‘You sure? I mean you don’t have to do this, you know.’
‘I’m already doing it. In fact, it’s almost done,’ I replied, prizing off another of the planks they’d nailed across her door. Something my father once said to me resurfaced as the wood gave way, and I appreciated the use of the claw on the back of the hammer. The planks were coming away easy, with no fight, as if they knew they had no place being there anyway; the wood was still too young and soft to give much trouble. ‘Heh, you a tough girl,’ Mae chuckled, humourlessly.
‘I’m gonna leave this one and this one on so it sorta looks like it’s still boarded up,’ I said, indicating two planks that were attached near the middle of the doorway. ‘These ones aren’t actually nailed to the door, just the doorframe. You’ll have to duck a little underneath them, but they’ll fool anyone driving past… Mae?’
Mae had moved to the side of the house and was half-heartedly standing in amongst the withered leaves of a dead bush there. ‘What you doin’ back there?’ I called.
‘Thought that car was the police, you know.’
‘Don’t worry yourself,’ I laughed, to reassure her. ‘And would you look at you, hiding like a kid playing hide. Come on, it’s ready.’
The key still worked, and the door opened quietly, so easily after the exertion it took to prize off the planks they’d put up to keep people out. Half-consciously we both tried not to look at the clean white notice pinned to the board I had left in place so we could hide from the thought of what we were doing.
Inside, the front room was airy and echoing, lit only by the light from the doorway and by shards of sun entering through the gaps between the boards that were nailed over the windows. I squeezed in first, sniffing the musty air and sending the dust motes swirling into the shafts of light where they could be seen. Mae needed an arm to get past the planks I had left up, partly to help her straighten after and partly to convince her that it would be alright.
‘Well, you see here.’ She shuffled eagerly, with the painful gait of someone who cannot stand for long, over to where the old couch still sat, now the only article in the entire room, and sat down heavily on it with the weight of diabetes and joint trouble. She sniffed the damp-smelling air. ‘Hm. Gonna have to air these rooms out. An’ tell me if you see any mould.’ She took a deeper sniff. ‘Smells like mould to me. It’ll be coming up somewhere. We gotta just find it and spray it, else it get inside you and make you sick. And it rots up the wood.’
While she caught her breath there I checked out the rest of the place. There wasn’t much left, a roll of garbage bags and some dried buckets of paint in a cupboard, a chest of drawers that had been too heavy to move out, a dirty glass still in the sink in the kitchen. Outside, the birds had become confident that the house was uninhabited and had taken to casually roosting on the eave above the kitchen window; you could hear the doves rumbling lightly to each other and fidgeting on their perch.
The bedroom still housed the sturdy metal bed frame topped with an old, bare, time-debauched mattress, a faded-pink-with-flowers design they hadn’t made for at least twenty years. A couple of hangers swung slightly in the open wardrobe unit. There were no curtains to soften the light coming in, giving the place a blue, functional look, as if it was a room in a disused hospital, or the drained interior of a swimming pool. The whole place was humanity reduced to its basic functions: bed, water, space and door. Bed and water were necessary criteria for human survival, the space was required for movement and storage. Only the doors, with their provision of privacy, indicated that this was once a warren for emotional beings.
The kitchen was unfamiliarly bare and austere-looking. Some of the paint on the ceiling was curling up, and a line of bugs was marching determinedly up one wall with some plan of their own. Below the window were the fixtures and a space for a washing machine. Stepping closer, I examined the crusty sink and taps with an uncharacteristic squeamishness. ‘Mae, have you seen this thing? What is that? Is that all from the water?’ A white corona had formed on the sink around where the drips from the tap landed.
‘Yep, that’s the water,’ Mae’s distance-muffled voice replied. ‘All the water’s real hard around here, plus they put Lord-knows-what in it.’
I scratched at it with a fingernail. ‘It’s not coming off. It’s like it’s rusted on.’
‘Don’t bother yourself, dear. It’s only sediment. I been drinking it for thirty years so it must be alright. It ain’t poisonous, like the mould is.’
I tried the light in the kitchen. ‘There’s power,’ I called.
‘Course there is,’ Mae replied from the other room. ‘It’s paid up, I mean it probably ain’t due for a little bit. No-one’s been here to switch it on, you see. The bills was always paid up, even if I never had the rest.’
‘I’ll go get the tv, I’ll go get the stuff.’ I said, and ducked to get out the front door.
My car was parked on the other side of the street. Looking both ways to cross you could see at least another two or three places that were boarded up. Outside it was bright and brisk, and waiting for no-one; some kids ran past yelling to each other before disappearing down an alley. Evidence, I supposed, that there would always be someone here, eking out a little life from unlit corners, shuffling through unfurnished rooms, collecting foodstuffs together, claiming possessions and naming days.
