August 22, 2009 § 7 Comments
When I open the door of the empty house, the dog rushes in ahead of me. He barks, shouts of joy, but they die to nothing. He looks back at me, quizzical. Where is everyone? Perhaps they are out back, he must think, racing to the back door, begging to be let out. I unlock the door onto a patch chest high with weeds. He does not go out. Instead, he looks up at me, circles and sinks into a dejected heap.
We’ve come back to this house many times, Dog and I. Returning from journeys that crossed the country from border to border: family occasions, dog shows, girl journalist and her Dog in search of stories. Each time the door had opened on a cheerful cacophony of singing hounds, the television, the boy jubilant at our return. There was always someone there to embrace us, usually a meal on the stove, another dog or two rushing up to touch noses.
Not so this time. Now the house is silent, inhabited only by mice and memories. A fine layer of dust covers every surface. One door has blown open sometime over the winter. The Dog leaps to his feet to follow me as I move from room to room; not a chance that he’s going to let me out of his sight. He doesn’t know what’s become of the other dogs, but he is doing his best to avoid their fate.
Four days before we’d said goodbye to those dogs and husband and son, leaving Ohio for a few weeks in Montana to clean out the old house. He knew that. But dogs don’t think in abstract. (One of our dogs is very upset to hear a family member on the other end of a telephone; she’s very distressed that her person is locked up in that tiny box and how did they get in there anyway.) The dog knows only that they have always been here, and that they’re not here now.
I haven’t been in this house in a year. I haven’t lived here in two years, having taken our son in advance to start at a performing arts high school in Ohio. It’s a very complicated thing to move nearly two thousand miles across the country, leaving a pack of hounds, a coven of barn cats, a pair of crotchety ponies in your wake. My husband stayed on sorting out these conundrums: the ponies free to a family that found them delightful. The barn cats to a woman who’d just lost hers. One dog with cancer (Edward the Terrible) gently dispatched by our wonderful vet.
A few days before Christmas, on a morning when it should have been too cold to snow, but was snowing anyway, my husband loaded up the remaining three dogs in a minivan stuffed full of clothes, shoes, books, television, crockery and Christmas presents, and made his escape. The Dog and I have come to deal with what he left behind. Mail still on the kitchen table, a dozen chain link dog runs, letters from my late father, old toys, chipped coffee cups, books.
I did not choose this house. My husband’s ex-wife had insisted on it, a miner’s cabin with a singlewide trailer addition, creek side in the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains. Her twin sister still lives a mere quarter mile down the road. Then Merrilee decided to take their daughters and leave Elmer, and the proximity of her sister wasn’t so important anymore. We tried to sell the house 16 years ago but the market hadn’t boomed, and when we finally got an offer, we would have had to borrow money to accept it.
So I relented and moved in. First the trailer had to go. Then the green and tan shag carpet. The accordion door. In the end, we took the house down to the studs, moved the kitchen and the bathroom, put in a new stairwell. And then we stopped, leaving unfinished sheetrock on the walls, window moldings stacked in the barn. Elmer was working double shifts at the railroad; my newspaper work kept me away all hours. We were too damned tired when we got home to do anything other than the essential. And dry wall mud never reached the level of essential.
Montana was home for 17 years, longer than anywhere else. Two years ago when I set out behind the wheel of the Penske truck I didn’t look back. Our son had overstayed his welcome at the country school he attended. Elmer had retired from the railroad. I’d long finished my work as a journalist in this town. There was nothing keeping me in that little house in the shadow of the mountains.
Now it was very strange to be back.
In my return, I have fallen into the arms of friends, I have driven slowly up and down the streets of the town before going west to the house, a little panicked that I am touching the tar baby and will not be able to leave.
This is the house where my child was conceived. This is the house where he took his first steps. It is also where he fractured his leg badly in a freak accident. He was two; it was the day after Christmas, in the middle of a blizzard. The ambulance wasn’t running, our tiny truck cab was too small, we had to call Jane and Roger to help us get him to Bozeman, and they struggled out to collect us and sat around all night in the hospital while the orthopedist saw to Julian’s leg.
This is the place where we welcomed foals on wobbly legs, watched them grow into promising yearlings. Watched in horror as one hung herself from one leg from a round pen panel, pressured there by a ranch hand who thought he could train horses. When we pulled the pins the filly kicked the panel free. It hit my mother square in the face, knocking her unconscious. Paramedics knelt in the muck to ease her onto a stretcher.
Horses are buried there and there and there; a young stallion that tried to jump a neighbor’s barbed-wire fence and bled out; an ancient mare down with colic, a foal crippled from birth— a Northern Dancer grandson. His mother had gotten into astragalus; it causes birth defects. When he was tiny he could outrun half the horses on the place.
