Photo credit: Heather Hawksford
My son tells me there’s a woman made of garbage who lives in our walls. He tells me this at night, while we’re trying to go to sleep in my dim bedroom, his father out of town.
“Her name’s Trish,” my son says, “and she’s so
nice.” He yawns.
I’ve perfected the art of minimizing my reaction to the creepy things my kids say and do. One night, my older son sat on a stool next to me while I washed dishes.
“Remember before I was born,” he said, “when I used to just hang out in your apartment and watch you live your life?”
I didn’t drop the glass I was washing, didn’t slowly back away from him, snap up my car keys and drive away forever. I calmly dried the glass, ran through an incriminating catalog of my pre-mom behavior, and hoped he wouldn’t offer up any proof.
That son learned to talk early — a little too early, maybe. I used to wake up to his little baby face inches from mine on the pillow, viper-black eyes blinking
“Hi!” he’d say. “Hi!”
Or there was the time my younger son was asleep on my chest (or so I thought) when he suddenly whispered, “What does your real scream sound like?”
“Hear that?” this same son asks me now.
There’s a creak. A perfectly normal, totally familiar, completely un-haunted creak. This house was built in 1950. It’s bolted to the side of a hill and half of it — the half we’re in — is on stilts.
“That’s Trish,” he says.
A tree — it has to be a tree, right? — taps against the window.
I’m intrigued by what my son is saying, even as my mouth goes dry. I write a lot of fiction about childhood, and the bizarre logic and strange rules kids use to make sense of the world.
“What’s she doing in the walls, bud?” I ask, my tone light. If he thinks I’m scared, he’ll get scared too. His big brother is asleep against my turned back, sweaty and still.
“Oh, nothing,” he says. His little arm rises in the shadowy room, and he winds it back and forth. “She just slides around in there.”
÷ ÷ ÷
A stranger emails to say he liked a story of mine he read in the Paris Review
. He says nice things about my writing, but the way he ends his message is baffling. “I keep thinking about you,” he says, “and I hope you and your troubled daughter get the help you need.”
I don’t have a daughter. The story is fiction, about a little girl who, after being abandoned by her father, tells horrifically violent bedtime stories to her alcoholic mother. She talks about animals eating men, about men ripping each other’s eyelids off. She savors the gore. Her father is a casual misogynist — her mother, a complete mess.
As I read this man’s note, I feel embarrassed, like I’ve been mistaken for someone else. I wonder which of his compliments I can accept, now that I know how much has flown right past this guy. But then I feel something else. I’ve been misrepresented. I feel like maybe my family is in danger, like somebody could come and snatch my (troubled!) kids from me. I compose vicious replies in my head. It’s fiction, fucker
, is an opening line I consider.
I felt the sharp pain of waking up from an exquisite dream.
But then I get distracted. My son, the viper-eyed one, needs me to locate a miniature croissant from his miniature kitchen. This centimeter-long piece of plastic is the only one in the set, so it’s precious and constantly getting lost, along with all sorts of other critical, microscopic foods. We play the game his father and I call "Tiny Panic" several times a day — our kids freaking out, one or both of us on our knees, shining our phone lights under furniture.
By the time I find the missing croissant, I’ve forgotten my fury. Days later I get a reminder nudge from Gmail. Did I want to respond to the man? I no longer feel the rage of the drunk mother I’ve invented, rage on behalf of the spooky fake daughter and the cruel fake husband. I think about kinder ways I might address this man. Understand, this is craft
, I want to say. This is from imagination, not life
But I had
pulled some violent images from my kids’ mouths. The gore was from my younger son. I’d recently explained the concept of blood banks to him and he’d become obsessed. “You mean there’s like, a building with gallons
of blood?” he’d said. My older son specializes in savage animal facts, stories about watches and jewelry found in slit-open alligator stomachs. Were my kids troubled? Certainly not! Were they creepy? Hell yes! But show me a kid who isn’t.
“Thanks for reaching out!” I eventually said to the man, leaving it at that.
÷ ÷ ÷
Once, when I was very little, my dad was giving me a bubble bath. Out of nowhere, I said, “I think I’d like to visit a graveyard soon.”
My dad paused, turned off the dripping tap.
“Why’s that?” he said, his response measured, calm. I was lying on my back, smiling up at him from the frothy water.
“Because there are kids in there that are just
like me!” I said.
I remember saying that, and I remember what I meant by it. I was naked and contemplating my skeleton, the skeletons of other kids. Much later I’d have six step-siblings, but I was raised an only child. I wanted so badly to have people around, and I felt that all kids, even dead ones, were potential playmates. Nothing about that was scary to me. The only fear in the room belonged to my dad, who changed the subject and rinsed my hair, filed the story away as part of my childhood lore.
Another day, home alone with my mother, I heard bumping sounds from the attic.
“Oh, that’s just the cable man,” she said casually. “He’s up there working.”
From that point on any house sound was the cable man. I loved that he lived with us. I’d wake up in my dark room and know he was watching me through the air conditioning vents. I’d wave. I felt chosen, looked after. I wondered what he ate, if he was lonely up there. I’d been hoping for a little brother or sister, but the cable man would have to do.
Kid time is so odd — it could have been days or months that past — but one morning I saw my dad taking boxes up to the attic from the folding ladder in our hallway.
“Oh!” I said, “Can I go up and meet the cable man?”
My mom and dad were confused at first, and then they realized what I meant. Did I think he’d been up there this whole time? They laughed and laughed. Wasn’t I old enough to know better?
But I had thought that, and I felt the sharp pain of waking up from an exquisite dream, that moment when logic pins you to the real world, and whatever beautiful impossibility you’d been experiencing collapses — you can’t really fly, that loved one you’ve been talking to died years ago. I understood all at once it was absurd to think a man had been living in our attic, a friend compelled by everything I did, one who paid attention to me even as I slept. I was bereft, lonelier than ever.
÷ ÷ ÷
Not everything my kids say is creepy. My older son mixes up the words "absolutely" and "accidentally." He’ll say, “I absolutely knocked over my milk,” or, “I absolutely slammed the door” — a kind of adorable cockiness to every confession. In a crowded auditorium, my younger son pulls on my hand, says, “All of the people in this room were born, right?”
At night, I try not to be afraid of Trish, our wall woman. I try not to be annoyed by the toilet eel and the shadow dogs, the bizarre friends my kids conjure at bedtime. The magical way they see the world, with all its dark beauty and eerie possibility — that’s something I want them to keep for as long as they can. Soon enough they’ll grow up and figure everything out. They’ll trade astonishment for familiarity, mystery for dull understanding. The contours of our home will be seen for what they are: plain walls, everything expected, nothing hiding, nobody watching. The strange will drain out, and real life will rush in.
÷ ÷ ÷
Kimberly King Parsons
is the author of Black Light
, a short story collection. She is a recipient of fellowships from Columbia University and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and her fiction has appeared in the Paris Review
, Best Small Fictions
, No Tokens
, The Kenyon Review
, and elsewhere. Her website is www.kimberlykingparsons.com