I owned this purple scarf of mine for more than a year before I was able to wear it. I felt guilty about it somehow – afraid, maybe, that people seeing me wear it would know how I had gotten it. Maybe the memory of how I had gotten it was enough to stop me. It hadn’t always been mine.
I – acquired it, we’ll say, found it, one Sunday afternoon when I was a senior in college. My friend Johnnie called and said, “Want to go for a Sunday drive?” Sure, I said, so we headed for the country. (The college was a small one, in an Arkansas town with a population of less than 15,000; a drive of any length at all automatically led into the country.) We stopped at some antique shops, at a garage sale or two, not buying anything, not heading anywhere in particular.
We drove over a slight rise, and there was the house – a large white house, set at an angle to the road, so it looked as if it were facing us. The road ran straight and level for a mile or more, so we approached the house for a long time before we actually reached it. There was something inviting about it. By the time we got to it, we both knew we wanted to stop.
We parked right in front of the house (which was a mistake, we would decide in retrospect) and held the fence’s strands of barbed wire open for each other to climb through. The house had a verandah running around three sides of it. It had what I remember as eight doors, although there probably weren't quite that many. We tried them all, one by one, and found them locked. We went around to the back of the house, to a sagging porch, and tried the very last door, which also seemed locked – but it gave way with a final shove.
I had trespassed once before, in the haunted house I lived near when I was a child. It was a large two-story house, made of wood as dark as wet bark, wood that had long since lost its paint. The high front porch was hidden – guarded, almost – by a row of snowball bushes (grownups called them hydrangeas) that bore round white clusters of flowers. Looming in the back was a tree with broad leaves and long, pencil-thin green pods, a stogie tree, the only one of its kind in the neighborhood. Years later I learned the real name for it – a catalpa tree – when, browsing through a new dictionary, I saw a picture of those sinister stogies hanging from a branch. When I think about that house, which is no longer there, I imagine a dark place, partly because the tree shaded the entire back yard but partly because it held a sense of danger, of evil, of something forbidden, for those of us who dared to run through its yard or play games there at night.
There were, of course, stories about who had lived there and what grisly end they had come to. There was an old woman, and something about murdering or being murdered by one of her sons, and there was supposed to be a skeleton in one of the closets upstairs. I never found out myself, but I did dare to go inside the house once. I was ten, maybe, or nine – old enough to be in school, but too young to understand how the criminal justice system worked. A group of us, a dozen, perhaps, went into the house, led by George, the neighborhood hood. We huddled in a corner of the kitchen while George, with all the style and violence of a drugged-out heavy metal guitarist, went through the drawers and smashed a chair. I don't remember being disciplined for it, but somehow I came to believe that our names had all been taken by the police and that we had a criminal record. I remember thinking at that young age that I would already have something to conceal when filling out job applications.
I wasn't thinking about that, though, when Johnnie and I went into the house in Arkansas.
We walked in and found ourselves in a bedroom. The room, and the rest of the house, looked as if it had been left suddenly – but years and years ago. The bed was made; on top of its white chenille bedspread was an array of papers, magazines, dusty boxes. We opened one and found a white nightgown and a brilliant purple scarf, which looked as if they had never been lifted out of the box. On top lay a crumbling birthday card. There were dresses, heavy oddly shaped dark polyester dresses hanging in a makeshift closet. They reminded me of the dresses worn by Margaret and Josephine, two elderly spinster cousins, big-breasted women with heavy black shoes and stockings with seams down the back, who lived in a dusty farmhouse with a guard dog named Chief and a fear of more things than they trusted.
The next room was a kind of storage room, with metal shelves holding Mason jars, cardboard boxes of rusting nails, paper sacks stuffed with hinges and rubber washers. There was a bed in that room, too, sitting catty-cornered in the middle of the room, with peels of wallpaper and broken plaster lying across it.
After that was what must have been the living room. It had a couch or two, an easy chair, a calendar on the wall from Daniel Funeral Home. The calendar was more than twenty years old. There were magazines in that room, too, and odds and ends, old makeup, empty tins. The next room might have been a dining room, but the only thing in it now was a pile of quilts sitting on a chair. The quilts were in bad shape; a hole torn in the wall, near the ceiling of the room, had let the weather and who knows what else in.
The last room on the first floor was the kitchen. There were pots and bottles everywhere – on the floor, on the counters, on top of and spilling out of a cabinet in the middle of the room. I thought I might find a bottle I would want to take home – some blue glass, maybe – but they were broken or too dirty to bother with.
The house had another floor we didn't explore. I don't remember why, or whether we even thought about it. I can't remember seeing stairs; maybe they were behind some door we didn't open.
I also don't remember what we said to each other inside the house. We must have talked; we must have said, “Look at this!” or “Come over here.” At some point we decided there were some things we wanted to take with us, so we found a cardboard box and started loading up. We took the birthday gift, box and all, and some of the decorative tins I'd found in the living room. Johnnie had a couple of pairs of sunglasses, dark lenses with tortoiseshell frames. We left, him walking in front of me, me carrying the box, when suddenly he said, “Drop the box.”
