A House in the Sky
1 My World
When I was a girl, I trusted what I knew about the world. It wasn’t ugly or dangerous. It was strange and absorbing and so pretty that you’d want to frame it. It came to me in photographs and under gold covers, in a pile of magazines, back-issue National Geographics bought for twenty-five cents apiece at a thrift store down the road. I kept them stacked on a nightstand next to my bunk bed. I reached for them when I needed them, when the apartment where we lived got too noisy. The world arrived in waves and flashes, as a silvery tide sweeping over a promenade in Havana or the glinting snowfields of Annapurna. The world was a tribe of pygmy archers in the Congo and the green geometry of Kyoto’s tea gardens. It was a yellow-sailed catamaran in a choppy Arctic Sea.
I was nine years old and living in a town called Sylvan Lake. The lake was six miles long, a Pleistocene gash in the vast brown prairie of Alberta, Canada—well north of the Calgary skyline, well south of the oil rigs scattered around Edmonton, a hundred or so miles east of the Rocky Mountains, a solidly in-between place. In July and August, tourists came to float on the lake’s calm surface and toss fishing lines from the docks of their cottages. There was a downtown marina next to a red-topped lighthouse and a small amusement park where vacationers bought tickets to ride down a giant spiraling water slide or run through a play maze made from brightly painted plywood. All summer
long, the sounds of laughing kids and the buzz of motorboats floated through town.
We were new to Sylvan Lake. My mother, having split from my father a few years earlier, had moved my two brothers and me there from Red Deer, the small city where we’d always lived, fifteen minutes down the road. Russell, her boyfriend, had come with us, and so had his younger brother, Stevie. His uncles and cousins and other brothers and second cousins often dropped in on us for payday parties and ended up in our apartment for days, camped out in our living room. I remember their faces hoisted in sleep, their slim brown arms hanging from the sides of our chairs. My mother referred to Russell and his family as “Native,” but around town, people called them Indians.
Our building was a white stucco fourplex with a pitched roof and dark wood balconies. The recessed windows of our basement apartment were small and narrow and let in next to no daylight. A green municipal Dumpster sat in the gravel parking lot outside. My mother, a fan of all things bright and tropical, hung a teal shower curtain in our new bathroom and draped a brightly patterned spread over her bed. Out in the living room, she parked her exercise bike next to our old brown sofa.
People always looked at my mother. She was tall and lean, with dramatic cheekbones and dark permed hair she kept fluffed up around the ears. She had limpid brown eyes that suggested a kind of vulnerability, the possibility that she might be easily talked in and out of things. Five days a week, she put on a white dress with red piping and drove back to Red Deer to work a cash register at Food City. She returned with whole flats of generic-brand juice boxes, bought with her discount, which we stashed in the freezer and ate after school using spoons. Sometimes she came home with a plastic tray of bakery leftovers, Danishes and éclairs gone sticky after a day under glass. Other times she brought video rentals that we never returned.
Russell worked only sometimes, signing on for a few weeks or occasionally a few months of contract work as a tree trimmer with an arbor company called High Tree, cutting limbs away from power lines along narrow roads. He was thin as a whippet and wore his dark hair long around his shoulders and feathered on the sides. When he
wasn’t working, he dressed in thin silk shirts in colors like purple and turquoise. Etched on his left forearm was a homemade tattoo, a blue-lined bird with broad wings, an eagle or a phoenix, maybe. Its outline had begun to fade, the bird’s details washed into a pale blur on his skin, like something belonging on the body of a much older man. He was twenty-one to my mother’s thirty-two.
We’d known Russell for years before he became my mom’s boyfriend, since the time he was thirteen, our families knit together by some combination of bad luck and Christian largesse. He had been raised on the Sunchild First Nation Reserve. His father had disappeared early; his mother died in a car accident. My mother’s parents, who lived about an hour’s drive from the reserve, ran a Pentecostal summer camp for First Nations kids and ended up taking in Russell and his four younger brothers as foster children. My mother and her siblings were long gone at that point, and the Native kids offered my grandparents a kind of second go-round at parenting.
