By Pauli Meinecke
I feel no different than I used to. As my car winds down the familiar exit, I feel like it has only been a couple of days, rather than a year. Everything looks the same on the highway. I pass the same old gas stations and car lots. The odd cluster of RV dealerships pops up out of nowhere and provides the same ironic curiosity. How the hell do they all stay in business so close together?
Once Hanson Boulevard is looming in the distance, all the places I pass suddenly turn into little charms on a bracelet. My memory of the time we went out to eat at Famous Dave’s is now a souvenir: a little, silver rack of ribs jingling against other charms on my proverbial wrist. I roll my eyes at my own nostalgia and covet it at the same time. I hate how I am thinking of the past as the past. I hate how this shift has occurred without my permission. My mind has gone ahead and realized I will never eat at Famous Dave’s with her again. None of anything with her will ever happen again. I hate how I have to accept this.
Finally, I’m off the highway. Driving is stupid. I can’t remember if the speed limit is forty or forty-five. That weird liquor store goes by and all of a sudden, I’m on a road in the middle of the woods and it is like the city is nowhere.
Driving over the railroad tracks, I place my finger on the screw holding up the sun-visor for good luck. It is an old habit from my youth, one of which I do, like religious people believe in God. It does not make sense whenever I truly think about it.
When I pass Sand Creek Park I remember myself at seven years old, and I try to pretend everything is regular. I pass the barber shop with the blinking scissor sign in the window. Its blades open and close constantly, as if people are there all night and day, waiting to cut hair until the sign burns out. Connected to this is Jensen’s: The Store. A sad store. I have not frequented it since I was quite young, not since Cub and Rainbow and Target and Wal-Mart became big business. I think of Jensen’s as a childhood place I know and love, but in reality I have forgotten it almost completely. Still, I pretend.
I look to my right as I pull up to the University Avenue and Foley crossroad where I have to turn. Next to me is Donut Depot, which used to be Dunkin’ Donuts, and next to that is Bromley Printing, which used to be the library. These places I remember vividly. I eye them warily as I finally succeed in my right turn. If I could go back in time to absolutely pilfer one public building, it would be that library. Its books and children’s fiction decorations would be mine.
I see the church sign. Any of the three streets after that take me to the house. Dogwood Street Northwest is peculiarly set. There are three roads you can turn down on Foley to get there. Dogwood lies at the end of all of them, crossing them like a bunch of Ts. To go down the first road would mean a view of the park. The second would end in view of the neighbor’s house, and the third would end in someone’s house we did not know. Whenever we came home from somewhere, Oma would tell us about how there was only one survivor of Princess Diana’s car wreck and he was the only one wearing a seat belt, but when we got to any of these three streets it was okay to take off our belts because we were home. Princess Diana could not be killed on route to Dogwood Street NW, nor could any of us.
It was an important time. Celia and I took shots in the basement before we left my parent’s house, but I didn’t know why. I remember getting there and taking off my shoes like usual. I was wearing socks that my cousin Amy got me for Christmas. I hardly ever talked to Amy, but that day she walked over and hugged me. I was unreceptive to anything, so I hugged her back and acted like all was well and good. I acted as if Oma was there and we were having some sort of get together, and Amy was just being more friendly than usual.
Walking into the kitchen where I would normally be top dog, I took the countenance of a neutral party, a guest. “Oh, what is this? Good dip. The cocktail sauce is empty.” Impersonal meat and cheese trays lined the counter. My cousin Jackie ordered them from a deli. I never saw a dish prepared outside of that kitchen grace its counter before. If I hosted the get-together, and especially if Oma and I hosted, I would have rolled those meat slices myself. The foreign fixings seemed to push me from the room. I could not be around them and I would not. They said something I didn’t want to hear. I headed through the dining room and into the bathroom.
There I was, in the only room left in the house where I could
be alone. It was a place where I could make my mind believe that everything was the same, and I was just in the bathroom. Everything in it remained the same, I guess because everyone still had to use it. Seriously, I could have done it. I could have tricked my mind and I wanted to desperately, but I knew better. I couldn’t possibly try to impose the old as the new, because then I would have to think of my Oma still being here. I would have had to pretend she was in the living room for god sakes, and after my pretending I would have had to deal with it not being true.
