During the summers preceding our parent’s divorce, we were
kept in our grandparents’ attic. Except for tv shows and hotdog
meals, of which we partook downstairs, the bulk of our time
those summers was spent folded under dormers, frolicking among
antique toys, reams of paper, a dollhouse and decade-size piles
Shoved up against a sloping wall of the north dormer, there
was a coffin-shaped toybox. Grandfather had made the toybox for
my father, and it held a sawdust-filled dog on wheels, a clown
whose painted face had long since rubbed off, some Yogi Bear
bowling pins, several jigsaw puzzles in boxes that were
Scotch-taped at the corners, and a quiz game: Name the
Capitals of the 48 States.
Toni preferred the Yogi Bear bowling game to the outdated
geography quiz. She set the worn pins up repeatedly, and knocked
them down with a dented plastic ball so they would clatter about
the linoleum and roll under our shared double bed. Toni would
emerge from gathering the pins, time and time again, covered in
dust bunnies. I was happy to see this rendition of my
little-sister-as-urchin, for as luck would have it, of the two
of us, she had been blessed with the gorgeous gene, and I had
As for me—bookish, bossy and plain—I was more interested in
the magazines and catalogs hidden behind sliding plywood, on the
east side of the attic. National Geographic,
Scientific American, McCalls, Family Circle:
our grandparents hoarded them all. When she grew bored with the
bowling game, Toni joined me. She clipped out all the Betsy
McCall paper dolls featured on the last page of the namesake
magazines, but to me, the little cherub in lacy white underpants
seemed far too angelic. Too cute. More interesting were the
Sears and Roebuck catalogs, with the expansive toy sections
in the back containing doll carriages, high chairs, cradles. I
grabbed the scissors from my sister’s hand as she scrambled to
find a second pair, and together we cut out photos of these
toys, and taped them to wish lists: scraps of yellowed paper
from the swollen oak desk on the west side of the attic.
Naively, we scrawled the outdated prices next to the
merchandise, creating documents of hope and expectation, for we
each had several dollars saved, flattened and stuffed in wallets
we made from vinyl and gimp at the Stanley Demming Park summer
camp where Grandmother deposited us occasionally.
So there we were, clipping and writing and dreaming. The
sketches in the catalog were very fancy—different from the more
contemporary Sears catalogs my mother consulted—and it gradually
dawned on me, on my nine-year-old brain, that these catalogs
were twenty years out of date. Toni sat next to me, musing out
loud: should we order the tiny set of dishes, or the fancy
perambulator? "We can’t buy these," I said.
"Because they don’t sell these toys anymore."
Just that. Oh, and a shrug, and on to the next thing.
I felt like pushing her. Felt the weight, once again, of being
an older, plainer, smarter big sister. Toni headed back to the
toybox and began untangling a length of rope. "I’m going to
pretend this is my pet," she said.
I yanked the rope from her hand. "You’re a stupe!"
I shrieked: "We’re not playing invisible pet! We’re going to
make stuff. Dolls, and doll equipment. Now!"
"Um. Okay," said my little sister, who had just lost her
first tooth a few days earlier and thus had received non-stop
attention of every adult we’d encountered. I was glad we had the
day before us, up in the attic. Thankful that our day would not
be punctuated with adults cooing at Toni as though she were a
Persian kitten or the Hope Diamond.
Luckily, we had an entire roll of newsprint our mother had
left us before scooting off to finish her education at some sort
of art camp. We had a box of crayons, scissors, glue. We had
Lego, Playdoh. We had scraps of material.
In summers past, we’d invented a game called The Bunny
Family, which consisted of four sizes of crude rabbits made
from various Lego bricks. Babies, children, teenagers and
parents. We hopped them around, Toni’s red family, my black one,
engaged them in picnics on chenille bed spreads, rides on the
ancient wheeled dog. The teenagers of our bunny families were
extremely ill-behaved. They often hopped off to smoke cigarettes
fashioned from the ends of toothpicks and affixed to the centers
of their brick heads with pinches of Playdoh. Sometimes, they
pushed their siblings off the bed, sending them cracking to
pieces on Grandmother’s linoleum floor. Alas, because of the
smooth, rigid construct of these Lego clans, their possibilities
were finite. We couldn’t give them hair, or various body shapes.
