Lisa Leibow

THE HOUSE ON NARCISSUS STREET

We lived on Narcissus Street in a three-story house perched upon a hill of flowers that looked like a pile of string. A grass welcome mat made from recycled plastic graced the front entrance. Every room was wrapped with built-in bookshelves. In no time at all our family filled them with books. Some of us liked stories where reluctant heroes conquered monsters. Dad’s favorite was The Fat Man—a story of frustration with the face of greed.

Bigger than the matchbox-of-an-apartment behind Safeway from where our family-of-three had moved, the house on Narcissus Street meant stability, better schools, and enough space for a pet—a parrot or a dog.

Trouble loomed. At first, in the house, disaster was confined to a plasma screen: planes crashed into twin towers, wars and tsunamis raged half-a-world away, hurricanes and oil spills impacted those gone south. The insulated walls of the house on Narcissus Street protected us. We could scarcely distinguish between the pixilated images of these horrors and the dark scenes we watched in episodes of Crusader Rabbit Rides the Red Horse or Dad’s favorite Tarrantino flick.

Mom loved the double-hung windows that could tilt in to clean. Her giddy laugh filled the air as she washed the outside of the panes from the inside of the family room. She made a show of this chore each spring, singing along to More, More, and More, and swaying her hips while swiping the squeegee across the glass…until the diagnosis.

The first spring cleaning that she skipped, none of us thought about the windows. We were too busy with childhood distractions, like playing out endless games with blocks and action figures, or staying late at the office, cocooned in our false senses of security. Springtime came and went and Mom napped on the couch, too weak to scrub from shingles to floor. We wished the linoleum would open up like a manhole so we could hide inside. Each time another layer of comfort disappeared, we thought, We don’t want to know. We don’t want to know.

One of us stacked a red block building, interspersing black blocks as boarded-up windows. To the left another one of us constructed two small houses with Popsicle-stick roof trestles open to the elements, wondering what it would be like to sleep under the stars. At least once a week we stretched candy necklaces over our heads and sat in front of Good Eats. We licked candy beads, letting them melt until they broke free from the elastic strings. The Food Network was background noise. The only one paying attention was the orchid by the window.

While some of us played with toys to the sounds of Good Eats, the rest of us sought distraction from our troubles. Dad said things like, “We can count on Uncle Sam,” and tried to make light of our medical expense-induced financial woes by buying tickets to the circus. We slunk into the seats under the big top and tried to play along. It was no use; instead of getting lost in the clown antics, we conjured images of every doctor’s bill, mortgage coupon, and dollar in our 401Ks crunching through a shredder. Next the shredder took our bodies and souls. The confetti became a pyramid as upside down as our world. Breasts and genitals on display to nurses while bank statements and bounced checks transformed into dirty little secrets.

Our lives—the world—was falling apart and he wanted the rest of us to watch feather-clad women swinging from trapezes—like that solved everything. We went through the motions, but really… The system was failing. Were we supposed to sing G-d Bless America just because the elephant in the circus parade was wearing red, white, and blue?

***

When Mom shuffled into the kitchen wearing a wig, the rest of our guts felt like they were filled with birds feeding on thistle seed-encrusted hand grenades. Our eyes darted to the window in search of a comforting view. But the tilt-in windows were spattered with pollen, misguided mosquitoes, and berry-tinged bird poop. The mucked-up view triggered a wish for the grenades in our guts to explode—anything to stop the shame. Mom avoided the rest of our gazes by staring at the orchid near the television. The magenta center of the orchid’s bloom glistened. Mom’s gray pallor enhanced the dullness in her eyes.

“Bad news—I’ve been downsized,” Dad said.

With no job prospects, Dad sat on the front stoop, greeting neighbors so stiffly he might as well have been sitting on the tip of an upside-down funnel. When unemployment ran out Dad gave up networking and shaving. We once thought about our futures in college, maybe becoming doctors, perhaps setting up offices with diplomas on the walls. We might have comforted our patients and protected them from fear of inevitable decline. But now we wondered whether the kids in our family would finish high school, let alone make it to college. For the first time Dad couldn’t buy a solution.

Oddly, as the sheriff marched in like a soldier to evict us, we remembered moving into the house on Narcissus Street and the feeling we could climb forever—no top in sight. We watched the sheriff remove our belongings from the house. A pill, a paper scrap, and a bit of yarn strewn on the Berber seared themselves into our memories as a still-life self-portrait. Some of us grabbed each other’s hands and squeezed, trying to smother the fires in our bellies. Molten metal, fragments swimming like amoebas under a microscope. Lost in our own worlds, we half-heard the sheriff’s attempt at comfort.

“I have a report. We are now looking at all the contingency options and awaiting word from…”

One of us wondered, From whom? Who’s in charge?

Another thought, Who has the recovery plan? How long will it take?

We all worried. What do we do while we’re waiting? Stay in a tent?

Dad retrieved his copy of The Fat Man, wishing to rediscover hope through books.

Before we knew it, the hope of Narcissus Street was a memory. We became restless in the darkness within canvas walls of a tent near Target.

Mom said, “It’s only temporary. We’ll climb out of this mess.”

The house on Narcissus Street sat on high ground; the tent was pitched in a mud-filled valley. The house was the perfect place to enjoy garlic roasted chicken and honeyed yams around the kitchen table; a memorable meal in the tent came from day-old bread and what was left of the candy necklace. On Narcissus Street we spent Saturday mornings watching cartoons; in the tent we made up stories in our heads. In the house we awoke to the smell of pancakes and bacon frying. In the tent we awoke to grumbling stomachs and dug through the Dumpster for breakfast. Hopes of parrots or puppies turned to dread of seagulls and rats.

In the tent the we were plagued by nightmares that stripped the house on Narcissus Street of its siding and exposed its Tyvek under-layer. The house oozed pink insulation. Sometimes the excretions transformed to pink skies with silver treasures showering down—a glimmer of hope. Other times our memories of the house churned, devolving into oblivion. We imagined a future where archaeological excavation found no evidence of our family. There is no monument to the homeless.

– – – –

Lisa Lipkind Leibow is the author of Double Out and Back (Red Rose Publishing). Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sand Hill, Folly, Pisgah, Sanskrit, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Lisa is currently studying for a Masters in Writing with a concentration in fiction at the Johns Hopkins University.

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