I live on Mountaindale Drive, aptly named for the grade that springs up past the swamp and around the bend, just after the stop sign. I often go for walks up there, even though people drive a bit too fast, and there’s not much extra space to squeak by when two cars pass each other. The beauty makes the walk worth the risk, especially in the fall when colored leaves are mirrored in the water and the wonk-wonk of geese makes for the perfect soundtrack. The houses each balance on their pieces of the mountain, some dating back to the 1800s when the mills of Smithfield, Rhode Island, were still around. They’re beautiful; they’re old. Some are abandoned. They all have a story I wish I knew. I’m always tempted to step inside.
Walking up this mountain on a crisp day in early September, I’m on the phone, talking to my boyfriend Jim through my huffing and puffing—our usual long-distance, after-work debrief before dinner and bed.
I stop short.
“It’s gone,” I whisper, more to myself than to him.
In college, I worked for a local mosquito commission, collecting samples from traps, checking standing water, and eliminating breeding sites. Mosquito problems were often the result of foreclosures, swimming pools left behind that quickly turned into man-made swamps. We would add fish to them, usually Gambusia or fathead minnows, that ate the mosquito larvae and took care of the problem in one mouth-filled swoop. At one of these houses a neighbor tried to sell me Avon Skin So Soft Bug Guard.
I’ll never forget one house and the trail of children’s dolls, underwear, pool tools, and other items that lay scattered in an eerie decoration of domesticity nestled in the middle of an overgrown lawn and (now fish-filled) pool. The family just packed up and left, leaving behind their possessions in a freeze-frame of flight. I wondered where they were now—if they were rebuilding the life they had lost, if the children missed their toys, their pool. It’s hard to tell how long ago some of these homes were abandoned. Nature takes over so quickly. On my mountain, there’s one house with a basketball net attached to the peeling garage. The driveway is home to pine needles, nothing more.
For whatever reason, the remnants of childhood in abandoned homes are disturbing, creepy at best. But I’ve always felt attached to these homes, their histories.
“What’s gone?” his voice snaps me out of it. Jim’s asking.
“The house. This house that used to be for sale on the mountain,” I answer. “They tore it down.”
Tucked in among developments of neocolonial homes inhabited by Golden Retrievers, there is—was—a tiny house, a tiny-house-on-the-hill for sale. I’m not positive, but I think I remember telling Jim about it before today. Catty-cornered to the road, it was nondescript, mute, empty. And now, it’s gone. Two pickup trucks sit in the driveway. The men inside the pickup trucks are yelling across their open windows to one another before driving away. I realize I’m catching the end of a work day. The air reeks of paint. They tore the thing down.
I had at one time thought about buying this house, fixing it up and making it a home. The for-sale sign was up for at least a half-dozen of my walks. Maybe three or so months? It sat right along the side of the road, where cars weaved as they drove past—a before-dinner game of chicken, me vs. car. Could the house cost more than $800 a month? More than my rent? It was about the size of my tiny studio apartment, and it only took one day for them to demolish it. It was worth more as land and rubble, yet I had gotten attached to the idea of the thing.
* * *
When I was in the eighth grade, my great-aunt passed away—the first of over 13 deaths to happen in the family over the next year or two. We heard the news after having driven 14 hours to Myrtle Beach for a family vacation. I remember sitting on the balcony shortly after we arrived, seeing the beauty of the ocean and the stars in direct contrast to the way we were feeling. We started on our trip to Pennsylvania soon after, which is where she had lived, to make plans for the funeral. I think that was our last trip to Myrtle Beach, although we used to go there every summer.
We cleaned out her house. My dad said it was worth $50,000. I don’t know how much it sold for, but I remember cleaning it out. The trunk of mink shawls, maybe some other fur. There was the attic with the presentation of leaf-green tea pots that now live on a shelf in my parent’s house. The basement, through which town sewage apparently used to run. It was a coal-mining town. It’s hard to know what separates fact from fiction when you’re thirteen and need to sort through a dead person’s things.
There was the whiskey that supposedly never goes bad, hidden in the closet that was blocked by the recliner and the handled porta-toilet that—thankfully—had nothing left in it by which we would remember her. We brought some of the liquor we found back to my grandparents’ house — they lived around the block, up another street. My grandmother had also passed away by that time, so we left my grandfather alone when we were cleaning. We came home one day to find that he had tried to drink some of the old liquor, which had made him sick. We all found it funny, a family story, not a cause for concern. Maybe we were just too tired.