My grandfather was a welder, and my grandmother sold Tupperware—more Tupperware, in fact, than anybody in central Alberta, with regional sales records and a company minivan to prove it. For many years, they hauled Russell and the other boys along to church and prodded them through high school. They drove them to track meets and hockey games and to weaving classes at the Native Friendship Center.
When the boys brawled, my grandmother sighed and told them to go on outside and get it all out. She forgave them when they stole money from her. She forgave them when they cussed her out. The boys grew into teenagers and then into young men. One made it to college; the rest ended up somewhere between the reserve and Red Deer. What nobody banked on, what Jesus himself might never have foretold, is that somewhere along the way, coming home to her parents’ farmhouse for visits and holiday meals, my mother—with her three little kids and imploding marriage to my father—would fall for Russell.
She called him Russ. She did his laundry for him. She liked to kiss him in public. Every so often he bought her roses. Early in my childhood, I’d thought of him like a sideways cousin, but now Russell—having moved directly from my grandparents’ house into mine—was something different, a hybrid of kid and grown-up, of kin and interloper. He did kickboxing moves in our living room and ate potato chips on the couch. Once in a while, he bought stuffed animals for me and my little brother, Nathaniel.
“A funny little family” was what my grandmother called us. My older brother, Mark, put it differently. “A fucked-up little family” was what he said.
I’d been to the Sunchild reserve a couple of times to visit Russell’s relatives, always over the protests of my father, who thought the place was dangerous but no longer had any say. Russell’s cousins lived in low-slung tract homes built along dirt roads. During our visits we ate bannock, a sweet, chewy fry bread, and ran around with kids who never went to school and drank cans of beer out of brown paper bags. Every house, as I remember it, had walls cratered with fist holes. I recognized the shape because Russell sometimes did it to the drywall at our house.
My mother’s life with Russell might have been viewed as a kind of screw-you directed at all the white kids she went to high school with in Red Deer, most of whom still lived around town. My mother had left home at sixteen and gotten pregnant with Mark at twenty. Russell gave her an odd new cachet. He was young and mildly handsome and came from a place that people considered wild and unusual, if also dirty and poor. My mother wore beaded earrings and drove around town in a little white hatchback car, a feathered dream catcher fluttering from her rearview mirror.
There was also the fact that my father, her early-twenties sweetheart, the man holding her babies in the delivery room photos, had recently announced that he was gay. A fit young guy with a big smile and a neatly trimmed beard named Perry had moved into my dad’s house. When we visited, Perry took us swimming at the rec-center pool, while my father, who had never cooked in his life, made us bachelor-style dinners. He rolled lunch-meat ham into cylinders speared with toothpicks and
surrounded them with a few slices of cheese and some celery, adding a piece of bread on the side. He laid our plates on the table—all four food groups duly represented.
My father had begun building his new life. He hosted dinner parties with Perry and enrolled in college to become a rehab practitioner and assist mentally disabled people. My mother, meanwhile, worked on her own resurrection. She read self-help books and watched Oprah on her off days.
In the evenings, Russell poured rye whiskey from a big bottle into a tall plastic cup. My mother sat with her feet resting in his lap on our sofa in front of the TV. More than once, he pointed at the screen, at the moment’s hot cop or tidy-haired young dad. He’d say, “You think that guy’s good-looking, don’t you, Lori?”
It was a flicker we all recognized.
“I’ll bet,” Russell would continue, his eyes on my mother, “you wish you were with someone like that.”
A pause. The TV man’s face would seem, in an instant, to melt and reshape itself into something more aggressive and leering.
“Right, Lori? That’s what you’re thinking?”
My mother responded gently. He’d broken some of her bones before. He’d hurt her badly enough to keep her in the hospital for days. As the rest of us stared hard at the television and the air in the room grew electric, she’d reach for Russell’s arm and squeeze.
