When I was a child, my family lived on an old Indian burial mound. Our house was a tin-roof shack made of old clapboard that would have collapsed in a strong wind. It was as hot as hell during the summer, and freezing cold in the winter. There were no flushing toilets, and our drinking water came from a well which the crop dusters regularly sprayed with pesticide. In other words, it was fucking misery. I remember times when my entire family had to bathe in the same water. My dad would drag a big steel tub into the kitchen while my mother boiled pots of water to fill it up with. There’s nothing like marinating in a lukewarm pool of other people’s filth to make you feel clean.
The shack was situated on top of a raised platform of earth in the middle of several miles of field that was used for farming. It was a stereotypical sharecropper’s shanty. Someone probably thought that putting it on the isolated lump of higher ground would keep the rains from washing it away during a flood. That seemed to work, but there were still times when we had to use a fishing boat to reach dry land once the nearby swamp overflowed. It turned the only road to town into a small lake so that cars couldn’t get in or out.
We had fourteen large dogs who called the area under the house “home.” We didn’t mean to have that many originally, they just kept breeding. People who have never known the hunger of being dirt poor always ask why we didn’t have the dogs spayed or neutered. As if the money to do so was just laying around, waiting on us to pick it up. The truth of the matter is that we couldn’t even afford a trip to the doctor ourselves, much less for the dogs. The rent on our shack was thirty-five dollars a month, and more often than not, we had trouble scraping that much together. The farmer who owned the house didn’t mind if we were a little late with the payment, because he knew we’d eventually come up with it, even if we had to cash in aluminum cans to do so.
There wasn’t much around there for the dogs to do except fight with each other and dig holes, so they were constantly digging pits that they would lie in to cool off. The sun showed no mercy to us or the dogs. They would often dig up bones from the burial mound, which my stepfather and I would have to re-bury. I could tell it made my stepfather uneasy by the way his attention would become unusually focused, and he tried to do the job as quickly as possible. He wouldn’t even talk while he was digging. Without ever saying so, he made it understood that this wasn’t something we would be talking about.
For some reason, I never put a great deal of thought into the situation at the time. I would usually have forgotten about it a few minutes later, at least until the next incident. I was reminded of it one day by something a friend said, and when I mentioned it, her reaction seemed to be equal parts horror, awe, and amazement. Her response was, “It’s no wonder you’re the way you are. There’s no telling what got into your blood our there.” I never was exactly certain what that statement was meant to explain.
Strange things were always hovering at the periphery of my family life, but none so much as during our years in that house. There was just a bad feeling around the place. It was unpleasant in every regard, and the entire house had that aura of the inside of a body bag. It always felt dark, even on the sunniest summer days. There were odd drawings left on the walls by whoever had lived there before us, and something about them made me uneasy. They looked like the sort of thing an insane person with a great degree of artistic talent would have created. Things like a grandfather clock with a single eye where the face should have been. We painted over most of them, but ran out of paint before we got to that one. It was worse at night, when you could always feel it staring at the back of your head.
That place was never quiet at night. I would lie in bed listening as the dogs drug strange things to and fro beneath the floor. Inside the house was as dark as an oil slick, so you couldn’t see anything moving in the room, but you could sense it. It was the same sort of sensation you would experience if a closet door were to swing silently open behind your back. Later I learned a term to describe that sensation—air displacement. What I was sensing was air being displaced by something moving from one spot to another. The worst sensation of all is when I would feel something tall and thin standing next to the bed and leaning over me so that its face was less than two inches from my own. The breath would pass from its lips to my lips like the taste of something unmentionable. My eyes would bulge and strain like an animal, fiercely trying to penetrate the darkness.
Another incident brought the entire family wide awake and on the run. Sometime late in the night there was a noise so loud it was indescribable. The house actually shook from the force of it. It had all the violence of something as heavy as a car being dropped in the living room. My sister came awake screaming, and I was so flooded with adrenaline that it caused my heart to beat so hard, I could feel it in my forehead. My stepfather ran into the living room wearing nothing but his underwear, looking wild and frazzled. He searched the place from top to bottom, but never found one single thing out of the ordinary. Nothing was out of place. I couldn’t articulate the feeling I had at that moment, but in hindsight, I realized what it was. It felt like the entire house was grinning., like it was watching us slyly as it held its breath.
Eventually we were told to move, and the house was torn down. The suburbs around the city were expanding, and people who lived in the houses that cost a quarter of a million dollars did not want a tin-rood shack standing on a bone hill in their line of sight. Something like that tends to lower the property values.
Before the shack was torn down, it drew someone else’s attention. I used to go to the bank with my stepfather every Friday afternoon to cash his paycheck. It was a few minutes when I had the rare opportunity to sit in an air-conditioned building. During one of these trips, the bank had an entire wall of oil paintings on display. There were the creations of art students from the local high school. I was stunned and momentarily doubtful of what I was seeing when I came to a painting of our house. It had been rendered in perfect detail. One side of the porch was dilapidated and had caved in on itself. There were wild roses growing over all the ruins.
I immediately brought the painting to the attention of my stepfather, but he had next to no interest in it. After looking at it for about ten seconds or so, he gave a low grunt that could have meant anything. He made a quick survey of the other paintings without moving from that spot, then he turned to leave. It felt somehow wrong to me to leave the painting behind, as if we were leaving behind something incredibly personal. Something that belonged to us, whether we wanted it or not.
Where Memory Dwells