Household Words: Episode 1

Although I didn’t like the house, that doesn’t mean I enjoyed watching it burn. It was poorly designed. The floor plan was awkward. And I didn’t like the look of it. There were two gables in the top, Siamese twins. One set of eyes was Ellen’s bedroom, veiled in white, and the other was her parents’ bathroom. Lopsided, see?

The front steps led up to a suggestion of a porch, with crude stone supports. No one ever put furniture out there. Sometimes someone sat on the steps. The doorbell lit up, as if it had a soul, and when you pressed it, chimes rolled out. I rang it a few times before I moved to San Diego—and then when I returned, I had a key of my own. The house was built with some sections of brick and some of siding. In the 50’s, the wooden parts were a hospital sea-green. In the ‘40s, the wood was a brown red, close to the brick. Finally, Ellen’s parents painted it white. The white of 1975 was bold in photos, but by the time I met Ellen, it had been blasted with dirty snow, junebug corpses, and clouds of pollen. It was the color of a Bedouin’s turban after a long walk.  I found paint cans in their basement, with the tops swatched to show the color, when I went down to put laundry in the dryer.  So I knew some of what the house had been through.

I met Ellen in the spring. Middleton has regular electrical storms in the spring, cracking the neck of winter. In the spring of 1997, I was finishing my undergraduate degree in social work. I went to get a hamburger and read a textbook chapter, and Ellen was sitting with a friend of mine, in the table by the door. We all talked, and I didn’t read the chapter. Three weeks later, I saw her there again. I didn’t remember her name.  I wanted to, but I didn’t.

It was four years later, it was spring 2001, when lightning struck the house. This is how it burned: first the roof, which needed repair for a leak above the stairs. Then the attic started to get it, of course: Ellen’s unseasonable clothes, all the airy rayon and cotton sundresses and all the buttons I knew so well, the leather sandals and t-shirts of every color, some with slogans, inside two yellow plastic bags. All the clothes that hadn’t reunited with her body yet. First the plastic had to melt, then the clothes and the shoes could burn. I think it spread to the master bedroom next, because that leak in the center hall would keep the wood damp. It was also the easiest path for flames. Ellen had spread out some sheets of aluminum and pipes, all stolen from construction sites, along the other side of the attic. Those wouldn’t burn well.

The master bedroom would go up in a rush: Ellen’s parents’ scrapbooks, her father’s collection of sheet music, and copies of the papers settling their estate, many carefully lettered in Ellen’s block writing. The room Ellen and I slept in, that she sometimes shared with me, was on the other side. The windowsills, ceiling, and bookshelves were populated with her origami creatures, which all caught fire easily. Some dropped to the bed, and caught the blankets. The downstairs burned, too: the living room and piano, Ellen’s great-grandmother’s maple dining room table, the pictures of vegetables framed in the kitchen, all the pie tins that held all the apple pies, and the dull plaid couch in the living room. Downstairs the trouble was the firefighters’ ammunition—instead of being ablaze, everything was asea.

We watched it burn, Ellen and I. We stood across the street, on the neighbors’ lawn. It wasn’t the worst thing we’d seen. Then I returned to California, this time to L.A. Ellen moved to the east coast. We didn’t see each other for a long time, though we wrote occasionally.

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