The House With the Plexiglas Frame
by Martha Anne Toll
Lynette awoke to find her husband Jack sitting in a Plexiglas house in her brain. He was as clear to her as the blinking red 7:01 on the face of her digital clock. Just in case, she rolled over and checked again. He was not on his back, lips open, snoring. Gone. As if she needed evidence! Her head was throbbing, punctuated like snare drums rat-a-tat-tatting.
Putting on her mauve sateen bathrobe, she tiptoed across the hall. Their daughter Mary should be sprawled horizontally across her bed, alarm about to sound an air raid siren, waking everyone but her. Lynette knew what she’d find; she could see that Lilliputian-sized Mary was lodged in her head as well. Squinting at the correct angle, Lynette glimpsed Mary in the corner of the living room in the Plexiglas house. Of course.
Lynette walked down the wooden stairs, steps tentative from the beginnings of arthritis in her right knee and the knuckle of her left big toe. It didn’t help that a few banister pickets were loose. She’d asked Jack to fix them, but he wasn’t going to take her seriously until she fell down a flight. What with him lodged in her brain now, he’d never get to it.
Lynette stopped before the mirror in the front hall to see if the corners of the miniature house, which felt sharp enough to puncture her skull, were sticking out. Other than the usual bed head—gray curls going in directions that caused her hairdresser deep consternation—nothing was out of order. Lynette touched her head around the sides. Same topography as usual. “I’ll be damned,” she said. “How’d that cursed house fit in there? My head is going to burst, or my name isn’t Lynette P. Whitaker.”
No one was downstairs. Even Harry the fox terrier was missing.
All else was as Lynette had left it. The dishes were clean—dishwasher yet to be emptied—save for the spoon Lynette had used for chocolate ice cream before bed. It was early February; the sun was coming up. Lynette went out for the paper, which still arrived in plastic sleeves on the front pavement.
She started a pot of coffee, adding extra scoops in hopes of dulling the pain in her head. Should she make the usual bacon and eggs before Mary hurried off to her paralegal job and Jack left for the office? Lay the papers in front of Jack’s place, so he could glance before folding them up and heading out to work? Take chicken breasts out of the freezer for dinner? What if Mary and Jack stayed locked in her head? What if this was the new normal, with Lynette playing no part beyond an excruciating, mind-numbing headache?
Lynette considered aspirin, or Tylenol, or even migraine meds. She suspected, however, that this was a problem a pill or two or four would not address. She got up to look for Harry’s leash, then remembered he was lying on a miniature dog pillow inside the Plexiglas house. To make sure, she checked the corner of the kitchen where Harry slept. Empty.
Lynette sat down at the kitchen table and tightened the belt to her bathrobe. She wasn’t going to be able to do anything with this blinding headache, and besides she couldn’t think of anything she needed to do. The laundry was done; she’d washed the lights and darks yesterday. Why empty the dishwasher? No reason to thaw chicken if no one lived here but herself. She’d be fine with peanut butter and saltines for dinner. So much for the kale and tofu and whole grains nonsense Mary was constantly pushing. Lynette would be satisfied with Campbell’s soup, even though it was too high in sodium; and Fruit Loops, which had to have something wrong with them to glow in the dark like that. Frankly, Lynette would be delighted never to plan another meal or make another trip to the grocery store.
For breakfast, she could make oatmeal; heap on the brown sugar. She hadn’t made it since Mary got braces in seventh grade and the orthodontist ominously warned that brown sugar led to cavities. The hell with that. Lynette’s mouth had been full of metal since 1969 and she was none the worse for it.
Lynette dug through the back of the corner cabinet, the door loose on its hinges (she’d asked Jack to fix it ages ago), shelf coated with stickiness accumulated over decades. That was another thing—Lynette was sick and tired of this kitchen. It was old when they bought the house in 1997. It wasn’t just outdated; things were wrong. The metal cabinets were scratched and rusted and sharp at the corners, neither the hot nor the cold side of the faucet turned off completely, and the floor was coming up in at least three places, one of which was home to an ant colony every spring. It wasn’t as if Jack ever cooked or cleaned. But he was tight with money. As long as Lynette kept producing meals, he would see no reason to upgrade.
Maybe she and Jack could stop having that argument now that he was sitting comfortably in the tiny green easy chair, a replica of the threadbare one in the living room. Every time he leaned back, or cleared his throat, Lynette experienced an intense queasiness that reminded her of when her mother first moved in. Lynette’s mother was a nasty piece of work, but in her waning years she’d let up a bit. She never did give a compliment, but at least she stopped audibly listing everyone’s failings. She hardly mentioned when Mary grew out her bangs so they half covered her eyes, and didn’t squawk about Lynette letting her bottle blond hair go gray. (Lynette’s mother failed to get over the curls, but Lynette was never going to straighten them.)
Lynette hoped she wasn’t too queasy to walk around her kitchen. As if searing pain wasn’t enough! She’d have to balance Jack and Mary and sweet little Harry in her head like a woman from ancient times carrying well water in a gourd.
