When Jentri was ten her father, having run out of things to say, told her about the name he’d once found written in pencil on the wall above the basement sink, and about how he’d often wondered if it was still there.
“Maybe you should look,” she said, and he did, and she followed him. The limestone wall above the stainless steel sink was cracked and stained like an old map, but they saw no name written on it.
“I must have seen it somewhere else.” He ran his fingers over the limestone and Jentri took the opportunity, while he was distracted, to study her father closely. They had never stood together in the basement before; in fact they rarely ventured beyond the living room during his visits. An incandescent bulb swung from a chain and in its sweep of light Jentri noticed, for the first time, a freckle on her father’s neck.
“Maybe I was thinking it was behind the furnace,” he said, and they looked there, but found nothing; only a green beetle hanging in a dusty web.
“Upstairs?” he said.
Jentri bounded up, hearing her father’s footsteps behind her. “Don’t step on that floorboard, it’s dangerous,” she said, and “That light doesn’t work, sorry,” pointing like a guide, though she knew it wasn’t necessary; he’d lived here, too. Once.
They found it on the third floor, in a bathroom no one ever used. The bathtub had no fixtures; the toilet, no lid. But there was a name: Susie, written in childish pencil above the rust-stained porcelain sink.
“Who’s Susie?” Jentri said.
“I don’t know.”
“But that’s the name you saw, right?”
Her father paused, thinking. Jentri waited patiently, but he never did answer the question, not that day or any other one. But on their way down the stairs Jentri just happened to see—now that she was looking for it—Susie’s name scratched into the metal bracket that held the banister to the wall.
Thereafter Jentri and her father spent almost the entirety of his weekly ninety-minute visits traveling the house looking for Susie’s marks. They were everywhere—on the back of a closet door, on the underside of a kitchen drawer—and Jentri wondered how she’d spent her whole life here without noticing them.
They called this game “finding a Susie.”
It was a welcome change. Jentri and her father did not know how to talk to each other, because they rarely practiced. He’d left when she was young, before she knew any words. Even after she learned, she did not have much to say to him.
Normally, during his visits, he asked Jentri questions about which method of long division they were teaching her at school or which flavor of pudding was her favorite, and she would have to explain that she was learning fractions this year because they were done with long division, and that she didn’t like pudding. After each answer came a long and uncomfortable pause while he thought up a new question.
He rarely spoke about himself. Jentri knew he had a dog but she did not know its name. She did not know what her father did for a living, not exactly, though he wore nice shoes and she knew he traveled often: to Jefferson City, to Cape Girardeau, to Poplar Bluff.
Ten or so minutes into every visit the questions ran out and they required an activity, something to focus on besides each other. Before the Susie game, there had been other games: simple flip-card memory games, checkers, or Shoots and Ladders when Jentri was young, graduating to more strategic games like chess, Risk, and five-card stud as she aged. Jentri and her father concentrated on the cards, the plastic pieces, eyes down.
But hunting for Susies was different. Jentri and her father became different people.
“Look, Jentri.” He stood next to a stained glass window on the third floor landing. The window was missing a pane and Jentri’s mother had taped cardboard over the space, awaiting a how-to book on hold at the library because she could not afford to hire a glazier.
Jentri ran to him, and pressing her finger next to his against the wood of the window frame she felt the depressions of carved letters. She looked closer. It had been painted over several times but the name was still readable: Susie.
“I bet she was just a little girl when she did this, just like you,” her father said.
Jentri pressed her fingernail into the letters, trying to chip away the paint.
“What are you doing? Don’t do that.”
Jentri froze. Her father had never corrected her before. He’d never had a reason.
She traced the letters instead with the soft of her finger pads. Head down, red-faced, she thought of the other places they’d found Susies: etched into a brick by the side gate; in red nail polish on the cast iron grates that covered the basement windows. “When did she do them?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Long time ago.”
He paused. “Like I said, I don’t know. The people we bought the house from were very old and didn’t have kids. So before them at least. The fifties, maybe? The forties? This house is very old. Maybe even longer ago than that.”
“Where did Susie go?”
“Well, I guess she grew up and moved away.” Another pause, this one longer. “Or maybe she died. Maybe she died in one of these rooms.” Jentri’s father suddenly, out of nowhere, produced a Count Dracula laugh.
Jentri was so surprised by the booming bass that she jumped. She knew he’d think she’d been scared by what he said—and she was—though mostly it was because she’d never heard her father use such an animated voice before. She wasn’t sure she’d ever even heard him make a joke.
