UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity 2020 Edition
The Guest House
I have lived a long life. A simple life, but a good one at that. I have seen people live. While they may not have been perfect, in fact most of them were far from it, they were real, true people, and each one of them had a story.
I remember every person that came through my doors; believe me, when you get to my age, that is quite a feat. Despite my achy bones and wrinkly skin, my memory is still perfectly intact.
When my doors first opened, my windows looked straight out to a vast lake. I used to see the sun rise in the mornings and set in the evenings; I used to marvel at the orange and pink hues that the sun drew in great arcs, kindergartener’s first ‘C’ arcs. There weren’t many other houses up at the lake during that time. Those that were up there were simple and small. None of those gargantuan entertainment suites yet. We had garages, but they were smaller too. My wallpaper was fresh, and my linoleum kitchen floor smelled of Lysol. My RCA estate range was brand spankin’ new, not a spaghetti sauce stain to be seen. There was no microwave, no dishwasher. My living room was decorated with bright blue sofas and the latest television, complete with rabbit ear antennas and gnarly knobs to change channels. The bed linens smelled of Cheer washday detergent.
I remember that morning, clear as a July sunrise. I’d watched families in barreling station wagons pull up into the two nearest houses. They poured out of their cars in relieved, sprawling limbs, buttery noodles limping to the front door to unlock it, or shaking out sleeping feet while grabbing bags and coolers of food. I’d been watching the family across the street from me try to assign all the children tasks in order to expedite the process of unloading the bags from the car and carrying them into the cabin they’d rented—a nice house, yes. Of course, it only had one bathroom, and wasn’t equipped with the latest transistor radio, but I wasn’t one to brag.
I was distracted, though, when a car finally pulled up into my driveway. It looked awfully expensive, though my opinion was based on the lustrous paint and the clean, ink-dipped tires. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a tad bit proud that such well-off people would be staying under my roof.
A lovely young lady stepped out of the passenger side, wearing a light blue dress with white polka dots. She reached up and pulled her sunglasses off as her eyes gazed at me.
“A bit too big for just the two of us, don’t you think?” she asked.
John was getting the suitcases out of the trunk. He locked the back and came to the woman’s side. “Why settle for something smaller? I think it’s perfect.”
Well! John sure knew how to puff up a girl’s window panes with pride! He walked up my porch with the suitcases and the woman grabbed the key from her pocket book. She clicked it into place and came in.
“Well, it certainly is brand new.” Her fingers ran over my wood banister along the stairs. I could feel how cool her fingers were. She padded up my carpeted steps and gasped as she opened the door to one of the bedrooms. I thought I could detect the faintest attempt at a smile across her lips for a second.
“John, you can near see the lake!”
He joined her and wrapped his hand around her waist. “See, Margaret, I told you this would be worth it. This is exactly what we needed. A nice long weekend here will keep your mind off of everything.”
Her pleasant look faded and she went into the hall.
“Here’s another—” Margaret opened up the second upstairs bedroom, my favorite room. It had four little twin beds that could easily be stacked up to form bunk beds. They had different quilts on all of them, and the room even had its own balcony that faced out into the back forest. She walked over to one of the beds, where a teddy bear was propped up on the pillow and she clasped it delicately in both of her hands. She didn’t turn to look at John as he joined her, she just stood there with the toy in front of her full-skirted dress, while her face turned the color of the sheer lace curtains.
“Margaret?” John whispered.
She bit her lip, set the toy down, and ran her fingers under her eyes. She patted her cheeks then turned around, putting on a grand smile.
“This is really a precious room. Just precious. Perfect for . . . well, you know.”
I watched Margaret and John for the rest of the day. They were so different than the rambunctious families I’d imagined walking through my doors, trampling across my front porch and laughing in tune to my wind chimes, great belly laughs of larks and children. But Margaret and John seemed more like drifting loons. They brushed past each other, sometimes touching one another’s shoulder or waist or catching the other’s eye to pass a muted smile their way. Their first night, they spent on the wrap-around deck of fresh pine. Margaret was there first, curled up in one of the rocking chairs with her legs tucked up underneath her and a glass of iced tea in her hands.
