Third Placeby Myke Johns
Red fire truck lights spun over the devastation. The beacons arced long, looking like science class experiments as they passed through the dust and smoke above the rubble that had once been a house. Fire and rescue teams crawled gingerly around it, hoisting planks and shoveling brick. Walkie-talkies beeped and buzzed and neighborhood kids looked on, perched around the moving truck parked on the street — a lawn's length from the police tape.
When a family moves into a house, there is a period of adjustment. Walls that were barren carry the weight of pictures or of furniture pressed against them. Floorboards flex under new footsteps and electricity courses through the veins of the place at night. Inhabitants wake a house to life.
209 King Street had never been anything before it was the Hargis family home. Shelly Hargis had by chance seen it being built and had made her husband go see about buying it. He'd gone dutifully and still seemed bemused 19 months later as he sat at a table applying his signature to things. She had not been wrong about it. There was room for the two of them to thrive and to grow. But it was not too large, this craftsman with the brick façade, inviting front porch and the oak trunk pillar in the living room. There was room there for them to move freely on their own or, more frequently, as one.
It took longest to unpack the stuff in the kitchen — the thousand little things that belong there — but Shelly called for her husband to come see just weeks after beginning the move.
"Peter, we have officially moved into this house!" she said as she flattened and folded up a Starbucks box. He held her and looked at their home together, how they seemed to fit perfectly into it. Beneath them, the floor could feel for the first time the attention Shelly had put into arranging the furniture there. The imbalance and heft of the move gave way to the ballast of well-thought-out interior design. There was an invisible symmetry in the way the refrigerator and the cabinets seemed to radiate around the butcher-block island. And the floor was appreciative that it played on the strengths of the support beams so there was no vulnerable spot where a footstep could cause the china cabinet to sway and clatter.
And it was not just the one room, but entering the house felt like stepping into a river, naturally eddying from hallway to living room to bedroom to porch. And while Peter Hargis himself may never have noticed the way the mirror by the front door was arranged just so to catch the reflection of the birch just outside of the kitchen window, he still felt a sense of calm as he adjusted his tie in it every morning.
The final box of newspaper-wrapped cookware dispatched, Shelly danced to the living room and dropped onto the couch. Her husband followed behind, their shoulders nuzzling together as they leaned into each other side by side, admiring this place they had settled into. The floor beneath the sofa gave slightly. The floorboards flexing just so, sounding like the satisfying crack of a fistful of knuckles.
It did not take very long for the house to be fully woken up. Peter and Shelly threw parties. It was their first house — a place with a yard and more than just the living room and kitchen for guests to congregate. They invited their friends over and their friends invited friends and the house hummed along. Peter kept the kitchen a constant swirl of hors d'oeuvres and liquor, or he'd be manning a small grill on the back porch next to a cooler full of beer. Shelly buzzed from conversation to joke to thoughtful one-on-one and the floors grew warm and the walls flexed. Nearly every light was turned on and electricity jolted all through the house until it seemed to have the caffeine jitters. The plumbing flowed until the pipes were sweaty and as more bodies filled the space, the air conditioner took gulping breaths. 209 King could not join in on the party, so it contented itself with the incredible high.
In the last hours of these parties, the crowd would dwindle, leaving the hosts in long, reflective conversation with the last three or four really good friends to stick around. Seated on patio chairs or around the bottle-strewn coffee table, the house relished these moments, with their long shadows and laughter filling the place better than any crush of people could. Emboldened after a long night of absorbing conversation, the house would attempt to interject, but the creaks and groans it knew to make were only mistaken for "the house settling." Opinions went unheeded and observations unpondered as they were mistaken for the rattles of pipes and ducts. But 209 King loved its inhabitants and forgave the language barrier. It loved them as a nurse loves an infant.
Three hundred and twelve loads of laundry passed. The Hargises cooked nearly 770 dinners there at 209 King. The kitchen swelled and exhaled with the heat of the oven and the house grew to appreciate being filled with the smell of sausage and coffee in the mornings.
When the couple made love, they went into the bedroom and shut the door. This modesty created an intense cell at the center of the house. The dark of the room hummed red and orange and the walls inhaled as if porous. Shuddering floorboards moved the air between them, like the diaphragm of a speaker playing a song too quietly. The overstuffed coat closet in the hall popped open slightly, unable to strain against the down jackets and scarves hung inside any longer. The water heater clicked on and hummed. The AC sighed into action, rustling the bed skirt and Shelly pulled the covers up over her as the chill hit her bare skin. Peter leaned to his wife and wrapped her into his chest. The warmth radiated through the sheets of the bed, into the air and onto the walls. The house felt, in these moments when the bedroom door was closed and heat pressed on it like smoke, as if it were fulfilling a role greater than structure, more than shelter. The couple huddled together there against the chill and felt secure in the soft darkness. There, the house recognized the elegance in small moves.
