Taking Comfort in a 'Four-Story' EscapeAuthor Marisa de los Santos recalls the worries of her childhood, and the escape she found in The Four-Story Mistake, Elizabeth Enright's tale of four siblings living with their father and a housekeeper in a big, rambling house in the country.
Marisa de los Santos is the author of the novels Love Walked In and Belong to Me, and a collection of poems, From the Bones Out. Unlike most other writers, she lives in Wilmington, Del., birthplace of Lycra, where she takes ballet classes and drives people around in her Toyota minivan. She dreams of living in a house with a cupola.
As my friends and family can tell you, I have a poor memory for my early childhood. That's because I had two: the actual childhood and the one spent inside books.
They both were equally real to me. For example, my third grade friends were Lizzie, Gwen and Julie. Lizzie played soccer. Gwen hated to write with very sharp pencils. Julie tucked her hair behind her ears.
And there were these third grade friends: Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver — the Melendy siblings, quirky children with quirky names. I loved them more than any of my real friends. And, I can tell you everything about them. They lived in a big, rambling house in the country. It had a cupola, a cellar, and a secret room. It sat in a yard with Norway spruces, two iron deer, and a brook lined with violets. Their house was called The Four-Story Mistake, which is also the name of the book by Elizabeth Enright in which I met them. She wrote three more about them.
I know how that sounds — loving characters in books more than my own friends, as though books represented, for my childhood self, simple escapism. Good literature should reflect real life with all its grit, loss, and ugliness, right? What did I have to escape from? I was healthy and bright, good at sports. My parents loved me. I had friends.
But I'm not sure there is anything simple about escaping into a book, even when you are eight years old. Ordinary life weighed heavy on me. An insomniac from the age of five, I would spend nights with my heart racing, wild with worry about infinity or the silent treatment Lizzie had doled out to me that day. I fretted about whether I would wake up one morning to discover that what I thought was my life was only a dream. I would check on my parents and sister every night for years, to see if they were still breathing. In school, I would blink repeatedly when I got upset and compulsively count every right angle in a room (windows, doors, desks, bulletin boards).
Enright, the author of The Four Story Mistake, is a writer who gives you an an entire, flesh-and-blood person in two sentences. Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver are utterly alive, and are complicated, but they are uncomplicatedly happy. They stage elaborate plays, ice skate at night, and collect scrap metal. Always together, always living with an abundant, freewheeling joy. They have reasons to worry — motherlessness, World War II — but they don't. When I was with them, I didn't either.
I see my childhood self so clearly now, because I have an eight-year-old son. He's beautiful, plays the piano and is a state champion swimmer. He's fiercely loved but worries about being drafted, about tornadoes, and death. He bites not only his nails but his knuckles. He experiences dazzling joy. But I hoped he'd be hardwired for lightness and ease, and he's not.
He reads the books other boys his age read — standard dark fantasy and science fiction. But I see him turn again and again to the easy, funny, and familiar. I know why. I know that escape doesn't always mean retreat or copping out, but healing and restoration, the soul taking care of itself. He is looking for his own Four-Story Mistake. I hope he finds it.
"Well, thank goodness there aren't going to be any more children here anyway!" said Randy crossly. She spoke crossly because she was sad and she preferred sounding cross to sounding sorrowful, even though there was no one in the room except herself. Nobody and nothing, for that matter: her words had the particular ringing echo that is heard only in entirely empty rooms.
Almost all her life Randy had shared this room with her older sister, Mona, and today they were going to go away and leave it. Forever. She looked carefully around because it is important to see clearly when one looks at something for the last time. How strange it seemed with all the furniture gone: smaller, somehow. In the long window the scarred shade hung crookedly as it always had; for hundreds and hundreds of nights its gentle flapping had been the last sound she heard before she slept. Good-bye shade, thought Randy sentimentally. Above the place where her bed had been some of her own drawings remained because she had impulsively stuck them to the wallpaper with glue when she couldn't find the thumbtacks. Cuffy had given her a good scolding for that, all right! Good-bye, pictures, thought Randy. She didn't mind leaving the pictures so much; she could make thousands of better ones any time she felt like it. She looked at the darker rectangles on the paper where other pictures had hung, and the stain on the baseboard where Mona had spilled the iodine that time.
Randy sighed a loud, echoing sigh. Downstairs in Rush's room she could hear the voices of Rush and Mona, and a lot of scraping and thumping and banging as they tried to get a suitcase closed. "Doggone thing acts like it hates me!" she heard Rush complain bitterly.
"Be reasonable," said Mona in her most maddening voice. "You can't expect anything to absorb seven times its own capacity. Why don't you take something out?"
"I suppose I could carry the Ninth Symphony, and the B Minor Concerto, and the roller skates myself. They don't seem to give much."
Randy sighed again and went out of the room for the last time. The last time: she'd been saying that to herself all day. She had paid a farewell visit to every single room in the house from the Office, which had been the Melendy children's playroom, to the furnace room in the basement. All of them looked bare and cold and friendless.
That morning the moving men had swarmed through the place, rolling up carpets, packing barrels, lumbering up and down the stairs with couches and chests of drawers on their backs like mammoth snails. Everything about the moving men was huge: their big striped aprons, their swelling necks and biceps, and their voices. Especially their voices; they had bawled at each other like giants shouting from mountaintops: "GIVE US A HAND WITH THE PIANNA, AL" or "CAREFUL OF THAT CORNER, JOE, DON'T KNOCK THEM CASTERS OFF."
Excerpt from The Four-Story Mistake: A Melendy Quartet Book by Elizabeth Enright. Courtesy of Square Fish/Henry Holt and Company.