Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
4,691 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017


by Toni Ann Johnson

Monroe, New York, 1963

Mallory sat at the red Formica table, leaned down, and dug a forefinger behind her heel into the back of one of her new shoes. She yanked at the black patent leather. The Mary Janes remained stiff; no give. She was ten. Her feet were still growing, and she knew the shoes would never fit.

At Kiddie Corner, the store in town, she hadn’t said a word to Velma about the pain. They were the last available pair. Soon as Mallory put them on, her stepmother’s gloomy face turned sunny and she said, “Oh! Don’t they look sharp?” When she asked, “Are they comfortable?” Mallory lied.

She could almost hear her feet screaming as she gazed down at the table wishing she’d told the truth. Aside from fussing with the shoes, Mallory sat still as long as she could. She wasn’t about to mess up the pink Easter dress. It was not Easter. Easter had passed, but Velma wanted her in that dress.

Velma and her daddy took so long to get ready to go anywhere. She stared at their closed bedroom door. What were they doing in there?

She didn’t mind that she’d be going out with them. Mallory liked to see new things. But she didn’t like that they’d be looking at a new house. It’d taken months to get used to this one and how far it was from where she lived.

Her sketchpad and pencil were next to Velma’s flouncy fern on top of the oak bookshelf in the living room. She rose, and with each step, the vise-like shoes bit the backs of her ankles and pinched her baby toes. She sat back down, pad in lap, to sketch the Formica table. It was her favorite piece of furniture in the place. She helped pick it out. Before Velma came along. Drawing its simple, clean lines was soothing.

Aside from the kitchen table, most of the rented cottage was filled with antiques and secondhand furniture Velma collected. Old stuff with ornate or wavy flourishes felt disorderly to Mallory. She preferred crispness. Precision. When she drew pictures, they were never of squiggly, sloppy things like other kids at school. She doodled tidy, even-sided shapes.

Her daddy and Velma finally emerged from the bedroom along with a shroud of smoke. He was puffing a cigarette and she was putting on pearl studs. Six months swollen, Velma waddled toward Mallory, the heels of her pumps clicking across the yellow and white linoleum.

She set her Chanel bag on the table and asked, “How do I look?”

“Nice,” Mallory said.

She was being polite. Her stepmother’s fully made-up face did look good. Velma was glamorous, more glamorous than Mallory’s mother was. The way she applied eyeliner, mascara, and lipstick enthralled the girl. She watched her do it whenever she was allowed to. But Velma was unfashionably huge in her maternity dress. She looked off-balance, like she could tip over, like she’d swallowed an enormous pumpkin.

“Well, thanks, Mal. So do you.” Velma winked. “We girls have to stick together. A girl needs compliments.” She shot a look at Mallory’s daddy.

Mallory’s eyes bounced to him. He wasn’t looking. Or listening. Humming some pop tune, he removed his suit jacket from a chrome chair at the table.

“Everyone ready?” he asked.

Mallory stood. “May I bring my sketchpad, Daddy?”

“Yes, you may.” He slipped his jacket on.

Velma eyed him, tightlipped, and blew a gust from her nose. “We’re going to look at a house, Phil, not to a museum. What does she need it for?”

He met her frown and smiled. “Vel. She’s creative. It’s fine, honey.”

Mallory looked down at her white ankle socks in the black shoes. She turned her lips inward and pressed them together so hard they hurt. If she smiled and Velma saw her, there’d be trouble. It wasn’t often Velma didn’t get her way.

Mallory sat in the middle of the backseat of the car, sketchpad in her lap. She could see the country road and the trees between her daddy’s head and Velma’s, and through the haze of their cigarette smoke. His hair was wet with Vitalis, which didn’t work too well to keep his curls slicked back, because it’s for white people. Her daddy didn’t have the kinkiest hair, but it wasn’t without any kink at all. Velma’s hair was pressed and curled. She knew what she was doing.

Their car pulled up and stopped directly behind a metallic-blue Chevy Impala parked at the bottom of a blacktop driveway.

