The first nights, or, a history of the lost

B. never stayed with me when it was hot, and thinking back over the faulty relationship we have, the ongoing years of with-and-without, I wonder why I didn’t notice it until now. Summers are miserable in northeast Ohio, in the small towns of dust and fields and crops with their winding, twisty roads leading, it seems, to nowhere. There is the sense of being trapped, like man is the only animal not content with the hemmed in life of sprawling countryside, the only animal realizing its own limitations.

He would visit from time to time in the heat, but never stayed – no, it was nothing like winter, when he’d stay asleep in my bed for near weeks, sometimes months, before acting alive again. Maybe it was the old house in the country I’d inherited after my father ran off and my mother died of a broken heart some short years later. He’d simply gone on one of his prolonged trips to the East or West like so many times before, only this wasn’t like those times at all. He stopped calling. Changed his number. Even the house he stayed at back East in Delaware greeted you with a busy signal, the sound of perpetual disconnect. He was gone, and left no clue or hint about his absence. The only thing left was his mess, the junk he’d accumulated on various whims from various auctions over decades.

But yes, the house. It was old, parts of it well over one hundred and fifty years, and it was rundown, decrepit. When my parents were still here, they’d maintain it together in a separate way, if you understand what I mean by that. My father would return home from a trip or a stay in Delaware and fix the plumbing, install new shower fixtures, buy a new water heater. He’d replace the broken doorjambs and made sure they locked, even though the old doors were so warped that it was nearly impossible. He was a fixer, at least, a temporary one. Never did the job completely, but he made it work for the time being.

My mother, on the other hand, would try to keep the place clean, but it was so old that there was a constant dust settling on everything, always thick and sooty. She said that’s why she never wanted to buy nice things, because they were always ruined by the ancient house dust. It scared me to think about it, especially when I was younger. Where was all of this dust coming from? If it was house dust, it had to mean that the house was disintegrating. And what if, one morning, I awoke to find no house, having disintegrated in the middle of the night, with only mounds of dust standing between me and the outside world?

She died in the middle of winter. I let the wood stove burn to a pile of ash, opened all the windows, forgot about electricity and resorted to candles as my primary source of light. I sat on the couch under a pile of sheets and blankets I’d pulled from her bed, sweet-smelling with her sweat, a faint trace of perfume, and the medicinal scent of the Olay face cream she used at night. I herded the dogs beneath them, where they curled around my legs on either side, leaving me no room to move. Ordinarily this irritated me, but I could barely move. I remained that way for days, the same sideways position, half-fetal, my arms wrapped around the softness of her pillow, the comforter over my head, waking and drifting and hallucinating, all in the same paralytic state. When I slept, I only dreamt of her.

It wasn’t like the house didn’t have its charming moments. It was flooded with sunlight in the summer, and because of all the maples surrounding it, it boasted regular sonatas and birdsong masterpieces that floated in through the windows, almost embedding themselves in the walls. This drove the dogs crazy, naturally, at least when they were younger. They’d whimper and yip, running from one room to the next, trying to identify where the sound came pouring in. Later in their lives, when they became old and slow-moving, they’d lie on the floor with their eyes closed, sometimes flicking them open when the song became excruciatingly loud, their eyeballs flitting back and forth for a few seconds before closing again and accepting that what had once been a sort of torture was now just a standard fact of life.

The one truly awful thing that I still have trouble dealing with despite my long time living in the house is the stifling heat. Ohio humidity is known as some of the most awful, and even a day that barely reaches 80 degrees can quickly become unbearable. Summer decorations come in the form of rickety old box fans in various colors, from the more sturdy 50s era metal pieces painted a bold taupe or khaki (if taupe or khaki can be considered bold, which in terms of fans, they were) with dark brown dials to the newer, cheaper plastic ones that started white and yellowed with age, their ribs cracked in some places and missing completely in others. This made for a low background hum to the birdsongs and to the cars and trucks whizzing down the country road, the flat open space of fields amplifying the sound of surface and engine cutting against the wind, sending off waves of whir in all directions. Even after all the summers here, I still can’t tell which way a car is coming from. Instead of having distinct beginning and end points that form a trajectory of movement, it sounds instead like a surround sound system, the noise starting far out and circling, closing in on you as the vehicle gets closer – and then it disappears altogether, like a fluke.

B. didn’t like the constant whir of sounds that I had gotten used to, but more than that, it was probably the heat. But also, summertime reminded him of the world, he said, and he didn’t like being reminded of the world. So he’d leave in the summer, or visit occasionally, staying only one night before the noise and the world became too much for him. Then he was off again to some unknown direction, some uncertain prospect that I never really knew about and quite frankly, didn’t care to ask. But he loved winter here, couldn’t get enough.

Winters were dead in all ways. The sky sagged with the weight of its grayness, the fields shrank back their seeds and packed them tightly in the hard, frozen dirt, the branches stood black and bare against empty space. The snow coated the ground and left white for miles, with occasional dead, jagged cornstalks jutting upward through its blanket like dull, dirty knives. My enclosed porch smelled of sweetly rotting wood – the firewood marbled with chunks of ice and snow – and the woodstove hummed dutifully throughout the night, its glass window showing angry tongues of orange flame. It was right beneath my bedroom, and the heat would rise beautifully, upward, warming the creaking, splintered floorboards and keeping my bed cozy.

B. would wake early in the winter, heading outside at 6 a.m. in pitch blackness, getting the truck warmed up so he could drive back to the woods and cut my firewood. I puzzled over his love for this task – after all, I hated it, had always hated it, ever since my father would wake me around the same time when I was a girl, hovering over me in a wool hat, layers of thermal and flannel, and his stained leather work gloves, telling me it was time to go cut wood. I didn’t know whether B. did it because he simply loved it the way my father seemed to, tiny trails of steam rising off of his neck and face, the satisfying thwack of the axe as it connected with wood, the strained resistance of the muscles as your arms made a full arc, each intake of breath feeling like knives, each exhale requiring such strength and pressure to get the air back out when it seemed to want to cling to your lungs and inflict more pain. Or maybe he did it because he thought I couldn’t, even though I had assured him I could, I had, and he didn’t need to worry about it. Still, once a week, I’d feel the familiar shift of mattress and rustle of sheets that roused me from that deep sleep you can only achieve in the dead of winter, and through half-closed eyes I’d see his silhouette moving quietly through the room, his shadow in the doorway as he pulled the door shut behind him.

Though he’d never say, sometimes I think he comes to me in winter because of my mother. He says summer reminds him of the world, and he doesn’t like that. This leads me to think that winter may be the opposite for him; at least, now, it is comfortable for him. Maybe in winter, at my disintegrating house out in the country, surrounded by nothing but white sheets of snow and naked, bony tree skeletons, he is reminded of death.

And so it goes like this: early in life, I became accustomed to the ebb and flow of leaving and returning, the regular threat that my house might disintegrate, but over time, these things, like all regular things, became normal. I accepted them as though they were things to be understood and nothing else – not questioned, not pondered about. But now, with B. being gone, possibly for good this time, I’m beginning to wonder about all of that.

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~ by thecasualtychronicles on June 22, 2010.

One Response to “The first nights, or, a history of the lost”

  1. I love you dude. so good.

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