Green Hills Literary Lantern

Come On-A My House

 

 

            A day of tension, yelling, maybe a slap or two.  Tom was sure of it, as sure as the rain that was falling outside.  Stuck in doors.  Only a matter of hours, maybe minutes, before he and his mother tangled.  He was eating corn flakes in the kitchen; he could hear her in the back bedroom, zooming fabric through the sewing machine.  His only chance was to stay clear.  After quickly downing the last of the cereal, he bolted from the kitchen table, fleeing to the basement: the only place where he felt free from her grasp.

            An hour later he was engrossed in a spider web, crosshatched between two ceiling joists in the area where the water tank, hot-water heater, furnace, and coal bin were grouped.  He was staring at the chair that he’d placed below the web, calculating.  This part of the basement, so dark, so dank, where ceiling webs hung like drool, gave him the willies.  Yet he was drawn to it, drawn to its deep mystery, as he was drawn now to that web above the chair, a magnificent web, that looked like a tossed fishnet frozen in space.  But where was the spider?  Tom wiggled the chair to the left and moved backwards, and his foot stepped on a piece of coal, rolling it, pitching him into a home-plate-like slide.  

            Embarrassed, Tom sprang to his feet.  He was alone and no one saw him, but he was eleven, a vulnerable age, and his stumblings and klutziness made him ashamed.  To neutralize this, he randomly kicked the stray pieces of coal that littered the floor back inside the bin.

            With that finished, he placed a phone book on the chair and unscrewed a recycled mayonnaise jar holding several ants, each desperately trying to scale the glass.  He pinched one between his fingers, and climbed onto the chair.  After carefully gauging the distance, he flicked the ant. 

            “Yes,” he whispered when it landed in the web.  A half-second later a nickel-sized spider clambered out of a dark corner, stopping within a whisper of the ant. 

            The ant thrashed and a delicious shiver, a feeling akin to rapture, ran through Tom.  He watched transfixed.  At times it looked as if the ant might break free, but the spider moved in, swiftly re-fettering its legs with fresh silk.  Minutes passed and yet Tom couldn’t take his eyes away from the battle.  Finally the ant began to weaken and the spider hurried in for the kill.  Deftly avoiding the ant’s powerful mandible, it tumbled its threads over and around, trussing its prey into a tidy parcel.  Then it mounted the ant and began to suck.  In their stillness, the hunter and the hunted became one.  Spellbound, Tom continued to watch.  Then something shifted inside of him.  Now the sight sickened him.  He felt a pang of remorse, a small pity for the ant, and a brutal revulsion toward the spider. 

            Suddenly, he grabbed the broom that was leaning against the water heater.  With a smash, he jabbed the spider and drew the handle back toward him, his eyes eager to see.  There, squished against the tip, impaled by its own creamy guts, was the spider, its legs still scratching the air.  A mingling of queasiness and delight ran through Tom.  He wanted a closer look, so he swung the handle toward him.  But when he did, the bristle end of the broom cracked against the water heater, shocking the spider into the air.  Afraid the spider would land on him, Tom flung his arms up in protection and screeched.  Then the phonebook slid and the chair teetered.  The broom jammed against the wall.  Tom fell to the ground like Newton’s apple.

            From the corner of his eye, he saw a waver of movement, something flying at him.  He jumped to his feet and saw it was only a piece of paper, a paper that he must have dislodged from the top of the water heater.  Relief washed through him.

            “What’s going on?” his mother yelled from the top of the stairs.

            “Nothing.”

            “What’re you doing?”

            “Just playing.”

            “Stay out of trouble.” 

            “I ammm!”

            “You watch your mouth, young man!”

            Then, because his mother couldn’t see him, Tom twisted his face ugly, aiming it in her direction.

            He kicked at the paper, a heavy grade, curled with age.  It sailed halfway across the room, landing upside down.  He walked over to it, his foot ready to kick it again, but he stopped when he saw it was a black-and-white photograph.  He leaned over it for a closer look.  A picture of a woman, naked from the waist up, stared back at him.  With a mixture of excitement and alarm, he studied her image.  The woman was smiling oddly, as if her tongue were savoring chocolate or something equally delicious.  Her hands were crossed behind her neck, her elbows pierced the dark space around her.  Her bold, lush breasts, white as Easter lilies, transfixed him in a roaring, disconnected way.  A queasy panic, a wild disturbance, roused through him, settling in his lower trunk.

