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Copyright © 2011

Micah Dean Hicks

Oldjohn's House




Way out in Arizona, a few miles from the desert reservations, Oldjohn and his five kids lived. His kids were all in their thirties, and Oldjohn hated them. They were failures, even Fatjohn who’d only ever wanted to work at the gas station down the road, and they’d lived with him their whole lives. They stole his whiskey, ate all his pension could buy, and ran off every woman he’d had for the last fifteen years, starting with their mother. But they were too big for Oldjohn to whip anymore, so one day he decided to build a house that would be able to whip them for him and whip them good.

He decided to build the house on the edge of his land next to the highway. It took him four months to collect enough scraps from woodpiles and abandoned houses, but Oldjohn was a good hater—the only thing he was good at—and kept at it until he had enough lumber and tin. The day Oldjohn went to build it, he brought with him heaps of old belts, coat-hangers, cut-off lengths of water-hose, tough branches, and everything else good for whipping children. All these Oldjohn hung inside the walls and put up in the attic as he built the house. Each still throbbed with the hurt of his children and with his disappointment in them, and he packed them in so thick that nothing could be inside the house without feeling their sting.

For weeks he worked, and finally Oldjohn finished, clapped the dust off his hands, and went home. His kids were in the living room smashed together on the couch in front of the TV: Fatjohn, I’mjohn, Meanjohn, Miranda, and Candace. The couch was broken down almost to the floor underneath them. Miller beer bottles rolled around their feet, and yellowed popcorn flakes were ground into the rug. They were watching a western. On the screen, Indians chased buffalo across the plains in Toyotas, the small trucks heaving up and down over potholes and hills, feathers whipping from the side mirrors. Miranda and I’mjohn were ignoring the movie and playing cards. Oldjohn saw their dark hair and skin, their tall bodies, and remembered their mother. He stepped in front of the TV.

“I’ve built you all your own house by the highway,” Oldjohn said. “Now get the hell out.” His kids cheered and shouted, all talking at once and running back to their rooms. They filled laundry baskets and army duffel bags with everything they had, which wasn’t very much. I’mjohn took the cards he and Miranda played with all the time, and Miranda took only the big bottles of shampoo and conditioner she needed for her long, thick hair. Meanjohn and Fatjohn helped each other carry the TV. Candace, last to leave, went to the pantry and measured out some dry beans, rice, and noodles into grocery sacks. She kissed Oldjohn on the cheek on her way out. As their voices receded down the hill, Oldjohn locked the door so that they couldn’t come back.

He sat down alone and started drinking, rushing to the window when he thought he heard one of them outside, but there was never anyone there. The house was quiet, and for the first time in years he could hear the wind sobbing through the cracks around the windows and pushing through the crawlspace under his feet. He took one last hot swallow of whiskey and lay down on the couch. He stayed there for a long time, not knowing what else to do.

The sun was hot and white, and Oldjohn’s children went squinting down the side of the hill to their new house beside the road. When they got to it, they huddled together in its ragged, ugly shadow. The house was tall and narrow with two floors. Its sides were mismatched planks of sand-scarred wood and irregular pieces of tin, flecked with rust and peeling back at the corners. I’mjohn stepped onto the porch and took the doorknob in his hand. The others crowded around him. They swung the door open and looked inside. The house was as dry and dusty as a shipping crate. Besides the porch, there were two big rooms one on top of the other, a small kitchen, a bathroom, and an attic. There was no furniture at all inside. They decided I’mjohn and Meanjohn would live upstairs and Miranda and Candace would live downstairs. They made Fatjohn stay in the attic. The five of them played cards the rest of the evening, grinning to each other because they now had their own house and wouldn’t have to fight with Oldjohn all the time. Then, after they became tired, they spread their blankets out on the floor and went to sleep.

In their room, Miranda and Candace stayed up talking like they always did. Finally, Candace grew tired and started to say her prayers. Miranda kept interrupting her and changing the words: “Dear Lord, bless me,” Candace would say. “With a big man to warm my bed,” Miranda would finish. “Let us have the strength to withstand,” Candace would say. “His lovely body on top of ours,” Miranda would finish. They went on like this until Candace was too frustrated to pray, and Miranda was already dreaming of men.

That night, Candace couldn’t get any rest. The house was so empty, she was sure she could hear everyone’s breath echoing off the walls. Every gasp, snort, and snore floated down the stairs and ricocheted around the room until it struck her in the ear and made her bolt up in bed. It went on like that for hours, until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Candace ran out of the house to find something to fill all that emptiness. While the others slept, she kept filling until morning.

