Hell: A Novel, by Davis, Kathryn
- ISBN: 9780880015608 | 0880015608
- Cover: Hardcover
- Copyright: 7/1/1999
Each household in this fearsome literary labyrinth contributes to the entire perverse invention, their secret desires converging in Edwina Moss's final work: The Blancmange.
SOMETHING IS WRONG IN THE HOUSE.
Of course you're dismayed. You have every right to be, for haven't you followed the rules to the letter, ridding your rooms of all corruption, the mite-infested cheese, the flyblown mutton, the sour bed linens, the dung-caked boots? You've sponged the floors, beaten the rugs, hung rue at the threshold; a fire is burning briskly in the kitchen, a pudding chilling in the pantry on its bed of ice. Yet how can it be that when you permit yourself a moment's relaxation, standing at the window you washed only yesterday, its panes don't reflect back the bright prospect of a clear conscience, but the treacherous face of the world?
And what's the use, really, if you can no longer tell the difference? What's the use if you can no longer tell where your face leaves off and the gray sky begins? Raindrops stream down the window, ruining your hard work. That yellow-haired girl peeking from between the trees on the other side of the millrace, spying on a delicate yellow leaf caught trembling in an eddy--can that be poor Joy Harbison, or is it some other lively figment, anachronism or memory, ghost or invention?
In the beginning, we're told, everything was the same. Everything was locked together inside a huge lump of ice. But soon enough the ice began to melt, and because it was too huge to notice the moistly fraying hem of itself, threads of milky silt-filled water unraveled across the landscape, slowly at first, then fast, faster, setting the miller's wheel in motion, thundering toward a future where a little yellow leaf was sweeping over the lip of the dam. Rain was falling from a sky that spectral shade of gray that's almost white, dispiriting, and I was sitting at my father's bedside, eating fries out of a paper bag.
Something's wrong, my father was saying to my mother. I can feel it in my bones. Did you turn off the stove? One of these days you're going to burn down the house, Dorothy. Eat your lunch, Edwin, she replied. Ever since his stroke my mother had been on top, but now my father was going to get the upper hand by starving himself to death. Out the window mountains, clouds, a landscape as featureless and vast as the hospital room we were in was cramped and populous. Out the window Nature, and is that where you're headed when you're dying? Or is the afterworld as crowded as Napoleon's table at Malmaison, beautiful women, jabbering men, Antonin Careme's brilliant pyramids of food.
In my father's room there were white take-out bags on the bedtray, fries and soft drinks and burgers, though it hardly mattered to him. After the stroke he could only see half of everything: his plate, his hand, his face. The moral vision, similarly bisected, becomes strangely severe.
Gold will suffer, my father said, but it will serve him right. That poor little kid, whatever happened to her? Little Blondie, you know the one I mean, he said, letting out a long slow whistle while pointing over his shoulder with his thumb, a gesture we all knew meant "flew the coop." When it's no longer your job to carve the empire, rule the kingdom, balance the scales of justice, often the best position left open is that of prophet. He'll turn to salt if the earthworms don't get him first, my father added. X marks the spot.
I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, Edwin, my mother replied.
Out the window the town of X, all the houses haunted, even the meanest of them, for it's common knowledge misery breeds tenacity--just ask my mother. The houses haunted and the pond perfectly smooth, except near the dance pavilion where someone has just stood, wobbled for a moment, dizzy, to wade through the sickeningly hot water at the pond's edge, leaving a fan of black creases. A strand of bright green algae wrapping around one ankle. A barking dog. The ruined chimneys of Moss Cottage looking down like sentinels, all that remain of the shake-shingled hideaway where Edwina Moss delivered herself of the single endless sentence that was to be her last word on household management, after she lost her husband, her daughter, her mind.
SOMETHING IS WRONG IN THE HOUSE.
There's always something wrong in the house.
Though you'd never know from the outside, the ivy-laced brick facade with its copper-roofed bow window, the white front door with its fanlight and brass knocker, the crimson azaleas bordering the stoop. And even if you were able to see inside, to swing open one whole wall, what you'd find would no doubt confirm your first impression. A mother and father, two girls, a dog, a bird. Rooms filled with mahogany furniture, soft pale drapes, glinting mirrors; cream-colored walls hung with horticultural prints in Florentine frames, Malus pumila, Northern Spy, Seek-no-further, Lady Sweet. A silent butler. A kid glove. Sheet music--"Night and Day" (yellow and black) or "Stairway to Heaven" (silver and red)--open on the piano, sunlight penetrating the breakfront's diamond-shaped panes to illuminate the highball glasses with their etched portraits of hunting dogs. Sometimes Fred Astaire or a mouse hanging upside down in the porthole-shaped screen of the television (the first on the block, the father's a salesman), sometimes little beads of water hanging from the glass lid of the dishwasher, also the first on the block. If on the one hand there's an essential lack of gravity about the father, there is also a thematic consistency to his choice of products.
