The Ineffableness of
by C.A. Cole
At first it had been subtle. Mandy Fulman came home from school one Friday and dark wooden chairs had been plopped around the teak dining table. Her mother, hands on her hips, frowned at their bird claw legs. Each foot grasped a large ball, the toenails a repository for gooey dirt.
“What are those?” Mandy wrinkled her nose. Whenever her father’s mother tried to foist off a Victorian masterpiece like the chairs, her parents reiterated they preferred Danish modern.
“Aren’t they awful?” Her mother kicked the nearest bird foot. “I gather your father wanted them. How else would they get here?”
Later that night her parents argued, her father huffing he hadn’t asked for the chairs; he hated them, remembered being imprisoned on them while finishing his peas. Then someone dialed the phone, and from the gist of that conversation, it sounded like her grandparents were denying they’d sent them.
By the end of senior year, the family was eating off gold filigree plates with forks that had more swooshes and swirls than a Nike storeroom. Mandy picked at her Pad Thai. What had happened to the chopsticks? Her mother threw the plates into the dishwasher as if she hoped to fracture them, but whenever a chip appeared, the next day it was back in the cabinet, the rent repaired.
Her first Christmas home from out-of-state college, men were up on the roof. “What’s going on?” she asked her mother who replied they were having the shakes replaced. The funny thing was, the men were tearing off the attic struts, and when Mandy next looked up, what had once been a sloped roof with dormer windows, was flat.
Then, like a disfiguring skin disease, spots of adobe crept over the red brick of their Denver Four Square. Whenever they went out, her mother averted her eyes as if not seeing the change would make it go away. When Mandy asked her father why they were remodeling, he looked blank, unaware of the workmen stroking their walls.
By summer break, the second story had disappeared.
“Sixteen-sixteen,” she muttered, biting her lip and squinting at the large copper numerals affixed over the front door. The address was the same one she’d departed from last August. The house occupied the same lot as the one she’d lived in all her life. The other houses on the street appeared little changed. The man next door had dug up his peonies and planted roses, but nothing else was different.
Inside, her father’s stereo equipment was stacked on a low-slung, carved cabinet. A floor lamp in the shape of a cherub had replaced the utilitarian pole light that had leaned over his Morris chair. In place of the chair stood a corduroy recliner with butt and arm indentations, the exact type her father referred to as an old man’s chair. “I’ll never sit in one of those,” he’d finish in derision. All Mandy’s favorite books were hidden behind another layer of dusty volumes. She plucked one off the shelf. An encyclopedia from 1953.
“Mom,” she yelled, “why do we have this ancient encyclopedia?”
“In case you or your brother wants to know the capital of Rhodesia or if you need to name all forty-eight states,” her mother shouted from the kitchen.
Rhodesia? Wasn’t that called Zimbabwe? Forty-eight states? The last two states had been added when her mother was an infant. She carried the basement-smelling book into the kitchen where her mother was filling a bread machine with cinnamon dough.
“What in the world are you doing?” They’d never had homemade bread, other than what Grandma Fulman force-fed them, as if they were geese being readied for foie gras. Her mother shrugged. “No more store bought.”
Mandy thought the reason they lived in the city was to avail themselves of modern conveniences, like bakeries, so that her mother could live a life free of drudgery.
Her mother gave her a smile reminiscent of Grandma Fulman, somewhat yellowed and much too even and straight for natural teeth. Her mother hadn’t had a cavity in twenty years. She flossed daily and reported that the dentist said her gums hadn’t receded. How could she have gone from great to dentures in four months?
Nothing in the kitchen looked right. The side-by-side refrigerator with ice and water dispenser had been replaced by a motor-chugging unit that was packed with bits and blobs of Hungarian goulash, spaghetti, something with a red tinge. To get to the over-grown vegetables in the bottom bin, you practically had to lie prone on the floor. The Wolf stove they used to heat up their take-out had been removed. A GE electric with an oven barely wider than a cookie sheet stood in its place.
“What is going on?”
“I’m getting dinner ready,” her mother said. “And starting the buns for the morning.”
“I eat granola bars for breakfast.”
“Now you’ll have a cinnamon roll, three pieces of toast, eight slices of bacon, a three-egg omelet, grapefruit sections I’ve hand segmented, three cups of coffee, and a slice of pecan pie. Just like at grandma’s.”
Even though Mandy didn’t want to be, the next morning she was seated in the butter-colored breakfast nook on a daisy yellow crocheted pillow eating off the filigreed china. After two slices of bacon and a cinnamon roll she was stuffed, yet her mother shoveled the omelet and three pieces of toast onto her plate.
