Imaginary Houses

Devin Govaere


Chapter 1: The Assignment

Gabby’s Present: Friday Morning, March 16, 1973

I stared at the paper lying on my desk. Just a few simple lines of instruction typed onto a piece of yellow paper, an assignment like any other I’d had in senior English. My hand shook as I slid it to the corner of the desk so I wouldn’t have to look at it while Mrs. Walker talked.

“This should be a fairly easy assignment for everyone. No research and no studying. Just write about your life. Are there any questions?”

Yes, I had a very big question. How was I going to get through this without losing my mind? I clutched at the charm hanging on a silver chain around my throat.

A paper ruffled next to me, and a throat cleared. Mrs. Walker nodded.

“How long does it have to be?”

Steve Marsh, one of my best friends, had always been methodical and thorough. Check, check, and double check with Steve.

Mrs. Walker pressed her lips together for a quick moment before she pulled out her patient face and slipped it on like a mask. “It’s on the sheet, Steve. The minimum is twenty pages…” Groans echoed in the room, but Mrs. Walker held up her hand and soldiered on. “That’s twenty double-spaced pages before you all have a coronary. The twenty-page length is mandatory, but the final length is at your discretion. The memoir can be as long as it needs to be to convey your moment.”

“I’ll stick with twenty pages, short and sweet,” Tim Young muttered.

“Double-spaced,” another boy murmured.

“With really big margins,” Tim said.

A girl—it sounded like Pepper Miller—laughed, and Mrs. Walker put on her perturbed face as she speared all three culprits, one by one, with stony glares. Quiet descended. Anyone other than Tim Young, and probably me, would have been sent to the office for instigating laughter.

“The assignment is due April 13 before spring break starts,” Mrs. Walker said, “so you have plenty of time to reflect and find the perfect moment in time to write about.”

A pair of feet shuffled behind me and kicked the legs of my chair, making me jerk in surprise and causing a wave of nausea to sweep through my stomach. Tom Two wasn’t being mean or even careless. He was just far too tall for any of these desks, and it wasn’t his fault I felt a bit jumpy.

“Yes, Tom,” Mrs. Walker said. He was just plain Tom Stanwick to her because she hadn’t taught him since elementary school when two Toms had followed me through each year.

“What exactly is a watershed moment?” Tom asked.

“Would anyone care to answer that question?” Mrs. Walker’s gaze traveled up and down the rows of kids, some actually paying attention, some bored beyond measure. My gaze had just ticked to the clock on the wall, hoping this nightmare would end soon, when she pinned that focused gaze on me. Though I wanted to slide down in my chair, praying I would find an escape tunnel beneath my desk, I sat up straighter as she called on me. “Gabby, would you like to answer?”

My head shook on its own, just a tiny quiver, a plea for her to move on to some other not-so-willing volunteer. I already knew she wouldn’t do that. Gabby Duncan was her go-to girl. I would be co-valedictorian unless I messed something up royally in the next two months. There was never a way out of answering a question for me, not with any of them.

“I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Mrs. Walker furrowed her brow then cocked her head and took several steps into my aisle, sliding her pen between her palms like she always did when she watched people. I listened to the click-click-click of her rings against the metal. I usually found it a soothing sound, but today it gave me one more reason to want out of the room.

“Are you okay, Gabby? You look a bit pale.” She let her glance skim every inch of me, over my now-sweaty face and the straight brown hair hanging over my shoulders, across my red turtleneck and down my jeans to my suede platform shoes, the ones I’d begged my mother for at the newest shop in Haven Ridge. Everyone who was anyone in Haven Ridge Senior High had something from Colony.

My glance ticked to the clock again. Fifteen more minutes. All eyes were on me now, eagerly anticipating something exciting to break up the monotony of the morning, anything to take the focus off schoolwork. Someone puking was always good for an early dismissal. I could almost hear the silent prayers. Next to me, Steve leaned forward over his desk to stare at my face through the curtain of my hair. I peeked through the strands from the corner of my eye, and I saw the concern on his face. I gave him a slight smile, though it felt like a grimace. Mrs. Walker was still peering at me as though she expected me to faint at any moment. I didn’t think I’d faint, but I really wanted out of that classroom. Heat blazed beneath my skin, threatening to set me on fire. I could barely find the voice trapped inside, churning with the rising bile, but I forced myself to answer.

“I’m okay. Just hungry I guess.”

“You don’t look okay. Gather your things.” She turned her attention to Steve. “Make sure she gets to the nurse’s office. Stay with her until the lunch bell.”

Steve lurched from his seat and swept into action like a hero. He grabbed my canvas book bag from the floor then stuffed my English book and the abhorrent yellow paper into it. After a few more scurried movements, he took my elbow and lifted me from my seat. As he led me to the classroom door, I heard Mrs. Walker’s usual soothing voice slither across the room and choke my very soul.

