There’s something about an old, rotting, abandoned house that makes me think. There’s a message for humanity in there somewhere. But maybe not. Some won’t look any deeper at life than at what’s floating there on the surface. And then there are those who’ll neurotically analyze every event and symbol in the world, searching madly for a message of something bigger. I usually fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. But when it comes to these houses, I land at the far end with the rest of the thinkers.
I go out to where my grandma is buried when I’m in crisis or at a crossroads. On a comfortably cool, Texas December day, nearly a week before graduating college, I went out for a visit. After my usual tearful monologue about the state of my affairs, of which she already knows I’m sure, I left. It was probably out of a subconscious search for nostalgia that I decided to make the half mile trip up the winding road to where something else was dying.
I hadn’t ever been brave enough to venture into the tall grass surrounding the house. The thought of snakes blocked closer inspections of the structure during summer visits. But now I had thick boots and jeans. Snakes could bite and be damned. Leather and Life as I knew it that particular day had given me the courage I needed to approach the porch.
The upper half of the roof fared the decades of wild weather far better than the edge. Shingles disappeared more and more as it sloped to the overhang. Three black vultures laid claim to the property, setting themselves firm on the very top of the home. One of the squatters perched itself on the crumbling chimney. They eyed me close while I made my slow, steady way through the knee high grass and broken tree limbs. As I neared the slanted, rotting porch, a beige hawk flew from somewhere under the eave and disappeared around the house. It was clear. I was a stranger, an intruder. Nature had overtaken the structure, wrapping it up in green overgrowth and brown, dusty earth. Life was still here, but the voices were gone.
Fifteen years had passed since I stood on these planks. Memories of Easter floated through my head – my mother hiding eggs, and my Grandma yelling at us to “be careful” after the hunt had started. Of what, I’m not sure. We were children, and experience hadn’t yet given us reason to pause and think about what dangers might be lurking in the shadowy spaces underneath the mesquite trees. I heard her voice again.
The doors were locked, but I’d be able to gain access through a broken window at the far end of the house. The sharp, tiny fragments of glass cracked under the sole of my boots. I braced myself on the chipped, white-wood siding and set my foot inside. Carefully and calculated, I moved my body through the tiny space. The room I entered was my Uncle Billy’s old room, and before that, it was the space reserved for my Grandfather’s binge drinking. I stood there, haunted by the lonesome quiet that was so full and deep, it seemed to vibrate off the walls. What life used to be here, and now, a ghostly, unimaginable silence. My eyes wandered around the ceiling, then to the floor where papers lay scattered.
My great Grandfather had the house constructed in 1895 after saving enough of his earnings from the sweaty labor of mesquite grubbing. He was a farmer from Alabama, and for whatever reason, Texas seemed to hold more promise for prosperity. William Trussell, the Grandfather I never knew, was born in that very place 13 years later.
Bill grew up in the small, agriculture community of Mt. Calm, Texas among diligent tillers of the earth. Before the railroad was built, Mt. Calm was a bustling hub of farming activity. But after the steel rails settled in the dirt of West, Texas, a town seven miles away, Mt. Calm nestled itself snuggly in the spot behind the hill and grew quiet. It was the life of the farmer that Bill would inevitably adopt.
His teenage years were filled with rebellion and liquor. The wind sweeping off the plains had a bad habit of blowing him down the road to a land and life far different than what he knew. At 15, he ran away, forged a few government documents and joined the Army. His father eventually found him and returned him to Mt. Calm. He took off to Abilene one day, and either by coincidence or divine intervention, ran into his father walking on the same road. Great-Grandfather was looking for his wayward son; my grandfather was looking for something else. In the 30s he wandered his way west, taking part in migrant farm work to earn a living. After the wild and whipping years of his adolescence had passed, the wind blowing cold off the Rocky Mountains swept him back home and he took to the land of his father’s. A life rooted in agriculture was inescapable for Bill it seemed. Then, December 7, 1941 came and brought with it a war unlike any his country had ever seen.
Try as he might, he couldn’t immediately join the Army because of problems with the prior service number he’d received in 1923. But the Axis assault on the world superseded bureaucracy and he was finally given his chance to serve in 1943. He trained as a mechanic for the B29 Superfortress, the same aircraft that would later drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While learning the intricacies of his riveted, metal assignment at Carswell Airforce Base in Fort Worth, Texas, he happened across a young brunette looking for a place to sit on the bus. Lorene Rhodes, an English teacher on hiatus to work in the drafting department of Consolidated Aircraft, had boarded the fully occupied bus one day. It was my grandfather who offered her his seat. They struck up a courtship right before Bill was sent over 7 thousand miles away to the Pacific theater.