“No, baby,” she’d say. “Not even a little.”
Mark was thirteen and on the brink of a lot of things. He had a scraggly mullet, blue eyes, and a washed-out denim jacket he rarely removed. He was a solitary kid, given to roaming, the devoted owner of a slingshot made of hard plastic. Nathaniel, meanwhile, was six years old and had a cyst on his lower-right eyelid, giving him a baleful look. My mom and Russell doted on him, calling him “Bud” and “Little Buddy.” At night he slept in the bunk beneath mine, clutching a stuffed rabbit.
It was Mark I followed around, trailing him like a dinghy behind a boat.
“Check this out,” he said one day after school as we stood in front of the green Dumpster outside our apartment building. This was several weeks after we’d moved to Sylvan Lake, a warm afternoon in early fall. I was in fourth grade, and Mark had just started middle school. Neither one of us had many friends. The kids in our new town instantly had read us as poor and uninteresting. Mark planted his hands on the lip of the bin and boosted himself upward, slinging a leg over and dropping inside. Seconds later, his head bobbed up again, his face flushed, his hand wrapped around an empty Labatt bottle. He waved it at me. “Come on, Amanda,” he said, “there’s money in here.”
Our Dumpster served as an openmouthed repository for the whole neighborhood’s trash, collected by a town truck every Wednesday. It became my brother’s version of a country club swimming pool. The interior, even on the crispest days of October, was soft and damp like an old leaf pile, smelling like sour milk. The two of us slid between mounded bags, their skins greased by leaked liquids and loose trash, our voices ringing tightly off the walls. Mark ripped into sealed garbage bags, pitching cans and bottles out onto the grassy strip in front of the apartment, rooting up lost quarters, old lipsticks, pill bottles, and Magic Markers, most of which he stuffed into his back pocket or tossed in my direction. Once he held up a fuzzy pink sweater, just my size, and gave a little shrug of outrage. “Jeez, what’s wrong with people?”
We loaded the empties into plastic shopping bags and, smelling like old food and malt, carried them to the bottle depot in town. Twenty cans equaled a dollar. One Food City bag usually held fifteen cans. One bag x fifteen cans x five cents = seventy-five cents. A dollar-fifty for two bags; three bucks for four. And then the sum total divided in two—half for Mark and half for me. No fourth-grade math lesson could compare. The real money lay in what we called sixties or sixty-pounders—terms gleaned from Russell—the hefty sixty-ounce liquor bottles that got us an easy two dollars from the bottle depot man. These were our gold.
Over time, Mark and I began to travel, a few blocks north and south of our street, over to the cul-de-sacs where single families lived in bungalows
instead of apartments, visiting five or six garbage bins regularly. Better real estate, for the most part, meant better garbage.
You’d be surprised at what people throw away, even poor people. You might find a doll with a missing arm or a perfectly good videotape of a perfectly good movie. I remember finding an emptied-out wallet, brown leather, with a delicate gold clasp. Another time I found a pristine white handkerchief with smiling cartoon characters embroidered on it. I kept them both for years, the handkerchief folded up neatly inside the wallet, a reminder of all that was pretty and still to be found.
I almost always blew my bottle money in one place, at a thrift store by the lake. The store was underlit and arranged like a rabbit’s warren, selling old clothes, porcelain knickknacks, and the literary detritus of summertime tourists—fat Tom Clancy thrillers and everything by Danielle Steel. The National Geographics were kept on a shelf in a far corner, their yellow spines facing outward and neatly aligned.
Lured by what I saw on the covers, I took home whatever I could afford. I snapped up the mossy temples at Angkor and skeletons brushed free of volcano ash on Vesuvius. When the magazine asked ARE THE SWISS FORESTS IN PERIL?, I was pretty sure I needed to know. This is not to say that I didn’t, in equal measure, rummage through the Archie comics sold new in a different corner of the store, studying Veronica’s clingy clothes and Betty’s pert ponytail, the sultry millionaire’s daughter versus the sweet, earnest go-getter. Theirs was a language I was only just starting to understand.