I lifted the tv and a box of Mae’s belongings out of the trunk of the car and laid them on the ground. There were more boxes and a couple of suitcases on the back seat, and even some loose stuff on the floor of the vehicle; it had taken a while to load, but it had all fit. Out of instinct I locked the trunk and returned the keys to my pocket.
Looking around the quiet street I saw that I was being watched. About two houses down an old lady in a navy blue dress sat near her door watching me. She was too far away to make eye contact with, but we both knew we were looking at each other. She didn’t stir or say a word, just watched, unmoving, until I resumed picking the tv up off the ground to carry it into Mae’s place. I looked over my shoulder when I was on the other side of the street; the old lady was still watching me, although with an air of unconcerned indifference, as if I had merely strayed into her vision.
‘Here’s the tv,’ I said, pushing it through the back doorway ahead of me. ‘Now you got this and the couch, you’re pretty much set,’ I joked. Mae chuckled appreciatively, getting used to the idea now, I hoped. ‘Yes, get my coffee and my channels and it’s right back being at home.’
I ducked back out of the house to get the box I’d taken out of the trunk at the same time as the tv – I had left it on the sidewalk and didn’t want it going missing. That, right now, would be all Mae needed.
As I picked it up, I noticed the old lady was still there, except now she was looking away across the street, facing the sky a little, and no amount of noise or motion I could make could draw her interest back to me. I returned to the house with the box, its assorted contents rattling with each step. ‘Mae,’ I said when I was back in, ‘there’s some old white lady sitting outside down the road watching me. She didn’t say nothing but she’d be cool, right? Do you know her?’
‘I been on this street thirty years,’ Mae replied, and wouldn’t offer any more.
While Mae rummaged through the box I walked into the rest of the house. There was one room I hadn’t gone into yet, the ‘second’ room at the back of the place. It was where as a child I had slept on the occasions my mother sent me and my little brother to stay with Mae, her sister, sometimes when she and dad were both working late, sometimes when they needed time to relax or to fight, sometimes just for us to see Mae and draw her pictures; she, of course, had doted on us as only the childless can. I swung the door open and lingered by the side, unwilling to fully enter. I had anticipated the bareness of the room, was ready for the dolour the sight would bring and had braced myself, I felt, for a hurt that was necessary if this day was going to be completed.
The room was bare, without any furniture at all, but it was also somehow serene and almost heartening in a way. The sun always came in thick and full on this side of the house at this time and, lazy and boastful, it glanced through the unboarded back window at such an angle that it warmed certain walls and left others in shade according to its own arrangement. Looking out I could see that a kind of green moss had started to fuzz over the outer window ledge, visible from indoors. Outside the window a short tree had overgrown without the human interference to hack it and hold it back; the leaves were long, lush, and drooped under their own weight, stirring only faintly in the breeze. Beyond that you could see the muted and indistinct blocks of other houses, misshapen, and farther still, you could see the tree-lined hills; we were near the edge of town, approaching the frontier with the wild that, one felt, was still waiting patiently for its chance to advance back over the land where people had made their town.
We used to draw on the walls, my little brother and I, using crayons and chalks to create colourful friezes running along the bottom foot of the wall. With no kids of her own, Mae would let them be to cheer her up. They were all gone now, most long since washed away, the last remnants maybe even while the rest of the house was being hastily packed into cardboard boxes and harsh plastic fruit-crates. But you could still see a few smudges and splashes of colour here and there, usually nearer the floor where it was hardest for adults to reach, left behind because they were not deemed to be depictions.
‘Don’t you just love the sun in an empty room,’ said Mae, who had sidled up behind me.
‘This side always got the good light,’ she said, and moved off.
‘This one’s your bedding and sheets and stuff,’ I said, arms hugging a large, bloated white plastic bag. ‘Means we can set up your bed and that.’
‘Thank you, dear.’
I tossed the bundle onto the old bed where it bounced and rolled onto the floor. That was the last of it, so I went back to sit with Mae, now surrounded by her earthly possessions, and help her sort through the accumulation of her life. I reached into one of the boxes and pulled some items out, bric-a-brac, mostly; a small diary book, a carriage clock made from plastic but painted to look like gold, a bundle of creased-spine paperbacks. Then, at the bottom of the box, a squat wooden vase with a tribal face carved into the side of it, a woman’s face with beaded hair, full lips and a slight, knowing smile – it was stuffed with papers, coiled round into tubes so that they could fit.