Who was Lynette answerable to? Jack was up there offering his opinions until he talked himself silly. Lynette had to chuckle; she no longer needed to pretend to pay attention. Squinting to see Harry, Lynette could tell he didn’t mind being a fox terrier the size of a ladybug. Jack would have to walk him; Mary had that look on her face that said NO before you’d even asked her.
The kettle came to a boil. Lynette mixed oatmeal and water in a pot whose bottom was slightly convex; she must have washed it once or twice when it was scalding hot. She found some brown sugar at the back of the cabinet. It was petrified with age, so she took a hammer to it and hacked off a corner. It melted into the simmering oatmeal and formed a web of sugary brown streaks. Way better than bacon and eggs, just the right amount of sweetness. Why hadn’t Lynette stopped making bacon and eggs ages ago? Jack was a man of habit, but he wasn’t the boss of her. She could think for herself. He would have adjusted to oatmeal if she’d insisted.
All the things she hadn’t insisted on. Why hadn’t she stood her ground on a new kitchen? And what about the upstairs bathroom, the only one in the house? The toilet flushed every twenty-five minutes whether or not someone was using it. Mary said they had a ghost who must need to pee a lot.
At the moment, Lynette could care less. Renovating would be an expensive lot of noise and dust and bother, and honestly, wasn’t it preferable to curl up on the sofa and browse through a magazine or two? What were all those fights with Jack about?
Maybe it was because of her mother. Her mother had needed a lot of care; Lynette’s queasiness back then came from nerves. Lynette was downright terrified of all she had taken on: a sick mother, a family to feed, a dog to walk. To say nothing of her mother’s rapier tongue, unending supply of rebukes; and inability to cut any slack. Thank goodness her mother got so weak. Lynette learned to change a sheet with her mother still in bed (it was Mary’s bed; Mary moved back home after the funeral because rents were too high. She hadn’t actually asked; she just announced her return. Jack had insisted—and Lynette hadn’t disagreed—that Mary contribute to the food budget as well as pay $150 a month to make clear that there was no such thing as a free lunch).
Emptying her mother’s bedpan became part of Lynette’s routine, rather than a perceived comeuppance for a bad act, like when she was suspended for chewing gum or wearing a mini skirt as a thirteen-year-old. A job needed to be done, and Lynette turned out to be good at it. Even the neighbors said what a devoted daughter she was and how lucky her mother was to have her. Eventually her queasiness congealed into a deep, persistent exhaustion.
Lynette finished her oatmeal and spun her dirty bowl across the kitchen table. She could do that now—let the smear from the oatmeal dry and crumble on the sides of the bowl. No one would notice. She took several forks from the drawer and licked them for the sole purpose of leaving them in a dirty pile beside the breakfast dishes.
For a minute she panicked over not having taken Harry for a walk, but relaxed once she recalled he was living in her brain. Would the neighbors miss seeing him tugging and lunging on his leash twice a day? Lynette usually walked him, though Jack occasionally did so on weekends. Mary was too busy, what with a fulltime job and an active social life. Lynette wondered if she should call Mary’s boss, but it seemed like a helicopter mother thing to do, and what could she say anyway? “My daughter is prancing around in my head?” For there was quite a racket in there, even a fight going on—Jack yelling at Mary for staying out too late last night, and Mary screaming that it was none of his business, and Harry yapping as if to say that if they’d listen to him, he’d be the ideal mediator.
When would Mary get a boyfriend? Lynette took Jack’s side on this one. The kids today moved in packs; at this rate nobody would end up with anybody else. What happened to dating? Girls acted as if they had no such thing as a biological clock.
Lynette rubbed her forehead. The pain was distracting—which was putting it mildly. Jack and Mary’s arguing was really getting to her.
But then things started to quiet down up top; for some reason, Jack was snoozing instead of going to work (she could see him dozing in his dollhouse easy chair), and Mary was gone. Clever as she was, Mary must have found a way to get to work and explain her tardiness, and probably even her new size. Or maybe Mary had expanded to regular size just for the day and in her tightlipped way, declined to say anything about her new home.
Lynette lay down on the couch to watch TV. After a half hour infomercial urging her to buy Cindy Crawford cosmetics, “the secret to aging beautifully” (not a chance—scarred by a wicked case of teenage acne, Lynette was getting jowly, to say nothing of her wrinkled neck), she switched to QVC where two women with poufy blond hair and magenta nails were selling costume jewelry.
Lynette didn’t think she’d ever watched this much QVC. She was a working woman; she hadn’t planned to retire early. She’d managed a couple of doctors—served as their receptionist and secretary/scheduler. It was pleasant work, mainly because it got her out of the house. Plus, she loved the income. If she wanted a new pair of shoes or needed to replace her raincoat, she wasn’t beholden to Jack. He earned a good living, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, with Mary finished college, and the doctors for whom Lynette worked finally calling it quits, Jack had been adamant that Lynette stay home. He’d made her feel like she wouldn’t be able to find another job. Why had she listened to him? She had thirty years of experience under her belt.
