By Dennis Staples
My nose is no stranger to mold. The trailer that sits in the driveway of my home is filled with it. It looks older than it probably is. I don’t know when it was bought—I just lived in it. The windows were never in good shape. Some were plastic, and the glass ones were always cracked. Strips of duct tape kept some of them together, and others were just thick, plastic-like fog, keeping the cold air and insects out. The front door had to be kept shut with a rope tied to a handle on the outside. For a summer, this trailer was my home.
The rug was rough and often covered in dirt. I cleaned it when I gained the motivation, which was admittedly hard during the summer. To me, only night is good for cleaning when day makes metal canisters into ovens. Even when I swept and vacuumed the rug, it still looked grungy. It was light brown like the ground after a rainstorm. Frayed, plastic ends were worms, crawling and trying to make their way across the landscape, only to die in obscurity.
The trailer belonged to my step-father, who was in prison at the time. I was fifteen when it made its way back to our yard. I had no idea where it had been since the last time I saw it years ago. Parts of our life, big or small, had been scattered to the wind when the storm that took my step-father away hit us. Some things, like the trailer, found their way back, and others were things that could never be returned. The trailer came back and was filled with someone else’s fragments of life: clothes, tapes, and cans of commodity foods.
I was sixteen when I moved out of my house and into the trailer for that summer. It was a bold and daring move, a whole twenty feet from the kitchen. My grandma would wake me up in the mornings if I slept too long, even if it was the summer. I had the trailer arranged nicely for me. My guitar sat in a case against the bed that folded into a table and two seats. During the day I would read about a man named Shadow to try and forget about the heat, and at night I would pluck the strings of my guitar until too many bugs were attracted to the light in the windows.
At six years old I stared at the chimney of our new house, waiting for the smoke to rise into the sky. Having a fireplace and a chimney was new and exciting to me after living in two houses with electric heat. The chimney stack was made of gray cement blocks with a rusty orange end where the smoke came out. The gray winter sky above called to the smoke, but it was gone before it could drift high enough to blend in.
In the basement we chopped firewood with an ax held together with tattered duct tape. The dark gray floor is chipped in places where the blade smashed against it. The steps and rail are made of light yellow wood after they were redone, by I don’t know who. Some family friend that knew a little about construction, no doubt. Now the steps are dark from mud and look as old as the steps they replaced.
The wood stove isn’t what I expected to find. When I first moved in, I wanted a big stone fireplace that might also be a secret passageway, but instead I found a metal box, rust on every side, and a handle with a silver, coiled end like a honey dipper. The lock mechanism doesn’t work properly and it doesn’t say shut unless it’s slammed. Below the chamber where the blocks of wood burn is a drawer where the ashes fall. When it’s full we empty into a nearby trashcan. When that’s full, we dump into the woods by the house, although after a few years I can’t tell if the gray piles are ash or cat litter.
Christmas at my house has congealed into one memory, no matter the gift, no matter what family was around. It’s less like a memory and more like a song that plays in my head over and over. The sounds and smell of the wood stove is always there. It’s the skein that connects all my memories of winter. Any campfire, no matter the weather, takes my mind flying back to the basement and the sound of the motor fanning out the smoke and heating the house. My favorite cologne is fire, and I wear it as often as I can.
The Open Door
How many total people have lived at my house since we moved in? I don’t know the number. Were they all family members, or family friends, or just drifters? My immediate family stay here now: my mom Karen, my dad David, my brothers Miles and Mackensie, my sister Brittany and her children, my nephews Jameson and Isaiah, and my brother-in-law Jon. My brother Anthony is in the Cities for college, and my sister Samantha just moved out. I still live here even though I’m at school, and I think I will always live here even if I’m not physically living here. Grandma lived here, and part of me wishes she had died here instead of a nursing home at five in the morning with no loved ones around.
There are many other names. I’ve tried listing all the family that have lived or just crashed here for a short time, and it’s not easy. I don’t really know how I’m related to some of them, and some I don’t even know their real names. We moved in when I was around seven, and even now I don’t understand how a small house could keep so many people over the years. It’s like a beehive, and I know we’ve all felt the stings. What I loved about my grandmother but also disliked is that she kept our door open to anyone who needed a place to stay if they were family.
This house is kept in place by a strong cement foundation, and it’s kept up by weak walls that are filled with holes and windows that have broken over the years and a door that can’t seem to stay shut all the time. It’s housed the family that I love and those I don’t and a few I hate. It’s only a matter of time before some part of this foundation we’ve built gives way, and even when it does, it will still feel like home to me.