Up on the ridge is a spot where I took off my coat on a winter day to wrap it around the a calf half-dead from hypothermia, rubbing him hard all over to bring back the circulation while someone else ran for the phone. Just a day or so old, the little white-faced guy had fallen through the fence and rolled a bit down the hill. His mother, a first-timer, wandered away and left him. When the neighbor drove out along the pasture edge in his pick-up the calf was starting to respond. We put him in the warm cab of the truck, and I retrieved my coat. I heard they nursed the calf a day or so and he was good as new. That next fall he went off to slaughter, because well that’s what becomes of calves.
I was sitting at a desk in that corner of this little cedar shake house when the phone rang with the news that my mother in law had died. It was Elmer who answered when a call came from England that my stepfather was found dead in his apartment. I was sitting there curled in an oak desk chair, waiting for the call that my father, my anchor, had taken his leave, and when it came the world tilted dangerously beneath my feet.
This big mailbox used to be affixed to a large Poplar trunk we’d pulled out of the grove on the other side of the creek. In time, it rotted and broke off. We stuck the broken post in a galvanized trashcan full of river rocks and travertine. Every time it snowed the plow knocked it over, and it is lying on the ground now.
That’s where I’d get the mail, get out of the car, open the gate. If there was something promising, I might open it walking to the gate. That’s where I opened a very ordinary looking envelope with my name scrawled across it. It was a letter telling me I’d won a prestigious fellowship. And that’s where I read the letter of acceptance welcoming Julian to a performing arts high school. From there you could see the snow capped peaks of the tallest mountains in Montana.
The task before me is enormous. It is not just packing up a few books. It is room after room of dust and memories and objects that require my attention. Every day I take a load of stuff to the storage unit. Every day I take a load of stuff to the county dumpsters. We’ve decided to seek a renter, and that means restoring water to the winterized house. Which means buying a new water heater and having it installed. And when the water is restored, I find a pipe, cracked, that had somehow missed the winterization process, and I have to find a plumber, and then find the money to pay him.
Every day starts before seven, with McDonald’s breakfast for the Dog and me. Without fat and protein, I won’t last half the day; the regular restaurants don’t open for another hour. At that hour McDonald’s trade is tourists headed south to Yellowstone Park, no one to stop me and inquire, where had I been, what was I up to.
Work continues each day until I am filthy and exhausted, walking in circles because I am too tired to think straight. On the good nights, I go back to my friend’s house and stand in the shower, before we repair to Park Place, the only decent bar in town.
The very first evening my regular drink is set before me with precision. The bartender still knows me well enough he doesn’t have to ask, so he asks other questions instead. Where had I been, what was I up to. The Martini is perfect, silver in my mouth. On the last evening there I will tell Glenn, the proprietor and bartender that other than seeing my friends, sitting at his bar was the absolute best thing about being back in Montana. I regret the qualifier now; sitting in Glenn’s bar was seeing my friends, my past, and comfort was in the company, and not just (as on that last chilly night) Irish whiskey in the glass.
On the other nights, it’s not so good. Once the water is restored, I stay at the house; in the brass bed I slept in from the time I was 15. The Dog sleeps across my feet so that I cannot escape in the night. The work is taking so much longer than I thought it would. I had thought that there would be people to give me a hand, and there are.
Jane and Roger stop by every couple of days, hauling trash, washing down walls, helping me drag out decades worth of junk. Jane’s mother died last year; she and her sisters were charged with the task of cleaning out the family home, and Jane knows what I’m up against. Their teenage daughter Emily comes out one morning and runs the Bush hog to knock down the waist high grass around the house.
It’s a cliché almost, that when you really need them that people will help you. The truth is that people are busy. They are busting their asses all day running a restaurant. She is a writer, looking after three small children and an elderly, compromised mother in law. She is working in a law practice 60 hours a week and putting up hay in the few hours of daylight left before and after a grueling workday. She is the only vet tech at the county’s very busy animal shelter. This is part of why I love them anyway, because they’re interesting people with full lives. I am grateful for all they give me.
But what about the others? How many stories did I write to support the opening of new businesses? How much free advertising did I give away? What about those Community Thanksgiving dinners I started and ran that fed 700 people each year? We gave whatever we could to every charity auction, every event, every theater production, every time someone needed us . . . but this is Montana, a place where it’s unseemly to ask for help.
Unless you’re dying or something, then you get a spaghetti dinner and a silent auction.
On the very worst night, hungry and dirty and tired and dispirited, I break down and cry, asking my husband these same questions, tears running down my face and spilling over the telephone. Where are they? Why won’t anyone help me? What about everything I gave to this community? He is quiet. And then he says, “You didn’t do it to get anything in return.” That is absolutely right. I didn’t do it to get anything in return, and somehow that makes me feel even worse.