When everyone got up, no one could say anything for a while. There was a national park service picnic table in the living room. Road signs were tacked to the walls—their directions all confused—a charcoal grill was in the kitchen, a dismantled eighties model Ford truck was hung in pieces along the wall going up the staircase, sacks of gardening dirt were stacked in the corner, oranges were scattered over the floor, and Miranda found a duck in the closet. I’mjohn even found a bicycle chained to the faucets in the bathtub and had to sit on it while he showered.

“It’s like Christmas,” Fatjohn said. They heard someone pull up in the yard and went to the window to look. Candace parked a white Buick on the lawn next to three others. She got out, opened an umbrella to shade herself from the sun, and started walking back toward town to steal another.

The four of them had a breakfast of the oranges and sat down at the picnic table to discuss what they should do. Fatjohn and Meanjohn insisted that there was nothing that could be done. She was their sister, after all, and wasn’t the house better now? I’mjohn could tell that Miranda was bothered by it, though. He followed her into the kitchen and helped her clean the grill to cook lunch. They whispered together as they scraped charred tinfoil off the grillwork and raked out the old coals.

“She’ll go to jail,” Miranda said, “and all of us will go with her.”

I’mjohn nodded. “I don’t care if she is our sister. We have to do something before this comes back on us.”

Finally, they decided what they should do. I’mjohn walked up the hill to Oldjohn’s house. He didn’t try the door, but opened his old window and stepped through. I’mjohn called the police department and told them that his sister had been stealing cars and where she’d put them. As he hung up the phone, Oldjohn walked out of the bathroom. “You’re back,” Oldjohn said.

“No, I only needed to use the phone.”

Oldjohn nodded. He brought I’mjohn into the kitchen and made him a cup of coffee. I’mjohn thanked him for the coffee and told him about how much they were liking their new house.

“It’s bad,” Oldjohn said. “It’s not a good house, and you should get out.”

“No, it’s great. We like it.”

“There’s nothing good in this place, and you should leave.”

I’mjohn finished his coffee and thanked his father again. He told him not to worry about them. He went back to the house with the TV remote, a cook-pot, and a new bottle of whiskey. The police had already taken away Candace and the cars by the time I’mjohn got back. He and Miranda made lunch. Afterward, they sat at the table raising shots to their sister for most of the night and tried to trick the duck into drinking with them.

The second morning, they all had a bastard of a headache, and everyone was quiet. Fatjohn locked the front door twice that morning, but every time he went back, it was unlocked again. He looked up at the house’s ill-joined walls and ceilings looming over him and locked the door a third time. He walked away for a minute, but when he came back, it was unlocked. The brass mouth of the lock, scratched all around from the teeth of keys, looked as surprised as he did.

Fatjohn went to Miranda first and shouted at her, “Why do you keep unlocking the door?” She covered her ears and told him to be quiet, that she hadn’t touched a door all morning. Then he went to his brothers and shouted at them, “Who keeps unlocking the door?” They yelled and threw their shoes at him, told him to get the hell out. But it only got worse. All morning, Fatjohn went along locking doors behind him and finding them unlocked as soon as he turned his back. He could hear them click open as he stepped away. By lunchtime, he was beating the doors with his fists and screaming that something was wrong with the house.

Meanjohn’s head felt full of waves and he couldn’t stand Fatjohn’s noise anymore. He found his brother swearing and trying to take the front lock apart with a screwdriver. Meanjohn pounded on his brother’s head and back with both fists and chased him up the stairs and into his room. Then Meanjohn stopped, his eyes lifting to the ceiling. Since they’d moved in, none of them except for Fatjohn had been inside the attic. Hanging from the ceiling were hundreds of old belts, pieces of water hose, stretched out coat-hangers, and branches. They drifted back and forth from the wind blowing in through the window and rattled softly together. For a moment, Meanjohn was very afraid, remembering all the whippings Oldjohn had given him as a child. But then he laughed. “This house is just as screwed up as anything he ever did.” Fatjohn nodded, hoping his brother wasn’t angry anymore, but when Meanjohn jerked down some of the belts, he knew that he was in trouble.

Meanjohn bound his brother’s feet and hands with the belts, rolled him onto his stomach, and striped his back and legs with welts while Fatjohn screamed for him to stop. Finally Meanjohn left the room, noticing that the doorknob had been put on backwards. He locked the door from the outside, giving it a shake. “What do you think about the locks now?” He walked back to his room. The floor creaked under Meanjohn, and it kept sounding like someone was coming up behind him. But each time he looked over his shoulder, no one was there. He would feel better after he lay down, he thought.

Later, I’mjohn opened the bathroom door and saw Miranda stepping out of the shower. Both hands were up wringing out her hair, and one leg was over the edge of the tub, long thigh tapering to calf and foot, a halo of water around her toes. The water made her hair gleam black and her skin wet and bright like honey. I’mjohn saw her and was still for a moment. Their eyes met, and he shut the door slowly and walked back to his room.

