The House Behind the Oaks
Happy Monday! Lately I’ve begun to notice that our current story, “The House Behind the Oaks,” is turning into something a bit longer than a short story. The thing that clued me in is that we’re on week nine, and I still haven’t reached the scene that inspired me to write the story in the first place. I guess that’s the problem when you set out to write a story without knowing where you want to wind up. (Likely this is a similar issue to what Herman Melville experienced, when he set out to write “Moby Dick.” You start out with something simple like “Call me Ishmael,” and the next thing you know you’re on page 497, writing entire chapters about whales, with absolutely no idea of how you got there in the first place.)
So here’s the plan. I’m going to post two more installments of “House,” this week and next, which will bring us to the end of the chapter. Then we’ll switch away to a new short story, my latest comedy, based on one of my favorite Bible stories. (If you’re new to the blog, I recommend reading “Eden, Revisited,” to get in the mood.) When that story is finished, we may switch back to the next chapter of “The House Behind the Oaks,” depending on reader response.
So without further ado, here is the next-to-last installment (for now) of “The House Behind the Oaks.” Or to read from the beginning, click here.
Excerpt from where we left off:
My last memory of him is not of his face, but of his voice. My father and I went to visit him as he lay dying. By now, he had moved in with my great grandmother, who could watch over him during the day. My father left me in the hallway, and went in to see him alone.
“Joe, Joe,” I heard my grandfather cry, his voice echoing to me in the hallway. “It hurts, it hurts!” It was the first time I ever heard him complain, and the last time I ever heard him.
There may only ever be one or two people in anyone’s life, or none at all, who love and approve of one unquestioningly. When my grandfather died, I lost the only person who ever approved unconditionally of me.
But after my grandfather died, the last link tying us to the little house in the hills was broken. It was the only house I had ever lived in, and every detail of it is imprinted on my memory. In particular I remember the floors, which were closer to my eye level than the rest of the house. The bedroom I shared with my sister had a golden brown carpet. We would loll on it with our legs propped against the wall, playing games, coloring, telling stories. I told her that when people die, they turn blue. That is why we cannot see them up in heaven; they blend in with the sky. I pictured my grandfather up in that gauzy, blue stratosphere, blue with perhaps a fleck of white or two, to camouflage him when a cloud passed by. Though I could not see him, I sensed his presence all the time, like a warm beam of light, hovering just behind my shoulder. We cannot see light, but we know it is there all the same. I was certain he was watching me, and therefore I intended to be on my best behavior for the rest of my life.
The floor in the living room was made of wood. There was a scratch in the floorboard by the fireplace, where I fell off the coffee table when I was three. The coffee table faced out over the Kensington hills, and I used to scramble up into a large, decorative bowl in the center of it, pretending it was my boat. Through the window I could see the steep hills we lived in, dropping away to what looked like a wide, flat valley of houses and trees, which grew smaller and smaller until they reached a fuzzy, grey stripe that was the San Francisco Bay. If one unlatched the window, I believed, one could sail right through it onto that bay, rowing along in one’s boat. But if one rowed too enthusiastically, one fell off the coffee table, and left a permanent mark on the living room floor.
And then there was the floor in the kitchen, which had tiles with brown and orange flowers on them. Once, I sneaked into the kitchen looking for cake. When I could not find any, I decided to bake one myself. I do not recall exactly how I got into the cabinets and the oven, but I do recall that the cake was a warm, flat rectangle made entirely of flour, baking powder, blueberries and milk –the four ingredients I remembered seeing my mother put in cakes- and that it was not very good. I ate it crouching in the corner of the kitchen, looking down at those tiles on which a fine mist of baking powder had fallen, like snow on the flowers.
I can walk through every room of that house in my mind, cataloguing the memories that happened in each, in the eight years I lived there. What must it have been like for my father, who had lived there for thirty-six?
At any rate, we were going to move to a new house now, one with more kitchen space and a second bathroom, where my parents could each have an office without intruding on the porch, one with closets for everyone and a basement and an attic, and perhaps –I wondered- one where my father’s memories did not crowd upon him at the sight of every mark on the walls, every tile in the floor. We would find an empty, shiny, new-smelling house where we could start with a blank slate, where the echoes of a family’s history did not whisper to us from every corner, resounding in the stairwells, and hovering in the very air we breathed.
We could not have chosen a more unsuitable house. ♦
(To be continued…)