The House

It was one of those steamy, muggy summer days I remembered from childhood. I went up on the porch, feeling like a giant standing there on the little concrete stoop. I pressed the doorbell and waited, while Lucy and Jeremy waited below on the walk. A shadow moved through the glass blocks beside the door, then the door opened. A man in his early sixties looked us over through the screen door, no doubt expecting me to hand him a tract. A newspaper dangled from his hand. He was in his stocking feet.

"Yes?" he asked cautiously.

"Good day, sir. My name is Peter Merrill and this is my wife Lucy and my boy Jeremy. This is a bit of a strange request, but I grew up in this house."

The man's face softened. "You did? When?"

"Let's see. I lived here from '50 to '65. My parents sold it in '68."

"Do tell. Well, come on in." He called over his shoulder as he opened the screen door. "Hey, honey, we got company. You decent?"

A woman appeared at the end of the hall, drying her hands on a towel. Lucy and Jeremy stepped into the hallway diffidently and stood together against the wall.

"Honey, this man grew up in this house."

"Really?" She came forward as I pulled the screen door shut behind me.

"Yes, ma'am. We really don't want to intrude, but we live in California and don't get out to the Midwest very often. We're on a vacation trip."

"Niagara Falls," said Jeremy.

"Yes, and I took a detour..."

"A rather long detour," said Lucy.

"... so I could take a look at the old hometown. So we came here and sat out there looking at the house. And it seemed strange to me, y'know? One time I would have just run up those steps and banged through the door, and now I sit in a car across the street like a stranger. I just wondered..."

"If you could look around?" said the man. "Sure, I can understand that."

"Oh Lordy," said the woman. "The place is a mess. If you had called..."

"Yes, I know," I said, my surge of resolve quickly fading. "I didn't know I was going to ring the bell until I got here."

"I assure you," put in Lucy, "that I'm not sure I'd let strangers come trooping through my house most days."

"Oh, it's not a mess, honey," said the man. "You always say that."

"The beds aren't even made."

"So what? You call that a mess? A mess is something you step in. Do you folks always make your beds in the morning?"

"Us?" I asked. "Uh, no. Not really."

"Sometimes I do," said Jeremy. I grinned nervously, feeling an urge to backhand him.

"We're not going to be examining your things," I said.

"I think Pete is only going to see these rooms as they looked in the fifties anyway," said Lucy. They both chuckled and that broke the ice. The woman showed us into the living room and offered us lemonade. We accepted gladly and she went off to the kitchen. We sat on antimacassared sofas and exchanged introductions, but I forgot both their names before they were finished speaking. He and Lucy made small talk while I looked around.

The room was tiny! A barcalounger's footrest in the corner was only a foot or two from the hassock in front of the chair opposite. I remembered that space as huge. Whole battles were fought on that plain, racetracks and towns and oceans came and went. The fireplace I'd remembered as massive, almost big enough to walk into, was only a modest little brick thing, but it was the same one. There was a smooth gouge in one brick and I remembered how it felt to run my thumb along it.

"Peter?" said Lucy.

"Hmm?"

The woman stood beside me, offering a tray of tall lemonades.

"Oh, thank you," I said, taking one. "I'm sorry."

"Admiring the fireplace?" asked the husband.

"Yes, I'd remembered it as much bigger." Then I thought that he might take offense - that I was sneering at the man's hearth.

"Nice work, though," he said. "I always liked it."

"The proportions are nice," said the woman, taking a seat beside it.

"My dad laid those bricks," I said. "I helped carry them."

"My sakes, is that right?" exclaimed the woman. "Did your father build this house then?"

"A lot of it. He contracted for the plumbing and such, that he knew he didn't know how to do. But most of the rest he did on his own, after work and on weekends."

"When was this?"

"1949. Finished in '50."

"Well, think of that. You hear that, honey, this feller built this fireplace."

She looked at me with a distant look like she was calculating. "You don't look old enough," she said.

"Well, I always believed Dad and I built the fireplace, but I suspect an uneven division of labor. I was three." Looking at the hearth, I imagined a toddler sitting there, face straining with the effort of handing a brick to his father. Suddenly it occurred to me that Dad might have finished the house in one year if I hadn't been helping him.

"Would you like to look around?" said the man.

"I would," I said. "Thank you."

