Week Thirteen: Up the Stairs

Staircase_7_zps81f89c4cThis piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.

The summer I was six, we lived in a house that was over one hundred years old. It was a grey farmhouse situated back from the street with a small hill between the fenced-in yard and the driveway.  It was two-storied, brick, and at least to me, definitely haunted.

When we moved in, I picked a room in the back of the house where a cottonwood tree shaded the bedroom window and the corners had slanted ceilings. There was staircase that turned a corner as you went from the first floor to the second and I liked peeking through the bannister. From the top of the stairs, you could see into the living room and hear most of what went on in the den and family room. I would spend many evenings after we were put to bed sitting at this perch.  If I angled it just right I could see my parents moving through the rooms without them knowing I was there. It was far enough away that I always had time to run back to bed before getting caught.

I don’t recall my parents telling me anything about the house except that it came with two cats. Apparently the previous owners were convinced that one of the cats, Amos, who had never lived anywhere else in his very long life, would absolutely try to find his way back to this house from their new place in California. As I write this now that seems unlikely.  Perhaps my Dad’s soft heart for animals was the real reason we ended up with two cats. Amos became my cat, and he would wait for me on the fencepost on schooldays every afternoon.  As I made my way down the block, book bag swinging in my hands, he would appear, a black dot on the white fence. Closer, I could make out his pink tongue sticking just a bit out of his mouth. And when I reached the end of the driveway and picked him up, his purr was like a roaring engine.

I liked walking to and from school by myself. And I prided myself on being very responsible. I was charged with feeding both of the cats as well as our dog, Nugget. I took it seriously. I was the kind of child that liked to play pretend. But rather than princess, my scenario of choice was to re-enact the Catholic masses that all the students at my parochial school had to attend every morning. I remember Sunday school, too. Learning right and wrong as well as respect for the ritual of church. I loved it all. My morals were in a formative stage. I loved my family, my pets, and the God that loved me.  I wanted to please everyone, including God, all the time. But occasionally I got stuck, pulled in two directions.

That year I had a babysitter I really liked. She would pretend Mass with us, liked Amos, and critical to me, she played Chutes and Ladders without complaining. (A previous babysitter had wounded me deeply by telling me that it was a baby game and that she just wished I liked something less “boring”.) But this new girl, Lisa, was wonderful and never made me feel bad about what I liked. She even let us light candles in the Mass, which was really fun. I thought she was the best babysitter even, at least until she threw my world upside down.

One night, I was sitting in my perch at the top of the stairs after she put us to bed. This was just like every night, until I watched her slip one of our Atari games into her purse. What was she doing?!  I froze and didn’t make a sound. I was conscious that I didn’t want to get in trouble for being up, but I was also panicking. I knew it was one of the very worst things that you were never supposed to do, stealing! Was it possible that she was going to put it back? I waited and waited and waited. Eventually, cramped and with tired eyes, I went back to bed when my parent’s car pulled up. I never saw her go back to her purse.

In the morning, it was the first thing I thought about. I tried remembering the details. I knew I had seen it, but I didn’t want it to be real. I didn’t want her to be bad. I tried to talk myself out of what I knew I saw. But, I was also feeling something else, anger. I had to do chores to earn the money for those games.  They were ours!  What if someone wanted to play it and asked me where it was? What would I say? What if she came back and took another game? We only had six or seven of them. I didn’t want to lose Lisa, but I also wanted my game back. Maybe there was a way to not get her in trouble. And so, I thought about it a long time and then told my Mom. I explained what I saw, exactly accurately. And then, I added that I was “sure she was just borrowing it”.

Mom nodded her head, but clearly saw it for what it was. My Dad got dressed and announced that we were going to drive over to Lisa’s house. As we got into the car I remember Amos coming outside and jumping up on the fence as usual.  We pulled out of our driveway and onto the street and I looked at my cat gazing into the distance and then up at our gray house. My sister was waving to me and smiling. I waved back, but I was scared. She didn’t know what had happened.

At Lisa’s just a few blocks away, we parked on the street and my Dad went to the door to speak to her parents. It seemed like it was taking forever.  I thought about trying to crouch down so no one would see me. But, I was equal parts, nervous, curious and bored.  So, I stayed upright in the car seat and watched. It took a while, but some adults came to the door and started talking with him. I saw my Dad turn and point at me, which jolted me into attention. I saw a woman hand the game over to him and thought we could leave, but he kept talking for a long time. Finally, the door shut and he was back in the car. “Well, she’ll never be back at our house.”

With the game in my lap, I took a look over my shoulder as we drove off, I could see Lisa in an upstairs window looking down at the street. I know she saw me, too. When we got home, Amos followed me upstairs and I took him into my arms and sat cross-legged on my landing. From below, I heard my sister and Mom laughing about something on TV. My Dad put on a bunch of sunscreen and went out to mow the lawn. Downstairs, the sun poured in through the bay window. The cat, heavy on my lap, purred and fell asleep.  I let two tears silently roll down my face.



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