In the Attic, One Must Not Wear Shoes by Alexander Cendrowski
Editorial intern Rob Ball on today's bonus story: With effortless prose and Polaroids, Alexander Cendrowski takes his young characters on a journey of self-discovery in their parents' attic. The fragility of the sibling bond amidst a fractured marriage reminds us that our futures are as ever-changing as the shifting light of a lava lamp.
In the Attic, One Must Not Wear Shoes
I’d never been in the attic. Sonny hadn’t either, though if one of us had been, it would have been him. He’d always been the braver twin, despite us being physically identical, and despite him being born seven minutes after I was. Mom had too much rosé once and told me I’d kicked him on my way out of her uterus, straight in the head, pushing him right back inside and right out of our elementary school’s sixth grade gifted program. But the kick must have made him brave, too, which is good, because I’m what Dad calls a sissy. Mom calls me her “special boy.” Sonny calls me Julie, like I ask him to.
Anyway, we’d never been in the attic, because the attic looked like this:
But then, on one of our parents’ few-and-far-between date nights, where Dad takes Mom out to a nice local restaurant like a Chili’s or Denny’s or Applebee’s, I found Sonny standing with bare feet on the top of Dad’s work bench, arm stretched to grab the rope that opened the attic’s ceiling-door. With the other arm, he held Dad’s old lava lamp from the 70s, which somehow still worked. Its cord wrapped once around his leg and disappeared behind the bench.
“What are you doing?” I said. “You know we have to wear shoes in the garage.”
Our mother was obsessively compulsive, which meant we had a foot-specific dress code for every room in the house. Shoes were to be worn only outside and in the garage. They were to be taken off just in front of the entrance, where they could be placed on a small rubber mat, which Mom sanitized regularly. In the kitchen: socks. In the living room: socks. In the bathroom: socks. And we’d have to wear socks to bed, too. In case of sleep-walking.
“Shut up, Julie,” said Sonny. “I’m trying to get into the attic. Hold this, will you?”
He handed down the lava lamp, which I nearly dropped onto the work bench. Even at its base, the lamp was scalding to the touch—it must have been on for hours. And Sonny’d been holding it one-handed. But it was as if he didn’t have the capacity for pain; he sprung the few inches he needed to grab onto the attic’s rope, dragging down the attached ceiling door and riding it to the ground with a grunt. Once the door’s splintering ladder was fully extended, he made an announcement: I was going up into the attic with him.
In case of murderers. Or rats.
“Carrol and Dominic won’t be home for at least an hour,” he said, grabbing the lava lamp again. “They put you in charge. That means it’s your responsibility to make sure my wounds get the proper medical attention.”
Carrol and Dominic were what Sonny called our parents, which he’d started to do when he was seven. He called all adults by their first names, and he liked to shake hands too. We used to practice—or, he would practice on me. But that didn’t last long. “Our hands fit too well together,” he told me, at recess in second grade. “It’s not a challenge.”
“Do you want the aloe ointment?” I said, still standing at the foot of the ladder as he made slow headway up it. My hands were both practically glowing just from having touched the lamp for a few seconds. I figured his were going to be scarred for life.
“Just bandages and stuff,” he said. “And hurry up, or you’re going to be the one explaining to Dominic why I got a perfectly preventable infection under your watch.”
Which got me running. I grabbed as many bandages as I could from under the sink and shoved them in a makeshift first-aid kit that was actually a shoebox. But as I went back for Neosporin, something caught my eye, and I pulled it out instead. It was an old Polaroid camera, the kind that prints small color photographs on demand. Dad gave it to me for a birthday years ago, said he’d bought it when it was brand new. I’d used it for a while, treasured it the way I used to treasure gifts from him. And there it was, under the sink. I don’t know why, but I stuck it in the kit, which, minus the camera, looked like this:
By the time I was back in the garage, Sonny was already neck-deep in attic. The lava lamp was still in his arms, though the cord had come undone from the wall. He called out, “Hey, if there are any murderers up here, now’s your chance,” and kept climbing.