Her father began to expand the mythos, pointing out the places Susie must have slept or played. He showed Jentri the retaining wall in the back yard where Susie used to sit munching caramel corn, and the spot under the window where Susie had kept her pet rat in a golden cage. The rat had red eyes, he said, and wore a tiny bell tied around its neck with red ribbon. The rat got out of its cage once, and though Susie searched the house top to bottom the rat was never found. Jentri’s father nibbled the air with his front teeth, and rubbed his hands together like furry paws.
Jentri squirmed with delight at his elbow. He’d never told her stories before. His eyes had never been so bright when he talked. And he, encouraged by his daughter’s rapt attention, which he had never been able to command, became ever more inventive.
Susie wore a blue check dress with white pearl buttons. Susie collected love letters written by WWI cavalrymen and kept them in a cigar box under her bed. Susie liked to take apart radios and put them back together again. Once, to the wonderment of the whole neighborhood, Susie built a model airplane out of pieces of an old clock and her grandmother’s egg beater and flew it clear across the pond at Tower Grove Park.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” Jentri’s father said one visit, running his fingers along an exposed drywall seam, “if there wasn’t a secret passage in this house.”
“Really?” Jentri said.
“Oh sure. There’s caves and tunnels running all underneath this whole city, the older parts of it, these big old houses . . . Breweries used to keep their beer cold down there, before refrigerators were invented. The banks, the big wigs, City Hall, they all had escape hatches downtown.” He looked down, ran his fingers around the tip of the tie he’d been wearing since he arrived. Then he said, almost shyly, “I’m a bit of an amateur historian, you know.”
Jentri wondered if her father talked like this on dates. Then she realized, with some discomfort, that she’d never thought of him dating. She supposed he must; all the divorced fathers on tv did.
“Where’s the secret door?” she said.
“I don’t know. If there was one, though, I bet Susie knew where it was.”
One day Jentri got home from aftercare and, heading up to her room to put her backpack away, she saw Susie standing at the top of the stairs, holding the model airplane.
The propeller had once been the hands of a clock, one blade shorter than the other. Susie, staring down at Jentri, spun them slowly with her pinkie finger.
Sometimes Jentri wondered how her father had not seen the Susies back when he lived in the house. True, he’d remembered the first one, the one above the porcelain sink in the third floor bathroom. But each subsequent find seemed a fresh surprise. Surely he’d seen them all before?
Then, because she was smart, Jentri realized that maybe he had seen the Susies but was pretending for her sake that they were discovering them now for the first time together. She did not let on that she knew this. If her father could keep secrets, so could she.
It was strange, seeing how well he knew his way around her house. More than once Jentri had offered him a soda and felt a jolt of surprise when he reached for the correct cabinet on the first try and got himself a glass. Jentri always forgot that in a way she was more of a visitor here than her father. He knew the house better. He’d stripped it bare; he’d clattered around in its bones.
Jentri knew the story because her mother had told it, many times. Once upon a time Jentri’s parents were very much in love but had very little money. So they bought this house in what was then a run-down section of south St. Louis, paying only a fraction of its potential value. They began to fix it up. Years passed and—this part of the story was vague and changed each time her mother told it, the number of bitter asides fluctuating with her mood and the length of her last shift—in short, the renovations stalled. Jentri was born into a skeleton of a house and a ruin of a marriage, and learned to crawl in half-finished rooms, leaving a trail through drywall dust. Even now, Jentri ten years old, one bedroom still retained its orange shag carpeting and dark wood paneling from the 70’s. In another, the walls were teal. Another had no walls at all but only exposed studs. Two stone lions stood at the base of the front steps, one missing an ear.
Jentri’s mother had continued the work as funds allowed, progressing slowly over the years, sometimes tearing out the plumbing Jentri’s father had fitted long ago or the plaster he’d smoothed, and starting over.
Jentri wondered now how many Susies had been obliterated by her mother’s belt sander.
And she wondered other things, like what her father’s house was like, the one he lived in now. She thought of this mostly at the end of his visits, while she watched him get into his car and drive away. Many of her friends at school had divorced parents, and most of those friends spent every other weekend at their father’s houses or apartments. But Jentri had never seen her father’s home. She didn’t even know where it was.
Jentri did not want her father to stop telling the stories, and so she did not tell him that late at night she lay awake listening for the tinkle of the rat’s bell, or that some nights she even heard it.
She woke, once, screaming for her mother, screaming that she’d seen Susie walk into her bedroom closet and close the door.
