Tod Wodicka, whose nonfiction pieces appear regularly in Tank, once said to me: “Life is strange. Life is happening.” As we’re often reminded, fiction’s strangeness pales next to life, told as it is. Families, in all their traditional and untraditional guises, probably contain all the strangeness of the world. Tod’s first novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, pitted grieving, mead-swigging medieval re-enactor Burt against the scattered remains of his family, and a world that was far too modern to heal them. Maybe novelists are best attuned to the way families “happen”. In the following sequence of paragraph bursts, spread through this issue like tiny ghosts, Tod
introduces us to Howie Jeffries, his 50-year-old face, and a girl called Emily Phane, who lives next door. Ever since she was young, Emily’s had sleep paralysis. That feeling of being asleep yet awake and dead. Howie’s life and Emily’s haven’t really intersected yet. They’ve lived side by side, in an unacknowledged intimacy. Not unlike the quiet way Tod’s “ghosts” have crept in here, colonising the pages of the Tank that’s in your hands. – Shumon Basar
Household Spirits 1
Howie Jeffries had long ago adjusted his life in order to protect himself and others from how he seemed.
It was his face, mostly. The last face on earth. Ever since he was a boy, people had been asking Howie what was wrong. First, he assumed that something must be and this frightened him. Later, realising that maybe he himself was wrong, Howie would explain it away as bad days. Months, then years of them. Finally, he gave up and when called to account for his woeful demeanour merely shrugged.
“Cheer up,” people told him. “It’ll probably never happen.” But Howie’s face was always happening. Even now, at 50. There, he thought, staring into the bathroom mirror: still happening.Howie Jeffries had long ago adjusted his life in order to protect himself and others from how he seemed.
Household Spirits 2
This was still his family’s house in the same way a story still belongs to its major characters even if most of them are dead by the end. Howie’s wife and his daughter were not dead; they just lived elsewhere, happily, with other people. Sometimes, when falling asleep, Howie could still hear the angry sounds the kitchen made when his wife was cooking, the way the room clattered feverishly. Or he’d be getting dressed and suddenly recall how his wife rolled his laundered socks into tight, tiny animals. Open the sock drawer and there they were, waiting, a jaunty pile of colourful kitten heads. He’d remember the window of their wall calendar, how they’d present themselves before it, peer into it together, his wife writing in her red and green and black markers, commanding Howie to watch – participate – as she explained the future. The future was generally Howie’s fault.
Household Spirits 3
It wasn’t a street or a road, she’d complain. It was a route. Normal people didn’t live on routes, they drove through them on their way to normal streets named after people or places or trees, to neighbourhoods with neighbours who, unlike her husband and these Phanes, appreciated small talk and, like, basic human decency? For freaking starters.
Some friends of theirs hadn’t even finished college yet and here they were, Howie and his wife, already in their dotage, living way up the ass end of nowhere watching a horror movie version of their future unfold next door. What had happened and why had it happened so quickly?
Household Spirits 4
Six days after becoming parents again, Peter and Gillian Phane were grandparents. Howie rarely saw Nancy with her baby. Mostly, he saw her alone, often sitting in a lawn chair in the driveway, right next to her Oldsmobile, her getaway car, smoking and parsing through magazines. She rarely went into the back yard. That was Gillianland. From Howie’s house, from the upstairs bathroom window, you could watch the goings on in the Phanes’ back and front yard simultaneously. Their movements would mimic each other; when one sat, the other would sit. If Gillian began a spate of furious gardening, Nancy would become agitated and start pacing around the front lawn, absently plucking at shrubbery, bark, the heads of flowers. It was uncanny. If Gillian went to the corner of their property where a sharp slice of the Kayaderosseras Creek nearly elbowed through the forest and onto their lawn, Nancy would be standing right up against the shore of Route 29, staring down into it as if looking for a shortnose sturgeon.
Household Spirits 5
Her nocturnal ambles began soon afterwards. Well, what else could he call them? Sleepwalkings? Excursions? They weren’t quite walks. Most of the time she wasn’t even moving. Howie didn’t understand them, not now and even less then. When he first saw her out back after midnight he assumed that she was looking for a dog though he knew that she didn’t have a dog. Someone else’s dog? That made less sense. She’d hurry out, her movement tripping the motion-sensor spotlights, a fluorescent blight which turned the grass into a ghostly lawn and the dark that surrounded her property into a total absence. Which is where Howie was, watching. In a window, normally the upstairs bathroom window, but sometimes the kitchen window, sunken back in that deeper night she’d created. She’d poke around the corners of her property. So odd. Something was missing. But what? True, she spent a lot of this time just sitting out there in a lawn chair, sipping something. Milk? Tea? Looking normal, more or less, except that it was 3am. Sometimes she’d busy herself with night gardening, vegetable picking. She had a cell phone, and you could see it glowing like a little blue window in her hand while she sat in the lawn chair. Not that Howie saw her speak with anyone and not that he watched her all the time either, or even all that much.