I kept the Archies in a drawer but put the National Geographics on a table in my bedroom. By Thanksgiving, I had accumulated probably two dozen. Sometimes I would fan them out like I’d seen on the coffee tables at the homes of some of the fancier kids from my old school. My uncle Tony—my father’s brother and the richest person in our family—was a subscriber. At night, in my top bunk in Sylvan Lake, I went through the magazines page by page, feeling awe for what they suggested about the world. There were Hungarian cowboys and Austrian nuns and Parisian women spraying their hair before going
out for the night. In China, a nomad woman churned yak yogurt into yak butter. In Jordan, Palestinian kids lived in tents the color of potatoes. And somewhere in the Balkan Mountains, there was a bear who danced with a gypsy.
The world sucked the dankness out of the carpet in our basement apartment. It de-iced the walkway outside, lifted the lead out of the sky over the plains. When at school a girl named Erica called across the hallway that I was a dirty kid, I shrugged like it didn’t matter. My plan was to move on, far away from my school and street and from girls named Erica.
One evening just before I started fifth grade, Carrie Crowfoot and I went walking around town. Carrie was a beautiful Blackfoot girl, a year older than I was, and one of my few friends. She had long black hair and almond-shaped eyes and eyelashes that stuck straight out. She was related to Russell somehow and had moved with her mother and brothers from the Sunchild reservation to Sylvan Lake. She lived in a house a few doors down from the thrift store and never went to school.
At ten years old and with no money, Carrie still managed to work a brassy kind of glamour. She sassed the patronizing shopkeeper who sold us five-cent pieces of gum and bragged to me about various kids she’d beaten up when she lived at the reserve. When she came to my house, she never looked twice at our ratty furniture or Russell’s stray cousins lounging boozily in our chairs. I liked that she’d pronounced the dinner of crushed dry Ichiban noodles I’d served her “amazing,” that she’d recently enlightened me about what a blow job was.
We wandered along Lakeshore Drive, heading toward the amusement park. A cool wind had picked up over the water. It was early September. Tourist season was pretty well over. The sidewalks were empty; a few cars hurtled past. Carrie complained often about how dull Sylvan Lake was, saying she wanted to move back to Sunchild. She was jealous that I got to stay with my dad in Red Deer on weekends.
I might have told her it was nothing to envy, but the truth was, I counted down the days. My father’s house had plush carpeting and thick walls. I had my own bedroom with a brown ruffled bedspread and a cassette player with New Kids on the Block tapes and a collection of new paperbacks, entire sets of the Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins series. I said nothing about any of it to Carrie.
At the marina, rows of powerboats floated in their dock slips. The amusement park lay dormant. The fiberglass waterslide stood drained for the night, skeletal against a pink sky.
“You ever seen what’s in there?” Carrie asked, kicking a foot against a shuttered ticket kiosk. I shook my head.
Before long, she’d found a way to pull herself up from the top of a garbage bin to straddle the high wall of the Crazy Maze, which zigzagged like a cattle fence around one edge of the park. Abruptly, she disappeared behind it. I heard sneakers hit pavement and then a laugh.
I was a frightened kid, almost all the time. I was scared of the dark and I was scared of strangers and I was scared of breaking bones and also of going to doctors. I was scared of the police, who sometimes came to our house when Russell’s crew got noisy in our living room. I was afraid of heights. I was afraid of making decisions. I didn’t like dogs. I was supremely afraid of being laughed at. And in this moment, I had a sure feeling about what would happen next: Not wanting Carrie to make fun of me, I would scramble up the wall, get dizzy, fall down, break some bones. The police would come—strangers, all of them—and they would bring their dogs. Naturally, this would all happen in the dark, and then I’d have to go to the doctor.
Which was why I almost turned on my heel and ran. But the way home was dark now, too, and I could hear Carrie calling from inside the maze. I heaved myself up onto the garbage can and boosted myself to the top of the wall. Then I jumped.