Her mother stood over her, one eye still closed in sleep, a see-through thin t-shirt hanging off her bare shoulder. “There’s nobody in your closet, baby.”
In the morning Jentri’s mother put the cereal in the refrigerator and the milk in the cabinet and Jentri put them back in the right places before she caught the bus. Jentri understood; she knew her mother spread sixty-five hours across three different jobs and spent the rest of her waking life working on the house so they could sell it at profit. Jentri fell asleep every night to the tic tic tic of her mother’s pickax chipping away at the basement. There was a leak, a trickle of water running the length of the basement like a country brook at half-drought, and Jentri’s mother hoped to unearth the source by trial and error. The hill of limestone rubble was taller than Jentri and the waterway snaked through the basement as new courses were made for it.
“I need you to stop with the Susie thing.” Jentri’s mother stood, covered in limestone dust, in the doorway of the mauve-wallpapered den. “She’s keeping me up at night.”
Jentri and her father hunched on hands and knees methodically examining the wainscoting. He sat up on his haunches but didn’t say anything.
“Kurt? I need you to stop with the Susie thing.”
“Yeah. I heard you.”
When Jentri’s parents spoke to each other their voices were low, their faces stiff, as though they’d forgotten how to open their mouths all the way.
He obeyed, despite Jentri’s entreaties. She’d found another Susie under the backyard spigot, she’d tell him, or on the collar of the lion who guarded the front steps. But he showed no interest. He resumed his questions about math, about pudding. They resumed their board games.
Jentri was old enough to realize he might be anxious to make the most of his limited time with her, and used this to her advantage. She punished him. Her responses became even more terse than usual. She pretended to be bored with the games. She pretended to be bored with him.
Finally, a gift. Many times over the years he had arrived with a gift: a new board game tucked under his arm, cellophane and price sticker still attached.
This time it was a document, scrolled up in his breast pocket.
Signaling secrecy with one finger in front of his lips, he handed the paper to Jentri. “I went to city hall. I did some digging on this house, on Susie,” he said.
Jentri unrolled the paper. It was a bad photocopy, dark along one edge, and at the top it said “Deed of Release.” She did not know what a Deed of Release was or how it pertained to Susie. But when Jentri opened her mouth to ask, her father made an abrupt sound that made her feel the same way she had that day on the landing under the stained glass window, digging her nails into the paint.
She looked down at the paper, red-faced, and did not look up until she heard her mother’s footsteps coming up the basement stairs. Her father made remarkably calm gestures indicating Jentri should fold up the paper and hide it. She slid it under her bottom and sat on it for the remainder of his visit while they finished their round of Clue.
Jentri did not try to speak of the Deed of Release again, and soon not speaking about the Deed of Release became its own game. She looked at her father’s blank face. Its lack of recognition for the Deed of Release or for Susie or for the game itself was in fact the game, and she cheered inwardly at how good he was at playing it. The game was something they shared, something secret, just the two of them.
After her father left that evening Jentri squirreled the document away to her bedroom and examined it closely, reading that “Southside Gould S&L Assn hereby release all and singular rights to the real property situated at 3560 Utah Street on this day of June the Fourth in the year of 1962 unto Guarantor (party) Albert J. Robison and (party) Margaret E. Robison and to Guarantor’s heirs, successors, executors, and assigns forever.”
Jentri stuffed the paper under the pillow when she heard her mother on the stairs, pulled it out again when the footsteps passed. It was Jentri’s address written in slanting cursive on the thin black line; it was Jentri’s house, but there was no one named Susie or Susan on the document.
She took the Deed of Release to school and told her friends it was the “death records” for her “creepy old house,” but she didn’t let anyone touch it; she flashed it in front of their eyes and stuffed it into her backpack.
At home, in private, she waved her hand over the Deed as though conjuring a spirit from a Ouija board. She read it over and over, trying to understand the complicated language, trying to understand why her father had given her this information, trying to understand the game.
Jentri and her father could not search the house together, but she could search it alone, if she pretended she was doing something else. So she made up a new game: Housekeeping. She walked around every evening pretending to dust.
“Want a rag? You could do some actual dusting.” Her mother swiped a finger across a banister, disturbing a thin film of limestone.
Jentri shook her head, continued to rub her hands across the walls as though waxing a car.
“I think I’m close,” her mother said.
“Close to what?”
“I think I found the leak. It’s the coal chute.”
“What’s a coal chute?”
Her mother studied the grit, rubbing it between her fingertips, and drifted down the basement steps talking to herself. “Some moron sealed it up wrong.”
