Our House Is a Very Fine House
My dad was a garbage truck mechanic on the day shift. Mom worked night shift in a factory line that filled aerosol spray cans, deodorant tubes, perfume bottles. They were trying to save enough money to buy a home of their own. In the meantime we rented a house in a campground in New Jersey.
Just when there was any extra money at all, my brother or I would snap a bone doing something crazy in the campground.
But when my brother and I complained about having to do something we didn’t want to do, dad reminded us that the job he worked so he could feed us, involved him sometimes having to crawl under a garbage truck and heat up rusted parts with a blowtorch. Oh how the maggots fell on him. We’d do our homework then. We’d clean our rooms then. Whatever we could do to avoid a life of maggots.
My parents lived paycheck to paycheck. While mom was guiding the forklift driver over to a pallet of a zillion cans of hair spray, dad opened the oven and pushed in a baking sheet filled to max capacity with frozen store brand fish sticks.
And times got worse for my mother and father. Campbell’s soup shrunk the size of their canned creamed corn. The store brand frozen green beans with the almond slivers vanished from the freezer section. The toaster broke and we drove around from store to store searching for a replacement, but there were no good deals. He bought a toaster he didn’t like at a price he didn’t like and we had peanut butter and jelly for dinner while my mom stood at a conveyor belt, missing us and counting down the minutes to her cigarette break so she could call us from the payphone and say goodnight.
They did get their own house. I was fifteen when it finally happened. The night my parents’ closed on their mortgage, vandals broke in and kicked holes in the walls, smashed holes in the ceiling, spray painted illegible messages on the counter tops, cabinets, doors, even some windows.
I found out later that the vandals were kids that went to the high school I was moving into. But there was never a confrontation. They were seniors and I was a freshman.
And just like we were moving into the house that’d been condemned for some years and recently pushed into government sale, these kids were being pushed out from their nighttime party spot by a family that would actually live in the unlivable house. I could almost sympathize with their destruction.
We weren’t all that upset about the damage anyway, my father had plans to tear down the buttercup wood paneling with horse drawn carriage and wheat motif. The neon spray paint that said ‘FUCK OFF THIS PLACE IS HAUNTED” would be thrown into the dumpster when the dumpster was dropped off the roll off truck.
Money came back from government housing agency to cover the vandalism, and it seemed to us magic that my broke family had some money to fix up the collapsing house.
With my father, I’d sheetrock, sand, paint, reinsulate the walls, rewire the electrical, rip down cabinets. Because some strangers had destroyed it in protest of my family, my mom and dad had some cash to make quick improvements. That first thing we had to do was demolish the front steps. They weren’t up to code. In order to get a Certificate of Occupancy, the concrete need to be busted back down to the dirt and rebuilt the right way. My father was gonna teach me how.
“We should get some nitroglycerin and blow them up,” I said, pointing at the front steps.
“No,” dad said. He reached way back and swung the sledgehammer, chips of stone shot out. The broken blocks were thrown into his pickup truck, taken to the dump. The following weekend, I learned how to mix cement. He showed me the right way to lay the new block. It wasn’t long before the steps into the house were looking good again. I was proud that I’d been able to help.
I mixed the cement in the wheelbarrow and passed him small scoops, he buttered the blocks and set them down into the mud, tapped on the side that was high, checked with a level to make sure they were perfect.
My father was up in the attic. I was at the base of the attic stairs passing him up the sheets of plywood we’d ripped so they’d fit up the hole in the ceiling.
He was big and impatient and sweat a lot. When he stuck his head out over the attic stairs, I was busy dodging the sweat that fell down at me. It was like a video game. Dodge the acid falling from the roof of the cave. Now I’m used to getting sweat on. I’ve worked heavy construction for eleven years. Back then instead of fixing the attic so our family could store boxes, I wanted to be in my bedroom playing my guitar, or hanging out with my girlfriend, who was off somewhere doing something fun—swimming in a pool, driving to the beach.
The radio was playing up in the attic. It was distorted because of the heat, melting as it played.
My father was singing along as he hammered the plywood down up there. But then the singing stopped, and the radio lowered and his head stuck out of the hole and sweat rained down on me, “Hey Bud … you know this song?”
It was “Squeezebox” by The Who. I’d heard it before on the regular run-of-the-mill classic rock station.
“Yeah, I know the song …”
Momma’s got a squeezebox, daddy never sleeps at night … she goes in and out she goes in and out …
My father wiped the sweat from his brow and said, “Okay, what’s about?”
Ah shit, I’d been waiting for this. The dreaded sex talk. Sometimes you saw it happen in movies. I knew it was only a matter of time before I finally got the sex talk in real life.
“What’s it about…,” I said, delaying.
“Yeah, what’s a squeezebox?”
I knew what a squeezebox was, I was wasn’t going to be embarrassed to say it to him. It was nothing to be embarrassed about.
“A vagina,” I said.
His eyes got wide and his mouth opened so big it looked like it was going to swallow his whole face.
“An accordion!” he said, laughing at me. “They’re singing about an accordion.”
And then the radio went back up full blast and I walked down the hallway to get another sheet of plywood.
