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Crooked House

I always said I got to get out of here, but that was just talk. Now I for sure mean it. Anyway, I’m almost sixteen, so I have to go. Ma and Pa say sixteen is the limit for boys staying in the house.

My two older brothers took off when they hit sixteen, one a year after the other. Mike headed for the gold fields in the Klondike, and Charley went west to look for ranch work. He always liked horses, and there aren’t so many around here, nor people don’t take good care of them, only using them to haul things because nobody can afford a car, mostly. We ain’t heard back from either of my brothers, even though they promised to send money if they could.

Aside from me, my sister Daisy’s the only kid still at home, and she’s just twelve. Or she would be, if she was alive.

My name is Pete, and I live in the attic. My room’s right up under the slant of the roof, only one layer of wood between me and the asphalt shingles, and it gets all the heat in the summer, and not much of it in the winter, despite being upwards, the way heat is supposed to go.

Pa or someone who lived in my room before I did shellacked old ads from the Sears catalog on the wall, things I guess he wanted. One was a shotgun and the other was a guitar. I looked at those things before I went to sleep and thought, that person never got those things, and I probably wouldn’t get what I want, either.

I have radio dreams. Someday I want to sing with a big band like Paul Whiteman’s. He’s the King of Jazz. I’d like to be in his Rhythm Boys, but mostly I’d like to sing like Bing Crosby or Jack Teagarden.

Pa told me, “Get a clue. Nobody’s going to pay you to sing, Pete. There’s a Depression on. Learn to do something you can sell.”

Ma told me later that my voice gave joy to people who listened, like a songbird, but she said there were lots of songbirds out there, and most of them didn’t get paid anything.

Mike and Charley used to live in the rooms on the third floor below me. Ma and Pa slept in the big bedroom on the second floor, and Daisy slept in a closet off the hall across from Ma and Pa’s room. That’s where I still see her sometimes.

All the way downstairs was the kitchen, where Ma cooked and we ate, and the front room, where we did most everything else we did inside awake. The best part of that room was the radio, which we turned on after supper. If I could, I’d live in front of the radio. It wasn’t just the stories, it was the music I loved, live from ballrooms in New York City, where I imagined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing on polished floors to big band jazz, with glass stars hanging from the ceiling, and everything in black and white. I saw myself up on the stage, crooning into a microphone as the conductor led the band through my favorite songs, “You Took Advantage of Me,” “Aunt Hagar’s Blues,” “Paper Moon.”

When Mike moved out, and Pa got laid off, Pa shifted the broken things from the other attic room down to Mike’s old room. He worked on the junk, replacing a broken footrest on a wooden chair, straightening the spokes of a wheel, planing down a drawer in a dresser that got stuck. He’d sell things after he fixed them, and soon enough he was bringing back other broken things he’d picked up at the junkyard or on trash day to fix and sell.

Ma set up Charley’s room as a sewing room. She put her ma’s machine in there, and piled up fabric she’d bought at sales and thrift stores in palmier days, and whatever odds and ends of buttons and threads she’d squirrelled away over the years. Pretty soon you couldn’t tell Charley had ever lived in there. She did piecework as she could, took in mending when she could find it, and she made baby clothes to sell.

I was at the top of the house separated from everybody else by a whole floor of junk, and sometimes that suited me fine. The parents couldn’t hear me moving around at whatever hours I chose, nor singing, which I liked to do whenever a tune came into my head.

Daisy used to come up and visit me while the sun was up. She never would venture above the second floor after dark, even if Pa teased her. She thought the attic was haunted.

Her sleeping closet had no windows. She propped the door open at night so she could get some light from the hall windows. She had a different idea about dark.

The last day of Daisy’s life started out like most of them. Ma and Pa and Daisy and I had breakfast in the kitchen, and Pa went out on a collecting trip. Ma went upstairs to sew. I was supposed to walk Daisy to school and go to my delivery job at Beekman’s Groceries. Mr. Beekman didn’t pay me, but sometimes his customers gave me a penny or a nickel to carry things, and I was willing to take a chance on it. Besides, some of them let me sing for them. Some of them told me I should be on the radio, and I let that go to my head.

That day when Daisy and I got to the school, a sign was up that said the teacher had been fired and the school was closed. “What’s that about?” I asked Daisy.

“Nobody said anything yesterday,” she said.

She went to the store with me and I asked Mr. Beekman if he knew anything. He said sure, the school ran out of money. He said Daisy could have a job at the store if she liked.

“What kind of job could she do?” I asked. Daisy was eleven and small for her age. She never got enough to eat.

“She can stock the shelves,” he said.