            Then with a shock he realized it was his mother, a younger, thinner—even beautiful—woman, but his mother all the same.  He was astonished at how different she looked.  For as long as he could remember, she had always been old and fat: a doughy beanbag with jiggly arms. 

            Though he knew it was wrong, he wanted to keep this picture.  He wanted to hide it in his room, pull it out whenever it was safe.  But that, he knew, was dangerous.  No corner, shelf, or drawer was free from his mother’s snooping.  While staring at the photograph, he heard her walking above him across the kitchen floor.  The sound of her feet gave rise to a feeling of being caught.  Wasting no time, he placed the photograph back on top of the heater.  Although he tried to resume his hunt for the spider, he kept seeing his mother’s breasts.  More than anything he wanted to look at them one more time.  But he didn’t dare. 

            Finally, his nerves got the better of him and he stampeded up the stairs and outside into the rain.  He ran across the road and into the neighboring cemetery.  He zigzagged between the gravestones until he collapsed beside an angel monument.  Resting beneath her wings, he heard his mother yell, “Thomas James, get back here right now!  If you get sick!”  Her threat hung in the air like an evil eye.  He knew he should return.  He could feel the wet ground soaking through the seat of his pants, his hair and shirt getting wet.  But with his mother’s picture and all of its implications swirling in his mind, he felt death would be easier than having to face her.

            “What are you doing?” his mother said, intentionally sneaking up on him and barking the sentence into his ear, making him jump.  “Look at you!  Look at your clothes!” she said, swatting the side of his head.

            Later that day he heard his father return from his job at Schlitz Brewery.  Tom’s mother was waiting for him in the kitchen.  At first Tom could only make out a word or two.  But then her railing grew louder.  Tom pictured his father holding his lunchbox, being forced to listen to every word of her one-sided story.  “And I’m the one who’ll have to cart him to the doctor on the bus if he gets sick.”  Her voice trailed down the hallway, chasing after his father who was now passing by Tom’s bedroom.

            “He won’t get sick.” 

            “That’s your response, Gordon? He won’t get sick!” 

            “Okay.  I’ll talk to him after I clean up.” 

            The bathroom door clicked shut. 

            When his father entered his room, Tom was sitting cross-legged on the floor.  He was drawing his superhero, The Amazing Electric Man, who could kill anyone with his lightning-bolt arms and legs.   

            “Want to tell me what happened?” 

            Tom stared at his father, unsure what to say, uncertain how much he knew. 

            A few strained moments passed before his father said, “Well, you won’t do it again, now will you?”  Tom felt immediate relief.  He wasn’t going to be punished; his parents weren’t aware of his discovery. 

            “Try to stay out of your mother’s hair.”

            Tom nodded, closing his notebook.

            “I saw the new family moving into the Carlsons’ old house.  Looks like they have a boy about your age.”

            Tom’s face lit up.  He had been three when they moved from the city.  They were among the first families to build in the area.  There was a smattering of houses up the road, but it was still mostly undeveloped: thick woods, open fields, the cemetery across the street.  All things that Tom liked.  But he hadn’t any friends close by.  His two older sisters did, but not him. 

            “Why don’t you go over and meet him tomorrow?”

            “Sure.”

            “We’d better go eat before your mother gets mad at me, too.” 

            A knowing look passed between them.

            “I think we should wait a few days.  Let them settle in before we visit,” his mother said while passing Tom the peas.  Avoiding her eyes, he set the bowl down in front of him.  “No you don’t.  One spoonful, normal size, or I’ll add two of my own.”

            “They taste like swamp.”

            “Oh, and I suppose you’re an expert on swamp taste.  Take the peas or you’ll be sorry.”

            “I think it’s best if Tom meets the new boy on his own,” his father said.

            “Fine,” she said.  “And you wonder why he doesn’t listen to me.”

            “Dorothy, please.”

            She glared at him and started to say something, but stopped.  Then she glared at her children.  

