The Nutshell

by Elisia Guerena

Share this:
  • Email


Is what our brown, New Mexico house on the corner was, generally speaking, before Ben came along and first splintered, then shattered it apart: into rooms, walls, memories of I might be misconstruing in the mood of an unusual summer solstice. My recollections are parsed as such, because fragments are all that memory filters, after all.


Was pastel pink frou-frou and the only room in the house with a view, facing West: purple mountains crisscrossed by telephone wires strung along the dirt roads. Karl and Rose lived opposite. I saw them every morning in their front yard garden, bending over prize roses and spitting “damn” at every caterpillar. Usually Ben would run over to say hello, and more often than not to eat the cookies Rose made just for him. They loved Ben because he was funny and they liked us because they loved Ben. I liked pressing my face into the sun-warmed drapes and smelling the dust: warm, like something out of the oven.


Had lacy curtains that my mom washed four times a year but were always yellow. It lay on the East end of the house and was always dark and cool. I’d tip toe my way in there like you might tip toe in church. At their grey bedspread we kneeled to pray, get spanked, or whisper urgently about breakfast if we entered before they woke up. The details, like the whip of a belt, tend to blend together as all the same. 


Was where I found I couldn’t pee like my brothers. I was five and my mom walked by the open bathroom door to see me standing on top of the toilet bowl, trying to perfect my aim. Eyes a-squint, my mom skewed innovation as strange and she took me to a psychologist. The waiting room held pamphlets on hygiene rather than kids’ magazines. This made me dislike the man before I met him. Inside his office I saw heavy curtains, green plants and a chair too high for my feet to touch the ground. He asked me questions like if I liked being a girl, if I played with dolls, and pushed paper across the desk and asked me to draw something. I drew a picture of him.

  When the doctor lead me back out into the waiting room, I read the same tenseness in my mom’s face as when she slipped a curse word. He pulled her aside for adult talk, and I put my ear to the door to hear Charlie Brown voices and a chuckle. The next day my drawing was on the fridge. From bathroom to kitchen, the event had gone full circle.


Was where we set up lemonade stands during the summer for anyone who was thirsty, anyone at all. Cars drove by and some people hollered but I couldn’t hear what they were saying, in the wind in the dirt road as they drove by so fast. Robert built the frame and Ryan painted the wood and I got to twirl the spoon in the bowl like they do at the fair grounds. The lemonade went swish and the sky blew the clouds the same way. Ben wasn’t old enough to do anything, he waddled around in his diapers and pointed to the birds and if there weren’t customers we cawed back, as if it to tell the crows to tell the whole town where to get the best lemonade, Ben’s best lemonade, at the brown house in the street with no trees but with the nice teenager next door, taking Ben inside and showing him all there is to know about lemonade.


  Was often used to wash Ben off after an accident. I may have tried peeing standing up, but Ben liked to shit himself. He did well in diapers and was potty trained, but after he learned how to wipe and flush my mom would still find him squatting in the hall, dropping turds on the carpet. Sometimes he wouldn’t bother to stop; he’d walk down around the hall with feces dropping out of his pants like Hansel dropped crumbs. When he was five they took him to specialist doctors who would put probes up his anus and then as a reward for Ben, and the rest of us for being good in the waiting room, the whole family would go out for ice cream. It seemed everything in the world revolved around shitting and eating those days.

  However true that may have been, my parents were ashamed of the fact. My mom was a church-going granola girl, who wore sundresses and took us on nature walks. My dad was an engineer who didn’t drink black coffee until we were old enough to booze. The spirit of free love that united them at 16 turned stale when it brought them Jeffrey two years later. They had left the Catholic Church in search of different answers but when Ben was born, they went back. I think it was the only religion with enough guilt.


Jeffrey and Ryan thought it hilarious that Ben couldn’t keep his pants on, lit things on fire, and had no self-control. They would bring friends over to our tan carpeted, sparsely furnished living room, and since Ben got excited when company arrived they would laugh while watching him tear around the place with his pants dropped: “Naked Gun! Naked Gun! Naked Gun!”


