Claudia Smith
The House I Left Behind


The house I left behind rattles at night in the wind. There are no screens on the windows. My mother tries to shake my father out of his slumber. "Do you hear that? Do you hear that Rod?" My father doesn't answer. He never does. He doesn't sleep, he hibernates. When I was a child, my mother would wake me up for storms. We drank black coffee and watched the windows shake. The house shuddered and we shivered when sheets of lightening lit the sky.

But I am not there. And so, she wraps the thin sheets around her body. The sheets smell of my father's sweat. Dark fingertips brush against the windows. She shivers. Grinds her teeth.

There are smells that she has become inured to over time. There are fine layers of scent. There is the sweet stench of rotting rat corpses in the attic. How many have moved in, moved out in droves over the years? My mother has always been the designated rat killer in the family. Big cakes of Bromadiolone are her weapon of choice. The cakes are strong anticoagulants. When I was a child, I could hear the rats crying out in pain from behind the walls of my bedroom. The creatures were bleeding inside.

There is the smell of wet wood, of mold in the cabinets. There is the smell of moist cats, of their littery footprints on the living room carpet. And there is the rich scent of warm bodies, my father's odor especially, permeating the sheets, the old sofa cushions, the mildewed bathroom, the clogged sinks. And there is the smell of her dogs. She loves her dogs and she loves their smells. They smell of fur and soil and warmth. She lets them out of their crates for breakfast. She makes her coffee. The dogs leap and bound around her. Their tails are lifted, their jaws open, they moan and bark and yip with glee. She loves them completely. She opens the door for them and they run through the gravelly yard, biting one another, nipping, licking, sniffing the earth.

When I was a girl we had one much beloved dog. She was not as wild as these dogs are. She was small and delicate. Her name was Sissy and I belonged to her. I bathed her with Breck shampoo. I dressed her in baby doll clothes. She was too civilized for the house. She broke into the rat poison one night. Vitamin K couldn't save her. I buried her behind the magnolia tree in the side yard.

My mother wipes the counter with an old dishrag. My father snores. The morning light breaks through the fallow edges of the clouds. This morning light is the color of dirty dishwater. My mother's arms are like the bruised clouds. Small yellowed marks climb down her arm and end at her elbow. My father pinches her now. He tries to control his temper, and pinching is better than punching. That is what she told me, three years ago, over a bad phone connection. "Would you just listen to yourself?" I asked her. She does not turn to me for sympathy anymore. I don't know if there are bruises on her arms. Perhaps it is my own invention. Perhaps I want her to have those little marks, tiny bruises no bigger than love bites. Just to know, I was right. I am not the cause of his big big rage. See, mother. You are. You make him angry, too.

I know that there are leaks in the roof. She has told me this much. I am not invited to the house anymore, she does not want me to see it now. Is the porch still crumbling? Are there feral cats under the foundation? When I was a child, I pushed my way into the crawlspace under the house. I left bits of cheese, old apple cores, slices of baloney. When I found them nibbled through, or gone, I thought, the house is hungry. I believed I was feeding the house. I don't know when I finally understood that the moaning, the groaning, the yowling underneath the floorboards was not my house. Still I felt that the house was alive. And I belonged inside of it.

The house I left behind does not always have working plumbing. My father is fixing it. It is a work in progress, my mother tells me. My parents don't hire people to do what they can do themselves. My mother often says this with a certain amount of pride. My mother doesn't have an oven, hasn't for years. She has a stove top. She has a microwave. I gave her the microwave for Mother's Day years ago. I was sixteen. The gift was also for myself. After school, or after my shift at I Can't Believe It's Yogurt I liked to warm up a frozen entree. My mother would sit with me, drinking her coffee. We would wait for my father. "Look what you did," she'd tell me, "he's not home yet. Look what you did to your father."

I used to imagine all the things I would do for her. I would make lots of money, I would buy her a bright chrome yellow stove. I would have wall to wall carpeting installed. I would paint the walls for her, paint them a glossy, glaring white. I would buy her new clothes. I would wash the gray right out of her hair. I would give her anything she wanted, and she would tell me what a good girl I was.

I am almost thirty now. I am middle class. Last Christmas, I gave her a scarf from one of those museum catalogs. The scarf was decorated with lilies of the valley, her favorite flower. "How nice," she said, "It is so nice that you can afford things like this." She wrapped it around her neck as if it was a noose. "Let me tie it, Mama," I said. And I knotted it loosely at her throat. "Now, you look jaunty." She laughed. I laughed. She would never wear the scarf. She sat in my living room, sipping coffee from out of a mug that I ordered from the same museum catalog that sent us the scarf. I am never invited to her house. I am not welcome. When she wants to come to my house, she tells me.

At night I listen to the sounds of my neighborhood. There is always laughter from two houses down. The women that live there often invite their friends over for barbecue and guitar sing-alongs around their firepit. Once, they invited me to a dog party and I brought my scruffy mutt, Zuzu. Sometimes I can hear the children next door. They ignore their mother when she calls them inside. They play freeze tag, Mercy, Hide and Seek, and a game of their own invention, Saddam Attack. I like to fall asleep to the sound of their small voices. In the morning birds will wake me. I will make myself breakfast, read the paper, turn on National Public Radio. Or, if I've been out, I will lie in bed while Zuzu barks, asking me to let her out. If I drank too much I will spend the morning in bed with a bottle of Pepsi. If I had a date, well, who knows what the morning will be like. He might stay for breakfast. I haven't had one of those almost-live-in boyfriends, those ersatz husbands, since I was in college.

There are mornings I wake up alone, when I push my clean, never faded, sheets off of my body and stretch my feet before I slip them into a warm pair of slippers, and I breathe in the scent of sage and lavender water, that I think, this is wrong. I don't belong in this house. I don't belong inside this house. And I think of my father, snoring, and my mother and her wild dogs, and the creaking floorboards, and I imagine myself there. Is it what she said it would be, without me? Does she ever miss the small, dark child, the angry little girl who lived in the back of the house? The girl whose neck bent like a wilted lily over the scalding water. The girl who washed every dish, twice. The girl whose small thrumming body told her, without speech, "You are right, mother, he was mean to you, mother, you are gentle, mother, you are good, mother. I will try to be good and to please him the way you do."

Without me, without the stern watchful eyes of her daughter, the house will groan with pleasure. Cats hunt beneath the porch. Snakes slither under the cinderblocks at its foundation. Its old cracks and crevices are crawling with rodents and insects. The dogs snort and rub their itchy coats against its walls. She can surrender to it, give herself to its inhabitants completely. Don't you know, the house whispers to me at night. I know it is not the dead house I live inside of now. There are no spirits there - I've chased them away with Pine Sol and Lysol and Pottery Barn furniture. No, this is the house I left behind, hissing at me through the trees as they rattle in the wind.