Paper House
Now her mom had a thing for the dinosaur lady, the one whose mouth hinged into a crooked, toothy smile while her forearms twitched ahead like claws. Her mom liked to marvel at people. She liked to worry about things that were not her business, like what if the dinosaur lady, listing far to the left as she walked, were to crash into the watercolors that lined the walls. 

“You’ve seen her before, Mom,” Karen mumbled. “She’s here every time you come.”

“Oh, I don’t think so! I’d remember.”

At a corner table in the hospital cafeteria, they ate leftover duck confit and Brussels sprouts from an insulated lunch box. Karen sat here every Wednesday, alone except for when her mom got bored at home and showed up. Above the table hung a watercolor of Mercy Street, the stretch downtown where City Hall and the florist and the Copps Foods were. It was there, just before her eighteenth birthday, that Karen wrecked her dad’s car. A year later she still went to appointments. Already she walked like an old lady, already her hip and knee ached when it rained. She went to physical therapy and to the psychologist, but it didn’t matter if they measured her heart rate, took her blood pressure. Her mother had been with her in the car, but it was her father, dead since she was nine, who appeared beside her as the windshield rained down onto her hair. He was right there, and he spoke to her, and that was how she knew she was dead.

The dinosaur lady presided over the busiest table in the cafeteria. Doctors, nuns, physical therapists. Sometimes Mylar balloons, furry with cafeteria steam, drifted by overhead.

“I think maybe she was in a car accident,” Karen’s mom said. “Like yours.”

Dumb. It didn’t take a year in a physical therapy gym to recognize cerebral palsy. 

“Let’s go talk to her,” her mom said. “Oh, come on. Let’s go talk.”

Karen forked the slimy duck bones and ratcheted her gaze to the table. Her mom went without her, and she came back with the dinosaur lady and the weatherman from Channel 1 in tow. Every morning he was on the broken TV in the kitchen, cast in yellow and green and moving his lips at her like a fish while she got ready for work. That TV had not produced sound in years, not since before Karen was dead, and she didn’t know until now that his name was Glenn, and he had a wife who looked like a dinosaur.

Anne, the dinosaur lady, steadied herself with one hand on the table and one on Glenn’s arm. She worked herself down to the seat across from Karen. “Your ma said you were in a car accident.” Up close she sounded less like a roaring dinosaur and more like a drunk.

“We thought maybe you were too,” Karen’s mom said.

At times it was good to be dead.

“Brussels sprouts!” Anne said, snatching one with her left claw. “That’s one vegetable that gets a really bad rap.”

“My wife is a great ambassador of vegetables. They’re the fount of all human happiness,” Glenn said. 

Karen’s mom said she wasn’t so sure. “What about balance? What about protein?”

Karen cared little for food, even in the time before she was dead. She was on the verge of drifting away, except here was the weatherman, with his springy hair and his glasses shining in the cold fluorescent lights, taking Brussels sprouts and devouring them like potato chips.

“I can’t tell you how many problems would be solved if we all just ate more carrots,” Anne said. 

Anne was a dietitian. She had a nametag clipped to her shirt that proved she worked in the hospital and knew what she was talking about. But Karen’s mom shook a finger at her. 

“Don’t try to take away my coq au vin. That’s all I’m saying.”

There were times when Karen and her dad fell asleep draped over the armrests of the couch and awoke in the very early morning with the weatherman looking at them out of the TV, just this way, patient and gently amused. He tossed a sprout in the air, caught it in his mouth, and grinned. “Are you a chef, Karen?”

Anne clawed at one of the remaining sprouts. “If you had told me you could get my husband to eat Brussels sprouts, I wouldn’t have believed you.” She couldn’t quite chew with her mouth closed, and the right side hitched higher than the left when she spoke.

“It’s true,” Glenn said. “Will you come cook us dinner sometime?” Anne swatted his arm. They were steady people, despite her prehistoric stiffness, despite the pale stain on his polo shirt and the gnat that had died in the hairs on his arm. Karen saw plenty of people like them at the store where she worked, a great gray box on the edge of town, but it was rare that anyone lingered, addressed questions to her, arched their graying eyebrows.