One year when I was around ten, I used the blue and gold garden claw to till the grass into four plots of bare soil in the backyard in the shape of a name.
I planted carrots first, and when they didn’t grow, I planted cucumbers. It was a little late in the season, but by time the fall came along, they were decent-sized, perfect for pickling. I can’t eat cucumbers—not with salt, not in a salad, not on a sandwich. I just don’t like them. But this garden wasn’t for me.
My grandmother and my aunt liked to sit back there near the little name-shaped garden. I was closer to my aunt then; it was for her that I made the garden. The name was one close to her, one lost to her much too early. Tony. I honestly don’t even recall much about him, but I do remember the way my aunt fell apart when he died.
The backyard is much more open than the front, where there are trees no more than ten feet away from each other on both sides of the driveway. The only place where there are no trees is the two hills that are on each side of the driveway which, in the darkness, makes for dangerous backing out. Many cars have gotten stuck in the ditch.
Even more cars got stuck around the yard in all directions. Our driveway extends all the way back to another road, one that isn’t tarred. The last twenty yards or so passes through the woods, and at various times there were broken down cars parked back there. Some of the parked cars were closer to the house. When the number of vehicles in our yard was at its peak I’m sure we looked like we were a used car lot. I don’t remember what kind they were but I do remember my brother once broke his wrist when he crashed his child-sized motorcycle into one of them. There is a scar on his wrist that looks like a headless millipede.
In the center of the backyard was the large garden that we had one year only. Over the years it fell into disarray, eventually disappearing back into the grass and weeds altogether. It was still there when I made the garden in the shape of the name that can still bring my aunt to tears, especially when their song plays.
Over the years I think we’ve just had to accept that we’re not meant to be gardeners.
Our floor isn’t finished.
Years ago a family friend started renovating the entire kitchen floor with patterned wood instead of the pale yellow linoleum tiles with ugly octagonal vines. I’ve heard it said that the final part of the process wasn’t completed, which is why over the years the floor has gone the way of the rest of the house, even though it’s newer.
The cupboards are falling apart. Everything is falling apart. When something breaks and needs to be replaced, one of us will say, “We need a new,” referring to what broke but then finish with “house.” And it’s true. Where we keep the canned food the wood is rotted and weak. The top part of the shelf where we keep the oil and sugar is broken off from one of my younger brothers climbing on it. Directly above that is the spice cupboard filled with all manners of bottles that will never be used. To the left is another shelf that sits right above the stove and is darkly stained from heat rising from below. The cupboards aren’t supposed to be so ugly; they are actually rather nice when cleaned, like they were carved from golden trees the elves live in. My grandma was the only one who ever cleaned them when I was a child.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way my grandmother yelled at me.
Sometimes when I’m in the kitchen cooking pancakes or baking, I can hear her voice even though she’s gone. She had good reason to yell; I was a lazy little shit. When she wanted me to clean I would avoid it as long as I could. Sometimes I would give in but most of the time she would just give up. She called me LB, Lazy Boy. She’s still not wrong.
It was a fight to get me to do the dishes. I hate washing dishes and I will do anything to avoid it. Except whenever I buy a new CD by a band I really like; I put the music on and stay in the kitchen and wash for at least two album cycles.
What annoyed my grandma most about my lack of dishwashing was that I loved cooking. She would only let me cook if I promised to clean up afterward. The first time I ever tried when I was around nine she was there, making sure I didn’t mess up. I used a large doorstopper book called The Joy of Cooking and learned how to make pancakes.
The first was splotchy and soaked in grease. The second was the most evenly-cooked and smooth pancake I’ve ever seen. I wanted to forget the pan and the batter and just eat it right then, but my grandma made me continue. I’m glad she did because now I can cook pancakes better than anyone else in my house. That’s my one skill in the kitchen, and I flaunt it like a sash and scepter.
In The Woods, The Graveyards
Trees surround our yard, and walking in each direction leads to a dead pet.
When stepping out the front door, walking straight ahead and veering slightly the right, Clark is buried. He was a good dog, and an absolute weirdo. When I would play guitar, he would walk over to my bed and just watch me, waiting for me to stop singing and give him attention. There’s a tattered couch somewhere in a junkyard that knows all about him. It wasn’t a good couch to begin with, old and more fragile than yarn, but Clark made it worse when he rolled on his back all over the cushions and growled in strange doggish pleasure. Sometimes I would go over to him during his couch time and playfully swat at his front paws. He growled back at me like a chainsaw, but never bit me. Unfortunately he did nip a young runner’s legs on the street in front of our house. I don’t think I’ve visited his grave in a while.