There was no surface of the house Jentri did not take under her hands. She even began to search furniture, as though pencil marks could migrate from walls to the undersides of tables, or as though Susie were still traveling the house writing her name.
Jentri froze at the thought, standing alone in the empty third floor. An old fluorescent tube buzzed above her. Sunspots flashed across the warped wood under her feet as the maple tree outside the window trembled in the wind. She felt Susie moving through the house, moving, perhaps, through the long-forgotten secret passage, tunneling through the walls up to the third floor, approaching the portal to this very room, banging against the secret panel that had long ago been plastered over, and just as Jentri heard the sound of the plaster loosening, cracking away from the wall, she bolted down the stairs. Jentri never ventured to the third floor again.
A Saturday. Early in the morning Jentri saw her mother with a coffee mug in one hand and a putty knife in the other, but that had been some hours ago and now Jentri was alone.
She cooked half a bag of pizza rolls in the microwave and ate them standing up in the dim and silent kitchen, humming as she chewed and kicking the cabinet doors gently with the toe-tips of her sneakers. While she ate, she plotted. Today she would search the basement.
The basement, fortunately, was empty. The washing machine sloshed. The pickax lay on the floor next to the coal chute. Jentri knelt in the dust next to the pile of broken cement and limestone rubble, and looked up. The opening to the coal chute was wider than it had been, a jagged slit. Water dripped from its edges.
Jentri rose and felt the scars the pickax had left in the limestone. And there, on the very edge of the opening, her fingers found the remains of older marks, colorless scratches in the wall. Her mother had hacked through the letters so that only pieces of them remained, the name unreadable. But it was clearly not a Susie: the fragments were straight, the cross-lines met at right angles, and there was no curling of s’s.
Jentri remembered her father’s face the day they found the first Susie in the third floor bathroom. “That’s the name you saw, right?” she’d asked him and he hadn’t answered, just stared at the wall with his head tilted slightly to the left while a fly tap-tapped against the faded mirror.
It wasn’t. He’d been looking for another name all along. This name.
Jentri wished she could call her father but she did not know his phone number; she had never called him on the phone before. He simply arrived at the front door once a week. Jentri counted how many days she would have to wait before she could share her news with him. Too many.
But what did she even have to tell him? She could not read the name, still did not know what her father had been seeing all those years, blurry and incomplete in his mind. Maybe it would be enough for him; maybe the fragments in his memory were different from the fragments on the wall, and by combining them he could make a whole name.
Jentri sat, leaning back against the pile of rubble, keeping one eye on the name in case it tried to disappear. But this was boring work. Her hands found tiny concrete pebbles and she began to test her aim by throwing them into the opening of the coal chute. Most of the pebbles missed but one went clear in, and Jentri held her breath, waiting, waiting, and it was only when the sound did not come that she realized she had been waiting for the clatter indicating the pebble had landed.
Jentri slipped a hand into the opening and felt nothing behind it. She slipped the length of her arm, then her torso, and at last her head.
Jentri didn’t understand quite what a coal chute was. Her mother had referred many times to “the coal chute,” pointing at the square of cement that until today had sealed its opening, but she failed to explain its antique function. So now Jentri, finding herself on the other side of the wall in a dark tunnel, believed she’d discovered the secret passage her father wove so skillfully into his stories.
It was cold inside the coal chute. Jentri crouched—there was no room to stand—in the darkness, holding her breath, sure her mother was about to come down the stairs and ruin everything. The washing machine ticked into a new cycle. Jentri listened to the water drain, listened for footsteps that did not come.
She peered into the tunnel. The light from the basement illuminated a few feet of it, but beyond the beam all was black.
Jentri had certain ideas about secret passages; she’d expected stairs made of stone, candelabras draped with cobwebs.
But this would do.
Jentri crawled deeper into the tunnel, her hands searching along the dirt bottom. She fought through roots that had reached for each other from opposite sides and tangled together in the middle. She tried to straddle the thin trickle of water running down the center of the tunnel but got muddy anyway. The floral smell of laundry detergent followed her in; ahead she smelled only damp earth.
Jentri stopped. She clung to a root, thick as a jungle vine.
What if Susie crawled up behind her, through the dark, her blue dress streaked with mud?
Jentri listened to the blackness, waited—trembling—for a hand to reach out and grab her ankle.
She thought, then, of how much fun it would be to tell her father about the secret passage, of how brave he would think she was for following where it led.
Her eyes began to adjust. Far ahead, a point of light: the opening. She crawled toward it. That was all she had to do: crawl toward the light.