Her father, who never ate fatty bacon since he was a long-distance runner, was placidly buttering his third sticky bun. She almost didn’t recognize him in the snap front shirts with pocket stitchery. It didn’t help that a Texas-sized black cowboy hat like the one his father had adopted when he retired to Arizona, covered up his balding head.
“I think I’m in the twilight zone,” she muttered, but neither of her parents responded as if their keen hearing had been destroyed overnight.
Her younger brother said, “Tell me about it. No more cable. You can’t find a decent radio station.” He was right. Their parents used to listen to the news on NPR; now the air waves were suffused with elevator music.
“And a credit card?” Jeremy said. “No way. You pay cash. They want me to get a crew cut.”
Her parents were yakking, not paying an iota of attention to the children. They were listing their doctor appointments and saying the same things her mother had said the night before, how they’d have to buy a new vacuum cleaner because she’d worn out the motor on her new one, and she hadn’t washed the walls in at least a week. This was the woman who had prided herself on hiring out her housework?
Their mother removed a bubbly-hot sticky-bun from the flowery basket, icing oozing over the edges, and, with an ersatz smile, plopped it on Jeremy’s plate.
“No more,” he yelled.
She froze in mid-motion. “But I’ve made all this food, Son,” she said as if she were a Chatty-Cathy doll. “Food is love.” As if the tape were broken.
Jeremy pushed away from the table. “I tell you and tell you and you don’t listen. I don’t like your crappy food. I never liked Grandma’s and now I don’t like yours.”
“Jeremy?” Mandy got up, too. She thought her brother enjoyed their infrequent visits to her grandparents’ compact, fake-adobe house. Everyone had complained about visiting but him. Everyone, her mother, her father, even the dog.
“Sit down, dear. You haven’t eaten all the bacon. I only made a pound. Have some more.” Her mother stared at Mandy as if daring her to defy her, as if she couldn’t stave off the borrowed words, words Mandy knew she’d despised when her mother-in-law uttered them.
“Do what your mother says,” her father said, the first words he’d addressed to her that morning, but she told him she had to find Jeremy.
“What is happening?” she asked when she caught up with him.
“They keep going to grandma and grandpa’s and coming home with stuff and then they talk like that. Like they aren’t themselves anymore.”
“I thought they didn’t want that junk.” The ancient vacuum cleaner leaned against the front door. The sewing machine next to it looked like you had to pump it with your foot. “That’s what they used to say. No stuff, they had their own.”
“Doesn’t matter. This house is a Leave it to Beaver rerun. They even have twin beds.”
Mandy tiptoed into what had once been her parents’ second floor bedroom but now was at the end of the first floor hall. Sure enough, there were twin beds in place of the California King that used to highlight her mother’s taste of black spread with blood red pillows and a yolk-yellow throw. Now the beds were covered with pink and green calico prints and pillows with big moony cat faces.
“It’s like they aren’t people anymore,” Jeremy said behind her. “Like grandma and grandpa moved into their skins.”
Mandy opened the once spacious walk-in closet, now only a few feet deep and crammed with musty brown and blue clothes. Her father’s running shoes had been replaced with Oxford lace-ups, and her mother’s sandals had transformed into muddy gardening shoes. “So how do we know they’re our parents?”
Jeremy folded his arms. “We know grandma hates living any place but Arizona because of her arthritis, so that isn’t her in the kitchen even though it looks like her and sounds like her.”
Their parents shuffled down the hall, both talking, the cacophony hurting Mandy’s ears even as the walls squeezed together, compressing her room into Jeremy’s. Her grandparent’s house was a two-bedroom stuccoed affair that was slightly bigger than a double-wide.
Every closet was crammed with junk they had shoe-horned into a moving van and carted out from Pennsylvania. They still had her father’s first grade report cards, as well as old bank books, sales receipts for mixers and lamps, accident reports, photographs of people no one knew. Visiting her grandparents was like stepping into a crypt.
“Can we escape?” she asked Jeremy who was edging toward the bedroom window.
“I’m not listening to Bob Dylan,” he said as he pushed open the window, sans air conditioning unit, and kicked out the screen. “I’m not turning into Dad before I’m eighteen.”
Mandy plunged through the window, pricking herself on a rose bush that hadn’t been there last season. Before it was too late she’d return the Birkenstocks and Beatle albums she’d bought last semester. Even now, the sound of Barry Manilow engulfed her as she crashed down the street, running for her life.
Copyright © 2006 by C. A. Cole