Was where we ate family dinners before Ben’s birth, and the evening my mom’s water broke. My ears got a funny buzzing sound like when you have a high fever, and Jeffrey and Ryan ran in circles finding towels. That night the next-door neighbors’ son came over and watched us. I got up for a glass of water and found him necking with a girl on the couch, lights out. I grabbed my glass of water anyhow, went back to bed, and had a dream my mom had suffocated me with the Navajo blanket she kept on the couch.

  But the next morning I was breathing and so was Ben. He was fat and purple like most of us when we come out of the womb. My mom cooed over him and I got to eat the hospital jell-o from her tray. A nurse walked in to take a family picture: let’s get one with all the boys. I stood to the side as she snapped the camera three times and then said oops, out of film. The whole family looked stunning and the picture was sent out in Christmas cards, framed and put in our entryway.


I reminded my mom about this several years later, how the photo everyone saw didn’t include me, and she laughed. Then I told her about the dream I had the night Ben was born, and how for most of my childhood I thought it was real. Her eyebrows furrowed and asked how I could believe that. Because Dad did it to Ben, I said, during one of his fits.

  I felt bad as soon as I said it because I know my mom felt guilty about everything. I remember one night my dad took us out to the movies and mom stayed home. When we came back we found her on her knees in the entryway, crying in front of a picture of my grandfather. I didn’t know what to make of it but the air had the same heavy feeling as after a funeral. I walked past her into my bedroom, where the moon shone in sideways and I talked to it like someone might talk to God, or a ghost, or a photo, or your wall.


Had to constantly be painted from when Ben would throw a tantrum and throw his body against the furniture, across the room, like a human ping-pong ball. Sometimes Jeffrey, Ryan and I would get into the swing of things, throwing ourselves against the furniture with matching glee: we’re popcorn! We’re people! We’re fireflies!


Was where you went to sulk if you were in trouble. We could find Ben in there sometimes, looking through coats or taking the matches to play with in private. Ryan and I once found him there after he broke a lamp, putting on multiple pairs of underwear. “What are you doing?” we asked him. “To make it hurt less,” he said, showing us previous welts.


Is where mom would try to feed Ben’s stomach. The medication made his weight fluctuate, and he’d balloon outward before zeroing back into some emaciated figure that only got up to dry heave the watery soup my mom prepared. The one food he could always eat was oatmeal. Leaning my elbows on the Formica countertops I could hear the pot boiling, see Ben playing on the linoleum beneath my mother’s skirts. I felt ashamed that when she stood in the sun, you could see right through them. But in the yellow light of the steaming kettle and blazing heat, my mother wouldn’t notice. She’d push back her bangs while whispering on the phone to her friends about us. Afterwards I’d find a mirror and see if I could mimic that face: “You think that he did what?”


Was exactly what a backyard should be. My dad built us a swing set that we could swing high up into the twilight air of New Mexico, when purple breath hung heavy in the mountains and the sky became a womb for birds to nestle in. Ben broke his arm in that backyard three times. The strange thing about Ben’s condition is that he could hardly feel pain. So when he got his compound fracture from doing back flips off the trampoline, he ran in the house with his bone sticking out: look mom it’s red! And the morphine in the ambulance just made him laugh: I’ve got two mothers, he told the EMT, the old one and the young one sitting next to her. The worker looked from the face of mother to daughter, not sure what to believe or how to take Ben’s laugh. We took it for him, both his laughter and hurt. Sometimes I think the family just soaked his excess up. The pain he couldn’t feel was for all of us.


Was usually where Dad went when he lost his temper. When he was in there with Ben it was difficult to escape the sounds, since it also held the back door. The laundry also housed the litter box. This was where Ben huddled on the floor making cooing sounds to the cats, as he stuffed them in handkerchiefs or toasters or shoes. We stopped owning pets after a while.


Ben’s fits were unpredictable. He had no reason to go off unless we didn’t pay enough attention to him. Then he would scream and bite and to an outsider it probably sounded like he was being tortured. We reversed the locks on his bedroom door to keep him in one place. Once he got old enough to climb out the window my dad had to seal that off, too. I myself went to my bedroom and locked the door, and imagined the family without Ben. It was a hard thing to do. When I squinted my eyes shut I could only see his big white smile and hear his screams through the walls. His name alone was hard to handle. Ben-jam-in, syllables slammed together like a picture frame about to burst.