“Bet that’s the agent’s car,” Velma said.

Mallory liked cars. Some were like works of art. She recognized the Chevy as a 1961 or a ’62, not the newest model, but pretty close. Her daddy’s 1959 Chrysler was older, and in Mallory’s estimation, a less dazzling, robin’s egg blue. She knew he could’ve bought a recent model, too, if he really wanted one. She also knew Velma was especially good with money. She worked for a Wall Street Bank before she started growing that gourd in her gut.

“Don’t buy a brand new car, Phil,” Mallory had heard Velma say. “Cars depreciate. You’re better off buying one that’s a year or two old. A house—now that appreciates.”

Why couldn’t they be satisfied with the house they already had? Mallory had finally stopped having scary dreams when she slept there. Anxiety dreams, Daddy had called them. They were dreams about being left somewhere, alone, and trying to find her way home.

She sketched the Chevy’s backside, carefully rendering its straight lines and elegant geometric design. She hoped her daddy would turn and notice how well she was doing it.

He climbed out of the car.

And at that moment, Mallory looked up. Through the windshield she saw the real estate agent sitting in his car. He lifted his head to peer into his rear-view mirror. Their cars were parked so close she saw his eyes reflecting back at her. Then his head spun around. He looked over his shoulder and stared through his back window at her daddy as he walked past the front of their car toward Velma’s door.

The real estate man had a widow’s peak and a heart-shaped face that reminded Mallory of a white Valentine she made the winter her daddy left, and her mother wouldn’t buy any red construction paper. She’d used typing paper. The man was a caricature artist’s dream. Caricatures made Mallory cringe. Their exaggerated details were unbecoming. Nevertheless, she watched his Valentine-face closely. He squinted at the three of them.

Her daddy was busy helping Velma out of the car. She needed a tug to stand up.

The man threw open his Chevy door and jumped out.

“Well, hello, hello,” he said, smiling at Mallory’s daddy and Velma. “Nice to see you folks.” He waved, sticking an arm out in a starched white shirt. “If you’ll wait right here for me just a moment, please, I’m going to pop in and be sure the seller’s ready. Just one moment. Be right back.”

Mallory watched him hike up the bottom part of the driveway in a few giant steps. It was especially steep and shaped like an “L” that had tipped over clockwise and stretched out a tiny bit. He stopped at the top of the hill where it leveled out, caught his breath, and then trotted down the last few yards of the driveway to the house.

Her daddy and Velma didn’t say anything. Mallory watched them through the windshield. They stood at the base of the driveway looking up at the house. Mallory couldn’t see it too well from inside the car.

Why did they have to live up in the boonies anyway? Before Daddy and Velma moved to this town they lived in the Bronx where Mallory lived, too, and sometimes she saw him during the week. Sometimes they went for ice cream or a Coke, even on school nights. When he and Velma moved from their apartment and rented the small house in this small town, Mallory had her own room. She’d grown to like it, but now she only saw him on weekends twice a month. Why’d he want to live some fifty miles away? Didn’t he miss her? If he bought a house, that meant he’d probably never move back to the Bronx.

She realized her heart was thumping in her chest really fast. She took a deep breath, and focused back on sketching. She studied the chrome bumper and breathed. It was shiny as a mirror. So shiny you could’ve flossed your teeth in it. As she filled in its details—three little round lights on both sides and a keyhole—Mallory wondered how much a person would have to love a thing to keep it polished like that. Must be nice to be that well cared for.

Her daddy and Velma didn’t let her finish the sketch. They made her get out to look at the house. Argh! Every step in those new shoes was torture. They pinched her toes and sawed grooves above her heels. She would’ve worn her Keds, but, no, Velma said they had to make a good impression.