            Tom and his two sisters sat rigid in their chairs, their eyes lowered on their plates.  For reasons that were unclear to anyone, it was usually during suppertime, when everyone was together, that upset her the most.  Over the years the children had tried to figure out what set her off, so they could avoid doing it, so she wouldn’t leave the table angry, or, even more frightening, so she wouldn’t stare at them until she received an apology.  Paulette, the middle child, thought it was because cooking tired her out.  Ellen, Tom’s oldest sister, said it was because Tom and Paulette didn’t know how to behave.  And Tom felt certain, though he shared this with no one,  that it was because of him.  He could set her off faster than anyone. 

            But today Dorothy surprised everyone. 

            “You’re right, Gordon.  Tom’s certainly old enough to meet his own friends.”  Her voice was starched, artificially calm.   And with that, she picked up the bowl of peas and scooped three heaping tablespoons onto Tom’s plate while her eyes seared into him.

 

            Despite his mother’s claim, Tom knew she was apt to change her mind.  So the following morning he biked over to befriend the new boy on his own without telling her.  As he coasted by the Carlsons’ old house, he saw a kid shooting arrows at a target nailed to a tree.  Tom quickly circled back and pedaled up the yard.  The boy lowered his bow as Tom approached.

            “Hi, I’m Tom.  I live down that way.”  He threw his head in the direction of his house.

            “I’m Web.”

            “Web your real name?”

            “Yeah.  Short for Webster.”  The boy was taller than Tom.  He was wearing cuffed jeans, a short-sleeved shirt open at the neck.  His dark hair was long, back combed like Elvis’s.  Tom ran a nervous hand across his bristly flattop as he watched Web shoot an arrow.  It missed the target.  “You wrecked my concentration,” Web said. 

            “Sorry.  I’ll get it.”

            “Wait.”  Web drew an arrow from his quiver and held out his bow.  “Want to shoot?”

            “Sure!”

            “Ever shoot before?”

            Tom shook his head.

            Web demonstrated the proper stance.  “Keep your eye on the target.”

            With deep concentration, Tom worked at threading the arrow onto the string, while trying to coordinate his fingers around the bow and the front part of the arrow.  Just when he thought he had it down the arrow flipped up, bopping him on the forehead.  Web laughed insanely and kept laughing when Tom’s first arrow nose-dived onto the ground a few feet in front of him.  Now, thinking himself  funny, Tom laughed, too, while he recklessly shot the remaining arrows, most missing the target by a mile.

            “I can see you’re a real natural,” Web said, slapping Tom on the back. 

            Tom smiled, feeling happier than he’d felt in days. 

            “Come on.  I need a cig.  Man, you sure have a lot of freckles,” Web said, staring at Tom’s freckled face, neck, and arms, freckles as bountiful and brilliant as a poppy field.  

            “Hey, relax.  They ain’t so bad.”

            “Easy for you to say.”

            They made their way to the freestanding, one-car garage at the far end of Web’s property.  Web raised the door.  “I keep my cigs in the loft,” he said as they headed for the ladder nailed like a fish spine to the back wall.  “Wait here,” he said.  Tom watched him climb above the opening, twist his body around before leaping over to the loft floor.  “Come on up,” he said, peering down at Tom.

            “Wow!  Is this cool,” Tom said after joining him. The air reeked of oil and dust.  The roof’s low pitch made it impossible to stand, except in the center.  After a few moments, their eyes adjusted to the dim light seeping through the gaps in the warped floorboards, the only source of illumination.

            “What’s in those?” Tom asked, looking at some boxes. 

            “My stuff,” Web said, throwing his bow and quiver on the floor.

            “Man oh man!  This your space?”

            “Course, what’d you think?”  Web snagged a pack of cigarettes out of a box.  “I steal these from my mom,” he said, tossing the pack over to Tom, who took a cigarette and leaned into Web’s match.  He inhaled and a cough exploded from him. 

            Web laughed.  “I thought you smoked.”

            “Can’t,” Tom said, still coughing.  “I got no way to get any.”

            “Well I guess today’s your lucky day.  You can buy your smokes from me.”

            “Great,” Tom said, looking around.

            “I wish I had a way to lock this place up.  My mom won’t come up here.  She’s afraid of heights.  My dad says he won’t.  But you never know.”

            “Will they let you?”

            “What?”

            “Lock the place up.”

            “Why wouldn’t they?”

            “My mom’s always snooping in my room,” Tom said, flicking his ash. 

            “That stinks.”

