Haunted Houses by Lynne Tillman

BOMB 19 Spring 1987
019 Spring 1987
Alice Stepanek and Steven Maslin, Untilted, 1986, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Daniel Newburg Gallery.

Alice Stepanek and Steven Maslin, Untilted, 1986, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Daniel Newburg Gallery.

Her father liked to scare her. He knew she adored him. He’d creep into her room early in the morning or late at night and jump on her and she’d cry. He’d console her with kisses and hugs. Years later Jane would say, It’s a hard habit to break. Loving madmen. Jane’s parents, particularly her father, had wanted a son, having two girls already, and had waited nearly seven years before making the unsuccessful attempt to have him. Jane’s mother would need an operation after Jane’s birth, which would put an end once and for all to her childbearing days, but Jane was innocent of this fact, as well as their desire for a son. Otherwise she was not a difficult birth.

At two she had tried to claim her father as her own, covering his face with her little body, and shouting, He’s my daddy, my daddy, to her much older sisters, who could dismiss that kind of behavior as babyish. But Jane was driven. She became Daddy’s girl to the chagrin of her mother, who had her hands full anyway. The third child is always the easiest, she heard her mother say to a woman who was visiting. It’s like she’s raising herself.

Jane’s first boyfriend, when she was three, was a morose, skinny kid who lived on the floor below, his whole family skinny and very pale. After a pretend marriage that lasted a year, they were separated because her family moved away to the suburbs, and she asked one of her sisters if this meant they were divorced. Yes, she answered, and Jane promptly found a second boyfriend, Jimmy, who lived on the next block. He, too, was a peculiar boy, three years older than Jane, and elusive; she could never tell if he liked her or not. Jane couldn’t figure out who her parents liked either, though her father said he liked everybody. In any case he was nice to everybody and they didn’t see him when he was sulking in the basement because he couldn’t hook up the speaker to the radio. He put a telephone down there, ostensibly to call his mother, who didn’t get along with Jane’s mother, and he called her every day.

When she played with Jimmy, Jane insisted upon wearing dresses. He’s too wild, her mother told her. But his nostrils flare when he speaks, she responded, which meant to Jane that Jimmy was sensitive, like a rabbit. She could even tell him about the children’s book she loved and hated because it confused her. There was a little girl who had a blanket. The blanket got a hole in it. She wanted to get rid of the hole so she decided to cut it out. She cut that out and the hole got bigger. She cut that out, too, and the hole got bigger. Eventually the hole disappeared but so did the blanket. The little girl cried and Jane was genuinely puzzled.

An unspoken contract existed between Jane and her father; she went along to ball games and amusement parks when other fathers brought their sons. She played seriously with their sons, stretching across the slippery iron horse, reaching for the brass ring, though she was afraid of heights, reaching for it as if she really cared about winning. She hated losing her balance. Jane was almost certain that her father was her partner in this charade, and that he knew she was humoring him. But his moods changed as fast as she changed TV channels. He’d always been violent and had used his belt on Jane when she was small, but these violations were more than balanced by his good looks and charm. Her violations were almost invisible, something about the way she answered a question, something about the way she walked into a room. Everyone was in love with her father, Jane thought. He was so young-looking that her oldest sister’s friends thought he looked more like her sister’s date than her father.

He liked to read to his daughters. And he, more often than her mother, put Jane to bed at night. Occasionally he recited Churchill’s memorable speech about blood, sweat, and tears, or read the Gettysburg Address, or cited the George Medal, which George VI had instituted for commoners, like her and him, to commend them for “obscure heroism in squalid places.” But while he had read Shakespeare to her sisters, he chose for her Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son. Lord Chesterfield wrote many long and logical letters to his profligate son, who should have been in England, not France, of the great harm that would come to him should he continue gambling and whoring. These letters, like Churchill’s speech, were supposed to comfort Jane, who had trouble sleeping at night, but as she was only eight when Chesterfield was read to her, she was not yet thinking of leaving home, or gambling, or whoring, or of being a whore, and unlike Chesterfield’s son, she barely even had an allowance. These letters were harbingers of some future time and didn’t comfort her. At their best they did put her to sleep. Jane never told her father not to read these letters to her. He might sulk or go into a rage. She became an Anglophile anyway.

Watching her oldest sister’s boyfriends come and go, Jane acted like a lady-in-waiting to her—getting her brush, finding her bag, studying her image in the mirror. When her sister put on makeup, it looked to Jane as if she were preparing for a part in a play. There was a solemnness pervading the bathroom, mixed in with smells from the older girl’s lipstick and powder and perfume with which she anointed herself. Glowing with artifice and anxiety, Jane’s sister walked down the stairs, viewed by Jane at the top, lying flat on her stomach so that the boyfriend might not see. Then they disappeared, her sister and her date, both actors in another world.

