“House Arrest,” by Elizabeth Alexander

Aug 20th, 2011 | By | Category: Prose

“The king ordered that his son be imprisoned in the Tower for Rebellious Princes, which had not been used for about 200 years because there had not been any.”

—Marie Catherine d’Aulnoy

“200 years? What were those princes thinking?!”


Although Alison eventually made her debut at the Idlewild Ball, she was not to the castle born; moreover, when Dr. Grum called Alison his “little princess,” we[1] thought of Elinor Donahue on Father Knows Best, who made us gag. We were not particularly rebellious, but we were savagely curious, and curiosity killed the cat.
In the Grums’ cloak closet, behind a formidable coat rod, lay a clearing about five feet high and the width of four discarded sofa cushions, stacked in pairs. The cushions were upholstered in dull brown post-war cotton with faintly sinister jungle birds and vines embroidered in purple and green. Alison and I sat opposite each other on the cushions, our legs stretched out in parallel, hers on the coats’ side. We had provisions: barbecue potato chips, Dr. Pepper, a camp flashlight and extra batteries, a transistor radio, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Magician’s Nephew.[2] Frodo  Baggins was mired in the Council of Elrond, and our Dr. Pepper supply was seriously waning on the cataclysmic afternoon when Mrs. Grum breached into our hideaway.
The transistor radio had warned us repeatedly against KBOX, in whose sonic labyrinth even grown women could get lost. That afternoon, faking congestion, the radio spewed static when we turned the dial to 100.3 FM. We shook the noble radio and pulled roughly on its antenna until, mesmerized by Big Brother and the Holding Company, it lifted itself on edge and twirled ecstatically. Pounding our thighs with our fists, we sang along. “I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and Take it! [whup] Take another little piece of my heart now, baby!”
If only we had turned the radio off when the news came on, or if KBOX’s Jack West had not announced the date:  November 27, 1967.
“Caroline’s birthday,” Alison whispered.
How could we have forgotten?
When Alison and I were six years old, Caroline Kennedy moved into the White House, and we (for the first time) were allowed to watch TV news and read Life Magazine. We loved Caroline: her blunt-cut hair pulled back in a bandeau or to one side in a barrette; her Shetland pony, Macaroni, a gift from Vice President Johnson who had been our governor; the way her daddy held her, one arm around her waist, one hand in hers, like he loved her so much.
When the President was killed we cried mainly for Caroline, and four years later we still felt horrible when we thought of her and John-John in their matching blue coats and how she reached her hand under the flag to touch the coffin.
Mrs. Grum was as beautiful as Mrs. Kennedy, but in a different way. She had eyes the deep dark blue of a mountain gentian; naturally curly blond hair, with honey-brown highlights; and a dainty nose that tanned more easily than it burned. At 5′ 9″ tall, she towered over the other mothers—but not menacingly, since her bones were small and her power veiled (to them) by a fixed half-smile.
But she spoke to maids and children in a voice harsh as a beagle bray, and the looks that she fixed on Alison were snarling and hungry, and we never knew why.[3]
We called her Jadis of Charn.
When Jack West’s program ended, we lowered the volume on the radio, but not enough to detect the clip-clip-clip of high heels on a hardwood floor. If only we had been prudent! Instead, confident that the coast was clear (Mrs. Grum had a standing appointment at the beauty parlor on Monday afternoons), we tiptoed down the back hall to the kitchen.
I remember the smooth maplewood of the magazine rack, built into an enclave opposite the cloak closet, and how a bright green magazine thrust itself under my left arm like a newspaper. I remember the cool tile floor against my stocking feet as I stood guard while Alison sneaked the last two bottles of Dr. Pepper from the refrigerator.
At approximately 3:20, we returned to the closet and, scrunching potato chip crumbs into the upholstery, ensconced ourselves on the cushions. We found the radio in a high good humor.
“Set me free, why don’t cha babe?” it played. “Get out my life, why don’t cha babe?”
I opened the bright green magazine.
“’Cause you don’t really love me: You just keep me hangin on!”
Alison pointed her Dr. Pepper in my direction. “What you got there?” she asked.
“The American Journal of Ob-STE-tricks and GUY-ne-cull―”
“Gynecology, stupid.”
Dr. Grum was an ob-gyn man.[4]
Alison scooted close to look at the pictures, which put us in mind of the Dallas Aquarium. There was a mermaid’s cave, veiled by a fine silver web, with a deep pink flagstone walkway. There was a translucent sphere set like a crystal ball in a watery cleft with a rose-colored fish to the side.
If only we had not puzzled out the captions! The silver web was made of pubic hair, and the pink flagstones were an infection. The sphere was a hoochie hole, and the rose-colored fish was a disease that had to be cut out. Although we could hardly bear to keep looking, neither could we bring ourselves to close the magazine which, in its naissance (we learned from the inside cover), had been called the American Journal of Diseases of Women and Children.
“’Diseases of Women and Children,’” Alison mused. “Remember that girl at the fair?”
“The thalidomide baby,” I nodded slowly.
