Punch and Judy

The house that Paul and Judy had grown up in was directly across from the air-train line. Between it and the station lay a shallow, mud-filled stream that ran on and emptied into a sprawling marsh– the marsh was rarely dry, except during the hottest days of August, and the thick groves of straw and wild grass lay in toppled lines as they faced the driving wind. The house itself was modest enough, perched on wooden stilts that didn’t quite reach the stream, and it had the grubby, desperate look of a poor but earnest family. Their mother had kept the place spotless in her youth, dusting the mismatched kitchen set and hammering loose nails into the floorboard. But by eighty-five she could no longer make the trip to her bedroom on the second floor, and with Alan no longer around, Paul and Judy had placed her in a nursing home. They were responsible children, and settled the petty differences of their college years with grace­­– they entered adulthood quietly, with the kind of maturity and sensibility that had always been expected of them. Paul would sometimes recall, with a kind of guilty fondness, the preference their aunts and uncles had held for them over their own children. The cousins were all doing rather badly at the moment, struggling with low-level jobs and failing marriages. If Uncle Toby could see him now, he would think Paul quite the gentleman. Punch, he used to call him, Punch and Judy, and he would whisper in their ears that his daughter could stand to learn from them a thing or two. It was Uncle Toby’s wife, Annette, who called to tell Paul that her sister, his mother, had died, and that he and Judy needed to settle the matter of the house privately, before the entire family (or Alan, that goddamn monster) wrestled in.

They had kept it unoccupied for the last four or so years, except for the odd friend in need of a bed, and Paul had not thought of it since he packed his bags to leave. The old house…the one on Hestia Avenue, by the airport. He had always known that it would go to him and Judy, but it had never seemed like a reality that would eventually come about, until Annette called, and it did. Even then, he would not have cared if it hadn’t been for the plea in his elderly aunt’s voice. Please, she was saying, keep the house. He hadn’t considered it, but he supposed she had grown up in it as well– her and her sister and their pious little parents, diligently fussing about the place. To keep the house in the family seemed to be almost expected, although it was not practical or reasonable.

After the funeral, after Paul had dusted the dirt from his hands with a grunt of conclusiveness, he and Judy took his car back down to the diner by their street, Destination Diner it was called. It was an airport kind of place, filled with sallow-skinned flight attendants and sore-eyed copilots, woozy and weak from their long shifts. From the spotted window you could just barely see the roof of their house, peaking its grey slate nose out from under its covers. Paul caught himself staring at it blankly until Judy snapped her fingers for his attention. He had forgotten she had that habit.

“Should we rent it out?” she sipped her coffee and began to reapply her mascara. With a soft tut, she wiped away the tracks of her old makeup that had run at the funeral.

“Oh, no, not with the types that rent houses around here,” Paul felt himself slipping away from the conversation, and struggled to heft himself back in. “Sell it?”

He stared at his younger sister cautiously, watching her face for a reaction. She was a pretty enough girl, in her early thirties, with high cheekbones and a full mouth. But her eyebrows were tweezed slightly too thin, and her nose was crooked just enough to unsettle her face. She kept her hair in a sloppy bun, with bleached tracks in the dirty blonde– and she had never exercised, Paul noticed that now, so her thin figure was somehow unhealthy and almost paunchy. It was as though her skin hung off her bones, leaving her older than she should be. She breathed in deeply and leaned back.

“We could always live in it. One of us,” she finished.

“Well, you said you wanted a place in the city, right? And my job out here, it’s not going anywhere. You know that.”

Judy sighed, and clapped her purse shut, makeup stowed. “You know,” she drawled, “You know, Mom didn’t want us to sell it. Honestly, I don’t mind living out here. It’s not so bad.”

“Where would you work? And how could you do anything once you got here? The guys from around here are all over sixty.”

She laughed, and nodded, eventually resolving to revisit “the old place” before any decision was made. The February day, almost pleasant during the funeral, had turned overcast, and a hue of grey dusk hung like a veil over the sidewalks. Judy had only brought her sweater, and Paul wrapped his thick winter parka around her shoulders as they walked, hip to hip. They trotted lightly up the front steps, making sure to avoid the middle of the step where the paint faded and the wood sagged to touch the cement patio. Paul fumbled for his key a moment too long, and Judy pulled out her own, smiling ruefully as she turned it with a neat twist of the wrist. For a moment, Paul wanted her gone, gone into the stream where she would drift away without any more of her smugness. Grasped by this irrationality, he shouldered past her slightly and stood directly in her way within the hallway.

