The Repairs

Jennifer Militello


I'd thought it was a good idea to buy a house, but a house is always a thing in need of repairs.

The pump on the well burned out. The element on the hot water heater went. The motor to the dryer snapped a belt. There was a scrape on the finish of the kitchen floor where someone dragged a table from one room to the next.

The thermostat misjudged the temperature of the room. The shrubbery needed to be pruned. The gutters filled with fallen leaves. The crumbling concrete of the steps of the stoop.

I remembered that when my grandparents died, mere months passed before their rent-controlled apartment had been split into two apartments. The cut glass doorknobs were gone. The small strung bouzouki propped in the breakfront was gone. The heart-shaped jewelry my grandfather had made from the debris of a kamikaze plane was gone. The plastic on the couch was off. The same cracks in the back room ceiling. The same cars travelling the streets. The same plant tended by strangers could be seen from the kitchen window. Across the courtyard walled in by brick, where the lit angles slanted and the corners were always murky and dim and the television antenna cast a shadow like a crucifix, like the mast on a sinking ship.

Still, the history of an old house comes back.

When I didn't want to get out of bed, my mother would pull me up and push me into the bathroom and hold the door shut.

When I could not walk to the bathroom because of appendicitis, my mother dragged me out of bed by one arm, saying, of course you can walk! So I kept the secret of my illness all night, piling the soiled sheets in the corner, lying on the naked mattress. My mother came in the morning and drew in her breath and we finally drove to the hospital just in time because I would have died if another hour had gone by and I had not been seen.

I split my head open on the coffee table and was driven to the hospital in the front seat. I remember there was blood on my panda bear; I remember being close to the windshield. I remember touching a butterfly's wing. I remember a dream of a red mitten resting in the snow from one night when I was three.

I thought mourning doves were owls for the longest time. They were hidden in the branches of the thick firs by the edge of the stream, and they would fly down in singles and lift up in pairs. The whistling of their wings. When I found out that house would be sold, I took pictures of the stream, but could never capture the ripples of the ducks in the light of it at dawn, or the way the leaves all fell or the way the snow draped over it or the way we had buried my parakeet under the crabapple tree that the new owners would someday cut down. As she dug a hole, my mother's gray high heels in the rain. The heels said, I have to go to work. I do not want to bury your bird. The heels down the hallway to my room said, You do not have a fever, you are not really sick.

The place where someone long ago spilled a gallon of paint on the indoor/outdoor rug in the sunroom and the white matted stain and the cut square of carpet covering it up.

We tried to have a garden once. Did we? No. We had lilacs and oaks. We had a hammock once between two trees where I dreamed a child was buried. A child was buried there. Someone's stillborn. I only found out once we had moved.

Meanwhile, air knocked in the heating pipes. The water main broke.

The hole in the roof. The leak from the ice dam. The water running from the ceiling above the sink down onto the floor. The shower curtain taped to the window to direct it into the sink.

My mother's husband reads the newspaper in an old chair by the fire, at the dinner table, standing in the kitchen, sitting down to lunch. When he skis, he calculates in his head as he rides the lift how much each run is costing. He owns an old Mercedes that he bought from a dead man's girlfriend. He went to the house and wrote a check and took the keys and drove it out of the garage. He had a moustache for forty years after his father died. He had a swimming pool with his second wife.

The water damage. Mildew damage. Mice chewing the wires, chewing the wood. Ant infestation. Failure of a pilot light in the furnace to ignite.

My mother said, Screw you, you bitch and drove to a vacation on Cape Cod without me after ordering me to take my packed bags out of the trunk. After taking out the bags herself and leaving them there on the lawn.

My father threw out a gallon of wine that week while I was staying at his apartment. Sleeping on the foldout bed in the living room. Watching the small TV on a wheeled cart all day while he was at work. I took the wine from the dumpster and drank it until it made me sick.

The septic system overflowed so that when the toilet flushed the sewage came up through the shower drain.

I remember one friend I had. I remember standing with her in a playground in the rain, on the lifted end of a seesaw, eating cake mix by the spoonful from an open plastic bag. I remember the echoing of thunder. When I gave birth, I remember screaming and wondering what I heard, whose untethered voice.

Gaps at the windows. Knicks in the floor. Split wood weakening the silverware drawer. Formica marred by knives missing the cutting board.

I would watch the zebras at the zoo swatting their tails and stitching their skin a bit at the shoulder to ward off flies. Clustering in the shade. Gulping steep drinks from the trough. Nibbling in a non-committal way at the grass. Skin crosshatched by the chainlink fence and the shadowed afternoon. Their manes sparse. Their eyes like stagnant water at the head of a stream. That, and the long days all the same stretching before them. Driving them insane.

The sinkhole the septic system makes in the yard and what it will cost to repair. The radon filter and the plasma TV, and the coffee table with the watermark from where the glass stood filled with beer when I forgot how much the condensation would bleed.