To think that Fair Day had begun so well! First Dr. Grum shepherded us through the midway, where we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl and the Flight to Mars and ate two corn dogs each. Then he took us to the Livestock Show, where we petted a Dutch rabbit with a tattoo in one ear and got an autograph from a 4H girl whose pink swine won the Junior Grand Championship.
“What next?” Dr. Grum asked. “Who wants cotton candy?”
Alison and I exchanged a Look.
“No one wants cotton candy?” Dr. Grum put his palms on our foreheads. He smelled of clean white dress shirts with the cardboard still in place.
We wanted to see the transparent man and transparent woman in the Children’s Medical Center pavilion. We liked looking through their skin and pushing red and blue buttons to make their arteries and veins light up.[5]
“Alright then.” Dr. Grum reached for our hands and, marveling that we didn’t waver in the food court, led us into the pavilion. Above the entryway hung a banner for an exhibit called Shield and Defender: Your Federal Drug Administration.
That’s where we saw the thalidomide baby—not a real one but a photograph, and not an actual baby but a girl about six years old. She had light blond hair in two shoulder-length braids and turquoise eyes.
She had no arms.
She had no legs.
“Astrid Däubler,” the caption read.  “Born 1959. Bremerhaven.”[6]
Ordinarily, Mrs. Grum returned from the beauty parlor around 4:00 and found Alison and me doing our homework at the breakfastroom table. When we heard the back door close, we would cross ourselves like in church. When we heard the swish of her petticoat, we would say something like, “3 is the base, and 2 is the exponent” or “Skim milk, please. Punch only adds calories.”
On this Monday, however, time had become for Alison and me as it was for Penny Robinson in the first episode of Lost in Space, when she was frozen in suspended animation for the 98 year-long flight to Alpha Centauri. We were deaf to the bell chimes of the grandfather clock; utterly forgetful that radio host Chuck (“Round Mound of Sound”) Dunaway came on-air at 4:00. “Live in concert, Paraphernalia Clothing presents the Association!” he announced. “Tickets are on sale now at Memorial Auditorium Box Office.”
“And then along comes Mar-Y!” [7] the radio played.
Alison lowered the volume. I looked at her like, “Huh?”
She crossed her arms over her chest, stared at my nose, and whispered: “One one hundred, two one hundreds, three one hundreds,”—through ten one hundreds.[8]
At five one-hundreds, I crossed my arms over my chest and whispered along.
I remember a daddy long-legs stopping in its tracks and playing dead as, in one fell swoop, Alison slid onto her back and raised her dark green skirt. I remember her marvelous red-and-white striped bikini underwear.[9]
Alison inhaled spectacularly. “I have a disease of women and children,” she announced.
“Nuh uh.
“Get the flashlight,” Alison commanded.
If only I had refused! Instead, overcome by curiosity I clicked the flashlight on-off, on-off, on-off, while Alison wiggled out of her undies.
“Beam the light here,” she said, holding herself apart and indicating with a forefinger the area I should examine.
There was a little something just left of the slit; however, that little something did not look like a reproductive disease. It looked like an acne pimple. I leaned in, to see if we could pop it.
“You are killing your father!”
Mrs. Grum lurched upon us. She reeked of incompatible scents. I covered my nose against the assault of Je Reviens and Adorn.
Killing your father,” Mrs. Grum repeated. Her blue eyes frothed oceanically, like the mouth of a rabid dog.
Alison sprang to a crouch in the southeast corner of the closet, her fists raised with the insane determination of Smokin’ Joe Frazier after Oscar Bonavena had already floored him twice. I took the northwest corner.
Mrs. Grum made a surprise retreat through the coats to the door.
We heard uneven clicks, like a safe being cracked, as she fumbled with the doorknob.
“Shit!” Mrs. Grum hissed.
The cloak closet locked only from inside. To lock us in would be to imprison herself as well.
“Doo. Doo. Doo doo doo doo.”
We would know that sprightly tune[10] anywhere.
“Doo doo doo doo. Doo doo doo doo,” we mouthed along as Dr. Grum (alive and whistling) opened the closet, catapulting Mrs. Grum onto the door.
“Uh oh,” Alison said.
“Doo . . . doo. Doo doo. . .” Dr. Grum’s whistling halted inelegantly, like a song from a wind-up music box. His soft green eyes looked warily from Mrs. Grum to Alison to me.
“Who wants to tell me what is going on?” he asked.
“I don’t think anyone does,” I replied.
“Don’t you dare back talk, you little pervert,” Mrs. Grum sputtered.
“Sunbeam—” Dr. Grum began.
“—Don’t ‘Sunbeam’ me. I warned you, Karl.”
Alison raised her hand. “Daddy?”
“Ye-sss?” Dr. Grum’s left eyebrow rose expectantly.
“I have a disease of women and children,” Alison said.
Three days later, a dermatologist confirmed my diagnosis. He lanced and drained the pimple, told Alison to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer Milky Ways and Fritos, drink plenty of water and no Dr. Pepper, wear sensible underwear,[11] and wash with benzoyl peroxide.
Mrs. Grum banished me forever, but “forever” lasted only five weeks. On the sixth day of Christmas, she checked herself into The Willowbend, a luxury spa in Nagadoches, where she remained indefinitely. Our Monday afternoons were less deliciously terrifying without Mrs. Grum, but, as Dr. Grum explained, what we lacked in drama and intrigue we gained in peace and quiet.
To preserve the latter, he filed for divorce.
And we all lived happily ever after.