I wanted to create kids who were naughty, obviously
naughty, and smooth, generic Lego bunnies somehow missed the
Meanwhile, my father and mother were both having affairs. My
father, the doctor (Grandmother and Grandfather’s only child),
was back in San Diego, venturing over the border into Tijuana
occasionally, to partake of inexpensive prostitutes as a
supplement to his serial stash of nurses. My mother entertained
relationships with the odd artist or eccentric stoner up at art
school. Though I didn’t really understand adult
relationships—the concept of fidelity, the idea of cheating—I
had overheard some late-night conversations between my parents.
My mother’s boyfriends were referred to as "those guys you sleep
with," while my father’s dalliances included "whooers,"
and "those gals in the ER."
The clandestine nature of these liaisons was transmitted
through the tenor of my father’s voice. There was a high-pitched
squeak to the sound, consistent with an angry tirade, only in
these conversations he tried to rein in his wrath to the
confines of a whisper.
In the shadow of our parents’ trysts, we invented a new game.
For this rendition of family life we turned to the newsprint,
pens and scissors. We called it Stanleys and Joes. The
new families featured infants, youngsters, adults, and bad
teenagers. Stanley was the troubled adolescent from my family;
Joe belonged to Toni’s. The parents of our Stanleys and Joes
were ineffectual backdrop. Hardly worthy of drawing, let
alone cutting out. We offered, like the adults in Peanuts,
only their muffled voices. The babies were likewise,
unimportant. Often we never even bothered cutting them out of
We drew several rough drafts of Stanley and Joe, however,
only satisfied when the diameters of their unruly tresses were
large enough to imagine doll-sized rats, snakes and spiders
hiding there. Stanley and Joe sported, in addition to their
tonsorial calamities, long, unclipped fingernails. They hid
vegetables in their hair, and disgorged various bugs and
reptiles in order to scare the little kids behind their parents’
backs. They refused, of course, to bathe, which led to
occasional modification with crayon or ink pen, denoting
We found some craft eyes in the bottom of the toybox, and
attempted to stick them on the faces of our teenagers, but when
we did, Stanley and Joe resembled the nerds of the Mystery
Date board game, not at all our intention. And yet, the idea
of a nerdy family member was somehow crucial.
Enter James. James was the archetypal pariah. Fat, zitty,
bespectacled, he was the perfect target for a Stanley or a Joe.
We each had a James. Toni’s was more definite in outline,
mine more festooned with acne. We pasted craft eyes on these new
paper dolls, and drew heavy, black-framed glasses around them.
The weight of the eyes caused their heads to bend forward,
making interaction, especially interaction involving Stanley and
Joe, impossible. We discovered pipe cleaners were the perfect
remedy, and taped them down the backs of our cut-outs. Oh, what
fun we had, launching epithets at our unpopular Jameses.
Throwing hearty paper knuckle punches.
As time went on, we became obsessed with this game. So much
so that we began to bring the paper dolls with when Grandmother
called us down for lunch. One day, Grandmother noticed our
companions as we carefully laid them down on the table beside
our frankfurters and cucumber salad lunch. She held my Stanley
up to the window, "This is just a scribble here," she said,
pointing at the coiling hair of my Stanley, the pasted on rat
facsimile peeking from the mess. "What a gruesome little man,"
she said, holding the paper doll at arm’s length just before
slapping him down next to my plate.
"Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline." She shook her head.
"And all those instructions from Mrs. Becker."
Ingrid Becker was, like Grandmother, a member of the Warwick
Art League, and we’d taken a few of her children’s art lessons.
They were expensive, however, and a bit out of the way, whereas
the Stanley Demming Park and its cheesy craft sessions were free
and just a few blocks from the house. But when we offered our
park crafts up for inspection, Grandmother would hold them to
the light, peering through bifocals, trying desperately to
translate the value of the gimp key chain or the gum-wrapper
necklace into her upper-class Viennese frame of reference.
