“I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.”
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Across the street, I leaned against the yellow rental car. The house was smaller than I remembered, but that’s what everyone always said. The roof needed redoing. The gray paint was peeling. The red door was some sort of dark color, not black exactly. I took a breath and looked around the horseshoe street on which I’d ridden my bike every summer for eleven years. The house was the U of the horseshoe, the inside of the U. It was one story and took up two lots. There was a large lawn. A picture window in front. It had all seemed nicer then, but I wondered if at thirteen, niceness was something I would have noticed.
I had last stood on this street the summer they walked on the moon. It had been late, and my friend Hannah and I had run out and looked up as they took those steps, as if we expected to see the astronauts and wave to them. I looked behind me at Hannah’s house and remembered riding my bike down the driveway after Hurricane Camille. Her backyard had turned into a lake. I zoomed out again. No kids running between the hedges that linked the backyards. No kids on bicycles. No movement anywhere. It was eleven o’clock on a muggy summer day. Not only were there no children anywhere, there were no people either. And yet, there appeared to be at least one car in each driveway.
I guessed it was inappropriate, and more than that would lead to nothing, but I headed for the not-red front door. A Hispanic woman answered. I explained, but the woman didn’t seem to understand. She held up one finger, disappeared, and came back with a man. I explained again. They looked at each other, exchanging a few words in Spanish.
A minute later, I stood in the shrunken living room where my sisters and I had danced to Jessie James. They led me to the hallway, which had once seemed as long as a city block, and which still ended in a full length mirror. I began to talk. On the right was the pink room, I said. Where I’d awakened on my sixth birthday, the April first that was also Easter. Then my great-grandmother’s room with the two tall single beds. And across the hall, the blue room with one big bed. The spring break of seventh grade, my friend Peg and I laughed in shock as my grandmother walked out of the bathroom shaving her face with an electric razor. I just think you ought to know what’s coming, she’d said, the part nobody talks about.
Then the den, where my grandfather who never got mad at anyone, fussed at three little girls who had made their grandmother cry. The kitchen was part of the den, rare in those days. The dishwasher sat on rollers and came out from the wall so it could be moved to the cabinet to put the dishes away. In this kitchen, my grandfather had wrestled with the crabs we caught at Dauphin Island, so he could make crabmeat omelets. I’d tried making those omelets myself a few years ago with his recipe, but they didn’t taste the way I remembered. And, oh yes, my grandfather standing in this kitchen—he still had his jacket on—answering the phone, repeating over and over again, Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no. It was that same spring break of seventh grade, and Peg and I had met the cutest boy the night before, sixteen to our thirteen, and now it appeared he was dead. One of those log trucks, making a left turn, and his new little car had been in the wrong place when the truck tipped and the logs rolled out. I’ve been fearful of log trucks for thirty years.
Yet I couldn’t get over the feeling that this was not the same house. After all, the blue room was no longer blue, but beige. My grandparents had lived in a different house after this and were no longer alive. My own disbelief was fighting with the presence of the physical structure around me. There was no link, I kept saying to myself. No trace of us. Just memories. It was no different than remembering my tenth birthday, the darkened theater, and Scarlett O’Hara holding the potato. At this point, my grandfather holding the phone was no more real than Scarlett. They both existed only in my mind.
In their den, the nice couple stood together looking at me, the stranger. Well, yes, I was—in their house. But then they were the ones speaking Spanish in Alabama. Surely, in the larger context, that made them the strangers. I tried to thank them so I could leave. Of course, they didn’t really understand me, had not understood any of my detailed claims to the house. The woman spoke no English. Her husband, very little. I wondered what they were doing here. Where they had come from and why. I couldn’t tell and didn’t know how to ask. The woman pointed toward the door. I was embarrassed. I had been ready to leave; I was just trying to be nice. Thanks again, I said, heading through the den door that led into the hall and to the front door.
But the woman stayed in the den, repeating something I couldn’t understand. I went back in and looked at her. Now it seemed, she was pointing to the den door, the one I had just walked through.
As I got closer, the woman began to run her hand up and down the doorjamb. And there it was. The thing that made my grandfather different from Scarlett. Names and heights and dates. Etched in the doorjamb were the marks. Notches made in another lifetime that could be felt in this one. Proof. Something that remained. I extended my hand to touch the past. My fingers traced the numbers and letters. Cindy, 7 yrs old, 6-8-64, 4’.
I was leaning against the wall in my light blue shorty pjs, and PawPaw was holding the yardstick on top of my head, flat across to the jamb so the notch would mark the top of my head. Stand up straight, Cindy, Lilli said. Are your feet against the wall? PawPaw asked. Suzy and Jenny were lying on the floor, rolling around, unable to be still. Their turn would be next. I stood back, waiting to hear the magic numbers, how tall I was and how much I’d grown from the summer before.
Standing in the house now, thirty years later, I imagined offering money, and then the Spanish-speaking husband ripping the wood from the door. I could hear the creaking and tearing, the splitting sound, as the past was placed in my hands. And then I thought, because it wouldn’t come away easily, maybe it shouldn’t come away at all. I had assumed the doorjamb had not already been replaced because of a shortage of money. But perhaps that wasn’t the case. Perhaps this couple, displaced for whatever reason, living here in a strange country, knew something I didn’t know—the importance of leaving the physical traces of lives where they were. Not only for yourself, but also for those who would come after.
Cynthia Newberry Martin’s first novel, The Painting Story, was a finalist in the 2008 Emory University Novel Contest. She has two stories online at the moment, in "Storyglossia" and in "Contrary". Her blog, "catching days," is one of Powell's Books "Lit Blogs We Love." She is currently at work on a second novel, Between Here and Gone.