I'm driving alone, in a county I know only in passing. You know how that is: You know that one way is the interstate, another way is Route 29, and over that way somewhere are the mountains. But in the area bounded by these more recognizable landmarks, you drive around and you are more or less lost. This is the traveler's most desired state: you have a vague idea where you are, and you know that if you were to keep driving in one direction for a while, you'd eventually find your way to something you've seen before, but at the same time you're pretty much lost.
I've stopped the car to look for a jacket that I thought was in the backseat, and I find myself in the front yard of a house. Hidden only about ten yards up the hill, it was previously invisible behind years of weeds and reclaiming neglect.
Even in April, poison ivy already guards what must have been a driveway. I walk carefully up and find the back door gone. It's hard to find floor - these old walls have obviously watched their share of partying teenagers and other assorted vandals - the contents of most every closet, cupboard and drawer are thrown anywhere and everywhere.
Plastic flowers. Lots of them. Poinsettias. Tulips. Daisies. Lilacs. Lots of others that seem to be based less on any known species.
The lure of things abandoned - I'm always feeling it. It doesn't have to be a house. Or even a building. I often find myself standing before peeling billboards, rusting farm equipment, used up junkyards. And for that matter, much the same can be said for vintage clothing stores. It's not surprising that things with a history can tell you all sorts of secrets, share some of their richness. I've always felt like there was an energy - is it the energy of the last occupant? of the place/thing itself? Either way, there's a holiness that needs to be honored and protected. You can't go disrespecting the sacredness of the abandoned any more than you can go stealing from graves - there's a price to be paid.
So when I'm in church - like I am today - I tread lightly, and I give my thanks to the Gods of Abandonment - along with my own little offering when I'm done. I try and leave a little arrangement - maybe it's things in the house, maybe a little offering of pebbles and grass - something to leave a little positive energy.
A six pack carton of Tru-Ade - returnable bottles.
I look for dates on things - newspapers, a copyright on the instruction book for an instamatic camera. Of course you can guess at dates on everything from wallpaper to packages of Christmas lights. But there's something so finite and real about an actual date. And a name. The newest thing I find here is a prescription bottle from twenty-three years ago.
I stare for a while at a pepsi bottle on the kitchen floor and think about what I looked like in 1982. I think about where other people were. My mom? Ingrid? When I stopped the car to look for my jacket, The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue" was playing on the car radio. I wonder which drugs Keith Richards was doing at the exact moment that someone in this house was taking their pills.
No less than four boxes of Kellogg's corn flakes. My cat's name is Kellogg. Does that have some meaning?
There's a windowless room - or maybe its just a closet - back behind the stairs - that I can't see into at all. It's broad April daylight, but it may as well be one a.m. for the recesses there. I pull my camera from my purse and fire randomly into the black, but its flash gives me only the tiniest of hints - clues that both entice and frighten me. Lots of shelves. With little bottles and tools. Or rusty parts to things? I can't make them out with the tiny blasts of brightness. Maybe when the film comes back I'll have better answers, but what meaning will those answers hold as I sit in the comfort of my living room?
A trading stamp redemption catalog. What were they saving for?
Corrected school papers, but no signs anywhere of children. Night school? Community College?
All the while cars drive by out on the main road - my stopped car the only clue of anything out of place here. If their drivers have ever even noticed this house, they've thought it a blight upon the landscape of their county - "Why can't someone come and tear things like that down?"
Please wait. This is the real life. The real history.
A pile of alarm clocks.
Four La-Z-Boy type recliners in one room. And lots of newspaper ads for furniture stores.
I have no desire - no use, really - for answers. My only search here is for more questions.
So many clues.
Letters to the last occupant (1985) from a social service agency. Needing more information about the relationship. You can't adopt Tiffany unless you give them more information. They need a statement from her mother (who you seem to be living with). Or her father. Or various people. There are Tiffany's school notebooks, a handbook for parents of special education students. Forms, forms, and more forms. For lots of things. Tiffany's small mattress lies molding and soggy on the floor of a small room off the kitchen. Her toys are in the living room, her bike's out back.
Did the love you felt for Tiffany make a difference? To her? To you? What happened to all of you? Where did you go when you left here? Did things get better? Or worse? She'd be in her mid-twenties now. What's her life like? And how did the time she spent living here on this side of this North Carolina mountain change her?
It's all just more questions.
-Ellen, near Cherokee, North Carolina
Sometimes you recongnize a place not by the way it looks but by a reaction that comes upon you from out of nowhere.
Driving back up to my mom's, on my way back from who knows where, I made it past Durham and, without really thinking, got out my North Carolina map, turned off the interstate and wandered along Route 70. It only took a few miles before I felt tears coming to my eyes and a shaking in my chest. It took me a minute, and it took me by surprise, but I realized that, yes, I had been on this road before.
