When Mumble and Horrid moved to Springfield, I used to go to their house about once a week. On the way to their house was a structure of madness.
The drive took you through a few bad neighborhoods and through one, not so bad, where a collection of big old houses lined up proud and stern along the road. All calming tones of white, beige, and brown. All except one, one startling nightmare of a house that painted a picture of a mind off-kilter, a family just not right and a sort of gnawing at the edges of childlike and inane.
It was a three-story house, the sort just shy of Victorian, a bit too modern to call itself classic. It had gray roofing and sidewalk, but this is where the structure went wild and mind-bending. The first story was painted green. Not a warm, forest green but a bright pastel green. The window frames were all painted cotton candy pink. The second story was painted bright yellow, the kind of yellow you get from banana Laffy Taffy, just as vivid and just as surreal. The third story was painted bright powder blue all with pink frames. All perfectly painted. The lattice work under the porch was pink and the two great planters that stood watching over the sides of the pink staircase were painted in that same Laffy Taffy yellow.
The first time I saw it, I pulled over to stare. On the right stood a white house with brown window frames and brown lattice work. On the left, a wilder taupe house with chocolate brown window frames and lattice work. I looked at the house and thought of the work that went into creating it.
That was a custom paint job. No way they had five-gallon drums of those colors out in the exterior paint aisle of the local Home Depot. This color did not come in bulk. They had to buy can after can. The first floor, pastel green, had to have taken at least a dozen cans of paint. Those are one-gallon cans. That is a lot to lug around. The lattice work would have taken a long time. Every thin board, every slight groove. Every edge and every corner. The painter had no good place to sit. They had to kneel or squat to get in position to paint that lattice work running under the house. Or even worse, what if they removed it?
Let’s say they took the lattice work off the bottom of the house and laid it out on great tarps. They could roll the surface, but you still would have to paint between every blank space. You still had to let that dry, which means that when the neighbors came home from work or wherever they were returning from, they would see great pieces of fragile wooden lattice work leaning against the porch drying before being meticulously placed back under the house. This would have been the first thing they did when they painted this house. Before the lattice, this was just a beige house. When the neighbor came home the first sign that something was not right would have been the fragile lattice work, bright pink and leaning in the wind drying.
That first day when I sat in Bekah’s car staring at that house, the first thing I thought was that it looked like an Easter egg. The entire house looked as if it had been decorated by the Easter Bunny. It became a place to stop long enough to stare, ask questions about the people who lived there, and drive away. As the visits to Mumble’s house degraded, the Easter house became more glaring. Soon, as I drove by that building, I would think about the horror of the house I was going to.
Soon, the insanity of the drive out there wore on my mind. I began rolling past the house with just a glimpse. Soon I turned my head away completely. I could not bear witness to this odd sentry watching as I passed into the realm of Mumble and Horrid.
Their house was small but it had the right number of rooms. Gem, the oldest of Horrid’s daughters, was sharing a room with Whippy, the youngest. And Star lived in a small room by herself, the first sign that something was wrong.
Gem was the oldest. She was a beautiful little girl with a kind heart and big eyes. Her hair was brown and long, often tangled, often wild.
Whippy was the youngest. She was usually filthy and she had been spoken to so rarely that she was incapable of holding conversation at the age of five. She had a tender way about her. When soft music was played, she would cry even if she did not know the lyrics. She had the ability to find caterpillars everywhere she went. It seemed she was drawn to them, or them to her. She would walk around with fistfuls of caterpillars all the time.
It was Star who broke my heart. She was a beautiful mixed race girl, tall and thin, with a hesitant smile and big eyes. Star had her own room because even at that young age she was being separated from her siblings. It was becoming obvious to everyone that her hair was different. Her skin was different. Her body was wrong. The man she had been told was her father was a monstrous white man with a bitter streak that ran through him.
Mumble had been told that Horrid had been raped by a black guy and Star was the result. I didn’t care at all. To me she was just my little sister. But it was becoming obvious that Star was being shoved out.
All three of the girls knew and loved Bekah from the days when Bekah and I lived on Normal Street, but now I was in South Towers and I was hanging out with Siren. The one and only time I took her over there was a nightmare. They would not talk to Siren. They just stared at her. They would not hug her or let her touch them. Within ten minutes I knew I had made a mistake in bringing her. Mumble and her talked about the city and Horrid glared at her. They all hated her the instant they saw her, and Siren never wanted to go over there again.
One day I brought Bekah to Mumble’s house and he was just getting home from work. It was five in the evening and we had no idea where Gem and Star were. Whippy was found in the kitchen climbing onto a table that had a loaf of bread on it. And Horrid was in bed.
