MY FATHER, IN HOUSES
The house on Apple Drive is a small, three-bedroom starter home, with neighbors directly next door and across the street, and up the street and down the street. It is a neighborhood of young military families and thousands of children. My dad has decided that this house will become our palace. This house will be the castle in the neighborhood full of overgrown lawns and molding roofs.
He starts by planting holly bushes alongside the driveway. Slick, waxy leaves with needles at the end of each point. They draw blood when my neighbor’s basketball lands in a patch of broken limbs within the row of green bushes.
“You kids better keep that ball out of my bushes!” he shouts. But we’re in elementary school and our motor skills aren’t the best. The ball bee-lines for the same spot every time, and our hands and arms get bloodier and bloodier, and my dad gets angrier and angrier until he decides to expand the driveway because we need to be able to park both cars, and the holly bushes are gone.
Instead, rocks will border the palace. Giant rocks. Rocks that need to be placed around the perimeter of our front yard, marking the boundaries between our yard and the neighbor’s unkempt jungle. They will be regal. They will define our house from the others.
He mentions Colorado and how there are rocks everywhere, how wilderness blends with suburbia. Rocks with lawn. My mom and I don’t know what he’s talking about.
When my mom and I wonder where the rocks for this project will come from, he waves his hand like what-a-dumb-question. “There are big rocks everywhere,” he says.
Except there aren’t. We check the most logical place near our house—a sand pit with giant compact white-sugar hills that I skin my knee on if I run down the steep hills too fast and fall.
There are no rocks here. Or at least none large enough.
We check construction sites, thinking that maybe while bulldozers are bulldozing the trees and making way for a cement foundation there will be giant rocks. No rocks.
My dad doesn’t give up. He surveys the town, drives down dirt roads, drives through unfinished neighborhoods, and somehow discovers that these rocks, these perfect giant rocks, are housed in a drainage ditch behind the construction site for a Lowe’s. When my mom and I ask if the rocks are available for the taking, he waves his hand again. “Whose rocks are these?” he says. “No one’s. Ours.” However, he keeps looking over his shoulder as the three of us haul rocks up a hill and load them into his SUV. Up the hill we go, all of us tumbling over our feet and holes in the steep hill, sweating in the Florida heat, my dad directing us to the vehicle. Down we go for another rock, this one bigger than the last. Another round, and we have three giant rocks in the vehicle.
My mom and I exhausted, we huff at my dad’s smile—he can hardly contain his excitement as he discusses where the rocks will go. He has a plan for each.
At home, my dad pulls out a measuring tape, stands in our neighbor’s yard, moves to the other side of the street, gauges where these rocks will go, which direction each particular rock should face. My mom and I roll the rocks and position them, roll them over again, reposition, and when they are finally in their right places, my dad nods. “It really makes the yard look nice,” he says.
Actually, they look ridiculous, and neighbors walk by our house whispering and pointing. I can hear their thoughts: what was he thinking? This neighborhood?
They look out of place when the neighborhood goes under, according to my dad. We move away a few years or so later when he decides we need a better house—a bigger palace.
One of my dad’s favorite pastimes is driving around and looking at houses. He likes to go inside and comment on the size of the rooms, the countertops in the bathrooms and kitchens, the space in the garage, the size of the lot. About each, he says, “If I were building this house I would have done it this way…” or “they could have saved more money doing it this way…” or “I don’t know what the hell they were thinking by making the room face this direction…”
We’re always looking at houses, even when we aren’t looking for a house. What can be done with this particular house? What are the possibilities?
I’m brought along because my wrists are small enough to fit into the door handle hole and unlock the deadbolt from the inside. We commit crime after crime.
My dad and I drive around Old Bethel Road and somehow end up at a lake. “It would be nice to live near a lake,” he says. “There’s so much water in Colorado. Natural lakes. Beautiful.” I just shrug. The beach is less than an hour away with see-through waters and clean white sand. Lakes are murky and slimy and contain mysterious creatures beneath their surfaces. Why live near a lake?
He spots a house on Tranquility Drive, at the end of what will become a cul-de-sac but for now is grass and trees. Trees that separate the house from the houses behind it. Trees that are old enough to have been around before the house was built. My dad is in love with the trees, but more in love with the house once we step inside after I’ve finagled my arm into the door.
We gasp. “This is the house,” my dad exclaims and I nod in agreement. The living room is a nice square-shape. The dining room is huge. The kitchen has an island smack dab in the middle of it. The walk-in pantry is big enough for a twin-sized bed. The light fixtures are brushed-nickel. There are ceiling fans in all the rooms. The neighborhood is quiet, and there’s that lake nearby, and it looks like a respectable house. A house that you could be proud to say was your own. A palace.
My dad hates the idea of moving out of the Tranquility Drive house.
But he lost his job at the convenient store warehouse. Something about talking too much. Something about disclosing how much he was getting paid to other employees. Something about how boring the job is. Something about his bosses thinking he’s an overall pain in the ass.
