She never drove a single one of them.
"All that gasoline right there under the seat isn't safe."
They're just tarnished sentinels guarding a grubby house that scowls at me like a wounded vulture sprawled across the hilltop.
I threw my key away when I left. There's a spare under the pile of shingles
"I'm going to have the roof done as soon as I find a handyman I trust."
beside the house, but it would take me hours to excavate it. Cracked pots full of dry earth and brown stalks crowd the path to the kitchen door. My reflection in the window squints against the glare, hair matted to her forehead. I should have come before the day got hot, but it took me all morning to run out of excuses not to get in the car.
An orgy of concrete animals on the patio glares at me. I pluck a bluebird from the pile and fling it through the window. The sound of the glass fills me like a smile. I want to dance. Then the smell hits me, and I want to run away.
The neighbors must think the house smells like death, but it's just the meat in the freezer. Mother forgot to pay the power bill
"It can't be the first of the month already!"
again and things are rotting. To anyone else it smells wrong, but to me it smells like the breath of home. And it frightens me because I tried so hard to get away and now I'm breaking in. The bluebird's flight left a few broken teeth in the gaping window, but I can reach through and unlock the door from the inside. It only opens a few inches. A pile of newspapers
"I haven't read that one yet."
taller than I am fell against the door. I have to shove with my shoulder. They reluctantly budge enough for me to squeeze through, then they push the door closed behind me. The lock clicks.
The heavy air presses against me like a fever. Nothing inside looks like a house anymore. It's the belly of a cave. Empty record album covers. Baby clothes. Fake poinsettias like you find on graves at Christmas time. Framed prints of sad clowns clutching wilted daisies. All stacked and stacked and stacked. Higher than I can reach.
I start the climb.
"Left foot on the coffee cans, right knee on the yellow milk crate. See, it's easy. Put your right hand on the clear space at the top of the shelf."
There's a gap at the ceiling just wide enough for a person to wriggle through, a jagged throat that leads to the heart of the house. The air up here is hot, but it moves like a faint breath. Empty CD cases clatter loose behind me as I slither my way in.
I hope I can get back out.
It's dark. I use my cellphone as a flashlight. The strata up here makes no sense. A green shirt sleeve sandwiched between a box of saute pans and a Webster's dictionary. A Raggedy Ann
peeks from beneath a violin case. A Paul Weller poster leers over at her. I can hear scratching deep inside the pile.
The house is never quiet. Something always moves, maybe a rat or maybe just pieces shifting against other pieces. I don't stop to listen because sometimes it sounds too much like a grumbling stomach. The tunnel is so narrow that I can only take little gasps of air. Plastic hangers and plastic chair cushions and plastic checkbook covers and plastic ice trays squeeze the breath out of me. Plastic computer mice and plastic cats and plastic babies nip at my elbows and knees. Maybe I'll turn into a plastic vampire before I make it out of here.
Finally the tunnel spits me into a narrow pit, and I pick my way down the edge. It doesn't look like anything's collapsed in here. The lattice of junk Mother wove would impress a structural engineer. The inscrutable closet door looms over me, embedded in a cliff-face of shoe boxes
"They don't fit, but look how pretty the buckles are."
and dog food tins
"We'll get another dog one day."
and empty photo albums.
"One day you'll fill them with pictures of my grand-babies."
A wisp of Christmas tinsel above the door winks like a winter star. The single foot of frayed carpet in front of the closet is the only clear space in the entire house. That, and the hole behind the door.
When Dad died, Mother opened the door, shoved his ashes inside, and closed it. Every day she stood there with her finger on the tarnished handle, but she never opened it again. Until about a week ago, I guess. I can see scuffs on the carpet where the door swung open and swallowed her.
I don't need to open it to know she's in there. I don't need to open it to know why she braided all this trash into her citadel, or why she pushed me out with counterfeit Louis Vuitton purses
"I can sell them for twice what I paid."
and Franklin Mint commemorative plates
"Look at Charles and Diana. They're so happy."
and glucose test meters
"I'm certain I'm pre-diabetic."
She brooded over my dead father. Kept his ghost locked in that closet while I grew up. She never asked why I didn't bring friends home. Didn't come to my graduation. Didn't see me off to college.
I need to open the door because I'm vindictive. I refuse to let her nestle into her trash cocoon and sleep.
The handle squeaks. The door shushes across the carpet. I shove with both hands, force it against the trash with my entire body, straining to open it wide. Something plastic cracks. The door gives way, crashing open, and I stumble to my knees in front of the yawning hole.
The air brushes past my cheek as the house gasps in surprise.
It's empty. No unworn dresses on bent hangers. No sweater-vests on shelves.
Just silence, black as a well, stretching farther than I can see. Farther than my memory. Farther than I could ever run.
It beckons me, and I stretch out to touch this swath of starless night. My fingertips barely cross the threshold when I hear a mad fluttering inside, like a moth beating against a windowpane. The tiny sound grows. A cancer, eating my precious emptiness, filling it with the harsh scrape of feathers climbing air.
Two bone-white doves bolt from the deep, flashing by my face in a fury of freedom. They thrash around each other, their wings slap against the pile, knocking loose bits of debris. Paul Mauriat "Love is Blue" cassettes rain down. An avalanche of my mother's rubbish inundates me as the doves vanish into the tunnel, flying out and out and out.
For a moment, I cackle, wallowing in my vengeance.
"Flap your precious little wings until you bash them bloody against your plastic sky!"
But, as several hundred Jane Fonda "Lose Weight" VHS tapes crush the breath from me, I remember the broken window.