But the point of light did not grow any bigger as she advanced. Suddenly the light was beneath her; it glinted; she picked it up; it was only a shard of glass reflecting the light from the basement back on itself. She dropped it, panicked, did not know where she was; there was only blackness ahead. Flailing in the effort to turn around and scramble home, her hand brushed a wooden surface. She felt it, flat-palmed. It was square; it had a latch, and a handle. She pulled it and nothing happened; she pushed it and the door opened.
When she entered the coal chute it had been a sunny Saturday afternoon. Now Jentri saw silver moonlight. She saw that it came through a window, and that she was inside a small, carpeted room.
In the room was a bed, and in the bed was a figure. The figure moved. Jentri’s throat closed and she fell backward, clawing toward the tunnel, toward home, but there was no tunnel. She was in a closet. She knelt on a pile of shoes. She scratched at the back wall of the closet but it remained a wall.
The figure in the bed screamed, a child’s scream. Jentri heard a door burst open, heard a woman pant, “What’s wrong?”
The child said, “Something’s in my closet!”
Jentri did not breath, did not move. She felt the floorboards shift, heard the whish of bare feet moving over carpet. She cowered, waiting for the closet door to fly back, waiting to be discovered.
But no one came for her; no hands grabbed for her, and in a few moments Jentri ventured a breath. Then another. She peered around the edge of the half-open closet door and saw a woman, pantsless, in an over-large t-shirt, sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking the child’s head. The woman pulled the child—a girl—to her and spoke for a long time in a quiet voice that Jentri could barely hear.
Jentri sat absolutely still with her hand over her mouth. Even after the woman left she did not move. Hours, possibly, passed before she peeked into the room again and saw the girl asleep in the bed with her back to the closet.
Jentri eased the closet door open and crawled across the carpet. She could not go home the way she’d come, but if she could get to the front door maybe she could get out of the house and find her way through the streets.
The bedroom door had been pushed-to, not latched, so she did not have to risk the noisy turning of a knob. Still on hands and knees she shouldered her way through the door and into a hallway.
The carpet was lush under her hands, the air perfumed. Moonlight glinted off of glossy plastic switch plates, and the faces of strangers smiled down through picture glass. No limestone dust floated here. The paint did not peel; the ceiling did not sag; the floor did not even creak as Jentri crept across it. This house was whole. This house was finished.
Jentri’s shoulder knocked into a small table in an alcove. A wooden bowl fell, spilling decorative wicker orbs across the carpet. They whispered down the hall. The girl in the bedroom awoke, screamed again.
Jentri scurried around a corner and hid there, peeking out. She saw feet first, walking into the pool of moonlight: bare feet . . . large feet . . . male feet; then knees and thighs, then a pair of striped shorts, a torso, a face. Her father’s face.
Jentri drew back in shock. She could not cry out, though she tried. Her father disappeared into the girl’s bedroom and Jentri heard his voice, soft and soothing, inflections not quite like any she’d heard come out of him before. She sat frozen behind the corner wondering if she should run down the hallway and into her father’s arms or run the opposite direction and hide. Why was her father here? Where was here? Who was the woman, and who was the girl?
Jentri’s father emerged from the bedroom and turned down the hall into the darkness. She watched him go. She got back onto her hands and knees and crawled the other way, around another corner, feeling her way in the dark. Her hand found a carpeted staircase, and she lost herself in the depths of the house.
The little girl began to have trouble in school. Her teachers said she was withdrawn, and that she often fell asleep at her desk in the middle of the day. At home she had terrible nightmares and woke her parents, screaming. She saw a small person crouching in the corner of her bedroom, she told them. Sometimes she saw it scurry along the baseboards of the hallways like an animal. Almost every night it walked into her closet and rustled around and walked out again.
The girl began to see words written on the walls and on the furniture.
Her father saw them, too, and erased as many as he could find. He saw streaks of mud on the carpet, and small, muddy fingerprints on the frames of pictures displayed on endtables. He saw the two halves of his life, that he had kept separate for so many years, converge.
The girl asked her mother about the word she’d found scrawled in sidewalk chalk on the garage floor, spelled out with twigs on the front stoop, scratched into her headboard. Her mother had never heard the word, though she’d had her suspicions.
The mother gave no answers, so the girl tried to sound the letters out on her own. She was a good reader for seven years old, though she still struggled with the concept of long and short vowels. She pronounced the word “jen-try.” She asked her father what a jen-try was and he said he didn’t know.