My father takes time fitting the pieces together. Elmers, Testors and Gorilla—he squirts a speck of glue over the miniature chifforobe and presses down the perpetual motion clock so the two carvings become one.

            He opens the roof over the master bedroom and lowers the chifforobe and clock against the wall. Sometimes, the furniture moves on its own.

            He squeezes his chubby fingers in through windows and doors and slides the furniture into place until everything is just as he needed it. (Inside the dollhouse no one can tell him what arrangement is most important but himself.)

          Mom creeps through the house, a cigarette hanging from her lips. I can't imagine ever being a smoker, the humid, minty smell rising up, yellowing once-beige wallpaper.

        With the balls of his fingertips he fluffs the bed's new palm-sized comforter, sewn from seven crinkled patches of Aunt Atwood's first wedding dress. His hard round stomach presses against the hand carved cedar chimney as he leans over and fastens the lacey white curtains.

          "From the headdress," he says to me. He looks at me and we both grin. My smile has become an instinctive arousal of masseters. His is real, somehow, and it always has been.

           The bedroom's theme is white—gulf sands, he calls it—the mood is lull. He adds a mist of lavender aromatherapy and yawns, the skin on his thick forehead pulling away.

            We hear mom scratching her feet over the bubbled kitchen linoleum. She doesn't pick up her feet anymore. My father's ears tingle at every infinitesimal sound anyway, life in their home is so quiet.

              In the kitchen, cabinets pop, plates shift, a box is torn open and cereal is poured into a bowl like change. The opposite of quiet. And half-and-half. Mom returns to her bedroom and shuts the door and we can hear a television's muffled vibrations.

               Vroom vroom, vruvru vru, the voices say.

              He reaches into the foyer, the living room, the two sparkling bathrooms and all four bedrooms and removes old pictures, hand-painted portraits of mom and me and landscapes and trains on miniature squares of canvas. It's his eleventh time to change them.

            In my father's perfect world, everything from décor to lighting and diet is changed at least once a year. A wooden turkey replaces ham, 2-percent replaces skim and painted cantaloupe becomes watermelon. Bread never goes stale. I take the old paintings and squeeze them into a bag and fold them into a King Edward cigar box. They'll be locked away in a safe with guns, bullets, anniversary gifts and a variety of important existential papers.

            I go to the arid utility room and sit the cigar box on a dusty white counter next to the safe. I clear the dial, turning it five revolutions, then:


            1) Counterclockwise, five revolutions stopping on 74.

            2) Clockwise, passing 51 three times, stopping on the fourth.

            3) Counterclockwise, passing 67 twice, stopping on the third.


               Opening a safe even the right way takes practice. I turn the dial until it tightens and sticks. I pinch the handle and the heavy door grinds open. Hidden, there are semi-automatic pistols, a Karabiner 98k with a rusted bayonet, an old double barrel with tape wrapped around the stock.

            There is a black 7mm and a 7mm08. The ought-eight is a much smaller rifle than the 7mm, better for beginners, or children. I slide the cigar box over papers on the middle shelf. Mold has also colonized the safe. Mold on the guns, the semi-clips and holster buttons.

                 We don't shoot the guns anymore. We don't go hunting beneath the blind-built-for-two like we did when I was little.

                At the bottom of the safe is a stack of tapes I don't remember having ever been a part of, labeled:


            Patrick's 3rd Birthday & Mom's 56th

            Patrick's Seventh Birthday

            Patrick's 2nd Birthday & Mom's 55th

            For insurance


            Tucked upright between the tapes and the wall is a thick, red Brookhaven Bank money bag. The zipper, also a green and white crusty mold.

            Inside, a dozen sandwich bags filled with bracelets, rings and lockets. One contains a magazine clipping wrapped around something heavy. Below the picture is written:


            "Because of its tufted ears, we think this is a Kaibab squirrel," writes Bernice Williams of Woodland Park, Colorado. "Don't the ears look just like a rabbit's?"


              I examine the something heavy—mom's miniature gold and glass Kaibab squirrel holding a crystal ball. The kind of thing that would have made her happy twenty years ago.

                I put the Kaibab and clipping in my pocket. I close and return the money bag to the safe and clunk the door shut.

           In the backyard there is an exposed blue water pump and a four foot high stack of black bricks for a new hearth. The Kubota tractor doesn't have a front-left wheel. Beneath the circle of pines, a faded green tarp covers a pile of boards for building who-knows-what. The undulating tarp has collected sticky water and mounds of sharp yellow-brown straw.

            The field beyond our backyard is long and pale during the fall. Dead weeds twine in all directions up to the edge of the woods where Osa the mini-pincher is buried.  I'm afraid to ask if it still belongs to them.

