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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Haunted Houses

While you'd never get me to say for sure, it is possible I grew up in a haunted house.

From the street, the house appeared to be slouching towards you like a boxy creature--there was a front porch running across the front, a long grey slab with bowed white pillars at either end supporting a steeped, shingled, confrontational roof. At the peak of the porch roof was the flat exterior of the second storey, made only moderately more expressive by two windows.

And slatted black shutters. The shutters, which naturally seemed to me like the windows' eyelashes, with the windowed eyes turned sideways because I was a kid and could imagine such things, were inert, screwed into the house's exterior.

Basically useless, those shutters. Ornamental.

And since the upstairs had been added sometime after the initial storey had been built in the 1900s, that second level never appeared quite right. Its slightly-offness combined with the confrontational porch roof and the staunch yet bowed pillars at either end of the porch slab to give the house a prowling quality, a forward momentum ever so slight.

When standing outside on the street in front of the house, my bike-handles in my palms, I'd glance over at the house, and know that the rear of the house was tidy and taught, and think the back legs of most animals are where the true power is. When an animal prepares to pounce, the push-off is from the back. The front legs bow, the forehead pushes outward, and the shoulders lean slightly into the direction of intent.

Anyway. Haunted, this beast of a house. And wonky. It was an old house, rather plain. Like Shirley Jackson's Hill House, none of the interior right angles were exactly right angles, so that the overall
experience of being inside the house gave one a perpetual sense of not being exactly in the right part of any given room--as if one need only to move a few inches to the left or right to stop the distortion the walls and ceiling seemed to encourage in the way they met together. Even peering out of the windows gave one a slight sense of nausea as they were old windows, wavy with time. I used to stand inside the house, and shift from my right foot to my left foot while holding my spine straight. Each shift brought a different view of the houses across Prospect Street. Shift left, and I could see the front porch of the Mann's house, and their patio furniture and gaudy summer flowers. Shift right, and the view would dissolve--I could still see the flowers, but now their front door and a porch swing.

Always in sight was the tree I begged my parents to plant. (Spoiler: the tree survived.) 

Looking out of those windows was looking at a Mad Magazine folding puzzle, without the folding.

Oh, and there was a twisted oak tree that had an aborical osteoporosis. Every bone inside the withered, wrinkled skin of that oak hinted at a tortured existence, and the oak, when taken as a whole, looked like a witch unsure of which direction she wished to strike her first curse. And there was a tiny metal shed next to the tree that had seen better days--had, perhaps, been the victim of the oak-witch's directionless curses. And a wizened old lady in the green house next door who died in a violent way not long after we moved in.

Her name, by the way, was Mrs. Parrish. Her house had right angles, inside and out, as did her car, which was as long as a hearse and drove her to her death.

Prospect Street was a quiet street in a very not-special part near--not in--the historic district of downtown Florence, Alabama. To be in the historic district meant living one block over, where every lawn was manicured and most homes had plaques screwed into them like the slatted shutters of our own home's upstairs windows. To be near the historic district meant being surrounded by old people and lawns converted into parking lots.

So, being near and not in, I grew up in an old house with old people all around me. The Manns across the street were sweet, old, dying. Mrs. Parrish, who tolerated me for a summer or two as I wandered through her yard and occasionally her house, was sweet, old, and dead. Her house remained vacant for quite a while. The Manns, across the street from us and always at deaths door, survived our 7 years tenure on Prospect Street, but not much longer. There were the Terrells at the other end of the block, who were an older couple with, improbably, a daughter merely two years older than I. And that was about it.

The oldness--not quite historic, as that was a block over--quality of Prospect Street was interesting. There's this thing I once wrote about the racial tone of the street, which I won't go into right now, that still existed, for instance. There was the need to be quiet and contained as well, which I didn't get.

And there was the old house I lived in, which seemed always on the cusp of leaping from its foundation and pouncing onto a victim on the street.

Inside the house, the inexactness of the corners, where floor met ceiling and ceiling met wall, distorted perception to the point where one--me--always thought one--me--was missing something out of the corner of the eye. The dissolving windows broke up beams of light in such a way that fractured sunrays splintered in unexpected ways, played across rooms in demented patterns. The age of the structure caused it to make unexpected sounds depending on the weather--like the deformed oak behind it, the house would pop and sigh as the temperature changed. Beneath the carpet and tiles, the floor would give or straighten. The house breathed. It felt its surroundings, and reacted as any organism would  react.

But I said it was haunted. And it may have been haunted. Those distortions of light through imperfect windows may not always have been distortions. Certainly the television turned on and off as it pleased, and more than a few times there were shapes that moved just out sight in the inexact corners of rooms.

Once, a friend of my parents, who slept upstairs in my room as I curled up between my parents, asked, over breakfast the next day, if I'd been running up and down the second storey hallway all night (Nope).

Also, there was a thing living under my bed, a thing that looked oddly like Grover that used to wake me up when my mom couldn't. From a deep sleep, reticent, this thing would squeal, emerge from
beneath my bed, bite me on the nose, and shriek, "Get up Marc!" in such a demented way that I'd fear for my life if I drifted back to sleep.


(Side note: Years later, when I hit junior high, Mom would unscrew the valve of my waterbed and shout, "Wake up or drown!" So it is possible she tired of my inability to wake up as early as 3rd grade, and hid under my bed with a Grover puppet to scare me into awareness... but I never owned a Grover puppet.)

Pretty skimpy haunted house story, yeah?

Yeah.

Then it burned down.

I'd been living with Greg for two years when the house burned down. I had not been living with that odd house for 15 years or so. The house with its strange oak tree in the back and it's prominent forehead and its confrontational front porch roof, just on the edge of the historic district of downtown Florence, Alabama.

Never Google your old home. If you do, you'll start missing every tree.
Like most of the old people who were there when I was there as a kid, the house burned away, dissolved, and left not much more than a place for more trees to grow and develop deformities needed to give angles that aren't quite right.

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