Grandmother eventually gave up on art lessons for us. We seemed
content up in the attic, after all, so both the Ingrid Becker
classes and the park craft afternoons fell by the wayside.
"Where is the effort?" Grandmother asked, wagging her finger
first at us, then at our Stanley, Joe and James dolls who were
now propped against the alpine motif napkin holder. "Why do you
make these scraps when Grandfather’s dollhouse sits in the
"But we do play with it," Toni and I lied, in unison,
with practiced sing-song voices. We’d stayed up all night
playing with the dollhouse Grandfather had painstakingly crafted
that first Christmas, three-and-a-half years earlier. A
residence down the street had served as a model: the dentist’s
home. The entire front wall of the house was a door you could
open, complete with a small, brass knob. There was a living
room, a bathroom and two bedrooms, initially, and a small wooden
staircase connecting top with bottom. With each renovation,
presented on subsequent Christmases, the dollhouse became more
cumbersome, less graspable.
The previous Christmas, Grandfather had introduced a maid
doll and a maid’s quarters, complete with a large deck and
plastic ornamental shrubs. With my pre-adolescent growth spurt
had come a clumsiness, and I invariably knocked over miniature
tchotchkes and dismembered tiny chairs while reaching into one
of the studies from the foyer. Playing dollhouse consisted more
of re-erecting items than following the "imagination," and I
forbade my little sister, who, naturally, was not cursed with my
brand of clumsiness, from playing dollhouse when there were
funner things to do.
We ate our frankfurters in silence while Grandmother dusted
the cuckoo clock and muttered something about the housekeeper
missing a section of wax on the kitchen floor.
Funner things, the following summer, included hours of
television. I was now ten years old, and had just completed
fourth grade in San Diego, where, in addition to awkward, I’d
grown astoundingly unattractive: my teeth achieving maximum
buck, my hair a new layer of frizz, and my eyes galloping to
coke bottle territory. Toni, with her long eyelashes and pixie
voice, remained an affront. There had been one episode, in the
bathroom at Point Loma Elementary, where I had been approached
by one of my sister’s classmates. "Your last name is Houston?
Like Toni Houston?" I nodded at the girl’s incredulous
expression. "But why is she so pretty, and you’re such a dog?" I
was still of an age where I thought all questions required an
answer of some sort, but the query was one I myself pondered
relentlessly. So I shrugged, and continued rubbing powdered soap
into my raw, red hands.
So here we were, back at Grandmother’s house for another
summer. This was the year we began viewing All My Children.
We’d worked up to it slowly, prolonging our television time
gradually, sitting through myriad game shows: Truth or
Consequences, Let’s Make a Deal. Up in the attic,
Toni and I had created a blended version of the soap operas and
game shows, and for this, we returned to the roll of newsprint.
We traced life-size male dolls around each other’s bodies: three
for each of us, because that was the format on The Dating
Game. Then, we set our prospects on the sofa facing the
dusty dollhouse, their paper bodies bent at their penis-less
crotches. We took turns being the host, inventing answers for
the three paper boyfriends. The other of us, the one seeking a
date, sat on the very edge of the sofa, separated from the paper
boyfriends by the flat plywood roof of the maid’s quarters.
"Where would you take me on a date?" Toni might ask.
"Bachelor number one?"
"To the park," I’d say in a deep, affecting voice. "To sit on
the bench and kiss."
"Bachelor number two?"
"Um….I’d buy you a mink coat."
"We’d go to the church and get married, so we could go on the
And that’s exactly where this game would lead, to another
question and answer session, where we’d take turns exposing our
paper husbands as buffoons, as on the real Newlywed Game,
so we could wallop them for their stupidity.
