This Old House by Angie Calder Telepenko
I may not be much to look at now, but they used to be so proud of me.
I first felt myself taking shape back in the 1920s. It took a while because Paul was out in the fields all day, and it was hard work back then, especially since he was still clearing land. But gradually I rose up to my full two stories, and when the glass got put into the windows, I could see that I was across the yard from a shack. Paul was a tall, slim man with unruly black hair. His wife, Marjorie, was plump and perpetually smiling, with light brown hair that she always had in a bun, and she invariably wore an apron. They had a two-year-old daughter, tiny blonde Gloria, and they all lived in the shack together. Sometimes Marjorie would bring Gloria over to watch Daddy working on me, and he would have tasks for them so they could say they helped. He would show off his progress with bravado, and the day they finally moved in, he carried Marjorie across the threshold like they were newlyweds.
In comparison to today’s houses, I was pretty old-fashioned, but I was well-built, with lots of counter space and a nice big kitchen and living room. There were three bedrooms upstairs, so they no longer had to all sleep, live, and eat in the same room. Perhaps this is one reason why within a year after moving in, Marjorie disappeared for a while, and one day they came home with baby Andrew, who grew into a stocky, dark-haired jokester with the same unruly hair as his dad.
The family seemed to be happy here. Marjorie and Paul took great pride in looking after their home. I was painted white with red trim, lovingly touched up every few years. In time, electricity and telephone were hooked up, although the outhouse remained the port of call. Every six months, like clockwork, the kids’ heights were measured on the downstairs closet door. The home quarter was planted with grain, and there were cattle, pigs, and chickens. Life moved in a predictable but tranquil rhythm.
As the kids grew older, they worked alongside their parents. Like any family, they had their good and bad times, but the walls rang with laughter far more than anger.
After a while, a porch was built onto the east side—just right for sitting in the shade during the long summer evenings. When Gloria was a teenager, she started “walking out” with Duncan, the tall Scottish neighbor from down the road, and when he brought her home they would say goodbye on the porch. If they spent too long there, the light would magically come on, Duncan’s cue to take his leave.
One joyous day was the delivery of a piano, which took pride of place in the living room and became the focus of the family’s entertainment. Marjorie had played in her youth, and of course it came back immediately and she taught both the children how. When she got brave enough, she started giving lessons to the neighborhood kids, which brought in a bit of extra cash. She never looked so vibrant as she did when she was playing that piano. In another life, she could have been a cabaret performer.
Another day, I was scrubbed from top to bottom because Gloria and Duncan got married, and the reception was being held at the farm. I looked out at all the chairs borrowed from neighbors, long tables groaning with potluck food, and everyone in the district having a grand time in the yard. Someone had brought a fiddle and people were dancing. Marjorie and Paul even got up for a few songs, everyone clapping along with the music while watching them twirl around as if they were the newlyweds. I had to look my best in case people came into the house, although most people didn’t need to (remember, the outhouse).
After everyone had left, Marjorie found it hard to fall asleep, although Paul had conked out the second his head hit the pillow. It would be hard to get used to Gloria being gone, even though she was just moving down the road. But Marjorie, wasn’t it such a perfect day? Marjorie was going over it all in her mind, replaying everything. I started singing her to sleep with all the familiar house sounds, and she drifted off.
Life was good and then suddenly things changed. All because the rhythm of the year did. Summers were no longer the right balance of sun and rain. It was dry, dry, dry, and the wind blew incessantly, stinging my walls with the blown-away topsoil so the paint stripped away in patches. The crops failed year after year, there wasn’t enough grass for the cattle to graze, and there was no hay to be had anywhere. Gradually the livestock were all butchered except for a single cow and a few hens. They had always grown their own vegetables, but the garden had turned into a hard, dry patch where nothing but thistles thrived, no matter how much watering Marjorie did. The piano lessons stopped because nobody could afford them anymore.
Paul and Marjorie had many solemn conversations at the kitchen table when they thought Andrew couldn’t hear. One day some people from town came and took away the piano, and handed Paul some money. That was the first time I saw Marjorie cry, and I was the only one who saw her crying. She was never the same after that. It was like a light had gone out in her. She even lost the plumpness in her frame and started looking gaunt. Food was in short supply so she was rationing herself to let her family have more. Andrew left home and got a job in the city, promising to send money to help them out, but it wasn’t enough.
