by Darlene Graf
After awhile, you feel a certain allegiance to a house. (I’ve lived in mine for 16 years.) You start to feel your footsteps leave an imprint on the ground, a fossilized journey. Who will walk this yard after me? Who will walk the wood floors, round the corners, take on the rectangular view of the windows. Will this house even stand after I’m gone?—118 years of endurance given to the mouth of a bulldozer. Will the pines stand (there are two that are centenarian, one on each side of the house). While inside the chicken coop, I look up at that stalwart pine of textured bark and needles of green. What carnage that pine has witnessed: chickens made headless by raccoons, torn bodies. The pine has witnessed my neighbor on her back deck, the witch neighbor with the long tangled hair and the teeth barnacle-grey. Sometimes she is pedestrian, looking over her back yard as a person would: assessing. Other times she is in a manic jag of scream and panic like someone exiting a burning house. The burning is inside: she ignites and cools: a crazy stovetop of emotions.
I’ve started to feel not that the house belongs to me but that I belong to the house. Who else will battle the hard pack of dirt to grow grass, flower bulbs and the many perennials that have turned parched, leaving a landscape of stalky skeletons to fall at the will of the wind. I know where the three dogs are buried: first Percy, then Elvis, most recently Rosie. I know where the two rabbits are buried: casualties of that disastrous summer when rabbit roaming was an option, breaching the fence was an option, tragic-early death was an option.
Klaus died at the time the roofers were tearing off shingles. The roofer wanted to know, in broken English, where is the rabbit? He made a gesture of bunny ears with his hands. How do you say “broken rabbit” in Spanish? How do you say broken heart in Spanish? This is the second roof I’ve put on: perseverating over shingle color like choosing my wedding dress. The roof—the lid of a house—is not something people usually take conscious notice of. The roof is a face that looks more to the sky than the street.
And, what about the bottom of this house?—all those things that I have stored in the crawl space for “someday”: someday, I’ll use that 7 gallon fish tank—the long rectangular one that was hard to find and I drove all the way to Johnson to pick up. Someday I’ll need that metal dog crate or the other plastic one or the dog steps or the many animal accessories: feeders, infrared red lamps for chicks, plastic tubs, enclosures. (The tools of husbandry.) The ladders I need. I must keep the ladders. Do I really need the Christmas gnomes and the October leaf wreath? The crawl space is a place of “maybes.”
I’m moving away from the “maybes” while seeking the strength of Yes or No—decisive direction, decisive ownership, either I want it or I don’t. What I don’t have now, I don’t want for later: the fish, the dog, the cat, the chickens, the holiday gnomes staring at the snow with the fixed eyes of a ceramic-stuck expression.
The space in this south side of town is shrinking. Where there once existed a gap: tufts of overgrown grass, spindly or stout trees, honeysuckle—there is not one house but a few. Every gap is getting filled to the point where the sky is the most open view in the neighborhood. Looking up still wields a deep breath, a slowed step to take it all in—the width of horizon. The streets are filled with Lego-like (ie, cheap) constructs of house after house: a switchboard of building circuitry that hums human. Dense. A crowded language that begs for reprieve, that begs for a quiet place. I can only find it inside my house now or that one bridge that extends over Tin Cup creek where I found the snapping turtle and the large school of fish. It’s a view I can take inward and feel the pulse of water ebb against the skin of a cool stone.
The green space across from my house has been narrowed to make room for restaurant parking. Now I can not only see the BBQ place, I can also hear the hum of the machinery: large refrigeration, smokehouse mechanisms, the buzz of what it takes to serve a pork sandwich, Coke, fries, fried pickles, fried pies—the bottomless fryer.
The back of my house still affords quiet. Another new house is about to be built in the lot kitty corner from my back fence. The new neighbor has taken to a leaf blower ritual for her concrete patio yard. When she revs up that chainsaw of breath, I feel like I’m in a logging camp as I attempt to find rest in a cup of tea. No reprieve.
I think about checking out, selling, giving the house over to the thickening mix of construction. How many homes would they build on this lot: 3? 4? Meanwhile, I’d run off to the country or a people-sparse street in another neighborhood. It seems defeatist. By holding my place, I’m holding something dearer than an old house. I’m holding space. Land. I’m holding a pocket of breath, paying homage to the pines that hold their ground.
Darlene Graf lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She has previously been published in newspapers and had an essay (“Coming Clean”) in eMerge online magazine/Winter 2021. This essay is about essay her experience living in Fayetteville, which is rapidly growing, and how she finds refuge in her neighborhood as it thickens with construction