I pulled the flask that Chevy got me out of my pants. I kept it between my panty and my hip. Unfortunately, it was made of metal. I tipped back as much as I could, but by god, it was 98.6 degrees. My body had warmed it and it was awful.
Wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, I avoided the mirror and sidled off to a cupboard, the one that had been Oma’s. I looked for her perfume bottle, which I knew wasn’t there. She had thrown it away after the perfume was gone. She hadn’t realized I would later want it.
For the rest of the evening, I had this feeling like I was an unwelcome guest, even though Oma’s house was my home. I felt like I left the house to go to the store, and when I was out the other residents of the house had taken all of my things and put them into a locked room that I wasn’t allowed access to, and then they pretended like they were just trying to keep it all safe. I didn’t understand what the feeling meant, so I comforted myself with the thought that my stuff would be there later. I could just put it back later. Everything would be in its rightful place next time.
I left the house that day not realizing I was never going back. That is what wakes are for. You’re supposed to say goodbye. I didn’t understand that time was important.
I drive slowly down the wintery suburban street encased by houses I know, but in which I know no one. The trees in the yards hang over the street, a beautiful yet perforated shelter, like those of my Minneapolis neighborhood where my mom and dad and siblings and I lived until I was six. The similarity disturbs me. To me, Minneapolis means the past. It means not my life anymore. Minneapolis is a feeling of long lost magic I can only slightly recall, and am unable to further remember. It is a place I pretend I am still deeply connected to, but which I actually know nothing of anymore. I didn’t think that feeling of foreign remembrance would ever occur someplace else, but here it has come and infected Coon Rapids.
Reaching the end of the street, I take in the house. There it sits, same as always, but now it has a yellow sports car in the driveway. It looks ridiculous, like something not from this world, something that doesn’t belong. There is a stranger visiting who needs to leave.
I awkwardly pull the truck in front of the house, and park it in the spot my mother used to use. The spot seems like part of the property to me, and I feel weird sitting there as if the truck and I are in the middle of the yard just hanging out. I tell myself this is still my place, my home. How can I possibly see it any other way? How can I possibly cross the lawn and approach the door as if I’m not supposed to be there, as if the front step doesn’t recognize me, my weight, my presence?
I worry slightly about whether the tires will be able to gain traction on the ice where I have parked, but it is more just a general concern that passes an instant after it occurs; I don’t really care if I can’t leave. For awhile I just stare at what I know, at what is still the same. The flower garden border sticks slightly out of the snow, the same curtains are pulled in the bay window, and the left side gate is closed and locked. The front door light, however, glows a fake looking yellow in the daylight. It’s ten o’clock in the morning. Jak would have been home by now, and he would have turned it off.
A few months after the wake, I started to realize what had happened to me. My Oma, who raised me, who I loved more than anyone, had stopped living. She no longer existed. She was nowhere anymore. Her life was over. My life with her was over. I realized this, but I didn’t really get it.
I went back to her house as soon as I could sneak away. I didn’t want anyone to know about my expedition. I don’t know why. My Uncle Jak, who had lived with her, was selling the house. He had already moved in with Jackie, so the house sat barren of its inhabitants and innards, a showroom for prospective buyers.
I had parked one house down, in front of the park. As I walked up the small hill and onto the front yard, I stopped at the for sale sign and took the brochure out of the realty box. There on the paper was a small picture of the house in all its glory, an eligible bachelor if there ever was one. I folded it up and put it into my pocket without reading what it said.
