Torn House

by Garrett Rowlan

I’ve scuttled under the floor for years, specter in the region of dirt. Oh, I’ve wanted to be a true spook, howling at midnight, freezing hearts and chilling breaths, the way they do in the movies. That’s just not me. I’m mobility challenged, as they say, a scuttling bit of consciousness under a house where I once lived.

Nobody’s fault but mine: I should not have bought the gun. But we kept hearing sounds in the night, and though they turned out to be nothing more than cats running on the roof, I felt I needed protection. Though I could not protect myself from my own self-destructive tendencies, made worse by alcohol. I suppose I was trying to sear on Joyce’s consciousness, as I reasoned in a drunken haze, the importance of her betrayal. You want another man, you want a divorce, well, this is what it will cost you. I put the gun to my head and wasn’t satisfied by her shriek. I pulled the trigger. She got a bargain. With a mop and a few crocodile tears she was rid of me.

I flowed into the floorboards, into the absorbent old wood. My soul-bearing blood slipped and dripped into dusty places, leaving a brain without a body, senses without organs, eyes without a face. I now live in a vein of grain.

Yes, Joyce got off cheap, a scream and a scrub, my blood, soaked up by old rags she burned in the fireplace. In the months that followed, she went about erasing my life, no trace, no paper trail, photos burned, and my name never spoken. My son Jack, only a few months old at the time, was told a story about his “real father” who vanished. I became an anti-entity, a nullity, the unheard sound that no falling tree ever made.

Jack grew; Joyce and her lover, then husband, grew apart. Later, I heard the grunt and mutter of some man, his grunting pleasure and retreating footsteps. I heard Joyce’s own slow, solitary strolls, footsteps increasingly heavy and shuffling. (I often heard the refrigerator door opening at midnight.) At last, her body hit hardwood: heart attack. Sometimes I think she is still here, a black hole I sense at the other end of the house, one which I have never been able to encounter. Left behind, I listened for her in the boarded-up house, smelled the nutrient-rich earth that has sustained my bodiless binding of perceptions. The homeless men and the partying teenagers have occasionally snuck in, bending back a board around the side of the house, but otherwise it’s quiet, the quiet of death that I know. I waited, waited for a way to redeem the error I made.

One day, I heard the hammer fall, plaster shatter and wood break at the house’s other end. Cautiously, I oozed to the wall between the front and dining rooms. Above, I saw the light, heard the hammer. It was Genesis in reverse, an illumination at the end of the world I’d known. I grappled up chicken wire and plaster to the point where light exploded into the space from a sledgehammer blow, and I saw the front room I’d known since childhood – fireplace, inglenook, bay window – and in it stood a young man covered in dust. He held something to his ear, and then I realized that it was a cell phone, something I’d heard about but hadn’t yet seen. You miss a lot when you’re confined to the floorboards.

His speech resonated with familiar tonalities, the grain of my father’s speech. “I figure I’d just knock down the wall myself, save having to hire someone. We’ll put the tables in the front room and the front counter. My mother’s picture will go here.”

I saw a picture of Joyce he had set against a wall and I knew what I was seeing, I was seeing my son.

Pride shaped a scar on my limpid soul, and envy too. I was never ambitious the way Jack was, starting a business while in his twenties. That was not like me. I had tried to be a musician, though I had more illusion than talent, a sentiment they could have put on my gravestone, assuming I had one.

In that moment I felt, more strongly than ever, the folly of my suicide. It was in the end an act of spiritual negation and left me only a ghost to my son, his wife, and their unborn child. “Remember you have to eat for two now,” he said. He disconnected. He slipped on goggles and a surgeon’s mask. He raised and brought down the sledgehammer. Brittle drywall crumpled and dust fell. All things tend downward.

A few minutes later, he stopped in a maelstrom of motes. After he’d rested some time, he looked around the front room floor, filled with dust, grit, and dirt. “A broom,” he said, “I need a broom.”

