Creative Nonfiction,  Issue 9

The Changing House by Luanne Castle

We moved every time the house needed painting. Dad said that it made more sense to pack it up than to spend money on paint and rollers. By the time I was ten, we had lived in five homes.

But Dad made sure we wouldn’t have to leave behind one of our houses. The neighborhood kids and I helped him unload scrapyard supplies from the wheelbarrow and then sat on the grass, watching him measure, saw, and hammer. The blades tickled the backs of my thighs, but still I sat, proud of my father for holding the kids transfixed. 

By the time my father nailed up the yellow secondhand siding, my new playhouse looked like a full-sized dollhouse. Then Dad did something uncharacteristic; he pulled out a bucket of paint. Unfortunately, it wasn’t hot pink, but what had to be his solution to everything, a color he referred to as brindle brown. If Dad had to paint something, it always ended up brindle brown.

Dad waved his brush back and forth across the window frames and the pseudo eaves. Then he painted the door with a thick coat of paint. “Go on now,” he said. “Paint’s gotta dry. You can play in it later.” Dad set up a sawhorse in front of the door.

I spent the afternoon dreaming about a little house of my very own. My own front door, my own windows, my own stone stoop in front. 

The next day, when the girl next door and I were slapping the tetherball, Dad marched outside with a pickle jar of yellow paint, a small brush, and a big piece of brown paper. Within minutes a small group of kids had assembled on the lawn.  He painted the door through a stencil. When he pulled off the paper, I saw a crescent moon shining on my front door. Somebody asked why he painted the moon.  

“The mark of an outhouse.” Dad chuckled. I didn’t have to ask what an outhouse was because I remembered the stinking shed outside Great Grandpa’s farmhouse with toilet hole and a stack of moldy catalogs to use for toilet paper. 

Later, as I huddled in the corner of my room, I wondered why Dad always had to ruin everything. Why couldn’t he be like other dads who put up basketball hoops over the garage door? He had put up a hoop for me, but mine was in the backyard, next to the little house, and he’d poured a concrete pad which wasn’t quite level and sent the ball bouncing at odd angles just when I was within two points of winning. The pole on the tetherball court was set in like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The kids couldn’t wait to play inside the playhouse. Near the ceiling, the rafters formed long wooden pockets where we stored secret agent supplies like decoder rings and invisibility raincoats and private notes listing the boys we liked. Eventually, those things became irretrievable as the wasps set up nests.

We discovered that during the summer, the little house was too hot. We’d haul the child-sized table and chairs out onto the grass. In the winter, the air was as frigid inside as it was outside, but the snow and ice couldn’t get in, so we’d sit in our snow pants and stocking caps and play Candyland. Our fingers froze as we pushed our tokens, but then we’d pull our hands back up into the sleeves of our jackets until it was our turn again.

Eventually, we lost interest in the playhouse and started walking up to the plaza to buy candy and try on lipsticks. The house still stood at the back lot line, an ignored remnant of my childhood, until one fall when we discovered a new use for the little building. 

We held sleepovers on Friday nights in the house, away from Mom’s prying eyes. One Friday, my next-door neighbor invited her brother’s friends. Before the boys showed up, we swigged the Grand Marnier I’d pinched from Dad’s bar in the basement. For a few minutes, my neighbor’s brother and I made out on top of my sleeping bag, but the boys didn’t stay long. After they mumbled their goodbyes, we practiced making each other pass out by squeezing our diaphragms. The tender skin on my upper lip burned from the neighbor boy’s stubble. That was one of the last nights we spent in the playhouse. 

When we moved away from my favorite neighborhood, Dad strapped the house onto a flatbed truck and hauled it to our newly-purchased rundown summer cottage. My mother christened my playhouse, “The Changing House,” bestowing on it a new identity. Inside we stored stretched out bathing suits, Styrofoam floaties, and boat cushions. Daddy long legs set up residence in there, too, wrapping everything in webs so that when we wanted to use something, we had to make sure our hands were dry enough to wipe them clean or the silk would adhere to our skin until we ran, screaming and shaking our hands, off the dock and plunged into the lake.

One night when I came in from a moonlight swim, I caught my twelve-year-old brother in the little house making out with the fourteen-year-old neighbor girl. Apparently, she didn’t mind that he looked nine, while she could be mistaken for sixteen. My brother grinned when I opened the door on them. 

Years later, my father moved the little house—now entirely brindle brown, the crescent moon long ago painted over–across the street, into the woods, where he used it as a storage shed. My brother built my parents a lovely home on the site of the old cottage. After my father’s death, my mother sold the lake property. Last time I drove by, the little house was gone. I imagine the new owners carted it to the junkyard where somebody scavenged it for usable parts. 

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Luanne Castle‘s Kin Types (Finishing Line), a chapbook of poetry and flash nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Her first poetry collection, Doll God (Aldrich), was winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, she studied at University of California, Riverside (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and Stanford University. Her writing has appeared in Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Broad Street, and other journals. 

2 Comments

  • Ellie Presner

    What a sweet and evocative story, Luanne! I see you share(d) the same fear of wasps and spiders as I did – and still do! I love how multi-purpose the ‘changing house’ was!

    You have a knack for piquing the senses with your writing. I almost shook my hands and arms too to rid myself of the cobwebs!

    This bit about the crooked basketball hoop and odd angles (“He had put up a hoop for me, but mine was in the backyard, next to the little house, and he’d poured a concrete pad which wasn’t quite level and sent the ball bouncing at odd angles just when I was within two points of winning”) reminded me SO much about a little piece I wrote myself, which I posted on my blog a few years ago. It’s here if you want to read it: https://crossedeyesanddottedtees.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/tennis-anyone/

    Anyway, I really enjoyed it! 😀

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