6.09 / August 2011

The Woman Who Was a House

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There was a woman who was a house.

Not as big as. Was. A house. A vinyl-sided exterior coating her limbs, a sloped roof over her head. Her insides made of wood paneling, framed dusty pictures hanging on the wall of her chest cavity. Clinging to the back of her pelvis, a collection of Civil War-era spoons, family heirlooms.

A projector shone its light from her lungs, powered by her breath. The projector played home movies and vacation slides. Kodachrome past lives. A version of herself that she scarcely remembered, a clapboarded teenager ambling stiffly along the beach on a family vacation. Back in her cottage days. Now she stayed put, having grown into something closer to a Victorian.

Her attic brain stored forgotten things nobody wanted anymore. Wardrobes filled with her parents’ mothballed clothes, decades of polyester and lamé. They’d taken the Civil War uniforms. Her little brother Abe’s tricycle, unused for decades. Boxes upon boxes, black-markered “Memories” in her mother’s scrawl, filled with photo albums, scrapbooks and postcards. All the old newspaper clippings about her, with screamy, bold headlines.

All the lives lived in this house. Her family, sheltered for free and saving on mortgage payments, now come and gone, migrating to the Caribbean without her. “You can’t exactly move a house,” they said. “Here. Have these spoons.”

She’d seen houses moved before: power lines lowered as a loaded flatbed trailer inched down the pike. She imagined the warm-belly feeling of a family still inside, a fire in the fireplace and smoke snaking up the chimney, though of course that would be unsafe. The family would be driving behind the flatbed in a station wagon. The fire would have been extinguished the night before. Her own family had burned many fires in her fireplace, esophageal soot that still rose up, now bitter.

Probably you could move a house on a boat, down to a Caribbean island. Maybe. “But how would we pay for that?” the family asked. “Be reasonable.”

“We could sell the spoons,” the woman suggested.

“Those spoons have been in the family for years! You should display them in your house with pride!”

And so she did. They clinked when she shifted and settled, reminding her that she was not particularly interested in Civil War history. Her family planned the first underwater reenactments; Abe had gotten SCUBA certified. The island had no re-enactors, no connection to the Civil War, up until now. Which made the gifting of the spoons all the more poignant.

Home alone, she breathed and ran the projector. Her parents smiling beside the heavy artillery cannon, Mama in her petticoats and Papa in his blue uniform and cap. Abe as a baby, the tickle of him scooting across her wooden floorboards. She saw herself, growing taller each year, adding square footage alongside the flaming red maple. For years her house-proud parents had stepped outside to film her. Now she could only imagine the projector light pouring from her windows, which nobody filmed, nobody saw.

Sarah Layden is the author of the novel TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES (Engine Books). Her work appears in Boston Review, Blackbird, Sudden Flash Youth, The Humanist, Ladies' Home Journal, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
6.09 / August 2011