After more conversations, boxes started being packed and loaded into the old truck. It could only take so much, so a lot of things were left behind. I will never forget the day they moved out. Once again Marjorie scrubbed me from top to bottom, even the windows, and swept the floors. Paul watched her quizzically, and to answer his silent question, Marjorie snapped, “Well, it’s only temporary until we get on our feet again, right? We’ll be back in a year or so, might as well not come back to a pigsty.”
When they left, they both took one last look around before locking the door. Marjorie was inspecting everything to make sure it would all be ship-shape when they came back. The set of Paul’s shoulders as he watched her showed that he knew they would probably never return. As they drove away, Marjorie looked back at me again and it was the second time I had seen her cry.
And I have been empty ever since. After about six months, two men I had never seen before came up the driveway in a new car. They were both wearing suits and carrying briefcases, and looked me up and down with an appraising eye. Somehow they have a key—how did they get that? They went from room to room, one with a tape measure and the other with a camera. When they left, I heard the younger man ask, “What about the furniture, Mr. Folinsbee? Should that be included in the value of the house?”
The older guy spat on the ground and said, “Nah, it won’t add anything. Bunch of old crap, we’ll probably haul it to the dump.” What do you mean? I still remember how carefully they picked it out of the Eaton’s catalog, and how proudly they showed it off.
A “for sale” sign went up, a few people came and looked, but nobody was buying anything. I was left to rot. Gradually all my paint came off, and my roof started sagging. The door was broken down by kids in search of a place to party. Over the years most of my windows broke, and I became home to mice, bats, and all manner of insects.
One day I was surprised by a car with out-of-province license plates stopping on the side of the road, and I thought I heard familiar voices. It was Gloria and Duncan, who had somehow become middle-aged with adolescent children. I was already in an advanced enough state of decay that they weren’t brave enough to come inside, but they peered through the windows, which still had Marjorie’s homemade curtains flapping in the wind, although they had lost their bright cheery colors. “Mom, I can’t believe you lived in something so primitive.” Primitive! I beg your pardon? You should have seen the shack she lived in before! Gloria caught sight of the closet door, with her and her brother’s heights still clearly marked on it, and stuck her Kodachrome camera through the window to take a picture. “The flash went off, didn’t it? I sure hope that one turns out.”
After more photos of everyone standing in front of me, off they went. Andrew has come back once or twice too, alone, staring at me while smoking a cigarette and exploring the slowly collapsing outbuildings. One time, as he began to walk back to his car, I whispered to myself, Thank you, it was good to see you. His body stiffening, he slowly turned his head to look back at me, eyes shifting from side to side before shrugging and walking on. Couples needing a place to hide would occasionally pull into the yard until it got too overgrown for vehicles to come in. But Marjorie and Paul never returned, although I kept waiting for them.
Things have been quiet around here for the most part. Then one day I suddenly had a vision. Marjorie was in a hospital bed. She looked very old, but I would have known her anywhere. I had the sense that she was miles away, but the scene was so clear that she could have been right in front of me. Gloria, Duncan, Andrew and his wife, and the grandchildren were gathered around her. They seemed to be arguing and she was indignantly insisting, “No, I have to go! The Shepherds are coming for their lessons! I have to be home for them, and I have to clean the house first!”
The grandchildren had no idea what she meant, but Gloria confided, rolling her eyes, “Mom thinks she’s back in the old house, and she’s giving piano lessons again.”
Marjorie kept looking around the room, as if seeking something. She caught sight of me and her face twisted in a smile. “I was never happier than when I was with you.” Still gazing at me rapturously, her eyes slowly closed and she was gone.
The family would tell the story over and over again, assuming that she was seeing Paul, who had keeled over while gardening a few years earlier, but I know differently. Now I could finally close my eyes, too. She did come back in the end, and I was no longer empty.
I am still standing, although the world has moved on without me. The locals swear that on some nights they see a light in the window, and hear the tinkling of a piano.
Angie Calder Telepenko is a freelance writer living on the Canadian prairies, who has always been fascinated by abandoned houses.