There were too many doors; there were
two right in the middle of a hallway. Some
you couldn’t open without closing
others facing them. Bathroom
adjacent to a bathroom big enough
to put a bed inside. I spent a lot of time
reading from a book whose cover
seemed romantic, though I couldn’t read
and later learned it was a manual
for natural pesticides. Across the road
a swamp my parents called the wetland.
They told people the house was how it was
because it had been built in pieces
when the farmer had money. Certain
rooms fifty years older than others.
In the windows hung big antique napkins,
sun backlighting monograms. My mother’s taste
was decorating with dead strangers’ old possessions.
She propped their black-and-whites
among the ones of relatives. My sister and I
had a cradle/crib whose appeal was
it had been a baby’s. You could flip it upside down
and back and the thing would stand on feet
or rock, depending. The bed slats
clattered into place to fit the new arrangement.
Outside was green and beige
with chalky purple thorn branches.
A picture in our room showed a girl
wearing a summer dress and sleeping
with her head against a dog.
The dog, awake, looked off into the picture edge.
Behind them in the distance, tiny figures rolling barrels.
The girl and dog lay in some sort of alley
on cobblestones. My mother said
she bought the picture
because it made her think of us
so I studied it for evidence of what I was.
The heavy, vaguely pleasurable sensation
of listening to yourself described
like having your knees tapped
with the doctor’s rubber hammer.
I liked when guests came and my parents
rose up to the surface of themselves.
My mother put on makeup
and my father smiled, turning lights on.
Best was if the people stayed the night.
Early morning, they sat talking about
the house, about the others’ houses,
my father pointing out the window
to a high green wall of weeds
the wind made quiver. It cost to mow
but if you didn’t they would take over the yard.
The yard would be the same green only
higher. So the house would appear lower
and the space around it less still, more
obviously particulate, the tall weeds
shifting, stroking each other.
We ate in metal folding chairs
around the fancy wooden table.
My parents spoke in guest voices.
Different voices went along with being
happy, tired, busy. When my mother
got angry, she enunciated. If my father yelled
his vowels shifted. The Fordham Road
comes out, my mother said of this transition.
I believed such inconsistency specific
to my parents. The guests would keep on
talking brightly, steadily, even
once they drove away. I heard
my parents, washing up, discuss them.
Someone was sick. Someone with too much
money was always doing something
meaningless. A childless woman
remained a child: arrogant, eccentric.
The wine opener was a silver person
who could raise her arms in despair.
People, strangers in particular,
were always asking what do you
want to be and telling you the answer
could be anything.
My sister and I slept in twin beds.
Above the head of each, a green shelf
where we kept our plastic figures. A skunk. A fawn.
A dinosaur. We arranged and traded them.
The elephant. The seashell with a face.
The other fawn with holes in its skull
from when it was a salt shaker.
Margaret Ross is the author of A Timeshare. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.