Perry Genovesi: Welcome Home
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/_ubsY7AewGU) 3.10.2021.
The Set Designer’s Opus
Around age 12 I realized that all the rooms I’d been in had been the same rooms. I never questioned my life up to then. I'd attended sixth grade Science classes. I'd visited airport concession stands and Ford Dealership waiting rooms just like you. But, in fact, those had all been the same room. My parents had arranged them.
Let me begin by saying I’d been a sickly child. My parents had to take precautions before bringing me out into what they said was the world. These safeguards were not limited to my condition. (This concerned the daily ritual of inflating and lacing my medical boots. Occasionally carrying me from room to room. Or the monthly hospital visits.) The precautions were my setting.
My parents attempted to cook or compose the world for my entrance into it. My Father and Mother were both active in the stagehand’s union. He worked in set construction, and she in makeup and design. They were good at their jobs.
One day in early March, my parents ask me to stay seated on the patio. I wait while digging my finger into the crevice between my left boot’s laces and my leg. Then Father helps me into my parka and carries me into a new room.
There are snack-sized bags of Lay’s Chips, sunflower seeds, and black sacks of popcorn. All on one row of a shining metal rack. The empty rows have paper taped on them. At first, I thought we were in line at the movies.
“Hello,” I say to the woman at the cash register. She appears to be Dominican and wears a trout-gray smock. I get the feeling I’ve seen her before.
“We’re still setting up,” she says.
Father and Mother huddle close together. It is winter; they wear clay-brown anoraks that fit like bulging brown grocery bags.
A note about airports:
Typically you can feel the air’s tightness around you. Well, I remember that Father had found a way to mimic that tightness. That environment that dries the skin on your knuckles. Did I notice the cobwebby rafters, too high up for my parents to paint? I was too young. I remember craning my neck, looking for a window, but only seeing her face. She says, “Your Father’s flying to Los Angeles. We’re not going to see him for a while.”
Those words sound so heavy, and I felt them touch my core and ripple through the airport din. Though now I know, they were using feedback from a bass amplifier to simulate the buzz. We were in the garage.
Father disappeared from my life after that.
In my earlier childhood we’d dine at the same restaurant every Sunday, Fiddle. This was when their relationship was better.
He and Mother lead me toward our table (though I’m sure it was clear ours was the only table). The room is dimly lit but the glare over our place settings glosses our menus.
One of the few televisions in my life flickers over the bar. The mirror behind it smuggles me a strange view, and I decide to say something.
“Look at that counter,” I say. “It looks like a refrigerator box.”
To be sure, it was a Kenmore refrigerator box, with a light-canceling curtain draped over it.
Father stares at Mother.
“Are they all that way?” I ask.
Father says, “Can’t even, she can’t even backcloth right!”
“I’m sorry,” says Mother. Then she studies me. “Max, if you want, you could go back there right now and pull the cloth off. See what it is really.”
“Don’t do that!” says Father.
“Do you want us to carry you over there? Like a baby?” says Mother.
I pluck one of the crayons that the restaurant, acting through my parents, has left for children to use. While they argue I draw a small shape only I will recognize, at the edge of the tablecloth near my lap:
Do you know what it is? At that age art consumed me. I loved drawing birds dangling around ocean sunsets.
Two months later it’s Christmas Eve. We spend it at an alleged friend of Mother’s in what she tells me is another house on the block.
You’re asking how I can manage a life like this? Without a Father? Well, I was learning enough to realize that, without him, my world was crumbling. She’d take me to supposed new stores. Their walls meant to bifurcate other rooms appeared half-open and crooked. They surface with only a few streaks instead of fresh, paint-smelling colors. Not so much finished as vandalized.
Yet this room looks whole. Angelfish-orange walls. Pinecone-smelling. At the time I thought: I’m in a new house on the block.
Another little kid or paid actor suggests we climb on top of the couch to part the curtains to better see Santa. He climbs up, then helps me onto the cushions, my knees digging into the grungy doilies she’s thrown over the couch.
