Inside a Dead House

I drove down ochre dirt roads, sometimes tinged with Indian red, the roads sandwiched between deep ditches, and turned off one country road onto another, again and again, intending to travel as deep in the countryside as possible. Tired of being shut in the house, tired of writing and staring at a computer screen, I needed to escape for a few hours.

I couldn’t find a picture of the house I wrote about, but I discovered this shot that I took the same day.

 

The only passenger in the truck was my dog, Brody, gone now, buried in the backyard.

On a sharp curve, my truck in the middle of the road, I spotted what I thought was a roof in an overgrown plot near the woods. My foot went heavy on the brakes, and the truck stopped with a jolt. I looked over my shoulder, my neck twisted, my eyes searching, and Brody, a heavy bull-boxer, jumped on me, trying to wiggle his body between me and the steering wheel, intent on seeing what was so important. Sure enough, there was a house buried under vines and other greenery. I backed up, then pulled the truck into a path where a wild overgrown yard met the woods. The raspy voice of Leonard Cohen sang to me from the speakers. Leonard was “Going Home.”

I got out, pulled a hiking stick from the truck bed, and headed for the house, passing a camellia bush that appeared to have been neglected for decades, Brody walking ahead of me. My steps slow and cautious, I used the stick to down weeds and break through bushes, my boots crushing the slain overgrowth. I meant to leave a clear path I could follow on my way out.

Vines had asphyxiated the place, had climbed the aged roof, obscuring most of the tin, strangling the wooden structure set on piers. Not far from the house an ancient oak with rheumatoid arms stood reaching in all directions.

After considering the rotting steps, I heaved myself onto the porch. Brody took the steps and got there before me. Huge sections of boards had collapsed, fallen to the ground, and I hesitated for a long time before continuing. It would be impossible to walk straight to the entrance; everything was rotting. I searched for nearby boards that appeared strong enough to hold me, boards not yet softened by rot. After locating a place, I took a step, a cautious step, keeping most of my weight on the back foot, testing the wood with the other booted foot, gradually increasing my weight before lifting the rear foot and bringing it down beside the one I’d moved forward. Standing in my safe spot, I remained still and hunted for another place closer to the entrance. It wasn’t possible to take a straight path to the door. Collapsed boards barred my way, but I continued in a twisted approach, each step taking me to a sturdy island surrounded by decaying wood. The process of following a safe route was slow and tedious and the journey took me along an S path from the edge of the porch to the front door.

Inside the house, I fell back in time. I had walked into a discarded oil painting damaged from water, its colors and composition faded and damaged and barely visible, the strokes on canvas a mere rumor, a ghost of a home. From the places I had lived during my childhood, I knew the wooden floors, the old windows, the beadboard walls, the ceilings of wood, similitudes trapped like daydreams inside the farmhouse. I knew the place, yet I’d never lived down that particular dirt road, never before seen the house, wasn’t sure if I could find the road again.

I eased around to find a place to sit, staying near walls, areas that hadn’t yet rotted. Choosing a spot near a window, I sat on pine planks in a corner, the floor thick with dust, and studied my surroundings, my eyes drawn to a fireplace where white paint had chipped away from the mantel one piece at a time, revealing bald places free of paint, bald places of the original wood. In the silence I spoke to the mantel, as though it were a living thing, as though we might have a discussion. “You remind me of an old woman whose white hair has thinned and fallen out in spots. Without her hair the old woman is left with bald spots of raw scalp. Your white paint has chipped away and left you with bald spots, too.”

The mantel did not respond.

Brody went from one room to another, sniffing, taking his time, his tail wagging. I was afraid to plunder through the house with him, afraid of falling through the rotting floor. I had left my phone in the truck and nobody knew where I’d gone. It would be best to remain in the front room while Brody checked out every corner of the place.

Considering the condition of the house, I decided it had probably not been a real home since the 1940s or 50s. From what I could see, there wasn’t much left of the interior. Rot had taken over. Although I didn’t walk through the kitchen, I knew there would be no plumbing and no bathroom. My imagination, always alive and rambunctious, hijacked my thoughts, and, in fascination, I studied dust particles suspended, floating before the fireplace, imagining the motes to be words from discussions, words from conversations that had taken place decades ago, imagining sentences spoken by parents about their children, imagining children talking among themselves, sentences spoken before a fire, flames reaching high, imagining dust particles to be sentences broken into fragments, the past turning to dust, imagining fragments broken into singular words, imagining words clinging to minute specks, those specks slow-dancing in a slit of sunlight that beamed through the only window glass not completely covered with vines, imagining the sentences of long ago falling apart and turning to dust. Buried under greenery, the house had died, but my imagination discovered signs of life in the dust. Through experiences such as this one, I uncover poetry and carry ideas home with me. I blame it on my imagination.

From where I sat I could see into a bedroom. How many children had slept there? How many old iron beds had been set up in the room? Did the children giggle and whisper to each other before falling asleep? Did heavy handmade quilts cover their beds? Did they open the windows on summer nights to let a breeze in? Did their father strum a guitar and their mother sing? Did they believe they would always be together? That death would never touch their lives?

In the corner of the abandoned house, I close my eyes and rest against a wall of beadboard. In the silence, the soft quicksand of memory tugs me and I sink.

My little sister is humming and brushing her sandy-colored hair on the bed. Beside her, I’m sitting cross-legged, reading a book. We hear my older sister, married, no longer living in the same house with us, coming through the backdoor. My younger sister puts the brush down and I lower my book. My sister walks into our bedroom with her twin daughters, toddlers. My younger sister takes one of the twins. I take the other. We slather their chubby cheeks with kisses and make them laugh. Three sisters in the same room, a blonde, a redhead, a brunette, and two little girls, identical twins. The bed is made of wood, the headboard against the beadboard wall. The room is large, closets, one on either side of the fireplace. A white mantel. My mother walks into the bedroom, her dark hair wavy, falling below her ears. She stands near the doorway and talks to my older sister. Six females in the room. Three generations.

A memory of women.

I blame it on my imagination.

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