“There you are,” John said, quietly closing the screen door behind him.
Margaret nodded and tried to smile but her lips were like tight cafe curtains trying to stretch to cover the whole window. It was a pitiful strain.
John touched the rocking chair next to hers, about to sit down before stopping himself.
“Can I join you?”
She nodded again and he sat down. Desperate for some sound, I tightened my fresh joints and pushed out a creak from the porch.
“How do you like it?” he asked.
She sighed and kept her eyes on the neighbors across the street. The woman was helping her toddler up the front steps—mine would have been more suited for short legs, but I didn’t get a vote.
“I wish the neighbors weren’t so close.”
I had never seen what a person looked like when they were sad before I saw John that evening.
“I’m sorry, Margaret.” The words were rubbery and overused.
“We came up here for a break, John, from the doctors and the city air. And all I wish is to be able to breath. I want to look up and not see a child that isn’t mine. John, why? Why is all of this so hard?” She looked over at him with dewy doe eyes.
He slid out of the rocking chair and down on his knees in front of Margaret’s. He reached out and held her cheeks in his hands. “Margaret, love, please. Please don’t—”
“Let me cry, John!” She cried out, “Let me cry and let me look at that little boy across the street and wish that he wasn’t there, because somehow if he wasn’t there maybe he’d be here. Maybe I’d get to help him up the stairs and tuck him in and wake up in the middle of the night when he has a nightmare. And I would be the one drinking four cups of coffee and complaining about being tired. I don’t get to do any of those things, John! But I do get to sit on this porch and cry, so you have to let me do that, understand?”
John was quiet for a minute and in the distance I could hear the gleeful shriek of the little boy and I watched Margaret’s face crumple even more. She looked to me like those fall leaves that were barely hanging onto a branch until one whisper of a wind blows them off, and down they drift.
Down she drifted, and I caught her tears in the new, untouched porch panels at her feet.
The imposing grey clouds overhead held their rain like a thin egg’s membrane, threatening to pop and downpour at the slightest jostle that July. It hardly ever rained around me and my bones ached from the mist clinging to my sides. Some of it peeled up patches of paint and crept underneath, snuggling into the crevices, the unwelcome varmints of moisture particles. A new house was going up across from me, one with a slanted, slate roof and a gaudy orange front door the color of the construction cones.
I was of the opinion that their efforts would have been better spent removing the terrible gravel dumped in my driveway a few years prior, but when your structures started to react to the weather, others stopped listening to what you thought was right and wrong.
On that day, when I was watching the creation of a new generation of houses, a pea-green car with protruding headlights and a backside that looked stunted, trimmed like some dogs’ tails, pulled straight into all that gravel I hated. It was the only time that I can remember a single person coming to stay with me. Just one. And the first thing she did when getting out of the car was sigh, as if she simply accepted having disrupted my expectations. She grabbed a cloth bag from the car before heading straight up my porch and inside, no admiring the view from the driveway, no breathing in the pine air: point A to point B and absolutely no time in between. She did not look at the new couch I’d gotten along with the gravel; she did not smell the Sun Country air freshener the cleaners had doused the curtains with; she did not even stop to tidy herself in the mirror hung on the stairs as I thought all tired travelers did.
As if she’d been there a hundred times and had memorized my interior, she moved straight to the bedroom and dropped her bag on the bed before sitting down beside it. She pulled one leg up on the bed beside her and stared at the deck-access doors that line one wall of the master bedroom. Wet wind blew through the cracked window over the bed and she bristled from the air but didn’t move to shut it.
“What the hell, Reese,” she said to herself. I’ve always admired the tenacity with which people continue to talk to themselves; they appear to be terrible listeners of themselves, but they keep at it.