We are surveying the dark street through the snow-flecked glass. This is when he points to something small at the curtain’s corner. It is my bird sign - the one I drew in Fiddle - the crayon now bruise-smudged.
Father would’ve washed these props to keep me blind.
“What are you looking at?” he says.
“I drew that in a restaurant - when this curtain was a tablecloth!”
“It turned into curtains?” he says in disbelief. His head turns like he’s received a slap back toward the kitchen where Mother works.
Let me mention that I was in constant fear of Mother sending me away if I pointed out her inconsistencies. Except for you, I’ve never told anyone I was living in a bubble Father and Mother, and then only Mother, created. I felt threatened my world would collapse.
“Don’t you dare tell her,” I say. A baseboard heater groans, pushing the mealy curtains with their smell of olive oil to our faces. The door swings all the way open then, and I realize it isn’t my comment that alarms the other kid.
A note about Santa Claus:
I had seen him before - in books Father and then Mother read to me and songs they sung. Father would wheel out a piano, press down the sliced white portions of it, and sing in a thin voice while I sat on her lap. But I’d never seen him.
His clothes are fruit-punch red and his foggy glasses balance over an Osiris beard.
I lumber from the cushion to the front door; nobody has to carry me. I call, Santa!, and he scoops me up and lets me kiss his cold cheek.
He carries me into the kitchen.
My Mother and Santa navigate each other in an awkward hug. It's like two carpenter ants touching their billowy antennae.
“How does it feel to be famous?” she asks.
“You know I’m not famous,” he says. Then he leans on the stove, knees knocking against the cabinet door. Then the door reverses. It bangs into the rusted steel stove like two shopping carts. Santa cringes.
He telescopes to my height and reaches under the cabinet. I fix a smile on my face.
“You’ve got to use anti-tilt wheels,” Santa says. He pinches the wheel and his white-gloved finger comes away dirty. “Oil them too, Christ.” He stands. He sighs. I watch his elbow crank down, and then his jaw unhinges over me a terrible shadow. He has drawn down his beard to tip a bottle to his lips. It isn’t Santa at all but a stranger.
“Been a good boy this year, Max?”
My Mother pulls his sleeve.
Years later I’d find out it’d been Father.
I add a circular sun next to my bird sign. I sketch them everywhere after that.
A note about potted plants:
Bathed in sun, three ferns in ceramic pots would sit on worn wood dollies. There were also aloe and juniper shrubs in gritty black buckets. Thin white veins would crack each pot. Once the housekeepers finished watering them the soil congealed into coffee grounds. Sometimes runoff splashed the outside of the pots and I had to wait for them to dry, chalk in hand.
You can imagine all the things in our house which were on wheels. All those plant buckets. An early memory of mine is hooking my finger into wheel-notches in the carpet. The two grooves spaced together like sparrow tracks. They’d vanish within hours when He was home, a fresh rug I could dig into. With her they’d stay until the housekeepers vacuumed.
I tell you this now because today these same three ferns line a rock garden. In what she tells me is my quote-unquote neighborhood park. Dead leaves fill the garden’s center. I see my drawings chalked on the black pots. Of course she doesn’t care enough to erase.
She grips my shoulders forward so I can’t see our house behind us.
“We’re going to the park!” she sing-songs, and in some trees a cardinal beeps.
I totter forward. The uneven ground shunts my boots in different directions.
”Where’s the park?” I ask. She walks me down a street, past real red stop signs, a sky open, endless, the color of frosted glass. I see a pair of sneakers stapled over a power line.
And then I look back and she’s not there. It's only me pushing myself forward.
I hobble along the road, leaning on tree trunks to rest. I see cobwebs in the bark’s ridges. I smell my sap fingers. If I am still in a world Mother created - and I can’t be sure, but she’s so forgetful lately. (Last month she’d left an apparent amphitheater so dirty. My drawings on the curtains tell me they’re the side blinds in our living room.) If my Mother is still scheming my surroundings then this is a lofty level of detail.