‘These your documents and stuff?’ I asked. Mae nodded and reached over for the vase, not to take it but to caress its cool swirled sides and the raised profile of the carved face. ‘I bought that vase right after we moved in here,’ she said distantly, as if realising something for the first time. ‘Got it from a little boutique that used to be in town. Used to be downtown, across from where the supermarket is now. Place was run by a friend of mine, she sold crafts and jewellery and artworks she did herself. I went to see her the day she opened and bought this, I think it was the first thing she ever sold. Probably the only thing, too!’ she chuckled, pleased by the memory.
‘You know what?’ she reached over to take the vase from my hands. ‘When you goin’ take this with you. Keep it somewhere where you can see it.’ She pried out the coiled papers inside and allowed them to drop to the floor until the vase was empty – she scrabbled her fingers inside to make sure before presenting it to me. ‘But what about your papers, Mae?’ I said, seeing the still-coiled documents rolling away across the floor, but Mae didn’t even offer them a glance. ‘Forget those, dear, they’re not important. I ain’t got time to be wasting and worryin’ my life over little bits of paper; they don’t mean a thing now, anyway. They’re only made of paper – this is made out of wood. It’ll last.’ She gave the thing a resounding tap on the forehead, and placed it firmly in my lap.
We were back on the couch after a good half-hour’s worth of unpacking, sipping coffee from unmatching mugs and looking around at what was left to be done. Outside, a shower had passed, spattering sparse rain over the land, staining the road and sending the neighbourhood children dashing in for cover. Something occurred to me: ‘The water’s on now,’ I said, ‘but they might wise up to that and cut it off. Same with the power. You just give me a call when that happens, if it happens, that is. And if you need groceries, or someone to pick up your medication, I’m usually okay on Tuesdays, sometimes the weekend –’
‘Oh hush yourself,’ Mae chided. ‘Girl, I been through tougher than this. It’s you that should be looking out, not me. I remember whenever I used to fret about something to Marvin, he’d just say ‘Yeah, but you still breathin’, right?’ and that would be the end of that, at least as far as he cared. He was a lot like my father like that, he just kept quiet and dealt with things. No girl, I been through tougher than this. When Marvin passed, for a start, or when we got burned out of our first apartment. Then there was the hurricane, of course.’
‘When was that? Not that thing a couple of years back?’
‘Girl! This was years ago, when we were kids, my sisters and brother and me. We lived down south then, and daddy – that’s your grandfather – he was working as an engineer.’ She gathered her garments around her as if against a biting wind. Outside, a flock of pigeons suddenly took to the air as one, fleeing some unseen threat.
‘You can tell by the light when it’s coming. A bit like evening light, but no shadows anywhere. And the air gets hot, real hot and tense. We knew it was coming, it had been on the radio for days; it had already torn up a load of places by the sea. Your grandfather, he arranged for us to go down into a shelter that some neighbours had on their property. They weren’t sure at first as there were so many of us, but we brought food along, and blankets, and they let us down.
‘Now when the thing’s getting near the wind picks up a little here and there but doesn’t really get any worse until bam! All of a sudden it hits big all at once, and there ain’t no messin’ with it. Now your grandfather, he was real worried, see – our little house, our little house of straw, he’d put a lot of work into it, improvin’ and smartening it up, and he was real reluctant to leave it. I remember him standing outside while the rest of us waited in the shelter, looking into the distance to make sure his house was gonna be alright. He waited up there until the last minute and we were getting real worried, as the wind was getting bad and he was still up there. Mother, she got worried and wanted to go out for him, but us kids, we got nervous and started crying. Then Mr Woods, daddy’s ‘friend’, snapped and yelled to my father that if he didn’t get in he’d shut him out and let him fly. But still, your grandfather, he just stood there looking out in the direction of the house, not sayin’ nothing and not moving, even when small stuff really did begin flying.
‘Eventually one of the girls screamed out to him and he kinda woke up out of it and came inside, real quiet. Mr Woods told him to just leave town next time, not to go wasting his time and freaking out his wife. They were a little strange, that couple, I don’t think they liked us being there.’ She paused, and then with a wry half-smile, ‘I don’t think they liked us surviving. I don’t think we ever came across them much after that.’
‘Some people,’ I murmured. ‘How was the house?’