Meanwhile, on All My Children, we witnessed the
infamous Erica, Phillip, Jeff and Tara storyline. Toni and I sat
transfixed, stuffed animals under our stretchy summer shirts
(for our paper husbands had managed to impregnate us), watching
that vixen Erica plot against Tara, to get Phil. Our own
husbands were named English. Both of them. We called them the
Englishes, and referred to them casually in our banter, patting
our stuffed animal tummies until one afternoon Grandmother burst
into the TV room to announce the boiling of the frankfurters,
and caught us in our faux maternity. "This is not a game," she
huffed. "Having a child is a blessed event. You must never make
It hadn’t occurred to us that we were acting out a parody of
childbearing. One couldn’t play house properly without a baby,
and one couldn’t have a baby without first being pregnant. It
was cause and effect, just as one couldn’t appear on the
Newlywed Game without first capturing a spouse from the
It was clear that we needed to work on the stealth of our
escapades. Our stern but well-meaning Grandmother looked sad as
she watched us act out pregnancy. As if in doing so, we were
circumventing innocence. Disrespecting the state of maternity. I
felt sorry for Grandmother, who sometimes stood for half an hour
in front of a childhood picture of my father. I wondered if she
knew. Or what she knew, of her son’s married life.
Back home, before this latest summer, my parents’ casual
affairs had become less subtle. There was the one morning I
chanced to discover a blue van parked in front of our house. A
vehicle belonging to my mother’s friend, Jack. My father had
been out of town. That afternoon, my mother took me aside. "He’s
just a friend, Jackie," she said. "Even though he spent the
night, nothing happened."
Jack. I thought of unappealing things that rhymed with Jack,
as in: there once was a dickhead named Jack… sack, shack, slack,
smack. Why did his name have to sound so much like my name?
My mother asked me to explain this friendship to my
little sister. "She’s so sensitive about these things," my
mother said. I doubt my little sister even noticed, nor would
she have a frame of reference for nothing happened. As
much as I wanted the conversation with my mother to end, I had
to ask. "So, are you guys getting a divorce?"
"Darling," my mother said, trying to pry my eyes up into hers
by twisting weirdly in her seat and inserting her face near my
collar bone, "I can’t answer that right now."
Our father, who was south of the border for an undisclosed
reason, returned the following weekend. His first day back he
spent with our mother, locked in their bedroom. Soft, warm
murmurs came from behind their door, like apologies after a
fight. Toni and I had been promised a trip to the zoo, but as
the day wore on it became clear: there would be no outing. We
decided to make a mess in the kitchen. We had a jar of this new
product, Marshmallow Fluff, and a TV commercial showed kids
making something called Fluffernutter sandwiches. Toni
was spreading Skippy on the Wonder bread we had also convinced
our mother to buy, and I had a tablespoon heaped with a mound of
marshmallow innards when our father stumbled into the kitchen in
He took a long, appraising look at me, my father did. The
same way he’d passed his eyes over his Corvette once, after he’d
watched a car parked next to it graze its hard, red finish. His
eyes stopped at the glopping mound of white in a spoon held near
my mouth. He shifted his glance to my belly, which had, over the
last year, pooched out in a roll over my waistband.
"Jackie," he said, "you’re turning into a fat slob."
He filled a glass with ice cubes and orange juice, then
returned to our mother, in the bedroom. I stuck the entire
tablespoon of Marshmallow Fluff into my mouth and kept it there
until I knew I wasn’t going to cry.
We developed a new version of Stanleys and Joes
called: This is How it Happened. In This is How it
Happened, we’d draw an unfortunate child on the
newsprint—again, using our own outlines. Usually, the child
would be dismembered or mutilated in some fashion. Perhaps the
child would be missing an arm, or some vital organ. The drawing
details were best left to my sister, who now, even according to
Grandmother, was showing artistic talent. That left me
with the happy chore of narrative. For example:
This is James, and he used
to be a happy boy, but one day he decided not to come home for
supper. Instead, he stole his little brother’s bike. As
punishment, he was hit by a car, and now he’s a retard.