In truth, it is his friends that disappoint me the most. Men he worked side by side with for twenty years, every one of them has pretended that they don’t know that I’m in town. They don’t return calls. They don’t come out to the house to see what’s going on. It is a measure of them I did not expect, and it leaves an ugly stain.
My mother, ever the pragmatist, tells me I have to hire someone to help, and I do. The word goes out that I’ll hire as many people as show up for nine bucks an hour, just be at the farm at 2 p.m. One guy turns up, a transplanted east coast carpenter and musician that I’ve known for years. He laughs at my duct tape belt. I’ve lost so much weight over the last few weeks that I had to fashion it to hold my pants up.
We take a load of furniture and boxes of books to storage. It pours rain, the kind that soaks you to the skin; we stand inside the open door of the storage unit watching it come down in sheets. After the rain abates, and after a few slices of pizza, Alex helps me load the Ohio bound U-Haul trailer with all the things I know I cannot possibly manage on my own: the washer, the antique filing cabinet, a heart pine dresser, Aunt Moe’s Persian carpet. He leaves with his little Saab full of stuff for the community thrift store, and he will come back a few days later to take another load to them. The money I pay him is money well-spent.
Many things leave the house bound for the landfill. The haymaking hard working attorney brings me her horse trailer one Saturday morning and we fill it with garbage and take it to the transfer station where they weigh it and charge me $12. The transfer station attendant pulls a sled out for her grandkids; my friend snags an air-conditioning recharge. The broken Dogloo and the worn out mohair chair are dumped without ceremony into a giant dumpster, set in a pit at ground level, the roll-off box. I paid more than $100 for the Dogloo; I used to really love that chair. Now I could care less.
Using the volume and weight of the trash that day for comparison, I figure that the amount of garbage I’ve taken from the house must be around 3000 pounds.
Other things leave in an estate sale that runs all day Wednesday without pause. People come to buy dog kennels and crates, an old FIAT convertible half-eaten by mice, tools, trinkets, crockery, the desk where I sat when I learned my father was dead. I am happy to take their money; there is nothing that they carry away that I am attached to anymore. It disturbs me that one woman steals things from me; a chain saw, a silver bracelet, whatever else she slipped in her pockets. Walking out to the outbuildings, I’m shocked to see how people have literally thrown things around while going through them. So disrespectful, just to get to that set of socket wrenches or that half empty can of WD-40. It’s hard to fathom what might have been stolen out of the sheds, so I don’t even think about it.
Loading the last of the boxes, the flowerpots, the bathroom scales, the floor lamps onto the trailer as the light fades from the sky, I muse about what makes someplace home. Is it all this stuff I came back for, that I set aside and wrapped and have used to fill every last space in the trailer? It’s a good thing I don’t have a bowling ball left to go in, because there is no room for it. Had the house fallen down where it stood we would have missed a few things we lost, but it is different when you’re standing there with the teacup (or the letter, or the painting or the spice rack) in your hand.
Is it your history in a place that makes it home? That you can’t go to the grocery without seeing someone you know? That your memories of that intersection or the post office steps or the sound that the doors to the county courthouse make is somehow embedded in your cells, is it that familiarity? It used to be that I felt like I belonged to this place. I wrote about it, championed it, I knew most of the people in town, and most of the people knew me. Big fish, and all that. It’s not like that anymore. But I don’t think that was what made it home.
Filling the water bottles for the Dog for the long trip home, I am thinking how much I’ll miss the water. Always extra cold, it came from a well hand dug into a spring (with pick axes and shovels the records read) in 1923, and it never ran dry, not even that time we forgot and left it running all day in a horse trough while we went to the movies. It is good, sweet water, perhaps the best I’ve ever had.
I do not number the dogs I am leaving behind. Buried under poppies, under daffodils, under the aspens, under the apple tree. If I stop to think about them, their slender bones wrapped in quilts, and gently bundled into the earth, it will be harder to walk away. If I think about their wagging tails, and eyes, blue and brown, their muzzles cupped in my hand, this place may seize my heart again.
Instead I think about the other dogs, the ones waiting 2000 miles across the Great Plains, and the husband, and the boy. I am overdue there. The Dog settles into the truck. As the house has emptied, he seems to understand that we are not staying on there with the ghosts, that we have just come back to pick up a few things. Gently, gently, pulling a fully laden trailer, I creep up the driveway, hopping out to close the gate behind me one last time. I do not look at the house, or the meadow, or the barns, or the poppies. I just look at the latch and make sure it catches on the ring.
I point the truck to the east and we head for home. A front is blowing in, and by the time we crest the hill out of the town, the sky behind us is black with rain.