This Old House

One can put too fine a point on the concept of the ‘haunted house.’  The old place my father bought in the center of a small desert town certainly had the weight of years about it.  It also had the weight of the future about it.  For after his divorce, my father told me that he had been planning for this all along.  His office downstairs, living accommodation upstairs.  At the time, this seemed to me very adult and prescient.  Now the arrangement appears defeatist and inappropriately adaptive.  But there we have it.  

It was an old place, a wide porch with Grecian pillars.  The same pillars repeated in a surrounding high fence, all wooden latticework interrupted by round concrete stanchions.  And by the time he bought it, slightly decaying, like a desert version of Tennessee Williams.  A single family must have lived there originally, perhaps a banker…someone who wished to cast an image of neoclassical substance.  There were concrete Grecian urns on either side of the front steps.  Each had dirt inside, and anyone but a kid would have realized they were planters.  But this never occurred to me.  I was about nine years old when my father bought the place.  I was 12 years old when I moved in upstairs, now in his custody, divorce having flattened my family like a steamroller.  My brother was about 10 years old.  Which would make my dad about 47.

Just after my father bought the place, I began exploring.  The upstairs sunporch was a place of utter mystery.  There were bedrooms at either end, and each had a small screened window that led from a walk-in closet directly to the outside porch.  Even more intriguing, there was a portion of the closets that tapered under the slanting roof, tall enough for a short kid to stand up at one end, forcing him to crawl at the other.  All the hardwood floors shone with decades of wax.  The sunporch was drowning in pine needles from several years of accumulation.  Just before its sale, the place had been a rooming house.  A number of people, including a bus driver who had taken me to and from school in the mid-1950s, had moved out.  The town’s main grade school, low earth-toned buildings, some of which dated from the first world war, squatted among tan acres of hard packed desert.  Sliding across such ground in the course of softball games left a bloody trail of scraped skin and embedded pebbles.

The old garage behind the house could barely accommodate my father’s Desoto, such was the narrow width of the entrance.  Sliding barn doors hung at either end, rumbling on pulleys that moved along a rail.  It was all wooden clapboard.  Up toward the ceiling, exposed rafters.  Down below, along the edge of the cracked concrete floor, a strange collection of stored objects.  Plywood kits of PT boats.  A big vat of cooking grease.  Old rolled posters.  The manager of the Fox Theatre had lived in the house, probably with just a room, using the old garage for storage.

The place could have been rehabbed into something more comfy and modern.  Instead, it followed the general course of my family, toward decline.  Against the back fence, another stretch of repeating plaster columns and splintering white latticework, a thicket of out-of-control bamboo had choked off one corner of the property.  My brother had acquired a small puppy, a soft-eared little thing, probably a tiny hound.  He watched as it went exploring among the bamboo.  The puppy was never seen again.  He told me this on one late afternoon, his sadness tangible.  I recall poking around the edge of the bamboo jungle and sensing the hopelessness of the search, and probably of much more.  At some point I went inside, stealing myself against the poignancy of the small, lost, motherless creature.

At the front of the house a gravel driveway split in two, one branch continuing under a port coucherre, the other swinging wide to skirt the side fence.  There was a triangular space at the division that I identified as harsh, revealing the mineral ground unpleasantly.  I resolved to put a garden there.  Splintering strips of wooden lattice, white paint uniformly peeling from them, had come detached from some portion of the fence.  I tried to prop these up to define the edge of my triangular garden.  Yet there seemed no easy way to do this, let alone work the soil, which was hard as a brick.  Water seemed the only answer.  And so on a Saturday morning I stood outside with a hose, soaking the ground, hoping to create a trench for my latticework border.

My father approached.  I liked having the company.  The new school year was starting, a new life with him, my single parent.  My mother’s explosions were far away, increasingly long ago…and this was a Saturday.  A family day.  My father stood at the edge of the garden plot, staring at the ground, rocking slightly back and forth on his feet.  He was clad in khaki Bermuda shorts, attire he had worn around his marriage home in the desert to the northeast.  He was frowning, jaw tight, fists clenched.  I had certainly taken good care of myself, he told me.  Yes, I had set myself up nicely.  While he had been here in California dealing with his divorce, I had ensconced myself with his sister and brother-in-law in upstate New York.  Quite a cushy set up while he bore the brunt of domestic strife on his own.

I must have tried to protest but began crying instead, rushing indoors.  There the scene stops.  I had been taking care of him, in my mind, since I was eight years old.  Apparently something very similar was going on in his mind too.  It was all hanging out, whatever it was.  As a child, I could not connect my father’s prescriptions for diet pills, a form of Dexedrine, with his violent temper.  He sent me down to the local drugstore on a regular basis.  I remember handing the pharmacist a prescription on one occasion and watching the man slowly spread the small piece of paper across this counter.  He stared at it for a disturbingly long time.  Something like a minute passed.  He said nothing, just staring at the paper.  Until he sighed, wandered into the back, and returned with a bottle of pills.

Drugs provided a sort of fuel, but the vehicle?  I have my own ideas about my father’s disturbed personality.  The more interesting question is why now?  After all these years, what is there to say about this?  Two children, deep in codependency, having an argument.  The fact that one was approximately four times the age of the other seemingly irrelevant.  What a strange childhood.

A warning here.  Something about not taking care of people inappropriately.  And how the past can grow around us like an enchanted bramble from a fairytale.  Preserving things in time, things that are meant to grow or atrophy, one or the other.  Getting lost in the depths of an old house…where you either raise the dead or they raise you.

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