To my surprise, a dog barked outside in response.
Reese shook her head. “Don’t start with me.”
He barked again and this time, drew my attention out to him. He was a spotted, furry little guy of white and speckled fur.
“Go away,” Reese said in a voice that wouldn’t have scared off a robin. She was standing in the doorway. The dog cocked its head at her and barked a third time.
Reese waved her hands at him. “Go on, go home!”
The dog barreled towards her, its ears fluttering like two open sails. She jumped back, trying to slam the door shut, but the dog knocked it open, banging it against my interior wall. I was afraid he might hop up on my couch; I’d never had a pet stay with me before, but instead he halted, his paws skittering across the floor, and sat promptly beside the coffee table. Reese frowned at him.
“Homeless now, too, are you?”
Of course he didn’t respond; that was another human quality I found humorous, the way they speak to animals. I don’t think they ever expect a response, but that doesn’t stop them from doing that either.
“Look, if you’re going to stay, you better behave. The whole point of coming up here is to get some peace and quiet, some clarity, you know?”
The dog blinked its perky almond eyes at her.
Reese breezed past the dog and sat down on the couch, having determined that he was safe enough to approach now. “My father said I needed to just keep my mouth shut and grind through it. That’s marriage, he said. My mother said I should talk it out with Hank, but twelve years of trying to talk didn’t really get us anywhere, now did it?”
She smiled at the dog’s quiet. I liked the way he filled the space between the door and the coffee table. He was a perfect size, clean.
“Divorce. The big D . . . Clarity seemed to be a happy medium for dealing with that. You don’t have a husband, do you?” She bent over her knees to get a better look at the dog’s underside, or as much as she could see from his seated position. “Sorry, a wife, I mean.”
The dog yawned and Reese laughed.
“I’ll drink to that.” She found a bottle of white wine in the kitchen and poured herself a cup of it and joined the dog again in the living room. She took a sip of wine and patted the couch.
“Come on up then, my fine furry confidant.”
He hopped up and I groaned at the sight—my new couch!
Reese sighed. “You and me, old broad, I’m a little creaky now too. A little stiffer in the joints.”
Was she talking to me?
The dog sat down so he was looking straight at Reese as she sipped at her wine.
She paused after a few. “You want some?” She tipped the cup towards the dog and he stuck out his tongue, lapping at it. Once he got a taste, he sneezed and shook his head, which made Reese laugh more. I supposed that the dog could stay on the couch if he was going to make Reese laugh. At least she didn’t have that same look in her eyes now, like a wall freshly stripped of patterned paper.
She slung her arm over the dog and propped up her feet on the coffee table, noticing for the first time that she’d left the front door open, letting the night air seep in.
She frowned and sat forward again, setting her drink on the coffee table before getting up and crossing to the door. She crouched down and looked at the lock the dog had banged against the wall.
“I think you broke this door, pooch.”
He barked at her.
“Yeah, who cares.” She swung the door closed and locked it, struggling at first with the bolt before it finally clicked into place. “Still works, at least. Little bent, still works.”
She returned to the couch and rested her arm on the dog, taking a deep breath, “You know, if people knew how simple it could be to clear your head and move on, the entire self-help book industry would collapse. Find house. Find dog. Breathe.”
Her companion sneezed, bobbing his head in a kind of nod.
Reese chuckled and patted the dog’s side. “It’s unanimous then.”
Hardly anyone visits in September. The last rush is the third week of August when, I can only assume, parents look at their calendars (my newest one has assorted candies on each month) and panic because school is starting in a week and all of a sudden what their child will remember from the current summer is on the line. Establishing sufficient memories for later nostalgia becomes a priority. SUVs come in swarms with water skis and bikes strapped to their sides, protruding like insect wings, and mothers snap pictures with a new kind of fervency, not witnessed in the mothers earlier in the summer season. Children are sunscreen-less and bare their tanned limbs all day, from breakfast served on the porch to the evening barbeques deemed mandatory by their fathers and the absence of air conditioning in their cabins.