Going more to the right of his grave about ten yards is Gunther. He has his own cross that a cousin of mine built when he died. We haven’t had a dog as good as Gunther was, before or after he died. From what I remember, he was found abandoned in our old neighborhood by my grandma. Right around that time, my sister found another dog that would grow up with Gunther and all of us kids as a sister, and her name was Alexis. She was the wild child, always chasing cars and running away. What Gunther would do that made him so memorable was chase Alexis in the ditch and push her away from the road when she was trying to chase cars. He hadn’t been taught to do it as far as I know. He was just a good dog in spirit. My mom suspects he might have been poisoned, but that’s a theory I wouldn’t want to be true.
Near Gunther’s grave is a small mound with a ring of rocks around it, and inside the rings more rocks spelling out the word Oreo. She was a black and white cat, somewhat unaffectionate from what I remember, and a wanderer. I put an Oreo cookie on her grave the day she was buried, and the next morning it was gone. Some people I know might say her spirit accepted it as an offering, and others might say any animal wandering by did it. I say it was a sweet sentiment, but maybe a waste of a cookie.
I didn’t bury Little T. He was just a pup when a truck ran him over and didn’t stop. Then another car came right after that did the same. We didn’t have a shovel, or I couldn’t find it, or maybe no one cared, but he was wrapped in a blanket and placed inside a hole where a Bobcat dug up dirt to fill in our driveway. It’s always been bumpy and full of potholes. I haven’t been back to T’s shallow grave in years; he’s on the other side of the woods all alone.
Alexis is in a small box inside our house. She is ashes.
Alexis is the dog we had the longest, the one who would never listen, barely even in her old age. The dog that smelled like rain and old carpet and family. Less of a dog and more of a sister I knew since I was ten. We called her Lexygirl. She was always excitable and willing to chase cars and rabbits out of our yard. When I gave her a Frisbee, she would sometimes throw it in the air to herself. I wrestled on the ground with her, swam in the same lake, and walked the same woods and miles of road with her.
When I found out her leg was run over and she would have to be put down, I told my roommate about it. He smiled and said, “Want me to shoot it for you?” I gave back a silent stare filled with the anger that causes me to do stupid things. In a calm voice filled with ice and malice I said, “When one of your family members is dying from cancer, I will make you the same offer.”
In the backyard my younger brothers (and I when I was younger) explored the worlds that only children can see. The hidden worlds where no adults are around to ruin the fun. Where everything is safe, at least as safe as boys could ever want it to be. But a child’s playground is also an adult’s, and adults play a much different game.
I was thirteen when I began to loathe my cousin. It was a cold summer morning. Lines of rusted wires sprawled across the backyard lawn like dead snakes and covered the already-spiky grass like a sharpened spider web.
In the center of the yard was a fire pit still smoldering from last night’s idiocy, and in a ring around the ash and charred logs were half-empty green beer bottles. My cousin was still up and definitely drunk, going to each bottle and shaking every last drop he could find into a large plastic mug with faded writing. What he got was a dark brown mixture of flat beer, saliva that might not be his own, and contempt. I saw him staggering around, and I allowed myself to hate.
I wasn’t around when it happened. I only heard the drunken laughter from inside the house. This middle-aged drunken mess of a man threw a car tire right on top of the flames.
I could just imagine black sludge melting into the ground and the poisoned air reaching into the sky, just like his disgusting lungs after too many joints, pills, gasoline or whatever else he was huffing in those days.
The wires from the burnt tire ended up strewn across the yard, ready to be trampled on by the feet of my younger brothers and nephews. I’m sure in his drunken stupor, or even later when he was as sober as he could get, he didn’t care.
I only need to remember him, and all the other family members like him, to know why I don’t drink.
The Secret Bucket
There’s a corner of the yard where no one really goes. When I was really young, probably around nine, I used to find bottles of motor oil, washer fluid, coolant, and other vehicle chemicals just lying about. There was a bucket that already held some old oil, so I started to fill it with all the other bottles. It made a pale green mixture that smelled like poison and nail polish. The little bits of brown oil never mixed in properly, no matter how many times I stirred it with a stick. One day it finally occurred to me that if someone caught me doing this, I would be in trouble.
I tipped it over and the sludge poured onto the grass and into the ground.
Dennis Staples is an undergraduate student at BSU majoring in creative and professional writing and the winner of the 2014 W. D. Elliott Creative Writing Scholarship. His favorite genres to read and write are high fantasy and science fiction. Mad Scientist Journal will publish some of his work in the fall of 2014.