Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Fire Revisited

G. brought up the haunted house. The old Gable House, which burned to the ground ages ago. But the place still stands vivid in my mind, horrible and thrilling, like a close shrill scream in the night. But I was surprised at the conversational turn.

G. was visiting from my hometown. We had been talking about our plans for dinner, a foursome with my husband and G.'s beautiful wife. I had been thinking about home since getting his voicemail, hearing him call me by my high school nickname. No one here calls me that. So, hearing it sent me tumbling back in time.

And then he brought up the old house. Talking to G. is an exercise in free association. I've known him for four decades, at least. He's a lawyer and a Civil War buff. We have lots to talk about. And I never know which century we'll be visiting.

That day he implied he knew who burned down the old house built in the 1800s in the heart of a 500-acre plantation. G. is brilliant, connected. But he was wrong on this one.

I spent lots of time at that house. It was huge, gothic, nightmare-inspiring. It sat on an ancient Indian burial mound with a history that revolved around an owner who was a Maryland aristocrat, daughter of a Revolutionary War soldier. A woman said to have married -- and murdered -- seven husbands.

In more civilized times, the modern woman of the house babysat my sister and me. That meant she turned us over to her twins, who were a couple of years older. They took their mission seriously: To terrify their young charges.

I was in heaven.

They took us into rooms, slammed doors, turned off lights and showed us "blood" glowing in the dark. They gave us solemn tours of the hallway with seven lonely nails hammered into the wall for the hats of the doomed spouses. They took us outside and showed us spaces underneath the house and stones they claimed were the headstones for the victims.

My younger sister cried. I begged for more. I loved that old house, and not just for the horrors. But for the endless, unused rooms, high ceilings and more staircases than I could find uses for. This is what I see now in my mind's eye: Long white gauze curtains billowing in the soft breeze on the landing, halfway up the front staircase, just at the curve. The spot where a ghost could pause and watch a visitor coming into the foyer from the heavy door. After the ride down the long straight drive from the road to the gabled house on a high hill.

Before someone burned that house to the ground.

My babysitter twins were renters. I don't know who lived there after they moved. It had been abandoned for a long time when it burned all those years ago.

The story was a familiar one. The house was not cared for and quickly became an eyesore and a magnet for teenagers and miscreants, who drove onto the neglected grounds to party and steal anything not nailed down.

The person rumored to have set fire to the house was a teenage boy. He was the older brother of my friend P. I spent quite a few weekends with her as a kid. Their mother was often sick, spending most of her time tucked away in her first floor room in their home, another large white "haunted" house filled with antiques on a hill.

We were on the second floor. He stayed in his room playing loud music, growling at us when we did get a glimpse of him. He would boobytrap her bedroom door with firecrackers while we were inside playing Elvis records. He hated us and we didn't know why. There were rock-throwing incidents involving trucks, dark things.

But, he grew up. He became a successful businessman in another town. He married, appeared to have it all, to do well in life. He appeared to be fine.

But he wasn't fine.

Years after the Gable House burned, he set off one more round of fire. His marriage in ruins, alcohol a factor, he walked onto the deck at the back of his beautiful home and put a gun to his head. He pulled the trigger. He died.

Finally, burning down the Gable House made a strange sort of sense to me. That rage-filled boy couldn't burn down his own "haunted" house on a hill with his parents and sister inside. So he burned down the empty one. The Gable House. But it wasn't enough.

So he set another fire, this time to himself.

He caused terrible hurt along the way, to himself and to others, something I know about first hand. He was my brother's best friend.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I have been in deep denial about an old adversary that has me pinned to the ground in a death grip. Same time, same place. The winter blues.

It infuriates me. Every year I flood my brain with resolutions for outwitting this foe -- keeping busy, exercising more, nutrients, routines, guilting myself, meditation, prayer, PREMPTIVE STRIKE IT'S WAR MIZ SCARLETTE!

It does not help that I am married to The Iowa Snow Man. A tall lanky germanic specimen who I sometimes suspect was engineered in a test tube. This is a person who ostentatiously persists in wearing his khaki shorts in January, and of course, Top Siders and no socks. Who unhelpfully bellows good cheer about brisk, bracing days when the temperature is in single digits, the wind is howling and all I want to do is stay under my comforter sobbing.