By the time Jimmy announced that he loved her, or rather her shadow, which she knew meant her, the fact that they were in different grades meant more to her than having won the attenuated battle for his affections. He was 11 and not as skinny as he’d once been, and even though his nostrils still quivered, he just wasn’t as cute, she thought, so she pretended not to understand what he was saying, which was, she discovered early, a disguise that worked.

Besides, she had fallen in love with Michael, another bad boy from good people who couldn’t control him, or that’s what Jane’s mother said. She usually added, He’ll grow out of it, as if his character were a pair of pants. With Jane, Michael stole useless things from Woolworth’s. She stole the tops of Dixie cups for him and watched with pleasure—a small smile on an otherwise impassive face—when Michael ripped birthday-party decorations off basement walls. Jane never gave parties and hated basements, where they were always held. Her family’s basement was used by her mother to do the laundry, her middle sister, to practice ballet, and by her father, less specifically. It had a ballet barre, a Ping-Pong table, and bookshelves in which her father kept paperbacks like How to Live with Your Anxiety and hardcovers about Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. One Lincoln book had a picture of all the accomplices to his assassination, hanging on the gallows. Five wore trousers, and one, a dress. Their heads were covered with white bags. She stared at the image for long periods of time in the almost empty recreation room, the room itself a weird joke to Jane, whose sense of humor was grim. Watching the conclusion of A Farewell to Arms on television with her mother, she said, flatly, He should get an erector set. Her mother laughed, despite herself, said nothing, and worried about Jane’s strange ideas.

As Jane grew up her father’s alarm at what he called her wild ways also grew. The way she washed dishes. The way she flipped electric switches. It was all wild. Her parents fought over her too. During one fight Jane’s mother took all Jane’s father’s clothes and threw them on the floor. Jane observed the action from her place at the top of the stairs, this time not lying flat on her stomach but seated as if in the balcony of the UN. At school Jane was considered something of a diplomat, but not by her father, who didn’t move out as her mother said she wanted him to do. Jane wrote in her diary: Now that I’ve seen this, life is different. Life is not that different, she discovered, when Jimmy reappeared with another neighborhood girl and Jane thought she was in love with him all over again. She thought that showed maturity—to be able to be in love with someone for so long.

Innocent kissing ended in the seventh grade and Jane and Michael broke up. They had reached the age when kisses and hugs were no longer sufficient. Sex filtered through the classroom and gym in a form as regimented as grade school education. Jane drew back. She didn’t want to be like other girls. She wanted to be respected. Respect and sex were as far from one another as she was from being an adult, a state she wanted to reach quickly, so that she would know things and be free, and not care about what people thought.

When she reached her adolescence, having grown into it with breasts Jane thought of as bumps, her sisters’ male friends took notice of her. It was the summer she turned 13 and one sister bought her stockings and Arpège perfume. Jane lived in white shorts and a red boat neck. Her sisters’ friends came out on weekends. One young man, an Austrian, looked at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. Considering himself a genius, as well as a good judge of women, he told her sister that Jane was a regular Lolita. Jane was reading a novel called The Violated, whose central character, Sheila, was a girl her age. Sheila was directing Hamlet; it was in the middle of the book. Sheila announced to the neighborhood kids who were the cast, Everyone talks dirty to Ophelia.

Her father said Jimmy was dirty. He didn’t brush his teeth much, even when he dropped by to see Jane. Sometimes their meetings were accidental, but Jane didn’t really believe in accidents. If questioned she would deride notions of fate—she was very rational—but still she thought Jimmy and she were meant for each other. Now that he was a senior, he drove his convertible into the city, and spent time with people Jane didn’t know. Though one high school yearbook picture shows her sitting in his convertible, it was unusual to find her there.


Of the people Jane knew when she was 14, it was Lois who seemed like her only real friend. Lois wanted to go to Hollywood, to be an actress. She wore falsies that stuck out from her narrow chest like small ice-cream cones. I don’t care who puts his hand where, she laughed raucously. The two walked around town singing and cracking jokes. They danced in front of clothes stores and beauty parlors. To Jane, Lois was revolutionary because she just wanted to have a good time. It was raining as they walked along Main Street. Jane told Lois that the first time she ever took a shower she made her father go in with her because she was afraid of the water. So, she told Lois, who was laughing, I insisted we use an umbrella and we stood there, my father and me, under that open umbrella. Your father doesn’t sound that bad, Lois said, thinking that Jane might have exaggerated about his temper. You’ll see, Jane answered.

