Sometimes you live in houses and sometimes it’s the houses that live in you. Victorian houses elaborate as wedding cakes, complete with turrets and extraneous gables. Houses on stilts, built close to the sea. Lopsided cottages, ramshackle colonials with red barns fading, mansions I drive by on the way to visit my brother’s upscale suburb. It doesn’t matter to me if a house is big or small, outlandishly neglected or neat as simplicity. I can’t say exactly what draws me to one and not another, only that when I pass a certain house it’s as if a kind of architectural imprinting stamps its image onto my brain. Before I can stop it my psyche takes up residence within its walls, filling rooms with the contents of my stained-glass suitcases.
I’d been living in the house at the center of town for a couple of years. A pewter blue federal colonial more than 200 years old, its square frame and enormous double chimneys were planted smack in the middle of history. Even though I lived more than an hour from the sea, I could imagine some captain’s wife pacing the widow’s walk that once graced its low-sloped roof. I was sure the Northern version of Faulkner’s Emily Grierson must hover behind its gauze curtains, grandly ignoring the present’s frenetic pace. I was equally positive a family of 10 resided there, or had at some point, its life brimming with all the usual moments of laughter and hatred, love and sorrow. As for who really lived there, I knew nothing – and I didn’t want to know. I was happy enough to watch it blur by on my drive to work or to count the candles in its 28 paned-glass windows.
On the day when this story really begins, I wasn’t driving but walking by the house. Rather, my daughter and I were, on the way back to our actual place of residence after a trip to the town’s general store for ice cream. It was Memorial Day weekend – an unusually hot Memorial Day weekend – and both of us were tired of the wet-blanket humidity of our townhouse. We’d moved there after my divorce and lately my seven-year-old had taken to calling it “the sweet-and-sour house,” our own version of nuclear-family-fall-out take-out. It was one of a row of dull brown townhouses lined up side-by-side at the end of a dirt road. To our left was the “sour” part of our existence – the woman who lived there worked the graveyard shift and was most definitely not fond of children. One night I opened the door on her raised fist, which had been pounding for our attention. “Somebody keeps throwing a ball against my bedroom wall,” she complained, though we didn’t own any ball. A month later she drew an imaginary boundary across our postage stamp of a communal backyard. “If you cross this line,” she told my daughter, “you’ll trip an invisible alarm.” To our right was the “sweet” side – a tiny, bouncy girl and her newborn sister, a hidden ferret, a roomful of toys, and even a mom who made homemade granola bars with honey and chocolate chips. But even with the sweet to offset the sour, both of us knew what we were living in wasn’t “home,” not in the real sense of the word. We’d left home behind after the divorce, the death of our three-legged husky, the death of my father. We’d lost our life in the rambling old house with its unkempt herb garden and its hollyhocks and its climbing roses. Sometimes it felt as if we’d never find it again.
As we approached my pewter blue colonial I didn’t need to wonder if it was a home in the real sense of the word. I could feel its gravity from half mile away – the pull of births and deaths, weddings and departures, the steady pulse of centuries beating within its walls. Unlike our whimsical meals of pizza bites and mozzarella sticks, the mothers and daughters who had lived there ate hearty fare, homemade chicken soup and sourdough bread, pot roast and mashed potatoes, pecan pies with real whipped cream, coffee brewed in silver percolators. I was sure of it.
“Mom,” my daughter said, pointing at a plume of smoke rising from what looked like a spot in the backyard, “that house is on fire.”
I followed her gaze, registered that there was in fact smoke billowing from somewhere nearby, but some part of me couldn’t – or didn’t want to – comprehend the idea that we were really watching my house of imaginary burn.
“Maybe they’re burning leaves?” I suggested. On the screened-in back porch, I could clearly see an elderly woman going about her business. Not hurried, not concerned. Simply doddering around on a warm, sunny day. She may have been watering plants or cleaning or sitting in a chair. I can’t remember, only recall the languid mood didn’t match the smoky taste in my mouth.
“We need to call 911,” Caitlyn insisted, coming to a full stop directly across from the house.
“Look,” I said in a last-ditch attempt to cling to normalcy despite the dark plume snaking its way across blue sky, “if something was wrong, she’d be a little more concerned, don’t you think?” I almost said, “Maybe they’re barbequing,” but the absurdity of the statement was too glaring now to deny.
Whatever was going on, nobody was barbequing. Not unless they believed in dousing their burgers with gasoline and throwing on a box of matches.
A pick-up truck stopped dead in the center of the road and the driver leaned out of his window. “Hey!” he shouted so loudly my daughter and I both jumped at the sound. “Hey!”
The woman inside the house glanced at the truck, approached the porch screen closest to the road.
The man was leaning out his window now. “Your house is on fire!”
