A Dark Patch of Ground
By Stephanie Larkin
“C’mon, pups, let’s get out of here and cool off.”
Seattle had been hit with a record-breaking blast of heat, and by mid-afternoon the temperature inside my small house had already soared to 92 degrees. My Chihuahua and toy poodle appeared to be as miserable as I was, as the three of us jockeyed for position in front of the industrial-strength fan I had borrowed from a friend. It was stifling to the point where my head was beginning to pound. Time to escape.
I had no particular destination in mind as the dogs and I piled into my van. They barked excitedly as I cranked up the air conditioner and slowly backed out of the driveway. Should I go to my friend’s house? No, my spoiled, hyperkinetic lapdogs were not anyone’s idea of well-mannered guests. It was much too hot to take them to a park, and the deserted streets reflected the wisdom of staying out of the elements.
We’ll just drive around, I decided, and let the cool breezes emanating from the dashboard waft over us for a half-hour or so.
I had grown up in Seattle, leaving the area in my late twenties. I had never expected to return, but circumstances had dictated otherwise, so here I was, coincidentally living within a stone’s throw of the house where I spent my high school years. “Should we drive by the old house?” I asked my dogs. My Chihuahua cocked her head and looked at me quizzically. “I’ll take that as a yes,” I said, and headed east.
In an effort to maximize our respite from the heat, I drove at a tortoise-like speed through the quiet subdivisions, but it still took less than ten minutes to reach my old neighborhood.
My father had purchased our modest, two-story home in the 1970s. The fact that it was new construction mirrored the fresh start it represented, another chance for my parents’ troubled marriage to succeed.
After returning to Seattle, I had driven by the house once, about three years ago. Like the surrounding homes, it was definitely showing its age, but the new owners had painted it a cheerful pale yellow. They had also erected a long, tall wooden fence along one side of the corner lot, which abutted the well-traveled street leading into the subdivision. As a teenager, I had begged my father to build a fence so my occasional sunbathing sessions in the back yard would not be visible to drivers of cars passing by, but to no avail. It would fall to future homeowners to build the fence, and they had also planted trees that further shielded the house from view.
As I turned the corner where the fence ended and the front of the house faced the perpendicular street, I was unprepared for what I saw. Or, rather, what I didn’t see.
The house was gone.
It took a moment to register. I turned my head and looked at the house across the street, then the house next door. Yes, I was on the right street. It was just… gone. Where my house had been, there was just a dark patch of ground.
Had it burned down? No, it didn’t appear so. There was no evidence of blackened, scorched earth that would indicate a recent fire on the property. It must have been torn down.
The dogs began moving around in the passenger seat, anticipating that since I had pulled over, we must have reached our destination. They were ready to get out of the car.
“Quiet,” I said. “Mama’s thinking.”
I felt strangely detached, unable to summon any feelings of sadness or sorrow that a childhood home was no more. I was struck by how small the dark patch of ground appeared to be, in comparison to the huge, overgrown corner lot. How could so much conflict, so much drama, so many life-changing moments have taken place in the space above such a small patch of ground?
There, in the middle of the patch, would have been the front door. Even after moving into the newly constructed house, the House of the Fresh Start, my mother always kept a packed suitcase next to that front door. And over there, on the right, that’s where the single-car garage had been. My father kept his secret stash of vodka in there, which of course was not really a secret at all.
The second story had been unfinished when my father bought the house, and it was still unfinished when I fled the violence and chaos immediately after my high school graduation. I took only my stereo and my Heart albums and my hope that I was nothing like my parents.
When the house was built, the huge lot had been barren of any trees, so my father had planted a maple tree in the front yard. He had been inordinately proud of that tree, and in later years, if it had been a while since my last visit, he often pointed out how tall “his” tree had grown.
The tree was gone now, too, confirming my suspicion that whoever had torn down the house intended to build a new one in its place, probably one that would cover a much larger portion of the lot.
I hoped it would be a happy home, with lots of love and laughter and family barbecues in the now-fenced back yard. Surely any ghosts of past dysfunction that might have hovered over the dark patch of ground had vanished into thin air by now. It had been well over a decade since my father’s death. My mother had only recently passed away, but her memories of her turbulent marriage to my father had been carried away by Alzheimer’s long ago.
I recalled that in my stuffy, overheated house just a few minutes away, a framed photograph was displayed on one of my bookshelves. It was a picture I had taken once of my mother and father, standing next to my father’s precious tree. My mother is smiling, tossing her head back, and her hand is raised towards her mouth as if to quell her peals of laughter. My father’s head is turned towards her, but even so, the crinkling around his eyes and the expression on his face can be seen to reveal his affection.
“Time to go back home, pups,” I said, and as I pulled away from the curb, I knew I would never return.
I drove a bit faster on the way home. My little house would be uncomfortably warm for a few more hours, but it was a calm, peaceful refuge, with brightly colored flowers dotting the tiny property.
I could handle the heat. After all, I’d always known how to adapt to the weather.
©2017 by Stephanie Larkin