To the Bones
He drove north to the cities, two hundred miles. Unloaded houses, took them down to the bones. Leaves on the ground, it looked like fall all winter. Cold and warm days, back to back. Arms heavy with furniture. Estate sales, tax sales, owners in debt, in nursing homes, in graves. Came home, found the doors taken off their hinges, the walls empty of pictures. Hands half frozen, collecting firewood, found his mother’s quilts dumped beside the path.
When spring came the towns flew by. More houses emptied, muscles pulled, back sore from lifting tables, sofas. One trip home he found all the windows broken, shot out. Obscene drawings, racial slurs scrawled on the walls. It felt like pulling the sheet back and viewing a cadaver already begun to decompose, but still living, grabbing your wrist in its bony fingers.
The country changed around him. Coming and going, he saw flat land turn to mountains, trees almost bare returned to lose their leaves. In the late fall dry leaves and pine cones filled the rooms, the cellar. He slept in the bed, and when the bed collapsed, on the mattress on the floor. He slept in a sleeping bag, on an old blanket, on what was left of one of her quilts. He walked through the woods. Faces he recognized along the path were made of leaves. Neighbors aged into the smoke of their chimneys, and then the smoke stopped rising. No longer able to start the car, he rode north on a flatbed, kept someone’s bed and sideboard from tumbling loose. The wind blew the highway smells into his hair, the light rain dried his lips and eyes.
When he returned, new people had come to live in some of the houses. Who was the ghost that appeared in their yard on snowy mornings? Others seemed to know him, threw their doors open to say hello, to wish him well and ask about his journeys, his losses. He’d made up his mind to stay this season, maybe this year, he said. No travels, no work, no houses to strip. In truth, he’d never known for sure if they belonged to the people who had them stripped.
“I won’t leave again, won’t risk it.” They nodded like they didn’t know, even the house had collapsed, the taxes so long unpaid, the land auctioned. They showed him the deck they’d just added, the land they’d cleared, a view he’d always missed.
From the window of the bus we watched the country change. Hills, mountains, sea shore, and the houses: farms sitting back at the ends of long roads, shotgun houses behind mail boxes. Through the windows we’d pass things to people, and they’d pass things back: chocolates, letters, recordings of family lore, recordings of instructions on how to behave under terrible circumstances, mortgage foreclosures, contracts that stipulate firing if you do your job too well, insurance policies that terminate if you have a life-threatening illness. Breathing procedures and vital statistics about survival rates. All of this information placed long ago onto cassette tapes and into dog-eared manila folders. At one stop I got out to stretch my legs and walked into a store where some people were watching a murder mystery on TV. All of the celebrity actors were supposed to be other celebrity actors, and the people in the store debated who was supposed to be who. I stood by the pickle barrel and listened. It wasn’t important, the smiles on the faces seemed to be saying, if the bus rolled on without me. The person waiting at the end of my destination would have to face her fate either way, she could do only so much with what I was bringing her. How much for an RC Cola? I moved to the door, waiting, but no answer, eyes fixed on the TV. How long, if I stayed, until the next bus? The time for answers seemed over, but I was desperate, even as I threw back the door and stumbled out without my RC, down the path to the mailbox, waving to the bus that couldn’t wait.
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