In the House
by A.A. Weiss
We take turns raking up leaves because we don’t have actual jobs. The trees aren’t so healthy and die a lot, or at least spill their leaves during the wrong parts of the year. There is never anything left by autumn. I remember being afraid that one of those sick trees would die, for real, and collapse into the house and through my window and right into my crooked bed. But that actually happened once, later, and it wasn’t such a big deal. Whatever dream I’d seen was much worse than the reality. The tree didn’t even break the window.
We, in the house, are all fat. Everyone follows a pattern. You come in the house—skinny, large—however that might be. Then you gain weight proportionally to how much servicing your head needs. They feed you so you’ll feel better. There’s something psychological to it, I think. You don’t think when you’re eating. So if you can’t stand raking leaves and can’t sleep with another person in the room and finally wake up when the floor boards squeak, and then can’t go back to sleep, and get stiff back pain with metal, folding chairs and don’t like to “sound things out” and hate having your Polaroid taken—then you’re gonna get some food. That’s the pattern.
So it isn’t anyone’s fault that we all get so fat so quickly. Not really. The doctors and house workers just want everyone to feel comfortable and food is an obvious remedy. That’s how it happens. Pizza parties were only on birthdays at first, then later on school holidays and then later on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The food pacifies us.
The house wasn’t made specifically to support large young folks. The ones who grew big just surrendered to a large act of suggestion. The real theme of the house is to turn sad folks into happy ones; or rather a simple explanation like this is good enough for now. The house workers are paid to entertain us and feed us and talk to us. They get paid extra if we talk.
There was a meeting, awhile back, where all the people who worked for the house got together and talked on their own, without us. Some said we were too fat, and some said being fat was okay if we were happy, too. The house workers then asked the doctors, like they always did, and the doctors looked at charts and diagrams and determined skinny folks would be happier, in theory.
They started with rope jumping, which I was okay with, but that was too advanced for most of us. As a group we needed to work on coordination. And you needed a waist to bend for sit-ups. It was all just a little bit sad. So the house workers decided to take us away, put us on tour, so that we’d stop associating the house with physical torture.
We went bowling on that first outing. It was also a billiard hall and an arcade and a place that sold beer, which we all wanted to look at and possibly sip. I wore a pair of Velcro bowling shoes, more room on the ends than the sides. I remember thinking the lanes were like rows of corn and I was a giant looking over them. I used to look at everything as if I were a giant.
The whole experience of “exercising” us took about ten minutes because the balls were big and no one could hold them. The house workers complained and were told how professional bowling establishments didn’t have baby-balls or bumpers. Our gutter balls were depressing, and that wasn’t allowed, so we ended up chicken wings and watching Jurassic Park on the alley television.
They consulted a professional camp counselor for this second trip, and we were each given a sleeping bag to lean against on the bus. I think everything—the backpacks, the tents, the bug spray, the headlamps, the maps, the trail mix with dried fruit—was all donated. It had to be. We got the windows down and the bus stopped smelling like mold if you had the breeze in your face.
All the house workers were with us, four total, I think, but there was only one doctor. His name was Walker the Doctor and nobody liked him, I remember that. I didn’t like him. Still don’t. He is the doctor with the uncomfortable hairpiece and the soft voice. If you cry he will pet you on the back. I hate that. But he was in control of this bus. I looked at him, sitting up there in the front, talking to the driver with his calm voice and hands, and it was comforting to know that he was the same person inside and outside of the house. It wouldn’t be like I was going to learn this guy had a different life—could speak six languages and played the guitar—was interesting and, in fact, all my hateful presumptions were wrong. That would have worried me. But this doctor had no secrets, no surprises, no identity that I wasn’t aware of. His unchanging character was like: “Okay everyone, this isn’t going to hurt at all…Exercise is going to make you feel better…We can’t touch your toes for you…”
The house workers told us right away how we wouldn’t be able to do everything. The park was very large, included much of the area’s Atlantic coast, and had far too much ground to cover. But the trees were tall and green like I wanted them to be—big, healthy needle trees with squirrels and humming birds and everything else that I wanted to see. That’s what I was thinking just then—how separate it was from the house.
After pitching our tents some of us went off to the rocky beach and were followed by the doctor and a couple house workers. It was at the bottom of a hill and the doctor had to pay money. The water was cold and I convinced everyone to go hiking. I remember thinking how perfect the trail I wanted to walk sounded in the guidebook. It was the “View of East Coast paradise” and I think you could see a lighthouse, some lobster boats and even a few whales if there weren’t any clouds. And I had a group of folks wanting to go up with me—young, fat ones that had ground-floor rooms because they couldn’t handle the stairs. To my surprise, Walker the Doctor said, yes, go, and all of a sudden I was leading a group of us, slowly, up the craggily rock beach with only two house workers accompanying us. I was happy.
So the Precipice Trail, the one I’m talking about, went directly up a granite cliff. It was strenuous, no doubt, but I had confidence after reading of the switchbacks in place and the iron rungs stapled into the mountain. They’d support me, I thought, no problem. I imagined myself riding a clock pendulum, swinging to the top. That’s how it would have looked if you spent the whole day watching me.
