Make Yourself At Home This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

December 27, 2011
It isn’t a home. It’s a house. Worse, a house that smells like dog urine and cigarette smoke, the carpets ripped out and bare nails bristling from the walls and floors.

“I hate it here!” I pout to my mother, crossing my arms across my chest. “Can we go home now?” My five-year-old pigtails stick haphazardly out either side of my head, enthusiastically bobbing their concurrence. All my mother can do is sigh and shrug.

“This is our home now,” she says in a weary, platitudinous voice. “We have to make this our home now.”

We have recently moved from California to Missouri. Missouri, the state we quickly rechristen “Misery.” I don’t expect much from Missouri, but I expect something. Certainly not this smelly, stripped-down excuse for a house with its umbra of sweat and sawdust. The previous owners didn’t bother with caring for their home, smoking indoors and allowing their lapdogs to defecate all over the furniture and carpet. The job of revitalizing this sorry, beaten-down domicile now lies in my parents’ inexperienced hands.

The July heat has long ago zapped the moisture from the earth. We have no school to fill the daylight hours. No blocks and Lincoln Logs in the morning. No Thomas the Tank Engine puzzles and Dora the Explorer in the afternoon. Instead, my younger brother Makoto and I dutifully follow our mother around the house as she works. We get in her way, prick the soft soles of our feet on tetanus-infected nails, scrape our knees, quarrel like jackdaws, smash our thumbs with hammers, and knock over buckets of paint and carefully stacked boards. My parents haven’t yet screened our neighbors with the psychopath safety test, so there is no one to take us to a nearby pool, no old friends from years back to watch us for a few hours. Here in Missouri, our family will have to start from square one.

Eventually my mother tires of keeping an eye on us. Mak and I soon find ourselves exiled to the foreign terrain of the backyard and its tiny accompanying patio. We have not yet acclimated to Missouri humidity, and California’s balmy Mediterranean climate has spoiled us. Sticky streams of sweat trace paths down our grimy faces. We slump against the back step, anemic with the heat. The sharp concrete lip digs painfully into my spine, but I’m too tired to move.

I study the egregious ugliness of the house, channeling my resentment at my parents for dragging us here into my clenched fists and teeth. From the outside, the house’s yellow siding looks like jaundiced skin, its scabby shingles like chronic eczema. Mak seems to have sunk into a heat-induced stupor. His mouth hangs slack and his lids sag low over his eyes.

I miss California.

I miss my neighbors, Ashley and Alyssa, the girls who introduced me to the wonders of the colors pink and purple, to Barbie, to faux pearls and dollar store nail polish. In California, we would dress up in our mothers’ shoes and dresses and parade up and down the sidewalk like Miss America contestants. Our feet clumsily slid the length of the oversized high heels and the long hems of our dresses pooled on the ground and tripped us with every step, but we were confident in our gauche fashion.

I miss living within driving distance of the ocean. I can still hear the crash of the waves, taste the sea salt encrusting my lips and skin. In California, I would charge up and down the beach, arms pumping like the pistons on a train, racing the waves that licked at my heels and swallowed my footprints whole.

I miss the rich emerald green of the San Diego County grass, its luxuriant thickness, its fresh, inebriating aroma after a heavy rain. I loved to lie in it and stare up at the cloudless firmament, a frame of grass heads delineating the sky’s blueness. Here in Missouri, the grass is harsh and brittle, parched by a rainless summer.

I miss the palm trees and the rich, red soil. I miss the backyard playset with the chipped yellow slide and cheap plastic swings. I miss long-haired taupe carpet and cool kitchen tiles. I miss my bedroom.

All of it whisked away in a three hour plane flight.

Now Mak and I sit on the back step, sweaty chins resting on sweaty palms, staring listlessly at the yard.

I don’t know how it starts. The huge bucket of brightly colored chalk sits by Mak. The hose lies coiled in a nice twist a few feet from me. Mak picks up the chalk. I pick up the hose.

A thrill of awe fills me at the vast dimensions of the bucket of chalk. It is more an enormous bin than a mere bucket, the size of one of those corrugated fiberboard boxes used for shipping bulk quantities, only neatly separated into half-a-dozen compartments. In each compartment, ten or twelve pieces of fat sidewalk chalk huddle shoulder to shoulder in a static mosh pit. And this isn’t any hose either, that obligatory backyard partner in crime, a rubber green snake with laminated scales. It has a unique nozzle that allows the user to specialize the spray: a narrow, biting stream; a wide-reaching umbrella; a waterfall; a drizzle; a downpour.

