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Short Story: "A Cow in the Living Room"

By Micaela Myers


            When Jackie's not watching, I trot my cow up the tiny wooden staircase. He stops and tries to munch some flowers off the wallpaper.

            "Cows don't live in living rooms," Jackie says.

            I freeze.

            "Mine do." I don't turn around or even look at her.

            "Nobody's cows live in living rooms. Have you ever seen a cow in a living room? Dogs and cats live in living rooms, not cows."

            She goes back to her own dollhouse, trying to pose her family around the fireplace. Jackie never puts animals in her house. She's got plenty of room for them because her house isn't even full of furniture. Jackie only wants "real" furniture from the glass cases in the toy store. She says it's the kind meant for our dollhouses, the kind Grandma would buy for us if she were still alive, so when someone gives Jackie plastic sets, I get to keep them.

            I move one of my plastic couches over to make part of the fence, so the cow can have more room. My mom doll yells to her doll daughter, "Bessie's loose again, and she's trying to eat my wallpaper!" I say it quiet so Jackie can't hear.

            "Cows live on farms, and that's not a farm. We don't even have a barn," Jackie says, coming at me. Her eyes are all scrunched up, and she's looking mean. She reaches right past me and grabs Bessie.

            "Don't touch my house," I say. I grab her wrist and squeeze it till she lets the cow go.

  Jackie stands up and gives me another mean look. I hold Bessie and watch Jackie go back to her side of the room. She puts her doll man in his Jeep and drives him toward me, walking on her knees and pushing the Jeep in short bursts of speed. Jackie says her man is mayor of the town. She says there's a law against putting farm animals in the house because it's dirty, and he's coming to tell my people.

            "I can have cows in my house if I want."

            "He's going to arrest your people," Jackie says.

            "It's my house, and I can do whatever I want!"

            Jackie shoves me out of the way. She reaches into my house and takes Bessie, knocking my couches and fences everywhere. My whole dollhouse shakes. The refrigerator falls over and so does the bookshelf.

            "Let go of my cow." I grab her wrist and dig my nails in. She twists her arm away and jumps on top of me, holding my arms above my head and against the floor. I bring my leg up and knee her in the back. She lets go of one hand and thumps me on the side of the head. I scream, and Mom runs in with Andrew hanging off her hip.

            "Jacqueline, get off your little sister right now," Mom says.

             I'm breathing and crying so hard Jackie moves up and down with each breath.

            "Katy clawed me for no reason," Jackie says. She holds out her wrist and shows Mom where my nails dug in.

            “She hit me,” I say.

            Jackie tells her she was only holding me down so I wouldn't attack her anymore. Jackie's rubbing her wrist and pretending to cry. I hope Mom can see it's fake crying.

            But Mom doesn't even notice. She says we're sisters. She says we'll be sisters forever, and so we must learn to get along. I stare at her; she doesn't understand at all. I pick up Bessie and stomp out of the room.

            I go to our tree fort in the backyard. It was here when we moved in a year ago. It's not really a fort, just a flat deck of two-by-fours. At first Jackie and I played Swiss Family Robinson, hanging sheets from branches to make walls. But it's high up, and lately Jackie's been saying stupid stuff, like young ladies shouldn't climb trees because young ladies should wear skirts, and you can't climb a tree in a skirt.

            I sit and hold my legs—pretending Jackie never was born or that she died, and I don't have a sister anymore. I imagine helping my parents when they are sad about it. I'd hug them and tell them jokes, and bring them toast and orange juice in bed. They'd get over her being gone, and we'd all be happier.

            I'd rather have Andrew to live with than Jackie. I almost wish he was my brother and not just a kid my mother has to baby-sit.

            It’s dark and my butt is all tingly and asleep, so I get up to go back inside. Dad just got home from work. I'm holding my head down so he can see I've had a bad day, and maybe he'll ask me about it. He's pouring himself Scotch-on-the-rocks.

            "Where's your mother?" he says.

