Thursday, January 12, 2012

House of unwritten stories

Later I thought of that unnamed canyon south of Albuquerque whose dark basaltic stones cresting the highest ridges were etched with signs and patterns, with weird faces and feathered serpents and, along the tallest promontory, dozens of finely-boned feet, their toes and soles a deep burnished umber contrasting starkly against the black volcanic outcrops. All that remained of their creators were these symbols, indecipherable, inexplicable, unanswerable.



The letters weren’t the first thing I noticed when I stepped into the back foyer. First I looked for holes in the floor which included a particularly large one in the kitchen, or what once passed for a kitchen before mold crept up the walls and parts of the plaster and lathe ceiling came down and the sink turned black. Scorched marks charcoaling the exposed rafters in the living room indicated that the place had caught on fire at one time but apparently not enough to preclude occupancy. If so, it should have been allowed to burn, a moot point because the house was slated for demolition.

The letters were faded, penciled into wood seamed like an alligator’s hide and punctuated here and there with five-sided stars and smiley faces. Additional text on the wall above proved illegible beneath a layer of grime, a voiceless message forever lost. The alphabetic script was about five feet off the floor so clearly not intended for young children. Who, then? Beside the doorway leading into the interior was a small cursive I ♥ YU

Every abandoned house is imbued with its own unique personality or character, much as we attribute to pets, babies and cantankerous old men. And like their human or mammalian equivalents, some houses have more personality than others. 

From the outside the house appeared ready to implode, with holes in the roof, shingles peeling away like dried onion skins, cracked or missing windows, drooping downspouts and weathered siding that had long since shed its last flake of paint. On a street of other neglected houses it stood out in an advanced state of dilapidation almost too perfect to be accidental, as if its dismemberment were methodically executed with deliberate malice. Which, I suppose, it was. Years ago a friend  wanted to renovate the house while it was still structurally sound, and made an offer to the owner; not only was the offer rejected but in short order the tenants proceeded to energetically and exhaustively deconstruct the place until finally abandoning it to the elements. 

The house was also a part of the town’s early history. Its builder was one of the original settlers, and the edifice he raised was magnificent in its day. The local historical society wanted to preserve a tile insert on the sidewalk in front of the house that had the man’s surname spelled out in block letters. Ostensibly there to photograph the insert, I was also drawn to the interplay of light and shadow common to abandoned houses, and finding the back door open wandered in.

I expected the worst and was not disappointed. But I didn’t expect a sort of literary history of the former occupants, with phone numbers and reminders doodled onto the walls in the kitchen, mathematical formulas and love notes in the rear foyer, running dialogues climbing the stairs and other messages, most cryptic, seemingly hidden away in surprising places. Endearments and commentaries secreted in closets and the backs of headboards, even on a woodplank floor littered with nails, broken glass and plaster shards. I must say ur cool, one note read. Kim is stupid. I love mom.

As I wandered from room to room I felt voyeuristic, peering in on the most intimate acts of others, as if I were leafing through their private diaries. The use of a wall as a journal or daily record seemed innovative somehow, less graffiti and more personal treasure. Everywhere I turned was a tiny childish scrawl with hearts and flowers and I love you’s, a procession of texts incrementally climbing higher on the walls as the years fell away. Once filled with laughter and joy, there was now only an unrelieved, terrible silence punctuated with the brittle crunching of footsteps on shattered glass, the heavy creak of straining timbers and the faint rustling of mice. Shadows pooling in the corners stained the dirty scriff of snow blanketing the floorboards a pale azure, accentuating a color scheme that could only be described as hardship vernacular. At the top of the stairs a single unruly Hi, scribbled as if in haste. 

“There is a history in all men’s lives,” Shakespeare wrote. And it came to me that the true historical record worthy of preservation were these scribblings, not the tile insert which was, after all, merely a name on a sidewalk, cold and lifeless. That they would soon be erased seemed an unconscionable crime. 

When I found the insert after wandering through the house I was surprised at how little it moved me. Shelley’s poem came to mind, the ideal accompaniment to  an unexceptional finale.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" 
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay 
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare 
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

I stooped over and shot two frames. Three weeks later the house was razed, the foundation leveled and, in the spring, seeded with grass. The tile insert is still there, lost beneath an unbroken sea of grass and weeds.