Tree branches raked at my face, through the open window. Fresh buds, most already unfurling, slapped at me with that prepubescent softness of early Spring green. Those young branches were just too inexperienced to know that what I was set to do had to be done. Some stains need to be removed by any means necessary.
I drove slowly down the long, overgrown driveway. I say “drove,” but really, I was just letting the engine idle, and pull me lethargically along as an afterthought. The pre-dawn mist flooded the car through the gaping openings above hidden glass. It was hard enough to see ten feet in front of me, much less to the end of the drive. After a couple minutes of coasting, the haunting memory I’d come here to find began to materialize between wisps of white-grey.
Isn’t it always true, that Time is kind to no one? Certainly that dour old Father had been harsh to this dilapidated old ramble-down, though no less than it deserved. As a boy, I had been unfortunately ignorant of a better life than stifling warmth on a Summer night, even with all windows wide open, and in Winter, a dank chill that didn’t leave one’s very bones until mid-Spring. That was probably why I had decided to come bury my ghosts at this time of year, to evaporate my past, so I could move on into the Summer of my life.
My mom had told me, when I was six, that I needed to stay with my dad in this house to make sure he didn’t let himself die. I didn’t understood why she said that, at first, until the third month of her unbroken absence. During one particular staggering evening, my dad slurred that she must never have forgiven herself for turning barren. After a few weeks of thinking on it, I decided it may have been easier, after all, for her to abandon only one child. At least there was only one soul on this Earth to serve as proof of a connection between herself and the man she hated more than any other living creature. I didn’t like to think about how it would have been if there had been more of me, more children to share that misery. Years later, after hearing some stories from others, I decided I’d gotten off easy when it came to my mom leaving. After all, it wasn’t like my dad ever hit me. Well, not too bad, not too often. Nothing I couldn’t shrug off like a duck could shrug off a rainstorm.
To be honest, my dad didn’t actually do a whole lot to mistreat me. Those fancy shrinks, with their framed papers displaying their name in ridiculous script hanging in their cramped offices, would no doubt say that his inaction, his lack of affection, were his sins toward me, but I’ve never seen it that way. He was just trying to cope with being a failure: failing my mom, failing me, failing himself. If I drank whiskey like I do water, I’m sure there wouldn’t be a whole lot I could manage to get done.
I’m also sure those same psychologists would like to say that I worked too hard at keeping my life ordered and clean, and perhaps I should let loose once in a while, like I saw other chumps my age doing, at someone’s big party while their parents were gone for the weekend, or at some random gathering out back of a corn field. Everyone I knew either said, “Everything in moderation,” or they lived it. Those same psychologists would also probably condemn what I was here to do this morning.
Just as it had always done, the ground all around that sorry excuse for a house was flooded over with standing water after yesterday’s monsoon of a thunderstorm. The entire day had been filled with clouds so dark, you could barely see what you were thinking. I knew it couldn’t have been much better out here, and I was right. The only good quality I could ever have named of that house was that it never flooded. It had been built with the right idea in mind, on a pile of dirt and rocks, and built entirely above ground, since the water table was probably only ten or twenty feet down. Of course, I had always suspected the ground all around the house had been the unlucky donor for that pad. Even now, the runoff that had gathered around the shack resembled some kind of backwoods moat, as if I had grown up in a swampy, redneck castle. I chuckled just a little, to myself. Call me the prince of the hick kingdom! My dad sure had been the King of White Trash. That’s why I was here now, why this would all work out perfectly today.
I fought back a sneer as I looked over the depressing heap. None of that history mattered now. I was going to start a new day, a new way, today. Never mind the falling siding boards, or the cracked or broken windows unable to bear the weight of failing walls. Never mind the not-so-imperceptible sag in the top line of the roof. Never mind the resentment I used to feel when thinking of this place. This place would never be the same after I was done with it.
A year ago, as I was trying to figure out if I would ever have a chance to get my license, since I had no car to use in the test or after it, for that matter, I heard that the hovel had been foreclosed on by some bank in Oklahoma or something. According to my aunt, my dad blamed some Indians or something, but I have known for a long while now that what comes out of his mouth, and what can be proved, are two different things. That good aunt o’ mine was the only reason I got my license, and my first real job, being able to drive to work and all. She might have been termed strict by some, but her requirements on my behavior and her demand that I “help contribute” simply made sure I would never catch that layabout streak my dad had. Without that, I couldn’t have bought the old hunk-a-junk I had just turned off and closed up, parked behind a bush. I left my ride well away from the shell of my childhood home. I didn’t want any part of my New, my current, my real life, to see what I was about to do to my Old one.