Long before the subdivisions, before the carefully planned developments, and before the Ralaigh-Durham area became the hot place to be, a lost young woman once drove out this road with a handsome young man. She had met him only once before, but for various and forgotten reasons she felt an attraction to him that she somehow felt compelled to explore. It was winter then, a rare and crusty snow watching this couple of kids who barely knew love, much less each other, as they drove an old but smooth pontiac past the deserted farmlands. The girl was driving and tipsy and wondering the usual things that girls wonder when they're driving in the country with handsome boys they don't know well.
The girl was driving with her mind on things other than the scenery when the boy said "Stop, let's get out here and walk for a bit". The girl pulled into a driveway of an old and empty farmhouse. They got out, walked up an unplowed driveway, stopped and briefly kissed under a bare and dying oak, before exploring the runs of a forgotten North Carolina homestead.
It was all but fallen down - even at her younger age the girl could feel North Carolina's winter teeth eating slowly into its beams and joists. The front rooms were in good enough shape but the addition at the back was leaning sharply to the east and the second floor porch was falling.
That afternoon and again that night there were more kisses, but for reasons long since forgotten, nothing more as the girl fell into a nervous sleep next to the boy. And though they would stay friends for a few years, nothing else would become of their kisses or the boy's sweet December smile.
But today it hits me hard, maybe because I had forgotten him, or maybe because I truly had not realized where I was - those quiet winter fields replaced by late summer subdivisions. But then I remember - my throat suddenly tight and dry, wondering about that house. I'm sure it will be gone - it was barely standing then - but I'm hoping I might recongnize or feel the spot where it sat, so quiet and peaceful on that long ago winter day. I think I will know. I was there for an hour at the most, but the feeling's growing stronger now - I'm remembering details that I had lost years ago - the coat I wore, the sound his boots made crunching snow, kisses in a windy kitchen with no ceiling.
I wonder often where this feeling comes from - this connection I seem to feel with the abandoned. Until today it never occurred to me that it all might stem from warm kisses on a cold day under a scraggley oak tree. The feeling of excitement at exploring places and feelings that were so new to me. But whatever the reason, I've spent a fair amount of my adult life absorbed by things and places that were, for whatever reason, cast off by others. I drive along today reaching out for that sort of connection - the feeling growing stronger now - too strong - my eyes welling with tears for no good reason. I can tell now that I will find it. I can tell. Down this hill, over this bridge and up the other side. That will be the spot. Will it be a subdivision? A convenience store parking lot? Or just an empty field?
Then I see it. The only possibility I never would have considered. The house of winter kisses - once so precious and cold, so sacred and scarred - now repaired, repainted, remodeled. In the spot where a slow and steady pontiac once parked, a sign now reads "Winthrop's Gate - Bed and Breakfast".
Once two pairs of footprints crunched their way all alone through stale snow, now a paved and landscaped driveway escorts tourists to their tasteful country getaway. Once an ancient oak watched over nervous kisses, now bradford pears - whose careful and particular arrangement was probably determined by a well-paid landscape architect in Raleigh - produce no fruit as they watch city folks pretend to be in the country. Once a fallen down sleeping porch smiled down on two kids through its distress, now a pre-manufactured sunroom keeps breakfast diners in climate-controlled comfort.
You may think me strange for valuing the fallen-down. You may wonder what it is that makes me yearn for peeling paint and rotting roofs over repairing and giving new life to the sweet and the dying. And I'm not sure I can give you an answer. But somewhere, deep in my heart, there's a history that I cling to. A history that has less to do with a house and more to do with the spirit of what the house was about.
-Ellen, Hillsborough, North Carolina
A long, slow hill carries the three a.m. trucks over this stretch of east Tennessee interstate, barely aware of a small and forgettable motel sitting a quarter-mile back on old Route 11, its small but cozy rooms failing to catch the traffic's eye anymore. Over the years, bigger and more obvious motels have sprung up like weeds next the interchange, whispering their promises of safety and and predictability to weary and blinder-wearing travelers.
Other than its locked office and a weathered sign out front, the only light comes from the open window of room 4. Both the sputtering room air conditioner and the TV with its oddly orange skin tones are switched off now, leaving the night free from a rattling fan and the feigned enthusiasm of weight-loss infomercials. From outside, late-night Tennessee sounds and smells float through fading curtains of the open window. I pour a shot of bourbon into my newly unwrapped plastic cup and hear the sound of my own loneliness in those tractor-trailers pulling their loads uphill.
-Ellen, Morristown, Tennessee
My cousin asked me if I thought men and women were inherently different.
I thought for moment and asked, "What way are you talking about?"
"I don't know," Tess said, "just in general."
I said, "I guess I think everyone's inherently different. In every way you can think of."
"Like, think of a line between one and ten," I said. "It's not like all men are ones and all women are tens. Maybe men range from ones to eights, and women might go from threes to tens."
We sat there for about twenty seconds. Tess said, "What way are you talking about?"
"Exactly," I said.