The Right Place for Orange Shoes
by Matt Athanasiou
Some people think it’s a haunted dollhouse.
But haunted suggests that an anguished ghost inhabits a place and torments the living. Problem is, I’m not a ghoul, and I won’t consider my actions, past or present, disturbing.
Margaret planted the idea in my head. Each week something, she had claimed, was misplaced in the toy house.
“These moved.” Crouched, nose almost touching the second floor of the dollhouse, she stared at the tiny orange shoes in the cramped bathroom.
I leaned in. “Where were they?”
“Bedroom?” Her head tilted. “Kitchen, maybe. The bathroom’s an odd place for shoes. I’d have noticed them in there before.”
Legs sore from impatient gardening—picked too many unripe tomatoes that afternoon—I squatted with her, joints cracking. I pulled her head onto my shoulder.
“In the bathroom. I’d have noticed.”
“An odd place,” was all I whispered.
Illusions, fantasies. We both saw Colleen resurrected where she never would be. Yesterday the bank, her back to me with those three pigtails and another mother. Days before, Margaret dropped the groceries when I opened the front door; the window mirrored a girl on the sidewalk. She was pudgy, unlike Colleen, but in that mere instant of a reflection, our daughter had breathed again.
And at this moment, as long as I left the truth about the shoes unsaid, Colleen was with us.
I helped Margaret up, kissed her, distrusting myself not to utter any unnecessary details.
* * *
The night before, I had stood in the doorway to Colleen’s room. This was the first time I had entered her bedroom since the funeral. Until then, I had the faintest hope that she would open her door one morning and holler, “Get at it,” as she had. Optimism faded when I saw the door cracked open, no doubt left ajar by Margaret after grieving. Mourning together was rare. Mourning together bluntly acknowledged Colleen’s interminable absence.
I approached the open dollhouse, interior ivory in the moonlight, and kneeled and cried. Teary eyed, I noticed the orange shoes on the welcome mat, and recalled scolding Colleen for traipsing mud into the upstairs bathroom after gardening with me. I wondered about Margaret’s claims of objects being out of place—then I envisioned them. I said, “They can go in there now. That where they should be?” Before I considered an answer, or being delusional, I set them in the bathroom.
The tears stopped. I stepped away as if playtime was over and went to bed, never thinking Margaret would realize the shoes had been moved. Sleep came with thoughts of Colleen stomping around the house in soiled sneakers.
* * *
The day after Margaret had found the misplaced orange shoes, she called me upstairs again. The doll’s coat was on the sofa.
“Wasn’t like that.” She looked at me helplessly, maybe inquisitively. “Remember when she put my wardrobe across the couch to scare me.”
“Similar,” I said.
“Do you think?”
“Trying not to.”
She shook her head and backed away. “I’m calling Janelle.”
I let her.
Janelle came over and more friends. Some believed Colleen’s spirit was contacting us. Most were concerned. After a week of this, Janelle approached me outside by the garden, asked for the truth.
This was my out. I could play the grieving father. But, as I imagined nights of putting tiny dishes in the dollhouse bathtub, scattering plastic food on the stairs, as I envisioned Colleen guiding my hand, no apology came.
I simply said I was busy planting and went back to gardening.