Build Us A Home

Bonnets’s Pick
Amy Bernhard


Plastic
Photo Credit: Matt Rife

A crane descends and rips the roof from our house while my sister and I watch from the sidewalk. Neighbors are peering out their doors, wondering what the Bernhards gotten themselves into now. First it was our parrot waking up the whole block with its screeching, then it was my mother answering the door dressed as a cow for Halloween, costume complete with bloated plastic udders. And now the Fergusons gasp as the crane almost swings the roof into our crab apple tree while my mother screams.

Without its roof, our house looks like an architectural ground plan, stark and penciled in, every plank outlined, exposed. An airplane flies overhead, and I wonder if its passengers can see inside our roofless home from the sky—a refrigerator covered in stickers, piles of sneakers stacked by the front door, mother and father’s bedroom, their bathroom, the broken shower. How would these strangers judge the things that make up a life, our life, together? From the sky, I imagine our house to look like a miniature dollhouse, and my family its plastic inhabitants. Frozen in our tiny world, we wait for a stranger to reach through the open top and move us up and down, up and down the stairs.

 

Mother had been complaining about our cramped one-story for months—there is no room for my fabric in the study, she protested, and not enough cupboard space in the kitchen. Father mostly ignored her grievances, waving his hand as though swatting a pesky fly. It’s fine, we’re fine, he grumbled, now how about let’s get some dinner started. Our parrot squawked along with the indignant clanging of Mother’s pans as she stomped about the kitchen, burning the pork chops on purpose.

One night she crept into the bedroom my sister and I shared. Mother argued with Father that the room was too small for seven- and ten-year-old girls who needed to stretch their toes. My father lived in the attic of his house when he was a boy. I pictured him curled into a ball on his mattress, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling. If he could do it, so could we.

Mother sat on my bed and fidgeted with the comforter, tucking it in, untucking it, tucking it in again. “There is no space for my fabric in the study,” she cried. I knew even then that our cramped suburban life was not the life she wanted; she dreamed of the city. Bright lights, sound, bustle.

She cried and told us she wished she had her own room again, like when she was a little girl, all flowers and frill. She wished her mother were still alive to tuck her into bed. She wished she still played her cello.

I lay in the dark and thought about Mother as a child, soft and girly, smelling like bubblegum and grass. I wanted to stitch her a house from her closet full of fabric, a house with violet walls and lace tablecloths that she would never have to set, because I would do it for her.

 

The stranger comes to us the next morning. His name is Frank, and he is here to build our new home. He ushers us around our kitchen table and shows us pictures of elegantly-tiled bathrooms and oak staircases. Pick what you like, he says, you can have anything!

Mother stirs at “anything” while Father scratches the bald spot on his scalp and squints at the pictures. He is always hesitant. Hesitant to agree to a family vacation at Disney World. Hesitant to move us out of the suburbs, away from his parents. Hesitant even to marry my mother, who was red-cheeked and young and longed for him.

My parents were set up by their mothers, who met at a knitting circle. “I hadn’t dated many men,” my mother told me once at the kitchen table. “None of the boys liked me. It was because I didn’t have a chest. Boys only care about boobs, remember that.”

I told her she was pretty. “Your father told me that when he met me.” Father proposed a year later, on top of the roof of his parents’ house. He did not have a ring. “Maybe we should get married someday,” he said.

 

Father finally decides on the oak staircase and four spacious bedrooms—one for me, one for my sister, one for him and Mother each. “So you can escape my snoring,” he jokes, as Mother smiles and points at a picture of a Jacuzzi. She is glowing.

After more squinting, Father is pleased. He shakes Frank’s hand conspiratorially, as men do when they know they have done something manly. Frank promises to return over the weekend to put up plastic in the living room before the crane removes the roof. He tells us our house will crumble, that the plastic will help to contain falling pieces of plaster. There will be quite a bit of dust.

“Like an earthquake,” Father explains before he tucks me in. “Some splitting and pulling apart, only this will be much less scary.”

 

In second grade we were assigned to draw a picture of our home. Instead of drawing our squat ranch with Mother’s snapdragon bed, I drew a mansion with wrought-iron gates and a pool in the front yard. I drew Mother and Father waving from one of the windows. “Whoa,” a friend from class breathed when I showed her. “Can I come over?” I did not tell her this was only my dream house.