He labored all day in the tropical sun of the Pacific islands, preparing the plane for its night bombing runs, shaded at times only by the wide, metal belly of the plane’s hull. His first crew didn’t make it back, having succumbed to the flack over Tokio. But his second crew made it to the end of the war. For two years, Bill tinkered with bolts, patched up holes, welded and manipulated engines to bring about peace in a world spilling over with the visceral, blood soaked elements of humanity.
Victory secured, Bill returned once again to the stillness of Mt. Calm, exchanging oil for dirt and the wrench for a tractor. He married Lorene and moved back into the home in which he was born.
Over the next decade, Lorene gave birth to five children. Either because of restlessness, dismay or genetics, Bill became a binge drinker. Once or twice a year, especially when crops were bad, Bill would retire to the back bedroom – the very room in which I stood that December day – to cast his worry on the altar of the bottle. He would only come out for a few minutes at a time. My grandmother, without complaint, would quietly replenish his supply when it was low. After winning the mental war he was waging, he would emerge from the room shaven and showered to greet the children when they came home from school. No one said anything about it.
One time he disappeared on Christmas Eve. My grandmother paced the house, noticeably upset. Where could he be? Occasionally she’d take the children to hunt him down at the local watering hole, but not this night. She tended to her domestic responsibilities, dressed the children for bed, and then as quietly as he left, he returned. Again, no one said anything about it. The next morning, he told my Grandmother to go out to the front of the house. There, in all its American-made splendor, was a shining red station wagon with a single, white bow on the antenna.
Years passed, major amendments to the home’s construction were made, paint chipped away, wallpaper was replaced and the porch was built. The children had grown up, some leaving to attend the private university in Waco 30 miles south of their small town. My mother was a freshman in college when she learned of her father’s cancer. Retrospect suggests it was probably caused by the chemicals he was exposed to during his time in the service. He also smoked. Either way, lung cancer was breaking down Bill Trussell’s body, and this was a foe not even the wind of the Texas plains could sweep him away from. His time of running was over. He left his boyhood home for the final time to be admitted to the hospital in Waco. Before walking out the door, he leaned down and gave a solemn pat to the black and white farm dog the family had acquired. He knew he would never see the dog, or the house, again. On October 19, 1970, with my Grandmother faithfully by his side, Bill Trussell bowed to supremacy of unnatural cell division, and passed into the realm of eternity.
My Grandmother never remarried.
She stayed in the house until the late 90s, until her Alzheimer’s Disease got too much for my Uncle Billy to handle, and was eventually moved to a nursing home in Houston to be nearer to my Aunt Susan. She would wake up some days thinking it was 1955 and wondering where her husband was. This was not her home. Only my Uncle Billy was left in the house. He moved away to Alabama in the mid-2000s.
And with the final inhabitant gone, the house nestled itself into the quiet of the country, surrounded in all directions by open cotton fields and mesquite trees. The windows looked only upon the occasional tractor or passing car. The porch began to wither, absent of the scurrying footsteps of children and grandchildren. The roof, no longer having anyone to protect, braved the tumultuous spring weather of Texas diligently, now for its own sake. The doors stayed shut, and the walls forgot the sound of happy voices. The Trussells, all of them, had departed for other lives and other houses, leaving the lily-white structure of their childhood behind.
The brown linoleum floor was warped, cracked and peeling up in places. I inched my way from the window to a space where yellowed papers were thrown about. Hoping it was some kind of undiscovered literary treasure of my Grandma’s, I knelt down to investigate the impressive cursive handwriting when something caught my eye.
Next to a paragraph about the philosophical problem of personal identity, which the author had decided he did not agree with after writing about a dozen lines, was the word, “Bullshit.” Someone in the Trussell family liked to swear, and it wasn’t my Grandma. Other papers surrounded this piece of philosophical discourse. On another sheet, an eloquent description of Mt. Calm’s humble beginnings, with the date 1977. As I fell in love with the words on the page, a swelling pride bubbled up for the talent that lay humbly hidden on the floor of an abandoned house. And then I realized I was standing in the shadow of another giant whom I shared genetics with. Was there enough room on the creative branch for me, or was this plot of skill already claimed?