In the kitchen the mother is poised over the stove, fixing lunch. She turns the burner up high, waits for the coils to become orange, then salts the cast-iron skillet. You want to keep the pan hot and dry when cooking hamburgers; the meat has enough fat on its own, and the quicker you sear it (Liebig's method, popular in the fifties), the tighter you seal in the juices. Of course a gas range would be preferable, but this one came with the house and was, after all, brand-new, a Hotpoint.
The mother's only making three hamburgers, because the older of her two daughters (in bed reading Wuthering Heights, not a wink of light coming through the venetian blinds) has refused to eat much of anything ever since she watched hamburger fall in worms from the grinder at Caruso's Market, whereas the younger daughter (pushing Tiny Tears down the upstairs hall in a blue stroller) doesn't really mind hamburger but would probably prefer peanut butter and jelly.
Let's say it's a little before noon on a Saturday in June, St. John's Eve to be exact (even though a foul wind sweeps across the moors, lifting the riders' cloaks behind them like black wings; even though it's cold and dark and snow is falling). The father is on his knees, working the soil at the back of the garden prior to setting in a flat of marigold seedlings. When the mother releases the chain that opens the vent over the stove and the exhaust fan starts up with its usual loud clanking, both the sound and the smell alert him that lunch will soon be ready. He rises slowly, first shifting his weight on one side from his right knee to his right foot, then balancing with his left hand until he's standing straight, brushing his hands on his twill work-pants.
The grass in the backyard is deep green, needy mowed. The dachshund is lying in a pool of blackish green shade under the dogwood tree which finished blooming weeks ago, while the roses are only beginning to unfurl their red and peach and yellow petals. A trolley travels north up Germantown Avenue, sparks hissing from its cable. The parakeet is pecking away at its cuttlebone.
Something wrong here? Of course it's natural to feel apprehension anytime the picture seems flooded with light.
Through the little window over the sink the mother watches the father strike a pose not unlike that of the terracotta Saint Francis in the birdbath, his dark head bent in reflection on the rosebushes, on the exquisitely beautiful yet maligned Japanese beetle creeping out of Mamie Eisenhower's peach folds. You saw me, the mother says aloud, angrily flattening the burgers (which she calls "meat-cakes" when they're served bunless) with her spatula, an unfortunate practice that tends to compress and toughen the fiber of the beef, just as it's an unfortunate quirk of design that permits sound to travel through the heat ducts from the kitchen to the older daughter's bedroom, causing her to hear not only the sizzling of burgers but her mother's voice emerging from the grate under her closet door.
You saw me and don't go pretending you didn't, the mother's voice says, though the mealybug-infested African violet in the Italian cachepot, and the wire basket crammed with hollow garlic heads, not to mention the rest of the windowsill's dust-and-grease-caked clutter (this being one of several areas the cleaning lady avoids every Tuesday) provide impediment enough, not to mention the way the sun shines directly into the father's eyes when he looks back toward the house. You know I'm watching you, the mother's voice says. You want me to see how sad you look.
Sizzle sizzle. The refrigerator door opens, slams shut. "On that bleak hilltop the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver ..." The older daughter tries plugging her ears with her fingers, but then it's impossible to turn the pages. The smell of scorched meat drifts up the stairs.
"Beef is an exhaustless mine in the hands of a skilful artist, and is truly the king of the kitchen," wrote Antonin Careme (1784-1833), Napoleon's brilliant chef and author of L'Art de la cuisine au dix-neuvieme siecle. "Without it no soup, no gravy; and its absence would produce almost a famine in the civilized world!"
"It has been said that when you burn food that might otherwise have been eaten," wrote Edwina Moss (1820-1864), renowned expert on household management and author of The Blancmange, "you will have to pick it out of hell-fire when you die."
The mother taps at the window to let the father know his lunch is ready; she wants him to see the expression on her face and concede defeat. She has him beat by a mile, really: the brown cat's-eye glasses framing soulful brown eyes, their faintly hyperthyroid bulge making them appear to brim with tears; the zipped mouth as if it's taking every ounce of strength for her to maintain her dignity. You better keep your mouth shut, the mother says to herself; if you don't, all will be lost. He still loves you, she adds, though no one would ever know it from his behavior, and she feels a sudden shoot of tenderness poke its way through the wet black dirt of her heart, which she just as suddenly yanks up to study: the unformed bulb at its base, the fragile hairlike roots. Why let tenderness get a purchase when it can only serve to weaken her position? But you're the one who won't allow it, she says, waving her spatula at the window.
She's wearing a white blouse with a peter pan collar, tucked into a pair of madras-plaid bermudas. She has a nice figure, the mother, but the older daughter thinks it would be a fate worse than death to end up saddled with such generous breasts. Better far the wild and disembodied soul navigating the trackless waste! The ghost hand scrabbling at the windowpane. Better far to be a ghost outside a house looking in, especially at night when the lights are on and you catch glimpses of the people you loved when you were alive going about their business. Though how you'll ever find the house in the first place, your soul drifting among the pricked ears of the firs, specks of light above, specks of light below, stars or windows--it will be so difficult to tell them apart!
