Tom Disch’s poem “Donna Reed in the Old Scary House” appeared in our Fall 1995 issue. A prolific poet, novelist, science-fiction writer, and author of children’s books—including The Brave Little Toaster: A Bedtime Story for Small Appliances—Disch frequently published his work in the Review. He died in 2008. —D.P.
At first she is only mildly annoyed: the car
won’t start, it’s happened before. She’ll phone
her husband—what is his name?—at his office,
and he’ll come pick her up. Another cup of coffee,
meanwhile, in that funeral parlor of a living room
with old Mrs. Marbleheart, who haunts this old house.
Through the fence’s iron trellises, the house
seems strangely familiar. It is her own, and the car
is parked in her own driveway. In the living room
picture window a candle gutters, and a phone
rings, alarm-clock-like, within. What a case of coffee
nerves she’s got. It must be Alex, calling from the office.
Only that and nothing more; Alex is at his office,
she’s in her spotless kitchen, the house
was built yesterday, on the stovetop the glass coffee
pot burbles its ads, and a mechanic can fix the car.
His name is Alex, and it must be him on the phone.
Goodness—imagine falling asleep in the living room
sofa in mid-afternoon. But this isn’t her living room,
after all. Alex died years ago, and where his office
stood there’s now a mall. Her rotary phone
is landfill, and as for the house … The house
is the source of this nightmare, with its tireless car
entombed in the old garage. And worse, this coffee
stain on the bodice of her bridal gown, the coffee
grounds ground into the wall-to-wall living room
carpet, the mice squealing in the walls, and a car-
ving knife with a bone-white handle from the Office
of Lost Wives—who could live in such a house?
It dawns on her she’s dead. She lifts the phone
from its cradle, and the silence of the telephone
confirms her fear. Ten thousand cups of coffee
ago she was Donna Stone, a fictional house-
wife and mother of two, alive in a living room,
full of wise saws and instances, one of life’s best office
managers, licensed to marry and drive a car.
Now she has nowhere to drive any car, no one to phone
but the office of “Please wait.” The old brands of coffee
appear on TV, but in another living room, in someone else’s house.