A banquet is set before us; but there is nothing in the house to eat. I suppose we shall order Chinese again, else trudge down to the Burger Barn. Upon our dinner table a roasted turkey sits crowned with holly, trimmed with mint and cranberry; surrounded by an admiring crowd of covered dishes. They promise a feast. They lie. Lift their silver covers, you find dust or colored beads. Tap the turkey and you hear a hollow plastic 'thunk'. Tip the bowls of dressings and potatoes, salads and sauces; they remain fixed, painted plaster frauds. The crystal decanter of wine pours out a rich burgundy sand.
The virgin plates are stuck to the table; white as a movie-star's teeth. The sparkling glasses stand in fixed formation, except for one which has pulled free. A bit of table-top remains glued to the bottom of this rebel chalice. Whenever I drink from it, mother complains. She wipes it off and puts it back in place.
In our spotless kitchen hang copper pans, wracks of cutlery and spice-jars. The pantry door opens to reveal piles of vegetables; the cupboards hold formations of cans, stacked and waiting for a master chef. A great silver refrigerator stands next the old-fashioned stove. A bowl of ripe fruit sits on the counter, a cookie-jar rests by the toaster.
But the refrigerator is empty, the cans are hollow, the pantry sacks hold Styrofoam. The cookies are plastic discs painted to resemble chocolate-chip, my favorite. A closer look at the fruit bowl reveals red wax spheres, plastic yellow crescents, dusty clusters of hollow rubber grapes.
Mom and Dad vote we order pizza, overriding my plea we go out. I tap the order on my cell, studying the antique land-line phone by the front door. Tar-black plastic with a bizarre circle for fingers to twirl. It can reach no one this side of reality. The line is a hollow cord trailing into the wall. A fraud, but it fascinates. It hints at the idea of connection between the real and the false. Sometimes I lift the receiver (that's the part that comes up and you put to your ear and mouth) and listen. I hear clicks and ticks, a sea-shell memory of ocean waves. The sounds are mere echo of my breath and heart-beat.
When we first moved into this house I was eight. I remember the people waiting for us. An old woman sat before the fireplace, knitting. I ran up to the fire and shoved my hand in the flames. Just paper, colored red-and-yellow streamers, with a tiny fan beneath to make them flicker and dance.
"Fake," I told the lady. She said nothing, sat smiling at her own hands. I poked her. Nothing. The hands were pink gloves. "You're fake too," I informed her. She continued smiling. I backed away, bumping into a tall man leaning against a wall. He held arms to his side, stiff. His toes pointed up, resting on his heels, the back of his head against the wall. I tried to match the pose, leaning straight beside him, but really it was impossible. I tipped over, knocked him over.
"Sorry," I lied, and ran. In the nursery upstairs a Very Good Baby lay in a cradle, fast asleep for all that I stamped my feet, shook the frame. I stomped out. At the end of the hall waited a glorious pink bedroom. A triple-mirrored vanity-table littered with lipsticks and nail-polishes made me blink in greed. A girl just the age I am now looked out the window. She stood in confidence, leaning against nothing, only rocking slightly when I poked her. "This is my room now," I told her, staring at the vanity table. "Out."
She said nothing. She had the curves of a girl's breasts and hips, the way I do now. She had curls and a silver necklace. My hair is short and straight. I took the necklace from her, put it around my neck. I ran to the vanity table and stared into the mirrors. I had no reflection. Not real mirrors, just wood painted silver. The lipsticks scattered on the table were hollow plastics. The perfume bottles held colored water, scentless as paper flowers.
Dad is reading an electric book, sitting on the coffee table because the armchair and couch are solid blocks of plastic. Those comfy-seeming cushions bite your butt if you try to settle comfortable. The sofa is fixed to the floor, immovable. So also the chairs, the rug, the green plastic tree. We make do sitting on our coats, the steps of the stairs, or leaning against the walls. When I was ten and still missing our old dumpy lumpy house I suggested we buy some pillows. Even a real couch. My parents disapproved.
"This furniture is a perfect set," declared my mother. "It would be a crime to alter a thing." She patted the antique TV with its insect antennae. "And everything stays so clean. All I have to do is dust."
"Nothing works," I pointed out. "Nothing is real. That thing is just a box with a picture pasted on the front. Our oven is a box with a ceramic loaf of bread under a red light-bulb. The cookbooks on the shelf are blank paper bricks."
"I hate cooking," reminded mother. "All the smells, the crumbs, the bugs, the shopping. We have the perfect kitchen and it's going to stay perfect."
"And I don't want you watching TV," added Dad. "We don't need an army of electronics to have a nice life."
That was years ago. Now I'm fifteen. I take home for granted. I suppose it is always so. Tonight Mom and I sit on the steps of the stairs, watching a movie on dad's laptop, eating pizza slices from the cardboard box. We talk about the day, school, the new family on Circle Street. Six girls and they are all crazy. Sinclair from the Fun House has a crush on the oldest. I have mixed feelings about that; I used to covet Sinclair. I don't tell Mom that, I'd just get sympathy I don't need; or worse, The Talk. Ick.
After dinner I collect the pizza boxes and paper plates, the napkins and cans of soda, dump it all in a plastic bag. In the kitchen behind a carved oaken panel waits a beautiful silver trash can, but the top doesn't come off. So I put the trash bag out by the corner, study the evening. Across the street, the Bird House streams with aerial visitors. Pigeons, crows, starlings, sparrows, mostly. Nothing exotic. Once I saw a snowy white owl.
The Bird House used to be all cages, a three-story enclosed aviary. The parrots shrieked to drive you mad. Then the new family moved in and said 'screw that'. They opened every cage door. A day of wonder. The whole street came out to watch the creatures wheeling and turning. The zoning committee disapproved. 'The houses on Circle Street are Historical and not to be altered without consideration of The Plan'. Blah, blah, blah. Their 'Plan' is probably fake as our fire.
But the birds flew off, flew back, made do with a bigger world. They check in mornings and evenings. Not me. When I go off to college I'm not coming back, even to do laundry. What for? Our washing machine is a tin box with control knobs painted on cardboard.
I consider walking down the curve of Circle Street to Sinclair's. Up to that clown-face door. I used to long to live there. Everything was real; a whole house designed to make you laugh or think or wonder. The top floor was all glass and mirrors. You hurried along, sure you saw the path forward, until you bumped into a glass wall, or thumped into a surprised reflection of yourself. But you grinned because through the walls and reflections you saw every other wanderer doing just the same thing.
I decide no to dropping by. Sinclair is a grouch nowadays. He didn't even invite me to his last birthday. Anyway, Mason from the House of God and I have a kind of understanding. He asked me to go steady. I told him ‘gross, no’. He looked so relieved I almost kicked him. Boys just keep getting weirder. Probably they need The Talk.
I go back inside. I glance at the fake land-line phone by the front door. Sometimes I imagine if I twirl the circle the right way, I might reach the doll family meant for the doll banquet. My parents moved the fake people out, I never asked where. They made an incongruous family; one never saw any connection between the knitting old lady, the stiff man, the confident girl or the sleeping baby. Just strangers stuffed together in a house.
Yet by rights, that feast at the table waits for them. And so perhaps someday we will hear a ring, ring. We will stare puzzled, then tiptoe to the faux phone, pick up the receiver. The Doll Family will announce they are dropping by, to eat dinner, do some laundry, watch TV before the crackling fire. I don't see how we can refuse them. Sure, we live here. But the house was never meant for us.