Up and down the rugless hallway Tiny Tears rides in her blue stroller, its right front wheel loose and squeaking on its axle. The younger daughter is wailing like a baby, pausing to sternly whisper (it isn't time to eat yet, Tiny), wailing again. In this family everything talks to itself, including the parakeet (hello pretty mommy cupcake) and the exhaust fan (mrrrt mrrrt murder murder), referring to its deadly internal duct where so many flies have met their end in a grease-clogged net of cobwebs.
Meanwhile the father is slowly approaching the back door, crossing the tiny lawn bordered on both sides by stockade fence (blocking out to the left the O'Rourkes' jumble of toys, laundry, and unmowed grass; to the right a garage, and Terry Caruso's shiny black Cadillac), and at the rear by the whitewashed retaining wall up which red roses climb to the foot of a huge willow marking the edge of the Dodge dealer's lot, the entire neighborhood having been built in terraced steps along a steep hillside. Could it be the summer of 1955? The willow fell during a hurricane, filling the yard with its limbs, crushing roses, smashing windows with its green fists.
Though why cleave slavishly to historic fact: there are fissures and tunnels and trapdoors (cobwebbed ducts too) in the brain, the watery tracts and coral castles through which the little shining seahorse floats--now you see it, now you don't!--and despite a prevailing sense (at least among those who don't believe in an afterlife) that being remembered is the closest we can get to immortality, the simple truth is that it's not just in our memory where the dead reside.
For instance as I watch my father approach the back door there's something spare and almost ascetic about him, though in most photographs from that pre-hurricane period his face shows the sort of plump, pretty-boy quality my grandmother took for a sign of weak character, whereas it probably only meant he liked to eat. My mother is frying a meat-cake for him and it smells good.
Nose, nose hairs, breathe in, breathe out ... An invented character never really dies.
The exertion of digging and planting, combined with an increasing heavy moistness in the air, a hot gusty wind from the east possibly filled with rain, maybe even thunder and lightning and hail, has made his dark hair curl, has brightened his cheeks. He too wears a white shirt, one of Henny's expertly ironed shirts that he'd normally save for the office, except this one has a frayed collar, and the stain on its front placket is becoming more and more visible the closer he gets to the house. The phone rings on the little chest squeezed between the refigerator and the swinging door to the dining room, its drawers containing things rarely or never used (owner's manuals for such broken appliances as the deep-fat fryer whose cord likewise lies hidden deep under a pile of ruffled aprons, a lemon zester, a muddler, a croque-monsieur mold, a set of pastel plastic heart-, spade-, diamond-, and club-shaped cookie cutters, a bartender's guide called Here's How bound by rawhide thongs to a pair of hinged wooden covers, etc. etc.). The phone rings again and I look up, annoyed, pry apart two of the blind slats and peer out. A cloud must be passing over the sun, for the yard has darkened. I too can see my father from my window, picking his way around the wrought-iron furniture on the fieldstone patio he built during the year after my birth. The yard is his domain: sometimes very late at night I notice him sitting there in a wrought-iron chair at the far end near the birdbath, staring back at the house in his white pajamas, highball in hand, dachshund on lap, his face illuminated by one of the blazing lights strung at intervals around the Dodge dealership.
No, I hadn't heard, my mother's saying into the phone, just as the door opens and closes and the first drops of rain are tossed against the window as if in a spirit of merriment, a few landing on the patio, black speckles on a gray field. A second handful, a third, then nothing. My father sneaks up behind her and ... what? Gooses her? That was just Terry, she says, swatting at his hand. Once upon a time they'd have embraced with fervor, scorned the prevailing idea that desire such as theirs couldn't ensure marital bliss. The prick of Cupid's dart, a wound you can't let heal but must keep picking at.
They're predicting gale force winds, she says.
Are. Terry heard it at the store. Do you want me to slice an onion? We should check the Sterno.
But who says? He gathers his plate, grabs a beer from the refrigerator, and heads for the dining room, where the sound of cheering soon emerges from the radio, an overwrought male voice. Robin Roberts on first. Nothing about a storm, though the rain has started up again, this time in earnest. It's streaming down the two windows looking across the driveway and Into the Carusos' well-lit dining room, where young Joey can be seen drinking a glass of milk, old Joe and Terry, Cokes. The hippocampus (seahorse of smell and memory) releases from its pouch a school of odors: salt on cast-iron, seared meat, burned fat, pepper, rain on dirt, the almond smell of Jergens on my mother's fingers.
In my room I sigh, stretch, readjust the pillow against the footboard, yank loose the yellow quilt from the foot of the bed, and climb under, facing the window. I'm so drowsy. Water's running into the bathroom sink. Now it is time for your bath, Tiny. The room is getting darker and darker, the rain hitting the roof with a sound like little rubber-shod hooves, the sound you hear right before you faint. From the kitchen the click-click-click of the dachshund's toenails on the linoleum; my parents' voices a distant burr. Not drowsy, no. Sad, rather: "Be with me always--take any form--drive me mad!" Nothing saves you from the grave, Cathy Earnshaw, and should passion call you back, well then, watch out ...
Copyright © 1998 Kathryn Davis. All rights reserved.