Present day: A walk through the quiet streets of this small town will reward you with a strange sight. It is enough to make you stop and stare. In an empty space where enough sun shines for grass to grow, an entire building seems to have been completely erased. There must have been something here. What was it? What happened? Questioning the locals only yields more confusion. No one seems to know or care what happened, or why, or how. You look around, confused. There should be a plaque or something with a story, but there isn’t.
1991: Sitting in the lone shaft of sunlight that falls into the dark back room, the girl has her diary on her knees. “One day, there will be a brass plaque on this building.” she writes. “It will say, ‘A family lived here, though no one knew they were there.’ She believes that her life will be significant. This is in part due to the fact that she is in the gifted program at school, and also because she knows she has good bone structure, and not a bad-looking face. Her parents are both successful artists and for them, everything is about posterity. For her, and for now, there are only secrets and painful isolation, even from her peers. No one must know that the family lives in the back of a store, which means the girl cannot make friends, even if she knew how. The girl imagines the world knowing her story, understanding her better than it does right now, which is not at all. She sighs and closes her diary.
Since the age of 11, she has made regular visits to the year 1904, walked in it sometimes, touched its ghosts, felt its vibrations. It began when she found a magazine in one of her parent’s trunks; a copy of The Cosmopolitan from 1904. She read it cover to cover, trying to understand what this strange longing was that she felt, this desire to understand how these long ago people had lived, what they had thought, eaten, worn, and experienced. During that time, she was taken often to visit empty buildings her father hoped to purchase or save, perhaps an abandoned theater. Other trips were to historical sites for the purpose of art-related research. Civil War memorials, houses once used as hospitals, battle sites, even graveyards, were family-weekend destinations. When left well alone and told to be quiet, she would be very still and let the walls or objects speak to her. What began to happen is hard to explain, except to those who are familiar with the powers of preadolescent girls. She cannot explain it to other people, and attempts to make sense of it to herself, and so, as it to a friend, she writes:
You open your eyes. You are indoors. It is daytime. The first thing you will notice is that the light here is different. Sunlight coming through the windows is brighter than you are used to in some rooms, and others are too dark, even with lamps lit. This is because the window glass is poor quality stuff, and the curtains are dark and heavy; their material and texture unfamiliar. The next thing you will notice is the dust. Dust is everywhere. Dust motes swirl in rays of sunlight, dusty grit on the wooden floor beneath your shoes. The sounds coming in from outdoors are surprising, much louder than it seems they should be. It is as if you are outdoors yourself, but it is warm, much too warm. You feel strange, exposed, at once vulnerable and stifled. There are smells, almost too many to take in. Burning wood releases smoke from inside a cook stove. You can smell singed cloth, musty wet wool, and various sharp human odors that cannot be disguised, even of blood. There are the sounds, too, only slightly muffled by heavy fabric and dust. Loud thumps of footfalls on wood echo all around you, the clank of primitive machinery, hooves on cobblestone, babies crying, shouts of men and children in the street, laughter, and somewhere either very near or far away, a woman is crying. It might be coming from upstairs. You turn and grasp the dark wood of the banister, and make your way up the stairs. The carpet is held in place on each stair by a solid brass rail. Dust clouds exhale from beneath your heavy boots. You hear a squeak and a clank and look down, midway between steps. Iron braces encase both of your legs. With some effort, you ascend the rest of the stairs and pause, breathing heavily. To your left, a door is open. The floorboards creak as you approach. Sunlight slants onto a brass bedstead where a small child dressed in white is lying, asleep on the coverlet…no, not asleep…with a sharp shock of horror, you are brought back to the present.
“Helen! Are you still with us?” Giggles sweep the classroom.
“I’m sorry…yes, I am.”
