ALL THE NEWS THAT FITS
For the first time, putting up my short stories for everyone.
BY GRETCHEN RIX
In my maliciously un-mowed back yard, just a hairsbreadth from the weed-ravaged wildflower garden, and as if baring its nonexistent fangs at the puffy-laced dandelions, at the pollen-yellow California poppies, and at the knee-high, razor-edged Johnson grass, there is an august, substantially enormous peculiarity encroaching on my privacy, and endangering my mental health. A dog house. It has been there persistently, predating our inheriting the house, the lawn, the furniture, the gas lines, and the gigantic, ever-hovering live oak trees that threaten nightmares even in the blazing daylight of central Texas. Mother had the dog house constructed long ago, when her progeny, we three sisters, were mere youngsters desperately engaged in escaping her notice. The dog house mirrors the architecture of our house; its color, cerulean blue, its louvers whitewashed shut, its interior about as inviting as one of the stone crypts at the old Civil War burial ground just blocks from us where we sometimes played. She’d had the dog house flooring tiled with the same barn house red brick that was in our kitchen and hallways, or so she’d said. Standing as far away as I can get from it in the yard and looking across into its gaping entrance is like staring into the maw of a whale. No dog has ever entered this dog house; and neither have I. But up to recently, I didn’t suspect either of my sisters had climbed into it either. As far as I was concerned, the dog house was and ever will be a black hole eating its way down to China, gradually taking our mysteriously fecund back yard with it. A stifling miasma pours from its foundation every time it rains, putrescent clouds from the bare dirt as if mounting an attack on my possessions. And when I periodically deign to acknowledge it, face on, I shiver. Has it really moved even closer to my back door? I’m foolishly timorous about actually measuring the distance.
The three of us manifestly inherit the cerulean blue house, the nondescript property it stands on, and the diseased dog house (may it rest in Hell) from Mother when she departed this life, but that is not all she’s passed down to us. All three of us were cut from the same cloth as she: dainty, finicky, obstinate in our obsessions (we have quite a few), and pretty. But when going through Mother’s massive collection of papers and legal notices and paid bill receipts, and finding her fragile, ancient photographs, all of us realize that Mother’s movie star looks have been bequeathed to us as well. We are beautiful. All three of us tall, willowy in build, graceful in motion; our heart-shaped faces and long, unruly auburn hair constantly invite drop-mouthed stares, although it might be our big boobs that garner us all that unwelcome attention. But there is one other thing the three of us inherit from Mother: we call it our bane, we call it our shame, and our cross to bear. We all are equally cursed with false memories. Fake. Not real. Didn’t happen. Way too many of our own lives are nothing more than exceptionally vivid dreams. Like Mother’s oft-told glittery, delusional tales of working in Hollywood as a much admired film actress, much of what we think is true in our pasts, isn’t.
With Maria, whose name is spoken as if the “i” sounds like “eye,” it is the memory of a tragic dog-faced monster squatting in the afore-mentioned, ever-damned blue dog house that is patently false. And this is where this tale actually starts. With my older sister Maria’s monster. But we’ll get to that a little bit later. Bear with me for a few more pages. Our youngest sister, Patricia’s most prevalent false memory is about the late actor Charlton Heston, the ruggedly handsome and sinewy muscled movie idol who once bragged he’d let go of his shotgun only when he had cold, dead hands. Moses, put another way. So well-pleased, so proud Patricia is about their moment together, she gets high as one of the satellites crossing overhead in outer space just recollecting it. Claims to have met him at some sort of vaguely remembered county fair not too far from Austin. Maybe back in the early eighties. But not the yearly state fair we were familiar with. The one where as a child she’d been bitten by a vicious Shetland pony. Right on the stomach. At this imagined county fair she and Mr. Heston chat, Patricia stares and flirts until she’s practically memorized the poor man, and that is all she remembers of it. It is a dream, no matter how violently she insists that it is not. Charlton Heston was indeed in the area once, I remember it myself, raising money for then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. A fundraising dinner that cost an obscene amount of money to attend. And get this. This is the biggest clue it is a dream. All the money went to Republican election coffers. No way would lifelong Democrat Patricia donate money to a Republican election campaign, not even if Jesus Christ were the featured speaker and was handing out purple-hued lollypops. (Patricia collects lollypops. Go figure.)
