In November a man named Richard Bixby contacted Amelia Jackson, former Amelia Rivers, to ask if she wanted to sell.
“I don’t know,” she told him over the phone, “I didn’t want to, but I haven’t been back in years.”
“I would be interested, if you would give me a price. We live half a mile up the road and our son and his family want to move near us. Your house would need some fixing, but I’m sure there’s still plenty of life in it.”
Amelia sighed. Her husband had been asking for years why she didn’t sell the place. “Your son has a family, you said? Are the children young?”
“Yes, he was two little girls and a boy between ten and two.”
“I’d like to go look it over again before I let you know. I’ll call you in a week or so.”
She put down the phone and looked out the window where her own boys were playing in the yard. She hadn’t gone back since she became the owner of the old house. None of the others had wanted the bother of keeping or disposing of it, but she hadn’t wanted it to go to strangers.
That night she told her husband about the call and taking a trip to look the house over.
“You’ll have to tell me what to ask for it if I decide to sell; I have no idea.”
“You’re really thinking of selling? After all these years?” He asked, looking at her in surprise.
“It’s not doing anyone any good right now. I just couldn’t stand the idea of anyone else living there. It was our house, and we were so different. Anyway, I want to go see it again before I make up my mind.”
“Alright. You go and we’ll be fine.” He put his arms around her from behind, his chin bent down on her shoulder. The boys were in bed, the dishes were done, and the living room was clean enough to wait.
Amelia drove the twelve hours to her family home on Friday. She got a hotel room in town and drove out to look at it on Saturday. The old dirt road winding up the hill was smoother than when she was a child. She remembered riding in the back of the old blue pickup with a load of gravel and buckets of water, shoveling gravel into the potholes, pouring on water, and letting the little ones stomp on them.
She pulled into the driveway. Grass was grown up around the base of the rust-colored boards. She saw the place where she used to grow daisies in a ring of stones. She’d called it her rock row.
Amelia climbed out of the car. She looked up at the house, the windows dark, dusty curtains pulled over them from the inside. Instead of going in, she walked to the road. A little way up the road was a wide field with three tall radio towers, two painted red and white, the third silver. The silver one was built when she was five, and she used to sit on the porch for hours and watch the construction teams passing, sitting between the orange railings, gripping them and leaning back and forth, pretending it was a swing.
Amelia walked back to the house and up the porch steps, resting her hand on the railing. The rails were broken now in places, and the rusty orange paint peeled back in long strips. She paused at the brown door and took out her key. She slid it into the keyhole and turned it slowly. She pushed the door open and stepped inside. The dim light coming through the closed curtains made everything look like it was covered with a layer of gray carpet. Amelia walked in and pulled open the curtains in the living room, sending up spirals of dust. In the light, she looked at the room. Where she was standing there used to be a couch, and across from it, a piano. The TV went in the far corner, beside it the window looking out on the driveway and beside them the crates of games. The rocking chair was supposed to be next to the piano, with a shelf of books beside it, all the children’s favorites, that they first had read to them, then read to themselves, and then to the ones younger. Amelia thought of the spindly potted tree her brother had kept by the window and smiled. He’d kept it alive against all odds until he moved away and it died. Now the room was empty and ordinary. The carpet was musty, and the floor was warped from years of freezing and thawing.
She walked into the kitchen. The oven was still there, built into the wall next to the space for the fridge. There was the counter with the cutting board that pulled out like a shelf. The stove top was next to it, and the sink with the dishwasher underneath that had never washed dishes but worked well for storing dirty ones. Amelia stood in the place where the big round table used to be and laughed remembering the dishwasher. The little brown switch had been just at eye-level for her, and she liked to flip it back and forth, turning the red light on and off.
