Mattie hadn't worried so much about Ella, who had ways of comforting herself and a generally sunny disposition. But Harry was sad and concerned. He was erratic, like Nicky: sometimes he acted so mean to Mattie and Ella that Mattie wanted to strike him, and at other times he could be utterly charming, especially with his sister. He'd carry her around from room to room as if she were an animated grocery sack, making faces and wisecracks to amuse her. Mattie saw how much he wanted Ella to disappear sometimes, but that he also listened for her when she was in her crib. He put his face right into hers to make her laugh, and she chortled, pleased that something was so grabbably close. Then he'd pinch her and make her cry. He took things from her, and she wailed, while he looked blank and innocent. He hugged her too tightly, he loved her too much, he hated all the same things he loved about her-her ineptitude, her cuteness, her messiness, her smells.
Mattie stopped seeing the therapist, and paid for Harry to go instead.
It helped; time's passing helped. Nothing really helped. And the house--it had been a mistake to move back in. It was falling apart, revealing mold and memories and ghosts. Mattie's beloved father had died of a heart attack in the laundry room, twenty years before. He was fifty-one and had never looked better than in the moments before his death. He had looked a lot like Mattie's brother Al did now, but trimmer, tall, with thicker brown hair, and the huge teeth that hardly fit in his mouth. Everyone had loved her father, including, about half the time, Isa. Still, it had been a miserable marriage, a shifting, malignant lava-lamp of a marriage, although it always looked great from the outside, two tall handsome parents well-known in the town for their willingness to serve on the city council, the school board, liberals who agitated for the poor, who had an air of being with it, hikers in the days when knapsacks were avant-garde. They were people to whom others turned for advice. But inside the house, which they had bought for $20,000 in 1963, slammed doors and loud silences filled the spaces between exquisite meals and good California wine.
Mattie had thought she was getting such a great deal when she moved back in--free rent on a house with a bedroom for each of her children. But it didn't take long to notice the secrets and memories tiptoeing around, holding their highballs, debonair and amused at first, then hissing in the master bedroom as her mother had when her father returned from his monthly trips to Washington, D.C. Harry was now sleeping in the bedroom where Al had grown up, where at fifteen he had started doing drugs while Isa and Alfred pretended he was doing homework; Ella slept in Mattie's old room, the one with the slanted ceiling and eaves, behind which all manner of nightmares had waited quietly.
The laundry room where her father had died looked almost exactly the same as before, with its old washer-dryer from Sears, lots of sunlight and trees outside the window, and space to move around. Isa had spent hours here, pawing through her husband's clothes, looking for clues to his absences, searching her teenage son's pockets. What did she think she would find-needles, bindles, a treasure map? She'd searched her daughter's clothes here too, for cigarettes and birth control pills, which she'd found and seized like a customs inspector.
Why, in the current crisis of divorce and bottomless loss, had Mattie run back to the past, to her parents' home, her husband's side of the bed? She hadn't known where else to go. It was free and it was familiar.
"Where else can I go? Nicky owned that house before we got married. It's his. Otherwise, he doesn't have much money, I don't make much. He'll help us, but I can't afford to rent anything as nice as this. With a yard."
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