These people come and go within a few days in a stunted period of rushed excitement, and by the time September rolls around, I, and the houses around me, quietly await the annual updates and Lysol baths that signal Autumn in a place where the foliage does nothing to update us on the seasons.
When two cars pulled into my driveway one evening during the first week of September, I was not the least bit surprised that no children got out, but I was surprised of their arrival in the first place. I was wishing for the warmth of a fire in my stove, that evening, when the headlights shone on my porch. A woman got out of the first and stood there a moment, with a bag already on one shoulder and both arms crossed in front of her, looking ready and willing to flee.
A young man around her age got out of the second car and hung two bags on one forearm before locking the car, extinguishing the second pair of headlights.
“Here we are,” he said.
The woman sighed and looked around at my corner lot, still thickly forested considering the development of late. “Wow, remote enough for Dad?” He didn’t meet her attempt at a smile and stalked up my steps.
“Let’s get this done.”
She hung her head and followed him up, and in that motion alone, I knew she was the younger sister. She shuffled from foot to foot while he fiddled with the lock.
“Just jiggle it,” she suggested.
He glared back at her. “I am.”
She peeked around his shoulder, keeping a foot between the two of them. “Maybe just jimmy it—”
“I got it.” He grunted, shoving it open.
He stopped in the doorway to turn on the light and she bumped into him. “Sorry, I—”
He ignored her and went into the kitchen, turning on every light as he went. He left one bag at the foot of the stairs and took the other with him to the kitchen table, where he unzipped it and withdrew an urn, plunking it on the table.
“Careful!” The young woman dropped her bag on the sofa and rushed to her brother’s side.
“He’s already gone, Haddie, it’s not a big deal.”
She scowled at him momentarily before taking a deep breath and sitting in one of the kitchen chairs backwards, folding her arms over the back of it. “I see sentimentality still hasn’t become one of your strong suits in the past ten years.”
“Maybe we could scatter them tonight, then head out early tomorrow.”
“Gonna leave skid marks on the driveway on your way out, too?”
He glared at Haddie and leaned up against the kitchen counter. “Yes, on all the gravel outside.”
She propped her chin on the chair back. “You know what I mean.”
“I just don’t see the point in prolonging this.”
“No, of course you don’t, James. Because why on Earth would anyone want to take their time spreading their father’s ashes?” She shoved the chair free from under her. “Because if you can’t find the time to call your little sister, then it’s completely illogical to assume that you might want to take advantage of a weekend where you’re in the same place. You’re right, James. This is ridiculous, let’s just toss the ashes right out the back door, done and done, seeya in another ten years when, maybe Grandma dies. Although, I don’t know, she’s pretty healthy so you might luck out and get another fifteen before you talk to me again.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, making me wonder—not for the first time—why it is that humans do that. Is there an excess amount of pressure or mucus that builds up there in the event of stress?
“You don’t have to be so dramatic.”
“This isn’t some complaint about you not getting me a Barbie for Christmas, James! You don’t even remember that I exist and it hurts! And maybe, just maybe, Dad asked us to come up here because he knew that’s what it would take for you to agree to see me again. You ever think of that?”
“I think of Dad all the time.”
“Glad to hear it. What about me? What about now, James? I’m it, do you get that? We’re it. Besides Grandma, who can’t remember if it’s 9 in the morning or 9 at night, we’re it. So if you could get that through your head and call me once in a while, maybe it would feel like I still had some family left. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone.”
“What about Rob? Doesn’t your husband make you feel a little less lonely or is your life worse off than you’re making it out to be?”
She hitched one hip out and folded her arms. “Rob wasn’t the one who held my hand at Mom’s funeral. He didn’t take me to my first school dance and pick me up early when I cried because someone knocked punch on my dress and laughed. I don’t remember waiting outside school every day with him when Dad was late picking us up. You’re my big brother, James, remember?”