“Drop the box,” he said calmly, sliding the sunglasses off his belt and dropping them in the tall brush that grew in the yard. I set the box down, and then I saw why.
There was a dusty pickup parked behind our car, and a red-faced man in a white shirt and jeans looking at Johnnie’s Louisiana license plate.
We walked as calmly as we could to the fence. “Hi. How y’all doin’?” the man said as Johnnie held the wire for me to climb through. Fine, we said. “This your car?” Yes, we said, and I held the wire for Johnnie.
“Do y’all live here?” he asked. His belt buckle dug into his white-shirted belly. No, we said.
“You don't live here?” No. “Well, where you from?” Searcy, we told him. “You from the college?” Yes.
He moved his once yellow feed store cap back a little on his head. “Do you see that sign there?” he said, pointing to the NO TRESPASSING sign nailed to the tree in front of our car. The tree was so big the two of us with our arms stretched wide couldn’t have encircled it. The sign, in big black letters, was equally obvious.
“No, sir,” Johnnie said, saving me from answering. I had been about to say yes.
“You mean to tell me you didn’t see that sign there?” We must just have missed it, Johnnie said.
“I just don't underSTAIND people like you,” he said. The mock neighborliness had gone out of his voice. “You people think you can come out here inna country, think you can go anywhere just like you OWNED the place! I don't underSTAIND it!” We didn’t say anything. “What were you doin’ in there?” Just looking around, we said. Nothing, really. “You just cain't DO things like that! Who do you think you are? People live here,” he said, meaning the country, not the house. “You don't go where you don't belong!”
When we realized he wasn't going to do anything to us, Johnnie said, “We're leaving now, sir.” We got back in the car and drove off. He was still yelling. “Don’t worry,” Johnnie said when we were back in the car. “We'll come back for the stuff later.”
“No, we won't,” I said, both amused and shocked. So we drove on down the road, past another empty house we decided not to go in, to a lake, and then we turned around, and by the time we were almost back, we had both changed our minds: He didn’t want to go back for the stuff, and I did.
His car leaked oil then, so much that he carried extra quarts with him and put one in occasionally, so we came up with a plan. He would pull into the cow path across the road from the house and refill his car while I ran across and got the box.
It was nearly dusk when we got there. The house sat on a plain between two rises; we could see anything coming for half a mile in either direction – and they could see us. When nobody was coming, I dashed across the road, got myself through the fence, and ran to the box. I tried to find the glasses he'd dropped, but the grass was high, it was dark, and we were in a hurry. I was almost back to the fence when Johnnie said in a conspiratorial yell, “Someone’s coming.” There was a well near the fence, so I crouched behind that until the car passed. I ran to the fence, threw the box over, and was about to climb through when another car came over the rise, so I hid behind the well again. “Hurry,” Johnnie said in his strangely calm way. “I'm almost done.” I got through the fence, snagging my shirt in haste, and ran with the box back to the car. We put it in the trunk and went home.
I decided I didn’t want to walk into my apartment with a boxful of things I'd stolen from an abandoned house; mainly I didn’t want to have to explain the box to my roommates. So Johnnie said he'd send me the things through the mail, one at a time.
The scarf came first, then the white nightgown. I never wore it; I wanted to wash it first, and it got so scorched in the dryer that I could never get that almost burnt smell out of it. I think he sent other things that way; I dimly remember witty notes attached to them. One of my roommates knew where they came from. The other two were intrigued; one wondered where he was getting the money for all these gifts, and the other wondered why he was sending so many gifts to me.
I finally told them about our adventure. I think I waited for a while because I was waiting for someone to find out, for some kind of discipline. This was a religious school where students could – and did – get kicked out for drinking, drugs, or sex, and could be disciplined for other offenses. I had done several things I could get in trouble for – most of them, it occurred to me later, with Johnnie. We had been to a club in Little Rock, dancing and drinking wine, and had lived through a few weeks of fear that we would be discovered; I suppose our trip to the country renewed that fear.
The term was almost over; we were busy with finals – I was about to graduate – and we lost interest in our game. I woke up one Saturday morning, the day before graduation, and found everything he hadn't sent me sitting outside our apartment door.
“Johnnie called,” said one of my roommates, the one who didn’t see why he was sending me gifts.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” I said. I knew he'd gone home for the summer. We hadn't said good-bye. I was angry. I felt like something had been taken away from me. She didn’t understand that either.
The borders of the mind are hard to patrol. You never know what might break in or what’s going to escape. Eventually I wore that purple scarf often. If someone compliments it, I usually tell where it came from. It’s a good story. Then I think about Johnnie. We knew a lot of secrets about each other. Although I hadn't known him very long, he had a way of getting me to discuss things I had never said to a man. I think about the things I did that year, how close I thought I was to wrecking my college career, how I learned to break the rules, how it all changed me. I imagine checking a pasture fence, like a rancher, and seeing him walk through my life, like footsteps across wet grass, and what sticks in my mind is not that I took a scarf and a nightgown and a few metal boxes out of that house but that I left something behind.
(photo by Sarah Nannemann)