Monday, July 26, 2010

340 (3)


I slipped the key in the front door, not sure what to expect. The last family renting the place had left three months earlier without giving any word of their move. Polite but vague over the long distance of telephone calls, the middle-aged housewife, used to say, “You gon’ get that rent check ’fore you know it, Miz Lillian. Don’t you worry none.” Her husband was a carpenter and was happy to fix things around the house whenever we paid for the materials.

Behind the front door was a still and lonely diorama of household deterioration. A living room smelling of dust, a room where countless Christmas presents once spilled their bounty, where I wrestled with dogs, and where on late nights my sisters made out with boyfriends in the dark. A floor that used to creak when a delinquent son came sneaking in after too much rum and Coca Cola at Sammy’s Lounge. But those presents, that dog, the creaking floor happened in another room. Couldn’t be this room that now stung my eyes with its show of dirt and neglect. A rancid hole of four walls scattered with the scrap, the trash of nameless temporary lives. Several bent and tarnished forks and spoons, a tilted chair without legs enough to stand, a half-melted toy robot, an old plate grubby brown with petrified spaghetti, the metal grit of old screws and rusted nails. Over the scarred mantelpiece an empty frame hung lopsided.

Slowly from room to room, finding hardly more than garbage and shattered toilets. I lingered for ten minutes in my old room, running my finger over still legible pencil scratches on the wall. On some sweet with memory night long ago I lay on the cowboy patterned bedspread keeping count on the wall the number of times WLXK played an Elvis or Fats Domino record. The bedspread was brown and red and smelled like my Sabre, a dog I adored and who spent most nights on that bed.

“Wilmore, did you know that Mama threatened one time to burn this old house down?” Lillian stood in the door behind me.

“Didn’t know that. She should of.”

“Lemme show you something.” Lillian pulled on my sleeve turning me back to what had once been a bedroom, then later a dining room of sorts.

Faint, but still visible under several coats of dull paint, were six or seven scratches in the doorframe between kitchen and dining room. The lowest was at about knee level, and above that other scratches an inch or two higher, rising to something like three and a half feet. Lillian rubbed a finger over the marks.

“That first mark there low down is thirty-three inches off the floor. You were three years old. I remember mama standing right there at the stove frying okra, saying to me, ‘How tall is that baby brother now?’ This one at the top was the year you started school…can’t remember how tall you were then…What does that look like, about three and a half feet?”

“I don’t remember much of this here, but I’ll tell what I do remember from around that time. Can’t recall the details, but I do remember me running after you with a worm I found in Daddy’s garden. You were screaming and running, trying to keep a row of tomatoes between you and that long ol’ worm.”

“Oh, Wilmore! You did that to me so many times I got to where I was afraid to go out in the garden when you were in the back yard. I get the shudders just thinking about those nasty worms. Don’t you remember how L.T. from over at the shop used to come and ask Daddy for some worms outta his garden? Wanted to go fishing?”

“Yeah, I remember that,” I said, rubbing my own finger over those doorframe scratches. It was a small light in my memory, one that flared like a falling star, then disappeared. Lillian on the other hand had all the stories of my young childhood. It was she who spent part of each day looking after me, pulling me away from the shop trucks, picking me up when I fell off the bouncing red rocking horse. It was she who spanked me for licking all the glue off a roll of stamps, who cooked half the suppers I ate.

Most afternoons, when Mama and Daddy went off to the golf course I was left in Lillian’s care, an arrangement that continued for four or five years, until I was old enough to play in the shallow end of the golf course pool, and Lillian was old enough to have eyes for Glen Earl, the boy she eventually married.

Stepping over a rusted toaster at her feet, Lillian shook her head, saying, “Come on. Let’s get out of here. This place is depressin’ me.”

“Give me a couple of minutes to crawl up in the attic and see if there’s anything up there Annice Loyd left behind.” Something about the place was making Lillian nervous. Maybe it was her impatience with being in a house she had once said good-bye to years ago, never counting on being an eye witness to its uncomfortable demise. I would have stayed there for hours pouring over every surface and pawing through every corner, but I too knew that ultimately it would bring pain.

The attic was an ocean of brittle old cardboard boxes. The unstirred air was fetid and heavy and caught in my nose. A weak ribbon of yellow-gray light shone through a window at the other end of the attic, illuminating the only once-living thing still in this neglected loft, a silver Christmas bulb, still shiny and caught in a swirl of dusty angel’s hair. How long, I wondered, since this forgotten ornament in its dusty corner had been on a tree.

I locked the front door and moved down the front steps but then stopped, went back to the door and with a pocketknife pried loose from the gypsum siding the house numbers 340.


  1. Didn't want it to end. This had to be my favorite! Thought you might post the 340, but I believe that is you in the I right? Sister in the back ground? Thanks for taking us back to your childhood and bringing us into your past, I know it's not easy to say goodbye to something with such memories, but sounds and feels like you have them in your heart to hold on to forever. As do I.

  2. The last comment was posted by dsm, as my friend is using my computer and I didn't know she was logged in....sorry, I guess she read this earlier.

  3. Wonderful! I can picture every moment in my head. Thanks.

  4. Are you also an artist? You have truly painted a picture with these 3 blogs about "340". I didn't want it to end either so think about in the future to write more.



About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America