After a little experimenting, Mak and I discover that when you douse chalk in a spray of water, especially on a humid July afternoon, it melts into a thick, gelatinous ooze. We quickly grasp the intricacies of the chalk-melting craft. We grind the chalk against the concrete until it transubstantiates from a solid cylinder into a tiny pile of pastel-colored dust. We stir this dust with water to create a thick paint that we apply to our faces and hair. We squeeze soggy chalk in our fists until its soft insides cave and it squelches out the cracks between our fingers.

We draw people and animals and flowers, the usual artistic constructions of pre-kindergarteners, but as a spur-of-the-moment addendum we include the Hulk and King Kong devastating New York City. Naturally this segues into Barbie driving Ken around the familiar streets of our hometown in Vista. Then the Pacific Ocean, with its deep blue ripples and frothing foam, precursors to Poseidon’s creation of the horse. Then our old house. Then Ashley and Alyssa, smiling, waving, and wearing pink ballroom gowns and pearls. Then the beautiful, green California grass I miss so much. And finally, almost symbolically, we drench it all and watch as the sheets of water erase the images of our past.

Steadily, industriously, we reduce the entire box of chalk into a viscous ooze of color, the brilliant shades all leaching into one another. Deep down I feel a stifled sense of wrong, a Jiminy Cricket voice that whispers in Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards’ Academy Award winning-voice that this might not be the best idea. But I don’t care. Whatever punishment our actions incur, this is more than worth it.

We scoop up handfuls of melted chalk and smear it into each other’s noses. We snort it. We choke on it. We run screaming around the yard. We blast each other with the hose. Our skin crusts over and our hair hangs in stiff dreadlocks. Our clothing pastes itself to our bodies. The fabric stiffens into cardboard. We look like Indians preparing to go to battle, streaked in war paint, only our glittering eyes visible beneath the pastel camouflage. When we tire of this, we lie down in the muck and roll in it.

This is when my mother comes outside to check on us.

First I hear the sliding backdoor open, a stiff suction sound as door peels away from wall. A thrill of fear causes my stomach to jump into my chest. It hovers there, nudging nervously at my breastbone like a balloon caught in the corner of a room. I stand slowly, grinning sheepishly at my mother’s stunned expression. Her look of surprise is a work of art: eyebrows lifted into the stratosphere, like narrow blimps hovering far above the rest of her facial features; eyes enormous, as if pried open by Ludovico technique apparatus from A Clockwork Orange; mouth slack, muscles loosened into limp spaghetti.

Mak lies in the slop at my feet and makes chalk-muck angels, as one would in the snow, his arms and legs shwooping through the sludge in great scissor-motions. When he notices our mother’s presence, he too sits up, his hands buried in the chalk before him. His hair is glued in pointed cones, spiked versions of The Boss’s hair in the comic strip Dilbert. The only visible skin on his body is the insides of his ears and a thin streak along his hairline and eyes.

The hose drips individual crystals of water into the sludge.

“What did you do?” My mother stares at the ruined patio, at us, our filthy clothes. Then again, as if we haven’t heard the first time, “What did you do? Do you know how long this is going to take to wash away?”

For a moment, I am at a loss. What have we done? And why? I am, generally speaking, a good girl. I listen to my parents and only rarely sit on Makoto and administer Chinese water torture. I put all my peas in my mouth at dinner and am only rarely caught spitting them out into the toilet after dinner. I play nicely with my Barbie dolls and only once cut off all of Sleeping Beauty’s hair and corrected the marmoreal smoothness of her plastic skin by using a purple marker to make her anatomically correct. This mess we’ve made must have been some sort of temporary insanity. Mental illness triggered by the extreme heat. Psychosis precipitated by the shock our move.

We are pressing the boundaries, seeing how far we can get. This isn’t yet our home. It’s a smelly building with four walls and a roof filled with dog crap and cat piss that belongs to nameless, faceless strangers. But in trashing it, we have in some perverse way made it our own.

Suddenly, it all comes together.

Smirking at my five-year-old brilliance, I saunter up to my mother and say, “Mom, we’re making ourselves at home!”

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