"Are you sure that's okay, Hilda?" Lucy asked.

"Oh sure," she laughed. "You know how it is. When somebody comes to visit you always wished your house looked like those ones on TV. Go ahead, look around."

"We don't want to disturb you."

"We're not doing anything. Go ahead. Don't mind us."

"Thank you. That's really very kind."

I went into the dining room. There was a big but uninspired seascape on the wall where Mom had had a mirror. The windows that had looked out on sun-baked cornfields were now screened with trees, through which I could see a row of houses sprung up like mushrooms across Thompson's back acre.

"Those houses weren't there then," I said. "Are they new?"

"Lord, no, Mr. Merrill," the man replied. "We have friends in that blue one there. They've lived there twenty years or more."

Jeremy squeezed in front of me to peer out the window.

"See that big tree over there, Jeremy?" I said.

"Yeah."

"We kids used to have a treehouse up there. Where those houses are used to be a cornfield. We'd sit up there and pick off the enemy as they came across the cornfield."

"What enemy?"

"I don't know. Indians, Johnny Rebs, Russians, Martians. Whatever. We were the outpost charged with defending headquarters here."

"Uh-huh."

"This is where I used to do my homework, over by that big furnace vent. It was the warmest place on cold days."

He looked where I pointed, but didn't say anything. I wondered if he saw me sprawled there as an adult, or did he see a little boy, or did he just look because I told him to? I walked through into the kitchen. It was tiny too, barely enough room to squeeze between the refrigerator and the table.

"Oh, you've redone the kitchen," I said. "Very nice."

"Wasn't us," said the husband. "Must have been a previous owner."

"The back door used to be on this side, and the sink was over there."

"That so? You know, I found a capped off pipe in that cupboard. That must have been the sink."

"Mom used to stand there when she was cooking or washing dishes. She liked to look out that window when she worked."

"Did grampa and gramma live here too?" asked Jeremy.

"Sure. They're my mom and dad, you know."

"Well, yeah, but..." He trailed off, apparently still having trouble picturing me as a kid here.

"Uncle Bob lived here too, you know."

"He did?"

"Of course. We were two little kids, brothers, like Luke and Sam, living here with our mom and dad." For some reason I wanted him to get it, to picture it in his mind. I considered that this is what comes of living away from my roots, not having an extended family, no visible ties to my past. My son has no idea of my having been a kid like him. He thinks I just sprang full-grown from the ground to be his father.

I turned to the husband.

"Would it be okay if we went upstairs?"

"Sure. You put away all that naughty stuff in the bedroom, Hilda?"

"Harold!" his wife said, punching him in the shoulder. "You hush up. We don't know these nice people. They'll think you mean it."

Lucy laughed and said something to Hilda, but I was already starting up the stairs. They were so narrow and steep. And I thought they were high, twenty or thirty steps at least - in fact it was only ten steps up to the upstairs hall. I looked in the front bedroom. Twin beds, an oak dresser, chintz curtains with fluffy valances, a nightstand between the beds with a milk glass lamp, a Danielle Steele open beside it. I hesitated about going in, but not because it was Harold and Hilda's - it had been Mom and Dad's bedroom and we boys were never allowed to play in there. I turned around and went to my bedroom. Jeremy and Lucy poked their heads into the front bedroom, then followed me back.

The room was half the size I remembered, the beds were Early American and turned the wrong way, but it was the same room Bobbie and I had slept in for almost twenty years. It had an unused feel to it, a guest room in a house that received few guests. A basket of potpourri on a nightstand had long since lost its scent. I opened the closet doors and looked in. They were full of winter coats and spare blankets. An ancient golf bag leaned in a corner.

"Uncle Bob and I used to play spaceship in these closets. This was the bridge. That one was the engine room. One time we drew dials and controls all over the walls in here. Boy, did Mom get mad at us."

Jeremy poked his head in and looked around as if he expected to see the marks still there. Just a musty-smelling closet in a strange little house in a faraway town. How could he relate to a little boy who'd played here forty years ago? What did that boy and his dad have in common?

"Hey Jeremy," I said, trying to break the melancholy mood I was falling into. "Come over here. Remember me telling you there was an airport beacon light shining right into my window when I was a kid?"

"Oh, yeah."

"I used to fall asleep counting the seconds between flashes."

"I remember."

"Well, this is the window, and if you look right out there, you'll see... oh." The window looked right into the branches of a tree. Only a few feet of grass were visible below.

"Boy, that Chinese elm has really grown," I said. "It was just a little sapling."

We all looked out the window at the mature tree, its weathered bark enclosing a trunk at least eighteen inches across. I think that's when it hit me: that vast gulf of time that stood between me and the boy who had looked out this same window. I'd watched my Dad plant that tree, so spindly that he wired it to three stakes to hold it up. The sapling was gone, and so was the man who had planted it. But the boy was gone too, just as irretrievably, lost into old photographs and three minutes of jerky amateur movie film.

I looked down at my wife and son as they peered dutifully from a stranger's guest room, trying to read some meaning into the scene, some connection with the man they knew. But it wasn't there for them, it never could be. And it was only dimly there for me. Hilda and Harold's house was overlain on mine, like one of those paintings they x-ray and find another underneath. But theirs is the real house, mine the illusion. Bobbie would never come racing down that hall yelling, "Petey, Petey, here I come!" Mom's voice would never again float up those stairs: "Dinner time, boys. Wash up."

"Well, that's it," I said, straightening up. "That's the old homestead."

Lucy caught something in my voice and looked up at me. "Are you ready to go already?"

"Yeah, I think so. We've seen the place. That's all there is to see."

We trooped back downstairs. Harold was holding a battered shoe box.

"Some years back," he said, "we had some dry rot in that dormer in the attic. When I pulled the drywall off, I found this in the wall. For some reason I never threw it out. Had it in the garage all this time. Would this be yours by any chance, Mr. Merrill?"

He handed me the box. It was dusty and partly squashed, but I could see the Buster Brown logo and "size 6" on the end. A wind blew through me, bringing with it the scent of a dusty attic, sawdust, and gypsum. I remembered outlining that stupid dog's eyes with my thick elementary school pencil. I tried to remember what treasure I had put in it, but had no idea. I lifted the lid and our heads came together as we all looked down into the box.

A pack of baseball cards, the rubber band shrunken to a red sticky thread. A five hundred dollar bill from a Monopoly set. A blue rubber space alien with a thimble pushed on his head for a helmet. Three cardboard circles from milk bottle caps, each marked "One Credit, Allied National Teddy Space Army." A mouse skull. The neck of a green glass bottle. A broken water pistol. That was all.

"Yeah, it's mine," I said. "I hid it there so Bobbie wouldn't get all my cool stuff."

"Way cool, Dad," said Jeremy. We all laughed, but I could feel my chuckle was forced. Hey, it really was cool stuff once.

"You want it?" asked Harold.

"No, that's all right," I laughed. "They're not old enough to be antiques and not interesting enough to be collectibles. You can toss it."

"We certainly appreciate your letting us look around your house," said Lucy. "You have a very nice home, and it looks neat as a pin to me."

Hilda laughed, pleased. "Why, thank you, Mrs. Merrill. No trouble at all. If you're ever out this way again, please stop in."

"We will, thank you. And here, let me give you my card. If you ever want to get in touch with us, you can call us here. I'm sure if you ever have questions about the house or anything, Peter would..."

"Yeah, sure," I said. "I saw most of it built. If anything ever comes up, don't hesitate to call."

"Will do," Harold said, though neither of us could imagine anything that could come up to require my input. We started moving toward the door.

"Bye, now," said Hilda.

"Bye. And thank you again. If you ever come to California, please give us a call."

"Sure will," they said. "Nice to meet you."

I stood on the porch, looking out at the yard I'd mowed so many times. Lucy squeezed past me and went down onto the walk. Jeremy lingered by the door.

"Excuse me," he said to Harold.

"Yes, son?"

"Could I have the box?"

"Why sure. I was just going to toss it. Here you go." He handed it around the screen door. Jeremy took it and looked down at it.

"Thanks."

Lucy sighed. "Oh, Jeremy. Are you sure you want to bring that along? Whatever for? It's just some old junk."

"I know, Mom. But it was Dad's treasure box."

"It goes in your suitcase. I'm not lugging that dirty stuff around."

"Okay. Can I keep it?"

"I suppose so, if it's all right with your father."

I put my hand on his head and ruffled his hair as we started down the walk toward the car.

"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, it's okay with me."

copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford