Their house was at the bottom of a dead-end street: narrow, painted brick, with a long driveway and a shingled garage and a square little back yard big enough for only an umbrella clothesline and a long-disused sandbox. Upstairs there were three bedrooms, and then up another flight of stairs, hidden behind a door, a finished attic that served as a kind of dormitory for the three older boys. There was the odor of children about the place -- endemic to any house I have ever visited with more than three kids living in it -- a distillation of the domestic scents of milk and wet socks combined with the paper and paste and industrial-strength disinfectant of elementary-school hallways. Despite the number of people living in the small house, there was a remarkable sense of order about the rooms, most especially in my aunt and uncle's bedroom, which was at the head of the stairs. It was a small, square room with one large window that looked out into the street. It held a high four-poster bed, a tall dresser (his) and a low bureau (hers) with a mirror, two night tables, and a straight-backed chair with a tapestry seat. The curtains that crisscrossed the window were white lace. There was a crucifix above the bed, a large oil painting of the Sacred Heart on the far wall -- the first thing you saw when you looked into the room from the hallway -- a mostly blood-red Oriental carpet on the floor. There was only one photograph in the room: my aunt and uncle's wedding picture. No sign, in other words, of the eight children that had been conceived on the double mattress, under the eternally smooth bedspread. Explanation enough, it seemed to me, for the apparent forgetfulness on their part that had yielded all those unexpected pregnancies. With the bedroom door pulled closed, they couldn't have found it difficult to make themselves believe that they were perfectly free to begin again.
Uncle Jack was a transit cop. He had a pitted, handsome face, dark eyes, thin lips, and a thousand and one inscrutable but insurmountable rules regarding his home and his children. No one, for instance, was to walk on the front lawn. Or sit on the bumper of his car when it was parked in the driveway. No one was to call out from an upstairs window when someone was at the front door. No one was to play handball against the garage, or stoop ball against the stoop. There was no going barefoot around the house. No getting up from the dinner table without a precise answer to the precise question "May I please be excused?" No sitting on the curb or standing under the streetlight. No dishes left in the dish drainer. No phone calls from friends after 6 p.m. No playing down in the basement after eight. No sleeping on the couch -- day or night, in sickness or in health -- which put me in the smallest of the three bedrooms with Daisy and Bernadette, Daisy on the rickety army cot because I was the guest and because Bernadette was not going to have the wonderful day in the city that Daisy was getting the next morning, so she might as well, said Aunt Peg, at least have a good night's sleep.
I didn't much care for Bernadette -- she was plain and chubby, but, more to the point, she was also extremely smart, which made her mean. It was as if she had already weighed the value of her intelligence against the value the world would assign it and knew instinctively that she would be gypped. Although I always attempted to feel sorry for her, I was more successful at feeling a smug satisfaction as I placed my overnight bag on Daisy's bed and realized that all of Bernadette's Honor Roll certificates plastering the walls could not earn her my affection, or my company.
Copyright © 2002 Alice McDermott.
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