“Don’t blaspheme, Sister!” hisses she, reading my comments over my shoulder as I type from my desk. “You’ve made your point. Had to be a dream. I concede.”
Maria’s false memory, if you’ve followed my narrative strictly, is of a monster living in our backyard; and not only that, but roosting, nesting, squatting in, or God help me, actually inhabiting the infamous cerulean blue dog house that scares me so much. Her memory goes thus: a tiny man with a drunken lurching stance, who looks, from a distance, a little like a giant dog, though he doesn’t lope on all fours, she says, but from one step to the next seems to fall forward, only catching his balance at the last minute. This dog-man regularly joins Maria and Mother for Sunday breakfast. Like clockwork. Every Sunday. At eight in the morning. In our house! Our very own kitchen with the cold brick floors! But where am I in this chronicle? (Or me, Patricia butts in.) Maria declares that every Sunday, except for the mornings when thunderous rainstorms left our backyard a veritable lake, Mother made the three of them orange pancakes, and they drank milk. “You were always in Sunday School,” says Maria, answering the question that is about to explode from my tightly pressed lips. Up close the monster, the deformed man, the imaginary dog who can transform himself werewolf-style from beast to man, has hanging jowls that flap whenever he shakes his head side to side, making a slapping sound, bath water when your hands thwack down hard; large, moist, diseased-looking and sad brown eyes that fix themselves with riveting attention on whoever is speaking at the time, and long, disgustingly dirty fingernails. “Claws,” corrects she. “Thick as tortoiseshell.”
Patricia and I regularly dissect Maria’s obvious delusion with the precision of surgeons cutting into the human kidney. “There’s no such thing as orange pancakes, first of all,” say I, initially bemused with the novelty of her imagination. “And Mother didn’t cook,” adds Patricia with a shake of her beautiful head. Maria sits mulishly unconvinced. Later, when we’ve investigated her claim up one side and down the other, rifling through fragile, aged-spotted magazines, then later perusing the internet, we discover orange pancakes are really a thing. And when I first make them for the three of us, my oh my, we keep gorging ourselves on them forever, positively inhaling them hand over fist. A whole hour’s worth of fork to mouth. Orange pancakes must be the food of the gods! Why, oh why, didn’t Mother make us Sunday breakfasts of orange pancakes? I flare with a jealousy just short of murderous. Maria, Mother, and a dog-man get orange pancakes and I don’t? Patricia jabs me in the back while reading over my shoulder once again. “I didn’t get orange pancakes either, Sister,” she reminds me. More research turns up the fact that this recipe was printed on the side of an orange juice container. (Companies used to do that.) But it is the rest of the story that proves the whole “memory” a delusion, a dream, or a nightmare, depending on your interpretation. Every Sunday, after eating, the monster got in a yellow taxi cab that turned into our driveway at his direction and drove him away, she says.
Our tiny town has never had taxi service. It had no taxis in the Sixties, it has no taxis now. “I know what I saw,” exclaims she. “He got into a yellow cab.” And dismissing our disbelieving grimaces, continues, “It took him to the train station.”
A cab from Austin to our home, or a cab from San Antonio to our home would have cost him the proverbial king’s ransom. Patricia and I laughed long and heartily. Tears of derision, snickers of dismissal, and snorts of disbelief kept the two of us doubled over far too long for Maria’s patience. “I saw what I saw what I saw,” maintains she. And we never can budge her from the delusion.
My false memory is so prosaically boring I’m embarrassed to reveal it. If Patricia has Charlton Heston and Maria has a dog-man monster, I ought to have a Prince Charming at the very least. Sadly, not. And my false memory has been so real to me all through my life, that I wonder if there are indeed alternate worlds, and that sometime in my childhood I jumped from one to the other. In my memory…
"In your dream,” interrupts Maria, totally deadpan.
