Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Smoking in the Ruins


 Now then: in the fall of 1992, my then-fiancé and I bought a house together. We fell in total and complete love with this wrong-side-of-the-tracks, falling-down-around-itself 1867 farmhouse. Because that's the sort of thing you do when you don't have kids. Oh and also, I was 22. (He was not.)

The first thing that happened was simple: a knock on the door. Don and I were curled up in the back bedroom, in the TV room, when we heard a knock on our front door one night. Sewanee is a small town, and people take walks at night, and there was some curiosity about what we'd done to the old farmhouse, so it didn't seem all that strange. So we struggled up and righted our clothing (ahem) and made it to the front door. And. . . no one was there. Kind of weird, because there was no one on the road either — no sign of anyone, for a long way in either direction. Well, maybe it had taken us longer to get our pants back on that we had thought. But I stood there kind of confounded, and a little irritated at whoever had just knocked and ran, and while I was standing there, all of a sudden there was a knock at the back door, off the kitchen. The knock was REALLY loud. Oh! I thought. They just went around to the side of the house! So I raced back there and opened the door, and. . . no one there.

Looking back, it's scarier than it was at the time. It will sound ridiculous, but it didn't occur to me that anything was amiss other than some prankful neighbors.

I can remember one night, before the house was fully renovated. We were sort of camping out in the back of the house, and every morning at dawn the contractors would arrive, whistling cheerfully and asking if we wanted some of their coffee. It was a blissfully happy time. Anyway, one night Don had gone back over to his old apartment, because we were sort of living in three different places at the time, and it was just me at the house for a bit, and I realized hey, this was the first time I had really been alone there, just free to wander around. So I wandered into the oldest part of the house, which we were stripping down to the studs to re-plaster according to 19th-century methods. And I ran my hand over those sturdy, beloved old boards; I wandered from room to room, looking at the noble bones of this house, thinking of all the life it had seen, and all the life it had yet to see. You've been through a lot, I said aloud. But I can promise you it gets better from here on out. We're going to take such good care of you. We're here now. We're here, and we're never going anywhere, I promise. I felt such peace, such warmth.

I should never, never have said that.

The things we experienced in the house were minor — never large, overwhelming things, always things it was easy to rationalize and ignore. The knockings, for instance. I look back and think I should never have opened the door that night. I am an insomniac at all times, and I would hear footsteps at night, particularly down the hall in the kitchen. Once, a friend was going to stay with us when he was in town for a wedding, and I heard him open the front door around 1 AM and come in. Oh good, I thought, Alex is here, and we can have breakfast together in the morning. I stayed awake for a while, listening to the homey sounds of Alex rummaging in the kitchen — opening and closing cabinet doors, walking with heavy tread, all the things a man does when he thinks he is being quiet. In the morning I got up and couldn't find him anywhere. He had never been there, of course.

That was about the time we started finding it impossible to keep housesitters.

We traveled down to see my mother in Florida quite a bit, and most of the time we would leave our coonhound and beagle and calico kitty in Sewanee, with a student as housesitter. They never said yes to a second gig, however, which we thought was strange — we paid well, and the house was pretty damn nice. Once, a student confessed and told us it was because he was afraid — he had woken in the night to hear my cello being played in the living room, just the strings idly plucked, up and down, up and down. I'm sure there were worse things, things we were never told. It was as though the house kept things fairly restrained while we were around, but when we weren't — well, then the tantrums would start.

Evil is childish. It isn't rational. It is a spoiled, illogical child.

Through events we never planned on, we ended up having to leave Sewanee. It wasn't financially feasible to hold onto the house and rent it, so we decided to sell. We knew we would make good money on it, having renovated it so well and with such attention to historic detail, and housing on the mountain is always at a premium anyway. So we made an agreement with a local realtor, and had our very first house showing, to a woman who was so eager she all but made us an offer on the spot.

That night, my house burned.

The official story is, the fireplace exploded. Now, this was a Rumford box fireplace, designed by me and crafted by local stonemasons. The fire in it that had been banked and ashed before we left was made by Don, who had been using fires as the main source of heat for 25 years. My point is, he didn't make a mistake. The fire department that saved what they could of our house, and that investigated the fire, knew that he didn't make a mistake. But when you have a fire department staffed by your students, and run by your friends and colleagues, they help you out. I can tell you what happened, the fire investigator told us. The down sofa was the ignition point. Someone would have had to have taken live coals and scatter them all over the sofa, which is all the way across the room from the fireplace. The only way is if someone did that. But your house was locked when we arrived, and there is no sign there was an intruder here. So we're going to put down 'explosion,' and say that's how the fire ignited the sofa.

There was no trace of an explosion in the completely unharmed and intact Rumford box, of course. But people help you out, in a small town. For insurance purposes, we needed an easily explicable fire.

