. When I went by myself he opened a can of beer by punching two triangles in it. One triangle for him, one for me, and then some bread with sliced cucumbers. We ate outside. He had some kind of table in the woods next to his truck. Once, he got up to pee and I watched him, not thinking much about it. “You can touch it if you want,” Old Tony said. I reached out my forefinger and touched his penis. I hadn’t thought about touching it, but he seemed to want me to. I rubbed my taut finger back and forth once, twice and then stepped back. I didn’t like how it felt, the skin loose, the penis like a branch underneath.

There were lots of dark woods back there. Edgar Lane curved through those woods, a dirt road, no pavement, with old houses here and there along it – one had burnt down a long time ago. You could just see the stone chimney and bits of house, an overgrown place that you could tell had once been a garden. My mother liked to walk through and around that house. I hung back. I didn’t like these journeys in the past and sometimes into forbidden places that she like to take, into orchards where threatening signs hung “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” or, as we drove by, stopping the car to go look into an old closed one-room schoolhouse that smelled of old books.

I didn’t feel safe with my mother. I felt safe with my father, felt that whatever came he would be up to the fight.

We left the house on the hill for a couple of years, came back for a year, left again. When we came back the second time after being gone five years I was fourteen. There were two sisters, and my father had re-made the house. He had always loved the place. Had bought it despite my mother’s protests, a story he told Fred just last year when we visited him in Hungary, an old man now, sitting in a distinguished old-world room, lined with books, telling Fred how Joan didn’t want to buy such a rundown place, but it was such a bargain, she could not be listened to.

$10,000, two acres, 1960, his first house in America after living in first a trailer with my mother which – I’ve seen a picture – was really a camper – and then a rented apartment on Warburten Avenue in Yonkers. Now – a whole house in a place called Westchester County – you could commute to the city and still have trees.

While we’d been gone my father had added an asphalt driveway that led up the hill, delivering you to the back of the house. Before the driveway my parents had parked the yellow Rambler perpendicular to the road in a cleared rectangle at the bottom of the hill. Now you drove up this smooth driveway and when you got to the top my father had put a white garage, then a flagstone walkway to the front door covered by a white trellis that roses were supposed to clamber over, then there was a front porch, a new wing – not big – but enough to hold an impressive front door, a screened-in porch.

And he’d carpeted much of the house in a beige low-pile carpet, wall-to-wall in the living room, the new front hall, up the stairs, up into the attic that was my room. A much more standard house, now standing with its back to the road.

I knew my father liked it much better now.

There was also a freestanding bright red Franklin stove in the small living room. My mother had always wanted a fireplace and this was my father’s response.

When we came back it was the same house, but different.

My mother made wastepaper baskets for each room with brown paper bags, this in the first days as we waited for trunks to arrive from England.

My father went to work and came home in the evenings now and slept downstairs in the new little wing he had added that during the day was a front hall with a yellow couch and at night became his bedroom, the couch opening into a bed, the coat closet his suit closet, the new bathroom his bathroom, and narrow sets of French doors added so that the front hall could be closed off from the living room, the living room from the stairs, the stairs leading up to the attic from the rest of the house.

My mother, in the very beginning, had made a darkroom in the room that was now my little sister’s. She didn’t think about darkrooms anymore and when my father would sometimes say things like, “You used to make such nice pictures,” she would look angry and irritated, and I’d get angry too, I didn’t know why – there just seemed something so off and phony about his words, and he spoke like he was talking to a child, using one of the childish words of my family vocabulary – “pic-chies” instead of “pictures” – we had many such words – mixes between baby words and Hungarianized English.

In the end the house got sold before its time, when the debts scare the hell out of my father and he sold the place, sold it all, a place he still thinks about, has a framed photo on the wall in Budapest.

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