Still, she didn’t hear him. She leaned closer to the screen, called out a question.
“YOUR. HOUSE. IS. ON. FIRE.” Now all of us were pointing, pointing at the roof.
It was as if the word was a stone dropped into a pond. You could see the panic rippling out across the surface of what had been an ordinary day for her. She ran. Then other people inside were running too, gathering things, as the roof suddenly exploded into flames. By the time they emerged through the front door, cats cradled in their arms, the sky was black with smoke. Not gray. Black. One by one the packages of shingles and tar paper that had been laid out across the flat roof ignited, blotting out the sky, as if a bottle of ink had spilt across blue paper. The air was heavy with the acrid smell of tar.
Our town’s fire department is mostly volunteers and despite the fact that the fire department was within sight of the house, no trucks arrived. Instead, car after car pulled to the side of the road. Groups of onlookers got out and within minutes the town green was filled with onlookers. Still no sign of any firefighters. Meanwhile the fire raged on, the entire roof now engulfed in flames. Tendrils of red spilled over its sides, lighting the second floor curtains and sending out fireworks of sparks. For the first time I realized how close the trees were, how little distance there was between houses. I wondered how long it would take for the entire house to burn to the ground. From the looks of it, it didn’t seem as if it would be that long of a wait.
My daughter touched my sleeve. Even though we’d backed up all the way across the street, to the periphery of the old graveyard that stood adjacent to the town’s old church, we hadn’t put ourselves beyond fear.
“Mommy, I want to go home.” I didn’t need to hear the mommy to know that panic had displaced the mix of anxiety and excitement she initially felt.
Unfortunately going home wasn’t an option. The road that lead to our townhouse was impassable, cut-off by the fire. In the distance, sirens rang out across the rumble of the crowd. The darkness hung over us, over everything, as the sound grew louder, filling the air. Caitlyn hadn’t let go of my sleeve and I understood. There was something almost surreal about the scene and it scared me too. Yet I wouldn’t have left even if I could have. There’s a seduction to fire, a beauty and an intensity that’s hard to resist. As the house I’d imagined for years burned, part of me couldn’t help getting caught up in the gorgeousness of destruction, the adrenaline rush of danger. Everything seemed unleashed from the daily prose of routine. My daughter and I, the crowd, the house itself, were witnesses to the kind of memory that forever resists forgetting.
When the trucks finally began arriving, the firefighters trained the hoses not on the roof but on the trees. The roof was already gone, but the trees, the houses nearby were not. More trucks appeared until there were fire engines from five towns. I’d never seen that much water trained onto a single point. Even if the fire hadn’t destroyed the house, wouldn’t the water finish the job? My imaginary love seats and quilts, four-poster beds and feather mattresses and gilded frames, sagged under its immense weight. How can you rid anything of that much sadness?
As it turned out the house was more resilient than I thought. It vanquished both fire and water, though it took more than a year to rebuild it. And as it turned out my daughter and I were more resilient than I thought as well. We never vanquished our sweet-and-sour rental – the invisible line, the bouncing ghost ball remained – but we did move into a small cape built in the 1940s two years later. I still remember inserting the key in the lock after the closing and stepping across the threshold. Unlike my houses of imaginary past, present and future, this house was real. No impractical turrets, no stilts or red barns or endless views, just an echo of empty rooms and the hum of an old refrigerator. Paneling? Affirmative. Layers and layers of wallpaper? Yep. But it was ours.
I fished a lamp out of one of the moving boxes and plugged it in as my daughter set a cardboard pizza box onto the hardwood floor. We sat down right there and ate our slices straight from the box. Later that week we had “birthday cake,” to celebrate. Every August, we still do. It’s been four years since we moved in and the rooms don’t echo anymore. Instead there’s the bark of our husky, the chatter of my daughter’s friends, the seemingly endless buzz of text messages, the usual clutter of books and coffee mugs, mismatched pillows and under-watered houseplants. I’m not sure if it’s us living in the house or the house living in us – a little of both, I guess. And I suppose I should confess I’m not as monogamous as I’d like to be. The ramshackle and the marvelous still seduce me. The house at the center of town with its history and its flames lives in me, though in a slightly different way. When I pass it now I find myself thinking how easy it is for safety to catch fire, how some things can ignite when you’re not looking. But it reminds me of something else too. Its candled windows and repainted door tell me it really is possible to start over again, from the beginning, and find your way back to a place you thought you’d lost.
Lori Lamothe’s poetry and prose have appeared in 420pus, Biostories, Blackbird, Cleaver Magazine, Electica, Notre Dame Review, Seattle Review and other magazines. She is a mentor for The Afghan Women’s Writing Project and writes romantic suspense under a pen name.
© 2013, Lori Lamothe