My first morning back home in Virginia. I have a piece of toast in one hand and the ear of a Labrador in the other as I bend over the Post, chewing. Jamon is streaming NPR on his iPad, something about Black Friday, door-busting 50% discounts on plasma TVs, strikes, crush injuries. I’m not really listening; I’m hate-reading The Family Circus. Yesterday’s caption was, “I’m not eatin’ as much today because I’m planning on overeatin’ tomorrow.” Today, “It won’t cost you any money, Mommy. You can just pay with a credit card!” I stop chewing, stick out my tongue and let a sodden bite of toast plop back onto the plate. My sister’s face is stricken. “I wish you’d stop reading that one,” she grumbles.
Dad drains his cup and sets it down on the table. “Let’s go check on Gloria’s house,” he says. I split the rest of the toast with the dog and go look for a coat. Jamon is already wearing his hat. He always wears it now. He’s the color of a candle, and as hairless as a sphynx. A hat softens the effect.
As for me, at home on the farm I try always to dress as if I was suddenly shaken from a deep sleep and told the house was on fire. After all, there are many acres, and no one to see you for miles. So for the walk over to Gloria’s I don my father’s plaid vest and a knobby hat of mother’s that looks like a “thanks for ninety years of service” gift from a Garden Club. The inches between the bottoms of my jeans and my sneakers are covered by a pair of socks that had never met before this morning. “You look nice,” Jamon says when I step into the mudroom. “Shut it, Powder,” I tell him.
The dogs bound ahead as we scuff down the gravel farm road. At the bottom of the hill we turn onto a little lane that is home to three small cottages. Cautionary Lane, I call it. In the first cottage lives a divorced lady who raises heritage chickens and a son with excellent manners. At the end of the lane is a charred collection of sticks in the shape of the third cottage; they lean together in a yard wild with brambles. I forget what year it burned, 1970-something. Electric heater. You’ve got to watch out for those. The second cottage, in the middle, is Gloria’s.
Was Gloria’s. The Sheriff evicted her last week. Ten months, it took. Her front yard is cluttered with dead gray things planted in pots, paint cans, tires. A torn sack of potting soil sags across the front step, the printing on it faded by the sun. Dad unlocks the front door and the reek of cat urine is as sudden and shocking as an air horn. From floor to shoulder height the room is crowded with stacked debris—cardboard boxes, magazines, VHS tapes. Sacks of Scoop cat litter line the walls, like sandbags awaiting a flood. In the dining room, mismatched chairs are piled up as if they were deposited there by a falling tide. In the living room, four old TVs huddle on a table, screens blank and dust-filmed, their power cords dangling over the edge into space. Ghosts of Black Fridays past. Upstairs, a single twin bed, the bare mattress visible under the blue sheet twitched over it, is surrounded by towers of boxes. Each box has a torn piece of lined paper scotch-taped to it. “Nice lamp.” “Good assrtd plates saucers.” Sweaters droop off hangers in the closet. Behind every other corner, ceramic kitties in varying attitudes of play peep out at me.
I’m surprised Gloria owned a mirror at all, let alone a floor length one. In its surface I almost blend into the reflected room, in the confusion between my flowery bonnet and vibrant ankles. A kind of madness camouflage. She was always odd, Gloria, but not like this—not unsustainably so. She’d lived here for sixteen years, after all. It was after her mother died that the things started checking in but never checking out. It just crept up I guess, and besides, there was no one to see her. For miles. I pull the hat off my head and finger-comb my hair.
She came back yesterday, asking to be let into the house. She wanted cat litter. Our farmhand Alfred told her, no more.
Through a window I see Jamon, hands in his pockets, turning over a dead plant with his foot and breaking up the clotted roots. In his red cap and the morning sunlight, he glows like a votive. Full remission. That’s the word. The relief of this diagnosis casts a radiance, like degrees of centigrade, all around him, and onto us, too. In this light we all sleep easier, eat heartier, breathe deeper. I tell Jamon if he’s a good boy, Santa might put some eyebrows in his stocking. He’s a good sport.
Dad hollers for me outside. Mom will be needing us to peel things, chop other things. My mom, just up the hill.
There are things to be thankful for, no doubt—things that belong to us. I reach out with a fingertip and stroke a tiny smiling ceramic cat on the head. But in this place, it’s really the no-things I appreciate—the clear tables, the negative blood tests, the fallow fields. The open spaces. And the living in them.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.