Amelia Garretson-Persans lives and writes in Nashville, Tenn. This short is selected from her original text-and-image collection House Stories. Find more from her via her website: http://www.ameliagarretsonpersans.com.
Down by the bay,
Where the watermelon grow,
Back to my home,
I dare not go.
Long, spindly, dancing legs, jumping and shaking, carrying them forth, but this time it isn’t out of fear for the Walrus — it’s a celebration! The oysters are delicious and they’re the first to know it. My uncle Steve compiles sheet music from the ’20s, the ’30s – even the ’40s — all in the service of proving that oysters have always been and always will be delicious. The faceless animals, they put spats on over their boots, they balance top hats on their craggy foreheads, and oh, the pearls! Their fingerless hands are adorned to bursting. Shimmering, iridescent pearls blast forth from red, sagging gloves with visible stitching. Now they are doing the conga! They bump into one another heedlessly and laugh and scream when one of their number falls. The irregularities created in the path by fallen dancers create a kind of stage where others thrive. There is jumping and twirling and a kind of guttural, wordless — not unmusical — din. Anticipation pushes the march forward — they have been waiting for this day for as long as they could dream and praying for their legs – praying that they wouldn’t get two left feet! Oh they have waited for the eyeless, uncomprehending gaze of their shallow water neighbors, neither surprised nor jealous, only feeling the automatic twitch of phantom limbs, as they — the blessed oysters! — surged out of the water. Into the pot, into the stew, into the cauldron! They are part of a madwoman’s spell — they will live forever! My grandmother is arranging the recipe in a book of lined paper. It is the 1940s and people don’t have time for much, but they still have time for — ragtime! She is in Manhattan in the already declining Tin Pan Alley district, and she is being paid by the hour to realize someone else’s crazy fever dream. This dream is like a phoenix, jittering and lilting up out of the ashes with a clownish, fooling smile. It spreads itself thin and then tightens itself back up like an accordion, floating above and mocking without language — without reason — the winter smog below.
Oyster Bay! Oyster Bay! If only it were that simple! But they were always watching, peering up out of the murky bay water providing a constant, silent commentary. They thought they were so smart! The idea is a house — so simple! — a house where my mother will someday buy all of my grandfather’s pipes, unused since the ’70s, since people had the first inkling that their pleasures might be killing them, where an unlucky frog finds himself encased eternally in unforgiving, yet empathetic cement and the topic of much heated debate, where a rebellious teenage daughter begins a life of crime snipping squares out of department store dresses and ironically ends up scrawling lurid details into a small, black notebook, donning only a minimally altered pillowcase. But the idea is not only a house! It is also a labyrinth! Un labyrinto! A house within a house within a house. A sister within a sister within a sister, like a Russian doll. There is only one brother and he is the prize. There are parts of the house that no one even knows about: an art deco and bejeweled bathroom tucked away behind a set of stairs that could completely resolve all of the family’s financial troubles, an upstairs bedroom triple the size of anyone else’s room with two small children’s cots for ghosts, and a billiard room where the pool balls play themselves, and quite well at that. The idea is generally a house set apart from the woods, guarded by bewitched, tame animals, but sometimes it is just easier that the house is actually a part of the woods, that its swimming pool be fed by underground, naturally occurring iron pipes, that unfinished steps or lampposts rise up out of the earth like weeds, or that the floorboards never creak, their cracks filled with damp, springy moss. When mostly everyone leaves – except of course the oysters and Uncle Steve – the houses continue to run themselves. In some ways they are tidier than they ever were filled with people and aspirations.
Sheet music is no longer hand-typeset, though it is still winter. My father plays children’s songs on the trumpet from a book perched on the same music stand he used in high school, and I wonder at the words I cannot read spoken by the trumpet. I like to eat eat eat eeples and baneenees. These are fruits I cannot imagine but would not eat anyway. The music staff in its unerring regularity and its careful, tacit watch of notes that soar or dive above and below its confines reiterates a promise of protection with each turn of the page. I like to oot oot oot ooples and banoonoos. I imagine a whale with a polka-dotted tail. Rhymes form the basis of a more realistic, more ordered and understandable reality. They have more weight, more plausibility than facts. The house is riddled with rhymes and the rhymes are its history and its future. I stack them on the shelves and save them for later:
“Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more –
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.”