The rain started coming down the minute I turned off the bypass and rolled into town, as if it had been waiting for me. I hadn’t brought an umbrella or raincoat, and was wearing gray sweatpants and an old t-shirt and slip-ons. Of course it had rained.
It was coming down hard, too. Great, muddy splotches clouded the windshield as I navigated through the crowded streets of other frustrated and angry people in cars, all just trying to get home. I sat and tried to be patient in my own car: my mother’s old station wagon, white and old and dying, left to me in the will, and was grateful that I had no more trips to make. This would be the last one.
I got stopped at every light on the way, and it was another twenty minutes until I reached the other side of town. The all-too-familiar sights passed by, and I barely registered them, had no time or energy for nostalgic thoughts after the long day of moving. I couldn’t read the street names, but didn’t need to. I drove on automatic, recognizing landmarks and making turns accordingly. I passed my old elementary school. They had installed a new playground, full of bright and colorful plastic constructions, with slides and ropes and bars sticking out at bizarre angles. The old wood and metal one stood off to the side, and I could just spy the spot where I used to hide and read during recess: a nook underneath the metal slide that I had thought only I knew about. I processed this all in the blinking of an eye. Then my old school was behind me, and it was gone.
The mud-brown cathedral on the corner of my old street came into view. I have no memories of ever seeing anyone attending the church. The parking lot was always empty, but it added some novelty to the boring, dead-end street, and served as a meeting place to ride bikes with the neighborhood kids.
I couldn’t see the street sign, but I knew that it read: Sunny Lane. The corner of my lip twitched as it always did when the irony struck me. The sun never seemed to shine in the northern Midwest, and I often wondered who was in charge of giving streets their names, and if they had been intentionally trying to make a joke.
As I passed the small, ranch-style homes down the dead-end street, the rain settled into a slow drizzle, and I turned off my windshield wipers as I pulled up to my old home, second from the end. The gray house was smaller than I had remembered, and in worse shape too, the paint cracking and faded, lawn unmown and hedges wild and growing. I would need to do some work on the yard.
I parked in the driveway, turned off the car, and stretched my arms way back, hearing the stiff cracks and clicks of my elbows and shoulders, hands nearly touching the stack of cardboard boxes in the backseat. All of the customary odds and ends and forgotten things that were required of all last moving-trips. The only thing that I wanted was to relax inside, but there was still some unpacking to do. I left the last boxes in the car for now, opened the car door, and walked up and into my childhood home.
It was the same. All of it. Although I had been in and out of the place all day, none of this had actually sunk in. My mind had been elsewhere, organizing and planning the next load as I was dropping the previous one off, and I hadn’t given myself any time to think about what it would be like to live in my childhood home again. This was the first time in years that I had been back in the old house. The boxy television set was still in the corner, antenna poking out in a silver ‘V’. Cardboard boxes big and small lay all over the place, waiting to be opened. On the walls were several paintings, along with shelves that held those little precious angel ceramic babies, lined up next to one another. She had loved those useless things.
My mother spent her last years in a nursing home, and owned the property, but refused to rent it out despite my advice. She had insisted that the house was for me, and told me that she wanted me to live in it, to meet a nice girl and start my own family, and to remember her. That had been the last conversation I had with my mother. Two weeks later, she had a heart attack while watching The Price is Right, and the house passed to me.
My rumbling stomach gurgled and growled at me. It was four-thirty in the afternoon, and I hadn’t eaten any lunch, and I knew there was nothing in the fridge. I had brought with me all of the contents of my cupboard, but was too tired and lazy to force myself to get up and cook something. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, swiped my thumb over the screen to unlock it, and ordered a pizza online. Then I bent down to open up the first box.
* * *
It was dark when I went to take the broken down boxes to the recycling bin, and the recycling bin to the curb to be picked up the next day. The air was cold, and I felt goosepimples popping up over my bare arms as I hurried to finish the job. The days were getting shorter. Autumn was nearly over, and the night air held within it the harsh bite of the coming winter.
My breath came out in foggy puffs as I picked up some pieces of cardboard that had fallen out and shoved them back into the green bin.
The dead-end lane was empty and quiet. I stood there, at the edge of the curb, and looked up and down the street, trying to take in the reality of the move and the whole day’s events in one single moment. There were no porch lights on; the only light came from three street lamps that were spread along the lane, one at either end, one in the middle. They gleamed in the night, glowing orbs of orange that hung in the air, unmoving and permanent, stretched thin at the ends.
Down at the very end of the lane the road ended, and a tall fence stretched up and along the edge of the grass and the weeds. In the winter, when the snow plow came, it would push the snow up into a huge mound against the fence. One year when I was young, I had been wearing my snowsuit and climbed the mound to clamber over the fence and explore the grass field behind it, but my suit had gotten caught at the top, and I couldn’t free myself, and so I cried out for my mother until she came and cut the suit, and set me inside with a blanket and some cocoa, and my favorite comic book.
That had been when I was very young, six or seven years old, and it was before I discovered what was beyond the fence and the grassy field. It was before I visited the graveyard where my father had been buried, where my mother lay now, next to him.
I walked back inside, turned on the porch light, and put on a sweater. I hadn’t thought about the field behind the fence and the small graveyard for some time now. As I had gotten older my childhood memories had faded, and were blurred and mushed together, and some seemed to be less like memory and more like distant, vague images of some half-forgotten dream.
I went to the kitchen, put on some water to boil for tea. The window of the kitchen looked out on the house next door, a blue single-story that stood behind a six-foot wooden fence. What could be seen of the yard was bare and dead: a cement deck with a jagged crack down the middle, weeds poking through. When I was younger I remembered thinking that the house was haunted. People would move in and then move out months later, only to be replaced by the next set of hopeful homeowners. I don’t think anyone ever stayed there for a full year.
Just then I had a vivid flash of circling the house with a can of salt, making a protective circle to keep out the ghosts that I was so sure were coming for me. There was nothing else connected to the random memory. It was there and it was gone.
I shivered in the kitchen, barefeet growing cold on the linoleum floor.
The tea kettle whistled, and I turned off the stove and poured the steaming water over loose tea leaves, and let it steep.
No. There was something else there. Something connected to that frantic circling boy spreading the salt. The scent of lavender and coconut, the unmistakable signature smell of one of the ghost-house tenants, Ms. Cleary. I could smell it then as if she were there in the room with me.
She had been a funny old woman, hadn’t she?
There had been the time when she looked after me, for awhile, while my mother had been working, and I had gone into that house. The whole place had had that sickeningly sweet smell of lavender and coconut that clung to my clothes long after leaving.
And there was the garden, too. Ms. Cleary’s garden in the back where she worked. I wondered if it was still there.
I stood there in my kitchen, waiting for my tea and gazing out the window, and thought about Ms. Cleary’s garden and the graveyard, and I remembered it all.
And when I began to remember, I could not stop.