“Eyes front please. To answer Tom’s question, a watershed moment is an event in time when everything changes, a moment when nothing that comes after will ever be the same as what has gone before…”

She didn’t need to tell me that. I knew exactly what a watershed moment was. I’d been caught in the rapids.

My real life began in 1967 when I turned twelve. Not that I hadn’t been walking and talking and breathing for eleven years, because I had. But in 1967, I changed. I didn’t change too much physically, at least not all at once, but I changed inside, and that did happen all at once because it hurt so badly I thought I might die from the pain.

My dormant mind suddenly came alive. I saw the world with new eyes, and I realized that a lot of what I saw around me wasn’t always the truth. What I saw—reality—was often wrapped in lies, the truth buried so deep I needed a construction crew to unearth it. Truth could be found, but it took great effort, and the trouble was, when I found it that summer, I was often sorry.

I don’t know how I had been so dumb for most of my life. Had I been paying attention, maybe I would have been more prepared for how much truth and life can hurt. But I’d spent my first eleven years messing around and wasting time.

I don’t waste time any more, and I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for wasting those eleven years in play. I should have been more vigilant and noticed what was happening around me. Perhaps I would have been more prepared for what happened. Or stopped it.

I was a perfect innocent that summer, and though that wasn’t an excuse, it did explain a little. I’d buried my head in the sands of play and imagination, just a regular dumb kid living a regular dumb life, cocooned in a normal family of five—me, Mom and Dad, my younger brother, Dusty, and baby sister, Lily—just like most other families in our town. We were all a reflection of our times, cookie cutter outlines of the perfect family, stamped Made in the U.S.A.

My parents were always smiling at one another, talking with their heads together like two happy conspirators. I wondered how they found so much to talk about and what two grownups could possibly find to smile about all the time. I was aware of the pile of bills on the corner of the kitchen hutch. I knew when my father’s Pontiac was close to breaking down. When one of us was sick, my mother acted distracted and spoke of rare diseases. From all I saw, I thought smiles would have been in short supply because it was tough to be a grownup.

My mother was a housewife, which was a respectable occupation in 1967. If a woman was a housewife, no one would look sad or snicker as though she were wasting her life. In fact, most of the women I knew were housewives. My mother played it to the hilt. If there had been awards for the world’s best housewife, she would have won it every year except for perhaps the year Lily was born. Things had been a little hectic that year.

Merry Beth Duncan was my mother. Her parents hadn’t been content to name her Mary Beth, not their smiling little bundle. Mr. and Mrs. Crawford had taken it upon themselves to spell it like Merry Christmas, as though it was their daughter’s primary function in life to spread cheer and laughter to the entire world. My mother took this responsibility seriously. As a child, I watched her throughout the day, waiting for the smile to crack, for the eyes to shadow in a moment of anger, for a huff to pass the red lacquered lips. Every day I waited in vain. Merry Beth Duncan took her cheer very seriously.

My mother was beautiful by the standards of our town. Dark hair that held the perfect wave. A slim figure to set off the latest fashions. Deep blue eyes that always held a trace of laughter. I could only hope some day to be as beautiful as she was and to find a husband that would tell me so. My father told my mother at least once a day how beautiful she was.

My father was Robert Duncan. Not Bob, or Rob, or Bobby. Robert. No nicknames for Robert Duncan. His name matched his outfit, serious and formal. Every work day, he wore a dark suit and tie with a neatly pressed, starched white shirt. He had a closet full of matching outfits. On the weekends, when he wore his khaki pants and Oxford shirts, just once I wanted to hear him say, “Call me Bob,” but he never did. Robert was merely wearing a weekend costume that changed his outward appearance. My father rarely relaxed, and he never came close to being a Bob.

As Robert though, he managed to do the same things every other dad did. He cut his lawn, had a toolbox he’d drag out at my mother’s request, and watched the Pirates on TV. But even as he did these things, I could see his mind working, and this mind liked to wear a suit and tie and think about engineering. This mind was called Robert. The closest Robert ever came to being Bob was when he and my mother thought they were alone.

My brother’s real name was Robert Duncan, Jr. but we called him Dusty. He played baseball in the dirt field near the playground and, by the time 1967 rolled around, had been covered in dust for three solid years. He was the only kid in town who could find dust in the middle of a winter storm. He was nine then and, even today, is quite the ballplayer to hear everyone talk about him. I stopped listening to talk about my brother long ago.

Dusty dreamed of the day when he could play for the Pirates or the Mets. He didn’t care which team chose him, and neither did I. I just wanted him to stop talking about it. The Mets did have one advantage as far as I could see. They played out of New York City, which was far away, and that might be best in the long run. I didn’t intend to spend the rest of my life cheering for Dusty.

