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The Smallest House

by James Waine Carpenter

He’s in that little house. He’s been living in there alone for over forty years, since his wife died. What does he do in there?

“The Smallest House in the World!” Uncle Shamus used to announce as we slowed before the clearing in the pines along Route 27. “He’s in there, can you believe it?”

We would be heading north to visit Nanna Mattie in Girdlemaker. Shamus wouldn’t say too much after his tour-guide routine, as if deep in thought, fascinated by the old man in that tiny house.

Now Nanna’s gone. Uncle Shamus is gone. That old man is still in that house.

 

There is a faint flag of smoke from the stove pipe, hard to imagine it could provide enough warmth in the frigid, blustery morning. I back the pickup into the grass lot adjacent to the abandoned church, diagonally across the road from the house, and leave the engine idling. Sam and I drink hot chocolate from Omie’s Market and I repeat Shamus’ statistics to him.

winter-cottage-md“Only about six foot deep, eight foot wide. Room enough for a cot, cooking stove … maybe a box of clothes. The leaning privy on the edge of the woods looks nearly half as large as the house.

“There’s electricity now,” I add. A dull bulb illumines the windows in the gray dawn.

My son has queries of his own: the absence of a television antenna.

Is there a radio? Books? What would he do all day and night?

I imagine some sort of self exile. But what sins could be above the law yet confine a man to forty years of solitary confinement.

 

The Cadillac.

Uncle Shamus spoke often about the Cadillac. A wooden bridge over the drainage ditch had washed out three decades earlier when Hurricane Camille blew through. The car had clearly not been moved since.

“Up til I was married,” Shamus said, “that Caddie rested clean and polished in the grass … like a grand chariot waitin but never driven.” My uncle had a way with words.

It was now apparent — evidenced by the faded paint, the rust, the vines strangling the wheel wells and snaking out from within the grill and hood — the old man had become unable to lift his arms to shine the chrome or hack at nature’s assault.

My uncle even saw him once. “When I first got the ‘terms’ (Shamus’ expression for the terminal cancer ravaging his lungs), I couldn’t sleep much. Used to drive cross the causeway and park the Olds by the black church, have a cigarette and watch the Smallest House.”

Perhaps Shamus was contemplating his own destiny, his own impending exile. For sadly, within a month of finally laying eyes on the old man, he took to his own small room, grew too weak to stand and watched his prized Oldsmobile grow dull and dusty in the drive beyond his window.

“He was a short man, like myself,” he said weakly. “Must be pretty near a hundred.”

I remember listening and waiting … the pain medication made him drift off in mid sentence.

“It was a full moon, I could see him good. Took the ol coot forever to walk to that Cadillac. He just sat there in the driver’s seat, starin out the dirty windshield. Sat there so long, I thought he was dead. Nearly died myself waitin — Haw!” Shamus’ laugh rattled like metal against concrete. “Maybe that ol fool thought he could drive to hereafter! Hawl-haw!”

 

Shamus has been dead four years now. My son is eight, he doesn’t remember his great uncle. Sam and I sometimes park beside the abandoned church on Saturday mornings when we should be raking leaves or getting ready for an afternoon drive with his momma and sisters. We watch the little house, trying to imagine what he’s doing in there; speculating that he might be thinking the same of us; wondering when he ever visited the privy, fetched his firewood or coal … where he got it from (there was no stacked wood or visible coal bin).

The outhouse leans precariously beneath the swaying pines. The approaching nor’easter howls like a choir of ghosts through the windowless church and I worry that either structure would be left standing. The Cadillac is nearly consumed by the thorn vine and saw grass encroaching from the neighboring marsh. Only the faintest path leads from the little house to the driver’s side door now. Otherwise, little had changed since I was a boy in the back seat of Shamus’ Oldsmobile.

 

Suddenly, a mail truck stops on the side of the road and a young man wearing a blue slicker, a gray cap and knee boots hops out. He carries a considerable armful of mail which he promptly deposits on the stoop of the tiny house. Pulling down the hat to shield his eyes from the swirling pin shats, he battles the wind back to his truck. In his haste, he has unknowingly dropped an envelope in the deep grass. The mail truck pulls away.

Before I can protest, Sam jumps from the pickup, looks both ways as he has been taught, and darts across the road. He leaps over the frozen ditch as the mail truck disappears around the bend, locates the letter and knocks upon the door. My heart is pounding. I follow quickly to retrieve him before something … actually happens.

The door opens as I reach the sagging stoop, noting that the house seems smaller still at close proximity. A dark, slight figure moves slowly forward from the doorway. The wind unsteadies us and the ghostly choir raises their voices in the church across the roadway.

“The mailman dropped this Mister,” my polite son says.

The man is ancient. His ashen skin is textured with lines and appears as delicate as crepe paper; his hair snow white, sparse and knotted; his irises like black pearls in limestone. A navy-blue pin-stripped suit — worn to a shine, its seams hand stitched in repair — hangs loosely on his skeleton frame. I smile apologetically and offer the larger bundle of mail secured with string by the Post Office.

