After crossing the bridge over the Yellowstone River south of Laurel, Montana, Paul turned off Highway 212 onto River Road. “Three miles to go.”
“Are you sure it’s still there?” Margo said.
“Yesterday Google said it was. Somebody could have put a match to it between then and now, of course.”
Paul pulled off River Road into a patch of weeds and turned off the engine. “It’s still here.”
Margo leaned forward and peered through the windshield at the dilapidated house a few feet from the car. “This is what we came to see. Your boyhood home.” She spoke as if she was announcing the time of day or the ambient temperature.
“We drove 800 miles from Seattle, so I can look at a tumble-down shack.” Her voice remained flat, distant.
Paul looked embarrassed. “I guess so.”
“Now are you going to tell me why we’re here?”
When he didn’t reply, she squeezed his arm and said, “I’m so tolerant.”
Paul grinned. “That’s why I married you.”
“Nonsense. You married me for my pension.”
Paul laughed. “Well, yes, I did, but you’re not supposed to know that.” He looked at Margo. She was the only person he knew who could smile with just her eyes. Her eyes were glowing with warmth and humour.
He opened the car door. “I haven’t been here for sixty-eight years. Let’s look around.”
They got out of the car. Paul surveyed the ruins of the house where he had spent the first thirteen years of his life. Gaping holes, like vacant eye sockets, loomed where window glass had once been, and the doors were missing, having been pulled from the hinges years ago. All the exterior clapboards on the house’s south wall had been stripped away by old-wood scavengers, exposing warped studs that looked like the ribs of a skinned animal with its thorax split open.
They walked to the house. “Are there snakes here?” Margo asked.
“Could be. One day the old man beat a rattlesnake to death with a hoe right around here.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” she said, eyeing the thick growth of dead weeds scraping against her legs. “It doesn’t look safe. Don’t you dare go in there,” she said when they got near the house.
He thought about her caution as he gazed at the ruin; don’t go in there. An acid taste flooded his mouth. “No, I’m not going in. There’s nothing inside I want.”
He looked up. Two rusty corrugated metal sheets, what remained of the roof, clung to the rafters like brown scabs on a wound that refused to heal. He grimaced at the memory of him and Annie, his little sister, trembling with fear when torrential summer rains or hailstones hammered the metal roof with such fury they thought the house would tumble down and bury them under its wreckage.
He put his hands on two exposed studs, leaned forward and peered into the house. The pine floorboards had long ago collapsed onto the earth below. Weeds growing between the rotting pieces of wood stretched upward, reaching for the sun pouring through the open wound that was the missing roof. “We never had rugs. Even in winter when it was so damn cold, we never had rugs on the bare floor.”
Margo stepped beside him and peered into the house. Most of the plaster had fallen from the inside walls, exposing the underlying laths, splintered and shriveled with age. “It looks ghastly in there.”
“It wasn’t much of a house to begin with. In the winter, frost was so thick on the windows Annie and I could scratch our names in it or leave hand prints like the 45,000-year old prints in those caves in Spain.”
“Did you and Annie scratch your names in the walls like condemned prisoners do when they’re locked in some dark cellar cell awaiting execution?”
Paul smiled. “No. We weren’t prisoners.”
“But you were. Every little kid is someone’s prisoner.”
Prisoner.The word shimmered in his mind. More thoughts flooded in; were we prisoners in this house, held like criminals, unable to escape? “I never looked at it that way.”
“I would have frozen to death in this house,” Margo said.
“We had a kerosene stove for heat. The area around the stove was the only warm spot in the house.” After a moment, he said, “And we had kerosene lamps for light.”
“Was it difficult for you and Annie living here?”
Paul shrugged. “No. We didn’t have much choice. What else could we do?” He smiled at the memory. “Like most kids, we survived, even if we had the worst jailor in the world.”
“Yes, the old man.”
“This is so depressing.” Margo hugged herself. “Why did you even live here?”
He thought about her question. Was there a way to explain the failure of a parent who subjected his family to abysmal conditions when there was enough money to provide for a better life, a decent home, warmth, and enough food? Probably not, so he said, “Rent on this house was ten dollars a month. The old man was thrifty. The less he spent on us the more he had to spend drinking, gambling, chasing barflies and the town’s whores.”
“That is so harsh. What a horrible childhood you had.”
“It sounds like an ugly childhood now, but it wasn’t then, not to Annie and me. We didn’t know any better. It should not have happened, of course, but it did, so there it is.” The anger rumbled in his gut, ready to spill out if he let the heat of memory get too high. “It can’t be changed. I don’t dwell on it.” He pushed away from the studs. “I’ve told you all this before.”
“Yes, you have.” She looked over the week-choked ground. “ Where was the outhouse?”
Paul pointed. “It wasn’t too bad in the summer, except for the mosquitoes. In the winter, when it was ten below zero, nobody lingered reading a magazine, that’s for sure.”
Margo laughed. “I’m sorry, Paul. I don’t mean to laugh, but that is something I can’t imagine.”
She swatted at an annoying fly buzzing around her face. The fly landed on her cheek, irritating her with its delicate crawl across her skin. She brushed it away. The summer heat annoyed her as much as the fly. “Now are you going to tell me why we came here?”
“There’s something I want.”
“We’re not here for memories, are we?”
“No. I’ve got enough of those. I want the pump. It’s on the north end of the house.”
Margo followed him around the house to a cast iron pump, caked with rust and missing its handle, surrounded by a thick clump of dead weeds. Margo watched Paul push the weeds aside, put his hand on the pump’s spout and stroke it as if he was caressing a lover. “In the winter, if we forgot to drain the pump at night, it froze and we couldn’t get any water in the morning.”
“What did you do?”
“We melted snow and poured the warm water over the pump until the pipe thawed. But even when we drained the pump to keep it from freezing, we still had to prime it in the morning.”
Margo shivered in the hot August sun. “You lived like it was 1850.”
“I guess we did. The pioneers and us. All we needed were wheels on the old house and a team of oxen. We could have rolled across the prairie, going West.”
He pushed more weeds away from the pump, dropped to his knees, looked at the pipe then stood and brushed off his pants. He walked to the car and returned carrying a hacksaw. He got on his knees and attacked the pipe with the saw. After a few minutes the pump fell to the ground.
She followed him to the car and waited for him to stow the pump and the hacksaw in the trunk. They got in the car and stared at the old house. Neither one said anything for several minutes, then Margo said, “What are you going to do with that pump?”
“I don’t know, but I’ve always wanted it.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and peered at the ruined house. “I should burn it down.”
“You’ll be arrested,” Margo said, sensing anger and grief in his voice.
“Might be worth it.”
“You can’t destroy memories by burning something down.”
“No, you can’t,” Paul said.
“Then let’s go home.”
Paul started the car and drove away. “Maybe another time I’ll burn it down,” he said as he watched the old house recede in the rearview mirror.
Margo put her hand on his arm. “Now will you tell me what you’re going to do with that pump?”
Robert P. Bishop, an army veteran and former teacher, lives in Tucson, Arizona. His work has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Bindweed Magazine, The Blotter Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, Scarlet Leaf Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine and elsewhere.
You can find more of Robert’s work here on Ink Pantry.