“We watched you on TV,” Karen said. “My dad and I.” Late at night, when Karen was small and couldn’t sleep, she would find her dad on the love seat that they kept in the kitchen. He cried about something that Karen had understood as the Golf War. He cried when a little girl in a nearby town was kidnapped. He never cared specifically about the weather, never watched it on purpose, but Karen wanted to make the weatherman smile. It fascinated her that she could.

“My husband died of a heart attack,” her mom said. “But don’t try to tell me it’s because he didn’t eat his vegetables. Some things are genetic.”

Karen stood to leave the cafeteria. I have to go, she meant to say. I have an appointment. The best she could manage was a whisper inside her head, and her mom was fluttering and waving, apologizing, chasing after her, catching up.

After the wreck she was wrapped in braces and given many pills. She didn’t graduate high school. At home she lifted hand weights and slept too much, watched TV and waited for her dad to appear again. The few friends she’d had at school, geeky girls who spoke foreign languages with thick tongues, who volunteered with the Rotary Club and the Main Street Association, came to visit her at first. She stayed with one of them for a week in January, when her mom jetted off for France. Now they were away at college. 

She supposed Anne felt sorry for her. For two Wednesdays in a row she abandoned her table and came to sit with Karen, who was not terribly interested in talking with anyone. 

“The trouble is, people aren’t used to eating vegetables when they’re made properly,” 

Anne said. “All anybody knows how to do is put broccoli in the microwave. Even my husband. Glenn would eat KFC seven days a week if I let him, but he wouldn’t stop talking about your mom’s sprouts.”

Broken people and cafeteria ladies with hairnets and priests who didn’t know she was dead, didn’t care if she was alive. Didn’t want her to explain a price or honor an expired coupon or call for her manager. 

Yet she didn’t mind Anne. Anne was like her mom’s dogs, indiscriminately eager. She was compiling the perfect cookbook, full of bright pictures and words thick and rich enough – saffron, extra-virgin, Himalayan – to sink into people’s skin, to fill their dreams with vegetables.

Every week Anne asked about Karen’s mother, what they’d been eating, what was in the lunch box. Karen waited for Glenn the weatherman. The weeks ticked over into July and the HVAC pipes thumped and cafeteria fog crept up the watercolors. She did not take her lunch out to the smokers’ benches or the big cemetery across the road. She waited, but he did not come. She reached behind her shrink’s reception desk when the receptionist wasn’t looking and stole a hospital staff directory. Anne and Glenn lived out on Highway 13, just past the lawn ornament shop that was the farthest out of town Karen had gone since the accident.

Getting there took forever now. There were only a few bus lines, and almost nobody rode them. Karen, a blind man, a lady who ate bananas. A lady in a wheelchair who needed ten minutes to board. 

It was beating hot. Flies buzzed her gimpy leg as she walked away from the Jesus statue at the edge of town, out onto the highway. Cars shot past her. She’d give anything to have a car again. She would toil hour after hour, year after year in the great gray box. She didn’t care if the shrink found it odd or if her mom disapproved. She wanted to drive all day. She wanted to circle Copps Foods in her car until the engine went dead. And, every once in a while, she wanted a car to get her places.

Houses spread away from each other. Numbers on mailboxes crept higher, and the sun tilted and sliced across her neck and shoulders. Fat red berries grew in shrubs along Anne and Glenn’s driveway, and in front of their house was a station wagon. The sunlight was a skin on the windows. Even peering close she could barely see in. A Beanie Baby on the dash. Loose CDs. You could learn a lot, her dad once said, by the junk somebody keeps in their car. 

The doorbell echoed flatly through the house, and he appeared in big LL Bean slippers and a white robe. “Hello there,” he said. “Can I help you?”

You’re the coolest girl in school, she told herself, and she raised her head. “I brought the recipe. For my mom’s Brussels sprouts.”

“Anne’s friend from the hospital! It’s Krystal, right? Come in, come in.”

A pile of shoes hunkered in their entryway, gathering cobwebs. “I was just making coffee,” Glenn said. He yanked on a sliding door until it gave. Dishes sat in the kitchen sink, and a little orange cat pawed in a litter box. “I’m afraid Anne’s already left for work, but it’s good of you to stop by.” He dropped a handful of beans in a Mr. Coffee.