 

Frank returns toward the end of the week with a truckload of plastic. He wipes his muddy boots on our welcome mat, leaving a smear of dirt across it. He takes off his jacket, revealing a thin muscle tee that stretches tightly across his broad chest and an orange tan that I suspect he keeps year-round. His arms are seasoned with sun.

He covers the living room with large sheets of plastic. Plastic thrown over the carpeting, the couch, the chairs. Plastic hanging above the entranceway to our living room, like a shower curtain. Plastic everywhere. My sister and I stomp on it, delighted to hear the satisfying snap underneath our feet. The whole house smells like rubber.

Frank takes me aside, tells me he will leave the television uncovered; he knows I must love to watch it. He chuckles all too eagerly, as though we are old friends sharing a familiar joke. But Frank is not familiar, he is a stranger. I turn away from his elastic smile, teeth that are clean and white and shine like danger.

 

Shortly before our roof was removed, my best friend came over for dinner. Mother prepared a summer pasta salad and corn on the cob. After setting the table, she asked us to bow our heads and pray. “We don’t do that at my house,” my friend said. Father asked my friend if history was still her favorite subject in school.

“Did you see that program about Napoleon on TV last week?”

My friend nodded.

“Yeah, they’re wondering if maybe the guy just blew his brains out.”

Mother asked me to pass the corn. We watched each other eat.

 

Frank has been working on the second story for a few days now. I hear him thudding around on the roof while I watch TV in the living room. Mother has taken time off from her job as a nurse so she can supervise the construction while my father is at work. She spends afternoons on the roof with Frank, keeping him company while he works. She checks on me occasionally, peeking through the plastic with a schoolgirl smile and glossy cheeks. She looks like an ad in Seventeen magazine.

Frank leaves around 4:30, the time my father arrives home from walking his mail route. Mother kisses him and collects his postal uniform as he relaxes into his chair, laughing as my sister and I rush to him. Father favors my sister because she is young and sweet. I am too old now for him to pull me onto his lap, although I used to love when he would return home from work smelling like rain or snow or sky, whatever weather he had walked in that day, tossing his boots onto the welcome mat while I scrambled to climb up his legs. We watched the Weather Channel together, thunder bellowing across the Midwest while animated lightning bolts sliced the edges of our state. Father had wanted to be a weatherman since he was a boy. During tornado warnings he stood at the edge of our garage and traced the sky with his middle finger while my mother, sister, and I huddled in the crawl space.

“How long until it clears?” my mother asked. Storms made her nervous.

“Maybe a half-hour or so. Just a few nimbus clouds, nothin’ to worry about.”

The three of us emerged from our hiding spot, Mother ushering my sister inside while I joined Father at the edge of the garage. He recited the names of the clouds—cumulus, nimbus, stratus—while we stood and watched them crash together.

 

Father paid my sister and I more attention than he paid Mother. We were his “little imps,” he liked to tease, because we were always up to some mischief. One day my sister played a Christmas recital in the local mall. She sat at the bench in a green velvet dress and plunked out the notes to “The First Noel.” After she took her bow, Father patted her head and told her how beautiful she looked, what a good little musician she was. I thought I caught a glimmer of envy in Mother’s eyes, longing for Father to touch her hair and tell her she was beautiful, too. But he never did. The only time I remember them being physical was just after Mother had tucked us into bed one night. I crept downstairs for a glass of milk and spotted them embracing at the bottom of the stairs, the hug strained and uncomfortable, like one you would receive from a distant aunt on Thanksgiving Day.

Father saw Mother as his wife. She was not a nurse, a cellist, or a quilter. Her primary function was to cook the dinner and keep the house clean, an archaic view of marriage influenced by the domesticity shown to my grandfather by my father’s mother. He was often disappointed with Mother’s inability to keep the house tidy, as she worked long hours at the hospital and taught cello lessons in the evenings. Our toys were scattered everywhere like pebbles hidden in the sand, lying in wait to scrape your bare feet. The kitchen counter was always speckled with crumbs, the floor always covered with bird seed, which fueled Father’s hatred for the parrot that Mother had brought home one day without telling him.

Frank seems to think Mother is funny. The two of them swap jokes in the kitchen, Mother’s laugh tinkling brightly, like piano keys. I’m not sure what they talk about, but it seems secretive, their heads bent close together in confidence. Their laughter is similar to the laugh tracks on sitcoms: automatic, empty, loud, like a slap.

