My friend Pete wasn’t home this Saturday morning. I had pulled into his driveway just as the sun had come fully up into the sky, about 8 a.m. this time of the year and was dismayed to realize that his truck was absent from it’s usual spot, snug up against the ages old wooden shed parallel with the back of the house. There was no use looking to the shed, the truck would not be there. Although it was big enough it was as old as the house, built in the ‘10’s and ‘20’s of the last century by Standard Oil of America to house the oil workers employed on company leases situated on the southern bank of the Red river, a place loosely referred to as Boomtown, more particularly Burkburnett, Texas. The shed was defying the pull of gravity by virtue of countless coats of latex paint and Pete knew it, never would he risk the finish on his precious truck by parking it inside.
He was off today, he worked strictly Monday to Friday but I knew without doubt where my friend was, washing his truck at the carwash several blocks down the street, he did love that truck and he was predictable to a fault. I backed out of the driveway and reversed carefully along the extra high curb peculiar to this particular neighborhood until I was even with Pete’s front door. As I pulled the keys out of the ignition, intent on waiting instead of leaving and coming back later, a sign in the next yard caught my eye. For Sale-Open House the sign read.
Ordinarily the sign would not have rated a second look but 10 years ago Pete had, unbeknownst to him, purchased the house next door to the house my grandparents had bought in 1936 for $3500 from the widow of my grandfathers boss. My grandfather had passed away in the house in July of 1976 and my grandmother stayed in it until cancer and heart disease forced her into hospice care in 2001. I personally hadn’t been inside since I helped my mother sell the place and the Open House invitation pulled me by a thousand invisible strings inexorably to the front porch.
A tin box held to the bottom of the mailbox with double-sided tape yielded a key that opened the deadbolt that could have been installed in the front door yesrterday, it’s brilliant finish bore no resemblance to the dark brown brass knob of the large rectangular mortise lock. The door shuddered slightly as the deadbolt slid back, years of shrinking and swelling with the seasons and humidity changed the geometry of the door and it’s relationship to the jamb so that the latch of the mortise barely lined up with the original striker plate. A light push and the door swung inward until the sweep reached the untramped shag carpet stopping it just short of the quarter round trim of the front wall. The pier and beam floor gave a bit under my feet as I stepped off of the concrete porch into the house. As my eyes adjusted to the dim, reflected light of the front room I began a quick left to right inventory, nothing at all was familiar, all of the old landmarks were long gone, no recliner, no armrest-high ashtray, reading lamp gone, huge console television and floor length window treatments all gone, the 10 foot high ceiling the sole reminder of where I was. I was a bit saddened when I came to the entrance of the dining room and saw that someone had used nails to fasten a strip of thin wood over the room divider hidden into the wall that could be pulled out to separate the living room from the rest of the house so that tired guests could turn in before the rest of the household has gone to bed.
Disrepair was a word that came to mind but was almost immediately replaced by ‘misrepaired’ a more correct description of the half-hearted plywood nailed over the dining room window covering the opening that years ago housed a 2-ton Fedders swamp cooler in an age that had not yet been introduced to refrigerated air. The heavy squirrel cage fan of the unit would roar to life around noon on a summer day and blow a steady stream of air cooled by the evaporation of water continuously streaming down a set of exselsior pads on the outside. On the opposite wall someone had capped off the gas line that had fed a large Dearborn heater, now long gone, that functioned as the other half of grandpa’s central heat and air system.
The air was all wrong, it was if the house, once full of life had lost it’s character. The dining room smell had once been a delicate balance of food from the kitchen and whichever device was moderating the temperature, Dearborn heater in the winter with it’s ever present hint of methyl mercaptan from the natural gas it consumed, the moist mildewy note that gave the swamp cooler it’s name or morning breezes coming through the open side door mixed gently with the perfumed scents of the flowers grandma had planted along the driveway next to the house.
Nothing stayed the same, it was gone, the house was dead to me. The memories still lingered inside me but this place was forever changed. No reason to look further, there was no one here to maintain the character of the place, no one to understand or appreciate how a child’s memories are formed. I no longer cared if the clawfooted tub was still in the bathroom, if somehow in the intervening years my grandmothers Lazarus plant still sat in a glass saucer, unnoticed and unmolested on the screen porch, waiting for me to pour water on it and sit, transfixed, as it opened up once more. I could hear Pete’s truck pull in next door, it was time to go.