As I landed, Carrie took off running. In the dim light, her hair seemed to glint blue. The interior walls had been painted with bright amateur renderings of clowns and cowboys and silly monsters—whatever would amp up the joy and light terror of summertime kids running free.
Carrie Crowfoot and I would be friends only another six months. Her mother would move the family back to the Sunchild reserve sometime that spring. Before that, I’d start to get more interested in the kids I met at school and in school itself, getting chosen for an enrichment group for advanced students. Carrie would remain an outlier, uninterested in school and seemingly not required to go. A few years later, when I was finishing middle school, I would hear from my grandmother that Carrie had a baby. I wouldn’t know much more about how things went for her, because eventually, my family would purge all of them from our lives, Russell and Carrie and most everyone we knew during this time.
Inside the maze that night, though, she was impossible not to follow. We were fast, corkscrewing around corners, screeching to a stop when we hit an abrupt dead end. When I think back on it, I imagine we might have squealed as we ran, heady with the moment’s disorientation. The truth is, we were serious and silent but for the sound of our thwupping sneakers and the rustling of our jackets. Carrie’s hair floated behind her as she charged ahead, sidewinding through the alleyways, caught up in the split-second decision-making about which way to go next. Finally, though, we allowed ourselves to relax and feel giddy, forgetting that it was dark and we were trespassing, forgetting everything that scared or haunted us, lost in the playland we’d never before seen.
High Tree, Russell’s arbor company, was having a big holiday party at a restaurant in Red Deer. My mother had been thinking about it for weeks. After her shifts at the supermarket, she’d go looking at dresses in the Parkland Mall, flicking through the sale racks. At home, she announced she was on a diet.
We put up a Christmas tree in one corner of the living room, a raggedy pine that my mother had picked from the parking lot sale at Food City. She went to the Christmas Bureau in Red Deer, signed a paper attesting to the fact she had three kids and made seven dollars per hour,
and picked up gifts for free. They’d been collected and wrapped by volunteers, embellished with colorful curling ribbons. I knew which two of the presents beneath the tree were for me because they were both labeled GIRL, AGE 9.
A few days before the party, my mother got a new perm. She’d found a dress, which was hanging in her bedroom closet. It was black and shimmery, and already I’d spent a lot of time touching it.
Now it was Friday night. Russell had showered and put on a pair of black pants and a collared shirt buttoned neatly up to his neck. He poured some rye and sat on the couch, pulling a squirming Nathaniel onto his lap. Stevie, Russell’s seventeen-year-old brother, was babysitting. We were waiting for my mother.
The blow dryer hummed from the bedroom. Mark and Stevie clicked cassettes in and out of our boom box, fast-forwarding to the songs they liked, while I did math homework on the floor. Nathaniel, holding his stuffed bear, had drifted over to the TV and pressed his face close against the screen, trying to hear over the noise.
Russell poured a second drink and then a third. He hooked one leg over the other and began good-naturedly to sing: “Loooori LoooooRIIII.”
When she walked down the hallway, we all turned to look. Her black dress was short in the front and long in the back, cascading in a pile of ruffles that brushed the floor. Her thin legs flashed as she walked. She wore new shoes.
As if following a script, Russell rose to his feet. My mother’s cheeks looked flushed, her eyes bright, her lips painted red. Her pale skin looked creamy against the black dress, which was so tight and shiny it seemed shellacked onto her body. We kids held our breath, waiting to hear what Russell would say.
“Fucking A” was what he said. “You look awesome.”
True enough, my mother looked like a movie star. She smiled and held out a hand to Russell. She kissed our cheeks to say good night. We were cheering, as I remember it, literally shouting with excitement about the grand time they would have.
Russell put down his cup, found my mother’s dress-up coat, an ill-fitting mink number she’d inherited from my great-grandmother, and then he whirled her out the door.