He had never offered me a job like that, but I decided not to mention it, because if Daisy could bring in a little money, it would help us all. “Would you like to do that, Daisy?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

Just then the Widow Anderson came in and bought her usual two bags of groceries on Tuesday. She had money from her husband that hadn’t vanished in the stock market crash. Some people said she kept it in her mattress. I didn’t know where she had it, but not in any bank. She never let me into the house past the kitchen. She was always good for a nickel or a dime if I carried her groceries, so I left Daisy at the store and followed the Widow home. She liked to hear me sing “Someone to Watch Over You” and “Night and Day.”  Sometimes she paid me extra for a song, so I was happy. That day I sang her “The Man I Love.”

When I got back to the store, fifteen cents richer, Daisy was not out front, and neither was Mr. Beekman. Mrs. Filtzer was waiting at the counter with her list. I went to the door into the stockroom and knocked. “Mr. Beekman?”

I heard Daisy crying on the other side of the door, and I rattled the knob. “Mr. Beekman?”

The door was locked.

“Hang on, Pete,” he called out. He sounded kind of ragged.

Daisy made another noise, and I put my shoulder to the door and pushed, but I couldn’t open it. “Mr. Beekman!” I yelled, and pounded on the door. “Daisy!” He didn’t come, and she didn’t come. I went out of the store and ran around back to the delivery door, but it was locked, too.

I ran back inside. Mrs. Filtzer looked from me to the stockroom door and left without saying anything.

Mr. Beekman didn’t open the door for what seemed like two hours, but I was watching the big clock over the cash register, and it was really only fifteen minutes. Mr. Beekman came out first, tying on his apron. Daisy came out a little later, pale and silent, staring at the floor. She hadn’t looked healthy since Pa lost his job, but now she looked so thin she might disappear if you looked at her sideways. Her cheeks had hollows in them that hadn’t been there when we left the house that morning.

My mind kept stubbing itself against that locked door. I couldn’t think what might have happened to her, somehow; I couldn’t get my mind around it. I stared at my sister, but she never glanced up at me. She just slipped past me out of the store. I turned to Mr. Beekman. His face was flushed, and he was frowning like he did when deadbeats asked him for credit.

I followed Daisy out of the store. She walked ahead, fast, on the dirt road back to the house. When she walked past the tall grass, she grabbed at it and pulled stalks right off and dropped them. Her arms were tense, tight angles against her sides.

She walked right up over the porch and into the house. In the kitchen, she slapped a silver dollar on the table, and then she ran upstairs. I heard a door slam up there.

“Who’s there?” Ma called from upstairs. “What happened?”

“It’s me and Daisy,” I called up, and Ma came out and down the stairs from the third floor to the second. She paused, then came on down all the way.

“What happened?” she asked.

“School was closed,” I said. I was staring at that silver dollar on the table. Mr. Beekman never paid me more than a nickel for anything I did — sometimes he let me help unload the delivery wagons, and sometimes he paid me to sweep up.

“Where’d this come from?” Ma asked. Her hand dropped on that dollar and swept it into her apron pocket.

“Mr. Beekman gave it to Daisy.” I dug my fifteen cents out of my pocket and handed it over, too.

“Did he?” She got her eagle look, the one I never liked to see aimed at me. “What for?”

“I don’t rightly know,” I said.

Ma turned her eagle eyes toward the ceiling. We both heard the thud.

I didn’t know where Daisy got the rope, but the clothes rod was still in there from when her room was a closet.

Ma told me we were never going back to Beekman’s again, so now I walk five miles to get our groceries from the store over to Landsville, and they cost more, too.

Daisy comes upstairs now, but she’s not my daylight gal anymore. I think I’m alone, and I start a song, and then when I turn around, there Daisy is, staring at me, her eyes black shadows, her face thin and pale. She’s still wearing her school dress, which was her one good dress, calico with little flowers on it. She never smiles. Sometimes I think she’s telling me it’s my fault, what happened to her.

I do try to sing to her, but most of the songs I know are love songs, and that’s not right. Nor the gospel songs don’t seem to apply; she never looks like she’s leaning on the everlasting arms, or flying away to glory in the morning. She don’t give me hope there’s a happy angel band or an uncloudy day anywhere.

Where the soul never dies, though, she has that look on her. She’s going to live in sorrow for eternity, and I don’t rightly think any of it was her fault.

With Daisy ghostly in my room, I get no comfort in a place that’s supposed to be mine. Daisy even taken to haunting me while I’m listening to the music shows on the radio. It’s all gone sour, and I don’t know how to turn it sweet.

I got to get out of here.


About the Author

Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold more than 350 short stories and several novels. Her short fiction has won a Nebula Award, and her first novel won a Stoker Award. She does production work for F&SF. She also teaches short story writing through Fairfield County Writers’ Studio and Wordcrafters in Eugene. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, with a mannequin, and several cats.