We hated the house on Hartwick Road the moment we saw it. “It looks like something stamped out by machine,” I said, aghast.
“Rianne, if you can’t be positive, be quiet.” Mom spoke in the tone she used when she was at the end of her tether. “Daddy rented this house, and he had more on his mind than architecture.”
It was Shannon’s day to be an interior decorator. “It’s a colonial, but not a very traditional one.” As if she’d been studying house designs for a decade. Then, in a more seven-year-old way, she added, “The way the roof cuts straight across the front makes the house’s face look scowly. The green one on the corner is friendlier, because it has a pointy roof.”
We looked at the other one, but it resembled ours almost exactly. All the houses, up and down the street, were basically the same except for a few different colors or roof shapes. Two spindly trees were planted by the road in front of each house, giving the entire street the look of an army on parade.
“Houses don’t have faces, runt,” Abe said from the front seat. “I can guess who’s going to have to keep this driveway shoveled out, come wintertime. You better back down the hill, cabbie.”
Abe always thinks he knows everything, because he’s a teenager. The taxi’s underside scraped the asphalt as we rolled backward down the slope toward the garage. The cabbie muttered something rude and stamped hard on the brakes. We all piled out, but he bent down to inspect the damage to his cab before he would unlock the trunk. Abe’s reed-thin torso bent like a folding ruler as he set his precious graphite tennis racket carefully down on the front steps. While he took out the bags Mom paid the cabbie and fished in her big traveling handbag for the key to the front door.
The door was painted dark red to match the shutters. There were two keys, and it took her a long time to figure out how the lock worked. Mechanical things have never been Mom’s strong point. Finally the door wobbled open. While Mom struggled to pull the key out of the lock we pushed past her to explore the house.
The first thing that I noticed was the smell. The house smelled musty and unused, like an old suitcase does when you bring it down from the attic and open it. There was a living room with a fireplace full of half-burnt newspapers, and a ratty old sofa upholstered in swirls of faded pink and glaring blue. The dining room had nothing in it but an ugly chandelier, the kind with lights that pretend to be candles. “Colonial style,” Shannon said again. The floors were covered with wall-to-wall carpet in a putrid shade of green.
The back of the house was better – a big kitchen with sliding doors and a porch outside. There was a dishwasher, but the sink was stacked with dirty dishes, and the pots on the stove were caked with old food. “Well, that shows Dad’s settled in,” Abe said. “Let’s see upstairs. I get first dibs on a bedroom!”
Abe is taller and older, but Shannon can wriggle. And I have a very solid build, not tall or fat but sort of chunky. If Abe is a greyhound, I’m a bulldog and Shannon is a Pekingese. She and I shouldered ahead of Abe and cut him off at the stairs. We galloped up shrieking, and scattered to grab the best bedroom first. The hall was gloomy because it had no windows, and the doors were all shut. I flung open the nearest one. No good – it was a big bedroom with a double bed, unmade. Dad’s pajamas lay where he had stepped out of them, on the sickening green carpet.
Shannon had already thrown open another door, screaming, “This one is mine!” Abe opened a door and found a closet with empty shelves. Quick as a lizard I jerked at another door and dashed in. It was a totally empty bedroom, with two windows that faced the back. Without waiting to see more, I yelled, “This one is for me!”
Out in the hall Abe said grumpily, “Oh well, mine’s nearest the stairs.” We’ve moved so often that it’s easy to be philosophical about our rooms. With claims staked we could afford to compare our prizes. Shannon and Abe had the two front rooms, which were almost exactly the same size. The bathroom was beside my room, which was a little bigger, and Mom and Dad had the biggest one and their own teeny bathroom.
Panting, we trooped back down the stairs. Mom was exploring the fridge, which was full of untouched packages of food and sealed cartons of eggs and milk. The freezer was stacked with hamburger and chicken, all in their original plastic wrappings. Mom has trained Dad to shop, but she’s drawn the line at his cooking. I popped open a can of Pepsi, when a horrible thought hit me. “Where are we going to sleep?” I cried.
“What was all that galloping and yelling?” Mom returned. “I thought you were fighting over rooms.”
“Mom, there are no beds! There’s no furniture at all! Didn’t you have any beds for us in storage?”
“Of course not, dum-dum!” Abe said, and when I thought a second I realized he was right. Dad works for the U.S. State Department. Mom and Dad were posted to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when Abe was just a baby. I was born when we were in Stockholm, and Shannon when we were in Greece. Our last posting was Manila. All these years, while we were overseas, the Buechner furniture was in a warehouse. The folks had never had a chance to buy beds for us in the U.S. I realized it wasn’t the house that was musty, it must be that psychedelic sofa. Upholstery like that went out in the sixties.