“You aren’t at work?”

“Fridays, no.” He hopped up onto the counter, drummed his slippers on the cabinet door. “Friday I am king. Would you like a cup of coffee, Krystal? I always make more than I need.”

“I could help Anne with her cookbook. I’ve seen my mom cook all kinds of things.”

He grinned. “I’ll certainly let her know. Are you sure you won’t take a cup of coffee?” The kitchen was so small in every direction that, coming down off the cabinet, he nearly caught his hair in the ceiling fan.

Karen hated coffee. She found it bitter before she was dead, repulsive now. But she should have said yes because he was about to usher her out. 

“Can I drive your car?”

His easy smile faltered. He had his palms up, like Jesus.

“My car was a station wagon, like yours, and I haven’t driven in so long.”

He lowered his eyes in a short, manly nod. “Let me put some pants on,” he said. “How about we go for a walk instead.”

At the lawn ornament shop, he rested his hand on her back and asked what was wrong. It wasn’t often that this happened, that the shell of the living girl disintegrated and left a desperate, howling ghost. She wanted to walk with him, out in the country, but she could not stray far from Mercy Street and the last place she had seen her dad. The sounds that came from her throat were tearing sounds, disaster sounds.

He sat her against a fence post. He remembered her name. He disappeared into the lawn ornament shop and returned with two Cokes and a bag of cheese curds.

“Love these things,” he said. “Just don’t tell Anne I’m eating them.”

He bit them between his molars to make them squeak. Scattered clouds moved stiffly above the heavy day. She sat just ahead of him, in the spot where the gravel road gave way to the grassy field, the ambling horses and the flurry of white moths.

“This is our secret,” he said, “but sometimes I wish we could just order a pizza. Just messy with cheese, you know?”

Tears were strange now. Dizzying. Her face was raw and itchy, and her ears were tuned excessively to Glenn’s spit.

“I’m not saying she’s not an excellent cook.”

Karen’s dad had loved her mom for her messes of cheese. At dinner he danced in the kitchen. Late at night he took Karen to the microwave and tore open packages of Velveeta to make fondue.

Glenn held a cheese curd out to her. When she didn’t take it he set it gently on her knee. 

“I know it’s hard,” he said. “I know it hurts.”

He made a cage of his hands and caught a passing toad. “Look,” he said, and he parted his hands just enough for her to see the creature, with its inked out eyes and leafy skin. It shot free, and Karen was so startled she laughed.

She fell asleep on the bus home. The driver didn’t know her name, but he knew her stop. “Miss,” he said, tapping her shoulder with a thin finger. She walked across her yard on prickling legs.

“I had a minor disaster,” her mom said, opening the oven door. The dogs mobbed Karen’s legs, then wheeled for the oven. Inside were eleven blue ramekins, arranged in neat rows on the rack and violently splattered with chocolate. Her mom clanked the door shut on the dogs’ whiskers and said, “Pots-de-crème. Help me clean up and I’ll give it another shot.”

All day her mom listened to French music and experimented in the kitchen. She and Karen’s dad always planned to go to Paris, and only weeks after the accident she was on a plane. She’d escaped with minor cuts, but she did spend a night in the hospital and that night she had a dream. She dreamed she opened up the TV like a microwave and made popcorn inside it, and the whole house exploded in a glittery puff. She drifted up, above the house and above the town, and watched it burn. She floated away over the ocean and didn’t see Paris exactly, but she did see the Sphinx in Egypt and she felt an incredible peace. And that was how she knew she needed to keep living. She bought a ticket and went, and she came back with a new appreciation for haute cuisine and an inexplicable interest in West Highland terriers. They now had three.

It was easy on these thick, hot days to confuse things. Chocolate and grass clippings, car exhaust and an approaching summer storm. Sitting on the counter, head against a cabinet, Karen drifted back toward whatever dream she’d been having on the bus. Dogs swirled around her feet. She kicked one and it yipped. It had never been her way to hurt things, in the time before she was dead. At school she was often referred to as a sweet girl.

Her mom held out a bag full of stained paper towels. A shattered ramekin clinked. “Run this out to the curb?”

