ENOUGH: The House with the Green Shutters

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series runs weekly, most often on Tuesday afternoons. Each week, we will highlight different voices and stories.

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The House with the Green Shutters
Donna Tallent

The house with the green shutters had splintered porch posts and peeling paint, and underneath, weathered wood the color of an overcast day. No clearly marked roads led to the house. No signs out front, no guards checking IDs. All mail went straight to a post office box. It was a living, breathing secret. It wasn’t until one drove past the gas station that the gravel road appeared, leading to the large porch attached to the front of the house, where one could park their car on the lawn out front.

I’m sure we were allowed to play on the porch, but it felt safer to play inside, behind a locked door. The house did not allow male visitors or overnight guests. It was for women who left unsafe places. The house was meant to protect them. They called it The Shelter for Battered Women. I thought that was a terrible name for a house.

The front door led straight into a large kitchen. Every morning, I sat at the table with my cereal. When my mother opened a cupboard door, I could see names spelled out on prepackaged containers of food: our last name in black permanent marker in capital letters along the side of a can of Quaker Oats. There was a curfew. No one opened the door past 10 p.m. If you did not return to the house by then, you had to find somewhere else to sleep. That was the rule. One of many rules put into place to make the women and children feel safe. I didn’t feel unsafe, exactly. Some days I felt in limbo. Most days I just felt ashamed. I missed our condo.

 

I blame the vacuum cleaner salesman for making us move into the house with the green shutters.

The vacuum cleaner salesman was once married to a woman with two young sons. Then the woman accused him of molesting her sons and took him to court. He wanted to clear his name.

The way he thought he would clear his name was by marrying my mother.

My mother, my sister, and I moved out of the nice condo that my grandparents had put a down payment on, and moved into the new husband’s townhome. My mother began her sentences with at least: At least I’ll get a free vacuum if the marriage doesn’t work out. At least he likes boys and not girls. At least, at least, at least.

He drove a van. Because of course he did. He drove a silver-colored van. Not shiny silver. Spray-painted silver. A bad paint job. An old-model van with brown rust peeking through. There were no windows. We drove on the freeway. He was behind the wheel; my mother was in the passenger seat. Where were we headed? Not church. We weren’t dressed for church. It was summer because he was wearing shorts. I don’t know what I was wearing. I just remember his bare, hairy legs. He let me sit in his lap and drive. We drove under power lines with putty-colored plastic spheres threaded through the center, dotting the skyline. I asked him what they were for. That’s where someone threw their ball in the air and it got stuck.

My mother would eventually make me get down from his lap. Okay, that’s enough. She wouldn’t leave us alone with him. I don’t remember where my sister was in the van. Did she ever sit in his lap and drive? There are so many memories I have where I know she must have been there, but I don’t remember her. From time to time, she asks me: Remember when…? and I seldom do. Is this a symptom of some kind of post-trauma? Is this what “selective memory” means?

The vacuum cleaner salesman told my mother he liked me. I want to take her on a camping trip. She never allowed it. Even though she knew he liked boys, not girls. At least. Maybe she thought I had too much of a boy body. She called me Skinny Minnie, told me I was “all arms and legs,” told me I needed to get some meat on my bones. I wanted to go camping. Even if I knew then what I knew now, I still would have wanted to go camping. You’re a daddy’s girl, my mother said to me once. What do you call a daddy’s girl who never knew her daddy? That question sounds like the beginning of someone’s dirty joke.

 

With my seven-month-old nephew nearby, I tell my sister how I’d searched for the man’s name and found his photo on a sex offender registry, how I’d found an old newspaper article dated 1996—ten years after my mother married him—where he’d pled guilty to assaulting and “inappropriately touching” a thirteen-year-old boy. Records showed that he was convicted in 1984 of sexually assaulting two other boys.

The article says the vacuum cleaner salesman was also the assistant coach of the boys’ Little League baseball team. It’s strange to see his face as a mugshot. It’s even stranger to see his name in print. It means I didn’t dream this.

 

It was my grandmother and the vacuum cleaner salesman’s mother who introduced them. Maybe the mothers thought they could be rid of two problems in one fell swoop. Maybe they saw it as the perfect solution. Someone should have told them it never works that way—marrying two problems and expecting them to cancel each other out.

When my grandmother introduced the vacuum cleaner salesman, she described him as a nice single guy with no kids. The first time he came over, my mother guessed he was nervous after she offered him some stale potato chips and he ate the whole bag. They got married at his Methodist church and honeymooned at the beach. The marriage didn’t last long. She told me they slept in separate rooms on their honeymoon. Just like that song by Kimberley Locke, “Band of Gold.” After we moved to the house with the green shutters, my mother sang that song over and over. And cried. Sang and cried. I don’t think she ever loved him, I just think she hated being alone.

 

My mother endured her own father’s physical abuse, his alcoholism, his fits of rage, so by the time she married the vacuum cleaner salesman, she was used to fighting. I don’t remember what my mother and the vacuum cleaner salesman fought about that day; I only remember coming home from school and not being able to get inside his townhome. He’d changed the locks. When we discovered we were locked out, we slept out front, in our Ford Fairmont.

