I don’t want to do this, but some one has to. The bottom of the door sticks on the buckled linoleum. I kick it open. At first I can’t see anything. I just smell mold and oldness, clutter. A beat-up doll crib shines in the darkness. I see only the bright slats, the bars. Then peeling yellow paint. Flaking decals of dressed bears and bunnies. The bears wear round hats and corduroy overalls. The bunnies have ears that break out of their bonnets. One of them holds a basket. One of them holds a naked mouse.
I light a candle. So Gothic—I imagine my hair long and wild, whipping and wuthering on the moors. I feel paler, more tortured already. I think of my sisters and the black eyeliner we used to trace around each other’s eyes in this attic. We had to hide it from our parents, but up here we could dress up in sweepy gowns and practice swooning. We took turns being the boy and filled rainy afternoons with star-crossed scenarios.
Boxes are piled on either side of the small triangular room. Some are open . I hate to touch them. I keep waiting for something to leap out at my hand while my fingers pry. I see sharp things, metal. Nothing I want there. Next box, papers. Crisp and curly. Some with fat blue dotted lines and careful printing in thick, soft lead. Faded sheets of construction paper and the smell of melted crayons, decades old. Crayoned grass, blade by blade. Cows with milk, or something, gushing out of huge red udders. Suns. Suns with faces. Suns colored hard and dense with yellow, orange, red. Suns with radiants crayoned persistently outward. Thick strokes. Hard lines. The waxy pressure of fat, paper-wrapped stubs. Determined joy.
Most of the boxes are closed, sealed up with tape. I forgot to bring a knife, but could rip them with my fingernails if I wanted to—I never did grow into the kind of woman who cared about her nails. The tape on one of the boxes is yellow and stiff, mostly peeling off by itself. I decide to help that one along first; I’ll get to the others later. A thin layer of cardboard rips up with the tape and the smell of cigar smoke shoots out of the crack. Short black hairs, as from moustache trimmings, are scattered in the crumpled newsprint. I push aside a gossip-page photo of Gena Rowlands, a headline that reads “Manson Masterminded Murders.” Short black hairs are scattered over all of them. I don’t want to touch the hairs, but have to when I lift the paper. Beneath that, more paper, but tissue now, delicate. Now I have to keep going. My mother always reused her pretty tissue; we found the same pieces in the same recycled boxes every birthday, every Christmas. We learned the habit of thrift. My mother would never have wasted perfectly good tissue paper on wrapping up stuff that would be stored in boxes and no one would see. My father must have packed up this one. He never cared about saving anything.
Carefully, I unwrap it, thin and delicate as filo dough. Inside the tissue is a faded pee-chee folder—the golden kind with happy teenagers swinging bats and tennis rackets. Inside the folder is more tissue, and inside that, a Polaroid snapshot. A wedding photo. I sit back on my heels and blow at the dust. The people in the photo are leaning on a powder blue Rambler, next to a No Parking sign. The people are my parents. My mother wears a short white dress and her long hair parted in the middle. My father wears a white shirt and a skinny little tie. They are smiling—he at her and she at the camera. His hand encircles her waist. Her lips are very red and her left hand is planted squarely on his thigh. You can tell by the tendons in her hand that she is squeezing hard, and gleefully. I’d seen a few of their wedding photos before, but the others had been taken in front of the court house and my parents had looked a lot grimmer. In the other photos, their own parents had been locked in on either side of them like arresting officers.
I stare at the polaroid. I surprise myself by choking up—just as if I’d been a regular daughter with regular parents who’d had a past that wasn’t all awful. Who might have loved each other once. The possibilities were boggling. It meant that I might have been wrong about them for years—about their frozen solid silences; about my mother’s nightly sadness when she bowed into the dishwater; about the long hours my father spent, doors locked, in the garage. All of it might have meant something else after all. And the fact that my father had wrapped up this one picture, so carefully, in my mother’s best tissue, and kept it—that meant something maybe bigger than the rest. It meant that my father might have cared about his marriage, about my mother, and by extension, us. It meant that I had been a terrible daughter—judgmental, unforgiving, wrong. It meant that I should have done the “Tuesdays with Morrie” bit at the very least, for my own father at the end. Instead of what I did. Which was nothing.
The loss, the wasted time. I feel the enormity of my own angers, sorrows, regrets, welling up inside and I imagine myself Incredibly Hulk-like and exploding into something green and hugely muscular. So then I sit in the dust and I cry for my father, for my mother, for my sisters, for myself. For the tainted moments, the lost years. And I feel purer when I’m done. More whole. A new maturity is growing inside me like fresh bone marrow. I can feel it. I can heal now.
And with a happy heart then I dig down into the next layers of the box. I can do it by myself, without any help at all. More newspapers. Then magazines. Wait. Playboy magazines. Lots of them. I take a deep breath and make my new, mature self smile indulgently. Prolonged adolescence, I say to myself, shaking my head affectionately, tolerantly, at my father’s weakness. Supposed to have great articles I remember someone (probably my father) saying. I flip through one, then another. I remember then the pin-ups in my father’s garage. The naked breasts and backsides he had tacked to the workbench wall, the ceiling, the inside of the garage door. And I remember how my mother tried not to look when she came in to do the laundry. How she told us once that the pictures hurt her eyes. How our father had trained us to laugh at her for that. How we had.
I flip through Playboy–August 1996—geez, how long had he kept at it anyway? But right in the middle, some of the pages stick together. I throw it fast, hard away against another box—its spine breaks and its pages lay splayed open. More polaroids spill out. I lean in to look—no way am I going to touch anything else in this box. But these photos aren’t of my mother or of my father either. These are pictures of Asian women—all Asian women—in various poses on cheap hotel bedspreads, naked as mice.
I pinch out the candle and sit in the dark. If I keep my eyes open long enough my pupils will sooner or later adjust back to the blackness and then I can find my way out of here again, same way I came in.
Melody Mansfield’s first novel, The Life Stone of Singing Bird, was published in 1996 by Faber and Faber and earned favorable reviews from The New York Times Book Review, Booklist, Cimarron and others. Her short work has found homes in a number of literary, academic, and commercial publications including Inside English, Parents Magazine, and Thought Magazine. Most recently, her short stories have found homes in a number of print and on-line journals including Pedestal, Ascent, Megaera, Wild Violet, Spillway Review, and (in October) Fickle Muses. In May 2007, she was the featured writer interviewed in an online literary journal, Bibliobuffet.