* * *
The two house workers now fronted our convoy of young fat folks, already panting from the exertion of walking carefully, as instructed, over the rocky beach. The house workers met the ranger first and had to listen to a prepared nature speech about Peregrine Falcons. They were dangerous birds, territorial, nesting on cliffs, and would attack the eyes of whatever threatened them, and so on. And they had claimed our trail for the rest of mating season. That was the speech.
The unarmed ranger said no, absolutely not, we couldn’t go, I couldn’t go, no one could go, not even the house workers if they went on their own. “It’s not personal, it’s nature.” And I think the house workers said something like: “…please…we bought a permit to exercise these folks…”
And even though the ranger said nothing about talons, I knew the falcons had them. I imagined large claws ripping up a baseball glove. It seemed every animal in the world had a built-in weapon, something intrinsic—or forcefully acquired—to warn other birds or people or menacing pieces of plastic. That’s what I was thinking.
The sun was at my back, so I didn’t have to squint. Then a man came, arrived walking, and a few things changed. And it wasn’t a change that I noticed to be good or bad. It passed like I imagine a concentrated blast of evolution would—leaving you in a foreign place without any how-to books. But at this point, I didn’t even know who he was. I should mention that. But I remember this, I said: “Damn, he looks just like my Mom.”
I’m not making that up. I really said that. It was the first thing I thought after I saw him.
He slipped behind all of us large folks and the unarmed ranger was too preoccupied with our exercise permit to notice him going onto the path. The forest was covered with soft things, the crunchy branches still on the trees, and he was wearing green army pants too, so that might have helped him blend in. I just remember him thanking me silently, with a wink, then disappearing up the path. He probably thought I was some type of leader.
He didn’t come back into view until later, when the ranger raised his binoculars in disbelief. The man with green pants had started climbing the Precipice and he’d taken his shirt off to get a tan. His shoes were good, you could tell because he wasn’t slipping like the ranger was saying he would: “The trail hasn’t been prepared,” and so on. But the climber was so far away that only the wind could carry the ranger’s words, and by then they were meaningless.
It looked like a rubber action figure was moving up the wall, fluidly, without joints. He wasn’t going back and forth around the switchbacks like I thought he would, but rather made a straight line up the vertical granite face. So he must have known something about climbing. The man was small up there, but I could see that much.
The ranger had a radio instead of a gun and called someone who yelled at him. A Bar Harbor police cruiser pulled up and the cop and the ranger started talking. They were friendly to each other, probably were friends, and appeared to enjoy the climber’s show. The unarmed ranger didn’t look afraid like he had been before, when the climber first appeared on the mountain. The bosses would see it his way, he imagined, I think. “You can’t stop some people,” they would say, “…and he does look good up there, like he knows a thing or two about climbing.”
Twenty minutes later there was a new ranger shouting threats with a bullhorn. He was privileged with a better uniform than the first ranger wore, one that looked closer to real military, with a larger shield. There was also a growing audience that might have distracted the climber. Arriving parents lifted children onto their shoulders for a better view. Retirees on their way to the rocky beach paused to look, towels draped over arms, floppy hat-brims pushed up for an unobstructed view. The cop surveyed the scene and decided he wasn’t going to do anything.
I was present the entire time and I don’t think any of these things fazed the climber at all. That is to say, it was definitely the falcons that made him fall.
There were four rangers now—the youngest, two middle rangers and a final old ranger—and they wanted to arrest the climber when he came back down. They needed to demonstrate how forceful angry rangers could be. The cop had gone back on patrol at the request of the old ranger, so he was gone, but the parents wouldn’t take their kids away like he asked them to. The retirees refused to carry on down to the rocky beach.
The birds were noiseless, or at least were from where we stood. I don’t know what the climber heard as they came off the cliff side. The falcons moved in a group, there were three, and they went for his hands as if knowing which method was most efficient. Like I said, the Precipice wasn’t an up-and-down mountain, the climber just chose to attack it that way. It was more like a jagged face with many levels. He didn’t fall that far. He rested on his stomach about twenty feet below where the birds had met him. Everyone stood up taller on their toes at the same time looking for movement or blood, anything, but it was hard to see without binoculars.
The old ranger didn’t speak and I wondered if he would be the one to retrieve the climber. Or maybe his job was over, I thought. I remember feeling anxious more than worried. I had nervous energy, and I asked a house worker if I could go get the man, honestly believing the workers would let me do anything if I asked politely. I wanted to cry, not because of the tragedy, but because I thought I could do something active to help and knew, impotently, that no one would let me.
The whole event seemed more like a movie than an accident. When it was over, everyone kind of stood up and nodded and left. There were no sweating climb partners speed-climbing to reach him, and no exhausted though still screaming wife, and there wasn’t a white-faced relative waiting to identify the body. No one around knew who he was. The doctors would be the first to know his name, or possibly the helicopter medics if they checked his wallet for a picture. Only then would they know what his face was supposed to look like—or they could have asked me. I knew what his face looked like. But no, we went home, to the house, after sticking our feet in the ice-cold water at the rocky beach and collapsing our tents without ever sleeping in them.
