For my friend Lori, who took this photo, and whose eye always captures the soul of houses. You can find her on instagram @onotes .
Once there was a door, four-paneled, with a glass pane in the center. And a wall, of course, with a window that mirrored the south side of the house. Jesse had hung the curtains there her grandmother brought with her from Germany, old lace gone soft with age. When a breeze passed by, the lace would caress the glass like a long-loved spouse. That was before, when there were families. Later there was silence, cold seeping through the neglected cracks, snow piling up around the porch, birds nesting in the kitchen cupboard. Then the crash, the truck that barreled headlong, shattering the panes, buckling the whole north corner. After that, scavengers. A trio of boys came and hauled off the boards – a fort, they said, kicking at the jagged edges with their boots, ripping away chunks of wood with grunts and cheers, stacking them in a wagon the biggest boy pulled behind him on a bike. Others came in the middle of the night and took the door – a woman and a man, whispering and furtive, as if there was anyone around to tell them no, or make them stop.
Even all that was a long time ago. Slowly all the beautiful things went – the mantle where Jesse would put flowers in the summer, the handmade bricks around the hearth, the mirror in the washroom, the glass doorknobs, even the narrow black cupboard handles that Frank made before he left for the war. All gone to strangers, people who blew through like tumbleweeds, unrooted, grasping, taking with them what they had never earned, never loved.
There was a man there now, sleeping in the small back bedroom on a thin mat of blankets. He’d come just before the winter turned, when the nights were getting cold. Not that there was much warmth inside with the front gaping open as it did, but in the back it was dry at least, preferable to sleeping in the open if you had no other choice. Others had done the same many times, leaving behind a legacy of detritus, their names – or crude messages – etched on the walls. They used the non-functioning toilet until it overflowed and then began relieving themselves right on the floor, like the coyotes that passed through occasionally and left their scat to mark their territory. The new man shoveled and carted and brought in buckets of water until it was cleaned up. Then he pulled out the toilet and hauled it to the back yard to let the elements scour it, cleared the brush away from the old outhouse, and fixed the hinge on the hanging door.
Soon, all the trash was gone, burned night after night in fires just big enough to warm a single person but not draw too much attention. In the house, the newly swept floors hinted of their once-beauty, knotted and streaked, worn soft and tinged with red, boards milled from the fir trees that skirted the mountain. You could see the peak from the front of the house on a clear day, snow-capped and stark against blue skies. Before the war, Frank had whispered into Jesse’s hair, “It will watch over you while I’m gone,” and never come back again.
By the time the tulips were coming up around the apple tree, the man had closed off the back of the house and was living snugly between the bedrooms and the kitchen. He’d hung a rope across the bathroom and draped his clothes there after he washed them in the creek, set up a cot so he didn’t have to sleep on the floor. There was a row of canned goods in the pantry, a daily bucket of creek water on the wood counter, occasionally a bowl of eggs when he came back from town. From the first, he talked out loud, as if he was unaware he was alone, as if the house was listening.
“Look at that sky,” he would say as the sun sank. “Isn’t she a beauty?”
In the mornings he whistled while he smoothed his hair and smiled at the bathroom wall, pretending the mirror had not been stolen. He was old, but not that old, there was still dark in his hair.
One night a carload of teenagers drove up. Boys and girls, their faces lit sporadically by the glowing ends of cigarettes, a single flashlight. They brought sleeping bags and sheltered in the front part of the house in rustling pairs, left with the sun, looking sheepish and bleary. The man stood in the back yard and watched them go, unnoticed. He collected their beer bottles, swept away their trash. More would come, he knew. The weather was turning.
The sheriff came on a Saturday. They talked in the yard for a few minutes, then went around back and in through the kitchen. The man had been cleaning his boots and they were sitting in the middle of the floor on a sheet of newsprint. The sheriff walked through the rooms with his hands on his hips, saw the tidiness of it, the cot in the back bedroom, the shirt and pants hanging from the rope in the bathroom.
“You know the Fairfields? The people who own this place?” he asked, coming back into the kitchen.
The man said, “I’m not doing any harm,” and the sheriff nodded, considered.
“Well,” he said and got back into his car. When he left, a plume of dust hung in the air and over the road outside the house. The man let out a long breath.
In the pantry, he found a tin box. It was on the very top shelf pushed as far back as it would go. The scavengers had missed it all these years. It was light blue, painted over with roses. Jesse had put their marriage license inside, and the only photograph they had together, taken after their wedding. The man took the photo out to the light. He couldn’t read the thin handwriting on the back, but he saw their faces, the ones who had lived here too. Jesse was blond, with a dimple in her left cheek and a pointed chin. Frank was lean, dark curls falling over his forehead, looking like he’d just won the biggest prize at the county fair. The photo was bent slightly at his face, the way it would be if someone had run their thumb across the image time after time. The man put the photo and the marriage license back into the box and closed it up again.