That night we watched movies from our video collection. We watched Three Men and a Baby and then the new Batman. I made popcorn in the popper and passed it out in bowls. Somewhere in Red Deer, my mother was dancing with Russell. I imagined a ballroom scene with glittering pendant lights and wide-mouthed glasses of champagne. I dipped in and out of sleep until it was late and I woke up with a jolt. The TV screen was dark, the apartment silent. I pulled Nathaniel from his spot on the floor and guided him to the room we shared, nudging his sleepy body onto the bed. I climbed up into my bunk, a trace of holiday sparkle still lit in my head, and went to sleep for real.
There was a surreal quality to what came next. There always was, if only because these things—when they happened—almost always happened in the middle of the night. My mother’s shouting would tunnel into my sleeping mind, gradually stripping the scenery out of my dreams, until there was no more clinging to unconsciousness and I was fully awake.
Something crashed in our living room. There was a shriek. Then a grunt. I knew these sounds. She was fighting back. Sometimes I’d see scratch marks on his neck in the morning. The words were streaming out of Russell, high-pitched, hysterical, something about cutting out her eyeballs, something about blood on the floor, so much of it that nobody would know who she was. “You cunt,” I heard him say. Then a big thud, also recognizable: the sofa being flipped.
I heard her run from the kitchen to the living room and down the hallway. I heard her panting outside our door before he caught her and threw her against it. I could hear him breathing, too, both of them seeming to gasp. In the bunk below me, Nathaniel started to cry.
“Are you scared?” I whispered, staring at the dark ceiling.
It was an unfair question. He was six years old.
We had tried before to stop it. We had dashed out of our rooms and started yelling only to have the two of them, their eyes dark and wild, run to their bedroom and slam the door. If my mother wanted our help, she wouldn’t show it. Sometimes I’d hear Stevie in the hallway saying “Hey, cool it” to his brother. “C’mon, Russ.” But he, too, grew meek in the face of their fury. Eventually, a neighbor would call the police.
A few times my mother had gone to the women’s shelter in Red Deer. She’d made promises to my grandmother and grandfather that she’d leave Russell, but before long they’d be back together. At the women’s shelter, there were shiny linoleum floors, lots of kids, and heaps of good toys to play with. I remember my father looking crushed when he came there to pick us up.
The holiday-party fight wound down pretty quickly, my mother and Russell stalking back into each other’s arms, my popcorn strewn across the living room, the couch frame broken, a fresh hole in the wall. I knew how these things went. The next morning Russell would weep and apologize to all of us. For a few weeks, he’d be repentant. He’d sit in the living room with his head down and talk to God, looping through the language we knew from our grandparents’ church—dear Lord our savior in your name blessed be your son please save me from Satan yours is the way and in Jesus Christ thank you and amen. In the evenings, he’d make a big show of going to A.A. meetings. My mother, for those weeks, would have more power. She’d order Russell around, telling him to pick up his clothes and run the vacuum cleaner.
But the needle on some unseen inner gauge would start to quiver and creep back toward red. The contrition would slip away. My mother would blithely go out one afternoon to get her hair cut and come back, by Russell’s estimation, late. He’d be waiting on the couch, his voice a flipped blade. “What took you so long, Lori?” And “Who were you meeting, all whored up like that?” I’d watch my mother blanch as it dawned on her that the jig was up, that before long—maybe tonight, maybe three weeks from now—he’d go nuts on her again.
I couldn’t profess to understand it. I never would. I just tried to move past it. By the time the lights were off and all the bodies had settled, I was gone, launched. My mind swept from beneath the bed-sheets, up the stairs, and far away, out over the silky deserts and foaming seawaters of my National Geographic collection, through forests full of green-eyed night creatures and temples high on hills. I was picturing orchids, urchins, manatees, chimps. I saw Saudi girls on a swing set and cells bubbling under a microscope, each one its own waiting miracle. I saw pandas, lemurs, loons. I saw Sistine angels and Masai warriors. My world, I was pretty certain, was elsewhere.