I was fourteen when my family moved into a house, after a decade of living in a converted school bus.
It changed everything.
“It’s interesting,” my brother Chris said optimistically. Jessie and I nodded in agreement. It was interesting. We stared up at our new house as our father stood by, as excited to show it to us as he was to see it again for himself after signing the deed and mortgage, and none of us wanted to burst his bubble of enthusiasm by pointing out flaws he had likely already noticed for himself. There were holes in the roof. Glass was broken in some of the windows. The entire house sloped, as though the foundation hadn’t been properly set (which turned out to be true). The siding was a faux brick that had seen better days, but it was only on parts of the house — whether that was intentional or not, I couldn’t decide. The awning over the front door had been rendered sieve-like with bullet holes when the previous occupant had a standoff with the police. Inside it was worse. We walked gingerly through the lower level, avoiding touching anything directly. It had flooded at some point and there was mud on the living room walls, about two feet up, the ceiling in the bathroom was little more than exposed pipes and years of spider webs and dust, and the bathroom itself was a mere passway between the kitchen and the peculiar front room that would later become my parents’ bedroom.
“It’ll need work,” my dad said. It would need work, we agreed.
My mom refused to come out of the bus for what felt like months. Parked in the driveway of our new house, the bus was our real home, had been for ten years, and it was a rude plan to have us trade in its charms for the likes of this squat little house whose claim to fame was that it had once been home to an actual witch. That and Snooty’s shootout with the cops. My oldest brother had moved out two years earlier, so it was Chris, Jessie, and myself helping my dad clear the debris from our new home. Jessie and I had a bedroom to share; there was a door that opened to the outside, but two floors up into thin air. The first step is a doozy, we would tell people. The floor was covered with shag carpeting from some decade I had never witnessed, multi colored, like crayons melting in a hot car, and filthy to boot. Our grandparents bought us a plush mauve carpet as a housewarming present and as we removed the old carpet, rolling it up in long strips of pet stained (we hoped) fiber, we found a hundred and fifty dollars in cash tucked underneath. We assumed it was hidden drug money, it went with the vibe of the place as a hive of scum and villainy, but it was just as likely that Snooty simply didn’t trust banks and tucked it there himself. My parents let us keep it and we split it with Chris, whose own room was small and dark and prone to mildew, but without the hidden cash reserve. He didn’t mind his room much. It would be temporary and at least it was private.
None of us had ever had so much privacy. From birth we had shared a bedroom with our siblings, and after we moved into the bus when I was four, the walls that separated us disappeared completely; the kitchen became the living room which became the bedroom where my parents slept, with only long curtains demarcating the boundaries between the rooms. You could get sick of a guy in that environment if the chemistry isn’t right, but we tended to get along better than not. In the house though, tensions were starting to rise.
It’s funny how you can lack something for years, but once you have it, it becomes an instant entitlement. We were like that with doors. Shut the door. Lock the door. Knock on the door. Don’t open the door. I’d never seen so many doors. Chris would stay in his room most of the time and practice the guitar or work on drawings so grotesque or weird, inspired as he was by both Stephen King and Douglas Adams, his walls lined with impressive sketches from his own imagination, and his door closed with such a firm hand that I might not see him for days. My mother had moved into the house by then and was fixing up the kitchen, painting the living room, and generally participating in our new life, but then my parents would disappear behind their own door. My younger siblings still bunked with my parents, so the only doorless relationship I had was with my sister Jessie. We had a huge room to ourselves, big enough for two twin beds AND a dresser, but it wasn’t big enough for two hormonal teenaged girls. We were close, best friends, but there were times one of us would lock ourselves in our room so we could have a private phone conversation and the other would have to sit out on the steps and wait. I drove Jessie’s Buick into the front yard one spring, quite by accident, though by her reaction you would think I had deliberately driven it into a brick wall. As my dad and mom and siblings gathered in the driveway to assess, I, mortified, hurried back to my room and locked the door. “Open the door!” Jessie demanded, seething on the landing at the top of the steps. I’d heard her bound angrily up the stairs, taking them two at a time, but I felt embarrassed and stupid and the door stayed shut. Jessie did not wait on the steps that time, instead treating me to my own in-person Shining moment, wherein I was Shelly Duvall and she was Jack Nicholson, using her foot instead of an axe to get through the thin wooden door.
It wasn’t just the walls and doors that separated us though. My mom was working full-time, Dad part-time, Jessie and Chris were going to high school, and, not quite ready to give up homeschooling entirely, I stayed home with my younger sister and brother. We may as well have been in different time zones. The bus was thirty-five feet long and about eight feet wide and my family of eight, and a dog, had lived in it fairly comfortably, despite rarely having a moment to one’s self. In the house though, as small as it was, we could go quite some time without seeing anyone. I was fourteen, shy, and prone to long bouts of the imagination. During the day, I could fix lunch for Anna and Daniel, park them in front of the tv, and then immerse myself in my daydreams. My older siblings would come home from school with stories about their classmates or teachers and the house would momentarily be filled with chatter, then become still again as they retreated to quiet corners for homework or personal projects. It was only when my mom would come home from work and my dad would come in from his woodshop in the backyard that the house started to feel like our home again, when the windows would steam up from cooking in the kitchen and the air would fill up with music from my dad’s stereo, Stan Getz and Jao Gilberto, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli, and all of us would convene in the kitchen and heap food onto our plates and talk over one another and laugh at each other’s jokes and anecdotes. Then the next day would start and it would be quiet and a little lonely again and our family wouldn’t feel so big.
When I was seventeen and Daniel was seven, he chased me through the house, laughing wildly as I skipped down stairs and hurled myself around corners in an effort to evade him before I ran outside and shut the French door behind me, sure I had escaped his youthful grasp. He was too close behind me though and his arm went through the glass, slicing his elbow badly. We toned down our indoor tag games after that, his stitches a reminder if we were tempted to play too roughly. For months afterward, a plain piece of cardboard filled in for the broken glass in the door, a reminder that none of us cared enough to replace it. I went to the hardware store myself eventually and bought new glass and my dad helped me fix it in place.
I asked my parents if I could use the bus as my own room. “It’ll need work,” my dad said. It would need work, I agreed. Three years of disuse had allowed it to fall in disrepair, but I was undeterred. I patched the ceiling hatches that were used to ventilate, cleaned it thoroughly and replaced the carpets, washed the curtains and windows. It was the first time in my life I had my own room and I cherished it. I put my books on the shelves and stuffed my parents’ old drawers with a teenager’s wardrobe. I had a job by that time and sometimes after work I would pick up Chinese food and sit on the floor of the living room with the short back door swung open, my cat Thomasina resting somewhere nearby. It still felt more my home than the house did. I was only fifty feet away from the rest of the family but I felt exhilarated by my independence. And because of all the closed doors in the house, I didn’t even see my family less.
Slowly, we began to pull the house down, part by part, replacing it with my father’s well-drafted plans for a new craftsman style house, until all that was left of that old shack was a half of one interior wall and the heavy front door. He has plans to replace that with a handcrafted wooden double door, but for now it’s the face of their house, a metal thing with dings and scratches and a wonky lock set. It often sits open, that door. Not ajar, but open wide to the world outside, unmarred by an intervening screen, inviting people inside to go sit out on the porch, and inviting those outside to come in and have a cup of coffee.