Mallory moved slowly as she climbed the steep driveway. Her daddy walked backwards and pulled on Velma’s hands to help her to the top. He wore a light blue shirt without a tie under his navy suit. Velma asked him to wear a tie, but he did what he wanted. Velma sewed her maternity dress herself. It had a matching jacket that was the same baby blue as his shirt. She wanted a boy. Daddy said he didn’t need another kid. He said he could do without the responsibility, but if they were going to have one, he preferred a boy, too. Mallory guessed this was the reason for all the blue. Velma made sure the color flattered her skin tone. That woman did everything she could to look good. Her hair, nails, and makeup were always done. Mallory suspected she hated being fat with that stupid pumpkin. How could she not, especially after her daddy let it slip that he missed her hourglass figure?

Velma was prettier than Mallory’s mother before the pumpkin. During the pumpkin, when Daddy came to get her every other week, he’d look at her mother and tell her she looked nice. Her mother liked compliments, but not from him anymore. She never said thank you. Usually, she didn’t even bother to say goodbye. Half the time she’d close the door while he was still talking. He said she was rude. Mallory didn’t say a word. She wasn’t about to let him drag her into their grown-up business.

When Velma got to the top of the driveway, she looked at the house and sighed. “It’s so pretty,” she said.

“That’s called a colonial style, Mallory,” Daddy told her. “You like it?” He petted her head, like she was a puppy. Velma had washed and set her hair, so it was smooth.

Mallory nodded, but she didn’t know if she liked it or not. You couldn’t know if a house was good or bad just by looking at the outside. You needed time to study its details. Details mattered. They mattered in art and in real-life things, too.

“See the separate entrance?” Velma pointed to a metal side door. “That’s gotta be the room they said you could use as an office.”

Mallory’s daddy was lighting a cigarette. He inhaled and nodded as he exhaled. “If we were to get it, it looks like there’s space to add on, too,” he said.

Velma lifted her shoulders toward her cheeks and smiled at him with her whole face. She smiled at him as if Mallory wasn’t even there.

Her heart was beating fast again and her feet were in agony. She took a big breath in, then blew it out. She couldn’t stop them from moving. What could she ever do to make Daddy do what she wanted? Nothing.

She faced the house. What would it be like to live there? She had to admit the outside was attractive. Simple. It was a clean rectangle, two-toned, white over a brick bottom. She made a rough sketch. The lines weren’t as interesting as the Chevy Impala’s, but she preferred its plainness to the larger, older looking homes on either side. Those had excess flourishes like over-hanging roofs, and balconies, wrap-around porches and shutters. This one was smaller, simpler, but it was big compared to where she lived with her mother. She sketched herself in front of the house. Then she added Daddy beside her with his arm around her.

Her mother would seethe if he and Velma bought this house. And Mallory would have to listen to it. Daddy never bought her and her mother a house. Velma got to quit her job. Her mother had to work. Her mother seemed to enjoy teaching, but she still complained to Mallory about the effort it took to support them. Velma had it easy.

Velma was the one who insisted they needed a bigger house. Her lousy pumpkin was coming and she wanted Mallory’s daddy to, “Stop talking about starting your therapy practice and go ahead and start it.” But in the house they were renting, Mallory’s room had billowy white curtains on a sunny window, and she woke to birds singing, and no sirens or honking horns. She didn’t need any more changes. At first the neighbors didn’t like them being in that house. But at least they stopped egging their car and yelling slurs. One man even came to their house and told her daddy he was sorry. Other neighbors started being nicer after that.

A high-pitched yelp and laughter turned Mallory around. She saw a couple of white girls in sweatshirts and dungarees playing hopscotch up the block. Leafy maple trees lined the sidewalk. At the other end of the block, on the corner, there was a waterfall. Mallory could faintly hear it going: Swishhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

“Beautiful. Isn’t it?” Velma asked, when she saw her looking. “Like a fairytale. A dream.”

It was early April and not hot outside, especially with all the shade trees, but Velma was perspiring. Before she started carrying that bump of hers, she wore Chanel No. 5, and she smelled elegant. She couldn’t stand perfume while she had that thing in her belly, and without it, her sweat smelled a bit like a holiday ham.