            "I don't know."

            "She's walking Andrew home!" Jackie calls from the bedroom. She better not have touched my house while I was outside.

            "Don't yell at me when I ask a question, Jacqueline," Dad says. "Walk out here and tell me in a respectful voice."

            "Yeah, he's been working hard all day," I say. My dad ignores me, and Jackie doesn't answer.

 

            At dinner everyone's cross. The baked potatoes are hard inside. I stab mine with my fork and dig into the soft stuff around the edges. Mom took them out too soon because we were hungry—the neighbors were late when she went to drop off Andrew. Jackie's not saying anything, like she's the one who had the bad day. Dad complains about his potatoes and won't eat them. I feel kinda bad for Mom, since it wasn't really her fault. Dad gets up twice to refill his glass. I tell him about a spider I saw in the tree fort. It was all hairy and strange. I saw it two days ago, but I pretend I've just seen it, hoping he'll find it interesting.

            "I should tear that damn thing down," he says.

            "I agree," Jackie says. "Some of the boards wiggle, and it's not safe for Katy."

            "That's not true," I say. "They don't wiggle, and I know which spiders are poisonous."

            "Enough!" Dad says.

            Mom bows her head, rubbing her temples. Her long hair falls forward, brushing the split skin of her potato.

            "What now?" Dad says. He looks across the table at Mom and pushes his plate away. Nobody says anything for a minute, and then Dad tells Jackie and me to play in our room so they can have some peace and quiet. Jackie looks up and says she's not finished yet. She's pretending to be the good daughter, chipping away at the raw center of Mom's potatoes.

            Dad says, "Jackie, you are finished because I say you're finished. Now listen up." Mom reminds us to put on our pajamas and brush our teeth before we play.

            I brush my teeth as fast as I can.

            While we're brushing, Jackie says, "You should spend a minute top and a

minute bottom."

            I stick my tongue out at her in the mirror and leave to play. An army is passing through my dolls' town on their way to rescue refugees like we saw on the news. There's a terrible blizzard in my dolls' town, so the dad doll goes out in the snow and invites the army into their house. They need all the beds they can get, so the dad doll (who's a furniture salesman) goes out to the shed to bring some in. I get up and pull all the different sizes and mismatched beds off the shelves, all the plastic sets Jackie's given me, and crowd them into the house. They have to go to bed with their guns, since the guns don't come off, so I just pretend they're prepared in case a bad army comes.

            "That's so stupid," Jackie says when she comes back. "Those army men aren't even the same size as the people. Are you pretending they're an army full of midgets or something?"

            "Shut up," I say.

            "You're so dumb. Grandma should never have bought you a nice dollhouse, since you're not old enough to use it right," Jackie says.

            "Don't speak to me anymore." I wish our room was like my friend Rebecca's. She has to share with her sister, and they put a line of masking tape right down the middle of the room so that they each have their own side.

            "You can't use my furniture if you're not going to use it right," Jackie says.

            She's standing over me, and I'm afraid she'll hit me again, but I'm also mad. I remind her she gave me this plastic furniture so it's mine, but Jackie says she was only letting me use it and now I can't, which isn't true at all. She gave it to me.

            Jackie gets down beside me and starts yanking all the beds out from under the army men. I try to pry them out of her hands, using my nails and screaming at her, but she elbows me hard in the chest. I fall back and catch myself, scraping the back of my arm on the nightstand. It stings. When I grab my arm, my fingers come back with little bits of blood on them.

            "I'm telling," I say.

            She can't keep bossing me around and hitting me. I'm so mad it makes me cry, and besides, my arm really hurts. I go down the hall and into the living room to Dad. He's sitting in his tan recliner, sipping another Scotch and watching the news. Mom is folding laundry on the couch.

I'm sobbing and standing between Dad and the TV, so he has to see me.           

            "Out of the way, Katy,” he says.

            "Jackie pushed me into the night stand, and I'm bleeding." I twist my arm around so he can see the scrape.