The tomb of family memories that had once been a home was all too easy to break into. I didn’t even have to try all that hard. I assumed some out-of-state bank didn’t care much about a condemned building out in the sticks. Any squatter looking around would have been so much better off in the Forest itself. I had to laugh to myself now, at the irony of the story: No sooner had my dad lost the house, the only thing left to him besides his truck (which he’d barely paid for anyway), than the bank discovered the building should be condemned. The county was obligated to slap a bright pink sign on the door, prohibiting anyone from entering. The bank undoubtedly had plans to demolish it, eventually, but it just didn’t promise much, even as a heap of rubble.
I knocked around a bit, checking more for some innocent woodland critter that might have found its way up through the floor, than for any people. The house was as empty as its memories made me feel. It was also as run-down and decayed and I often felt my childhood had been. Some days, I resented the whole world for growing up with an idea of what “normal” people got to experience. I missed out on most of that, but I had been hard at work figuring out over the last few years learning what I needed to know. A tiny part of the back of my brain suggested that perhaps the house itself was never at fault, and even that only I was to blame, for staying when I learned early on that my dad didn’t want to leave, ever. I yelled inside my own head that I hadn’t known any better, because my family taught me that my mom had run away, like a coward, so I had no precedent to follow, either way. They had been covering up the truth, of course, that she had been the smart one. She had always been the smart one. There didn’t need to be a precedent. The floorboards creaked a little more than I thought sturdy wood should. I could smell the mold and rot, even through the rag across my face. Yes – I had to do what I had come to do. I stood finally in the doorway to my old room, looking at a few collapsed pieces of wood that had been the frames of my furniture. I breathed out hard, the rag fluttering over my mouth, and then my eyelids relaxed. I set to work.
I unpacked the backpack I had slung over my shoulder. A fire-starter log, placed on some leaves and newspaper, all underneath broken bits of plywood and balsa wood, laid the Foundation for my New Home. My New Home would last me my entire life, and I would keep all the memories I made from here on out safe and cozy within its warm walls. On top of the Foundation for my New Home, I piled on pieces from the bedframe, desk, and shelves from my old room. It didn’t matter if I pieced them together sturdy or not, for soon they would be building my Home for me. I smiled at how appropriate it was. I was doing what the Forest had taught me, throughout my life: When something dies, it will be broken down and used to let something else grow.
I light one match, and used it to catch the end of the one cigarette I had brought. The match, I laid against the newspaper on the far side of my Foundation, and the cigarette, I held against some leaves on my side, until several were smoldering. The crackling paper sounded like laughter to me. I put the cigarette back in my mouth, and turned away. I left the house the way I had entered it, and walked back through the slush of rainwater and mud. Turning to look at the expiring ramshackle, I let a laugh escape my lips. I was finally doing what I had wanted to do for a good while now.
I took the bottle of grain alcohol from my pack and took one swig.That was enough to clear my head and make me the sip itself. I closed it up tight and hurled it through the window that my dad used to keep closed to the world. I heard a shatter, and prayed that the fiery liquid was running down that wall and over his old bed. Now I could just make out the titter of a fire growing and spreading. It sounded like a secret joke and a whisper of promise all in one. The shortening cigarette filled my lungs with fire, and I let it kindle a small chuckle in my throat. I laughed out smoke into the fog, and the fire and I cackled together.
It looked like the fog was starting to lift as I flicked the cold cigarette butt into the puddle of rainwater at my feet. I saw smoke start to trickle out of the windows and cracks, but lost sight of it above the house in the thick mists. I smiled at how well my morning had gone. If anyone happened to see any smoke leftover after this ceremony, they would arrive too late to find any evidence of me.
My car and I leaped joyfully out from the confines of the tree-smothered driveway, and galloped off down the main road through the thinning grey veil. I laughed into the wind rushing into the car, across my face, and pressed down on the throttle.
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