We weren’t supposed to be there. The house was condemned but I could not resist. My best friend, Roberta lived in that house. We snuggled together in her bed, played on the floor near french doors and stood at the double sink resenting each dish her mother told us to wash. The place was a palatial estate in a depressed Appalachian way. It sat up high on acres of land next to an equally large barn supported by thin layers of slate. The land was bordered by rutted fields and deep woods. I told my husband I wanted to visit but it was more a dare than expectation. I was surprised when he pulled our rental car up the dirt driveway and opened my door.
I stepped out into tall wet grass feeling brave and criminal. There was no evidence of a path as we moved through weeds growing in tangles around our knees. We climbed rotting stairs near plywood covered windows, listening to sounds of the wind fluttering autumn leaves near the large yellow poster that hung on the door. Stay Out, No Trespassing, Violators will be prosecuted ~ the usual threats. The house was weather-beaten grey and pulled me so powerfully into the past that I expected to see myself there. The door hung crooked on rusted hinges and would not close. My husband was immediately uncomfortable and wanted to leave, but I was entranced. If anyone comes, I told him, wedging myself through the door, I will simply explain that I was Roberta’s friend, and they will give me news of her. Of course, I had not seen or heard from her in 50 years, but in such a small town someone would know.
Inside we found hundreds of boxes covering the floors in various stages of decay, looking as if someone had prepared to move, thought better of it, and simply walked away. The frame of the double sink pulled my attention to the kitchen. I remembered cleaning eggs from blue metal dishes speckled with white, and eating bowls piled high with sweet frozen cream from the ice box. The double sinks stood alone and erect in an otherwise gutted room. I continued to walk into what used to be the parlor, where I found the piano we once gathered around to sing. I walked over more rotting boxes and pressed against keys that resisted touch. The tone that whispered back was distant and sleeping, as if it were trying to remember its voice after a half century of silence. A sadness filled me at its loss. It stood in its splendid German casing holding firm to its place in the corner.
The french doors opened between the living room and the parlor, each rectangular glass still whole and intact, except for one near the floor which was completely missing. I remembered that cracked pane because I played next to it as a child, watching sunlight dance in its disfigured face. Those days stretched and grew into endless hours. Now all that remained was covered in dirt, with musty smells clouding water stained walls.
How amazing, I thought, to visit a house from my childhood. How astounding to find it standing with many of its contents unmoved, while real estate in my world was unaffordable and scarce. This would have been torn down decades ago in the west, with dozens of houses erected on the land. My life in Oregon seemed a dream away. Here I expected to see Roberta’s father dressed in dark trousers and boots, and hear the sound of his ax striking logs for the fire, as he piled his arms high, the smell of fresh cut birch in his path.
On the other side of the archway stood the family’s china cabinet, the wooden doors askew, the drawers toppled and crooked, the wood still rich with studied craftsmanship and quality, like a war-torn ship that washed ashore from another century.
My husband followed in my footsteps eager to bolt. Let’s go Karen, he pleaded. There’s nothing here but decay and junk. Let’s leave. But I could not pull myself away. I was following a thread from my youth like a determined detective.
Yes, dear, go, I answered. I’ll be right behind you. But I lied because I could not stop. As he turned to leave, I pulled a fallen door from my path and climbed up uncertain stairs until I had a view of the second floor. My eyes drifted across the room, and up to a glimpse of pale sky. The structure was all brick and lath, exposed beams and foundation lumbers. No boxes up here, just decades of neglect and a past taken down to the bones. I recognized the hallway and could see into the empty spaces that use to house beds, handsewn quilts, wash basins, and chamber pots. For a moment I saw the girl I used to be in her flannel pajamas, bare feet and dirty face, her blonde hair springing free from the tight french braids her mother labored over each morning.
Are you coming? my husband asked again. Where are you Karen? This is so unsafe. Don’t go up there. And so I listened, turned and left, thinking as I walked away, that the house was forever changed and at the same time unchanged, just like myself.
written September 30, 2008