We were heartbroken, of course. Our cat died in the fire; our dogs barely survived. That house was tight as a drum — flawlessly plastered, with Pella windows. It burned hot as the hinges. When they opened the front door, the backdraft would have killed inexperienced firefighters.

We called our contractor and told him to do it all again. We would pay for it with the insurance money. We just didn't want to have any part of it. The pain of the fire, of losing our cat, of having to leave Sewanee on top of everything — it was just too much. We trusted our contractor, who was a good friend, to know what to do, and he did.

Once, during the rebuild, I stopped by to see how things were progressing. I had our goofy coonhound with us, and as I came up the walk I turned her loose and let her do what she loved to do, which was run through the front door at the speed of light, slide on her long legs all the way down the long shotgun hall, then crash into the back wall like a stupid baby giraffe. I am grinning now thinking about her doing that, and how much she loved it. It made me happy that day to see enough of the house restored for her to do that, just like old times. Only the house was full of contractors that day, and when Mariah (that was our coonhound) clattered down the hall like a freight train, they all screamed. Screamed. Not even kidding — a big burly crew of local workmen, and they screamed like second-grade girls.

What's wrong? I said. They were clearly freaked out.

Just before I had arrived, the house had started to shake. Every part of it, like it was an earthquake. They couldn't figure out what was happening — they were yelling and screaming. And then, bang! the door to the back bedroom slammed shut on the workman who was painting in there. He tried the knob, but it wouldn't turn. He was locked in. He started yelling and banging on the door. The house's shaking intensified. Hearing these men tell this story, I can't describe how cold my blood ran. These were sturdy local men, and they had no interest in making anything up. Their hands were shaking.

And then, just like that, everything had stopped. The door had opened, the house had stilled, and that had been the moment when Mariah had burst through the door and I had arrived.

That crew quit, and our contractor had to find new guys. I didn't go back to the house again.

What's worse — a house full of evil that wants to hurt you, or a house full of evil that loves you and longs for you?

The hell of it is, I love that house still. It will always be home for me, in a way no other place ever will. If someone said, you can have it back, I would say yes in a red hot minute. In my dreams, it is always my home; in dreams, I walk through it again, and everything is just where I last laid it down, the last afternoon I lived there, and we are home again. I suspect that when I die, that will be the door I walk through. Some things you can't undo, inside you.

We've had trouble since then, off and on. Maybe it was never the house; maybe it's just me. We live in a house now that's almost as old, with just as fraught a history. When we moved in, we had trouble. The kids would say they heard me calling them from another room; once our daughter's picture was smashed. Once a toothbrush flew across the room. Fuck that, we said. I left with the kids and Don stayed, and a priest came to bless the house. An Orthodox priest, so we are talking holy oil and incense and blessed candles and the whole thing. That night Don spent in the house alone, the night before we had scheduled the priest, he said things got wild. He said he could hardly sleep because of all the noise in the attic, like someone throwing furniture.

I know those noises, because I have heard them lots in my life, in other places too. Like I said, maybe it was never the house. Maybe something's wrong with me, inside of me.

Anyway, when we got our house here blessed, the back door blew open and slammed shut in the middle of it.

Good fucking riddance, I thought. But the priest stopped, obviously scared out of his mind. What, I wanted to say. Did you think what you were doing wasn't real? Now get back to saying those prayers.

Yeah, you bet your ass I believe in house blessings. I believe in the ontological power of the priesthood to scare the shit out of evil. And I believe that we cajole ourselves into thinking about "good ghosts" and "benign presences" because we want to think that evil isn't real, and that surely our own presence is a kind of blessing. 

There isn't any moral to this story, or any resolution, or even any climactic scare. There's only this thing that happened to us once, and that I carry in me always. Thank you for letting me share it here, and for this space in which I can share this most intimate, painful thing. I will share this one last story about 328 Bobtown Road: the morning after the fire, I was sitting stunned on our front porch, surrounded by the charred wreckage of our house and furniture. My friend Lisa drove up, and she came and sat on the edge of the porch with me, because that's what you do when there are no words. After a while she offered me a cigarette, and we sat there and smoked, and I thought about the irony of that, but it still tasted good. And then Lisa looked around at all the whitish bits of fluff floating everywhere on the breeze.

Is that, she said, and stopped. Is that. . .  the cat?

I looked at her, incredulous. And then I remember lying back on the porch, and the feel of the cool stone against my back, and laughing. Just laughing my fool head off until I cried. No Lisa, I said. That is not my fucking CAT, that's the down SOFA, you idiot! And she laughed too, and we were both laughing and smoking and lying there in the wreckage, but everything was going to be okay.

In my dreams, I am home again.










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