Excerpt: Half the House

1958

T H E Y E A R I turned nine, Bob was fitted with brown leather braces to wear at night. Dad always laced them too tightly, and Bob would cry out that they pinched him. “They won’t work, damn it, if they’re not on tight!” Dad would scold him. There was going to be a cure, a rescue, if we could only hang on. But if Bob allowed the tendons in his calves to tighten up, the cure, when it came, would be too late. So Dad tied the rawhide laces tight and Bob did his best not to complain. We lay in our bed in the dark.

“The left one hurts.”

“Go to sleep.”

“It’s killing me. It’s pinching. Can you fix it ?”

“It has to be on tight or it won’t work.”

“Just pull it away from the skin where it pinches.”

I could just get my index finger under the leather collar that choked Bob’s calf; by working it around, I could free the skin that had been caught. Often the collar was too tight to get my finger under it.

“Fix it!”

“I can’t. Shut up and go to sleep.”

”I can’t.”

“Well, just shut up till Dad gets back.”

This was the routine: after half an hour Dad would climb the stairs to feel Bob’s toes. If they were cold, he turned on the light to look at them; if they were blue, he loosened the laces.

Not long after that, Bob slammed my shin with one of the heavy braces and I knocked him out of bed. Mom and Dad came running. Dad straddled me on the bed and grabbed me by the front of my pajamas. “Selfish,” he called me. A smack in the face. And “lucky.” Smack. I was a “bully.” He was going to teach me. Smack. My mother stopped him. Bob was crying on the floor. Dad picked him up and put him back in the bed, where I lay with my face turned to the wall.

Another night or two and Bob was sleeping on a cot in the middle room downstairs. Soon our toys and games were divided between what was now my room and a tall metal wardrobe next to the cot downstairs. I was alone. I kept the crystal radio that Dad had helped us assemble from a kit when we had the chicken pox. I kept the Swiss Army knife we used to saw flashlight batteries in half. The reason they didn’t work, Dad said, was they were out of juice. Whenever a battery didn’t work, we cut it open. Dad was right. No juice in it. We never cut open a battery that still worked; that would have been stupid. Besides, if we cut one open that still had juice in it, we were sure Dad wouldn’t buy another one. We believed he knew how long a battery should last, how much juice it had, and how long it took to dry up. “Batteries don’t grow on trees,” he said. I don’t think I knew then, at least not in a way I under­ stood, how much I missed Bob, especially at bedtime. After all, he was still around, still there to fight with at the breakfast table, still there to play Parcheesi on the floor, still my brother.

At bedtime, in the dark, the street lamp outside cast the shadow of a tree limb on the ceiling. When it moved in the breeze, heaving and fluttering, I thought I could feel the bed shake. The quivering leaf shadows were a mob of winking gnomes. The objects in the room changed into animals; even the folds of the sheets could turn into menacing presences. I seemed to hear the world outside for the first time — cars, doors slamming, the screech and thud of distant trains coupling in the railroad yard, voices too far off to understand. Each sound had to do with me, and each was a warning. Whatever it was that snuck up on Bob unnoticed might be trying to get me too.

Soon after that I began to have a recurring nightmare that was all the more terrifying because it took place in my bedroom. I was standing in front of the mirror that was mounted on the dresser at the foot of my bed. I tried not to look at my eyes in the mirror; whenever I did, a cackling, high-pitched laugh began and from behind the mirror came first the white-gloved knuckles of two hands, and then the head of a clown, an animated puppet who paused with his nose between his hands like those “Kilroy Was Here” cartoons from World War II. The fevered laughing got louder as the clown’s head rose above the mirror and sneered at me. I began screaming, in the dream, and woke sitting up in my bed. At the foot of the bed was the dresser and mirror. Then I screamed for real, until my parents rushed into my room. More than once my father tried to convince me that there was no room for such a clown in the inch or two behind the mirror, but it didn’t matter. I insisted that there was a bad clown behind the mirror. I never thought to ask that the dresser be moved or the mirror taken down. I dreaded going to bed at night. I begged my parents to let me sleep with them.

My mother gave me a rosary that glowed in the dark. When I asked her how it held the light, she said she didn’t know. “Is it special blessed ?” I asked her.

“I’m sure it’s blessed. I bought it at the Altar and Rosary Society breakfast. It works best if you shine a light on it every once in a while.”