Lily was still a baby in 1967, not quite two. There wasn’t much to say about her, other than she ruled the house and had my mother wrapped within her small sticky fist. As a sister, she’d been pretty much useless to me then. Had Dusty been a girl, perhaps we could have actually played together. But my sister came along just when I was outgrowing the need for a sister to play with me. I knew I would be a teenager by the time she’d have been of any value and, I imagined, way beyond playing Barbies and house.

I am Gabrielle, Gabby to everyone who knows me. My father didn’t joke very often because his mind was usually on engineering, but he made an exception in my case. He often claimed they had given me the perfect name because I never shut up.

We lived in a “tranquil town nestled in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains,” a “beautiful place to raise a family,” “a town tucked in the hills and valleys of Pennsylvania.” Haven Ridge was idyllic, a Shangri-La, a Utopia. I knew this because these words were written in the Chamber of Commerce pamphlet I had pored through a thousand times. The little brochure was still nestled in the bottom of my blue trunk tucked in the corner of my closet. It was one of hundreds I had gathered over the years.

In 1967, I had one major hobby—planning for the day I would leave my tranquil town and go somewhere that wasn’t all hills and valleys. I collected anything that offered a plan for escape.

I had several atlases poking out at odd angles on my bookshelves. As hard as I tried, I could never manage to fit them on the shelf. This bothered me at first, large awkward volumes that always stuck out like an after-thought, but then I realized that atlases contain the world and have to be big. After that, their size and shape didn’t bother me anymore. The atlases seemed to offer hope, a promise that life was more than sitting neatly on a shelf, more than being part of a tidy set of Duncans.

I also had stacks of maps, folded neatly, littering my dresser and bedroom floor. They looked as though they had never been opened, but I had pored through each and had become an expert at re-folding them in a precise way, which I had discovered was a rare talent. I collected my maps the way other kids collected stamps or trading cards.

Any new map brought magic. I would close my bedroom door, spread the map over my bed, and begin to plot. I would thread my finger along highways, across rivers, and through forests, checking distances and looking for places of interest. I would choose interesting towns and cities on the map and write to the Chambers of Commerce. I would get out my old typewriter, take a sheet of snowy paper from my desk drawer, and begin. The letter was always short, a simple inquiry about possible vacation plans. I always signed the letter: Gabrielle L. Duncan, in my best handwriting. When I got my response, I would be glad to see it addressed to Mrs. Gabrielle Duncan. My mother would glance at it, give me a Merry smile, and say “another letter for the lady of the house.”

I know my mother thought my hobby was odd, but she never said so. She knew that a restless spirit lived somewhere inside of me, one who could not be confined to hills and valleys. I would never be merry like she was nor content to sweep the floor after Hurricane Dusty entered the house. I would not be able to play finger games with Lily all day long and still manage to have a smile for Robert when he came home from a tough day of engineering. These things might eventually be part of my life, but they could never be all of my life. I knew this, and so did my mother. But we never talked about it. It seemed to be an unspoken understanding between us. Actually it was one of the few unspoken things in my life.

The maps served my purpose, leading me across deserts, around the Great Lakes, through mountain passes, and toward my future. I hoped even then to become a travel writer. When life offered me an opportunity for escape, I would take it. I would go off to college and study journalism or something like that. Of course I knew then that sitting in a crowded office, worrying about daily deadlines and dealing with all sorts of people was really not for me. So I decided I would freelance—a new word I’d learned, meaning I could make my own rules with my job—traveling and writing about all sorts of interesting places. I hoped to have my name plastered all over travel brochures and books: Gabrielle Duncan, writer extraordinaire, world traveler.

I would tour the United States, visit every major city, travel through small towns and rural wastelands. I would be a walking, talking catalogue of interesting attractions, five-star hotels, diners that denied the passage of time. Name a state, a city, a hamlet and I would have a wondrous list of what to do there. After the United States, I would conquer the world.

But the little town of Haven Ridge with its picturesque landscapes and cozy streets would never appear in any of my guidebooks. Haven Ridge holds too many secrets, too many lies, and too many good citizens eager for any answer they can get. If I ever write an atlas, the town of Haven Ridge will not even be listed and will not be found by searching B-1 or C-12. It might appear as a tiny dot nestled between the hills and valleys of the Allegheny Mountains, and the reader will always wonder if it’s a town or a slight imperfection in the line of the road that meanders through the mountain. Traveling in a plane, my hometown might show up as a blip on the radar screen, vanishing just as quickly. The location of Haven Ridge will be a secret, a translucent blot of gray that might be a speck of dust caught in the eye. For me, Haven Ridge will always be a shadow in the sunlight that ripples through my imagination.

I intended even then to leave Haven Ridge some day. I planned to leave the sun-dappled playground, the large rambling house where I’d grown up, the winding streets that had formed the pathway through my childhood. I would leave it all eagerly, willingly, and as fast as lightning because, even now, on my dark days, I am forced to look back, and when I do, I meet that sunlit world with a shudder.