From the kitchen she walked down the hall, past the laundry room and the little green bathroom with the slates still hanging on the walls with paintings of wood ducks on them. At the end of the hall was her parents’ bedroom. This room’s bareness seemed the strangest of all. The living room and kitchen had been rearranged at times, but the bedroom never. The bed always sat at the front end of the room, commanding everything else, with a long dresser against the wall covered in odds and ends; old photos, a green beaded vase, baskets and carved birds, papers and handkerchiefs. Beside where the bed used to be, was the stain, still impossible to remove, from when the boys spilled a can of green paint on the carpet while their parents were at a movie. The end of the room had a long space opening into the wall, and this had been the closet. The clothes hung down from a rack, leaving space below for storage. It was where the baby slept every time a new baby came, tucked in the cardboard box crib. The crib was a large box, painted white, with colored handprints from all the older children pressed on around it. It sat snugly on the floor, the clothes several feet above, hanging over it like a shelter. Amelia sat down in the empty space in the closet and ran her hands across the carpet, now remembering running into the bedroom every morning to see the new baby, having to reach up to turn the doorknob.
She climbed the stairs. The upper story of the house had been the children’s domain for the most part. That was where they lived and worked if they weren’t outside. First the living room, full of desks, dollhouses, baskets of yarn, bookshelves, chairs, the big box computer where they played Sonic and Oregon Trail on Sunday nights, the beanbag… But when Amelia walked in, it was just another room. She had known it would be like this, but she still had expected it all to be there. Even the things that were now in her own house, she had imagined would be here in their old places. She turned quickly from the living room to the bedrooms, boys’ and girls’, built back to back, mirror images of each other. Amelia walked into the room she had shared with her sisters. It was so much smaller than she remembered. How had it held all the things they kept there? The bunk bed, the dresser, the shelves. Her own bed had been a pullout mattress, kept under the bunk bed in the day and pulled out at night. To Amelia, it was like an island, surrounded by cold, hard floor, cutting her off from everywhere. Her stuffed animals surrounded her on either side, pulled out from the wire toy crate by her head. At night, when she was in bed first, waiting for her sisters to come, but usually falling asleep before they did, she stared up at the light fixture and thought about the day. Bouncing on the trampoline with Ted, watching the boys ride their bikes, being caught eating brown sugar, standing on a chair rinsing dishes between Iris and Eliza, having spaghetti for supper, how Ted liked the song she made up.
Amelia went over to the place where the wall formed a closet like that in her parents’ room, only smaller, a depression several feet long. It matched up to the one in the boy’s room, even sharing the wall. It had a secret. When Amelia was little, a thick hedge of clothes hung over it and only she knew it was there. It was still there, exposed now, a small hole on the back wall. She bent down where she used clamber up on the built-in bench, and put her eye to it. She could see into the boys’ room. Like the girls room, it had had a bunk bed, with a mattress under it for Ted to pull out at night. This hole had been her and Ted’s secret. They communicated through it in the early morning hours, poking their fingers through and wiggling them, or putting their eyes to the hole to see, or their mouths to whisper plans. Amelia stood up and turned around. Mr. Bixby would only see this as a too-small, dingy room with a water stained ceiling, cracked tile, and a hole in the wall. This place that used to be a wonderland every time she woke up in the morning. Suddenly she ran out of the room, down the stairs, through the hall and kitchen and out the door. She closed it behind her and went down the porch steps. She closed her eyes. She tried to image it was winter. It was dark, and the cold stung her cheeks. Snow was on the ground, glowing in the orange porch light. The house was lit up, every window throwing down a rectangle of bright warmth against the snow.
They’re all in there, she said to herself. They’re all there. Iris is at her desk, drawing. Gary is lying on his bed listening to music, Eliza is in our room sitting on the floor reading a book. Clarence is bent over a clipboard, neatly writing out the answers to calculus problems. Ted is sitting in front of the TV, a remote control in his hands, walking through other worlds. An empty place is beside him, waiting for me to come back to travel the worlds with him. Sandy is sitting on the couch, a brightly colored book in her lap, reading aloud to Harmony who sits beside her, juice bottle glued to her mouth, their feet sticking straight out above the floor. Daddy and Mama are downstairs, doing whatever important stuff it is they do. Everyone is there.
Amelia opened her eyes. No one was there. It didn’t even look like the same house. And it wasn’t, really.
She drove home that same day. She would sell the old house, and another family could live there, and maybe they would feel the way she had. She hoped they would. She hoped that when the children grew up they would be as happy as she was.
Amelia got home late that night. All the lights in the house were on, throwing patches of light on the grass. When she opened the door, her husband kissed her and the boys hugged her tight around her waist and legs. She touched a shoulder, a cheek, soft hair. She closed the door behind her. Everyone was there.