Her sisters were hardly ever home, and Jane had her parents to herself. She couldn’t decide if her father was much crazier than he used to be, or whether, now that she was alone, she noticed it more. It didn’t help that business was starting to fall off. His younger brother Larry, who was also his business partner, never seemed to worry. He was divorced, ran around with women, played the horses, and saw a psychiatrist. To Jane, Uncle Larry had style, but he wasn’t a favorite of her mother’s. Years later someone told Jane that her mother was always too much in love with her father. Jane had never considered that what her mother was in was love.

With some determination Jane asked Lois home. Like everyone else Lois found Jane’s father handsome and charming. All the women loved dancing with him, the men thought he dyed his hair. Jane told Lois, in the bathroom where her two older sisters had once gotten ready for dates, that when she was five she used to hide from him here because the door had a lock. They were practicing smoking. They put on go-go pink lipstick and black mascara and left the bathroom. Jane’s father was in the hall, Jane knew the look. His face contorted as he yelled, his hand touching his belt. It was about her makeup. He pushed Jane out of the house, told her that she shouldn’t come back, and slammed the door. Lois and Jane walked along in silence for a while, then Jane said, I’m used to it.

When summer came Lois got a job as an acting counselor in a camp, and Jane’s father insisted she work for him in his office near Times Square. Every morning they caught the 7:52 with the men and their sons. Boys who had been seniors when she was a freshman sat in suits and ties, beefier and older, holding the New York Times in front of their no-longer-boyish faces. Jane got the print all over her hands and never mastered the technique of folding the paper so that she didn’t stick her arm in her father’s face. They got out at Penn Station and walked to work, where she had nothing to do. Her father invented work for her. She typed letters with samples and sent them to businesses chosen from the telephone book. She was as friendly as a dog to any customer who walked in. She watched her father. Uncle Larry rarely came into the office but when he did, her father cheered up. Larry was always optimistic and then off to the racetrack. He loved the horses.

It was a hot summer, and on a particularly hot morning her father suggested she go to a movie on 42nd Street. It was about 10:00 AM and Jane asked the woman in the box office if it was all right to go in. The woman said, You just pay your money and you go in, which Jane could figure out for herself, having paid her money and gone in to many movie houses. She took a seat near the aisle and the attendant looked up her dress, bending down, being very obvious. She moved to a middle seat and a young man in a light tan cap sat down next to her. The place was empty. She moved; he moved. She couldn’t go back to work so soon. She moved again, he moved again. He placed his hand on her knee and Jane looked at it. It lay there for a while. Jane wondered if he thought he was Holden Caulfield, with that cap on. She kept looking at his hand. It was dark and she could have done anything and no one would have seen or known. She felt something, and it wasn’t exactly that she felt sorry for him. His hand moved a little and feeling that she didn’t care what happened she got up and walked out. Jane wandered around Times Square, settling on playing Fascination till enough time had passed and she could return to her father. Two Doris Day reruns, she heard herself telling him. You know, they’re always the same.

Lois said she wanted to go to UCLA to study acting, and then try to get roles as a comedian or a character actress. I’m not that pretty, she stated indifferently, I couldn’t be the romantic type, but somebody has to be Rosalind Russell. Jane didn’t know what she wanted to do. None of Lois’s friends were as determined as she was. One of them called Jane on a Sunday morning and told her to sit down. It was very early. Jane said what’s wrong and the friend said Lois is dead. She was killed in a car crash.

A funeral for a 16-year-old is awful. Lois’s friends weren’t allowed to go to the cemetery. All of them stood together in one part of the chapel, far from the family, so as not to remind them of their loss. Jane’s parents respected her silence and didn’t fight with each other that day. Jane saw Lois everywhere, when she took a bath, when she turned off the lights. There was a glow that she decided was Lois. Without knowing it she mourned her death for nearly eight months until spring came and a boy from another school made her laugh about death. She felt she was betraying Lois in one way, and in another way she knew Lois would understand. There was something horribly funny about death. For Lois’s sake Jane pledged to change her life, to become different so that her death wouldn’t seem so stupid. Jane had always wanted to live her life differently.

Lynne Tillman is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City. Haunted Houses has just been published by Poseidon Press. She is currently working on a new film project and novel.

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Originally published in

BOMB 19, Spring 1987

Willem Dafoe, Ross Bleckner, Janet Hobhouse, and St. EOM.

Read the issue
019 Spring 1987