The evening was still warm, the concrete clammy on her bare feet. The headlights of a neighbor’s car slid out of a nearby driveway, into the street, toward her slowly as if they’d never actually reach her, as if this warm evening would last forever gathering clouds. This was almost like it was – the yellow lights on gray air – she was supposed to write these things down and tell her therapist. But if she could find the words, the energy, then she would use them to tell Glenn that no. It was awful, but it didn’t hurt. Her hair caught the breeze and pricked her eyes.

She began visiting on Saturdays, when both Anne and Glenn were home. It was him she wanted to see, but she didn’t want to be creepy. That was something her friends always warned against, in the event that someone liked a boy and was contemplating a disastrous action, like leaving a note in a locker. Don’t be creepy. She didn’t want to be creepy, she didn’t dislike Anne, and there was a certain light, fluttering energy between them in their messy house that reminded her of the hospital toward the end of the noon hour. 

Anne busted apart a head of cauliflower. Loose chunks landed in her hair. She swept all the pieces into a bowl, but in her jitters she sent bits skittering to the floor. Sometimes Karen forgot where she was; she half expected a Westie to bound in, sniffing. But there were no dogs here, only Glenn coming in from mowing the side yard, wearing a pink visor and sweating exhaust and grass.

“Want to grab the olive oil?” Anne said. “Roasting brings out such a nice, deep flavor. I’d call it nutty.”

“I’d call you nutty,” Glenn said. He tossed his visor on the table, and the waiting cat batted it to the ground.

Anne had given Karen a notebook from the great gray box and asked her to write things down. Recipes and terms and insights. Roasting – nutty, she wrote. She’d filled a little less than half a page. Other entries said microwave: no, rinse broccoli in vinegar to get the black bugs off, and you can eat dandelions.

Glenn brought a dusty green bottle of olive oil down from the shelf above the oven. He tossed it back and forth to himself and faked a pass to Anne.

“Will you stop!” Anne grabbed for the bottle, but Glenn held it out of reach. 

“How much,” he said. “Where do you want it.”

“Let’s try a tablespoon.”

“How about two? Here, I’ll just slog a bunch in and we’ll see what happens.”

“Glenn, please.”

He set the bottle gently on the counter, kissed Anne’s head, and patted her lopsided rear end. Glancing over his shoulder, he winked at Karen, then smacked into the half-closed sliding door on his way out of the kitchen.

“I apologize for my husband,” Anne said. “He’s a goofball.”

Karen was assaulted, out of nowhere, by a memory of a little blue toy horse that she’d had as a child. She was often haunted by objects in her house. Her dad’s glasses on the TV stand. An ancient clump of modeling clay she’d swiped from art class. But what about the horse? It was gone before she could make sense of it.

“Marriage is wanting to hug somebody and smack them at the same time,” Anne said.

From the living room, Glenn said, “Marriage is coming in from mowing the lawn and realizing that not only do your socks not match, but they’ve got holes even though you’re pretty sure you only bought them a week ago. Karen, you work in a store, don’t you? Think you could get me a deal on socks?”

“Ignore him,” Anne said, and Glenn said, “Ignore me, Karen, just ignore me.”

“I’ve never even had a boyfriend,” Karen mumbled, and Anne froze by the oven dial. Of course she couldn’t smile and say, “You will someday,” not with Karen the way she was, skin pale and mottled, joints bloated like a body in the river. Most of the time people could pretend she was not dead, could console and argue if she claimed to be. But when she said certain things there was no denying. Anne reddened and looked for answers out the window, and Glenn cleared his throat too loudly. It was good, at last, to be seen for what she was.

They kept the Cokes and cheese curds in coolers at the back, near the Jesus and Virgin statues and the sign that said REGILOUS. Glenn bent low over the cooler, searching for a bag that wasn’t too big, since he had to finish them before he returned home. Also, perhaps, because he was hot. Like her dad, he was not a shorts guy. He wore jeans even on triple digit days.