            “It’d be really easy to make a door.  I can help.  My dad has a lot of scrap wood.  But we’ll need hinges and a lock.”

            “No problem.  If my ol’ man doesn’t have that stuff, I’ll get him to take me to Sears.”

            “Great.  I can help tomorrow.”  He flicked his cigarette again.

            “The sooner the better,” Web said, tossing Tom the cigarettes.  “First pack’s on me.”

 

            The next morning the boys installed the door.  Then Tom practiced the art of inhaling while Web unpacked his stuff.  He piled his football, baseball, bat and glove in one area, his fishing gear and game boards on the other side.  Then he dragged over a narrow box with a picture of a rifle on the lid. 

            “Is that real?” Tom asked.

            “Real BB gun.”

            “Can I see it?”

            “Later,” he said, shoving it aside. 

            “We need some chairs up here.”

            “And some flowers,” Web said in a girly voice.   

            “Yeah, yeah, laugh.  But why not be comfortable?”

            “Hey, we should turn this place into a bachelor pad.”  Web scooted over to a box and took out a magazine.  “Looky here.”  He shook it open.  “Ride ’em cowgirl!”  He galloped a bare-breasted, pigtailed girl in front of Tom.  She was wearing denim shorts and red cowboy boots.  She was sitting on a bale of hay, leaning backwards.

            “Whoa, hold still.  Will you.”

            “I got a ton of these,” Web said, handing him the magazine.  “My dad threw them in the trash.  But lucky for us I saved them.”

            “Man, I really like hers.”  Tom pointed to a big-breasted woman.  “And hers are just like my mom’s,” he said without thinking.

            “Your mom’s?  You seen your mom’s tits?”

            “No, just her picture.  But don’t tell anyone.”

            “You got a naked picture of your ol’ lady?  And she looks like her?”

            “She doesn’t look like her.  Just her boobs.  It’s an old picture.  When she was young,” Tom said nervously.

            “Let me see.”

            Tom held out the magazine. 

            “Not that.  Your mom’s picture.”

            “No way!”

            Web grabbed the magazine from him.  “I share all of this with you.”  Web swept his hand, taking in his piles of stuff.  “And you’re telling me you won’t show me one stinking picture of your mom’s naked titties?”

            “Drop it.”

            “You’ve already said they look like hers.  So I wouldn’t be seeing anything new.”

            “Then what’s the point?”

            “The point!  The point is you’re stingy.  And I hate stingy people.”

            “All right, all right,” Tom said.

            “Bring it tomorrow.”  Web dropped the Playboy inside the box, and then he draped his arm over Tom’s shoulder.  “You got to share, my friend.”

 

            When Tom arrived the following morning, Web was waiting for him in the loft.  He was sitting in a lawn chair.  He kicked the other one in Tom’s direction.  “Like the chairs?  Your idea.  Remember?”

            Tom sat down.

            “You bring it?”

            Tom nodded. 

            “Yours for the looking,” Web said, tossing his head toward the Playboys, stacked into three neat piles. 

            Reluctantly, Tom unbuttoned his shirt and withdrew the picture tucked in his waistband. 

            Web snatched it from him.  “Whew,” he whistled.  “Nice bazookas.” 

            After staring at it for a few minutes, he leaned it against one of the boxes.  “Something to beautify the place with.”

            “No way!”

            “Why not?  It’s safe.  I’m the only one with the combination.”

            “’Cause one day my dad’s going to discover it’s gone.”

            “Where’d you find it anyway?”

            “On top of the water heater.”

            “You kidding?”

            “It was real dusty, like it’d been up there for years.”     

            “Who would keep it there?”

            Tom hadn’t thought of that.  Web was right.  His parents were careless.  It was their fault he’d found it.  Or so he hoped, and the small part that believed this felt relieved.  But the rest of him felt a skewer of shame, for he knew only a monster would expose his naked mother to a friend.

            “Tell you what.  I’ll give you the combination.  Then you can come here whenever you want.  Look at my Playboys.  And, if you ever want your picture back,” Web said, jabbing his finger into Tom’s arm, “take it.  All right?”