It seemed that everything was left just as it had been, as their mother had arranged it in her mysteriously exact way. The bicycle (it didn’t belong to anyone in particular, it was simply the bicycle) slumped against the wall of the stairs, leaving a tiny sliver of space to squeeze through and leave your shoes. Paul, feeling impossibly large even without the bulk of his parka, bent over with a creak to unlace his boots. Judy laughed at his insistence on following their old house rules, but settled on the bottom stairs to do the same. Along the stairs hung portraits of them and their mother, hand-drawn and leering. Rising with another creak, Paul stared at them as he had stared out the window of the Destination Diner, with a dull film over his eyes. They were colored-pencil drawings made up from old photographs, courtesy of Judy­– the children looked like old men. Judy made an exaggerated grimace as she caught her brother’s gaze, and covered the pictures up with the parka.

“Ohmygod, I really drew like a spazz in high school!”

They both hesitated, and looked up the stairs to the bedrooms. Paul’s room, he knew, was almost bare, stripped of any decoration aside from the stickers on his loft bed and the cold cast of light from the naked window. He glanced to Judy and saw the trepidation in her hand on the railing. She had left her room as it was, as it was when she was seventeen and Paul had thrown Aaron Hartly from her economics class into the stream after waking up in Judy’s lavender comforter. Paul took her arm reassuringly, and smiled like the whole thing had been a joke. But Aaron Hartly could be seen rolling down the staircase in his ragged boxer shorts by both of them now, fifteen years later. Paul saw himself, framed in the light pouring from their mother’s room as she opened her door to see what was going on at this hour of the morning and oh my lord, Paul, what are you doing. Fifteen years stood between the wild, five in the morning Paul at the top of the stairs, and the two shivering siblings staring up at him. Finally, Judy moved away, and Paul lumbered behind her as they moved to the back of the house. He wanted to reach out and pat her back, or nudge her playfully, but as he started to he knew that the moment for that had passed. Instead, he leaned on the screen door and held it for his sister, reveling in the fact that she would have forgotten how the hinges snapped shut and slammed the door if you didn’t mind it; it was he who held it for her, and prevented her embarrassment. But she walked by him, unaware, and led him down to the stream and the marsh beyond it. A small, abused row boat lay on the banks, oars rusted into their locks, just as it had since their grandfather had placed it their hopefully, as though the stream could become a river if it saw what it might carry.

Judy stepped in it gingerly, and laughed…contrails lay across the sky in great sweeping ribbons, as though the secret missiles under the city had all been launched. A flake of blue sky broke through where the sun was setting, and the glow of the orange light struck Judy’s brow, striping her hair and forehead. Paul looked away, down to his bare feet squirming in the raw mud, and felt his heart sink.

“We can’t sell it, Paul.”

He looked up, irritated, at his younger sister perched on the rowboat seat. Why not sell it? It was an unremarkable house, filled with mediocre childhood memories­– it was nostalgia on the cheap. Judy noted his frown and clasped her hands together.

“Mom wouldn’t want us to. You know it, Punch.”

Maybe it was her manipulative use of his nickname that infuriated Paul most. Or perhaps it was the way she knew what Mom knew, what she would have wanted. He didn’t know anything, except that his sister was younger than him, younger and lighter, and he desperately wanted her gone. She turned from him, and in a flash he imagined seizing her head and pushing it into the water, straight into the mud, and keeping it there. The flash passed, and Paul blinked rapidly to get the image out of his mind. I must be a little crazy, he thought, only somewhat seriously. What a strange imagining. He could laugh it off later, he knew…laugh it off and think of how much he loved his sister.

“I’ll take the house,” he heard himself say, belated guilt washing over him and forcing the words. Judy raised her eyebrows. “Really. I won’t have you living out here in the middle of nowhere, Jude.”

Judy had taken the bus home the night before, while Paul stayed behind to sleep in his old room, with sheets from the linen closet. He set his watch alarm for 5:00 am, and woke without pause as soon as it began to sound. From the window he could see the marsh, under a still cloud-covered sky, stretching aimlessly onwards. The air-train led on into the far distance, grey and broad and endless, with the airport lost in the morning fog. The sun had not yet risen, but its light leaked onto the barren landscape, watery and pale. Over the horizon, contrails streaked.

Tess Banta
Age 17, Grade 12
Fiorello H. Laguardia High School of Music
Silver Key

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