Bekah went to talk to Horrid. I took Mumble out into the backyard.
“Where are the girls?” I asked.
“I think she is cheating on me,” Mumble said.
“What?” I said distracted. Horrid and Mumble had been married for two years now and it was obvious things were falling apart.
“The girls tell me that a guy is coming around when I am not here. They say she gets in the car with him and just drives away, leaving them alone at the house.”
I listened, thinking of the girls and the fear of being left alone to fend for themselves, but he was focused on Horrid.
“Every now and then when I call from work, I will hear what I think is a man’s voice in the background. I think he has been in our bedroom,” Mumble mumbled.
“Where are the girls?” I asked.
“Gem is probably at the neighbor’s house,” he said.
“What neighbor? I want to go get her. I need to talk to her,” I said. I wanted to get the story of what had been happening around that house from that girl. I needed to hear what this place was like when I was not around.
“He is a man that lives up the road. He works on his car and she talks to him while he does it,” Mumble said. “She is there all the time.”
“Do you know this guy?”
“No, Horrid says he is kind of creepy. She doesn’t like being around him,” Mumble said.
“Do you know this guy?”
“All he does is work on cars, Jesse. I have no reason to get to know him. And that is not the problem. The real problem is, I think she is cheating on me.”
“No Mumble, the real problem is that your twelve-year-old daughter is hanging out every day with a grown man you do not know. Where is she?” I snapped. “Where is this guy’s house?”
“Like two blocks up the street here. You will hear the music as you get closer. His garage will be open,” Mumble said. “If you don’t want to help me out, then go look for her. I’ll be here trying to save my marriage without you.”
When I found the garage, there was no music. There was no mechanic. There was no Gem.
I did find Star. She was back behind the garage of her house sitting behind a doghouse with a cat. She was just sitting with the cat in her lap petting it. When I tried to get her to talk, she wouldn’t. When I finally reached out and touched her, she dropped the cat and jumped in my arms. She sobbed. I held her and told her I loved her.
It was true. There was little in the world that I loved more than these kids.
When we got back into the car to go home, Whippy and Star stared at us as if their last hope was leaving them.
Bekah had found food for both of them. Horrid had not been out of bed all day. Whippy and Star had not eaten. When I went into the kitchen, I found three empty bottles of tequila. Horrid was drinking heavily since she had heard she was pregnant. The reality of bringing another kid into the world was weighing on her. She was drunk all the time now. She never came out of her room except to pee and eat, even then she did not feed her children.
She had not let the dogs out all day so the floor was covered in dog shit and piss. They had no groceries.
Before I left, Mumble pulled me aside. He rubbed the back of his neck and whispered, “What do I do about the other guy?”
“That other guy is that last of your problems. Your house is falling apart. You need to get Horrid in a hospital. You need to get food in this house and you need to keep watch on your children. They are falling away.”
When I left, Whippy had a pencil and was viciously stabbing a box. She was grunting and crying. I can still see that in my head right now as I write this, that dirty little girl stabbing a box and crying.
When we got back to my apartment, me and Bekah made a plan. She said that the entire time she was talking to Horrid the woman had been talking about suicide and begging for help. Do something, save me, save the house. Save us all, I don’t know what to do, she had told Bekah.
The next day in therapy I talked to Steven, and he said I needed to call Department of Family Services. He said he was a mandatory reporter, and if I didn’t do it, he had to. I told him I would make the call. I had not leaned on a mandatory reporter the last time a thing like this had come up. I wouldn’t do it this time either.
Bekah and I called DFS the next day. We asked Sunshine to get involved. She knew people in DFS and she knew exactly who we should ask for. They asked us a lot of questions. They talked to us about the state of the house, the state of the children’s well-being. They talked about the marriage and the tequila. And when we were done talking, we talked some more.
That night after Bekah had worked, we got the call. Horrid was furious. Mumble was furious. He tossed me out of his life. Said he wanted nothing to do with me ever again.
I saw Gem again 17 years later. We talked about all of it, and I told her my side of the entire mess with Grasp and Mumble. I saw Star a while after that. She had a kid and was fighting to make a life for herself, but when the news came out about her father not being her father, Horrid had been evil about it and Star had never recovered. I watched Whippy graduate from high school. After a few years of seeing each other every year for Christmas, she vanished from my life.
In the end, I lost all of them. Not just to the call, but to Grasp and his hungers and Mumble and his weakness. In the end, I lost every one I tried to protect. But now I am getting way ahead of myself.
This chapter is from Reality of the Unreal Mind, Vol. 2: Normal Street.