I grabbed an extension cord and connected it to the lava lamp, moving quick to avoid the black widow Sonny swears he saw once behind Dad’s bench. Something above me, something I would soon be climbing into, prompted a “Woah, dude” from Sonny.
It would take me another forty-three seconds of agonizing curiosity and certain anxiety to actually climb the ladder and see what Sonny was seeing, to discover for myself what he’d stumbled into. He wouldn’t tell me what it was, insisting that I needed to come up and see it for myself. He hardly talked to me at all, letting silence answer my panicked questions. But I could still see his face, when he looked down at me through the ceiling hole that, at the time, seemed so far away. His face looked like this:
And I suppose soon enough my face looked like that too.
But before that, I had to make it up the ladder, an effort which has since become so simple, so natural, but on that first night felt like swimming through broken glass. As soon as my feet were off the ground, the floor swirled into a quicksand whirlpool, and the number of steps increased by as many as fifty-three, and I became very aware of the ways in which my half-first-aid kit took up both my arms, and Sonny’s calls of “You’ve got to see this” twisted into an innocent bystander’s screams, and then one of my shoes fell off.
It dropped to the ground. An irretrievable distance, halfway up as I was.
I kicked off the other shoe, using my elbows to keep steady. If one of my feet was going to get splinters, I at least wanted the other to get them too. And, I figured, what the hell: I toed my way out of my socks. Sonny was barefoot, and so was I. Mirrored discomfort. Evenness.
It was being barefoot, I believe, that made the steps that much easier to climb. And soon my head peaked over the edge of that forsaken venue. And I saw what Sonny had seen: the echoes of the lava lamp’s twisted light on the contours of the attics’ walls and floors and objects, the simultaneous illuminating and shading of the boxes tumbling over, marked with sharpie and then crossed out: CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, X-MAS DECORATIONS, MISCELLANEOUS.
The attic looked like this:
I knew immediately that Sonny would never want to leave. I knew it because I never wanted to leave either. There was something about the attic that even now I struggle to pin down, exactly—a certain musk, maybe, an air untouched by freshener and only slightly dampened by the Florida summer rains. Or perhaps it was the slope of the walls: they say the triangle is the strongest shape found in nature. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the uniformity. The attic was a mess.
“Carrol would have a stroke if she saw this,” Sonny said.
Not only were the boxes labeled poorly, stacked awkwardly, and spilling over onto the wood beams and insulation, not only did the light send a scurry of palmetto bugs scattering to holes in the walls, but there were dozens and dozens of Yuengling bottles spread throughout the attic, some resting on support beams and others clearly thrown as far as possible into the house’s upper depths, where they’d broken into hundreds of shining fragments.
The lava lamp’s dancing light reflected off of them at odd angles, like this:
“Dad’s stash,” I said. “Thought Mom had gotten the last of it.”
“Dare you to taste it,” said Sonny. He already had one of the bottles in hand, and he was swirling around the few drops of beer left in it.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What if that means I can’t work anymore?”
“What,” he said, “so you can be married to your job like Carrol? So you can avoid your responsibilities at home by always bringing up the whole breadwinner thing?”
It’s true: Mom was married to her work. But she was also polygamous. She split her time 70/30 between the accounting firm and her second spouse, our father. For him, work was “the one that got away.” He’d been unemployed for fifteen years, after he’d been unfairly fired from his job at the Yuengling brewing company for what the police report listed as, “Heavily intoxicated operation of a forklift.” He’d cost the company nearly half a million in damages.
Sonny downed the remaining liquid.
“Tastes like shit,” he said, and he pitched the bottle off into the dark, where I heard it shatter. “No wonder Dominic likes it so much.”
I just stared into the lava lamp, which was resting on top of a box labeled KIDS STUFF, LEGOS, MEMORIES. There wasn’t much sense to calling what was happening inside the lamp “lava,” as near as I could tell. What would happen is, one blob of red-glowing goo would form at the top of the lamp, and another would form at the bottom. Occasionally, the bottom blob would break free of itself, and its broken off bits would swim upward to join the larger blob at the top.