I felt exposed in the yard, so I walked to the park. Oh, the good ol’ park, it had hardly changed at
all. The only change in over a decade was a new paint job on the big curly slide. I could remember when they first added it to the playground. Oma took Celia and me outside one night after my dad dropped us off. All we had to do to see the park was look across the neighbor’s backyard, and there between the trees was a white mass, the slide of all slides. Right beyond the playground was a hill leading up to a small wooded area filled with oak trees, and right between the hill and the playground was an opening to a long, thin grassy field. It was like an alleyway, but with grass. Along this alleyway sat all of Dogwood Street’s backyards. Most of them had short chain-link fences with gates, including ours.
I walked down to our house and let myself in the gate like it was any other day. I walked right up to the sliding glass door and peeked inside. The small kitchen table had been left behind, but other than that, everything was gone. I could picture strangers coming in and sitting with the realtor at the table, having a discussion like they were in an office or something.
Turning away from it, I sat myself down on the stoop and decided it was time.
I have this thing about crying, which is that I never do it, so whenever I let it come up a little bit, my body treats it like a drug. For once, it is not me poisoning my body, but my body poisoning me. It’s kind of beautiful in a way. Finally, there is some retaliation. My body spends its life fighting against everything that is done to make it weak, but every once in a while, when I just can’t take it anymore, it seizes its moment and empties until there is nothing left.
I started to sob. It made sounds like the ones that come out of children who are at the exhaustive point of their tantrums. I didn’t care I was in public. I almost wanted a neighbor to ask me what was wrong, or to call the cops even. “Yes, hello, there is a girl collapsed at the empty house next door. Could you come and deal with her?” one would say into the phone, while twisting the cord around a finger in discomfort. Then the cops would call my uncle and my cousin and everybody would show up at the house. Cars would fill the driveway, and I would sob and scream at them all, and blame them for everything.
I left the house that day having said goodbye to it, but only to it as a house. Everything the house meant was already gone. I had missed its passing. There was nothing I could do.
I feel dumb sitting out in the car. I just want to go inside for awhile. It is all I want or could ever want. I wonder if anyone would let me in if I asked, but that seems like the beginning of a horror movie. Then again, I’m just a young girl. Who would possibly feel threatened? It’s probably a bad idea, though. It wouldn’t be what I want anyways, which is my house. I decide I might as well just do what I came here to do.
Opening the cab, I get out onto the street. It is a street I’ve walked a hundred times to the park, to school, everywhere. I remember the summer I was six. A squirrel was run over a few feet from where I am standing. His carcass was an object of curiosity for all of us kids in the neighborhood. We examined his remains with interest. I don’t remember why it seemed so exciting, but I guess because it was right there, in front of our houses. We could get right up close and truly stare for however long we wanted. Eventually, it got run over so many times, its form became indiscernible, and then winter came on and we all forgot about it. In spring, I remember seeing this splotch on the road once the snow had melted and thinking the squirrel was still there. At least, whatever shred of a living creature that could remain. I’m not sure if it really was the squirrel, though.
On the way to the house, I had stopped and picked up a small pot of poinsettias. I didn’t think there would be any left in the store because it was January, and most people bought poinsettias before Christmas. Fortunately, there were still a few small pots in a cart. I picked the least sad one, and congratulated myself on saving it from the destiny of the other Christmas castoffs.
Holding it in one hand, I walk up the driveway. I can’t help but feel suspicious. I look around and see no one, but I know from experience that that means nothing. Anyone could be watching. I want it to still feel like my second home. The home I spent half my childhood in. I wish I was as comfortable as I felt I had the right to be, but I couldn’t hide it from myself.
Setting the flower next to the step in a hole in the snow, I allow myself a few moments.
“I miss you, Oma,” I say.
As I drive away, I think about the people in the house finding the poinsettia. I wonder if they will take it in, and let it live. I wonder what they will think when I do the same thing next year. Will they remember how last year they found a poinsettia on their doorstep? I wonder how long it will take them before they pinpoint the date the flowers arrive every year.
Pulling out on Foley, I desperately wish I could stick around town. I wish I could spend my whole day going everywhere that reminds me of her and my time here. Thinking logically, I realize this would take more than a day, and I have to get to work. I just don’t have time.
Pauli Meinecke was born and raised in Minnesota. She will graduate in 2013 with a BFA.