A white pickup truck rolls by, its bed pooled with rain. Water slops out over the license plate as it rumbles past. I keep walking, and along the way my legs ache. I sit on a tree trunk and snake my hand in the cranny between my leg and laces, and wiggle off my left boot. Then the right one. My palm sticks to this near-gilly part of my legs.
I steady and stand. Powerlines quiver above. I stagger on for what feels like forever on this still road. The discomfort’s like when I used to walk up and down the back staircase for hours. Back and forth the first months after He left. First I’d feel soreness in the knees, and then a chill feeling under my lips; my nose would run.
Pebbles bite my socks. I wipe my nose with my sleeve and my cuff fetches red. I turn a sharp corner and another white truck speeds toward me. Branches blur. I turn around as it veers out of sight, and I see it has left a jagged track of water.
It’s the same truck.
I start whistling to make myself feel better, but I’m panting. I remember Him looking over his shoulder. I remember Him prodding a piano portion and hollering to rein us into one key.
As one note shudders out of me, I hear the same low motor. I shunt off running as best I can. That’s the last I remember.
A note about hospital beds:
I’d surmised enough to realize that the presumed hospital was my parent’s bedroom and bathroom. This I figured out in adolescence. There would be the disinfectant's aroma, analogous to our shower cleaner. I’d have reached over to the curtain and checked its hem. I would've confirmed this was a hospital set. And then the "doctor" would enter. He’d be a Southeast Asian man who was balding in the same pattern as my third and sixth grade Math teacher.
If I needed more evidence I’d shuck the pillowcase off and see my symbol drawn on the tag.
At first, the hospital rooms were the trickiest for me to audit. But as my life grew I was in and out of the hospital more and more. And Mother became unconcerned with removing my tracks.
I’m telling you this now because my bird sign's nowhere. Even after I let the sun interrogate the curtain swatches I feed through my hands. My sign's nowhere! Not under any table lamp, nor scratched at the bottom of the wood bedboard. And when I stagger around to the bed’s other side, there are my boots standing at attention.
My Mother appears in the doorway and studies me peering at them.
“Max - you’re awake,” she says, and sits on the bed.
“I’m sorry I took them off,” I say, and drag the boots to the bed’s front.
She pauses. “No…you’re, you’re fine.”
She’d said this very phrase to me before, so I harden my voice and say, “Where am I? What happened?”
“You’re in the hosp-- you’re in my bedroom, Max.” She peers out the window for what feels like hours and then she opens and closes her mouth and watches me. My silence’s strategic, something I keep until she says, “Your Father was here.”
I spin toward her. “What?”
She tells me how my first custody visit was yesterday. He was supposed to pick me up outside, at our block’s end. She didn’t mean to leave me there. Luckily there was our gardener, Sylvia. (I knew her as Ms. Martinez, a cashier at the liquor store, and the voice at the purported fast-food drive-thru.) She'd found me passed out.
“I didn’t mean to leave you, Max.”
“He never came for me at all?” I ask.
“No, he did!” She sweeps her hand across the flawless room. “Can’t you tell?”
“Is He still here?!”
“Yes, he’s downstairs, waiting for you.”
I slip off the bed. “My boots!” I say. “You need to help me with them.”
She stays seated at the bed’s edge while I raise my boots. She blinks, elevates her shoulders and lets out a sigh so heavy she shrinks. She doesn’t help me.
“I don’t want you to think I don’t love you,” she says.
“You never wanted me!” I say.
This is when I start yelling because she covers her ears. I spin and take a step toward the doorknob but the doorknob shoots above me. Mother cries my name and lifts me off the floor.
I hear the Velcro on my boots creak. She has not done a good job with them.