            He grips the arms of his recliner for a moment, then leans back and finishes the last sip of his Scotch. I'm afraid he might yell at me to move out of the way, but his heels slam against the footrest, he throws his shoulders forward and rockets out of the chair. "Jackie!" he shouts. I start down the hall to lead him to her. I bump into her, and Dad's right behind me, really mad, and now all I want to do is get out of his way. Scooting behind Jackie's back, I press myself against the wall, while she stands rooted to the spot looking up at Dad, whose hair almost touches the hall light. I wonder if I shouldn't have told him. Maybe I should have just asked if we could put the masking tape down our room.

            "What the hell is wrong with you, Jackie?" He brings his open hand up and slaps her across the face. Jackie stares at him, and then brings her hand up to her cheek. She starts to cry and runs into the living room to stand near Mom. Dad follows right behind her, and I inch my way to the edge of the hall.

            "Mom!" Jackie cries. She stands on the far side of the couch, near the corner bookshelf and Grandma's old rocking chair. Dad leans forward, his fists clenched. I've only seen him this mad a few times before. Once when Jackie and I got on the roof, he grabbed our hair, one head in each hand. I remember how strong his hands were, much stronger than Jackie's when she grabs me. It felt like my hair was attached to veins, and I knew Jackie's head felt the same.

            Now I wonder how much the slap stings, how hard he hit her this time. I don't want to be out here with him when he's so mad. I don't want him to notice me. I want us both to be locked in our room and safe.

            Mom gets up off the couch and looks at Dad, then at Jackie. Jackie has slid behind the rocking chair, trembling in her faded pink nightgown.

            "Mom, please help me," she says.

            Dad has walked back to his recliner and stands there, pointing at the spot in front of him. "Get over here, Jackie. Now."

            Grandma's afghan is folded over the top of the rocking chair, and Jackie's fingers are digging into it. The dark colors are all blacks and browns. The shadows below Dad's eyes match the brown in the afghan; and his mouth and eyes and chin are rigid squares, stitched together. I hardly recognize him. My arms don't feel like mine. I don't feel like a body at all, just eyes.

            Mom is standing with her arms held out like a policeman. "Jake, don't," she says, looking at Dad.

            He walks around Mom and grabs the arms of the rocking chair. Crying harder, Jackie scoots back into the corner by the radiator. She curls into a ball, burying her face against her knees, face covered by her arms.

            Dad shoves the rocking chair aside. He opens his right hand and brings it down on the back of Jackie's head. He tries to slap her face again but hits her knee and ear. Jackie whimpers. I can barely even hear her.

            "Dad!" I say. I step away from the wall and look at Mom.

            Mom grabs Dad's arm. "Jake, stop it. Stop now, Jake!"

            And he does. He looks at Mom and shakes her off his arm. He walks out of the living room. I step back against the wall as he goes by; he doesn't look at me. I listen to the sound of ice cubes clinking in his glass and the freezer door slamming shut.

            Mom walks with Jackie to our bedroom. I follow them, afraid they'll shut the door before I can get in. Jackie lays on her bed and bawls, face down in the pillow. Mom lays beside her, whispering things I can't hear, but Jackie keeps crying. I wonder what Mom's saying to her, if she thinks it's my fault. She stops talking and sits up, rubbing Jackie's back in gentle slow circles until Jackie is quiet. Mom kisses the back of her head. Without glancing down at me, she leaves, shutting our door behind her.

            I sit on the floor and sweep everything out of my dollhouse. It makes a nice loud sound as all the plastic hits together and falls to the floor. The army men hadn't been on a rescue mission after all. The army is at war. They stole the people's things and wrecked their house.

            I wish I had a tank to put in the living room; it could fire out of the large front window. The army men lie down by the gables on the roof, their guns pointed and ready.



“A Cow in the Living Room” won the River Oak Review 2001 fiction contest and was originally published in the fall 2001 issue 


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