The house on South Street, once splendid, columns as girthy as oak trees, a Greek temple façade. Who wouldn’t live there? Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite? The tall windows opened all summer, the mouths of bass snagging any piece of breeze; and when shut at Christmas, were lit with flickering gaslight. A row of stones, each as wide as an ox, pushed at the bank along the yard, now tossed about like blocks, a toy box overturned by careless boys.
Now, the paint is peeled to the gray bone of wood. The porch sags, exhausted with the task of holding things up for so long. Little forests of maple sprig clog the eaves. The garden is overrun, undone, rude nettles, hogweed, sumac where gracious, civilized roses once flourished. The mailbox is jaundiced, rusted through, attached with one, tenuous screw. All the hinges, shrill harpies, cry out, “Murder!”
There was once an abundant noise: the porch swing creaking, screen door slapping shut, clink of china, clatter of pans, scraping of chairs on linoleum, a Victrola in the parlor crackling Enrico Caruso and Scott Joplin, a whispering of folding linen, a whispering of brushes through hair, muffled sighs behind doors, smacking furtive kisses, rambunctious thumping beds.
I imagine I might hear the palpable worry of mothers and fathers, babies finding their voices, lungs testing altitudes, laughing, squealing, whining, heels on the halls, the floors groaning, polished and delighted, and coughing by turn, their last wheezing breaths, consumption taking all of them. Now shuttered, blinds drawn, the hollow rooms all echo, “Who lives here?” It is the remaining spinster, the youngest sister.
I am confronted with mortality each morning on my trek. About half-way down Hill Road on the left, the blackbirds relentlessly cry in singsong, “I live, I die. I live, I die, so why complicate our predicament?” There is no grim, hovering, hollow-robed, scythe-carrying, cliché named Death. There is a modest, peculiar little house, vacant for some years now, yard overgrown, smothered in leaves, weeds, blighted ash tree limbs accumulating on the shingles, curtains missing. You can peer straight through musty rooms like empty ribs.
I knew John, the bachelor who lived there. I can picture his silhouette passing through the kitchen, beginning a day, reaching for his coffee cup, his paper. For years, he taught algebra, statistics, calculus to yawning, glassy-eyed teenagers. I lectured on art history just down the hall. It seemed we had absolutely nothing in common. He had no wife, no kids, no lover kissing his noble, beautiful head.
However, I admit I was mistaken, and I am comforted with this comprehension: we were both flawed men, and like most any men who’ve lived long enough, occasionally honored and ostracized. Our only contrast in the larger picture is that John may be forgotten a bit sooner than I. That’s all. Candidly, the sum of what I know is John enjoyed a good whiskey, a fine cigar, neither of which held any appeal for me (though I was willing to learn).
At sixty-five, on the cusp of putting his papers in, he’d moved and died alone in a dreary condominium, with unremarkable walls. Though once neighbors, he never thought to invite me in. I sometimes wonder if he would have been happier dying ten years later, swapping a few shots and stogies with me, in that peculiar little house on Hill Road.