As I sifted through the dirt and glass, alternately leafing through pages and reading bits and pieces of impossibly beautiful prose, I came upon the very best discovery and learned who the author of the rest of the collection was. The pulse of life in the abandoned house had begun to quicken, as if it had waited patiently for years for someone to happen upon its precious contents. The roof had protected more than the floor. From the unforgiving wind and rain, it had sheltered the memory of sincere affection.
“Often I have stood on the gentle sloping hillsides, and basked in the warm radiance of the summer sun, but never before has the warmth touched me as deeply as your love and the feel of you in my arms. Often I have sat by the still-life ponds and running streams of my home and washed myself with the waters of the earth, but never before has it cleansed me as your presence and your love does.”
Perhaps it was the result of a burglar who went looking for something more worldly, but somehow these sacred sentiments, written by an uncle to the love of his life, had been sprung from their secret hiding places and found their way to the floor. They went on and on, prose and letters in turn, in a seemingly endless procession of written adoration. Suddenly the paper felt more delicate, more vulnerable. I felt like a laymen holding the Hope Diamond without the special gloves. I collected them in a neat pile and went journeying for more discoveries.
The rest of the rooms in the house were completely empty, save for the living room, which still housed the piano my mother had played when she was younger. I ran my finger over the keys, and then gave a firm press to one of them. Nothing but a lone tink rang out. My Uncle Billy’s diploma was on the floor near the fireplace. A pile of World Book Encyclopedias were stacked next to an old desk. Maybe it was because holiday lunches and games with my cousins had distracted me, but I don’t remember seeing any of these things when we visited.
All the drawers in the kitchen were pulled out. The only bathroom in the house had melded with the world outside. Sunlight filtered in through a gaping hole in the ceiling and I could see the upper half of the roof. The bathtub was filled with dirt and leaves. In the storeroom, I could see green grass about two feet below where the floor used to be. The house was chipping away, falling and disappearing one hunk at a time into the warm earth below. I imagine someone will eventually make the decision to demolish it, but as of yet, no one has had the courage.
The fascination with these decaying houses always involved the story behind the walls. Where had the families gone? Did anyone still care about the wood and nails that had held their charge so well, and now, were left to rot and rust? They had seen times of joy and sorrow, smiled upon their inhabitants, listened to their wailing when no one else was around. And for various reasons, the families had moved away and the houses were left behind to eventually blacken with age and remind the cars passing by that they were alone.
In asking my mother questions, I had learned the story of my Grandfather. Snippets of my mother’s childhood had been unearthed. The house had served as the impetus for me discovering where everyone else was coming from. War, strife, joy and love acted as chapters in the Great Story of this particular branch of people. And the failing structure around me, ever quiet, had seen it all happen.
My Grandfather had a difficult time staying in this house. It had performed well beyond its duty, and now its time of service had expired. It had reached the end of its life. It had seen people be born, and provided a threshold for death. Before being broken into a thousand pieces, it had one more offering. Life, in yellowed paper form, had to be rescued or else be thrown unnecessarily into the arms of Lost Time. Love, the greatest of all human emotions, had never left. I took it upon myself, despite feeling in some ways like a burglar in my own right, to save these written treasures.
This day of discovery was no accident. I was a week from graduating college, unsure of my future, of what to do with my life now that I had no plan. What lay ahead seemed too much, so I turned the other direction and looked back. It was a welcomed departure from the present. I hid away in a two bedroom house for a few hours, and though I thought I was looking for something completely different, I learned I was looking for myself. What was my story?
I, like the house and the letters, don’t want to be forgotten. Leaving forever is scary, and I empathize with these black, wooden skeletons that line the back roads. I want to serve my purpose well, and hopefully, with a sense of altruism. I want to weather the world bravely, unflinching in the face of the storm. And when I see the sun, I want to remember to be grateful. I want to hear the sound of happy voices, and when I can, I want to be a place for comfort. Whatever I was made for, I want to fulfill my duty without complaint or demand for repayment.
I want to be like the house in which I was standing – large, open and humble. When the Architect decides to dismantle me and retire me to the Earth, I want to have one last gift to offer. And even if it’s just a whisper to someone passing through, I want that gift to be love.