Toni hated when I invented an affliction
that was difficult to draw, such as retardation, and she would
edit my narrative, inviting a dented skull at least, or hair
that grew out in patches. Occasionally, I had to pull rank and
grab her pen to introduce a Frankenstein scar or a tilted,
elongated mouth: "It’s pretty obvious that he’s not
The "anymore" was the crux of our game. All our freaks had
been born normal. The interesting part was developing a story
about each child, finding a heinous accident or misdeed that
would result in spectacular malformation. Toni and I were God.
We were fate. We had ultimate power.
In August, Tara got Phillip, and Erica set her sights on
Tara’s brother, Jeff (the doctor). Erica’s evil behavior kept me
both riveted and disgusted. I imagined inflicting a This is
How it Happened narrative on Erica—inordinate weight gain,
facial burns. Toni, however, hated Erica so much she stopped
watching TV for a while. Instead, she began organizing our toys
upstairs in the attic. I’d return to the attic after lunch to
find stuffed animals lined up according to height, and paper
dolls in various categories, stacked one atop the other with
last year’s Stanleys and Joes peeking out of an old crayon box
to weight down the pile.
Toni had taken to dusting off Grandfather’s dollhouse, and, I
suspected, playing with it. When I returned to the attic, there
she would be, cuddled up in a chair with the toy maid and the
baby, murmuring some sort of nurturing dialogue. The sweetness
of it made me sad, somehow. I retreated to the north dormer,
pried open the lid of the toybox coffin, and thrust my hands
inside. The rough, unyielding fur of the dog on wheels prickled
my hands. The metal puzzles were cold to the touch. I kept
moving my hands around in the toybox, as I imagined a blinded
pirate might look for treasure. And, soon, I was rewarded. My
hands discovered a small book.
The cover of the book—a boy holding a pencil between his hand
and cheek while resting his elbow on a desk—jolted me with
recognition. Where before I’d felt depressed and lethargic, I
now experienced a burst of energy. The boy on the cover had a
daydreamy look on his face, staring out into space. In his
expression, I saw myself. Clearly, this boy was enchanted by
something inside his head. I wondered, suddenly, if this had
been a favorite book of my father’s. If he also aligned with the
boy on the cover. The Good, Bad Boy, this book was
I sat next to Toni, and began to read the story of this good,
bad boy. His classroom was a lot like one I’d attended, back
when I went to Sacred Heart—the year I developed a twitch in my
right eye. Confined to a Catholic School of strict nuns and
spirit-numbing punishment, the good, bad boy longed for release
of some type. The book was composed of his eighth grade diary
entries. It was the first book I’d encountered told through the
voice of an actual boy, and because of that, my mind kept
wandering to my father. The thought of my father as a boy in
that attic, the thought of him as Grandmother’s little boy,
before he became a husband. A father.
Toni had fallen asleep. She was so beautiful, my sister, with
the maid and baby still curled in her fist, her cheek laying
against the polished wood arm of the chair. I hated and loved my
sister’s beauty. A paradox, like the good, bad boy. Like Erica.
At the end of the summer, our mother came to fetch us. She
looked rested and happy. No circles under her eyes. More smiles
than usual. On our last day in Grandmother’s attic, our mother
floated as she packed our suitcases, commenting on our
imaginations when she came across the discarded paper dolls,
which were piled up in the toybox— relegated to a common coffin.
"I’m glad you made use of the newsprint," she said. "My
little James Thurbers."
We stared at our mother. Wondered at her psychic abilities.
She was humming, as though the name she’d uttered was a
The next day, we left the summer’s creations in their crude
coffin, and, wearing matching gingham sundresses, Toni and I
boarded the plane with our mother for the long flight back to
San Diego. When we arrived, there stood our father, his round,
whiskery face greeting us. And this is how it would remain until
the divorce was final, ten years later: Toni and I, our
enigmatic parents, together, apart, together, just like tape and
scissors and a family of paper dolls.
Suzy Vitellos’s short stories have appeared nationwide
in such literary journals as Tarpaulin Sky, Kalliope and
among others. She holds an MFA from Antioch University in Los
Angeles and she lives in Portland, Oregon.