He went downstairs into the cellar. I followed. Scuttling through the house, swimming through capillaries of wood, I descended into the basement, saw him standing in a subterranean twilight. Dust stirred in shafts of dying daylight, coming through the open cellar door. He hawked up a bolus of spit. Spat, it struck at the base of one of the wooden pylons just below the kitchen, and flowed down to join the dirt. I scuttled down the pylon and tasted my son’s spittle. It was a Eucharist of slime, a spark of spunk. Absorbed, it gave me a new, vaporous sense of mass.

Just then, a box slid from under an old canvas tarp. He noticed. He pulled out the box and opened it. I saw him unwrap and lift a plate made of China into the crepuscular light. I felt my heart leap, for I realized what he had disclosed, a wedding present, exiled in the darkest archives of the basement and free from Joyce’s recollection.

“What the hell?” Jack said. He looked in the plate, but the light made it difficult for him to see inside, so he replaced the plate and carried the box and the broom outside and around the house while I fought my way upstairs. Movement had become difficult. I think I know why. My son’s spit had impregnated my soul in some corporal way. I had a body, an ectoplasm whose slime made the old system of navigation difficult until I managed to do something I’d never done before, that is, step out of the wall. I stood, a ghost born after years of gestation inside plasterboard and chicken wire. In the front room, Jack examined two figurines, a man and a woman, that had been etched into a plate he had removed from the box.

He noticed an inscription near the rim. As he slipped on his glasses to read the words his cell phone rang. He set the plate on the mantel just above the fireplace. He took the phone and, as he walked into the other room, I moved. On a fog of feet I floated forward. I didn’t have a real body and each step was only a comprehensible convention, a mode of motion whose novelty wouldn’t overwhelm its purpose. I reached the fireplace. I saw the plate and read the inscription, my ghostly eyes functioning well in this half-light. “Joyce and George Person, November 3, 1985,” almost twenty-five years ago to the day.

I pumped a phantom fist. The truth of his paternity would be shown to be a fiction, a twice-told tale whose repetition didn’t explain the brusque dismissal of his “real father,” who had abandoned the family, I’d heard Joyce say, before Jack was born and was subsequently shot in a barroom brawl. (Leave it to Joyce to make my exit as sordid as possible.) He just might find out who I was. They had Google now.

And that’s when I turned and saw Joyce. Death had done her no good. The hair, the cotton-candy fluff so in style at the time, now looked like a hornet’s nest, and her angular features were now more skull than skin. Her eyes were all radiuses and no center, like the ring of condensation left by a glass on a table. They regarded me with disgust.

“Why?” I asked her. “Why did you erase me?”

We spoke in ghost, a whispery language, like mist shaped into words.

“He’ll never know that his father was a druggie greaser who took the best years of his mother’s life and turned them to shit,” she said. “You were a loser. You know what was the best moment of my life? Seeing you put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. I about danced on the blood.”

She pushed me aside. When I attempted to grab her, she turned and nailed me with a right cross. It had the wallop of a dozen butterfly kisses. Hardly Joe Louis stuff, but when you’ve been dead for twenty-five years, the legs are the first to go. I fell to the floor. Recumbent, I watched her step forward and press her weight against the goblet, trying to force it off the mantle and send it down to the brick work below, to shatter before Jack could read its inscription. The goblet moved a fraction of an inch as she pressed against it with one leg back and her arms straight as if she were trying to push a car, like that old Ford I never managed to repair. The plate moved a fraction. I struggled to my feet. I lowered my shoulder and rushed. I tackled her, and we tumbled to the ground. She kneed me in the groin just as Jack entered the room.

Together we paused and watched him read the inscription, and when he frowned, his expression told me I’d gotten what I’d wanted, the curiosity and the faint recognition that would lead him toward me. He would ask questions he hadn’t asked.

“Don’t be a sore loser,” I told her.

She kicked me. We tumbled over and over. That’s when the floor opened and we fell into earth. Writ in grit we descended, soul to sod, writhing in a parody of the dance that had created Jack, and would send us away from this house and into eternity. Free at last, I thought, free and falling into dirt.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired sub teacher from Los Angeles. He is the author of some sixty published essays and stories, his latest fiction is due to appear in DRYLAND. His website is