Once upon a time, this hole was a town, complete with its Baptist church, general store and post office. If I look deep enough, I can remember visiting the post office with my father when I was three, holding his hand proudly as he pulled me up the three steep steps into the tiny building, a simple clapboard some one had built in a day. If there would have been fire code regulations, the limit could not have possibly exceeded five people at a time. Sadly this humble little town, like almost every thing else eventually does, grew weak and eventually faded away. Now there are eleven homes, (three of those abandoned), one empty general store (which I used to sneak in looking for abandoned goods, like church pews and painted wooden crates) and the post office, which not so long ago became my storage shed when I temporarily lived next door. The church, of course still stands because even dying towns apparently need their faith. When I moved, I took the homemade wooden mail desk and converted it into a quaint, functional kitchen counter, with the separate mail slots still in tact. I’m sentimental I suppose, and my mother always said I could make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Charming, isn’t it?
So, I moved the mahogany-stained kitchen counter into a 200 year-old farmhouse on a very dilapidated farm. Still, there were fruit trees, which worms kept me away from, and a small grape vineyard, with grapes that were too tart to enjoy, and most important of all, enough, perhaps more than enough privacy and peace.
I like bringing things back to life, picking them up, dusting them off and making them new again, it’s something I feel I must do at times. This farmhouse was one of these endeavors. If I couldn’t bring her back, I knew I could at least sustain her for a few years and let her slip away in the end, knowing she was cared for.
This wasn’t a new love interest, no-my aunt had lived there when I was seven, and I used to find reasons for visiting-so I could stand in the enormous hallway and admire the curved, wooden stairway. This was beyond my small world’s comprehension-this was a mansion, and I always hated to leave her. Of course my aunt had made a hasty move when she had seen a woman, a particular woman outside of her kitchen window, and this only fed my curiosity even more.
So when the house fell empty nearly nine years ago, I thought it a clever idea to pick up my entire world, shed my social life and run back to her. I needed the quiet, and I needed the country air for a clearer head-so I could scribble down my guaranteed best seller. But these plans, like all plans are basically weak, transparent foundations for our sad, hungry wishes.
Of all of the terminal houses in this one mile existence, she was the most grand-with the way she sat-perched upon her hill, practically hidden from the world behind the gnarled, heavy green that wraps itself around every dwelling here, not at all like beloved English Ivy, no; The green offers no sweet embraces to compliment stately homes here, this is a wild green, complete with thorns and creepy-crawlies that swallow the homes, digest them slowly, and entirely. As a matter of fact, the place I inhabit now will no doubt lose itself to the brutal, beautiful green-eventually, but that may be a blessing, perhaps..
The farm house was a crumbling, awkward large lady someone had seen fit to wrap in horrible green aluminum siding, but even beneath such hideous exterior she was glorious! So externally she’s been disfigured for the last 40 years, with her gutters that continue to slowly pull themselves away from her like older children yearning for their escape. Those gutters that hang like loose teeth, until the wind eventually rips them free; and rebel pieces of the horrid green painfully slapping against her always. The suffocating trees continue even now to shove their way through her fragile eyes, the same windows I painstakingly replaced eight years ago. In near zero temperatures, I sat alone with her- singing in the quiet to her, prettying up her sheer facades, returning the glossy gaze to our emerald lady.
I don’t commit to anything easily, my devotion is extremely rare, but I was unbelievably committed to our sad woman. She was the kind of house that you climb deeply into, and when you nestle against her chest, those perfect tongue-in-groove walls, nothing can reach you, nothing can shake her solid foundation. I would lay in bed, pressed against her breathing body and slip into a clear pool of warm dreamless sleep.
Now that’s not to say there weren’t attacks upon our tragic beauty-there were the strong winds that did their mightiest huffing and puffing, but alas could not invade her, nor push her down. And there were the black snakes, dragging their slow heavy bodies above my bedroom ceiling -seeking out spring’s baby birds, the birds that disturbed my sleep with their constant demands. When the hungry, high-pitched squeals were silenced, by the long dark death, who calculatingly sought those tasty hollow-boned treasures, I couldn’t help feel pleased, vindicated, and for a while I would return to a gorgeous sleep.