The Forbidden Floor
Almost at the same moment that the car pulled out of the brick-paved alley, watched through the blinds by four pairs of eyes, four pairs of feet tear off in separate directions; each to a favorite and usually impossible diversion. Those of the oldest daughter, now 13, always tend upward. She grasps the solid dark wood of the square banister, steels herself, and ascends the carpeted stairs, towards the thrilling musty smell of the plastic draped stair landing which leads to the unused storage floor. Her three siblings would smile or shake their heads when they saw her go, perhaps calling, “You’d better not move anything–you’re going to get caught!” No one bothers adding, “You’re going to get us all in trouble!” a typical refrain, also pointless because no one else cares about going upstairs. Tonight she can’t hear them. No one says anything; they only dimly understand what she is going through. Their sister is usually strange but tonight…something is up. Normally, even standing at the top of these stairs is forbidden. From this vantage point, touching the tin-plated ceiling 14 feet above the family’s sleeping area is possible. “This ceiling was made in the 1870’s”, she thinks, “or even before that. What has it seen?” Crawling under the plastic tarp to the storage area? Unthinkable. Unless the parents are off the premises; then all bets are off. Although several feet of concrete pass between these floors, as seen through the grille of the freight elevator, it cannot be solid or even well-insulated. When the family first bought the building, the children had delighted in running across the vast fields of green carpeting, hearing the pinging sound their feet had made. Footfalls echo resoundingly to the floor below. For this reason their father had forbidden them from coming up here. But why should that matter outside of business hours? Unreasonable. The truth is that generations of secrets and failures are stored in these boxes; her parents’ old art pieces are stored in corners, along with tax documents and early signboards from their fledgling business. Everything that has been deemed unnecessary or inappropriate resides here. She feels most at home among the rejected elements.
Pigeons have made their nests in the screens that cover the front windows. So many pigeons-the sound of their cooing echoes all over in the daytime. The floor at the front seems soft, unstable, and droppings are everywhere. Once, the girl found a dead pigeon lying on the carpet, and was haunted by the fact that she could not tell her parents about it…she could only wait for the smell to alert them. Tonight, she brushes past the plastic and walks toward the back. It is not peace and nostalgia she is seeking. How could her parents leave her here alone tonight? She might have had secret plans; she might have arranged for someone to come and take her to the school. She isn’t supposed to be here. She is supposed to be performing in her chamber choir’s concert. It seems like such a small thing, but it isn’t–she fumes inwardly–it’s like a symbol of everything else, of something much bigger and too terrible to think about. She is tormented, frustrated, pacing like a caged tiger. It is too much, it is as if they know how powerless she is, and this increases her anger. Maybe they actually plan to go to the performance themselves. She wonders what it would be like to belong to a different family, one that would have allowed her to have this privilege. Instead she is making a trip to her special place. The girl takes down a large board which has been propped in a windowsill, covering the broken window pane through which she sometimes squeezes, taking in the rare view and dreaming about the future. This night, the wind cools a face upon which hot, bitter tears fall freely. From a pocket she pulls a folded piece of paper and a pen. Now, half in and half out of the window, taking deep breaths to steady herself, her hands shake as she writes:
I am looking down at a patchwork of different ideas about brick-laying. The parking lot far below is marred by paved over areas and pockmarked by sandy sediment and tufts of grass. Our other car and a dumpster to my left split my view of the ground. Above and to my left is part of another building, the corner of it illuminated in a rosy glow and reflecting the last rays of the sun, which is still setting. The sky is changing color rapidly from pink to purple and peach, now blue-grey. A light rain is falling, pattering on the old tin roof behind and above me. To my extreme left, a crumbling brick tower-like structure forms a right angle to the wall. The bars on that window shield a broken-down bathroom we don’t use. Chips of plaster and boards cover hole in the floor. The sun scarcely shines even in broad daylight through that painted over honeycomb wire in the thick glass. I am getting rained on now. It is nice to feel the wind and enjoy this view, the reflected sunset. From up here I can see into the play yard of the church next door. All we can ever see from the ground is the top of the small tree that tells us our seasons. It is spring, a bright leafy green. Even in this cloistered alley, when it rains there is an earthy smell. Bricks still warm from the day’s sun sizzle a little. The rusty iron window frame is uncomfortable where it digs into my elbows, but I don’t care.
The way she finishes the story on damp-spotted notebook paper is this: “Maybe one day, years from now, I will return to this place, and look out the window, and it will all be the same. The tree will be much bigger. I will still hear the chimes on the wind, the rush of passing cars, and see green trees in the far distance. What will be different is myself. I will be free. I will make my home far from here. The sky is dark now. I take a deep breath and dream of flying.”