           

            The summer went on, and every morning, Monday through Friday, Tom would bike over to Web’s as soon as he finished his chores.  He’d spend the entire day with him until his father whistled him home for supper.  There was never any reason to leave.  If the boys got hungry, Web would scrounge up something from his kitchen.  They could eat anything they wanted, peanut butter smeared onto marshmallows, pickles and bologna without bread.  They ate loudly and sloppily with their mouths open. 

            If Tom had to use the bathroom, he’d use Web’s.  On his way to it, as he made his way down the hallway, Tom would pass by the bedrooms.  The door to Web’s parents’ bedroom was always closed, music always playing behind it.  For Tom this room was a place of great mystery: it was where Web’s mother spent her days.  Web said she stayed there because she suffered from a nervous condition that kept her up at night.  In a way, she lived her life backwards.  At night, while he and his father slept, she’d clean the house.  Sometimes she’d cook elaborate meals, meals normally eaten at supper—spaghetti and meatballs, roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy—which Web and his father ate for breakfast.  Then during the day behind her closed door she would play the radio and read and try to sleep.   

            Always with anticipation, Tom would make his way down the hall, hoping one day to catch her leaving her room, but he never did.  Although he’d seen her only from a distance, he found her beautiful in a Hollywood sort of way.  Her short feathery hair reminded Tom of a petal swim cap.  She was tall and thin, graceful, like Audrey Hepburn.  In his mind she wore sheer nightgowns, and he felt certain she slept with a satin mask over her eyes, the way Doris Day and Sophia Loren did in their movies.  In his heart she was sheer perfection.  Sometimes, in the dead of the night while lying in bed, Tom pictured her naked, her breasts shaped like Miss September’s and he’d touch himself, his pillow catching his adolescent cries of ecstasy.

            His own mother paled in comparison.  He hated her constant hounding, always telling him what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  It wasn’t enough that he had a colossal list of chores.  He also had to do them according to her timeframe.  He never brought Web over to his house.  He never wanted Web to see his mother’s door-slamming rage.

 

            One morning while biking over to Web’s, Tom heard the sound of distant hammering.  When he got within sight of Web’s house, he saw two men re-shingling the roof.  Web was waiting for him in the loft. 

            “I’m going crazy!  They’ve been here since seven.  Come on,” he said, grabbing his BB gun.

            The boys went to the cemetery and spent the next hour walking among the graves, shooting out the porcelain photographs that were attached to the headstones.  Tom hated those pictures: men and women with gloomy faces and bulging eyes, dressed in hideous clothes.  Finally, tiring of their game, they rested against a grave marker in the shade of an oak tree. 

            “I think we blasted all of them over here,” Web said, while lighting up a cigarette.  He passed it to Tom.

            After taking a puff, Tom gave it back and yanked up a blade of field grass.  He blew on it between his thumbs.

            “Some dog probably peed on that,” Web said over the screech of Tom’s vibrating grass.

            “Dog pee.  Crab pee,” Tom said, before blowing again.

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Years ago my oldest sister and her girlfriend used to picnic here.”

            “In the cemetery?”

            “Yeah, I told you she’s weird.  One time they were eating crabs, and I asked for a taste.”

            “Where’d they get the crabs?”

            “How should I know.  That’s not the point.”

            “I’d like to know.”

            “I don’t know.  They were her girlfriend’s.  Okay?  ’Cause we never had them.  Anyway, my sister didn’t want to share so she said the juice was crab pee.  No way was I going to eat crab piss.”

            “What a dick head.”  Web laughed.  “Now I’m hungry.  Let’s go to the Greek.  Got any money?  I think I got a quarter.”  The Greek was what the locals called their neighborhood store.  Its real name, Arapakoupoulos, left people scratching their heads.

            Tom jumped up and checked his pockets.  “Nothing but this,” he said, holding up a linty stick of gum.

            “Don’t worry about it.  I got enough for us to split a Snickers and pack of Snowballs.” 

 

            Later that day they returned to the loft.  Although the hammering was still going on, Web wanted to play chess.  They were well into their third game when Tom had to use the bathroom.  “Hey, listen,” he said, climbing down the ladder.  “The hammering’s stopped.”

            “About time.”