Though just as often this action would break the top blob apart too, like so:
“Why do you think they named you Sonny, even though I was born first?” I said.
Sonny cocked his head, but it was just to tilt another beer bottle back. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell if he was listening. But my mouth refused to close.
“I mean, Julian is a fine name, I guess,” I said. “It’s just that—we’re both sons, in their mind, right? So you’d think they’d have called me Sonny. I was their first.”
“Does it matter?” he said.
I glanced at my feet. I realized I’d seen my toes so fleetingly over the years that I’d forgotten about a mole on my pinky toe. It was, according to our mother, the only thing that made me physically different from Sonny.
“I’m gonna see if I can find some rat traps,” said Sonny. “Bet they’re everywhere up here. You coming?”
“Go ahead without me,” I said, setting the half-first-aid kit down.
The box that used to be labeled KIDS TOYS and then LEGOS and now, simply, MEMORIES had been opened and re-sealed over half a dozen times, as I could tell by the layers of duct tape that came up when I moved to open it. There was something satisfying about the way the tape had pulled away the cardboard around its flaps, like seeing the raw underneath of something already fragile.
Inside the box: two clay molds of baby feet, Sonny’s and mine, which were identical; a stuffed teddy bear missing an eye, and which looked too old for either of us; an old flat record player with twelve scratches etched into its side; a dozen old rock and disco records to go with it, most outside of their sleeves; and hundreds of Polaroid photos—mostly of Mom.
There was Mom dancing at a concert, despite being neck-deep in sweaty bodies. There was Mom laughing, cigarette in hand, with a group of women I’d never seen before. There was Mom smiling back at the camera, hand half-risen to block her face. I felt the minutes dropping away as I looked at each picture, taking in a mother I’d never met. Her hair was dyed blue here. Here she is in a fringe jacket. Here she is kissing a thin, long-haired version of Dad.
Here they are getting married:
“Hey Sonny, come over here,” I said. “Take a look at this.” But the sound faded into the attic’s insulation. I could only vaguely see him in the darkness, crouched low to the ground.
“Sonny!” I yelled.
“Carrol and Dominic will be home soon,” he said as he walked over. “I’m taking this as a souvenir.” He lifted up a black tin can, labelled FOGGER, which showed a dead cockroach on its front, its legs curled inward like a nervous child’s.
I decided not to tell him about the photo. I slipped it into my pocket, and we left.
After our parents told us about the divorce, after they revealed they’d been going to mediation sessions to iron out the details these last few months—not Chili’s, not Denny’s, not Applebee’s—Sonny and I barely spoke. We were the details they’d been ironing out. They told us they’d decided Sonny would live with Dad, who had always been more supportive of Sonny’s soccer tournaments and who hoped to enlist him in wrestling once he got to high school, just like Dad had done. I would live with Mom. We would visit each other, and our other parent, on alternating weekends.
“We understand how tough this must be on you two,” Mom said. “But sometimes relationships just don’t work. Sometimes there’s just an impassable wall between two people, and you work at it for years, believing in its cracks, only to realize that you’ve spent the whole time miserable. And that’s hard, I know, right now. But it’ll get better. I swear it will.”
Dad, and Sonny, would move out to live with uncle Robbie in Lakeland at the end of the month. That meant thirty-two miles. That meant different school districts. That meant I would be starting middle school at Monroe in the fall, and Sonny would be starting at Sleepy Hill.
But I couldn’t face him. I kept thinking of that box of MEMORIES in the attic, and of the beer bottles, and of the FOGGER can. I couldn’t imagine a world in which these things made sense with each other. And I sunk into other worlds instead, sometimes spending all day holed up in the attic, digging through box after box labelled BOOKS, reading Mom’s old dime romance novels or Dad’s drill manuals or the Sunday paper’s ad pages from 1981 by the lava lamp’s shifting light, doing anything to avoid going out into the backyard where Sonny kicked around his tattered, zebra-striped soccer ball.