They always locked the door when they were in the bathroom, and neither knew how something like this could have happened. They didn’t cook together that night, but stayed at opposite ends of the house. Meanjohn went back and forth asking them what was wrong, but they only got angry with him and wouldn’t say.

Finally, the two of them met again at Fatjohn’s door. He was beating on it from the inside, yelling for someone to let him out. I’mjohn shrugged. “I can’t get it to open.” Miranda tried, but she couldn’t open it either. They started laughing about it, just chuckling at first, then more and more as Fatjohn yelled at them from the other side of the doorway. They leaned against each other and laughed until they were crying. “I’m sorry,” said I’mjohn when he could finally speak. Miranda shrugged. “It was an accident. We don’t have to talk about it.” They decided to go play cards while they tried to think of some way to get Fatjohn out of his room.

Knowing that they had forgotten him, Fatjohn made a rope from the belts and tried to climb down through the window. Halfway down, the belts came undone all at once, and he hit the ground hard. The belts rained down on his face and chest. He threw them off and went to the front door, ready to yell at his brothers and sister for leaving him there. He tried the doorknob, but it was locked. He shook it, knocked on it, kicked it, but nothing did any good. No one heard him and came to open the door. “Fuck all of you!” he yelled. He walked back up the long hill to his father’s house. He went to Oldjohn’s door—one he’d been going in and out of all his life—and tried to open it. He broke down into sobs. Oldjohn’s door was locked, too.

He walked away, babbling to himself and kicking at the cracked dirt. “All the doors in the world are shut to me!” he said. He liked how it sounded and said it again, crying. This had always been true, he thought, it had just taken him this long to see it. He walked out to the highway beside the gas station where he had never been able to get a job and hitched a ride away from Oldjohn, his cruel family, and this cruel place.

In the house, they’d finally gotten Fatjohn’s door open with a pry-bar, but he wasn’t there. They decided he must have gone back to Oldjohn’s house, and it was getting late anyway, so they didn’t think any more about it. After dinner and a few hours of TV, they started getting ready for bed. Meanjohn had been acting strange all day, but I’mjohn didn’t care to ask him about it. I’mjohn put the duck in the bathtub for the night, hoping it would be easier to clean up after him in the morning, and went to bed. But every time I’mjohn had almost fallen asleep, Meanjohn would roll over on the other side of the room and hit the floor with his fist.

After the fifth time, I’mjohn sat up. “What is wrong with you?” he asked.

“The house is creaking. The boards around me keep making noise.”

“All houses creak. Especially Oldjohn’s houses.”

“No,” Meanjohn said. I’mjohn could dimly see him sitting up on the other side of the room. “This sounds like someone is walking toward me. Like someone is sneaking over here to get me while I’m sleeping.”

“No one is in here but you and me.”

“I’m telling you, I can hear them!” His brother sounded hoarse and afraid.

I’mjohn was too tired to have patience for this. “That must be an awful thing. Still, if you don’t stop hitting the floor so I can sleep, I’m going to beat the hell out of you.”

“I have to do something to keep them away!” said Meanjohn.

I’mjohn got up, grabbed his boot, and walked over to his brother. Meanjohn hit the floor when he heard someone walking toward him, then yelled when he realized someone was really there. I’mjohn beat his brother good with the boot, his fist buried inside it and punching Meanjohn in the stomach and chest, until he was tired and went back to lie down. Not even ten minutes had passed, and Meanjohn started yelling and throwing things again. I’mjohn threw both boots at him, called him a shithead, and took his blankets downstairs.

He walked down the staircase to Miranda and Candace’s room, knowing there would be space because his sister was still in jail. In the soft blue light coming in through the window, he could see Miranda sitting on the floor with her arms wrapped around her knees. He wasn’t sure if she could see him. Then he heard her talking.

Miranda was missing her sister and remembering their prayer. “Dear Lord,” she called out. “Bless me with a big man to warm my bed. Let me have the strength to withstand his lovely body on top of mine.”

At once, all I’mjohn could remember was his sister’s honey-colored skin stepping out of the shower. She saw him then, standing on the other side of the room, but didn’t recognize him in the dim light. She knew only that he was tall and lovely and watching her. She rose, and they met each other in the middle of the room where the light from the window couldn’t reach. It was a long time before Miranda recognized I’mjohn, and by then it was too late.

Meanjohn found them in bed together the next morning. They covered themselves and were afraid of what he would say.

“You left me all alone up there!” Meanjohn shouted. “I fought them all night by myself!

Miranda held the blankets to her chest and looked worried. I’mjohn said that he was sorry.