My husband's older brother, who looks like he could star in a gladiator movie at age 60, was right: My husband diluted the bloodline with me. He was joking. That hardcore German-slash-Midwestern clan NEEDED some southern intervention (rescue really). But Mid-Atlantic winters should not be enough to send the mewling into a flying leap off the psychotic cliff. Yet, here I am, right at the edge, clinging to a frail sun-deprived tree branch, what is left of my frozen little mind. Pardon the melodrama.

And by the way, note to self: Grow up already.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Go to the Sage: Part 2

Y. was a substantial woman, physically stocky, like a refrigerator she would say. And I could still see the girl who whipped the boys who dared to challenge her, sending them home to Mama, bleeding and whimpering. This was a girl fueled by the fury of too many early betrayals.

On reunion day, I asked her over to the house. But she pointed to her charges sitting happily inside the huge van. She had brought them so they could see where she had grown up. "They just love to go on road trips," she said, smiling. This was the gentle Y., who had grown up caring for those no one else would or could care for.

So we stood there on the side of the road where cotton fields had been cleared to make way for our houses in the late 1950s. Near the woods where a bobcat had come down from the Appalachian foothills to scream like a woman on some nights. Just like the old days of meeting in the middle, leaning against a vehicle. Old habits.

Y.'s long hair was swirled on top of her head in a bun. She wore dark, matronly clothes, a skirt grazing her ankles. The style was unmistakable -- this oldest daughter of religious outlaws was now wearing the informal uniform of the Pentecostal faith.

She was so nervous I reached out and hugged her. It had been decades since we'd last seen each other. I had moved up "north" and thought I was living an exciting, important life (this would change, dramatically, in a few years time). So I blustered on about this and that until I grew tired of myself, and finally asked Y. to take a turn, to fill the air on that suddenly too quiet blacktop road.

So she talked, in a rush of words that always made it hard to follow her. About her life. About her mother's escapades, the two other children born after her long absences, the fathers a question mark. And about her mother's death, at 36, not of alcoholism or a violent act outside a tavern or a car crash. But from the sneak thief, cancer.

Y. had already left home when her mother died, escaped the stepdad who barely tolerated her. And with her mother's death she just fell apart. After a lifetime of sheer gumption, scraping for food for her siblings, surviving the scorched earth left by alcoholic parents who did not even put up a pretense. Going to school after all-night parental benders, giving up her childhood, fighting insults. It had been there all along, her mother's big black hole of self-destruction. So Y. picked up the bottle and jumped in.

"I was just running in the juke joints," she said in her high-pitched verbal rush. As with churches, back street dives were always abundant in decent-sized towns in the deep South. Guzzling beer like water, knocking back whiskey, knocking back the pain. And she wasn't beating up the boys anymore. The other way around, mostly.

It was all so predictable. And then it wasn't.

"A little piece of paper" all but blew into her hand. A religious tract. "It was just sitting there in the beer joint." She was drunk. But she picked it up, took it home and read it. And it struck her with a force she couldn't describe. "I was saved" from that day forward, she said.

The nerves again. I knew what she wanted. She was desperate to witness. I'd been raised in a conservative Protestant household, but even if I had been practicing that faith, it was no match for the fervor of a Pentecostal.

And I knew why: This woman who had been in the saving business her whole life wanted to rescue her earliest friend. Y. absolutely believed with every fiber and wanted to know I'd be walking with her through the pearly gates someday. I've been dealing with this in my own family forever. So I understand these urges.

But there was no way I was going to let Y. initiate me into Pentecostal-hood. I was and am just not down with speaking in tongues, and especially the footwashing thing.

But I believe I got my own point across as we talked into the afternoon, shifting from foot to foot on the edge of the road as Y.'s charges murmured and laughed inside the van, echoing us, just happy to be together.

And this is what I know. The nights we huddled in the sage while a lost wildcat screamed nearby, the afternoons we held grim vigil to sacrifice gallons of liquor to the plumbing gods were hot irons that seared us into each others' hearts. Time and hundreds of miles cannot remove these things. We are branded by and with each other. Forever.