Elizabeth Alexander spent her formative years being good and seems to be spending the duration overcorrecting. Her work has appeared in MonkeyBicycle, Golden Handcuffs Review, Gargoyle, Prick of the Spindle, Anemone Sidecar, Archives of Neurology, and many other places. She lives in Seattle.

[1]   Alison Florimond Grum and myself, Cate Douceline Rameau, best friends and worst enemies, 1958-1967
[2]  The cloak closet became our wardrobe, with the witch on the home side.
[3]  We considered the following hypotheses: Mrs. Grum had a brain tumor; Alison was adopted; Dr. and Mrs. Grum had lost a baby like Patrick Kennedy.
[4]  A brilliant clinician, Dr. Grum had gone to Harvard Medical School and completed two post-graduate fellowships (one at Pritzker and one at Yale), but he didn’t act like it.
[5]  We were, moreover, curious about their different levels of anatomical detail. The transparent woman had bosoms as big as Barbie’s, but the transparent man had only the suggestion of a weenie.
[6]  Anticipating some questions that we had and many that we did not, Dr. Grum explained that a lady doctor named Frances Kelsey (who worked for the FDA) knew that thalidomide had not been tested enough in Germany, so she would not allow it to be sold in the United States. He said that Caroline’s father, the President, awarded a gold medal to Dr. Kelsey. Dr. Grum looked like he was about to cry. He said he should have known better than to take us to the hospital pavilion and that he wished we had not seen that poor little girl. But we had seen.
[7]  Our favorite song which, despite the extended metaphor, Mrs. Grum approved after hearing Leonard Bernstein cite it (as an exemplar of the Dorian mode) on a Young People’s Concert
[8]  This was our signal that one of us Meant Business and that the other one could not ever tell what happened next.
[9]  I still wore dumb ruffled panties that came to my waist.
[10] Peter’s theme, from “Peter and the Wolf”

[11] Meaning horrible cotton panties like mine

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