the house on the square

I’m passing through the central downtown of some southern city in a bus or van– there’s urban decay all around– closed and barely-open shops, ramshackle old houses– and then we’re passing an enormous old one literally on the central square. the structure looks solid– nicely preserved carved old wood like an interior, with balustrades and railings and widow’s walks and tiny side porches, and staggered at different intervals around the ground floor, built-in shapes which are either pianos or roll-top desks. I look at the windows as we’re passing and see stacks and piles of junk, and then just at the last minute as we go by, a person, it looks to be an old man with glasses at one of the windows– and I wave, and he sees me and steps back.

then I get off the bus, deciding on the instant to go up to the house– the next thing I know I’m on the inside, in an entirely different and unimaginable world with the young brother and sister who live there. they’re orphans and have kept apart from the world all their lives, sequestered away in the big old house, the brother only occasionally riding an old bicycle out for provisions.

inside the rooms go on and on– all is space and elegance, with trays of perfectly shaped pincones from the big tree in the yard and pieces of delicate fabric the sister has made from old rags by pouring onto screens like paper. it’s quiet and caverous and beautiful.

the sister takes me around to show me all the rooms on the floor they live on– each lovelier in a stark and old-fashioned way than the next– her bedroom is bright and warm, and I see a sink and say how much I miss having a sink in my room– and then I notice there are several at different points around the room and think it only slightly odd and charming– each one is antique porcelain with a different shape, suggesting a different use.

back out in the main part of the house the sister explains to me something about the chimney chute, how it is full of ashes from all the many years they’ve lived there and therefore dangerous, and so they never burn fires in any of the many fireplaces.

the brother is gracious but more reserved and slightly cold, and just as the sister is taking me to see the last and her favorite room, a little blue door that leads to a tower, he comments that it’s getting rather late– in a clear invitation for me to make my exit– and I’m taken aback and abashed and apologeting, not having realized I’d been putting them out.

they walk me downstairs through echoing ballrooms and libraries, and I turn to the sister and say, let me give you a hug goodbye, stepping toward her, and she shrinks back with a look of extreme distaste across her face– and I freeze– and then apologize and turn away, feeling doubly presumptuous and almost wishing I’d never come. but I love these people and their strange anachronistic world. out on the steps at the last minute I stop and scribble my contact information for them and turn back, pressing it on them, hoping they’ll make use of it sometime, but with little hope– and then I leave.

but nothing is so clean– especially getaways. I go behind the house looking for my car, which I think I’ve left parked there with my dog in the back, but I don’t see it. I’m desperate with embarassment and just want to clear out, so I’m hoping there’s just something wrong with my eyes– I go through the motions of unlocking and opening doors in the spot where I left my car, and if I squint, I can nearly make it out– but I’m accutely aware that it may all be a figment of my imagination and can only pray that the brother or sister doesn’t catch sight of me from one of the windows, pantomiming there with an imaginary vehicle.

I go to visit the house of my little neighbor friend from childhood, these many years later– she’s all grown up, of course, and inside there are four or five blond children, little brothers or sisters, which one of her parents has had with a second spouse. upstairs I learn that her mother has died and it’s her dad’s second family. I’m very tired and fall asleep where I’m lying on the bed listening, and they try to rouse me– I can hear them but can’t seem to wake up– I can feel myself rolling right off the bed and still can’t seem to wake.

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