A week later a house worker forgot to recollect his newspaper from the breakfast table when he went to wash his dishes in the kitchen. There were lots of sad things in newspapers, international mostly, and this was a rare chance to see something forbidden. The sound of dishwater would drown out the sound of crinkling newspaper, I realized, so I grabbed the paper and spread it out. My heart raced because I was touching something forbidden. My fingertips were sweaty, and I couldn’t get the pages apart, so I scanned the front page.
I don’t know if it’s like this for everyone else, but if I’m looking at a whole sheet of newspaper, spread out over the table, I can use my mind to cut out everything that I’m not going to like. But I don’t always get to choose what will interest me. It’s like a subconscious filter that works before I even realize I’m missing something. I might skip over an article because I don’t like the picture beside it or because the headline doesn’t have a name or for some other reason of detail—I don’t really know how it works. And sometimes I’ll go back to a page I just turned, not trusting myself, and I’ll say: “Nope, you were right—you don’t like politics and you don’t worry about gun control ever passing and you don’t care who’s running for sheriff because you can’t vote anyway and you don’t need to lose time looking at the Wal Mart ladies model plus-size underwear.” And I’ll just remind myself that I’m one of the people I can trust—if that makes any sense.
I found the obituaries.
The man’s picture came out of the print before I even knew what to look for. Due to the rarity of the circumstances and the tourist-dollar-implications of his death, he’d been given kind of a starring role in this edition of the death pages. The man had been a victim of a climbing accident, with no local family, and the autopsy had been in Bangor and his name was Arthur Boyd.
I am also Boyd, I should mention, and this was not one of life’s amusing coincidences, my having discovered the man who’d fallen off the Precipice trail was my namesake, but a touch of high-consciousness to the center of my being.
My compatriots around the table, previously perhaps envious of my newspaper and at least partly complicit, were now clearly re-afraid of authority and left the premises. So when the worker returned from washing his dishes I was alone, clutching the paper and screaming. I was crying, but if he’d looked closer he would have seen that I was elated, connected to the world, and really not a danger to anyone or to myself. What I’m saying, you know, is that the guy freaked out, in my opinion, and that I didn’t require the tranquilizer injection.
When I woke up, unrestrained at the hands but tucked tightly into bed by a blanket around my waist, Walker the Doctor said, “You’ll be treated like an adult.”
I wished to speak about the Arthur Boyd.
“My colleagues don’t understand that people like you, Alan, good people, become adults many years before normal children.”
I agreed with that. I’d been more mature than the kids at school.
“The only way to run our house is to accept reality; you guys are already adults, yes, but you will have to remain in the house until your maturity coincides with the normal adult laws that pertain to drinking and driving and smoking and voting and renting movies. You’ll just have to wait at the house until the rest of the world realizes how old you are.”
This was a well-practiced pacifying speech, way off-topic.
The newspaper containing the death pages in question had been folded into an approximate eight by ten size that he could put on his clip board. I saw it poking out from the sides. He was currently writing on it.
“Arthur Boyd,” I said.
And as though Walker the Doctor knew what I wanted, what I was getting at, linguistics aside, he said: “There are many people with your name. Here, there, everywhere. You’re not related.”
“Necessarily,” I said. I’d meant to say not-necessarily-related, but maybe, but I was too emotional to get it all out. I then thought to mention that Arthur Boyd had looked exactly like my mother, as a way of proof, but only, “Mother,” came out, and then, worst-possible-scenario, my mother was on the phone while Walker the Doctor stood in the corner, standing at a legally responsible distance, pretending not to listen.
“I love you, Alan,” she said.
“Arthur Boyd,” I said.
As though worried, she said, “Your name is Alan.” She paused for me to respond. “Alan?”
“If he was family,” I wanted to say crisply, clearly. “I could have lived with Arthur Boyd. But now he’s dead and I’m sad about that.”
I didn’t get all the words out.
Walker patted me on the back as he took the phone away. He spoke to my mother. His tone was even, polite, professionally supportive as if nothing in the world would ever change, and that was okay. I couldn’t feel my legs, so tight under the blankets, and so I kicked like I was doing extra-hard sit-ups for the military, hoping to untuck them, which Walker the Doctor must have taken as very aggressive, because he pinched my neck again and then I felt very sleepy. The air in the room changed. I was alerted to the walls taking on different tones—browns, reds, oranges and other comforting shades. Walker was using his voice, still calm, though wanting something from me, but I didn’t hear specific words, so he wasn’t a bother. The door was open and what I wanted was getting closer. What had just recently felt like burning was now just warmth. I was enveloped. I smelled spaghetti sauce and toasted bread and thought, pizza!
A. A. Weiss grew up in Maine and works as a foreign language teacher after having lived in Ecuador, Mexico and Moldova, where he served in the U. S. Peace Corps from 2006-2008. His writing has appeared in Hippocampus, 1966, Drunk Monkeys, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Pure Slush, among others, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in New York City. Website: www.aaweiss.com