They were both quiet for a moment and I yearned for the crickets to start up to fill the space between them. I strained and tightened every part of me, and one of the rungs on the back porch popped free, a loose joint for years, toppling over and stirring a few of the doves convening in the trees behind me.
Their wings skimming the leaves drew the siblings’ attention outside and I swelled with pride (not too much, though, didn’t need to be popping anything else free.)
“You know, the backyard doesn’t look too bad of a place for Dad, now that you mention it,” James said, and the corners of his full lips pulled into a weak-kindling-fire of a smile.
Haddie stared at him for a moment before chuckling, then laughing, and then leaning over to hold her middle as she gasped for breath. She caught it and stood straight once more, wiping her eyes, and shuffled over to him. She threw an arm over his shoulder and tucked the urn under one arm.
“Come on, big brother. Let’s toss him out, let him breathe.”
James reached for the back door and then paused and looked at Haddie.
She looked up at him in a pose of childhood admiration that younger siblings never truly lose.
“You should come to my house for Christmas this year. No Barbies.”
It amused me to, at times, let myself think that the next person to stay with me wouldn’t have trouble with my door. One of these days, I kept thinking, someone will insert the key, feel the resistance, and just know that a tilt up and a tug to the right would do the trick for a swift entry. But of course, no one but me could have known that was all it took.
“I can’t get the—there, got it.”
A young man yanked the key out of the slot and tossed the ring on the coffee table, parading through my door with a smart shoulder bag and a slim little leather duffel in hand.
“Cozy,” he said.
A second man, this one so tall I thought he was going to have to duck to get through my door, joined him. “Musty,” he said.
Cedar ages, young man.
The shorter, sandy-haired man clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ve just forgotten what nature smells like, Alan. Lucy moved you out to the city and now look at you. Don’t even recognize fresh air when you smell it.”
“She didn’t make me, Joel, it was better for both of us.”
“Relax, you know I love Lucy.” Joel laughed and started up the stairs. “You think this place has pillow mints? That’s an antiquated cabin thing, isn’t it?”
He disappeared into one of the bedrooms, where I did not in fact have those tacky pillow mints on-hand, leaving Alan in the living room alone. He looked up at my open beams and seemed to pray. I’d never had an especially religious person in my care, but I couldn’t look at that man and not think he was asking something awfully big of the knots in the wood over his head.
My newest visitors worked together effortlessly in a choreographed sequence of taking their places in the kitchen to clear the table. It had never come about to gift me with a dishwasher, but I think if it ever had, I would have knocked out a window in protest. Watching humans do the dishes in silence is an artform of which I would hate to be deprived.
“I haven’t hand-washed dishes since college.” Joel said, “Reminds me of that little basement apartment you and Lucy had fourth year. I was surprised that bomb shelter had running water at all, but she was determined to cute it up I guess. You remember all those little elephant figurines she decorated with? What was up with those?”
Alan was staring at the salt and pepper shakers on the table, his hand paused on a plate he was supposed to be handing to Joel.
Joel cranked off the faucet and reached for a towel to dry his hands. “Hey, are you going to shave your head and start wearing a robe too, or just stick with the vow of silence? What’s with the monk bit?”
When Alan didn’t move, Joel tossed the towel on the counter and snapped his fingers in front of Alan’s face. “Alan.”
Alan jerked to attention, and the plate in his hand fell to the ground, shattering.
Joel shot back against the counter to avoid the splinters of glass. Alan dropped to his knees and scrambled to pick up the pieces.
“Alan, Alan, leave them. We’ll get a broom.”
But Alan wasn’t listening and moved with the same kind of fervency I’d seen in the women that came here at the end of the summers. Somehow if they didn’t snap enough pictures, and if he didn’t pick up those glass pieces, some kind of immense consequence would ensue. He grabbed for a piece too big and it slipped out of his grasp, slicing a red streak in his palm. He continued to scramble for pieces, blood dripping on the floor.