The girl runs out of paper at this point and looks up. She continues writing in her head thusly: A few chips of concrete on the sill, dislodged from the bricks, fall a surprisingly long way and clatter on the pavement. Such a small sound. That empty space below me is right in front of the glass doors, exactly the place where my parents will pull up when they return. If I push, I can fit through this window. I can twist out onto the narrow brick ledge, and there will be just enough room…just enough time to stand, and to jump. If I close my eyes…no, if I look far ahead to the trees I can do it. There will be no way, no time to lose my nerve, nothing for it but to fly a first and final time. What will it feel like? I hope I don’t scream and scare everyone. Will I go to heaven, hell, or nowhere at all? Are any of these choices even possible, or preferable? I know it’s wrong, but God knows what my other options are, and I don’t know where He’s been–or why He’s been okay with just watching. I look down again and I see myself lying there, broken and still. A shriek from downstairs makes me jump. It’s my little sister, playing some kid game. She’s only nine. I can’t do this to her. I just can’t. She would peek out the blinds to see if Mom and Dad were back, and she would never be okay afterward. I sigh and crawl back inside, replace the board, and break down in tears, but only for a minute. Time to weave my way back in the near-dark, back through the forgotten piles of our past, and go find my brothers and sister. I’m sure by now there’s plenty of mess and distraction…maybe they stuck her in the dryer again.
It must be nearly time. They are going to close up shop, and then they are going to come for me. I can’t think. Sitting here in the near-dark, I am trying to read a schoolbook by droplight in the cold outer room that we call the lobby. It also houses the well of the giant cast iron boiler that heats the building. This room has a sharp and familiar oily smell. This is my long-standing punishment for snacking without permission. I am not allowed in the living area after school. Sometimes I pretend I am in a dungeon. It isn’t hard. All I have to do is pull the string attached to the lone light bulb swinging in the bathroom behind me, and look up at the tiny air shaft so far above, or down at the crumbling plaster at the hole in the wall. I can imagine someone on the other side passing me notes of hope.
Today is different–I am justly imprisoned by my own actions. I hear the creak of approaching footsteps and snap to attention, mentally assessing my surroundings. All is as it should be. My eyes sting from the sudden glare of fluorescent tube lights. A dark shape obscures them. “Honey, I have such good news!”
Uh-oh. She has never visited me in the back room during business hours before. Well, one time she brought me an apple. “Oh…?” Mom is half-whispering through the half-closed door because I am not allowed to leave the lobby yet. “Your father is taking us to Billie’s Backstreet tonight! Just you and me! And you’ve always wanted to go there!” She looks more excited than a simple dinner out should warrant, and isn’t bothering to whisper all the way. Does she know? She must know. Of course she does–but why isn’t she angry? “Oh. Wow. That…why is…?” I say. She has me by the shoulders now, and I feel even more strange. She knows. “I’ll go and get you out a dress for dinner!” I watch as Mom hurries away with a happy backward glance, girlish. Of course, she is going to pick me out something stupid, and probably with a giant bow to put on top of my head. Sighing, I quietly close the heavy door and tiptoe back to my makeshift desk. I cannot continue reading, the words swim, my stomach churns. Has he shown her the letter yet? He must have told her why he had to go to the school early, why the vice principal called.
In the workshop, behind yet another wall that divided the middle space, the girl’s mother paces nervously. She can hear her husband closing the last deal of the day on an expensive custom framing job for a hideous 80’s fashion art print. Torn between optimism and her worst fears, the mother tries to calm herself by going over the facts again, just what she knows for sure.
2:00pm: Her husband had answered the phone and gone very pale. He was talking to the vice principal of the high school. All he said on his way out the door was, “Your daughter has written a suicide note.” She knew which daughter because the other one was in elementary school, and anyway, it was the older one he always pretended wasn’t his. He had spoken sarcastically but looked worried, even stricken. But she’s all right? And that worried look had to mean that he cared for her? Maybe, she thought, things are actually going to get better for all of us. It can’t be…he can’t be worried because…did she betray us? Has she told them something awful about our private lives? She has a big mouth but she would never do that to…anyway, they are letting him bring her home.
6:00pm. The girl is ushered into the middle chambers and tiptoes to the sleeping area to change her clothes, which are laid out on her immaculate bedspread. Even worse than a dress; something called a “bubble outfit.” Blue and blousy–she always feels like a fool wearing it. And of course, a large, paisley hair bow. She is too nauseated with dread to summon an argument.
