Sunday, May 8, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Layers

One measures a circle, beginning - anywhere. -- Charles Fort

Despite what I said last week, what follows is a far more likely way for me to "get an idea."

The back of the house is gutted down to the studs and the plumbing. Some areas, like the upper back sunroom where the previous owner hired a guy to patch the roof, and he just nailed a few shingles down over the hole, aren't as bad as we feared, and some areas, like the floor under the downstairs commode, are scarier than we'd thought. The open porch space is pleasant, and it seems a shame to divide it up again.

The best part is how the history of the house leaps out when the layers are peeled back. It appears that the exerior was at one time painted green. My best guess is that the back porch was enclosed at the same time as the asbestos shingle siding, whenever that was. The fire insurance map indicates that the siding might have been added as early as the 20s. The back porch was still single-story in those days, but the clapboard upstairs shows no sign of ever being shingled over. At least, none that I recognize. It's one of many puzzles about this house's history that I don't expect to resolve.

The removal of the upstairs shower reveals the remains of two layers of wallpaper. One, barely visible, has a 1940's/50's vibe, a neutral background with stylized flowers and geometric shapes in aqua and orange, pasted to a base of tight-mesh cheesecloth stretched tight and nailed directly over the original clapboard exterior. Over that, someone pasted a carefully-thought out arrangement of a pattern designed to look like neutral tiles with dark dots (original color uncertain) in a wainscot, with the dado and ceiling in another neutral patterned in round-edged line drawings of rectangles in green, blue, and red so bright that the colors are still readily distinguishable. It's hideous and screams "mod 60's mistake." On top of that, probably in the 70s when the rental company took over, this was all covered with tarpaper and then sheetrocked and tiled over to make the full bath that was here when we moved in.

The dog lady across the street remembers the house in the 60s, when it was inhabited by "Miz Jones." I have her full name and will refrain from using it, because I know nothing about her except what the dog lady says and what I glean from the documents related to my house. The dog lady says that Miz Jones collected dolls, and remembers loving how she'd decorated the room we currently use for game books and crafts. All lavender! Traces of that lavender are still visible in the window casings of that room, and all I can say is, that a woman capable of painting an entire room that color is capable of perpetrating the mod 60s paper, as well.

I have a love-hate relationship with the former owners and tenants of my house. So much of the last 30 years has been spent dealing with, living around, and fixing up their mistakes, their neglects, their decisions good and bad! The tile in the main bath is a ghastly salmon pink, but oh-so-well installed. The widow who preceded Miz Jones seems to have installed the arch between the foyer and the living room, but sheetrocked over the transom between the living room and dining room. Somebody installed a good and convenient fusebox, somebody pirated a phone line, somebody decided white tile would be a good kitchen floor.

But we all lived in this house, which I love, and with all that, created its peculiar atmosphere, which most people who spend any time here notice. It's a welcoming place, once you cross the threshold (my laissez faire attitude to landscaping is mostly responsible for the 'haunted house' curb appeal). Sitting in its rooms, it's easy to overlook how shabby it all is, the cheap paint and the damaged sheetrock and the scuffed original hardwood floors. The house doesn't seem to mind all that. It would make a crappy showplace, but it's a grand place to live and to entertain the kinds of guests you're not interested in impressing. It's the kind of atmosphere that makes you feel that it's always been lived in by people who loved it and made a good home.

But being alone here at night is nervous-making. I've been spooked by the sound of my own breathing. When I stay away overnight, Damon - who is not a small or timid man - doesn't like to sit at the computer with his back to the French door onto the balcony. When he's working late or out of town, the cats and I tend to huddle all into the same room, often onto the same piece of furniture. We're not scared, exactly. If we have a ghost, it's a friendly one.

But it's not a house to be alone in.

And this is how stories are really born, inventing history to explain the present. Miz Jones lived here alone - this huge house - just her and her dolls, which for some people would make her creepy all by themselves, but I'm a doll collector, too, and the dog lady wasn't creeped by them. I think Miz Jones was one of those nice old ladies with unsophisticated taste, who liked children but didn't have any.

The dog lady also says that the schizophrenic person on our street, who a few years ago became convinced we worshipped the devil and would stand in the street yelling at us at four in the morning (this person is doing much better now), was probably fixated on our house because of being shut in a closet here as punishment, by a grandparent who was also a tenant.

Which makes me wonder - what was in that closet? I find I'm certain I know which closet - the large one in the study, which has steps up the back to make room for the stairwell. You can hardly get into it now because I keep office supplies and out of season clothing in it, but used strictly as a clothes closet it would have had plenty of room for a child you couldn't handle, and a closet monster.

And what was the relationship between Miz Jones and the closet?

What if some places are havens, places where troubled spirits can be kept until they're better? What if some people are their natural guardians? What happens when a natural guardian dies before the troubled spirit is better?

It is arguable that I don't have the right to use Miz Jones and my schizophrenic neighbor in this way; but the argument doesn't hold up. All creative ideas start in real life. We have obligations to the real people who inspire us, but they don't include not following inspiration to its logical end. The end result of the train of thought that begins with my house and my wallpaper need not be recognizable to surviving relatives of Miz Jones or the family of the schizophrenic. Respect is due, both to the poor taste of kind ladies and to the realities of mental illness. They may be used as metaphor, but must not be used as shorthand, not demonized or trivialized or ridiculed.

This is too vague for a story - now. But this is what most people have when they say they have an idea. They have the easy part, the sense that a story is out there, a sense that these concepts and images hang together.

The hard part is putting it through last week's process. Finding the character + conflict = story, building a structure from which to hang the concepts and images.

But nothing easy is worth anything.


  1. Several thoughts come to mind, listed here in the order they pop up as I type:
    1) I have a schizophrenic son who, as a little boy in Ethiopia, was put through an exorcism at a church. That had a stabilizing effect on him, according to his sisters, and seems to have been the most effective treatment of all that have been tried on him.
    2) That's some history that house (and neighborhood) is saddled with.
    3) I look forward to reading the story that eventually brews from these thoughts.
    4) I really liked Jack Finney's "Marion's Wall".
    5) The other day, while walking past a building undergoing renovation with a three-year-old, he enthused over what a "beautiful" building it was. I looked up at the translucent plastic sheeting and suddenly saw it the way he did, as a crystal palace. This is why we have sexual reproduction and natural death, of course: so that new minds come along and see what we never could.

  2. I think all houses and neighborhoods, if they're more than ten years old, have quite some history. Life is only mundane on the surface.

  3. I think all houses and neighborhoods, after about ten or twenty years, accumulate "some history." We hide these things from each other while they're going on. It's just life, y'know? But after we're gone and people do property and genealogical research, suddenly it's story.