“There is something wrong with this house,” Meanjohn said. “And I’m going to do something about it.” He went outside.

I’mjohn and Miranda started putting their clothes back on. With every garment, they looked more and more strange to each other, and they didn’t like it. Outside, they could hear Meanjohn ripping into the side of the house.

“I liked it,” said I’mjohn. “I liked it an awful lot.”

“I liked it, too,” said Miranda, “but we shouldn’t have done it.”

A section of wall collapsed and the sun fell on them like an eye. Meanjohn stood beside the fallen tin and boards with a black pry-bar and sledge hammer in his hands.

I’mjohn turned back to his sister. “Says who?”

“Says everyone.”

“Well, damn everyone. We should do what we want.”

They talked it backwards and forwards, moving from room to room. As they talked, Meanjohn was steadily taking the house to pieces. Gaps dotted the walls, letting wind and sand blow through. Meanjohn soon had the second floor and the roof off, and I’mjohn and Miranda couldn’t hide from each other.

Miranda walked out onto the porch. She could see the highway and all the cars passing, her father’s house above them on a short mesa, and all the other little shacks and houses scattered around. “I love you more than anyone else, but none of them would let us live that way.”

“We have this house,” I’mjohn said. “If we stay here, none of them have to know about it.” Even as he said it, though, Meanjohn pushed down the last wall and started stacking the boards and tin up in the yard. They stood on a porch connected to nothing. Meanjohn was making a big pile of belts, hoses, hangers, and branches, squirting lighter fluid all over it. They went to look.

Meanjohn had found the belts tacked to the insides of the walls and hung up in the attic, under the floors, and wrapped around the rafters. The pile was dense, all twisted together like cat’s claw vines, and was taller than any of them. The belts were cracked and split, threaded around dead white branches and sun-bleached water-hose, and all the belt buckles shimmered brassily under their patinas of engine grease. “See,” said Meanjohn. “This is what was wrong the whole time.”

Miranda and I’mjohn looked at each other. They reached for the belts, but Meanjohn had already struck a match and threw it towards the pile. Miranda pulled back I’mjohn’s arm as the belts exploded into fire and smoke. “Now, everything will be fine again,” Meanjohn said. “Everything will be like it was.”

I’mjohn squinted up at the little house on top of the mesa. “This is all Oldjohn’s fault.” Miranda started back up the hill. I’mjohn wondered if he should follow her or not. He watched her tall shape shrink as she walked up the hill closer to the sun. He was about to follow her, but Meanjohn handed him a hammer. “Now we’ll put it back right,” Meanjohn said.

Miranda went into Oldjohn’s house through the window, just like I’mjohn had. She started scooping up coins from tables and dresser-tops. She took his pension check off the mantel, took his wallet and car keys, all the money he had. She’d made it to the hallway when she heard Oldjohn in his bedroom.

He was praying. “Dear Lord, send them away from this awful place. Make them leave,” he said. “Everything they ever wanted,” Miranda finished.

Oldjohn looked up at her from the bed, but kept going. “There’s nothing here worth having,” he said. “And Oldjohn still won’t let us have it,” she finished. Oldjohn began to cry. Miranda threw a handful of coins at him and left. She found his old Honda Civic parked beside the porch and took it, too.

Miranda saw I’mjohn stop working to watch her drive by, but the pile of belts had burned to ash now, and she knew that there would never be a place for them. She went past him toward the road. I’mjohn scooped up rocks and hurled them at the rear window, shouting that she was just like their mother. Miranda pulled out onto the highway and drove away, afraid that it might be true.

The two brothers worked for days putting the house back together. The sunlight was so thick, it stuck to their bodies and made them glow. They looked like angels standing in the desert, slinging up walls of tin and broken boards, their hands and arms throbbing with light. No matter how hard he worked, all I’mjohn could think of was Miranda: the sun desert of her skin, the night desert of her hair. When the house was all back together, they went inside and slept for three days. Then they woke up and showered the light from their bodies, watching it swirl around the drain like fire. They walked around the house. It was just as it had been before, only the belts were gone, and the house lay still and quiet, like something dead. I’mjohn found the duck still in the bathtub and put it out on the porch. Meanjohn wanted to go find their brother and sisters and bring them back, but I’mjohn told him to go do it by himself.

Alone in the house, I’mjohn found his and Miranda’s cards and sat in front of the window shuffling and cutting them. He could feel her hands all over them. He could feel her hands all over his skin. He was alone now, without her or anyone else. He looked through the glass at his father’s house on the hill, the sun peeling into darker shades behind it. He stayed there for a long time, his thoughts breaking up and reforming like the cards, always the same ideas when they came back together. He wondered if this was how Oldjohn felt.