“Alan, hey, hey, come on. Stop, you cut yourself!” Joel wet a rag and tugged his friend to his feet, holding Alan’s palm out flat so he could see the wound. He dabbed at it with the rag.
“Should’ve taken first aid. You think it needs stitches?”
Alan snatched the rag out of Joel’s hand and pressed it against his own bleeding palm. He turned away, crunching the granules of glass under his feet.
“Come on, let’s get some air. I’ll clean this up later.” Joel sighed and stepped around the pile of glass, nudging Alan towards the front door.
They let the screen door groan shut behind them and convened on the porch, Alan leaning over the railing, and Joel propping himself against one of the support beams, looking straight at Alan.
Alan peeled the rag off his palm for a second, inspected his cut and, deeming it unimportant despite the blood still oozing from his skin, balled up the rag and tossed it onto one of the rocking chairs.
“Is it the wedding?”
His hands free now, Alan fiddled with the gold watch on his wrist. He shook his head, but I had my doubts about him having paid enough attention to Joel to answer him.
“Alan, you gotta let me in, man.”
“You remember when my dad died? And he gave me this?”
Joel looked at the thick gold watch that held Alan’s attention, and nodded.
“He said, ‘Don’t lose it’ and I never really knew if he was talking about the watch or time.”
“Is this going to turn into a talk about running out of time as a free man? Because I thought we already had that one and you seemed pretty set on getting hitched, tyin’ the knot. If you wanted to bide your time, I suggested a longer engag—”
“God damnit, Joel, I’m not talking about the wedding!” Alan planted both his hands flat on the porch railing, breathing deeply before going on. “Aren’t I allowed to think about anything else? Aren’t I allowed to feel anything else? Everyone keeps asking me if I’m nervous or excited or worried. No, no I’m not, Joel. I don’t feel . . .” He tightened his knuckles around my railing and I felt some of his blood seep into the wood. “I don’t feel anything. I know I should. I know, but I don’t. Lucy wants me to talk about it, to be involved, that’s what she keeps saying. I can’t be involved, I wish I could, I just can’t and I don’t know why! I just don’t feel anything.”
It was Joel that showed me how humans do, at times, feel just as helpless as I did. He looked at Alan that day, and I knew that all he wanted to do was reach out and help his friend, in some way. But for whatever reason, though he had all of the anatomical gifts to see human compassion through, something I was unfortunately lacking, he did nothing.
Alan shook his head and finally let go of my railing. He unclasped the watch around his wrist and held it out to Joel. His hand shook and I held my breath, hoping my porch planks would stay quiet to prohibit any disruptions.
“Take it,” he said, “It’ll fit you better anyway. It was always too big on me.”
Joel started to chuckle for a second. “You’re joking right?” And when Alan shook his head, Joel sobered and shoved both hands in his pockets. “No, no I’m not taking that. You can’t give me your dad’s watch. That thing hasn’t moved from your wrist in ten years. You wore it to baseball practice in high school, you wear it swimming, you asked for a personal pat-down when we went to the A’s game last year so you could keep it on and not have to go through the metal detectors. You are not giving that thing up.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore, Joel, just take the damn watch.”
“No.” He took a step away, and shook his head so fast it looked like a gust had blown it off its hinge on his neck, “No, I won’t do it. You’ll put it on and you’ll wear it on your wedding day. I know it can seem like a lot of pressure right now but—”
“Don’t do that!” Alan shouted, “You don’t get it, Joel. You’re not listening! I do not feel the pressure! I don’t feel anything! I haven’t for . . . I don’t know how long.”
Joel was quiet for a second before glancing out at the trees that filtered the view of the lake now, and said, “Maybe we should call Lucy.”
“So I can make her cry again? You don’t think I’ve tried to tell her? Lucy is. . . Lucy is all feeling, she’s light, she just wants to fix it. She just wants to help. She can’t help me, and I don’t want her to feel worse about it. I don’t need to drag her down.”
