When my sister and I would whisper in our beds, in the dark, we would review what we knew about The Debbies, two different girls with the same name we had each befriended at our school in town. I’d make a slope with my striped nightgown by bending my knees up and pulling the fabric tight. One by one, I’d trace the stripes with my finger while I listened to my older sister talk. “They buy that weird cereal that comes in a bag, not a box,” she’d say about "her" Debbie. This was somber information, offered in a disapproving hiss while I listened in silence. It had all been said night after night in this room with the tidy twin beds; we reviewed it as if studying a holy text, or as if committing something to memory that is so special or so awful that you never want to forget it. “I saw ants inside the house,” I intoned in turn, after respectful silence.
* * *
And it was last weekend that my husband and I crawled along the perimeter of our own house, searching for rat holes we could block with wadded-up steel wool. They’re starting to bother the chickens at night, and we can’t have them stealing the feed or threatening the egg production on which we’ve come to rely. The ants in the upstairs bathroom are of little concern to me. I look at them as I would look at dirt that moves, which doesn't sound very enlightened. But we have forged an uneasy peace. If they happen to make their way into the shower stall, they will feel the fatal sting of Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, otherwise they are free to take shelter from the wet and cold along these baseboards. I address them with grudging tolerance. I see you’re still here. If you make your way to the kitchen, there will be trouble.
* * *
“My” Debbie was my age, in first grade. I had been to her house exactly twice. The first time was for her sixth birthday. My mother had dropped me off in her unfamiliar neighborhood, one where porches leaned at the front of houses heavy and creaking like ships. Her birthday cake had been bright pink, her mother loud and wearing baggy sweatpants. Something about the cake had embarrassed me. It seemed not right, the frosting too thick, everything lopsided and the pink was really dark. Most of the celebration had happened outside on that groaning and rickety front porch. I was confused because instead of grass in their front yard, they had rippling dunes of hardened dirt, laced with tracks in the soft dust that had been made by the sorry-looking Matchbox cars that were scattered in miniature junkyard heaps. No one seemed to mind if you dug deep holes, so that’s what we did for a long time that afternoon.
* * *
Here had come the first birthday for one of the kids after we’d lost the car. I strapped an empty box to the back of my bike with a frayed bungee cord. Before experience taught us alternatives, to get to the store I would take the four-lane busy road over the highway, dodging the cars accessing the on- and off-ramps. The drivers always looked surprised to see a cyclist. I respected that, and accommodated with painstaking care and near constant use of my bike bell.
I should have made the cake myself, I thought. I was in the grocery store, feeling the efforts of the grueling bike ride in the pinkness of my skin, and the sweat that was beginning to trickle down in hidden places, making the sudden shock of air conditioning an uncomfortable thing. I was regretting not having planned ahead, knowing I should have come days ago and bought the flour, the baking powder, vanilla. This was new, this needing to be so exacting with the errands of daily life. Now here was this day, my son’s fourth birthday, and in these last hours, I was trying to secure this single-serving cake so that it wouldn’t shift in the box on the long ride home. Helium balloons were tied to my handles.
I lost two of the five balloons in the wind that whips on the overpass. The cake did get smashed. But it was okay. Next time would be better.
* * *
The neighborhood my Debbie lived in made me think of camping. Places that didn’t look like places people could live had curtained windows and porch lights: absurdly small cottages in between and behind the big houses, garage apartments with high wooden staircases, making you feel like there was a tree house somewhere just out of sight. Hiding spots. Small places. People had brought out indoor furniture—with cushions and all—and used it on the porches, or even in the yard. One house had a entire living room set up, with a cord running long out the front door to power the TV with its catawampus rabbit ear antennae. Winters were long and hard here; people tended to want to be outside at every opportunity during temperate months, especially in this ramshackle quadrant. Cars were parked just everywhere, and people worked on them or leaned against them, talking and smoking. Our cars were always in our garage, and the garage door was never, ever to be left opened; that was the zipper fly of the house, and before the day was through, all toys and bikes were tucked inside.
“The dad was at home in the middle of the day,” I said, not knowing why this was wrong, but knowing somehow that it was. “He was on the couch.”
* * *
My underemployed husband comes home at four, and finds the door locked and himself without a key. He texts me: sit-rep? where are you? I forgot my key. Minutes later, at the park, he rolls up and takes off his helmet, strolls toward the kids. They climb him, scaling to the top like it’s a frantic and happy contest, and when they reach the buzzed scruff of the top of his head they free-fall back down. Before we can even greet each other, they are back to building this makeshift mountain, making a fence for their fortress out of broken sticks.
At home, we bring our bikes inside our garage-less house. They lean in a metal tangle in the dining room. The kids use them sometimes for part of their fort construction, carefully avoiding the oily chains so as not to sully the blankets. We have a permanent fort upstairs, built from mattresses in their bedroom. There’s no furniture to interfere, and they’re raised up on a makeshift bunk bed arrangement. Old patchwork quilts turn it into a spot as cozy as a rabbit warren. They’ve even got a lamp under there.
This is a fort-friendly house. There is nothing to mar here. Doors lack knobs in some instances, and windows don’t close completely. The chickens have taken over the back yard and the ramshackle deck. Vines grow over one window, which probably isn’t good for the house’s structure, but makes it look like we’re in a magical forest from the inside.
* * *
Debbie’s mattress was on the floor. I asked her where her headboard was and it was like she didn’t hear me. She belly-flopped onto the Raggedy Ann quilt. My Debbie had bicycles parked in her house. I couldn’t help but stare when I visited, though I did it with the appropriate shy politeness. It seemed so out of place to see a bicycle just leaning cavalierly against the wall of a bedroom, which meant it had to have been rolled through the front door and—horror!—across the carpet. Which, come to think of it, didn’t matter much, considering that what they had in the living room was a dirty turquoise shag, mashed flat in spots, cheerful but crumb-laden. Parts of their house didn’t have carpet even, just exposed floorboards that might give you splinters if you weren’t careful. I remember her brother, sitting on the floor watching cartoons while eating cereal right out of the box. He shoved his arm as far down as he could and pulled up a finger-full of sugary powder, licked, and then dove down for more.