So every night I took the rosary from my bedpost and coiled it under the lamp next to my bed while I put on my pajamas and said my prayers. “. . . if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Then I called down blessings on each of my parents, my baby brother Mike, Joey, Bob, and every member of my family I could remember. My fear of being left in the dark alone was an aid to memory as one name called up another and another all the way down to my mother’s second cousins on her stepfather’s side. When I ran out of names, I offered my prayers up for a “special intention,” as the nuns at St. Francis called it, the same one every night. “And may Bob get better soon. Amen.” Then I got under the covers, gathered the coiled rosary in my palm, and turned off the lamp. As I thumbed the beads, blessed again with light, I drifted into a trance induced by the rhythm and sibilance… “pray for us sinners”… of my own voice whispering in the darkness…“now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

At St. Francis we learned about the souls in purgatory and that we could help them get to heaven by suffering and offering it up for them. They in turn would remember us when they ascended to heaven and would intercede for us. I offered up my prayers and my penance for Mommom, who was the only person I knew who had died. I was convinced she didn’t really need my help. My father said he was sure she had gone straight to heaven because she was so good. Still, I took to folding my legs back under me in a painful way, and I tried to withstand the pain a little longer each night, counting how many decades of the rosary I recited before I had to give up and unbend my legs. Gradually I became less afraid. The rosary’s incan­ tatory power brought a kind of peace to me; after a while the cyclical sounds were released from their meanings, and I was released from my yearning — for my brother and for things to return to normal — and I slept.

In a comic book I read about telepathy, and I showed it to Bob. I don’t remember if it was my idea or his, but we tried it for a while, long enough to arrive at some rules. The trouble was that we fought all the time, because we each believed that if the other would only quit sending so much and spend more time trying to receive, it would work. I remember one time when I convinced myself that he had agreed to give me his Warren Spahn and Eddie Matthews baseball cards. He denied it. I took the cards, but my mother made me give them back. We decided to start out more simply. We each kept a tablet and pencil next to our beds to write down what we wanted to send as well as anything we thought we had received. In the morning we would compare our pages. We never matched, so we decided to try to send single words. As we tired of the whole thing, we each began to write long lists of all the words that occurred to us once we were in our separate beds. Every morning we would find that some of our words matched, just enough of them for us to believe, with each other’s help, that we were getting somewhere. After a while we gave up.

I believed that Bob was the problem, though I knew it wasn’t his fault. Maybe it was part of his illness, like falling down all the time.

So I lay in bed and tried to contact aliens: Martians or Venusians. This was similar to praying, except that, while I took it for granted that God heard me, I wasn’t sure if any aliens were listening, or if I had telepathic powers strong enough to reach them. There was no formula that I knew of for communicating with aliens, no Hail Mary’s or Glory Be’s. This hit-or-miss dimension made it even more exciting. And then there was the element of listening; though God sometimes spoke to people, they were almost always grown-ups. In any case, I didn’t expect a reply from God. I would know, however, that the aliens had “heard” me only if they answered. I don’t k now what I expected, maybe something like, “Check. We read you, earth boy. We are standing by.”

I remember that Bob was alarmed when I let on what I was up to. How would I know if they were friendly aliens? What if they sent me a whole brainful of scary thoughts ? What if they tried to take over my mind ?

What I thought but never told him-and this, I suspect, I got from a Twilight Zone episode on TV-was that the alien I was trying to contact was a superior intelligence, probably with a huge head like a light bulb, who would give me the cure for whatever had made him sick. I kept the tablet and pencil next to the bed. I imagined the cure would be too complicated for me to grasp, but that the alien would send me the message slowly so I could write it down and give it to scientists who would understand it. On the other hand, the cure might be something simple, something we were overlooking, and the alien would point it out, and I would tell my mother the next morning and everything would be okay.

I knew that Bob’s sleeping downstairs was permanent, but it was the kind of k nowledge I would n’t, or couldn’t, surrender to. With so much changing so fast, how could I believe anything was “for keeps,” as we called it? There were braces, there were prayers, there was telepathy, and there was hope.

In a few more months the school year would be over. By the end of that summer, Bob was in a wheelchair. In September he was going to a different school.

One Response to “Excerpt: Half the House”

  1. Caitlin

    Poignant and resonant. So much to relate to, in the dynamics of family relationships. One of my favorite lines: “The trouble was that we fought all the time, because we each believed that if the other would only quit sending so much and spend more time trying to receive, it would work.”

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