The first winter in the new house was hard. The steps leading up to the front door were always slick with ice. My father dumped a bag of chemical ice melt on the steps and went out into the night to go and plow roads. Some storms he’d be gone 17 hours, but the snow like that meant my mom couldn’t make it to work.
I liked to get up early the morning and shovel the driveway. Once I finished our driveway, I went and shoveled other driveways in the neighborhood for cash. I was saving up to buy a car in a couple years.
The snow was deep. I shoveled till I was frozen and up in my brother’s room I could see the blue light flickering of his TV. The video game he was playing.
I yelled up at his window, “Come out here and help me!”
The curtain moved to the side and I saw my brother’s hand. He flipped me the bird.
I threw my shovel to the side and marched up the concrete steps, almost wiping out on the ice and killing myself.
I pounded on my brother’s door, still yelling, “Yo! Get out here and help me shovel the driveway!”
The door opened in a flash that I didn’t expect. Here came my little brother’s fist. He caught me square between the eyes and knocked me backs onto the ground. The door slammed.
I got up, bloody nose and all, broke the door down and attacked him. When we were done fighting, he was bloody like I was and I was back out on the driveway, shoveling by myself still.
That spring, the front steps were destroyed from the bags of ice melt my father had dumped on the steps.
We sledgehammered the disintegrated blocks out and replaced them with new blocks.
The following winter there was a rule, “Don’t pour ice melt on the steps. Just leave the steps alone, I don’t want to have to replace many of the blocks this spring.”
The snow came down. The ice grew thick on the steps. My girlfriend said she didn’t want to come over anymore. It was too dangerous to get inside the house. She said, “I’ll die going up those steps.”
I went to my father and begged him to salt the steps. To use the harsh chemical ice melt the steps.
“Absolutely not. They stay how they are.”
It was December and I wouldn’t see my girlfriend until Easter if this kept up the way it was. We used to spend a lot of time screwing around in my room and my parents didn’t care. If I went over her parent’s house, we had to watch Disney movies on the couch out in the living room.
I said, “Let me get a blow torch and melt the ice off the steps.”
He said, “If you touch the steps, you won’t have to worry about your girlfriend not being able to come over because you’ll be in the cemetery, permanently.”
That night it snowed again. My father went out to plow the roads. I walked through the hip deep snow to my friend’s house around the corner. He’d just bought a used truck. It was four wheel drive and we were excited to tool around in the snow, do donuts. The problem was the transmission exploded only an hour after we started driving it around. Red fluid in the white powder like blood and the gears of the Ford making the most horrible sounds you’d ever heard. It’d make any kid give up.
It wasn’t that late at night, maybe one in the morning when I walked into the house. Usually the TV was going in the living room that time. My mom had worked night shift for so many years and she watched it on into the dawn. But this time the TV was off and there was an unnerving silence that had fallen across their house.
At the top of the stairs I saw a strange thing. A floating orange orb. It grew in intensity in the darkness. And then my mother’s voice, “Hey …”
She was smoking a cigarette on the couch.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“Your father was in an accident. He’s hurt really bad.”
I froze, I didn’t know what to think.
“Is he in the hospital?”
“No. No, he’s not in the hospital.”
“Then where is he?” I briefly though at the morgue.
But she sighed and said, “He’s lying down in the bedroom. He hurt his back really bad.”
She hesitated to tell me.
“He fell down the front steps.”
I burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny!” she said. I caught my laugh and heard a little laugh slip from her own lips.
“Listen: go into the garage, get that stuff, dump some ice melt on the goddamn steps…”
I walked passed her on the couch.
“Where are you going?”
I picked up the telephone on the wall.
I said, “I’m calling my girlfriend to come over.”
With the last of the renovation money that my parent’s got from the vandalism, my mom bought a new floor for the kitchen. Linoleum.
She was proud of the linoleum, and I think at the time it was the nicest thing she’d ever bought that wasn’t ‘necessary’.
I have a vague memory of my mom standing in the kitchen, holding a cup of steaming coffee in both hands, and smiling down at the floor—pink roses and gray blocks in a shiny white field.
One afternoon while my dad was at work and I was grocery shopping with my mom, fireworks went off inside the kitchen and blew a hole in the floor so severe that if you stepped into the hole, you’d probably fall from the second story, down into the ground floor where my bedroom was.
The legend goes that my brother was cooking oatmeal on the stove when one of his friends came running up the front steps.
The friend came into the house with an M-80 fire cracker and tried to convince my brother to come around the neighborhood with him and blow shit up. My brother refused and the friend got mad and threw the M-80 onto the kitchen stove, where it bounced off the pot of oatmeal and landed in the flames. The fuse began to burn and my brother panicked, picked the M-80 up and tried to throw it out the window.
The screen was down and the M-80 bounced onto the kitchen floor and my brother and his friend stood there in a panic, hands on their heads, running in place while yelling (like cartoon characters).
They ran out of the kitchen as the M-80 went off, tripping over each other and barreling down the wooden steps that led to the screen door. After falling through the screen door, ripping it off the hinges, the two of them tumbled down the concrete steps. Blood and sprained bones. Bruises.
The unnamed neighbor didn’t wait around too long, he sprang up and ran back home.
My brother was sitting on the front steps when we pulled up with the groceries. His head in his hands. Black smoke billowing out of the house behind him.
Illustration Credit: Carabella Sands