He led her into the country. When Karen froze and shut her eyes he said, “But I can show you the airport.” He grasped her elbow and told her that he too had a fear. All his young life he dreamed of planes crashing and bodies at the bottom of the ocean, still strapped in their seats. It was so bad that he skipped family vacations. He was left in the care of neighbors. Never went anywhere or did anything. It was a little like what had happened to her – a trauma. In his case, a past life thing. But he grew older. He met Anne, who wanted him to take her places. To stop being ruled by fear. He took flying lessons, and now he had a pilot’s license and his own biplane at the airport, just a ways up the road. He would take her up sometime.

“Karen. I’ll take you up right now.”

“Can I drive your car?” she whispered.

A woman rode past them on a shining horse, bobbing her head.

Glenn dug around in his cheese curd bag. He withdrew his hand, slick with grease, and said, “All right. I’ll show you something else.”

They walked back toward town. A white house with a wraparound porch sat far back from the road. The grass was high and untroubled by trees. He cupped her chin in his hand. “I see things there,” he whispered. “If I go walking in the early morning. A dusty farmer on the porch, right there under the flag. And a little girl in a pinafore, in the yard.”

Pinafores. Once Karen must have had paper dolls and paper dogs, all in a paper house.

Glenn set his Coke on the ground, and he fit the bag of cheese curds awkwardly into his pocket. Hands on his hips, he frowned at the house, as if preparing to wait through the night for people to materialize. He had a bit of a paunch, from all the secret cheese and the Cokes. He looked nothing like her dad, who had been a large man, and bald, who never wore plaid or Teva sandals. She slipped her arms around him anyway, and he gripped her elbow with a hand still cold from the soda. “I told Anne about the little girl,” he said. “She thinks I’m imagining things. I don’t know if she understands how strange the world is.”

On her birthday, she worked at the great gray box. Walking down the hill and home she saw the station wagon parked in their driveway. The house reeked of onions. In the kitchen Glenn and Anne sipped wine, and her mom flung her arms in the air and said, “Look who’s here!”

Glenn raised his glass. Anne hugged her, and the nametag she still wore dug into Karen’s chest. Late afternoon sunlight glanced off the dishes on the dining room table, which hadn’t been set since before the accident.

There was a cake with a candy Eiffel Tower on top, and a large envelope with her name on it. The little blue horse appeared, standing mockingly on the hot oven. She didn’t want Glenn here, in their painfully clean house. She didn’t want a birthday. She was up in her room, yanking off her uniform, before she even realized she’d left the kitchen. She sat on her bed in her underwear, and the blue horse hovered above the rug, puffing and collapsing like a fever dream.

Her mom banged on the door. “Karen! You have guests! Don’t be rude.” Karen had locked the door, knowing well how useless that was; there was a key hidden behind a family photograph at the top of the stairs. “For goodness’ sake!” her mom said. The door flew wide and crashed against the wall. The Westies leaped in and frantically licked her body. Her mom went to the dresser and yanked out a pair of sky blue shorts and a Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt. 

In the kitchen, Karen asked for wine. Since her death she was attracted to deep red things. Glenn hesitated, but her mom, back in loud good humor, laughed and poured a glass.

Anne dog-earred pages of a cookbook. She tugged Glenn’s sleeve and said, “You would like this.” He sat with elbows on the table, both hands wrapped around his wine glass, wedding ring blinking. He asked Karen how it felt to be nineteen, and her mom said, “Karen, answer his question.” Karen held her cup to her mouth and watched the neighbors tear dandelions. Once, when she was very young, the sky had turned gray and then orange and then black. A voice came over the radio while Karen huddled under a blanket in the basement with her parents. The tornado destroyed barns, trees, power lines; it was hard for her to believe that any other town had weather the way their town did.

Her mom had made a duck and a cream soup. Vegetables included cabbage fried in bacon fat and mushroom pot stickers fried with onions. She asked for help carrying everything to the dining room. Karen said, “No,” but before her mom could gripe Glenn offered. Karen slipped into his seat, and even though the chair was the harsh, functional wooden kind, the kind they bought from the Amish when Karen’s dad was alive, it was warm from his body.

“I get tired,” Anne said. “Sometimes quicker than other people. And they don’t always understand.”

In the dining room her mom complained about her. “One little thing. I make her a nice dinner, and I ask her for one little thing.”