It didn’t take long before she dictated my whole world. Upon waking, I would stumble down her tired aching stairs and into her cold kitchen. Cold, she was always a cold-blooded queen, regardless of the season, saving her only warmth for her top floor, where her tin-roofed crown pulled the sun from the sky and tucked his heat tightly into her mind, the very home of those heavy serpents who feasted on the tiny birds. Down there in her kitchen, and all through the rest of her belly, with its plantation-style ceilings she was nearly frigid at times. But she allowed me to move through her freely, painting her, cleaning her, recreating her lost beauty.
Sometimes I stood by the worn, stained porcelain sink and looked for the lady that had frightened my aunt so long ago. Instead I was shown dew-laden webs in her fruit trees, adorned by the dawn, sparkling like dripping diamonds.
It’s important that you know I was not blinded by this love. I was all too aware of her painful shortcomings, like the way she allowed those serpents to crowd her head and the way she painfully hung onto things, such as bad memories and dead people she should have set free. Dead people like her original mistress who, one morning, stepped out to shake her bedroom rug and somehow fell from her bedroom balcony. Accident or a gentle shove from her husband, no one knows. Regardless, the outcome was terrible; the lady had broken her back in the fall and suffered there paralyzed, for what must have been an eternity until she could no longer hold on and gave into her restless spirit. But our emerald beauty selfishly caught this spirit and refuses, even now, to let her leave.
I was told by a local historian that the poor woman had landed in the spot where the grass grows darker and feels softer than any grass should beneath one’s bare feet. The same place my aunt had seen her. My favorite time to look for her was in the twilight. I’d wait at the sink or even step out onto the porch and demand she presented herself to me. Instead, I’d hear scratching, knocking and footsteps on her balcony above, which had become far too damaged over the years to step a single foot on.
But there were other ways she communicated-if she disliked the music I was playing, she’d jump on the beds upstairs, slam my study door, turn lights on and off, and march continuously over our heads. When I was choosing paint for the Mistresses’ bedroom, she made it apparent that she wanted a particular dusty pink. So I gave her what she wanted, fooling myself into believing I had subconsciously picked the color. Later, while stripping the layers of wallpaper from her tattered bones, I found the bottom layer, the original paper-her paper: cream colored roses upon a dusty pink paper. So I got it, I understood her and I was raised with ghosts all of my life anyway, so I adored having her as company.
Like most love affairs, things were not always ideal. I was physically and financially spent; there were always ten new big tasks for each big task I completed; I felt like I was sinking, being pulled under and I began to long for my old, somewhat carefree life once again. Perhaps this is why I began to change;
I’ve always had my father’s Italian temper, (or at least that’s what my mother calls it), but tiny things like paint smudges, ill-trimmed floor tiles and paint that took much too long to dry began to throw me into violent outbursts, where I would throw or smash anything I could grab. The love was withering and I wanted out. Stubbornly for a while, I continued decorating her with a million gold petit fleur, and doing my very best to please her-pretending things would surely improve….
Winter was on its way, and I knew it would be impossible to properly heat her, so I decided I should go. On weekends, my best friend and I would drive into the city, over 40 miles away in search of a new home. We never once discussed our moving plans in the house; I felt that a quiet escape was best in this situation. But she quickly became suspicious and began to express her feelings of betrayal-she’d open and slam my doors, spitefully lower the volume on my stereo, toss pictures and plates across the room, pull my hair, knock violently on the kitchen door, drag my heaviest furniture into the middle of the room and began slamming her bedroom door like a pained teenager or a jilted lover..
People had asked from the beginning of this project why I did it, why I stayed. The easiest way to explain that was through an example:
Have you ever woke in the middle of the night, perhaps to a heavy snow storm that had crept in while you were hanging with Morpheus and the whole world appeared empty, no cars, no lights outside of your apartment, the kind of silence that hurts your ears? And just as you begin to really panic, begin to suspect that everyone in the whole world has abandoned you, forgotten about you, you hear a noise, it could be a cough from upstairs or a scuffling next door-it’s that priceless confirmation that you are not alone. That’s what this house and its occupants gave me. I’ve always said the dead make the best neighbors, just keep the relationship casual, please.