In my memory, I regularly, repeatedly, and tirelessly crawl through a storage shed, or under a stranger’s house, or through someone’s garage that’s full of old furniture and boxes and stacks of wood. I can never remember which. The stink of damp cardboard and sawdust always makes me sneeze at first, but I hunker down to my stomach and snake my way through the entry door, and am immediately under about five feet of trash and discarded valuables. Terra cotta flowerpots solidly broken in two share shoeboxes with porcelain blue-painted vases missing their lids, or maybe I make up all these particulars later; wooden pallets that cradle black plastic bags bulging with old smelly clothing, dirt drifting down from above and messing up my hair. There’s a trail forward that I follow. Always. And I always make my way through without any impairment, nothing harms me, not even once, and never moving any of the trash one iota out of place. Tedious and dull to relate, but intoxicatingly adventurous to a young girl. As an adult, I’ve searched everywhere little girl-me could have had this adventure, and only found one spot that even came close—our grandmother’s house, which had a series of storage sheds in the back. But I’ve explored it as an adult, and it’s not right.
So, false memory. Fake. Didn’t ever happen. Nothing as glamorous as a Charlton Heston encounter, nothing as alarming as eating breakfast with a monster from the backyard. Just something oddly unlike me and anything I’d ever have done.
It never occurred to me that this had anything to do with our old cerulean blue dog house.
After Mother’s death the house, the property, and the cerulean blue dog house fall into my possession, even though the three of us legally own one-third of it apiece. I am the only one determined to live here. Patricia went her way to the hustle and bustle and endless drunken parties of Austin college life: she teaches at the University of Texas just off I35. Maria wanders down to San Antonio to live her life. Works at the zoo. Public relations. But as the one with all the infirmities of advancing age and an overactive imagination, I gratefully take over the house and its never-ending yard work and spooky dilapidated dog house, little suspecting how badly the dog house will affect me. I’m not sure how it fell out, but word spreads like a climbing vine of poison ivy through the neighborhood that I am somehow cursed. I get wall-eyed stares at the grocery store, nasty printed threats through the mail, and garbage tossed from cars to my front lawn. The children take me for a witch, which is a lot of fun around Halloween. Their parents eye me suspiciously, taking me for a half-cured former resident of that asylum. The ruined hospital torn down and razed into brick dust and wood shavings that used to haunt San Marcos a mere fifteen miles away usually crops up in their conversations about me. I know the place they mean. Our house is nothing like.
Time passes, storms come and go, trees die, and the sod dries up into flat cakes separated into sections by cracks going all the way down to Hell. Or China. Take your pick. And still the cerulean blue dog house endures. My dreams become more and more disturbing, but I have had no recent false memories to ponder.
Then one foggy morning in early April, (the year of the virus when everyone was supposed to stay in their own houses), this year in fact, Maria’s dog-man monster wrests himself out of the dilapidated blue dog house in my back yard and stumble-shuffles his way to my back door which he proceeds to try to unlock with a skeleton key while I watch him, paralyzed with awe. I get up. I hide in the shadows lurking in the bathroom doorway right at the end of the hall, with a baseball bat in my hands. The key finally works. The high-pitched, unceasing screech of the door hinges frazzles my nerves, but evidently not his. Irritation eventually wins out over suspicion when nothing happens. “Stop playing with the door, asshole! Come in or stay out,” demand I. “You’re giving me a headache.”
The monster snorts. “You ought to oil the damn thing once in a while,” comments he, his voice low, guttural, painful-sounding, and amused all at once. He piques my interest despite the circumstances. (He’s broken into my house).
“It’s my early warning system,” I grudgingly concede.
Maria’s little monster does indeed look like a dog-man. “Sit down my dear and I’ll make us some orange pancakes,” monster dog-man says. I snort with derision. The refrigerator is half empty, and I know for a fact there is no orange juice inside. Dog-man must think he’s a magician. Quickly, I find that he is. From the circus. One of the last of the world-traveling fairs still financially viable that makes its fortune from the freak show.
A bouquet of fresh flowers is withdrawn from behind the dog-man’s back and thrust in my face. Roses. White roses that are really white, and not dead petal brown like they usually are. The refrigerator door is opened and the clank of glass against metal wiring proves indeed to be a bottle of orange juice. I sit and stare, and I must have dozed off because when I blink, the next thing I see is a serving plate of orange pancakes on my kitchen table and milk in the Flintstones jelly glasses I never use. “Eat up,” dog-man says, “Then we talk.”
