Just a House

For Dia de los Muertos

 

It’s a hard thing to make such a trip, we know. Such a long drive, but finally you see the first signs for the town, twenty miles now, then the gas stations, fast food. You cross the river, which in August is nearly dry. From the bridge you get a glimpse of stumps and boulders under water half the year.

At the exit, you peel away alone, sorry to leave the companionable flow of traffic. You shared so many billboards with them, and all were signs of hope: clean restrooms at the Exxon, the best steak and eggs in California, air conditioned rooms with cable TV at the Best Western. If only you could keep moving too. But you must let them have all that, even the frigid motel room with blackout curtains, towels on chrome racks, little soaps and obliterating sleep. This is your exit. And none of them, not even the truckers and farmers, can imagine your destination.

You roll up slowly in front of the house, not sure for a moment it’s the one. But there’s the sycamore towering behind it, and the red brick chimney. … Oh, look at the grass. Wasn’t someone paid to keep it alive? And the eaves of the house, always crisp white, are cracked and faded now. The mailbox leans in the weeds.

If you park over the oil stain left by their last Buick, you won’t step out and get it on your shoes. In fifty years, he parked five cars right here, all stout and practical Americans. He believed in oil changes, good tires, power windows. He believed in opening doors for ladies, buckling up, keeping the radio low. When you showed up after college with that Datsun hatchback, he was appalled. He tried not to show it, but you knew.

You hold the screen door back with one hand, and use the key. No use knocking: they can’t be home if they were called away. We can’t stand it either. We share your shock at the rooms stripped of furniture, the shampooed carpets, the nail holes in the walls patched and painted. Intolerable, the empty closets – a few wire hangers – and the echoing silence. It’s sad, the refrigerator open, unplugged, bearing only baking soda through the long hot afternoon.

Or maybe the dog on the rug wakes up and runs to you, licking your hand. You rub her ears as he wakes in his place on the sofa, where he’s nodded off watching the Dodgers and reading the paper over and over again, waiting for you. He’s happy to see you and relieved. You shake his hand as a grandson does, and see his cheeks are just a bit more sunken than before.

He hates to think of people coming down through the pass and all the wrecks there have been.

Trucks lose their brakes you know, and some folks won’t slow down in that bad wind.

I know Papa, but I’m fine.

Did you make good time?

Yes. Traffic wasn’t bad.

You say traffic was bad?

Not bad.

Oh. Well. Your Grandma’s in the kitchen I think. And there’s a rumor we’re going to eat lunch one of these days.

She’s there by the stove in the light from the window. Singing. … Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home! … There’s a pan on every burner and the oven working too; cold water running in the sink and ears of corn rolling in the pot. And you know there’s iced tea in the fridge – brewed in a glass jug on the porch in the sun – with maybe just a little more sugar than it needs. But nothing’s too much or too good. You hug her and she holds your hand.

What time did you leave home?

Oh about seven.

That’s early.

Not too early.

Did you have any rain in the mountains?

No, no rain.

It’s pretty up there when it snows.

Yes it is.

We’ve been up there when it was snowing. You remember?

I sure do.

You remember the snow blowing and traffic jammed to a stop. A man knocked on the car window, trying to sell the watch off his arm to buy gas. It was a hard night, but exciting for a kid.

Well, you can put your bag in the guestroom and wash up if you want. We’ll have lunch directly.

You set your suitcase on the four poster bed with the quilt that she made, and look at the walls. We see photos of aunts and uncles gone to God or far away. Your mother forty years ago, with a lace-collared dress, smiling. There’s one of you and your brother, with Easter baskets, and one of your Dad leaning on a car.

Down the hall, you peek in their bedroom, with their separate beds and nightstands covered with bottles of pills. A strong odor of Ben Gay and a long acquaintance with pain. And in the bathroom, you look at the shelves with niches full of empty blueglass bottles; small ones that once held possibly perfume, and glass figurines of animals and birds. The framed print over the toilet depicts a woman washing her child in a tub, in the days before plumbing.

They never use the parlor but for company. The hard candy in the dish on the table is fused into a mass, a year or more beyond hope. It’s just for show, like the wax apples in a wooden bowl you made in shop class. And the yellow silk roses in a basket on a stand beside the window, which looks out on the street where now the realtor is parking a silver Toyota.

Nothing again, nothing, and no matter how hard you listen, you can’t hear the baseball on the TV anymore, or Papa telling the dog how good she is, or Grandma singing Shall we Gather by the River, poking the pot roast with a fork. There is only carpeting and paint and hot stale air in the room with you. The dog was good indeed, is long since buried by the barren orange tree, down at the bottom of the yard.

Of course we understand, we pity you. We should have stopped you going in. But the offer coming up the walk must be accepted. It’s just a house.

 

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Just A House by Kyle Kimberlin
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