Over the retaining wall she can hear her father’s voice, low and conversational, talking about color choices with a customer. She is unavoidably reminded of another afternoon not long ago, during which she had returned to her room to find a large shiny piece of fabric, also blue, spread like a billboard, across her bed. The word “NO” had been meticulously cut out of it in large letters, a message just for her. She sighs and searches for ballet flats. She goes over the events of the day mentally, and as if composing her statement, she writes:
10:00am. I was in choir class, thinking about how I wasn’t going to be allowed to perform in the show, and how I was going to fail the class; but what was more, how my life feels like one giant planned failure. Tears were rolling down my cheeks, I couldn’t hide them. Another student, an impossibly mature junior, asked me what was wrong. There was such a kind look about her face that I couldn’t help but trust her. I said it was my family…and it was really too much to explain. She smiled and said I could try, and that she’d listen. The bell rang. My next class was Civics and I sat all the way in the back. I got out a pen and paper and instead of taking notes, I wrote these words that I wish I could take back:
Hi. So, I will try to explain to you about my family, and why I’m so sad basically all of the time. Nobody really knows what it’s like for us. My dad is Middle Eastern, and he just doesn’t understand how we are completely different from other families. He doesn’t let us do anything. I am not allowed to perform in the choir concert because I didn’t ask his permission to take the class. It isn’t about money for the outfit; I thought it was, but when my mom bought the fabric so I could make my own outfit, he found out somehow and cut it up. (He actually cut the word “NO” into it.) “It’s the principle,” he said. And it isn’t the choir concert that’s really bothering me; though it will mean a failing grade, it’s the control. My mom doesn’t help; she is just as scared of him as we are. It’s sad to see her just letting him walk all over her. This is the part I can’t tell anyone about–I’m super nervous to give this to you–but my dad has been getting really weird with me. I feel like any day now he is going to do something awful and I can’t do anything about it–and if he does, my life will be worthless. It’s like he actually wants to ruin me for life, on purpose, and he controls everything I do. But I won’t let him. If he does, I’d rather die. I know it’s wrong but I just feel so I don’t know what else to do. I think God will understand. Anyway, thanks for caring.
At the restaurant, which is a small town’s attempt at a swanky jazz joint, music plays half-heartedly. Half of a family sits at a small round table. Two thirds of this party are silent. The girl feels numb. She cannot concentrate on the menu, though she knows the drill; choose the least expensive entree that is not fattening. Salad, with dressing on the side. Just water for me, thank you. Only the mother is smiling and animated, and increasingly nervous. The girl tries to imagine that she is an only child, but is too depressed to muster the energy. When the waitress comes to take their order, she finds herself relieved to be able to flee the tense atmosphere. Poor kid. “Now, you know why I’ve called this family meeting…” her father begins in his thick Middle Eastern accent. The girl looks up and then down at the napkin in her lap. It is green. Forest green. “I’m in a forest…” she attempts to go elsewhere. “No?” her mother says innocently, putting down a dinner roll and looking from her husband to her daughter, and back to her husband again. “Is this about why you went to the school today?” The girl finds she cannot look at either of her parents, so she compromises by staring at a point just above her mother’s left ear. Her father silently produces the letter from the pocket of his jacket and hands it to his wife. “What’s this?” she asks. “Read it.” He says grimly. Several long minutes pass, punctuated by soft gasps. A ringing starts up in the girl’s ears. She allows it to pass over her. In the middle of the crowded restaurant, a woman’s laugh rings out, warm, full, and carefree. The girl attaches her thoughts to the sound and even manages to focus on her mother’s face as the words, addressed to her, “How could you do this to us? To me? How could you say these things about me…?” fade into insignificance. No reply is expected of her and so she stares at another point in the distance, somewhere just above her father’s left ear this time. He has now begun to lecture, loftily, patronizing. Biting words about her pathetic need for attention. She does not even need to try to look ashamed of herself, she just has that kind of face. The ringing grows louder. She gives herself up to it fully and, without paper or pen, she writes:
A teenage girl was out to dinner with her parents when she heard the laugh. She was an only child, smothered by parental attentiveness to detail, yet adrift in her isolation from their deeper emotions. The girl had been deep in thought; the familiar chatter about stocks, politics, and business deals washing over her like the sound of rain. She was even able to deflect the occasional pointed questions meant to assess whether she was nervous about her upcoming chamber choir performance, in which she had two solo parts. What these questions actually meant, she knew, was “Are you going to get stage fright and embarrass us in front of our friends?” But that laugh brought her to the present, what was it? It transcended anything like fear about the opinions of others. It was a living laugh, a golden, winged thing, rising through the air. It gave the girl a new feeling. She felt it filling her up like a balloon. It was hope. “One day,” she thought, “I will laugh like that, too.”