            As Tom exited the garage, he heard loud music coming from the house, humping the air.  He was surprised; Web’s mother always played the music softly.  Immediately, he seized upon the thought that maybe he’d catch her in the kitchen or the living room or hallway.  Maybe he’d have a face-to-face encounter with her.  He opened the screen door and rushed in.  She wasn’t in the kitchen.  As he made his way to the bathroom, he saw she wasn’t in the living room or hallway.  Or in the bathroom: he could see into it at the end of the hall.  Then he noticed her bedroom door was ajar.  He could barely contain himself as he walked up to it to peek inside.  But he couldn’t make anything out.  The curtains were drawn, and even though daylight was creeping in along the hemline and sides, the room was semi-dark.  If he were to see anything, he’d have to open the door more.  He knew he shouldn’t.  His beating heart was telling him not to.  In spite of this he pushed on it gently. 

            Now he was able to make out the bed and her lying on it.  She looked to be asleep.  He stood there considering.  Then, after glancing nervously over his shoulder, he entered her room.

            Beneath the camouflage of the radio, he made his way past her dresser.  The top was cluttered with make up, perfume bottles, a long-handled mirror and brush.  He noticed a porcelain dish filled with her hairpins and stopped.  Web’s mother was sleeping on her side on top of the covers.  As he watched, he took several pins out of the dish and slid them into his pocket.  Then he saw the half-empty bottle of liquor, the dirty hi-ball glass, the overflowing ashtray, crowding the lamp on the nightstand.  Next to her a magazine was tossed like a wave crashing.  A commercial ended on the radio and Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House” began to play.  Its jazzy rhythm, the throbbing volume, the room’s dreamy darkness shaped a feeling of safety, making him feel protected and bold in some strange way, as if Web’s mother were unable to hear or too drunk to care.  Slowly, he made his way over to the bed. 

            While gazing down at her, his heart pounded.  The air smelled like cherry blossoms or lilies, something wild and mysterious.  She was wearing white shorts, a watery blue blouse, her long legs drawing him closer still.  She was more beautiful than any of the women he’d seen in Playboy.   As he stared, he felt a deep excruciating excitement, a careless arousal, a terrifying desire to touch her white skin that looked as soft as ice cream melting.  When he reached out to touch her leg, a hand slammed over his mouth and an arm encircled his neck. 

            He knew it was Web dragging him out of the room, knew it before Web nailed him against the hallway wall and hissed in his ear, “Outside!”

 

            For fighting, Tom was grounded for two weeks.  For refusing to explain what happened, another week was tacked on.  Except for meals, he was exiled to his room, not that it mattered.  Without his friend, it made little difference if it were three weeks or three months.

            The second day into his punishment, Tom was still agonizing over his stupidity, his recklessness as he sat at his desk, assembling the balsa-wood wings onto a B-29 bomber.  He thought of Web smoking cigarettes in the loft.  More than anything, he wanted to be there with him.  While squeezing out a bead of glue, he heard the screen door open and bang shut.  He dropped the glue and ran to the kitchen.  After grabbing a frozen Milky Way out of the freezer, he charged back to his room and stood in front of his window, peeling down the wrapper. 

            His mother, dressed in a shapeless muumuu, crossed the road to the mailbox.  God, she embarrassed him!  Why did she always wear those ugly rags?  His teeth snapped off a piece of chocolate.  Though he continued to watch as she tugged the mail out of the mailbox, his mind was elsewhere.  He was picturing Web’s mother: her white shorts, her pale blue blouse, her soft thighs, how she had looked like an angel in the shadowy light.  Chewing quickly, he fingered the hairpins in his pocket. 

            As his mother re-crossed the road, she tore open a large envelope.  She pulled out its contents and stopped.  Tom was still picturing Web’s mother when he saw his mother twist her head sharply in his direction, her grief-stricken eyes filled with puzzlement and pain. 

            Suddenly Tom’s stomach seized and his mouth flew open.  He remembered!  A mute howl rose from deep inside of him.  Though he was filled with terror, he stood transfixed, for where was this boy to go? 

            His mother was barreling, slicing across the lawn.  Then she disappeared from view and everything stopped, even Tom’s breathing stopped, as he waited for the sound of the screen door.

 

 

D. A. Roisler has published fiction in The Laurel Review, Passages North, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Heartlands Today, and Onthebus.  She has a story forthcoming in Clackamas Literary Review.  In 2003 she won the Wisconsin Regional Writers’ Association Fiction Award.  She lives in Wisconsin.