In your house, there is a cabinet that holds the secret of life. It is the brown of your sister’s hair: dark. Your mother polishes it with pungent red spray. You call her by her first name, which seems oddly formal once you hear other kids calling mu-um. The cabinet has a glass section at each end. One holds a set of bowls you are not allowed to touch. Their glaze is a tropical green, pale on the curved walls, condensing into a solid emerald lake in the bottom. They are from Morocco, kilned under Saharan sand with a glaze made from cacti by men who wear broad, swelling turbans and lead camels. These men are hazily associated in your mind with those on Christmas cards, pointing at the big star. Your sister says we don’t use them because they are what the ghosts eat from.
What do ghosts eat?
The other side holds fossils. Ammonite, trilobite, and a mammoth tooth the size of your father’s immortal fist. Callum from school wouldn’t believe you about the mammoth’s tooth. He called you a liar, which you are, but not about that. Beside the fossils is a thesaurus. You believe this to be named after a dinosaur who is the keeper of words. There are so many words. Words for everything! Words upon words! Your mother says: We are people of the book. This makes you proud, until you see the same thesaurus in a senior classroom.
Then there is the tell-nothing cupboard in the middle, with a slightly convex door. The skeleton key lives casually in the lock, until it doesn’t.
When there are guests, this cupboard opens. You sit under the table, your mouth still chicken-greased, touching people’s shoes too lightly for them to feel. Brown leather and hippie hemp and magenta pumps that feel like the velvet of a cat’s nose. The delicious horror of your grandmother’s veiny beige stocking-feet. As the night tumbles on, the feet begin to splay, tap and swing with abandon. There is a thrill in being accidentally kicked. Your mother’s voice, disembodied, above: Darling! Any more and we’ll all be floating down the stairs!
They sound so happy they could float. You think of Peter Pan. You believe them.
There are guests until there aren’t.
At 7, you open the cabinet and sniff at those heavy sloshing clinking totems standing stately in the dark. The smells are incredible. One smells like rich, wild honey but also like the afterglow of a slap. Another like black jellybeans and fire, another like flowers screaming, another like that day your sister tackled you right after eating a lemon whole, the way she does, her hands slippery with juice. When you open the last one, Leonard Cohen’s voice drifts out, You want it darker. You don’t realize it at the time, but this is remarkable. Cohen won’t release that song for fifteen years. You screw the lid back on tightly.
The winter you turn thirteen, the house grows cold and breathless as a tomb. Your sister goes to malls and parties, now. I can’t tell you where the others go. Stalactites of yellowing porcelain form under the faucets as the stillicide taps a morse code you can’t understand. You do the Gollum creep and leap down the echoey hallway. You call things preciousss. The bones of the house are growing old and cold and brittle. You are allowed to turn the heater on for a short time, but its warmth only goes skin deep.
Bees pour from the honey-smelling bottle, buzzing and stinging the silence to death. Soon the ceiling drips with golden combs. Lemon trees sprout through the carpet and bloom before your eyes. Zorba the Greek squeezes himself with much swearing from the neck of the Ouzo bottle and dances around the living room with his hairy arms raised. The Vodka bottle releases a perfect Doctor Zhivago snowstorm. Books flap from the shelves and form an excitable flock. The fossils come to life: ammonites and trilobites sliming and crawling over the cork tiles. Leonard waltzes with ghosts, hobbits clunk their pints of ale and Jack Kerouac grins at you and says: The only people for me are the mad ones. Drink from a green bowl like Dionysus in a painting. Smash the bowl like an angry god. Set this house on fire and never be cold again.
The key disappears. You Google ‘how to pick a lock with a bobby pin’.
Your sister goes to church now. Because of a boy, and then because of a man who claimed to be God. All you know about him is that his blood was wine, so he must have floated all over the place. Your parents must have stood under the cross, twisted the Roman spear, collected with a funnel. How could one man bleed so much he kept the whole world drunk from then until now?
She left her Bible by the toilet. On top of it, someone has neatly placed a copy of Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Next to these is a dogeared library book: Too good to go, too bad to stay. You think, you should leave a book too. But what? You let a little vomit get on their books. Just a little.
The whole world runs on adult magic. They sell it everywhere. With makeup and your sister’s stolen learner’s license, they’ll sell it to you, too. This is the great secret. This is how people continue.
Tanked, totaled, trolleyed, juiced, bashed, befuddled, buzzed, flushed, flying, plastered, potted, sloshed, stewed, glazed, laced, lit, lush, three-sheets-to-the-wind, under-the-table.
There are so many words for it. Like there are so many words for darling.