The next house we cleaned happened to be his. That one took longer to sell. After the funeral, we went back to the house. I walked into the kitchen and saw my dad leaning over the kitchen counter, squinting down at the chicken scratch on his “someone died to-do list” that was filled with phone numbers of family members, the funeral home, and other important information. I remember he took off his glasses to rub his eyes. It was the first and only time I ever saw him cry.
I didn’t imagine it then, but I can picture now my grandfather sneaking the sips of bad whiskey over the counter. I can see my dad crying next to him, over him, memories blending with the present and future. I see my grandfather in my father’s eyes.
The stairs from my grandparents’ kitchen led down to the basement, which was lined with shelves of chicken noodle soup cans and Cherry Coke, my favorite. In the heart of the basement were my dad’s boyhood etchings on a wooden closet, a trunk that contained his father’s tools. My dad showed me remnants of his life there as we cleaned.
“See this one here,” my dad said, pointing to an etching of initials. “These are Opie’s. My friend from down the street.” It was like stepping back into my dad’s life in the 1960s. The outline of everything was still there, shimmering, but change had taken over, as it does. His childhood bedroom had been his mother’s later in life. Jewelry littered the dresser, not toys.
To the left of the closet with Opie’s initials was a tiny room just in front of the basement stairs. It held a coal bin, the source of winter warmth. I remember there still being a small pile of coal in the bin when I was a little girl, but it became a storage closet later on. There was the bright blue, rusty fold-up chair my grandfather carried out on the front porch for nice days when people would sit and watch the fancy cars roll by. I can still hear the sound of the front screen door squeaking shut if I want to think about it. I can hear the parlor swirling with the songs of The Lawrence Welk Show. That house sold, thankfully, as my great-aunt’s did, even though it took some time. My dad never had to tar that roof in the heat of summer. Sometimes what a house is worth has nothing to do with for how much it sells.
* * *
I don’t think about all this as I look at the remnants of the catty-cornered house on the mountain, but I won’t say it’s not in my mind, simmering in there somewhere.
“It’s a pile of rubble,” I say to Jim.
The walls are down. The garage is still there, but the house itself is a pile of wood. Full boards that used to make up a wall stand jagged against the outline of trees and the curvy mountain road. On the pile sits a sink: the porcelain shines like the star on top of a tinseled Christmas tree. The house must have been empty—there isn’t enough junk to suggest otherwise. But I can still feel its pulse, the house’s energy still there, hanging on after having been ripped down. I can imagine the life it had protected. In the sink on top of the house some water once cooled a tear-stained face. In there, a child once washed his or her hands.
We’ve been dating for close to ten years, so I’ve told Jim all about my childhood days of cleaning out other people’s houses, of going to lots of funerals, but I’ve always suspected he would fare better, emotionally, under similar circumstances. Maybe being part Irish gives you better sensibilities? I’m half Ukrainian, 25 percent Lithuanian, and 25 percent Tyrolean—I know at least half of me is programmed for chronic rumination, for morbidity. Melancholy. At least this is what we know in my family. I tell myself it’s why I’m a good writer. A thoughtful person. Someone who would walk by a pile of rubble and have good reason for thinking these things.
Just this past year, I went on what I call “the pilgrimage” with my parents to visit the graves of my relatives who passed away now over 14 years ago. We traveled over the Memorial Day weekend because my grandfather fought in World War II, and we wanted to leave him some red, white, and blue flowers. My grandmother is also buried there, marked by the inscription on the other side of his grave. It’s a military cemetery—not Arlington, but beautiful in the way a cemetery can be beautiful. My dad always leaves a penny when he goes. He slides it down the front of the grave, praying silently, checking in with his parents, who now rest in peace. As he does this, I think of my grandfather.
This time, he’s walking up the stairs. I imagine it so clearly because I’d watch him from the bottom, giving him space while making sure he didn’t fall. He’d walk slowly but with strength—forever an Army boxer—his outline haloed by the light at the top of the stairs. At the top past the landing was the bathroom. It had a pink sink and tub that always smelled like soap. I still remember the bathroom as it used to smell, yet I can’t remember what the house looked like empty. After the unhappy ending, the memories all smell the same. Fresh, like paint.
* * *
On another of my walks up the mountain, I pass the place where the catty-cornered house once stood. The rubble has been cleared and piled into a blue dumpster off to the side of the driveway. I try to picture how it was, before the men tore the house down. But I can’t. I know nothing of the memories that can make its shimmer take shape. I wonder about its energy. Is it there? I’m not sure I still feel it. I remember the sink. The smell of paint. I think of pine needles, of basketball hoops hanging down in shreds. I snap a picture to text to Jim and keep walking. The image comes to mind of my childhood bedroom popping up in weeds.