 

I am sitting in my plastic shroud, flipping through channels, when I come across a soap opera. A man is holding a woman by her shoulders. They are screaming at each other. Then they are kissing. Their hands roam up and down each other’s bodies, the woman’s lipstick smeared across her cheeks, lips, neck. They look wild. The man reaches beneath her shirt and she reaches beneath his and then they are on the couch, rolling over and over in a tangle of arms and legs.

My cheeks burn. I glance around for Mother, but she and Frank are on the roof. I return my attention to the man, to his broad shoulders and hard stomach. I imagine what it would be like to touch him, warm, like June sand. I study the woman, the graceful way she swivels her hips and squiggles her eyebrows up and down, up and down. She is a beautiful ballerina, poised on her toes while tangled bodies fumble around her.

Each afternoon at three, I watch the man and woman while Mother is on the roof. Inspired by their movements, I create my own ritual. Each time they kiss, I touch my lips. They embrace, and I squeeze my arms around my shoulders, holding myself tight. I rub my neck, my chest, my legs. I kiss my arm just to see how it feels, skin and lips together. I practice in front of my mirror, squiggling and swiveling and shimmying until I hear Mother’s footsteps on the stairs, returning from the roof.

The show ends at four each day. The man and woman stop writhing on the couch and scream at each other some more. Sometimes a friend or a family member enters, and all three of them scream. They scream and slap and roll over each other. Today I switch off the TV after the show ends, the screen crackling with static as it sighs into darkness. I keep watching as the shadows of a man and a woman fill the blank screen, locked together in an embrace. The man pulls at the woman’s curly hair as she laughs and slaps his hand away, giggling like a schoolgirl with rosy cheeks.

The two of them freeze, suddenly aware of the silence behind the hanging strips of plastic. “Honey?” my mother asks.

 

My friends and I liked to ding dong ditch when we were little. We crept to a stranger’s porch in the middle of the night and pressed their doorbell, shrieking as we ran for shelter behind the bushes. Sometimes I would ding dong ditch alone, when I could not sleep at night. I would leave my house and ring a stranger’s doorbell, studying the sleepy-eyed victim who answered. Sometimes it was a man, scratching his head in confusion. Other times a woman, her eyes fresh with fear. Whoever it was, I imagined my life in their home. I imagined descending an oak staircase in the morning, sitting down to breakfast cooked by the red-cheeked woman who lived in the ranch house on Jensen. I imagined shooting hoops with the bald-headed businessman with the three-car garage and rottweiler on Seil. I imagined these people, and our lives together. Then after the last house had closed its doors, I emerged from the bushes and walked home.

 

Two weeks later, Frank is gone, along with the plastic. The front yard has scabbed over with pieces of leftover debris, little slivers of white plaster sprinkled like confetti over the grass. The crane has impatiently slammed the roof back down on us, leaving us with the dulled expressions of those who have just returned home after adventuring to some exotic land. We are despondent and bored as we wander the spacious new bedrooms, our possessions small in the presence of the rooms’ empty space. “They looked bigger in the pictures,” Father mumbles, scratching his head and standing listlessly in the doorway of his new room. Mother has returned to her job at the hospital, coming home in the late evenings to prepare dinner. Eventually she stops cooking and buys us microwave dinners. She floats up and down the stairs in a daze, sighing and dragging her body behind her. She asks me one night if I would come with her if she ever left our home. We both know what she means. I have to think for awhile. “Yes,” I finally agree, “I guess so.”

The house is large, now. There are places to hide. Mother hides in her bedroom while Father sits in the Jacuzzi, sometimes without any water running. My sister and I hide in our respective rooms, quietly as mice. Sometimes the four of us yell and slam our doors, but mostly we hide, tip-toeing around each other. Mother buys a cuckoo clock and hangs it above the kitchen table. It clicks while we eat, like a metronome, a pulse. She stacks new high heels by the front door, leaves the dishes piled in the sink. She waltzes in and out of the house, trailing a scent of smoke and dark places behind. I am not sure where she goes at night; she creeps inside without a sound. Only during her lessons do we hear the groan of the cello, strings that sing as the four of us spin delicately past each other in a blur of arms and legs, weaving up and down the stairs, waiting for a coming crescendo.

pencil

Amy Bernhard is a student of the University of Iowa’s creative writing program, and this is her first publication. Email: starrlit71[at]gmail.com