Anne gamely praised the meal but ate little. Glenn worked his knife and fork surgically over his food. Every so often he emitted a low grunt. Karen pulled pieces of duck with her fingers and fed them to the dogs.

Lighting the candles, her mom sang Happy Birthday in French. She said, “I went to Paris in the fall, but everyone knows there’s nothing like Paris in the spring.” She ripped the envelope open and set it in front of Karen. PARIS IN THE SPRING! the card read. Inside were two airline tickets. Karen held them over the birthday candles, but they were thick and shiny and did not burn, only melted a little and stank as her mom cried.

Glenn lowered his silverware. The dogs ran tight circles around the table.

“All I’ve done this year is try to make you happy! This dinner. Paris. How many mothers do you know who would take their daughters to Paris? And all you do is spook around.”

At first Karen and her mom had gone to the shrink together. Her mom needed to apologize, the shrink said, for taking off to France before Karen was well. Her mom had instead talked about the dream, and how on the airplane they specifically said to secure your own mask before assisting others. Karen then asked to come to appointments alone.

Her mom covered her face with her hands and stumbled up the stairs. Glenn took one last bite. Anne said, “I have trouble getting along with my mom too. It got better after I moved out.”

Her mom’s sobs spilled down the stairs and throbbed in the vent. “She’s having a bad time,” Glenn whispered.

“Can I drive your car?”

“Right now?” Anne said.

Glenn stiffened. Dead, Karen sometimes noticed things, heard things, that were never there before. The cream soup slugging through Glenn’s gut, hurting him, no matter how much he loved it. “Anne,” he said. “She had wine.”

“Two sips,” Anne said.

He followed them out to the driveway and stood with his arms crossed.

They’d been going to the grocery store, Karen and her mom, which meant it was a Saturday. One of those heart-tugging autumn Saturdays, red trees, clear streets, windows down. 

Karen circled the block gently, past the Carters’ house and the Louths’. She was once friends with Catie Louth, before high school, before Catie turned pretty and popular. 

Anne played with the frayed upholstery of the passenger seat. “Karen,” she said, “if you want to come stay with us for a little while, you can.”

She made perfect left turns. She had been careful that day, turning left. The car that hit them was speeding out of the Copps parking lot. Sailing over the median, blood in her eyes, she knew nothing but the flowers she was killing. She was again a summer volunteer, healthy and planting, sweating. The station wagon flew forever over the median, but still it was not forever. Still the flowers that had been alive were dying, and she would die too. Her father rode beside her, saying I’m only crying, honey, because so many bad things happen in the world.

Glenn had barely moved. The furrows across his forehead matched the tight line of his mouth, but he didn’t move even when she turned in. He didn’t believe she’d hit him, but she did. 

He tumbled back into the garage door and hit it loud as a gunshot. He crumpled to the concrete, glasses knocked clear, sandals leaning sweetly into one another and blood under his ear.

She loved him not for the shoes or the silent weather reports, not for the summer or the cheese curds. She loved him for the way he’d held her elbow outside the lawn ornament shop, and surely people had fallen in love for lesser reasons.

In all these months the shrink never sat still for a full session. She circled the room like a fly, buzzing out her questions, snapping the blinds open and shut.

“We’ve known each other a long time, Karen. There’s no need to play around.”

Leaves were burning. Karen wondered how it would be to eat from a bowl of fiery leaves, high on a hill.

“What were you thinking?”

Through the blinds the parking lot gleamed like all the colors you could think of, except of course there were some missing. Karen once asked her dad why there were no orange cars and no purple cars, and he’d said because that would be ugly.

The shrink snapped the blinds and said, “Karen, you hit a man with your car. I don’t care if you’re ‘dead.’ You need to talk to me.”

Karen hugged a couch pillow. “You don’t listen,” she said. “And you’re ugly.” The shrink’s skin was dry, and she always wore a man’s shirt, the kind with the little rider on his little horse. Tears ran hotly down Karen’s cheeks, and the shrink handed her a Kleenex box but that did nothing to hide her anger, her surprise, and down beneath her shirt her heart beat frantically, relentlessly, as if trying to break out.
CARRIE GRINSTEAD has an MFA from New Mexico State University. She works as a librarian and lives in a basement in Vancouver, British Columbia.