Reaching for the rose-patterned serving platter that mysteriously replenishes after each raid on the pancakes, I decide that four servings are three too many for mere mortal woman. “Tell me who you are,” say I, settling back in the flimsy rattan-backed garage sale chair I’m sitting in for some reason. I usually pile magazines on this piece of junk furniture and have it shoved under the window. If I keep still, maybe it won’t buck me off onto the floor. I keep a steady gaze on my guest.
“Don’t you remember,” dog monster chides me gently with a sad look of dismay. “You used to tunnel under my house every weekend you came for visitation. Never realized I designed that underground passageway just for you, did you?” I open my mouth to dispute his claim to that damned old dog house in the back yard being his, but suddenly have a vivid memory of Charlton Heston hand in hand with Patricia lecturing me in that sonorous voice of his about the dangers of poking around where you weren’t supposed to be.
“Chuck was a good friend of mine,” interjects dog-man monster, correctly interpreting my trance. I must have said Charlton Heston out loud, though I didn’t remember it. “He met your sister Patricia at one of his promotion events and got invited out here to say hello to your mother. The three of us were good friends in L.A. way back. But she’d gone out. ”
“I thought she made that up,” says I. “Or maybe dreamed it.”
“And you used to come here regularly and have orange pancakes with Maria and Mother and then take a cab ride back to where you belonged,” I continue, sheer unmitigated disbelief dripping from my every word.
“Not exactly, missy,” snaps he.
Literally. There is a reason I keep calling him the dog-man. His teeth rival those of a wolf, as does his meaty breath. He laughs at me now. “Maybe a Chihuahua,” says he. “Not a wolf. You ever seen a wolf?”
“No,” reply I. “Except in movies.”
“My home is the circus,” explains the dog monster to my unresponsive scowl. “I work the freak show circuit. Have done so most of my life,” he tells me, as if he’s proud of the fact. I cringe with disgust, which merits me an irritated frown from the dog-man. “It’s just a job like any other,” explains he in a voice heavily subdued with condensation, as if he’s told many, many people this same thing. “I get paid well. Get to travel the world. It finances my five children’s college educations. Gives me health insurance. Life insurance. I meet kings, queens, famous actors like Charlton Heston. And made friends with your mother and your sister. Besides, it’s showbiz.” He stops to catch his breath before lecturing me anew.
“Bet you never knew that your old dog house out back is the entrance- way to a underground railroad passageway. As often as you climbed around in it, I’m surprised you don’t remember much.”
I remember my dreams of it. My false memories of the tunnels, of my delight in the womb-like comfort being boxed in all around. Of knowing the only way out was forward. I stand up and stare out the back window. If what this strange man says is true, the weather-worn cerulean blue dog house is a magical place leading to all sorts of thrills and excitements. “Too bad you’re too big now to explore it properly,” says he, reading my mind, correctly interpreting my bitterness at all those lost opportunities. I shrug. Can’t be remedied.
“We’ll always have orange pancakes,” intones the little monster man in a subtly changed voice that makes me think he’s making fun of someone or something. And he winks at me with a sly smile. “I have to go.”
The dog-man cocks his head, obviously hearing something that escapes me. Knowing instinctively that he wants to leave, I hurriedly follow him out our front door and shout after him, “You come back again soon!” as a yellow taxi cab pulls up to the sidewalk leading from our porch to the street. Soon he’s on his way to the train station leaving me bemused.
“You mean confused,” Patricia corrects me. “Change it to confused,” she demands, but I answer “We’ll always have orange pancakes.”
“Not unless you learn how to make them yourself,” she announces.
I’m gazing out the window into the backyard once again. Cerulean blue. Why not navy blue or baby blue or green? If Patricia’s half-forgotten meeting with Charleton Heston, and Maria’s dog-man, and my tunneling under the dog house in my youth were all true, did it also mean that Mother really had some sort of Hollywood career back in the day no one knows anything about? Like the dog-man alluded to. (And why didn’t I ask him his name!)
The cerulean blue dog house no longer gapes at me like a hungry whale come up from the deep. Because it’s so much closer to the back door than before. I see a wink in its crevices. And a nod where the roof attaches. And a whole world of mysteries and adventures underneath its foundation.
Copyright 2020 by Gretchen Rix
Changing stories/work in progress
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