By the time we moved into the house my family kept in the line for a century and a half I couldn’t have made any more bad decisions than I already had.
My wife would say, often during breakfast, then again at the end of the night after the children were in bed, and I returned from work, You have that house.
There were a dozen reasons I never answered her.
It damn near turned her mad. My silence. A house standing empty. The idea of having enough room to spread our arms wide and not having our fingers touch one wall or another. These things meant something to her. Space.
There were plenty of other things to argue about. One for instance: The fact I lost every dime I ever earned at the card table. That fact is, of course, the top of a pyramid, and a thousand manifold problems trickle down from there like the fictitious money Ronald Reagan claimed flowed down from the rich.
I knew money. It is immobile.
This isn’t working, she would say.
I had no ground to stand on. I played two hours of really great cards. Then I played seven hours of really bad cards.
One or the other finally bore me down. The losing. The fighting. Something broke me. We packed the car as a family. The four of us. Drove east on I-40 until we passed the last cactus somewhere outside of Oklahoma City and turned north.
It was my son who told me about the first dreams--someone over his bed.
Did he say anything?
How did you know it was a he?
But when the storm came in late February, and the roads closed, and the power went out, that’s when my daughter mentioned something.
She said someone was on the third floor.
I reminded her how no one was allowed on the third floor. I reminded her about the asbestos, the mold climbing inside the walls, the lead infecting the paint. I applied every great twenty first century fear to the rooms of the third floor.
Someone told her to go up there, she said.
What do you mean?
I knew better than to ask a four year old that kind of questions. Four year olds are never responsible for their decisions. It’s always the brother’s fault. I didn’t know, she would say. That was her favorite answer. I didn’t know. The brother came in second place.
It was the third day the snowplow didn’t arrive when she told me how she went to the third floor. Everyone was feeling the walls close in. Most of the time a storm like this was called a nor’easter. Not this time. This was a blizzard. Everyone agreed. The governor had to ask the college kids to stop jumping out their dorm room windows.
My wife had made it a point not to argue after I uprooted the family and moved us into the house. She spent most of the time before the move on the phone with the contractors picking out the color of paint for the different rooms. She would find programs online that allowed her to see the difference in shading between one company’s green and another company’s green once it was applied to a wall.
After the storm bore down for several days, she came to my office on the second floor, and asked how many children died in the house.
I looked out the window at the river. Three boats were trapped in the ice. The owners left them at the mooring and as the river froze it did the best it could to push the boats out of the water. Now the boats stood at peculiar angles with either prow or bow almost clear of the ice.
You know, she said.
I wasn’t comfortable with the answer so I continued to stare at the boats. I tried to imagine what would cause someone to be so neglectful.
I hadn’t played cards since the first flake of snow fell and the tips of my fingers itched.
Your daughter wants to know, she said, as though that might change my answer.
I turned. I said, She went to the third floor.
My wife nodded.
I reminded her how I made it clear she needed to put the fear of God into those children.
She said, You know what your daughter said to me? Your daughter said to me she likes to get scared down to her core. Where do you think she gets that from?
I was perfectly happy in the west, I reminded her.
You were destroying your family.
Did you look for yourself?
I knew by her face the answer.
Are you threatening me? She said.
It’s an after effect of the instability of living with a degenerate card player that everything comes off as a threat. It happens as soon as the revelation comes that what they really want, what I really wanted, wasn’t to win, it was to lose, to lose everything. That I felt most alive when I lost. It’s a tough thing for a reasonable person to wrap their head around.
Did she tell you what she saw?
That’s when the color drained from her face. I wasn’t certain until I said that she didn’t believe a word the little girl said. She was a little liar, my daughter, so I couldn’t blame her mother for not believing her. But her face turned to alabaster. Her hands trembled like a drinker in the morning.
How could you? she said.
I told you, I said.
I could hear our daughter’s feet patter across the wood floor before I saw her face pop out from between my wife’s legs.
There are women hanging on the third floor, my daughter said.
My wife covered her mouth with her hands.
One day my wife would be one of them too. Once our children stopped breathing, she would walk up to the third floor and sling a rope over the beams herself.