Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Boys' House

At least once a week in the summer, I would be sent on an errand to my uncles’ house. My uncles’ house stood at the end of a long dusty rutted driveway.  They had lived in this house all their lives, and I didn’t like going there.

I would walk the half mile between our homes, dragging my feet and kicking stones along the gravel road.  When I got there I would stop in the wide front yard and pick a few pie cherries.  They were so tart they would make my eyes water, but I always had to try them.  Sometimes I would dawdle in Uncle Howard’s hen house.  The chickens would fly around me, feathers and straw showering down as I searched their nests for warm, brown eggs.  On my way back to the house I would stop and pick some of the wild hops which grew next to the wooden outhouse.  I would rub the oily pods over my fingers, inhaling the tart beery aroma, wondering why they were there.  But eventually I would have to complete my task.

The back pouch was the entry and there was a single concrete step leading into the house.  The torn screen door had long lost its spring and when it was opened, it slammed against the peeling, white siding, pushed open by the relentless Southern Idaho winds. The porch itself was gloomy, lit by a single blub which turned on with a string. The walls were unadorned and the wooden floor was worn smooth from countless footsteps. Uncle Harold’s coveralls hung to the right of the door.  The smell of sweat, manure, and neglect made the air too thick to breathe.

I would throw open the screen door letting it bang against the side of the house.  Holding my breath, I would quickly open the lid of the white chest freezer blocking it so it wouldn’t fall on me.  I would lean over digging rapidly through the hard, cold, packages searching for the proper one before my fingers froze.  Once I had the prize in my hands, I would run for the safety of the road.

As I got older, I became braver.  I started using my trips to explore the house.  I could hurry through the porch to the kitchen and dining area.  On the right was the small faded kitchen with its yellowed, peeling linoleum and red checkerboard shelf paper.  In the dining room there stood an oak dining table covered with an ancient sheet of green oil cloth.  My grandmother’s Singer sewing machine sat in front of the window.  The table and the sewing machine were brought here from Missouri when she and my grandfather came west full of hopes and dreams.  And it was in these rooms that all those dreams were shattered.

Through the dining room was the living area.  Here the carpet was worn down to the backing and the floor leaned ominously downward.  The windows were shaded with yellowed lace curtains, the only feminine touch in this house of bachelors. The room was filled to bursting with Craftsman style oak furniture.  The green leather upholstery was split revealing the dry, crackly kapok padding.

The story was I had taken my first steps in this room.  Uncle Dale was sitting in the arm chair and I was walking along his legs.  When I got to his feet I just kept going.  Across from the chair stood a green oil stove and behind it was a small narrow cabinet set into the wall.  The cabinet held my Uncle Dale’s books.  They were dry and dusty giving off that peculiar aroma of paper decay.  His tidy bedroom stood off the living room. I remember spending a very sleepless night there when he was asked to babysit me.  I was afraid of the house.  There were phantoms there.

On another memorable visit, I crept up the forbidden stairs off the dining room.  The stairs were steep and the treads were bowed by time and the passage of feet.  My heart was pounding in my chest as I ascended the stairs, but it thudded to a standstill when I reached the top. A long faded carpet ran down the narrow hallway.  In each bedroom, my uncles’ iron beds with their thin mattresses stood on bare wooden floors.  Fuzz balls the size of grapefruits lie in the corners, and the dirt on the floor was like a thick layer of barroom sawdust. 

I felt bad my uncles had to live in this decaying house with all their sad memories.  I wanted to help so one day I decided to wash the years of grease and dirt from the windows.  I took a bucket and sponge and filled it with hot water from the new bathroom they had added the year my grandmother came home from the state hospital.  As I pulled the crackling blue and grey curtains away from the dining room window, the moisture of my wet hands disintegrated them.  I wetted my sponge and took a swipe at the grimy panes.  The water ran down into the peeling window casing.

From the cracks erupted a swarm of winged insects which surrounded me, brushing me with their wings as they went flying through the dining room.  Spilling my bucket, I fled the house, terrified of the horde which I had unleashed.   I was afraid all the ghosts who inhabited the house were coming after me.  I didn’t want them to follow me into my life. 

It was the last time I entered the house alone. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the stories chased me far way.  When the boys moved out, the new owner of the property knocked the termite infested house down with one small shove of a caterpillar tractor, and he burned the remains. I would have liked to have witnessed that funeral pyre.  Perhaps it would have cleansed me from the terror of its malevolent spirits.      

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