‘House was gone, honey.’ Mae said, wistfully. ‘Your grandfather, he knew it before we even got out the shelter. For a long time he wouldn’t come out, even when the rest of us had climbed out and told him it was okay. The Woods, I think they had lost some windows and a tree in their land had come down. They was okay enough, though. But not us. Not our house. Before we even got to it we started seeing bits of it on the ground, bits of the roof. Your mother, she was so little then, she found one of her clothes stuck in a bush and it made her cry. But as for the house, girl I tell you that storm just sat down on it. Half the roof was gone, and it looked like one of the walls had just been plucked out, just plucked out by God’s fingers, ’cause the house was just leaning over on one side like it was kneeling. Not totally flattened, but broken. It’s back was broken, and the walls weren’t gonna stand.
‘My father, your grandfather, he didn’t waste no time. He took to picking things up and collecting pieces of the place together into a pile as if he could fix it all up like a jigsaw puzzle. Mother, she tried to tell him not to bother, just to get what was left of our possessions and go, maybe see if any furniture or maybe the stove were still good under all that rubble. House hadn’t collapsed completely, you see, so some of it wasn’t too bad inside, just a bit knocked up, some of it was alright.
‘But your grandfather, he wasn’t really listening, I think he kind of lost his mind a bit then, and to tell you the truth he never quite made it up again. At one point I remember he went up to the side of the house that had collapsed and tried to push it back up. Put his hands on the side and just tensed against it. Then he took his shirt off and tried again, putting pressure in different places to see if he couldn’t hoist it off its knees. Your mother, she got all excited, she say “Daddy’s gonna lift the house up!” – she was still small, she thought he could do it. I still have this image of him straining against that wall, his skin sweatin’ and his muscles sticking out. His dark, dark skin against that white-painted wood.
‘But I told you we was tough! He pulled out some wood and fixed up a little shelter against a tree that was still standing, and we slept under that for a couple of nights, surrounded by the stuff the storm forgot to take, until one of our uncles came down to pick us all up, take us on out of there. Roughed it good, we did, boiled water over wood fires, used old newspapers on the ground to sit on. We got through it. But know what I mean when I say that when it wants it, it’ll take it, and all this, all this won’t mean a thing.’ She waved her hand around her indicating the room, the boxes of junk, and the coiled papers littered on the floor where they had been thrown.
‘You know, you’re one of the few people I know who still makes coffee in a pan like that,’ I said, as Mae slowly stirred the broiling black mass.
‘It’s the only way to make it,’ she said, and I could tell she was secretly pleased that I had noticed. ‘Tastes better like this, anyhow. And you gotta remember to stir in some powdered milk too.’
I detected movement on the wall near the kitchen ceiling. ‘Ugh – this place is full of bugs up there. Where’s the bag with the cleaning stuff, I think there’s a fly swat in there. If I go back to mine I can bring some spray.’ A quick scan around the other corners confirmed my suspicions. ‘And there’s more over there!’ I pointed. ‘What are those? Little moths or something?’
‘Just switch the light on.’ Mae said, without looking up from the pan. ‘It’s getting dark anyway. Switch the light on and they’ll be attracted to it. Then you can just pick them off one by one.’
I paused by the switch. ‘If I turn it on, people will think someone’s living here.’
‘Someone is living here.’
I kept it off all the same. ‘It’s still too light,’ I said by way of excuse, but the dying evening light showed up my cold feet.
Outside, the strong light of the sun was being silently smothered by the horizon. The backyard had become a dark and indistinct mass, leaves and branches moving with the wind as if it were somehow alive, and shrugging. Other houses had started to put their lights on – what did it matter if there were one more to join them?
‘I can’t hardly see,’ Mae said and, moving over, snapped the light switch on with the unexpected energy of a cobra strike. There was no shade over the bulb and its bare orb was too bright to look at, but we welcomed its warmth even if we had become too familiar with the vague half-light.
I unlocked and opened the back door and immediately the cool night air rushed in; it swirled the light-bulb at the end of its cord and made the shadows move as they do with firelight. Steam blew off the top of Mae’s simmering saucepan.
Stepping outside you could hear the night bugs communicating across the overgrown space. The brisk wind had a business of its own, sweeping through the overgrown backyard with an urgency; when you stepped into it, it wasn’t its coolness that sobered you, it was the shock of its insistent approach, without a breath of hesitation. Moving without thinking somehow, I tugged off my shoes and tossed them onto the ground ahead of me. Without socks the step felt hard and angular, and the unchecked weeds had grown up around its edges like a kind of palisade.
‘The coffee’s ready,’ Mae called from inside in an uncertain voice. ‘What you doin’ out there?’
But instead of replying I walked out into the yard, bared feet wet against its lushness, and stood out there for a moment, immersed, enjoying the sounds you can only hear at night.
‘You comin’ in?’ Mae eventually said from the doorway, her arms folded. I nodded and made to gather my shoes, but when I turned to look I found that they were gone, lost to the tall grass.