During weeks of very slow packing, hoping she was no longer paying attention, she unleashed her big guns on me. I couldn’t go into my study, there were hundreds of wasps, climbing out of her every orifice, like the maggots from a dead cat I discovered when I was 5. You could hear their buzzing from the hallway downstairs. Also the snakes came down from her head and began slithering upon my back porch, itching to taste me…. I also began to find rats, dead rats on objects like my treasured antique rugs. This may seem coincidental, but believe me when I say she raged at me far worse than my previous emotional outbursts. The last straw was when we stepped out of the car, up to front door, and were greeted by a low, guttural growl which began in the bedroom window and ran impossibly quick through every other room, growling at us like the scorned woman she’d become. That was too far-I had a terrified 8 year-old to protect, so I was finally through with her. I left her once and for all that night. Movers took care of the rest and I never stepped into her world again.
That was, until I came here a few years ago. Here being directly parallel to our sad beauty. Now, every time I look out of my bedroom window, every time I step outside, she’s there-smiling her gaping, ugly smile. With her brazen window-eyes she watches me and occasionally you can hear the sound of a mother and her 8 year old laughing- racing down the twisted drive. Our laughs- and she doesn’t give a damn who sees her taunting me this way. Sometimes I walk up to the bottom of her hill. I stare at the splintered rotting front porch, those shattered wrists of her arms that once held us as we potted houseplants and read books in the shade. She does not hide in shame of her brutal ugliness, instead she displays it proudly, occasionally spitting out bits of herself upon the ground, while the black birds have their way with her mind.
Last night there were storms, a succession of horror-movie storms with strobe lightning and thunder that jarred me to the very core-where those lazy butterflies wait patiently for their next treat. I was alone when the storms came. At first, I considered cowering on the sofa, behind my headphones and my spiral notebook. But as is often the case, I stubbornly stood-choosing confrontation- stepping out into the storms to finally hear what she needed to say. Sure enough through the heavy rain, I could see her with her bitter open grin and the lightning feeding her expression every few seconds. The wind moaned her sadness, and those trees, the trees that bind her still, squeezing her dry bones, threw shadows upon the windows, as if the house were full of entangled lovers, writhing madly on the floors and the walls…even on the ceilings.
Perhaps she spoke to me then, perhaps she hissed ‘see what you’ve done!’ or maybe ‘I forgive you for leaving‘ . Either way something happened and now, I feel different- lighter somehow.
Today Mother had her 59th birthday. Three years ago, she gave me a thick stack of paper and said she wanted me to write a book about her life, based on memories she’d written down for me. Considering she has never nor will never read a single thing I’ve written, I simply gave an empty nod and my infamous fraudulent eye-smile toward the floor; later shoving her memories into a ragged pile of scraps of paper with names and phone numbers I’ve long forgotten and restaurant napkins used to capture clever lines I felt I might use one day….a pile of countless ‘nevers’...
Today, she asked again for the first time since if I would still write her story. This took me by surprise, and all I could do was stare out of the window-at the giant green corpse on the hill, the worn out womb I’d loved so dearly once upon a time. I again thought of her indifference toward my work, the way she’s never once asked about anything, ever.
And then I thought about what a lost friend named Michael, had said once while we were walking amongst the beautiful stone statues and tombs of Spring Grove;
“You see those numbers, the date of their birth and their death? Those numbers are meaningless! What matters is that hyphen, that tiny dash in between. If you have an empty dash then nothing on the stone matters one bit.”
Not taking my eyes away from the house, I licked my venomous lips with the forced forked tongue, and ask “what’s the rush, you have plenty more memories to make, then I’ll write your story.”
To this she replied, “That may not be true, I’m tired, and you never know when you might have to ‘give up the ghost’.”
I turned and faced her-allowing her to see the injured smile she’d given me at birth, and began writing elaborate eulogies in my mind as I walked away. ~13