“You’re not going—”
“Just take the damn watch, Joel!”
But Joel only took another step away from his friend. Alan turned and threw the watch off the porch and deep into the trees, before leaving Joel on the porch. He looked up at the beams above his head, and for the second time that day, I thought someone might be praying under my roof.
It wasn’t until my floorboards were thick and spongy with Alan’s blood that Joel found him. He was lying beside the glass doors of the master bedroom, the ones that let in such light on summer and spring days, that one just had to pause and lift their cheeks to it, and let the sun warm their freckles, their imperfect nose, their eyelashes that laced their eyes shut. And I remember thinking how odd it felt for those boards, so used to the warmth of the day sun streaming in, to be chilled and sunken with his body. It was Joel’s tears that joined Margaret’s, that day; they dripped deep into my cedar planks and found solace in knowing that others like them had been shed so many years ago.
I have never wished more for the luxury of being able to seize a pen and write down everything I have seen, and all I have heard, than I do right now. I have witnessed humanity, in all its definitions, its footnotes, its details of ugly and heartfelt design, and I have cherished it, truly. But on a day such as this, I wonder what will happen when they tear my walls down. The stories I have preserved, like sweet jars of jam to pop open on a winter’s day, within my cedar, my pine, my beams and my wallpaper of which no one seemed to appreciate as much I did, will be gone. A house is a house, they’ll say with a crunch of the bulldozer looming in my front yard. People remember the lives they have lived.
But humans are so funny, I’ve found. They are strange in their habits of insisting on matching socks, and obsessing over their appearances when they leave a house but not a bedroom—as if there are boundaries that they cross throughout the day, demanding more and more cosmetics and hair gel—and in their curious attachment to kitchens. They are stranger, still, in that they say to themselves what they will not say to others, that they see what they want and nothing more, and therefore only remember what they want.
So, really, those that stayed with me left the truth about their memories and their stories behind. They do not realize that their stories, their lives, have been recorded in my groans and creaks and broken locks.
Today, they are tired of my stories and I am just tired.
When a car comes, I feel my curtains lift like cotton spirits. One man steps out and nods at the construction workers who populate my yard like neon ants. He’s alone and bares only a gold watch in one hand. His eyes are the color of cardinals’ chests and his countenance matches that of a tree in January: barren of life and complacent in its unhappy, fruitless state. He says something to one of the workers, receives a nod, and ducks under the construction tape, approaching my porch in shuffling, dragging steps. He rubs at his nose with his free hand and wrinkles it, stifling more tears from staining his face.
“Damn, Alan, god dammit, I’m sorry,” he shakes his head and looks up at me, as if memorizing the pattern of my windows, the grain of my sideboards, the slight swells and indents of the wood that warped with weather. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t seem to help either one of you.”
He smears his wrist under his nose once more, and clears his throat. He lays a hand on my railing, remarkably close to where Alan’s prints once were. They have been washed away with rain, but their imprints are inerasable for me. He crouches down and props the gold watch on the porch step.
He steps away and shoves both of his hands in his pockets, letting fresh tears have the freedom they deserve. “A good life. Just not long enough.”
And I no longer know if he is speaking to me or to the resting place of his friend. And I do not think he knows either.
He says nothing more, returns to his car and leaves.
Soon, my stories are splintering, my cedar soul is crashing down, falling in beams and the age that the men in the bulldozers and construction trucks don’t want to look at anymore. My floorboards are indistinguishable from one another as they are turned to kindling, just a pile of wood. I can’t hear the doves in my backyard anymore. I don’t smell of Cheer anymore. Soon, all that I have held, protected, for those that came through my door will be gone, leveled. The demolition crane with its ruthless wrecking ball has turned on now, and as it breaks even my strongest support beams, my bones that have persisted this long in others’ blood and tears and ashes, the lock on my front door pops free in a final act of insurrection and clatters onto the new pavement on my road.