I remember my mother’s body—the way it was positioned inside the car, her head on the driver’s seat, her hips and legs curled up on the passenger’s. My sister and me, arranging ourselves in the backseat, examining the items on the floorboard, deciding who would sleep on the bench seat and who on the floor. Relics from my mother’s daily commute to and from the nearby bank where she worked as a bookkeeper: a pair of dusty sunglasses, a Snickers wrapper, a discarded white coffee cup resting on its side.

The next morning, I arrived back inside the body that had spent the night on the backseat floorboard. My neck was stiff. My hips bore indents from my pants. Peering through the windshield, my sister and I watched our mother walk up to the front door of the townhome and try the knob. Still locked. None of us had fresh clothes, but the school bus was pulling up and our mother was late for work. We boarded the bus. After school, our mother picked us up, but we did not go back to see if the vacuum cleaner salesman would let us in. Instead, we went to the house with the green shutters.

 

To the left of the kitchen was a parlor, and past the parlor, a set of wooden stairs leading up to three bedrooms on the second floor. We were assigned the room with a queen-sized bed on one side and a set of bunk beds on the other. There was no private bathroom, but there was a small, shared bathroom with a soaking tub downstairs past the parlor.

One evening after school, I made myself a bubble bath with Palmolive, then let the tub sit as I went upstairs to get my paperback. When I returned, a toddler was standing there, with caramel skin and blonde curly hair. I watched as he plunged his hand into the water and marveled at his handful of puff.

A new family arrived a few weeks after we moved into the house—a mother and her two children—a boy and a girl about my age, the age of knobby knees who have not quite mastered their times tables. Together, my family and this new family sorted through a box of donated clothing on top of an empty bed. The new girl pulled a nightgown out of the box. I’d seen this pastel pink nightgown earlier, with ruffles around the sleeves and hem. It was the nightgown I wanted.

The girl said to her mother: Ooh, can I have it?

My mother, who knew I wanted the nightgown, whispered into my ear: Just give it to her. She doesn’t have anything.

I’d always believed there was a shame in this kind of life: living without a home, relying on donations and public assistance. Now it was mine. I didn’t want anyone to know about my new life. The truth never came out of me easily, even when one of my teachers took me out to the hallway and asked: Where do you live?

 

One day at the house, a woman’s husband, her child’s father, tracked them down. No one knew how he found them, with the secret road and the locked doors and the house with no address. Maybe someone in their family gave their location to him, in a moment of weakness or hope of a reconciliation. The man came to the house in the middle of the day and banged on the door. A desperate voice, a booming voice: I have a right to see my own wife and kid. We watched from the upstairs window as he slammed his fist down on the hood of one of the parked cars.

We thought the man would not leave. One of the women called the police, but when they arrived, he was gone.

We wondered if the man would return. No one living in the house should ever tell people where they lived. It meant more than shame. It meant someone could get hurt.

In the end, the wife of the man got lonely. She got sick of living off food bank donations and sick of wearing other people’s cast-off clothing, so she took her child and went back to her husband.

 

We didn’t have to stay there. There was no reason for us to hide. The vacuum cleaner salesman never tried to track us down.

My mother said: He was the one who filed for divorce. He didn’t want to stay married to me. But I wasn’t going to let him off that easy. I took him to court for everything I was entitled to. I fought for all of our wedding gifts. He sat on that stand and told the judge I tried to stab him with a knife. I said, Your Honor, it wasn’t a knife, it was a file from a set of nail clippers.

During the divorce, the vacuum cleaner salesman got a job at a shoe store in the mall. We’d walk the length of the mall, back and forth, back and forth, past the shoe store. Sometimes my mother would go inside and try to talk to him. She knew he liked to swim laps at the YMCA, so she would go there, too. She stood by the edge of the pool and argued with him while my sister and I swam. One time she threw her wedding ring in the pool. We dove into the water again and again to help her look for it. So did strangers, thinking they were being kind, thinking they were being helpful, when all any of us were doing was enabling her.

We lived there for two, maybe three months before it was time to move out of the house. I sat in the front seat of the Ford Fairmont, my sister in the back. Our mother parked at the bank and watched the vacuum cleaner salesman withdraw money from an ATM. He leaned into the open window and handed her hundred-dollar bills. Was it three hundred? Five hundred? One thousand? It was whatever amount it cost to make her go away. Was he that repelled by her? Then he handed my sister and me each a twenty.

Wow! Thanks! It was the most money we’d seen in one place.

 

Thirty years later, I dream of the house three nights in a row: the white Victorian with dark green shutters and huge wooden porch. It’s across the street from a bakery famous for wedding cakes. Just down the road is a bridal boutique called I Thee Wed. It’s the style of house I’ve always wished I could afford to own. In one of my dreams, I do own the house. I live in it happily; I cook for my guests. I use an old-fashioned pump to fill a pitcher of water, then open a window because the house needs air. When I look back at the pitcher, it has begun to overflow. I can’t get the handle on the pump to shut off, so I switch out the pitcher for a glass, then the glass for a large measuring cup. I keep switching and switching, but the pump keeps flowing and flowing.

The next morning, after the night of the dream, I enter the address of the house into the computer and discover it’s now only a field. I can just make out the dirt outline and can spot where our mother used to park our car. Thirty years later, and the grass has never thought to grow back.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women, trans, and nonbinary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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