The Hargises' modesty created a life. Shelly had been dutifully making charts and marking a calendar and taking her own temperature as if she were about to go on a deep sea expedition of herself. The morning she realized she was pregnant, she sat in their bathroom, her husband still asleep. She held the test in her hands, elbows on her knees. Curled forward, she stared at the plus sign she'd put there, and she was at once overjoyed and panicked and serene. Alone there, a room over from Pete yet a thousand miles away, there was a current of sadness. Shelly dipped herself into it. A fountain of tears rolled away from her and her elbows shuddered into her knees. The pregnancy test clattered to the floor as she gripped her face in both hands. Peter stirred at the moans, but did not rise. Shelly hugged herself against a shiver and as quickly as it had begun, she shook herself, wiped her face, and picked the test off of the floor and called to her husband.
The Hargises invited Peter's parents over first. Shelly's lived in Connecticut and would be paid a visit soon, but now Peter was taking his father's coat and hugging his mother, Shelly offering them wine and appetizers.
At the news, Peter's father leapt from his seat on the couch and hugged Shelly, his congratulations likewise bounding around the room. Pete's mother gave a tight, short hug and sat back down.
The aroma of cedar-cooked salmon, steamed asparagus, and red potatoes seared with rosemary filled the dining room. Good-natured conversation was punctuated by the ding of silverware. The floor was pinched, though, where Pete's mother sat — her upright posture forcing the front legs of her chair into the wood. The house creaked and snapped under her as she finished her second, then third glass of wine.
"Are you sure you want to keep this one?"
She had spoken casually as she lifted a forkful of salmon to her lips. The others stared at her as she swallowed.
"Mom!" She only raised her eyebrows and went back to her potatoes in reply. Shelly stood and nearly ran to the kitchen. Both son and father glared at the woman at the table, but she was stone. Peter muttered something profane and followed his wife to the kitchen.
"Honey ..." he started.
"I don't care," she yelled, her words ringing off of cabinet doors and amplified in the wine glasses in the dining room. "Just get them out of my house!"
Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Every word uttered goes somewhere — vibrations moving air and hitting ears, walls, chopped up by ceiling fans. Blown out of windows. Years of words soaked into 209 King like cigarette smoke, living there. If the house had any capacity for memory, this was it — the tiny vibrations still trapped in brick. When everyone was asleep and everything was quiet, the house would sometimes extract them for a moment, feeling those voices and the people that said them there once again.
This memory was sharp. The floorboards, the ceiling, the oak pillar in the living room had soaked it up like red wine into a tablecloth. The anticipation and the joy followed by tension, strained conversation, explosions. The house was fascinated at the energy — at once vacuuming and hot — and felt the scene play out again and again. When the family was away, it was nice to still feel their warm hands on the walls and to hear their voices.
The house remembered the day the Hargises had moved in, the way Shelly stepped into the middle of each room and looked up as if she were an actor finding her light. The house remembered a party where someone accidentally threw a plate full of shrimp through the window over the kitchen sink and into the backyard. That was a good party. After that party, the detritus of celebration all around, Pete and Shelly lay on the living room floor, too exhausted to clean just yet, content to leave it until morning, content with each other. She told Peter she loved this house, her palms flat on the floor, her legs slowly kicking at the baseboards. The floor took in the warmth of her body, absorbed the blows of her feet. It held her words in the air before tucking them away into the beams of the ceiling. The house wanted to reciprocate — it loved her, too, for living here and in turn giving it life. But nothing would be adequate, so the house took it all in and held it like a secret under a tongue.
Shelly's memory was tortuously long. That night, she sat up on the couch, wrapped in blankets and trying not to remember. The thoughts came anyway.
There had been a baby before. Years ago. Shelly hated to think of it as an accident. Life deserves better than that. But she eventually accepted that over time, that is how she was going to think of it, anyway. She and Pete had been living in a three-bedroom apartment with three other people, all pooling their meager incomes to live in an ancient and failing house within walking distance of downtown. It was a fitfully exciting life tacked together with coffee shop tips and graphic design jobs. But the ill morning came when there was a test. Then another. Then a long quiet conversation on the end of their bed. Shelly sat, she remembered, her elbows denting her knees as she leaned toward the floor. She felt hollowed out. Pete — he was so good, even then — rubbed her back and assured her he would be there next to her the whole way, whatever they decided. She remembered sliding from his reach, standing straight and looking at him there on the bed.
