Authors: Brittani Sonnenberg
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For Karen and Steve Sonnenberg
The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.
—US State Department
Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, from
Sonnets to Orpheus
(translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
lise Ebert rang the doorbell to greet her mama and me on a hot October afternoon in 1977, sweaty as July. She’d been gone five long years. The sight of her face, waiting on the doorstep, cool as all get-out, made me shiver. Or perhaps it was the shrill yell of the doorbell—everyone in Vidalia usually just knocked, or walked right in after a courtesy tap on the window. Whoever heard of ringing the bell at your own home? But I was so thrilled to see Elise that I didn’t dwell on her odd behavior, or on the fact that my insides felt like they had ten years earlier, during Vidalia’s only recorded earthquake. 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 down the block—1118 Arcadia Ave.—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 Ebert children grow and Charles and Ada 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.
At first, Elise’s unexpected homecoming had me feeling brand-new, the way I used to after a fierce vacuuming by Bessie Stipes, whom Ada always hired to clean before parties. Bessie viewed dust as a theological problem, the devil made manifest (and considered her beliefs confirmed when they started selling Dirt Devils at Kmart in the mideighties). Seeing Elise that day sucked all my sadness out, set my surfaces shining. Yet Ada never caught on that Bessie Stipes stole, and it would only dawn on me thirty years later, as Ada was limping out of my side door for the last time, that it was Elise’s return on that blistering autumn afternoon that spurred her mama’s eventual exodus and my emptying out.
By then, the rest of the Ebert clan had left me of their own free will, except for Charles, who dropped dead in a bowling alley at sixty, collapsing before he could see if he’d made a final strike (he hadn’t). Without Elise there to drive Ada to the nursing home, 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, 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 prizewinning azaleas, his family sleeping inside. With a small, tight smile, which was all Charles ever showed of his happiness (as if joy were dollars he ought to be saving), he’d get back in the car and drive to his dental 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 weed the flowerbeds. 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 and gardening on the weekends to lying in the hammock.
The years have taken their toll. In 1960, when I was first built, my ranch-style layout was pleasing to the eye, as were 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, as you can observe in the protective features of my side screened-porch addition, which I acquired in the late seventies, a year or so after Elise’s return. 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 seven a.m. 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 Vidalia, 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.
coming to dinner was the general line of thought among the self-appointed upstanding citizens of the town, so they relocated their dining tables and fine china and children up to the top of Vidalia’s single hill, evacuating downtown like Atlantans heading out before Sherman.
They abandoned languorous, jasmine-scented southern porches that could have graced the cover of
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 higher class than my squat brick design.
Most of Main Street is 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 yard 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 Vidalians 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. But I find that, as death approaches, clarity does too. 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
. Seeing 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 the booze in Ada’s voice on the phone. “Mama, you sound loopy,” she’d say.
But 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 stronger of the two boys, could pedal his bike up. Ivy, 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
in all caps, red marker, to remind yourself. Sure it might feel better for the first few weeks, thanks to 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.
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-w
, who took his granddaughter into his shadows and made Elise 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 anymore, and, in my own way, sanction it. It was in my corners that he would trap her. It was in my unlit study at dusk, when the TV was on loud in my living room, so Elise’s brothers just heard Wile E. Coyote instead of her crying, which she was trying to stifle 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 were sitting under a giantess’s skirt. And in those moments (although Caro insists this is pure superstition, what she disparagingly refers to as my
), 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 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 Grayson and his girlfriend necking with Grayson’s bedroom door half-open (Ada’s rules), the air was a 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.