by Cheryl Caesar
Woody Allen said that his parents believed in God and carpeting. My parents were the same, with the balance slightly in God’s favor: maybe 60/40. Sybil’s parents, it was almost all carpeting.
They moved in next door when she and I were both ten, and we were best friends through junior high. We started to drift apart in high school, and then she left home at sixteen.
She stayed in town for a couple of years, then went to New York and then, I heard she went to Botswana with the Peace Corps. Escaped from all the carpeting, I guess.
I got why she wanted to leave. Her mom was strange from the beginning. They arrived in 1970, the year the movie Love Story came out. All the girls wanted to wear their hair long, straight and center-parted. Mrs. G would give her forcible home permanents, then glop up her hair with spray and Dippity-do into a big puffball like her own. I remember once she actually made Sybil wear a hairnet. Sybil would fight back and comb it out as best she could on the way to school. Once I saw her crying about it and said, “Billy, it doesn’t look that bad.” But actually it did.
And the house. The hoarding had already started, but you didn’t see it right away. Her mom kept buying more and more chests of drawers and making her dad build more and more cabinets and closets to stuff it all in.
Just stuff. Seems like she never threw anything away. Just forgot about it and bought more. The bottoms fell out of the drawers, so you could barely open them. They were clogged with packages of emery boards with one removed, nail polish, hairspray, lipsticks. Room freshener—she was always spraying that around. Coupons and order slips to buy more stuff.
Yeah, a lot of paper too. Sybil’s mom would write these notes on the yellow pads that her dad brought home from work—like legal pads, only smaller. Shopping lists. Lists of jobs for Sybil to do—first she’d tape them up all over the house, on the backs of doors. Sybil had to work for hours every day, cooking and cleaning. She’d finish all the jobs and her mom would add more, saying that she wasn’t ready to “give” Sybil any free time yet. She doled out everyone’s free time like she owned it. Then she’d put the papers in the drawers, first writing that she—Mrs. G—had done most of the work. I have no idea who she was keeping these accounts for. She just always had to have a record that she was in the right.
Here’s an example. One Saturday, the year they moved in, her mom kept her home all day to watch her younger brother, because they were having new carpeting installed in the family room. Sybil pointed out that the installers said they would come at 2PM, so couldn’t she come see me in the morning? Her mother just told her to shut up. Of course the installers ended up coming late—when do they ever come early? But Sybil had to spend the whole day babysitting. At the end, she told me that the new carpet looked the same as the old. But, to try to restore peace, she told her mom, “It looks nice.” She said her mom jumped right on her and said, “Now aren’t you ashamed you made such a fuss?” You had to wonder who the adult was in that house.
Sybil was always trying to escape to my house. It was quieter; no one screaming (or “bellering,” which was the word Sybil chose to describe her mom’s voice). Just the Christian pop music that my mom played: “He touched me, and ma – a – ade me whole.” It crooned all day, on an endless loop.
During our high-school years, the hoarding just got worse. Their dining-room table filled up with Mrs. G’s scraps of paper and forgotten purchases, so they always ate in the kitchen. Mrs. G wouldn’t throw food away either, so once a month Sylvia would have to clean the fridge, removing every cold, slimy bottle, jar and can, wiping it down and putting it back. Then the hoard spread to the king-sized bed that her parents had shared, and her dad began sleeping in the basement, on a fold-out. Her mom slept with her packages, her plastic bags and her yellow lists.
After Sybil left, I didn’t go over there anymore. A couple years later, I heard that her brother had died in a car crash—probably speeding away from there as fast as he could go. Then Mr. G died—a stroke, they said. Thirty years’ buildup of rage, was my thought.
I was in college by then. I went home the first summer to help my dad sell the house. My mom had run off with her chiropractor—found someone who touched her, I guess, and made her whole. My dad never went over to the Gs’ house. Some of the neighbor women did, at first. Mrs. G had announced that she had cancer, and got everyone to bring her meals and do her laundry. Then they’d stopped. For once, they didn’t seem to want to talk about it. Mrs. G was left alone like a general with no one to command.
I finally went. I was apprehensive, but mainly curious. No, I’d never go back again. Probably none of us will, till she dies. And boy, do I feel sorry for the people who’ll have to take her out and clean the place.
Well, she’d hoarded herself in right up to her bedroom. There was nothing but a little goat path up the stairs and down the hall. I guess that’s how food and laundry deliveries came. You couldn’t see the carpet anymore, if it was there. She was nested in that big bed like a toad in a hole, a creature that seems dead except for the puffing of its throat. Time felt frozen there. She had no one else’s time to control, and her own hours seemed to weigh on the room, as heavy as the hoard. You couldn’t make out separate items by now —just one mass, growing up around her like the curved walls of a cave. And it seemed like she was blending, fusing with those piles of crap. You couldn’t tell where her body left off and they began.
She had the same harsh, commanding voice—the “bellering.” But I don’t remember what she said to me. I turned and ran. Because—and this is why I thought of a toad—she was all lumpy. But it wasn’t a cancer. Under her skin, like the bumps on a toad, were sprouting the shapes of nail-polish bottles, emery-board packets, cans of hairspray. And odd rectangular forms: small pads of yellow paper, they must have been, scribbled over with lists of commands, and no one left to give them to.
Cheryl Caesar lived in Paris, Tuscany and Sligo for 25 years; she earned her doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. She now teaches writing at Michigan State University. Last year she published over a hundred poems in the U.S., Germany, India, Bangladesh, Yemen and Zimbabwe, and won an international prize for a poem on global warming. Her chapbook Flatman: Poems of Protest in the Trump Era is now available from Amazon and Goodreads.