A note about birthday parties:
Ten to twenty of them, along with friend’s houses, friend’s bathrooms, and friend’s cats, cycled through my house. All with their equal number of partitions, detaching sconces, and armies of chairs. The last party had been in March, for a young Chicano boy we were to call Tim. From my avouched self-defense class. I remember Tim carving into a plaster-colored birthday cake.
Mother carries me into a new room now. I see the floors are too covered with grazing balloons for me to recognize carpet.
Someone’s finger pulls across a balloon skin, bringing into the room that hollow rubber yowl. I turn. The man takes up the entirety of the hallway, and a black scratchy beard trims an oval around his lips.
“Max, it’s me: Dad,” says the man.
My Mother squeezes around him. “Let me take your coat, Robert,” she says, which is Father’s name. It had been so long that the effect of Father removing his coat in the hall recalls no memories. It is a foreign action: someone shelling a colossal pistachio.
He holds his coat. They look at each other for a long time and then they look at me.
“We don’t know why you never realized it,” says Mother. “The signs were always there.”
“You did realize it, Max. With those drawings. You’re my clever boy.”
I look away, at a lilac lightswitch cover; at velvet red wallpaper.
“We know you have potential,” she says. “So why are you still here at home? You’re a young man now.”
I look at the confetti-flecked carpet under the balloons.
“Is it the walls we’ve built?” says Father.
“I want to stay here!” I say.
“Oh come on,” says Mother.
“But I’m comfy,” I say.
Mother glares at Father.
He glares back. “Don’t look at me,” he says. “Whenever I come back it feels like our whole relationship is this battle to spotlight the bad guy. To find out who he is.”
“What are you trying to say?” says Mother.
He drops his coat. “I’m no good out there. I’m no good on the outside. To create I have to surround myself with these…things, these environments. For him.”
“But you know what happens here, right?” she says. “You don’t, do, anything. Not for us. Not for you and me.”
With Father’s coat not taking up the bulk of the hallway anymore it’s easy to slip past them. I walk back to the front door of this so-called party. I sit down at a table. The cake reads Welcome Home in red cursive and I draw my finger across its pillowy surface. I add rays of light to my sun.
After that, Father moves back into his premeasured but unhappy life. And this is how time turned through me. My parents grew old.
One day Father and Mother sit me down near the rock garden to tell me about my boots.
“You don’t need them. When you did,” he says, “you were very young.” Father hadn’t yet started inventing other rooms. “We were in an accident,” he says. “It was my fault. Both your legs. We thought you’d never walk again. But you surprised us, recovered. In two months. …But you clung to these…crutches. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have let you keep thinking you needed them.”
She says, “You did the opposite, Robert.”
“I kept you thinking you needed this…scenery.”
“Your Father was so upset,” she says. “He made this house into something you’d never need to leave. It worked. Other people noticed. Industry people.”
“I let it become my happiness,” he says. “But remind me to show you the magazine features they did”.
“Oh God, not those” she says, laughing.
“We had to show so many people the house to pay the bills. We had to charge admission.”
“But those early days, remind me, Max, to show you those articles.”
We had his funeral near the rock garden.
It’s been a year since they passed, first her, and then him.
The housekeepers know enough about how to construct new rooms, and which roles they need to play. But they’ll get old too, and when they’re gone I’ll have to make a choice.
Now what about you? Are you wondering whether I’ll leave the same six rooms?
Let me put it this way. My parents loved me more than any other parents since they were willing to create all this for me. They loved me so much they’ve planned for the workers to carry it on. They always give me incredible service. They always treat me like the individual I am. They always pick me first for team and group opportunities, even with a limp from half my life in those boots. So let me ask: would you ever want to leave a life God's harmonized for you?
About the Author: Perry Genovesi (he/him) works a librarian in Philadelphia. He serves his fellow workers as a shop steward in AFSCME Local 2187 and plays bass in the band Canid. Read more of his fiction in Loud Coffee Press, CC&D, Isolation Street and elsewhere. All stemless wine glasses were once votive candle holders, pass it on. Twitter: @unionlibrarian