At first Lynette hadn’t minded; she had her mother to care for. After a year or so, her mother’s mind started to go. At the time, it seemed to Lynette like a new cast of characters had taken over her mother’s brain—people Lynette had never heard of or couldn’t remember—like her mother’s brother who was killed in the Pacific during the war, and Great Uncle Bob who had decamped to Ireland before Lynette was born. As she declined, her mother started talking aloud to her own parents—Lynette’s grandparents—and a few early playmates: Fran and Tommy and Vicky, if Lynette recalled correctly.
Lynette received a few smiles over that time from her mother, and praise with faint damns—such as, “I didn’t think you had it in you to make bland, mushy food taste decent,” or “I see I taught you something.” That last comment was two days before her mother died, and a good thing too, because it helped mitigate the years her mother had criticized Jack for being short and dumpy and for ignoring his mother-in-law; and Mary for being born with brown hair and brown eyes instead of blond haired and blue-eyed like Lynette; and Lynette for never having taught Mary to use a knife at the table or stand up when an adult entered the room.
Lynette handled the funeral and the visitors and the condolence cards and the stultifying heaps of paperwork. Then it really was all over (her father had dropped dead of a heart attack when she was fifteen). Lynette was glad to sleep in for a few weeks. But as time crawled by, she realized she had no interest in joining the Garden Club or the Ladies Auxiliary or the Junior League or even the Friends of the Library. The ladies at church interested her not one wit. In fact, she had no desire to talk to anyone at all, including her own family. (Well, she didn’t mind Harry, but he only barked.)
Lynette must have dozed off because the next time she looked at the clock it was 1 PM and QVC had switched to furniture. Her headache was worse, and she was famished. She put up cream of mushroom soup and opened a Pepsi. Maybe Mary hadn’t gone to work after all. Lynette could see her sprawled in front of the TV in the Plexiglas house as if she was not only unemployed, but independently wealthy. What was Mary doing, missing work? Before you know it, she was going to be fired, and then she’d never get a boyfriend or a husband or leave home.
But then Lynette recalled that neither Jack nor Mary, nor—for that matter—Harry, were living at home. Lynette’s family and the fox terrier had morphed into miniatures of their former selves, and relocated to a house Lynette never knew had been built in her head. On the other hand, there was a new argument brewing, and it had to do with the see-through windows. “Dad,” Mary was saying, working up a head of steam, “if you think I’m paying you $150 a month to live in a place where every pervert in the neighborhood can see when I get dressed or take a crap, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“Fine,” Jack said, “buy some drapes! You’ll see what it costs to run a house. Your mother can tell you to find them. I don’t know where your mother’s gotten to, do you? LYNETTE?!”
Lynette wanted to hide under the kitchen table to avoid the racket, but it wouldn’t have helped. She decided to get dressed, even though her head felt like an overripe pumpkin that someone had smashed against a wall.
It was sunny, albeit cold. Leaving her dirty soup bowl on the table, and the dirty pot on the stove, and the milk for the soup unrefrigerated on the counter, Lynette trudged upstairs, her hand to her head as if she were keeping a gourd steadied. What was the point to showering or brushing her teeth?
When she returned, Lynette smiled at the growing pile of dirty dishes on the kitchen table. She sat down on the couch and watched QVC’s efforts to sell her a dining room set. The financing wasn’t half bad, but Lynette wasn’t interested in more furniture. She closed her eyes against the beating and thudding of her head, and tried to focus on the calming patter of QVC’s next hot bargain—a white noise machine guaranteed to block out snoring. She fell asleep to the pleasant realization that she could skip that deal; Jack was no longer in his side of the bed.
She awoke on the edge of euphoria. The inside of her head was still bouncing around like teenagers at cheerleading practice, but she had an idea. Jack and Mary were glaring at each other, but at least they had stopped screaming.
Lynette stood up from the couch and straightened her housedress. She went to the hall closet for her coat and from the sleeve pulled out an old knit hat that was a dull shade of purple. She put it on, picked up her purse, and stepped out the door. It wasn’t quite dusk. She pulled the cap down over her ears and walked up the block, past Mary’s elementary school and the town library and the grocery store. Soon enough, her headache began to subside. With her hat on, she could not see into the Plexiglas house. She no longer felt like someone was using the inside of her head for target practice.
She gave a pleasant sigh and started to unwind. The house in her head faded behind the shadows of her dull purple cap, and with it Jack and Mary and their incessant, irritating bickering. With a shit-eating grin, Lynette turned right on Main Street, and headed out of town.
Martha Anne Toll‘s fiction has appeared in Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Slush Pile Magazine, Yale’s Letters Journal, Inkapture, Referential, and Poetica E Magazine. Her essays and reviews appear regularly on NPR and in The Millions; as well as in the Rumpus [forthcoming] Bloom, Narrative Magazine, [PANK], Cargo Literary, Tin House blog, The Nervous Breakdown, and others. Martha was a 2017 and 2018 Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and will return as a 2019 fellow at VCCA’s Le Moulin à Nef in France. She was a 2019 Monson Arts Resident, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She is the Executive Director of the Butler Family Fund, a social justice philanthropy supporting advocacy to prevent and end homelessness and reform the criminal justice system. Please visit her at www.marthaannetoll.com and Tweet to her @MarthaAnneToll.