1. House Not Home
Grimwalt Place, top of Burrough Hill, eclipsed by weedy vine and long-dead ivy was never home. I never thought I would return. My taxi rolled past the rusted gate toward the circle drive lined with garish, oversized animal statuary. Humid decay, hanging thick in the air, blotted out the smoky, greasy taxi odors. This place was dead or should be.
I paid my fare, grabbed my small valise and stepped out into the sick, grey atmosphere heavy with memory and threatening rain. I tripped on a rise in the cement and my eyes caught something screaming orange against the bushes and yellowed xoysia
grass. Christ, Mother had painted the lawn jockey.
The house itself had not been changed or maintained since the night I left 15 years before. Nature encroached, leaks became pools, and hairline cracks grew into fissures and gullies. It should have made me angry or sad, but my childhood home always disgusted me anyway. I lingered on the porch. I didn’t want to be here and I did not want to see her.
I pressed my palm against a cool pillar, got steady. Moths fluttered close to me and a hairy spider skittered off behind the porch light to a web full of captured forfeit lives. This is temporary. This is not my home. This is a stopping-off place. Halfway-house.
Half-way between new life and old life. Not my destination. Nothing of me will stay or reside here.
I will not die here. I am not my father, nor my brother. I am not Enid. I may not even be a Grimwalt. I scanned the yard once more. That damned unholy orange lawn jockey. He’s out there with his ugly lantern to call all dead things home.
“Dahlia! Get yourself in here! Oh, you’ll be rained on and my floors will be muddy!
Oh LOOOOK at you!” Her little claws seized my shoulders and pulled me into the foyer. Fake nails and big jewelry, creped skin and age spots. Little diamond-encrusted claws. First thing I see of my mother in 15 years.
Enid Redding Shields Grimwalt. No relation to Otis, Brooke or anyone else of note.
A tiny woman, crow-like with her beady black eyes and addiction to shiny objects. Born in a hardscrabble tiny town and raised by loving people with nothing. I never knew my grandparents, but according to Enid they had nothing. “One piss-pot and a dirt floor.”
Enid was a pretty child and knew it. She had been married before she met my father. Poor Mr. Shields had passed on when she was only 23. He had had more than nothing, but not really enough. Enid demanded both admiration and trinkets. She had just
about exhausted Mr. Shield’s life insurance money when Dad met her and lost his mind.
I get it. She’s my mother. I came from that. I’m no better than that. Except I saw her greed
then like I see it now. She may not have kept the exterior of the house up, but Enid is all about self-maintenance. She has had work done, eyes and boobs and lip plumping. The long nails are her own, immaculately manicured and bright magenta. She’s tan without any lines. Her hair, a chestnut cloud with copper highlights. Rail thin and wearing white. She’s still beautiful–not genuine, not natural–but certainly a gorgeous, well-preserved shell without a single drop of love in her. Hollow as a cheap chocolate bunny.
I step through the door and into Enid’s Wonderland. She is using a hot pink Venus de Milo as a coat rack. Heavy moss green velvet wallpaper everywhere. Poufy furniture with giant aqua flowers. Zebra striped coffee table with purple legs. Deep red shag carpet. Orange pendant lights that look like giant teardrops. Snakeskin lampshades. Cheetah throw pillows. Willy Wonka and Ernest Hemingway in an abusive marriage.
“What are you drinking, dear ?” Because booze must make this easier.
“I’m good. Really, Mother. I just want to get unpacked and lie down. If that’s okay?” I really just want to close my eyes to all of this.
She hugs me, squeezing to determine if she thinks I’m fat. “Of course, Dear. Dahlia, I’m so happy you’re home with me! Oh, I’ve told all my girls you’d be here. They’re dying for makeovers!”
She thinks I do makeovers. I have never corrected her. Maxillofacial surgery. That’s why
I went to school in Geneva. That’s what I do. Help kids with cleft palates. Help burn victims speak. Help anyone who needs THAT kind of help. It’s not surface bullshit. It does not involve a contour brush or eyeliner.
“I just bet they are. I’ll do what I can.”
I head toward my old room down the main hall. She puts herself in front of me.
“We’ve changed the situation a little, dear. You’ll be more comfortable upstairs.
Would you mind staying in Louie’s room.”
We? New man in Enid’s life? Wouldn’t blame her. Probably several since Dad. No new names though.
Louie’s room. As disconnected as I always felt from Enid, my brother had been my world. He called me “Dolly” since he could speak. Where I was curious about the inner workings of things, Louie wanted to explore the whole wide world. He drew maps of countries, peoples, resources, currencies. He made a list of inventions to take to
different parts of the world to help.
His eyes, the color of a cadet-blue Crayola, would shine when he spoke about bringing water fountains to deserts or space heaters to Iceland. His room would be my haven. And here it was untouched by most everything outside of it. The walls were palest blue, nothing on them. All of his toys and pictures had been put away long ago. A few
of his favorite books, picture-heavy versions of Call of the Wild, The Island of Dr. Moreau and White Fang, were stacked on a shelf. The bed was freshly made with white sheets and a blue plaid comforter.
I would stay here with him when the parties below got too loud or when Dad was out in the workshop in the woods beyond. We’d plot our escape from this place. From our icy mother, from our preoccupied artist father, from the party monsters, deadbeat relatives and hangers-on. They all though our mother was a fabulous, swanky beauty and our father was a mysterious, tortured genius. And we were the product of both so people would molest and pinch us and try to grab a little “Grimwalt Magic”.
I came up here with Louie because we were safe together. We were the only real ones in a cartoon world where the pleasure of the moment outweighed any cost. I broke a glass punch ladle over a man’s arm who grabbed my thigh once. I was punished for being dull and breaking the ladle. It stopped the party.
My father never attended Enid’s blowouts. He was always in his workshop. Enid saw us as extensions of herself to be petted and groped and adored. Her surface idea of love
encompassed awkward situations, risking our bodily safety. We stood up for each other and stayed together because we had to set the limits for the adults in our lives.
About a month after the ladle incident the same man, Larry Reising, tried to corner me again. I had been coming back from the bathroom at 2 a.m. He backed me into a dark portion of the hallway and grabbed my ears. He was fat and his sweat-soaked shirt had come up over his hairy gut. I grabbed two handfuls of fat on his sides and squeezed
and twisted as hard as I could.He squealed and let go/
I ran fast as I could to Louie’s room. Louie was still awake. I bounded in and we slammed
and locked the door against the bellowing beast on the other side. Larry pounded and cursed me. He threw his bulk against the door. It sounded like a massive wet sandbag
whumping against a hollow tree.
Whump. Cursing. Whump. Louie and I sat in the corner of the closet trying to be silent.
Whump. Bellowing. Whump. In a steady rhythm, Louie began to clap quietly to match each time Larry slammed against the door. Then he began to chant quietly between the claps.
Clap. ”Dirty Pig Larry.”
Clap. “He’s nasty and hairy.”
Clap. “He grabbed my sister.”
Clap. “His ding-dong has a blister.”
Clap. Giggle. Shush ourselves. Repeat.
By the middle of the third round, Larry had passed out in the hallway sandbagging us in the room. Louie and I fell asleep where we lay in the closet among laundry and scattered
toys. I awoke early, watching my little brother snore and smile in his sleep, thinking what a magical creature he was.
Louie’s room. If I had to be in this house, then I would stay in its heart.