His jowls hang expressionless but his eyes smile weakly at Sam … tears forming from the bitter wind.

“Thank you, kind sir,” he says to my boy.

His voice is deep, resonate, southern. He takes the letter. His long fingers shake like brittle limbs in the wind. Then, with effort, he turns towards me and reaches out for the bundle — lifting it from me with surprising strength, looking up into my eyes. I smile.

“It’s not fo’ sale,” he says sternly.

“Excuse me?”  I ask, confused.

“It’s not fo’ sale,” he repeats, cutting his eyes towards the Cadillac.

From the porch, I can see that the white-walled tires had rotted to cord and joined with the earth; the rusting body — framed in dulled chrome, its paint corroded to a fine, blue powder — is crowned with pine needles, mold and the evergreen of crabgrass. The point and flight of the automobile’s hood ornament, those glorious fins and wheel covers, are reminders of its once great beauty and speed.

“I … ” I begin.

“No sale.” He shakes his head down, cradles the mail against his chest and begins to retreat inside.

Then, as if forgetting something important, he turns back to Sam who is caught straining to see the interior of the house through the crack of the door.

“Gon take er down Sorrow t’night,” he brags, looking down his nose at the boy.

He winks one yellow eye. “Pretty on da water dere.”

The ancient fellow backs into the house — his eyes mischievous and playfully smug — and shuts the door against the cold. I put my arm around Sam’s shoulder as we wade back through the tall grass, look carefully up and down the two-lane as if anticipating the fleeting ghost of Uncle Shamus in his Oldsmobile, and make for the warmth of the idling truck. Sam is silent, perhaps contemplating what the old man has said about Sorrow. I had taken him to the ghost town a few months before. In a storm like the one bearing down upon us now, the ocean can rise over the thresholds of abandoned houses that once made up the small, bay-side village.

The story of Sorrow was first told to me when I was about his age. How the tide came up one night in a hurricane and never retreated again. The residents, called Sorrows, rescued what they could of their possessions by boat and waited in vain for months for the water to recede. It never did. Some claim it was a shift in the earth’s surface. Some believe it was God’s will … Sorrow once the home of Delmarva’s most prominent gambling casino and whorehouse.

I was thinking about the old man’s mail as we warmed our hands before the heater vents and stared across at the house with different eyes. There had been an electric bill, junk mail, many catalogs and a surprising number of letters and Christmas cards — all addressed to either Joshua D. or Joshua and Sophie Cherrix. There was as much mail as I would normally receive in weeks.

“Just a table with a bible on it,” Sam said as I released the clutch and edged the truck toward the road. “That’s all I could see.”

We take one last look at the Smallest House in the World. Strangely, sadly, there seemed no reason to return now. I think about Sam and feel my chest grow heavy. I reach across the cab of the truck and rest my hand on his shoulder. These little trips to the mainland, our conversations, our time alone together …

Shamus would have been proud of Sam. He would have admired the boy’s courage, his opportunism. Shamus, like myself, were cut from the same fabric. We waited for change, for fortune to seek us out … sometimes waiting an eternity for a single glimpse of the world’s wonder, like the Sorrows waiting for the tide to recede.

But Sam, he’s like his mother. They walk right up to fate’s door and bang loudly.

 

The Cadillac, like a sinking luxury liner, waits gracefully in ruin. I imagine the old man combing his hair, putting on cologne, making his way in the darkness to his waiting chariot. There, behind the wheel, with the dashboard lights illuminating his Sophie’s pretty face, he is driving himself out of his mind and into the past. Down to Sorrow on Saturday night, where the neon buzzes and music and dancing fills the streets.

Listening to the wind howling through the pines, the tires on the blacktop, I thought I could hear the music too. It was as clear as that lonesome choir … as Shamus, bellowing out behind the wheel of his own dream roaring north on Route 27 to the Smallest House In The World.

I’m goin down to Sorryville
you ain’t gonna see me anymore
gonna pole my flatboat over the bay
and plant my feet on that muddy shore

in a ghost town, when the sun goes down
you can feel em in the air, you can hear em sing
I’ll play Sally Goodin and drink my beer
and watch‘em spin to my banjo ring

Daddy went down to Sorrow town
never come back again
tide came up, town went down
sweet sorrow and sin

As Sam and I pulled out onto Route 27 and turned south for home — glancing one more time at the wonder, the simplicity, the sorrow — there is a sudden burst of white smoke and sparks rising from the chimney of the Smallest House.

“The mail.” I think to myself.

James Waine Carpenter was born and raised on Chincoteague Island, Virginia. He has lived in Norfolk, Cape May, Key West, Miami and Nashville. He currently splits his time between Virginia and his home in the coastal village of Niantic, Connecticut. Smallest House is a piece from Delmarva, one of two collections documenting life in the fictitious town of Oysterville on the Delmarva Peninsula. His stories have appeared in numerous magazines and he is currently finishing a novel entitled Black Narrows. In addition to writing, James is a working musician (founder of the band, The Hoolios), an award winning songwriter and producer at Loco Dare Music. 

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