That night the moon was dark and the air was warm so he stood outside and looked at the stars, finding Ursa Major and then following the horizon until he found Castor and Pollax, the immortal brothers. His mother used to tell their story on summer nights when he and his sister slept out on the lawn. Coyotes began to howl nearby and he looked into the darkness, imagining them gathered, their tawny throats stretched, muzzles lifted. He went inside and lay in the cot, remembering, until he fell asleep.
He was woken some hours later by the sound of breaking glass, male voices. He’d barely got his feet on the ground before the flashlight found him. There was a drunken shout, “Someone’s in here!” And he squinted into the beam of light. He could see the outline of shoulders, shapes moving toward him, and then he was grabbed roughly by the back of the shirt. There were three of them, four?, and they pushed him into the middle of their circle. My boots, he thought, regretting the nakedness of his ankles, the vulnerability of his bare feet. Someone spit on the ground next to him and another kicked at him, and he knew he had to stand or they would forget he was a man, not a dog, not a creature to be beaten and tormented. He pushed himself upright and held up his hands.
“Fellas,” he said, his own voice sounding deeper and stronger than he expected. “What are you doing here?”
There was a bark of laughter. “What are we doing here?” More spit, aimed at his feet.
From behind him there was a crash, the sound of the cot being overturned.
“He’s got money here,” said an excited voice. There went the summers of hard work, the carefully saved coins.
He turned, searching for the thief, and the first punch hit him just behind the ear. He staggered. Then it was a matter of holding his arms over his head, trying to ward off the worst of the violence by making himself tight and small. The blows found him regardless.
Later, the sun spread across the fir floors, over his bare feet, his chilled body. Unconscious, he turned his face towards it. Somewhere in his mind he was hearing the clink of dishes, the spatter of an egg in a frying pan, liquid poured into a cup. Coffee, sharp and fresh. A woman humming, her blond hair spilling over her shoulders. A child at the table with a pencil, a look of concentration. Was she waiting for him? He could go up behind her and slip his arms around her waist, nuzzle his face into the warmth of her neck. His breathing slowed, and he slept.
It was dark. He was in the bedroom and there were curtains at the window, white lace. They drifted up and back on soft currents of air. A woman was in the bed with him, curled on her side, her hair in a long braid. He reached out his hand to touch it and she stirred and began to turn towards him. He felt himself smile. A breeze picked up the end of the curtains and they lifted, floating up into the room like gentle arms, reaching. Outside the stars were brighter than he’d ever seen them, all the constellations at once inside his view. Cassiopeia, Draco, the twins, the great bear, Polaris. He heard his mother’s voice reciting them, showing him where to look. He watched the sky until his eyes grew heavy and he slept again.
“Hey now, mister. Hey there.”
Someone was speaking to him, shaking him. He strained toward the voice. Sun stabbed at his eyes and when he tried to open his mouth it felt stiff and gritty. A hand held his head, tipped a cup of cool water toward his mouth.
“Sons of bitches did a number on you, didn’t they?” The sheriff, then. He recognized the voice. He tried to lift himself but nothing happened.
“Hang on now, and I’ll call for an ambulance, get you out of here.” The long legs and dark shoes stepped across the floor and out the door. Pain was creeping up from the edges, taking hold of him. He winced. He tried again to sit up but his body seemed disconnected from his desire.
“No,” he said, but the sheriff was still outside. He could hear the sharp crackle of the radio, the overloud voices. The ambulance would take him away. This was the end then. The end of his life here, the comfort of the old house, sleeping under a roof, the canned goods in the kitchen, the daily routine of fetching water, sweeping the floors, feeling the ghosts of the lives lived in this place like old friends. In his mind they were always with him, the blond woman, the curly-haired man with the joy on his face, another woman, more shadowed, harder to hold. There were others too, just out of sight. Children that slipped in and out of rooms, babies crying from a wooden cradle, a dog that slept near the door, an old man who came in the kitchen door and hung his coat on a nail each night. If he’d stayed longer he might have learned their names, might have seen the clarity of their faces. But the sirens were drawing nearer and the sheriff was back, saying,
“We’ll get you out of here, get you taken care of straightaway, don’t you worry about a thing,” and he knew it was kindly meant.
“Thank you,” he managed, but it came out like a sigh.
Then he was being lifted and carried and he could feel the desire of the house going out to him, as if it too knew loss was coming. From his cot in the ambulance he could see the gaping front, the missing north corner. He could have closed that in this summer, he could have given dignity back to the place if he’d been left alone. The engine started and he began to be pulled away, taken by the kindness of others. They would fix his body, give him food, then they would understand he owned nothing and they would send him on his way. They meant well, he knew. The house was growing smaller through the window. He watched it for as long as he could, seeing it in its ruin, knowing it, loving it.