Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Patricia Dubrava is a writer who has lived in a century-old Victorian house in an inner-city Denver neighborhood for the past fifteen years. Others of her articles about this experience have appeared in The Denver Post and The St. Petersburg Times. Her second book of poems, Holding The Light, was a finalist for the 1995 Colorado Book Awards. Two of her poems appeared in Weber Studies in 1997. She has an M.A. in English from the University of Colorado at Denver and teaches at Denver School of the Arts.
Shoved into corners of the attic as insulation, besides rags and old curtains, we found balled sheets of yellowed newspapers which cracked apart like almonds when we tried to open them. Florid headlines shrieked that Pancho Villa had invaded the U. S. The year was 1916, and this house was twenty years old. When we discovered the newspapers, our ownership could be measured in months.
Buying such a house in such a neighborhood (then, largely black, with many abandoned, boarded up homes and a high crime rate) had nothing to do with matters of principle, although, like many in our situation, we soon espoused inner city, culturally diverse living as the morally superior choice. We bought it because it was the most house we could get for the little money we had at the time. We were artists, working freelance. We were poor. People with more investment sense would've gone for less house in a better location. Not us. All I could think of was the four bedrooms, one for my husband to paint and do graphic design in, one for me to write in, and one to spare. We assembled our friends and rolled up our sleeves.
Ward Thomas The house has not had a history of good stewardship. It has changed hands many times, been a rental, and was vacant the last year before we bought it. A combination of cheap fixes, neglect, and vandalism meant we had a lot of work to do. Each repair produced its artifact.
In a dark crevice behind the bathroom pipes, a half dozen pairs of crumpled women's underwear were stashed, stained with the flat brown of dried blood. My initial repulsion dissipated when I visualized the teenage girl, her inability to deal with blood and its intimidating evidence of her own maturation. How could she hope to get these awful panties past her mother, who would rant about laziness, the need to wash them out and whether money to buy underwear grows on trees? She couldn't even bear the bloody sight of them, found that hole in the wall under the sink with the relief of escaping from a trap.
Because the house was vandalized while vacant, it bore the scars of violence. The shattered windows, even the torn-out light fixtures, seemed understandable, impersonal, the actions of young boys, for whom pointless destruction is irresistible. The bedroom and bathroom doors were more disturbing: kicked in bottom panels, split wood around knobs and locks. I imagined a child locked in the bathroom to escape punishment, Mother pleading, Father angrily kicking, the door splintering. Or a woman, locking herself in the bedroom during a fight with her husband. But the only thing I know for sure is the source of the deep, repeated claw marks on the basement door. A dog was locked there and tried frantically to dig its way back into the house.
All except the dog's record of imprisonment might have been random acts. Still, when we first came to clean, repair and paint, the evidence of violence was unsettling. We and the friends who came to help us almost instinctively took cleansing actions, burnt candles and incense, talked of casting out bad vibrations and blessing the house, played Bach cantatas, placed spiritual icons around the rooms. "We are acting like superstitious primitives," I observed, but it seemed to work, aided by new paint and sparkling window panes. By the time we moved in, the house welcomed us.
Except for the basement. The basement was unfinished, dirty, crisscrossed with dust-covered cobwebs. Beyond the small section which accommodates the furnace and hot water heater, the bulk of it lurks dimly behind brick walls with ragged openings like dark mouths. Through these gapping holes, the dirt appears, stretching away into blackness. Between the dirt and the floor boards above, is a crawl space three feet high. "There are at least two bodies buried in there," one friend wagered, peering into crawl space night.
We locked the door and pretended it didn't exist, but this approach never solves any problem. Eventually, brave but grim-faced workmen entered the dungeon to do battle there, but none returned with the anticipated buried treasure or crushed skulls. Instead, inexplicably, we recovered an empty ceramic jar which once held turpentine ointment. According to its faded label, it was good for everything from cold sores to lumbago, from burns to whooping cough. It also was recommended for insect bites, croup, and made a delightful after shave, all for 25 cents. If you had a jar of Turpo, you needed nothing else.
Before putting in a fence, we removed the concrete that covered half the backyard. Then we dug up bricks and more bricks, a double row of soft red bricks. First someone put down a layer of bricks, then someone put another. Dirt drifted over them, weeds grew through them, and then someone spread a layer of concrete, thinking, "That'll fix it!" And so three generations of men were come and gone.
When we came, the concrete was cracked and crumbling, the weeds tall through it, dirt filling its hollows. Now we've taken weeds and concrete and bricks away and raked through the remains to find bits of glass, rusted nails, corroded pipes. Up near the surface, we gathered pop-top tabs and marbles—a small jarful of them—and the jawbone of a dog. (The same dog which was locked in the basement?) We found a shattered bit of crude wood carving: a fist holding the handle of something broken off, incomplete. Thin, pink plastic perm curlers. And glass, slivers and chunks, in bottle green and brown and clear—endless bits of glass. My neighbor said, "I have lived here ten years, and every spring when I turn over the flower beds, I find more glass."
Beneath the first layer of bricks, I uncovered spark plugs with fancy old type on ceramic, dated July, 1918. The man who removed these spark plugs is dead and his child who watched him do it is an old man, and this house was just twenty-something, when these spark plugs were removed. By then Pancho Villa had long since vanished into the northern Mexico desert where Pershing's army never found him.
Excited by the discovery of the spark plugs, I say they are as important as the shards of poverty archaeologists find. A Freudian slip. I meant pottery, of course. But I'm not far off. We've been digging up the detritus of the transient tenant, the blue collar worker, the traces of the ordinary people whose lives passed through this old house in the last hundred years. Nothing museum worthy will be found here. None who lived here are likely to attract the notice of historians. Now I reside within its freshly cleaned brick walls and ten-foot ceilings, in the neighborhood which is becoming as prosperous as it was when the house was built. But I'll only be here for a while. And when I'm gone, the house will remain.
The essay is a modest genre. It doesn't mean to change the world. Instead it says: let me tell you what happened to me. The world shrinks and the self bloats. Here in academia, people get bent out of shape about the genre. Not all people. Not the cafeteria workers, not the cleaning staff, not the administrative staff, but COME ON! Who's the university for? Forget those people. We're in the English Department now, we are cruising its halls of hallowedness, we are bumping into people at the mailboxes and saying hello. ("Hello!" "Hello! How's your book going?") And we—a pronoun now rapidly shrinking into me—we are trying to explain to the feminist materialist, and the queer theorist who is also Marxist, and the post-colonial scholar who is also friendly, that we study the essay, a transhistorical objet d'art—that this, this is what all that fellowship money is going for. — Sara Levine, "The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss," Puerto del Sol, Summer 1999, p. 28-29