"We can't have a baby."
Peter stood and faced her.
"We can't have a baby," he said. His expression was kind, firm, and he had that worried look he got when he was searching her for a pathway in.
"Later, but not now," she had said. The color had drained from both their faces — they could have blended into the white walls and become a part of the house and stayed there, silently observing those who would take their place, removed and serene. Shelly carried this fantasy to the doctor's office. She imagined she was a house, separate and distinct from the horror going on inside.
After the abortion, she had been restless and uncomfortable at home. The pallor of their room grew sickly. A place which was still abuzz with activity now felt gauzy and dead to her.
"We're still a family, the two of us. This place is alive as long as we're in it." Peter held her close, wishing kindness was enough to convince her. Knowing it was not.
"How can a place be alive?"
"How can it be dead?"
Peter nodded as his wife stared at him, cautiously elated.
"... Connecticut," he said. "It's not a promotion, exactly, but ..."
"We'd be close to my mom." Shelly finished his sentence. "When?"
"Soon. We need to find you a doctor and we need to find a new house."
These words, like all words, reverberated around 209 King, their waves deflecting and dissipating as they permeated the room. The house absorbed them uncomprehendingly.
Shelly began packing in earnest the next day. The house noticed a new uncomfortable weight in the kitchen as boxes of plates, utensils, crock pots, anything not of immediate need began to stack there. Now four months along and beginning to show, Shelly focused on small things, and on days alone at home would turn the stereo on and sing as she labeled boxes of clothes to donate to Goodwill. The house only knew something was wrong. Shelly's wonderful voice filling its empty spaces, once its favorite sensation, now turned frightening. The house was beginning to feel hollow and the joy reverberating against its walls could not fill it. The house grew stiff and tense. It seemed each footfall caused floorboards to creak, every movement a sharp noise in this brittle place.
Peter brought no comfort as he removed the boxes from their stacks on the floor. As the first of the furniture began to disappear, the house held its breath and it became terribly cold inside. The couple bundled up and began unplugging things. The electric meter slowed and the house felt duller than it ever had. When the kitchen table was taken out, the house desperately tried to conjure the brilliant weight of large meals, the people gathered around. The memories rolled in and dissipated like fog. It remembered the angry conversation from months before, the smell of rosemary and the hot, airless tension and it understood this feeling. Staccato cracks and groans rippled through the house. Where are you going? Water flushed hot through its pipes until steam filled the attic.
Floorboards creaked resentfully as the sofa was being carried to the moving van out on the street. Shelly hugged herself as she wandered from room to emptying room. Each step across the cold floor sounded like bones snapping. The house asked why she was leaving. She moved to the kitchen, walls groaning around her. What am I going to do? She leaned her belly against the sink, rested her elbows on the counter and ran the water, splashing her face cool, holding her wet hands against her skin and running them through her hair. Sick with worry, the house ran cold. A chill shivered through the attic — ice water through sweating hot pipes. Copper cracked, valves and fittings hissed and spat and water hemorrhaged into the dark. Why aren't you listening to me?
Water trickled down the walls in the front room. Before Peter could wonder, "What the hell?" a river eddied from hallway to living room to bedroom and onto the front porch. Everybody out. A panic of footfalls beat against the timbers, all running to the door except for Shelly. The rising flood strained against the attic floor and the ceiling above her bowed and darkened. Both Shelly and the house remembered the first day there, centering herself in each room. Shelly stood against the oak pillar in the living room, her palms laid against it like the figurehead of some ancient ship. She glimpsed herself in the mirror by the front door. She thought about once wanting to blend into the walls of a place. The attic door burst open and water gray with dust surged around Shelly's ankles. The house remembered the first moment it felt like a home. It remembered her.
"I'm sorry," Shelly whispered. She stepped downstream into the frame of the front door. The house lurched sickeningly to the west and trembled for a moment. Shelly put her hand to the doorframe, leaned over and gave it a kiss. Then she stepped onto the front lawn, water roiling all around her, choking the grass, filling the street. There was a crack like thunder above them, and Shelly stood with Peter and watched the roof collapse. For just a moment, the house felt the sun shine into its darkest places before its walls gave in, toppling to the ground and throwing dust like slow ghosts into the evening sky.
Myke Johns is the co-founder of Write Club Atlanta and a radio producer at Public Broadcasting Atlanta.
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