Was only used for holidays. Instead of decorating the Christmas tree, Ben and I would throw popcorn at it and called it snow. The stringed lights became headlights. And when we put up ornaments they caused many collisions, all observed by an aluminum ball because we didn’t understand the five points of stars.


Was where the accident started. Ben was seven and I was eleven and he found it curious that he could crawl in the idling truck, throw the shifter into reverse, and wheel across the street into Karl and Rose’s house. My dad heard the crash and when he found Ben pale shaken and wide eyed he didn’t have the heart to do anything but put his hands on his knees, panting like someone who just lost the race. Karl and Rose emerged blinking in the sunlight, and with a customary “well I’ll be damned,” surveyed the damage to their garden before the house. Insurance covered some of it but for the rest of our time living in the neighborhood you could find my brothers and me working in their garden, pulling weeds that hurt Karl’s back while Rose made us cookies since we were all sweet kids anyhow.

  Some people thought we should send Ben away. When Grandma would come over and whisper to mom about places we couldn’t afford I’d stuff my face in the couch cushions, trying to get back to the smell of oatmeal or dust or twilight. I’d do the same game, where I try to remember the house without Ben, and it would make the back of my throat hurt.


Was where we had family dinners. The last one I remember before going to college was like this. I made the salad in the amber glow of sunset, Bob Dylan in the CD player and ice tea on the counter. Ben, Jeffrey, and Ryan were in front of the TV, fish tank and soccer goal, respectively. Dad braved the grill and Mom tried to make conversation with different members of the family. I was touchy from being in the house for two days without talking to anyone else besides my family. The lamb roasted and the potatoes simmered and the salad looked nice in its blue ceramic bowl. Ben came out of his room, kicking the soccer ball out of Ryan’s reach on his way to the refrigerator. He took a huge bite from the fudge I bought for dessert and placed it back on the shelf: no pause to his fluid motion. I yelled at him for being a pig, and my mom aimed to alleviate the situation by pointing out that I drank straight out of a gallon of water. I justified my actions, even though I knew I should apologize and she knew that Ben’s bad actions are different; mine were almost innocuous and Ben’s were like the cock of a gun waiting to go off. Ryan yelled at him for knocking over the soccer ball that knocked over the coffee cup, and my dad sensed the anger from outside and came inside. Ben was pulled into the hallway while the potatoes simmered and the lamb made a nice smell from the barbeque outside. I heard yelling and an indefinable noise and knew it was something bad because my mom went stiff and silent while standing in the stream of sunlight from the windowpane. No one spoke, no one moved much and I was thankful that the music wasn’t overly cheerful or loud on the solitary CD player. I put down the salad bowl and saw everyone freeze as Dad came back in the house and we all saw my mom, frozen, standing in front of the window with what can only be described as stone staring out of her face. Dad became silent and wouldn’t talk because you can’t talk when you’re suffocating from your anger. And the potatoes overcooked and the salad became wilted and no one noticed because no one has an appetite then; no one wanted to be in the house that was this house that is here. And it was dark but the lights stay off because no one cares that the sun has set. My mom stared out a dark window.
And finally it was time to eat.


Was what we eventually called that house. Dad got a job promotion and with all three older kids moved out; they could use a change of space anyway. We packed up the bookcases, full of children’s bedtime stories and self help books and instruction manuals on how to build rockets. On a spring break I came home to paint over the pink walls, for the last time putting on a coat of paint to cover marks from moving furniture, scuffs on the walls from shoes thrown off, and finally to get rid of that smell of dust which pervaded the house even during the winter. Ben had been imprisoned for stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment from Wal-Mart. He committed the act three days after his 18th birthday. I was going to open a pawn shop, he told us. I needed a jump start. I hadn’t visited him yet but looking out the window saw the New Mexico horizon for the last time, and as the canyons expanded to take in the breaths of air, I took my own deep breath and shut the door.

Born and raised in Arizona, Elisia Guerena attended the University of Notre Dame and graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies. She currently lives and works in Seattle, where she nannies by day and writes by night. Contact: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Issue 12 contents