I can still hear my childhood home breathing at night.
Our single-story home was the second in a row of bungalow houses, somewhere in a sprawling grid of flat streets, strip malls, and parking lots.
At night, it became a living, heaving thing. I lay awake in its bowels, my mind alive with unarticulated thoughts, that featured, for example, the striped bag of Leiber’s pretzels in the snack closet, like it was the answer to a threatening question.
Around me, the asthmatic house drifted in negative space. The windows were black. The neighbors’ identical houses, the skeletal swing set in the yard, and the Toyotas that stood like sentries along the block, were light years away, buried in an unknown darkness. Who knew if they were real. Or if they ever had been.
Occasionally, I’d hear evidence of my father from behind the accordion doors of the den: the muffled stutter of his voice on the phone, which he held so that its long curled wire snaked from the cradle on the kitchen wall, across the backdoor vestibule, and into the den. Or the shrill screams of the aging printer emanating from inside the sacred chambers, as it dispensed row after row of purple ink. Or the squeak of the kitchen floor as my father emerged from his chamber and crossed into it, to return the phone to its cradle or wander through the empty house.
Most of the time, the sounds were less distinct, a blend of electric hums and rustling blankets: the buzz of the refrigerator motor, the mysteries of the freezer, the sudden groan of a heater turning on, the ticking of clocks, the whistle of a window crack, my mother’s elaborate snores punching through the ceiling grate, a clanking in the boiler that rumbled through the walls.
I always thought the repeated clanks were the heavy, foreboding footsteps of someone coming up the stairs. I’d hold my breath, counting the number of footfalls, until eventually it was too many to correspond to the single staircase in our home. Sometimes I’d follow the sound until I drifted into sleep.
And then, morning came. Faster, and less forgiving than I expected.
Though my father did warn us. When we were kids, he would cajole us into bed by threatening that we’d miss our chance to sleep. “It’ll soon be light,” he would say in Yiddish. Somehow, this was an effective strategy. We were anxious children, I think, afraid of losing the only hours of peace, offered at night, in the arms of a parasitic host that fed the day back to us.
Or maybe we were afraid of the new day, when people and streets had definitive and unequivocal shape.
There are fewer mysteries in the morning.