Velma plucked the cigarette from between Mallory’s daddy’s lips, puffed on it, and then stuck it back.

Mallory turned away, back to the house. She saw a small face appear in the middle window on the top floor. A little kid’s face. She wasn’t sure if it was a boy or girl. It had hair like a black poodle’s, which was similar to her own when it wasn’t straightened. The face saw her see it, and then ducked from the window.

The real estate man came back through the front door wearing a grim look on his heart-shaped face. “Bad news,” he said. He made clicking sounds as he shook his head right, left, right. “Now, we can take a look, you did come all the way here, but it turns out this house is in escrow. I’m sorry.”

“What?” Velma said. She sucked her teeth and crossed her arms.

“But not to worry,” he said. “There’s, uh, another house available across town.”

“I researched this house,” Velma said. “And this is the one I wanna see. We just spoke this morning.” Her voice got louder. “It went into escrow since then?”

The man cleared his throat. “Apparently,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

Velma lowered her chin and stared him in the eye. “This house better really be in escrow, because we will check.”

“And we do have a lawyer,” Mallory’s daddy said. He put a hand on Velma’s lower back.

“Uh, you folks—” The man’s face went pink. He smiled and winced at the same time. “Now, I think you have the wrong idea, here. I’m told the house is in escrow. But, uh, as I said, we can take a look. There’s always a chance it could fall out of escrow.”

Velma rolled her eyes and exhaled.

The man pulled at his collar and cleared his throat again.

Mallory watched her daddy. He was silent. He stared at the man, and smoked.

“Mr. Arrington, you’ll have to put your cigarette out before we go in.”

“It’s Doctor Arrington,” he said. He eyed the man steadily and did not look away.

“That’s great. Would you please put your cigarette out?”

“Did you call me over here to look at a house that’s apparently in escrow?”

The man didn’t answer.

“You can wait until I’m finished.”

Mallory saw the man blink a whole bunch of times and then blow air through his lips. He must have blown through his nose, too, because a booger peeked out and dangled there. No one told him. Velma looked at Mallory. They both smiled. Mallory could have sketched that booger face perfectly, but she didn’t draw gross things.

When her daddy finally crushed his cigarette on the driveway, he stuck the butt into his box of Benson & Hedges. The three of them followed the man inside.

Velma wanted to see the room with the separate entrance. It had a checkered floor. Black and white. Shadow and light. Chiaroscuro. Mallory learned that in an art book. The room also had built-in bookshelves, and a bathroom with a toilet and a sink. A “half bathroom,” Velma called it.

She said, “Oh, this is perfect, Phil. Don’t you think? For your office?”

“Would be if it were available.”

The booger-man stood in the doorway, and Mallory’s daddy eyed him like he wanted to mush him flat with the bottom of his shoe.

The man looked down at his black loafers.

The kitchen, dining room, and living room were up a short staircase; the bedrooms, on the top floor, up a longer staircase. The dining room and living room were one big T-shaped space with a very high ceiling. Mallory could see the upstairs hallway from there because the hallway was also a balcony that overlooked the dining area.

Velma looked up at the balcony, put a hand on her pumpkin, and said, “Oh. That’s lovely.”

Two white men in plaid shirts were sitting at a mahogany dining table that faced a large window with a view of a forsythia bush in the backyard. It looked like a cloud of egg-yolk-yellow confetti. The men turned and nodded a greeting. They didn’t speak. Velma and Mallory’s daddy waved, as they followed the booger-man through a swinging door into the kitchen. Mallory lagged behind.

One man was old and round, with short white hair, and the other was much younger and skinny, with dark, curly hair. He had a beard, too. There were crumbs in it. They were drinking coffee and munching on matzo.

The older man turned to look at her. He smiled. “Well aren’t you a little beauty?” he said. “And don’t you look nice today in your pretty pink dress?” His voice was kind. “Would you like a cracker, darling?” The way he said crackah and dahlink reminded Mallory of her mother’s butcher in the Bronx.

She nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

He handed her a big square of matzo. Matzo was like a giant Saltine without the salt. She figured he thought she wouldn’t know what it was called, but they had matzo in the Bronx.

Velma and Mallory’s daddy came back through the swinging door. Velma said to be careful not to get any crumbs on the floor.

The older man glanced down at the Oriental rug, shrugged, and said, “Don’t worry about it, dahlink.” He raised an arm behind him, toward the balcony. “Please. Go up. Have a good look.”

The younger man said his niece was in the middle bedroom, but to tap on the door.

When booger-man started up the stairs, the older man turned and said, “Why don’t you wait here?”

The booger-man looked back at them.

“Why work so hard?” the old man said. “If they have questions,” his hand rose toward the balcony, “we can see them from here.”

They locked eyes for a moment. Booger-man raised his eyebrows and smiled at the man. He nodded. “Okay, sure,” he said, and thumped back down the steps.

The old man picked up a paper napkin and held it out. “And blow your nose, dahlink,” he said. “Please. My appetite begs you.”

The bathroom was at the top of the stairs. The medicine cabinet was long and mirrored, and it had sliding doors. The wall tiles, tub, and toilet were shiny pink. They matched Mallory’s dress perfectly. It was a sign that she belonged there!

Velma said, “It’s great. Isn’t it, Phil?”

He nodded and turned to Mallory. “Plenty of room for your hair products and potions. Huh, Mal?” He chuckled and rubbed her back.

“Plenty of room for baby things,” Velma said, as if she were correcting him. “That counter has room to change a diaper.”

“Velma, that counter has room to change a grown man’s underwear. There’s space for Mallory’s things, too.”

“I guess,” she said. “Sure is a lot of space.”

Mallory wanted to pull those horrible shoes off. The backs of her ankles felt raw. And she was sure her baby toes had blisters on them.

The smallest bedroom was closest to the bathroom. All that fit in there was a single bed, a nightstand, and a dresser. Her daddy and Velma didn’t say anything when they looked inside.

The middle room’s door was closed. Velma knocked and the curly haired girl opened it. She had a Barbie in her hand. Mallory could tell by the smell that it was new. She loved the powdery, plastic smell of a brand new Barbie. The little girl smiled and wiggled a loose front tooth with her tongue. Then she sat down with the rest of her dolls on the floor. The room had a bed, a desk, a bookcase, dresser, and a play table with a tea set on it.

“This would be perfect for the baby, Phil,” Velma said.

“Yeah. If the house were to fall out of escrow,” he whispered.

“We’ll see about that,” Velma said.

“So, that first room would be mine, right?” Mallory asked.

“Yes, when you’re here, Mallory,” Velma said. “It would be yours and the guest room. And it’ll have the prettiest curtains in the whole house, and the nicest bed linens. Just like you have now.”

What? Her room was really the guest room? She wanted to look at her daddy to see if this was true. But she couldn’t, because her eyes welled up and she didn’t want him to see.

Would the pumpkin have to share its room with guests, too? Probably not, she thought. So, she’d have to share her daddy and her room? And the pumpkin would get to have Daddy all week, every week, and a bigger room of its own?

Apparently. These were the details that made a difference.

She followed them down the hall to the last door. The master bedroom was the biggest, but not that big. She barely bothered to look.

When they went outside and made it down to the bottom of the driveway and their cars, the real estate agent said, “So, shall we take a look at the other house?”

Mallory’s daddy turned to Velma. She looked at the agent. “We like this one,” she said.

The man exhaled. “Right. And if it comes back on the market, you’ll be first to know. In the meantime there’s a place for sale across town. Here’s the address.” He handed her daddy a slip of paper. “You know how to get across the Erie Line to Spring Street?”

“Across the tracks?” he said, like are you kidding me?

The man crossed his arms. “Look, it’s up to you. It’s a nice house. You want to see it, make the right on Spring, and keep going about a quarter of a mile,” he said. He slipped into his shiny Chevy and drove off.