“Don’t worry.” Mom took out some packages of pork chops frozen so hard that they clunked when she laid them on the counter. “Daddy bought beds for you all. The store is delivering them this afternoon. And the air freight is here, down in the basement. We can unpack the sheets and towels after lunch, and make the beds as soon as they arrive.”
“Let the maid do it,” Shannon said.
“Yeah,” said Abe. “I want to go to the tennis court.”
Mom shut the freezer door. “I want all three of you to listen to me. We’re living in the United States now. Life in Virginia isn’t going to be like living in Manila. One of the most important parts of it will be Doing Things Yourself.”
We could hear the capital letters in her voice. “We can’t afford servants here,” she continued. “No maids, no cooks, no gardeners. We’re all going to pitch in and do the work ourselves.”
It was a shocking idea, and we sat stunned into silence. No one had ever heard of such a thing in Manila, for sure. Abe had been joking, about shoveling the driveway.
Mom phoned for pizza for lunch. With her thick glasses and soft black hair fluffed around her head Mom doesn’t look very formidable, and she spends so much time reading she doesn’t usually act tough, either. Every time she does, we’re surprised. We sat meek as mice, eating pizza while she outlined our new daily duties.
Everyone would make their own bed each morning, and keep their own room tidy. Abe would mow the lawn, when Dad bought a lawn-mower. I would clear the supper table and put dishes into the dishwasher; Shannon would take the lunch duty. Bathrooms would be scrubbed and rugs vacuumed. Naturally, Mom would cook. That was the only bright spot in the whole horrible schedule, because Mom is good at it. Even our chef in Manila would watch respectfully when “Madame” made a bechamel sauce.
But otherwise we were incredibly depressed. Pizza was still a rare treat, but I lost my appetite and passed the last piece to Abe. “And Dad wrote that it would be Reston-peace!” I groaned. “We’ll be slaving from dawn till dark, like coolies!”
“Seven is much too young to scrub bathtubs,” Shannon sulked. “Besides, I don’t know how.”
“I’ll teach you.” Mom was firm. “You’ve got the whole summer to learn. Don’t forget, I’m going to try and finish my master’s degree now we’re back in the States. I won’t have time to wait on you. So come September you had better be pros.”
“You mean we’ll have to do chores even when school starts?” Abe was horrified. “What about my tennis?”
“You’re not going to be another Jimmy Connors, anyway,” I said unkindly. “Fifteen is already over the hill, as far as being a tennis star goes.”
“Pig.” Mom stared so warningly at us we had to quit.
Mom began the new regime right after lunch by making Shannon throw out the pizza box and clear the pop cans. It doesn’t sound like much, but anyone would have thought she was being forced to scrub the floor with a toothbrush. To get away from Shannon’s whiny complaints Abe and I went out onto the back balcony. “I guess we’re going to have to learn to call it a deck,” I said gloomily.
The backyard below us sloped down to some woods. There were two rusty deck chairs near the rail. Abe sat in one, and it sagged so alarmingly that he had to get up again. “Rianne, this is going to be grim. We’re going to be working like dogs.”
“And we don’t know anybody here,” I said sadly. That’s the most hateful thing about moving around. Everyone thinks that living in Asia or Greece must be so romantic and exciting. But every time you move you leave all your friends. “It’s only the end of May. We won’t meet any kids our age until school starts in September.” I thought of the endless, boring weeks to come, and remembered Manila with an aching heart. I’m going on eleven, which is an age where friends are important – we learned it in Family Education. My class at the International School there was having a pool party this weekend. Everyone would be there but me, stuck in a horrible backwater American suburb like something out of American Graffiti. A big tear rolled down my cheek.
Abe muttered something about hanging up his tennis shirts, and went in. He can’t bear crying girls. A high overcast hung in the sky, too thin for rain but enough to water down the sunshine. I wondered if the sun ever shone in the U.S. We had spent the last two weeks with Grandma Makenside in Seattle, where it rains constantly.
Shannon came out, still pouting. “Mom says we have to go downstairs and help unpack the air freight.”
“In a minute.” I cast around for some way to postpone the work for a second. “Look at those woods, Shannon. Maybe we can explore them.”
Shannon brightened. “Maybe we could find a hurt squirrel, or a baby bird that fell out of its nest!”