He hates moving into the rental house on Secretariat Drive, hates the idea of renting when we could fix up an older house without them stealing our money, but mostly hates the neighborhood. “We moved off of Apple Drive to avoid this,” he says, motioning around to the neighbor’s houses. The house is behind the hospital and it’s a typical subdivision—houses on small plots of land, mere feet from each other. Neighbors park their cars on the road next to their yellow-green front yards. No rocks to be found anywhere.
He brings up Cripple Creek, Colorado. “It’s just beautiful there,” he says. “The trees and wildlife. Not so busy.” Even though he’s never been to Cripple Creek, even though he’s never even been to Colorado. He brings it up occasionally, more so lately, and how much he’d like to live there, in the woods. With the wildlife. Whenever he brings it up, he mentions that he’ll move there someday. No us, not his family, his wife and daughter, but him. He’ll be there.
He complains about the Secretariat house. Its four small rooms. None of them with ceiling fans. The window in the room next door to me is impossible to fit blinds or curtains over, so it bakes in the Florida sun. The house is hot and stuffy, so the AC constantly runs, which my mom and I never hear the end of whenever my dad is in the house.
He doesn’t take into account that the house is conveniently located near Wal-Mart, or that when the power goes out in Crestview the Secretariat house doesn’t because it’s on the same grid as the hospital. Those details don’t matter to him.
Inviting my dad’s family to come to Florida for Christmas this year—rather than us having to drive to Indiana again—was a good idea when we still lived on Tranquility Drive. The spacious living room, the comfortably air-conditioned rooms, the trees mere feet from our back door. It would have all been very nice. Very festive and impressive.
Instead, we’re forced to host gift-opening in a living room full of too-big furniture and squeezed-together sisters and brothers. Limited seating takes on a new meaning that Christmas.
Fortune strikes: my dad lands a good job at a local water plant, once again, in the warehouse. It promises good hours and even better pay, enough to purchase a piece of land outside of town, away from the sound and noise pollution of the city, in the wilderness. The perfect location for my dad’s dream house.
He talks about the dream house nonstop. How he’d design it. How he’d build it with his own hands, and with his own people. How it would make more structural sense than those split-level houses with one bedroom on one side of the living room and two others on the opposite side—because who really wants to sleep on the same wall as the living room?
Does my dad have blue prints for his dream house? Does he have a notebook full of sketches? Does it contain colors for the walls or sample of carpet? Measurements? Pictures? Does he know what type of light fixtures would be in the house? Does he want brushed-nickel or dark chrome color? I don’t know, but I’m sure he has all the answers.
My dad will have a wooden plaque made in honor of his dream house: Hall Family est. 2005. But does he know that his dream house will have an unfinished backyard that you can’t navigate through, a gigantic burn pile full of old boards and nails and construction equipment that will never get burned, a slab of concrete accompanied by a load of untouched bricks for a shed that will never get built? Does he know that the arch in the living room leading into the hallway won’t be round and precise, that in fact none of the arches will be and that the one in the kitchen will resemble a penis? Does he know that his restlessness will reach its peak and that he’ll say he hates the people he works with, then quit his job? Start talking about how much he hates Florida, hot weather, and the close-minded, conservative Bible-thumping Republicans who just want to shove their beliefs down his throat? Start talking about how far away this dream house is from his family in Indiana even though he moved to Florida to get away from them? Start talking about how much he hates my mom’s constant nagging at him to get a job? Does he know that he’ll take a solo trip to Indiana—he’ll say it’s to see his mother—and then return a week or two later, and then go back to Indiana for even longer? Does he know that his wooden plaque should say Hall Family until Dad decides to quit his job and then leave for Indiana for weeks at a time and then come back when there’s family only to ask for a divorce a year and half into living in the dream house?
I don’t know.
I just know that one day we’re living in a rental house behind the hospital and the next day we’re staring at the red dirt that my dad claims will be the place for his dream house. The land he purchases affordable. Near a shooting range. Across the street from a railroad track. Located in the middle of nowhere, twenty minutes from my high school, my friends, Wal-Mart and completely surrounded by Florida wilderness. Wolf spiders sneak across the leaves. Mosquitoes breed in the damp woods. Dogs run wild because there’s no one to control them. Cars speed down the road going 60 miles per hour. I’m not impressed.
If my mom has any doubts, she doesn’t say. Maybe she just wants him to be happy. Maybe she appreciates how clearly my dad can envision his dream house, how it will have trees in the front to shield it from the dirty road. Surely, she didn’t imagine that my dad’s dream house was the last house we’ll ever live in together as a family, that she’ll be stuck taking care of my dad’s dream house on her own, that this plot of land will become part of the wilderness again.
Melissa Hall received her MFA in Creative Writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. She currently lives in Austin, Texas where she tutors English and writing to students with learning disabilities. In her spare time, Melissa volunteers as a grant writer for a local nonprofit (Kids In A New Groove), and attends as many concerts as her budget allows. You can find her work in ANON Magazine.