            My feet press against the squishy-gray bahia as I walk. I feel the Kaibab tumbling in my pocket. A half-heavy/full-nostalgic tumble. She used to keep it in her jewelry box with the magazine clipping.

          A long time ago, our house was broken into. I was in junior high and they were both at work—my mother the dental assistant and my father the tool pusher. Two weeks on, two weeks off with me in the evenings. I came home from school and saw the door was open, a big checkered footprint inlaid near the frame. Splinters in the entry. Our mini-pincher had been stomped to death beside to the oven. I walked to my room and found my drawers opened and my underwear tossed on the floor and bed. The same in every bedroom. I didn't call the police. Mom had to get home first. I cried the whole time. My father came home the next day and made donuts in the yard with the four-wheeler.

            The rifles had been taken from the then-gun-cabinet and abandoned on the living room floor. Maybe because guns are too heavy and obvious to be carried out on foot. The nearly-empty jewelry box full of gold, silver, class rings and the Kaibab squirrel was found a week later by neighbors in some woods about a mile from the house. My father said it was his brother-in-law. Mom blamed nobody. The burglar had been picky about what he was stealing, so she got most her jewelry back. And the Kaibab squirrel, which I was happy about.

           My father thanked the neighbors for finding the box and brought it home. He fixed it with a tack hammer, even though mom said she could just get a new one.

            I could stand here forever smelling their yard, the crispy-stingy coming of winter. Sometimes it gets so cold you can hardly breathe. I put my hands in my pockets—to the left the Kaibab—to the right a set of keys. I squeeze the Kaibab and go inside and make my way around cardboard boxes and a mound of overalls, button-ups, pleated jeans. At the end of the hallway I forget to knock and find mom lying across the bed talking on the phone, the television turned (nearly) all the way up, the telephone cord wrapped (nearly) twice around her fingers and arm. In a hurry, she says goodbye, slams the phone onto the dial and untangles herself.

              I've been holding the Kaibab in my pocket, but it doesn't feel right. "Who was that?"

             "People don't knock in Seattle?" Her voice is quick.

            I'm wringing the Kaibab now. A salty-sweaty gentle wring, as though it needs the liquid life smashed out of it, gently. She doesn't deserve the Kaibab.

            "Are you going to answer me or stare at me like your father?" she says.

            I go to the side of the bed and slap her hard across the face. She squeals and shouts profanities and I feel too overwhelmed to stay there with her. I can't negotiate the reason for a slap. No more than she can negotiate her secret phone calls.

           Their house has always been too small for secrets. My hand has left a print in her dark, powdery foundation. I shut the door behind me and go to the living room and sit on the couch next to my father.

          If he could melt into the dollhouse—shrink his swollen sour body onto the blue and white tiled kitchen floor—if he could open the refrigerator and find a wood carved turkey, slice a watermelon or pour an ounce of two-percent milk and chocolate powder into a plastic cup, he might would stay there forever. I ask him about it.

       "That'd be something," he says. We smile. I twine my fingers like weeds and he files the creamy-brown edges of the mantelpiece. A pea-gravel hearth has been very laboriously glued beneath. Some day, he will put a bulb in the fireplace to spruce the den up. Make it warm. He leans over and blows.

            I start my drive back to Washington. Maple bugs splash over the windshield. Ryegrass grows in open plots from Salem to Oregon City. In the summer, there will be watermelon patches for miles.

            I remember growing watermelons back at home. They would get big and fat and dark. They sat unpicked in the heat so long they'd burst and become orange sponges over time. If it was dry enough you could smell their hot, sweet rotting stench from the porch. Heavy rain and windshield wipers wash away the Maples. I reach into my coat pocket and pull out the Kaibab squirrel. It would have made a lovely table ornament or watchdog for the house my father is building. I open the ashtray and shut it inside. If I ever take up smoking I'll find it there, holding the crystal ball, and I'll remember to go back home and try again.



Garrett Ashley hopes to get into a good MFA program in the near future. He writes different genres, and has a soft spot for science fiction. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in LORE, Word Riot, Pear Noir!, decomP and Bartleby Snopes, among others.

The idea for this story bubbled when the girlfriend sent me a link to a page with some weird and interesting dollhouses. I really wanted to write about a man obsessing over a dollhouse for ten thousand words, but eventually decided there should at least be a story and eventually a family and eventually a narrator—the son—who, in my opinion, is confused whether it is his mother or his father who is tearing the family apart. The narrator obviously prefers to uphold a relationship with his father, even though he has neglected his own home for the dollhouse. Maybe the narrator feels sorry for him, maybe he has simply never trusted his mother. I'd really like to go back some day and look closer. 



Copyright 2009