Mom and Dad hardly noticed—except when Mom called up to ask me not to leave my shoes in the middle of the garage floor, or when Dad told me he needed to bug bomb up there again, which was more often than was possibly necessary. Neither of them said anything. Not about the bottles or the photos. They mostly left us alone. They had enough to worry about.
And like that, it was the final night.
Mom was going out with an old friend for dinner, she told us. Dad would still be here. I should spend some time with him now, play Settlers of Catan or watch Animal House, his favorite film. But Dad wasn’t up for any of it. He just sat in his heavy lounge chair, which tomorrow he would have to lift out of this house. He stared up at the ceiling. He fell asleep.
So I found myself standing, barefoot, on his work bench. And I found myself plugging the lava lamp, which was already warm from being in the garage, into the extension cord. And I found myself sprinting up the ladder, breathing in deep despite the bug bombs’ chemical remnants burning my nostrils, throwing aside box after box in the attic, searching for what I knew had to be there. And then I found it.
“What are you doing?” said Sonny, head peering up from the ladder.
Mom’s wedding dress ran long on me, billowing past my toes and down to the insulation. I didn’t have boobs to fill out the front, or the right hips for the waist, but the straps felt soft on my shoulders, the lace smooth on my back.
“Take your shoes off,” I said. “Socks too.”
Sonny did so, dropping them down the ladder.
“What are you doing?” he said again.
I pulled the record player out from the MEMORIES box, and I pulled out an album too: David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. I plugged the player into the other side of the extension cord, set the record—and the music played. It streamed through the attic, masking everything, simultaneously muffled and amplified by the insulation.
The lava lamp was pumping its liquid, fully heating up. I felt myself dancing in its shifting lights, my hips against the dress’ fabric swish, straps guides for my hands to move towards my shoulder, through my hair, towards the low ceiling.
Sonny’s face looked like this:
“Are you going to tell them?” he said.
“Close the door,” I said. “I want to show you something.”
He did so, and then there was only the lava lamp’s light, only the smell of that bug bomb, only the sound of “Changes” ringing through the crawlspace, sinking through the insulation. And no sooner were we in that shifting darkness than he had taken the two steps over to me, and we were holding each other, both trying to keep the other standing, our shoulders shuddering from the weight of our impending separation, our minds whirling in the light and sound.
“Sonny,” I said. I was surprised at my own voice, which was clearer, I think, than it’d ever been. Calm, even. “I think I just stepped on a piece of glass.”
I had. Thin red streaks ran across the bottom of my foot, and it was all I could do to look away before I fainted. I’d always been terrified of blood.
“Here,” he said. He grabbed one of the bandages from the shoebox-that’d-become-a-first-aid-kit. I held onto a wooden beam and blinked when he pulled the glass out, trying to avoid looking twice at the blood that I was sure would cause me to faint. But I did look when he wrapped it. And I saw the blood. And I didn’t faint. When he was done, my foot looked like this:
“Now you,” I said. I tied the remaining bandages to Sonny’s arms in strips, so that they hung like the fringes on one of Mom’s old jackets, and I showed him the photo of her wearing that jacket, and the one of her smoking and laughing at one of Dad’s jokes, and the ones of their wedding. A flicker of pain went across his face.
But then I showed him the other photos I’d found: photos of the two of us. Photos of us bathing together—I’m trying to cover my face. Photos of us on the first day of kindergarten, with matching bowties and button-downs. Photos of us wearing the same Halloween costume: a long mirror, worn by a string around our necks. So that everyone could be our twin. But we only ever wanted to face each other, like this:
“What’s going to happen to us?” said Sonny.
I didn’t know.
Alexander Cendrowski is an octopus, lemonade, and socks enthusiast from some beach in Florida. You can find Alex in Hobart, PINBALL, Cleaver Magazine, and elsewhere, if you believe hard enough. Barring that, you can visit AlexanderCendrowski.com.