Her daddy opened the car door for Velma. She didn’t get in. She looked all around, and then finally she stared at the waterfall down the street. The water poured from a large pond, angled over a straight ledge of rocks, and plunged into a flowing stream.

“Velma, what are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m thinking,” she said.

She was listening, too. Her eyes were closed and her head was tilted back a little. Mallory had seen that exact look on her face once when she listened to one of her daddy’s opera records.

Mallory climbed into the car. She didn’t feel like sketching anymore. She didn’t feel like doing anything but taking those damned shoes off. Why should she care about any new house? All she was going to get was a guest room. She was the weekend kid. Velma’s pumpkin could rot. What did it do to deserve its own room and to live with her daddy in a big house?

Velma fell into her seat with a thud. Mallory’s daddy got in and started the car.

Then the young, bearded, skinny man from the dining room came sprinting out of the house, waving his arms. “Wait!” he yelled. “Please, wait!”

Her daddy turned the engine off and rolled down the window.

The man ran to the bottom of the driveway, sliding a bit in his sneakers. “Listen,” he said, short of breath as he approached the car window. “We didn’t want to tell you in front of the agent, but you should know that he came in before you and said, ‘These colored people wanna see your house. Legally, I have to show it to them, but I’ll tell ’em it’s in escrow.’ My father wants you to know he isn’t like that. He says if you wanna buy this house, he’ll be happy to sell it to you.”

Velma covered her face with her hands.

“Thank you,” Mallory’s daddy said. He looked at Velma and put a hand on her thigh. “Well?”

She plucked a Kleenex from her Chanel bag and dabbed her eyes. “Tell your father, we’ll take it,” she said.

The man nodded. “Would you like to come back in and look around some more?”

“Yes,” Velma said, sniffling.

“But the real estate man thinks you’ll meet him at the other house!” Mallory said. She pictured him standing there, waiting.

Velma turned and looked at her. She laughed, even as she was crying.

Her daddy smiled. “Don’t worry about him, Mallory.”

Velma blew her nose. She kept crying and laughing as she lifted her big self out of the car.

The skinny man began to help Mallory’s daddy haul her up the driveway.

“May I please wait in the car?” Mallory asked.

“No, baby. You come with us,” Daddy said, looking back at her. “Come on, now.”

They reached the top of the driveway and she watched him hold Velma’s hand. They were waiting for her.

She didn’t want to go. Her feet hurt so much and it wouldn’t be any fun. But they’d keep waiting and if she didn’t do as she was told, they’d yell or come get her or maybe even punish her. There was no choice. So she decided she would go. She’d go in and she’d sketch her new room the way she wanted it to be. She’d put herself, and all her things inside it. They’d fit perfectly. And it wouldn’t be a guest room, ever, even when she wasn’t there. Because she wasn’t a guest! She’d draw everything she could think of. Daddy would be there, tucking her into her own bed, with her own linens. There’d be no pumpkin. Just her. She’d draw every detail, exactly the way she wanted it, and she’d keep on drawing and drawing until it really felt like home.


SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Toni Ann Johnson’s

essays and short fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Emerson Review, Soundings Review, Hunger Mountain, Xavier Review, and others. Her 2014 novel, Remedy For a Broken Angel, was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. She won the 2015 International Latino Book Award for Most Inspirational Fiction. Her plays have been produced by The Negro Ensemble Company (co-author, Here in My Father’s House), The New York Stage and Film Company (Gramercy Park is Closed to the Public), and The Fountainhead Theatre Company in Los Angeles.

Johnson is the recipient of two Humanitas Prizes and a Christopher Award for her screenplays, which include “Ruby Bridges” for Disney/ABC and “Crown Heights” for Showtime Television. She’s been a Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab Fellow as well as a Callaloo Fellow in fiction at Brown University. She received an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University and teaches screenwriting at The John Wells Division of Writing for Screen and Television at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury