When Elise rang the doorbell to greet her mama and me, after having been gone five long years, I shuddered from the shock. Or perhaps it was simply the slam of the door, closed harder than usual. I was so thrilled to see Elise that I didn't dwell on the fact that my insides felt like they had in '72, Stoveall's only recorded earthquake, a 2.5 on the Richter scale. Most of my friends, the older ones, can recall similar incidents of shakiness or decay and the depression that followed, knowing they were now officially over the hill. I couldn't read the warning sign for my joy. My best friend, 1118, who I just call Caro, has always said I am an optimist to a fault.
All I thought was: Elise is back. That's one thing they never tell you when you're newly built: your youngest inhabitants will walk out on you one day, in search of new dwellings. I had heard that people die, of course; I saw the children grow and their parents age, even as my paint chipped and my linoleum cracked. But I was naive enough to believe I would shelter the six of them for as long as they were walking this earth. Not so.
With the exception of Charles, who dropped dead in a golf cart at 60, they all left me of their own free will. Ada was goaded, I would say. But no one dragged her out. She followed Elise into the carport, taking slow, shuffling steps, as unaffected as if Elise were bringing her to First Baptist for Sunday service. Until right before Ada reached the Buick. Then she turned back and gave me a long, too-late look.
So in the end, Elise's return only spelled one thing: Ada's eventual departure, even if it was twenty years down the road. Without Elise there to drive her to the nursing home on that fateful day, Ada would have stayed put: none of the other kids had the gumption or the guilt keeping them from sleep, insisting that they do right by their mama.
The guilt: it's funny, isn't it? That Elise would have felt one lick of guilt after all that passed between her and Ada? Makes you think Elise might have stuck Ada in the old folks' home to get even. For Elise's sake, I nearly wish this were true. But her face betrayed no satisfaction that day, hauling her mama in the car. They both wore the same expression: long-suffering, vaguely pissed off, dulled, duty-calls, Southern female martyrdom.
You'll have to forgive my appearance. It rained hard last night and that's never good for those in my state. Back when I was young, a night rain would make me look brand new in the morning sun, such that Charles, heading to work, would sometimes stop the car in the driveway, get out, and take me in: his sparkling abode, his buxom rose bushes, his family sleeping inside. With a small, tight smile, which is all Charles ever showed of his happiness, he'd get back in the car and drive to his optometry practice, head high. Those were the only times I ever felt close to Charles, and I did my best to look imposing and expensive in his regard. It's tough for us: a girl can run to the powder room and slap on some lipstick, a little rouge. We can only wait until our owners summon the will to work on a Saturday and paint our exterior or wash the windows. For as long as Charles was alive, he kept me looking good, I'll give him that much. He was the kind of man who preferred home maintenance on the weekends to leisure.
The years have taken their toll. In 1966, when I was first built, my ranch style layout was pleasing to the eye, as was my warm red brick and my modern carport. I was a fortress against all kinds of things. Weather, naturally, and the snakes that slithered up and down the ravine to my right. I kept out small, maddening creatures like mosquitoes, too, as you can observe in the protective features of my side screened porch addition, which I acquired circa 1992, a few months after Elise's prodigal visit. That's when I thought I was getting a second wind. But no, it turned out to be a last gasp before a slow decline, like the American economy today. Recovery, my foot. If I squint I can still read the headlines of the newspapers they slap onto the driveways of the other houses around me every morning at 7am. One hasn't stung my concrete for years.
I haven't mentioned the real incentive for my construction, the biggest keeping-things-out motivation of all: white flight. Though that's an indelicate term, and one I prefer not to use. After all, were it not for the panicked glances and raised pulses of the good upper middle class of Stoveall, Mississippi, followed by the determined talk and long suffering sighs after integration was decreed—when you know who started moving onto Main Street— I wouldn't be here today.
Look who's not coming to dinner was the general line of thought amongst the self-appointed, upstanding citizens of the town, so they relocated their dining tables and fine china and children up to the top of Stoveall's single hill, evacuating downtown like Atlantans heading out before Sherman.
They abandoned languorous Southern porches with drooping honeysuckle vines that could have graced the cover of Verandah for a more modern look: me. Not to be self-deprecating— an unappealing trait, to my mind—but I am the first to admit that the houses they sold for near nothing were of a different class than my squat brick design.
Most of Main Street's falling apart now, given the poverty—although my former owners and their friends were always quicker to blame it on the ignorance of the new occupants, who "just didn't know how to take good care of things." Well, since my own decline began when my white-as-rice owner Ada, God rest her soul, was still living here, I think I can say with authority that it can happen whenever inhabitants, white or black, feel a sadness that works like lethargy on the mind, a deep South "leave it be" overwhelming the Yankee "can do" spirit. Such tiredness spreads through the soul quicker than kudzu over a car.
How do you think I wound up steeped in mildew, pine needles clogging my gutters, and Parmesan cheese from 1995 sitting in my refrigerator when it was 2002 outside? All because Ada, the family matriarch, was in her own none-too-graceful decline, in direct opposition to the Miss Manners books she had adhered to closer than the Bible from the time that she was a young bride. Elise, after her initial return, would drop by every now and then, or the boys, and insist on repairs, but Ada would just let it slide. My point being, it's not a race thing, like they try to get you to believe. Those run-down houses now owned by black Stoveallians look that way because the only things keeping the economy alive around here are a state prison, a Piggly Wiggly, a Dirt Cheap, and a dollar store.
I wasn't always so open-minded, for a Southern house. But I find that, as death approaches, clarity does too, in a whole new way. It's fearsome and breathtaking. I know it happened with Ada, because I heard her mumbling, and caught revelations that damn near made my bricks crumble. She wouldn't brush her hair or pick up the mail (a personal indignity to me) but that's because the girl was busy. Seeing things and feeling things she couldn't keep down anymore, no matter how loud she turned up the TV or how many glasses of Sauvignon Blanc she treated herself to, despite the doctor's orders. Elise hated to hear it in her voice on the phone. "Mama, you sound loopy," she'd say.
But in a lot of ways Ada was allowing herself to see things for the first time, and it scared the hell out of her. I tried to make the cushions plump and the windows let in only the softest of dusk light, but there was no denying that Ada was in the valley of the shadow before Elise carted her off to White Gables. I saw the brochures and it looked like hell. Not a gable in sight. My Ada.
It's a funny thing, moving up on a hill to protect yourself. All of Ada's kids resisted it, pointing out that not even Dodge, the strongest of the two boys, could pedal his bike up. Dulcie, the baby, would just walk two steps from the foot of the hill and cry until someone carried her. But what I mean to say is, why go to all that trouble to escape when your biggest trouble's right there with you? Might as well have a big old cardboard box that reads TROUBLE in all caps, red marker, to remind yourself. Sure it might feel better for the first few weeks, what with the smell of fresh paint and the doors that don't squeak, but by the second month it's as present as any piece of furniture.
I was fooled too. What with being newly built, and them my first inhabitants, my family, as I thought, I fell in love right away. Honeymoon phase, my neighbor houses hissed (aside from Caro, who just took pity), but I didn't believe them. Not until I heard sobbing in the middle of the night and a silence at the dinner table miles thicker than the casserole Ada was cutting into.
Of course, all houses have their own trouble, Caro let me know. (Caro is a few years older than me, like all the others on the street, but she looks a hell of a lot better than I do now.) Caro and I always confided in each other when things got bad. The hardest thing for a home, much harder than not having control over your appearance, is you can't stop any of what happens inside you. You're just a witness to it all. How many times have I wished that I could have shrugged one of my bookcases onto Paps, Ada's weak, evil-through-his-weakness father, who took her two little girls into his shadows, and made his granddaughters afraid of my nights.
Can you imagine the torment? Being built to shelter, and then keeping the rain off the devil himself? I don't mean the old man alone. I just mean the poison that grew and grew, more toxic than asbestos. At the worst times, I wished flooding upon myself, or fire, so I wouldn't have to see any more, and, in my own way, sanction it. It was in my corners that he would trap them. It was in my unlit study at dusk, when the TV was on loud in my living room, so Elise's brothers just heard Wyle E. Coyote instead of her crying, which she was trying to stifle anyways after Paps had moseyed off, as sickly satisfied as he'd ever be.
All I could do was try to let in soothing breezes on a child who couldn't sleep, or make a certain armchair spot feel uncomfortably drafty for a dozing old man, never sure whether or not those efforts made an actual difference.
From what I know of humans, their hope for God lies in their desperation for a loving witness. As a loving witness, I was always desperate for my yearnings to have physical expression. For example: Elise, as a little girl, had a favorite spot to play with her dolls, behind the curtains in her parents' bedroom, as though she was sitting under the skirt of a giantess. And in those moments (although Caro insists this is pure superstition, what she disparagingly refers to as my "esoterics"), I would filter the sun falling on Elise, make it soft and gentle, like bathwater, warm but not too hot. I would keep the curtains folded loose around her frame so no one would walk in and spy her there. I can't prove that I have these powers, of course. Humans only have one word for that sort of thing: "haunted." They assume that a door slam or a stray wind on a still day signals ghosts of old souls. They never stop to think that it's the houses themselves talking back, desperate to show their affection.
During her years under my roof, Elise hoped someone heard her prayers; I hoped my responses made sound, or at least manifested themselves as light, presence. Not that I saw myself as godly. Caro says that this is our gift, to be silent, unmoving (but not unmoved) witnesses. I balk at such a helpless notion of love.
Or hate. It's an awful moment, to suddenly realize there are humans you hate, in addition to the ones you love. Some houses start hating right along with their hateful inhabitants, because it's easier that way: it hurts less to be on their side. But then you take on an abandoned look, even when everyone's home.
I remember Elise tried running away one time, when her grandparents came to visit. I watched her neatly folding her clothes into a sleepaway suitcase, and even taking along a spelling book, for some reason. But then, when she was at the front door, her mama called them to dinner and it was fried chicken, Elise's favorite, and she got hungry and lost her nerve. She threw it all up later that night.
How mysterious desire is to a house. Of course we can ache, but that burning towards someone else—for revenge, or love, or greed, or shame: the closest I guess I've come to that is when things in me have suddenly broken—a beam, a tile, a fuse. Or my muscadine grapes swelling and thudding to the ground each summer, untasted now, except by the ants.
But the air around such an act changes, and I can sense that. Both good and bad. With Paps it was like a winter storm, with hail coming, spelling permanent damage. With Charles and Ada's occasional lovemaking, or Dodge and his girlfriend necking with the door half-open (Ada's rules), the air was warm summer storm.
I probably sound melodramatic. Caro always jokes that I talk more like an antebellum plantation than a modern ranch. But those intuitions are in our frames just like humans have DNA, I tell her. You can't escape being Southern architecture just because you were built after the Civil War and don't have big old columns. You also have a back door, I remind her, where the colored help would come in and out.
Ada, Ada. Dead now, rest her bones. I was always the closest to her, in a way that houses aren't close to their mistresses anymore, as Caro tells it (she's on her sixth renovation, and looking young as ever. She gets grouchy when I call it plastic surgery, but that's all it really is, not that I'm jealous.) I loved Ada because she confided in me. Washing dishes, baking cakes, even whispering into the night after Charles had fallen asleep. In her last years, Ada spoke nonstop, not always making sense, trying out new confessions, revoking them the next day. Yet it was Ada who betrayed me, and betrayed her own family.
You see, at 14, Elise had finally gathered her courage. I watched her getting ready to deliver her revelation. Not with the usual half-nervous, half-delighted glances at the mirror that generally characterized her preparations (for she was a great beauty, from the age of ten). I don't believe she even looked at the mirror once. Just changed into her pajamas after her date that night and marched into the kitchen, like she was going off to war.
Ada didn't see it coming. She and Elise often had little night chats, about boys at school or what had happened that day. So she just cut Elise a piece of chess pie, then one for herself.
When Elise pushed back the pie and told Ada in a cold, flat voice what had been going on with Paps, and with Dulcie as well, I watched Ada closely, delirious. Finally. Finally. We would be a normal home again. I waited for my beloved to sit down in shock, to reach for Elise, to gasp, to cry. Anything. I wanted anything but what happened: Ada's eyes getting small and hard, and her back stretching just as straight as Elise's. And then in that same cold, dead, even tone, which they'd never used with each other before, I heard Ada say it: "You shouldn't tell such tales, Elise."
She said it again. And to my surprise, Elise, who would cry at the end of every other Lassie episode, or when Ada played sad Bach on the piano, stayed completely still. If anything, her face froze in a terrible small smile, not unlike Charles's, after a long pause in which it looked cracked open, like face peeled from a skull, or a house after it's burned. No tears, no sound. Just that look of raw wreckage, then frozen tundra.
I admit it: I hated Ada for that. It wasn't until years later, when Ada began to mumble her own ugly memories of Paps's deeds at my walls that I could even begin to think of forgiving her, and even then I still couldn't, not all the way. Ada couldn't see what was happening to her girls because she had willed herself into blindness as a little girl herself. She couldn't hear because she'd silenced herself all those years ago. Still: she had a choice that night. She had what I would have given anything for: the ability to intervene. For a second, she glimpsed that chance. Then a little child's terror stole over her, and her face closed up. Ada, who'd taught Peter's denial of Christ in Sunday School just three weeks earlier.
There's a human quality I've never come close to grasping. How they manage to wring beauty from their pain, or even throttle it until joy comes out. It's perverse. But I've seen it a million times. For one, the sadder things got here around that time, the tighter the family's harmony grew when they sang Baptist hymns, especially Ada, Elise, and Dulcie, like they were reaching out for each other, desperate, protecting each other with their voices, exactly when they couldn't do it any other way.
Or the laughter. I'm telling you, on the very worst days, when Charles was treating Ada worse than a stranger or a servant, when Paps was up to no good, and Dulcie was drawing into herself like an overgrown forest, and Elise had turned her back on her mama and reinvented herself as a religious nut, those were the times when high giggles escaped at the dinner table, and Pete's uncanny imitation of Mr. Hardy mowing the lawn made Elise wet her pants. I never could fathom it. The sudden shining, the addictive cascade of laughter—easing everyone, and tiring them out with joy until the clouds drew in again, just as dark, and just as close.
Later on in her life, Ada took to watching Law and Order. At first I was skeptical, but then I got hooked too, who wouldn't? She'd watch four, five episodes a day, and dream about them too, her face taking on the dismay and horror in sleep that it had in front of the screen. It was even more extreme when they'd have marathons a few times a year. She'd barely turn off the TV then, just microwave some Lean Cuisine and watch them catch the crook.
At first I was ashamed that that was the only noise inside of me, after so many years of piano practicing and butter sizzling and whispered prayers, but then I grew to like it, started feeling like those detectives and funny folks on Frasier were my real inhabitants, just as Ada must have felt like they were her friends, or family, even. But I knew it was lazy, too. I saw how Ada breathed a sigh of relief as soon as the show got started, and her mind could switch to their troubles, not hers. Is it cruel to say I begrudged her that happiness? Perhaps. But in the end I felt like she had her own crime stories to work out, so why waste time watching other ones get solved?
Of course it's not as simple as that. I know: I'm no prefabricated house you plunk down on a lot, dumb as their own faux timber. It was just that she'd get so close to it sometimes, the truth I mean, or some kind of solution, ugly as it was. I'd see it on her face, hear it in her quickening breath. She might be looking up from washing her face in the bathroom, or entering the living room from the hallway, and there it would be, a stark realization of former events, of what they signified and how they might have played out differently. It was as though all her failures were seated on the couch, politely chatting with each other, pouring sweet tea and eating cheese straws, like the ladies in Bridge Club used to every fourth Wednesday. And before she felt herself judged by her mishaps, when she was just gawking at them, Ada's face would take on a kind of rapture. Then it closed with shame and she backed out of the room or marched to that TV and flipped it on, until all the failures shrugged at each other and took their leave, hugging each other at the door, trying to hug Ada, who just turned a cold shoulder and turned up the volume.
In the last few years before Elise moved Ada out, (and, in so doing, sentenced me to my own slow death, like a spinster aunt whose last prospect has just taken the last train out of town), Ada and I would religiously watch the six o'clock news. Monstrous, most of what they'd show on there. But I recall one clip that caught my attention, a report on a new educational effort called "No Child Left Behind." Now I don't presume to grasp human politics, but I loved the name of that program, and all the children they would show hard at work in those schools, frowning over their math books, the walls (I could tell) trying to whisper the answers to them, they loved them that much.
And that's what I always thought about Ada, until the very last day: How could ya'll leave this child behind? They all did, one by one. Elise left the day Ada called her a liar. Dulcie left the day she tried cocaine. The boys went off to college. Charles took his departure by dying of a sudden heart attack in a golf cart, as I said, at the age of 60. Typical for him, I always thought, to bow out like that, so painlessly. I realize I'm being unfair.
Of all of them, after her initial five-year boycott, Elise was the only one who called regularly. She had every right to hate Ada. In some ways, I think she did. There was always a chronic tightness in her voice, a light accusation that wouldn't lift, which only joined the guilt echoing in Ada. Not that Ada would admit to that perpetual trial, worse that Judge Judy. Often, Ada treated Elise with a seasoned criminal's wariness and haughty contempt. In her last years, you see, Ada wanted peace, and the sight of Elise just stirred too much up.
For a while, after Charles's death, though the kids were worried about her living alone, Ada bloomed, as though she had a new lover. But I knew better: it was the pure delight of not having to explain herself to him anymore. Charles was a faithful husband, didn't drink, and came home each night at seven. But he was fanatic about saving money. The one time Ada asked him if they might go out for supper, he wouldn't speak to her through the whole dinner, which just made her dreamed-of steak taste like sand. So after his passing, she deposited flowers on his grave weekly and then went shopping. She bought lots of clothes, some in leopard print. She left me for weeks at a time and returned smelling like suntan lotion and margaritas.
That's when I felt sure things would get solved. I don't even know how I thought it would happen, exactly, maybe something like they have on televangelist shows, the witnessing, "Come to Jesus" part of the service, where people fall on their knees before the rest of the congregation and sob. I pictured it happening at Christmastime, after the grandchildren had gone to bed, and the grown children had loosened themselves with a little wine.
I wasn't sure who would go first, but I tried to catalyze the chemical reaction, tried to make the lighting appear both reassuring and urgent, kept the room at a temperature where they wouldn't get too sleepy, tried to take on the colors and mood I'd had for each of their Christmases as small children, so that their memories would stir, and they'd begin to speak.
Instead, they avoided one another's eyes and played with the toys that had been opened by their children earlier that day, went to the kitchen and made coffee, or turned on the ball game. And what would they have said to one another, anyways? I never knew what happened to the people who confessed their sins or shames on screen, if they went and had a burger after the service, or sex, or found a VCR and watched the tape of their moment of fame and honesty, over and over. What I'm trying to say is maybe it wouldn't have done any good, or maybe it wouldn't have lasted.
But they each dreamed about the unsaid that night. I spied with all my eyes, and sure enough, there was Elise in a river, trying to drown her mother and resuscitate her at the same time, Dulcie, swinging at snakes in the ravine, Dodge dreaming about long-dead dogs, Rick dreaming about his father yelling at him on the football field, and Ada dreaming about sitting on her father's lap, her legs concrete so she couldn't move.
My Ada. My Elise. Elise couldn't get far enough away from Stoveall; or, let's face it: me. My smell, my rooms, my locks. First she went to Atlanta, and all anyone heard from her were nondescript postcards: from Stone Mountain, from Busch Gardens, from Savannah: "Doing fine, much love to everyone at home. -- Elise." After she broke down and came back for the first visit, I was shocked by her change. In order to stand being back home, she'd had to seal something off deep down. She was back in Stoveall, but she might as well have been in Tibet. It killed Ada, but she was too scared to say anything: didn't want to drive Elise away again. But Elise left, anyways, and went even further away: London, then Germany, of all places. Gave Ada a hell of a time trying to figure out the calling codes and time zones.
The day Ada left me began warm and clear. It was May, not too hot yet, my favorite kind of weather. I had known she was leaving for weeks, and months even—the brochures, the boxes— but hadn't quite believed it until she stepped outside of my walls for the last time, and gave me that look. How could I give an adequate answer? With all my sirens screaming?
Sure, there had been times when I wanted her gone, times when her confessions had crawled up my walls like termites. I tried to summon all my old resentments in response to her gaze, so her walking out would hurt less. But instead, another memory of Ada surfaced, from the day the family moved in. I saw her walking swiftly through my rooms, setting up empty cardboard boxes for the boys to play in, Dulcie on one hip, looking in on Elise, who was already arranging her dolls on the new bed. That deep care in her eyes had served as an inspiration for my own witnessing of them through the years, and I tried to thank her for that, as she stared her goodbye. Then Elise gave Ada an impatient nudge and they both turned away.
And then the surprise: as the car rolled off, as the orange sunset hit my naked walls: the lightness. I always thought I'd want to be a house that was occupied, even if it meant being haunted by homeless people or teenagers looking for somewhere to make out or get high. But instead I felt a huge burden shrug off of me, and it felt good when the mold started growing and the ants tickled me and the rain began moisturizing my interior. That's something Caro can't understand; she urges me to stop slouching, reminds me that the for sale sign out front won't ever go away if I don't make more of an effort.
Some houses have generations that pass under their roof. Some see several family cycles. I only had my one, and there's something beautiful in that, too. Ada. How I envy the simple path her body took: out of breath, then underground. I felt it when she died, even though she was all those miles away. It mimicked the feeling I used to get when the power went out.
Given my strong brick and my storm glass, I'm not going to fall apart anytime soon. But I find I am entering a state I thought only possible for humans: I have begun dreaming. I drift most of the time, I see deep summer thunderstorms in winter and then it's Charles at the dinner table and the chicken and dumplings not being ready yet. I only stir, briefly, at Caro's insistent chatter and then I doze off again. I will wake one day, I suppose, to my eventual disassemblage, or, Sleeping Beauty-like, the kiss of new heartache repairing me, moving the unspeakable back inside.