The Haunted House

by Elise Hempel

Hemple-houseIt took about a week to sell my house. The real estate agent came in and took a look around, we arrived at a price, there were a handful of showings, a few offers were made, and counter-offers, and it was done. If you list at a low enough price and use a few euphemisms (my house had “good bones,” for example, and my spider-webbed back porch with no door – ripped from its hinges in a storm – was a “sunroom”), it's a piece of cake.

Then came afterward. My daughter had already started clearing out her things back in July, as she prepared to join her boyfriend in Texas, and I'd begun my own, more severe clearing out in November (dining-room table, a bed? – who needs those?). But now I had to do the “deep cleaning,” the hands-and-knees phase where you discover that your house had all along been merely a roofed dumpster. Now I had to scrape from the kitchen junk drawer an amazing number of somehow-glued-down pennies. And figure out what to do with a thousand Aeropostle and Abercrombie bags my daughter had accumulated over the years and I'd stuffed into the closet, removing them in a compact “closet shape” like can-shaped cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving. I had to sift through boxes of tossed photographs, and all of my daughter's artwork I'd saved since her birth, some of it bearing her crayoned command SAVE, KEEP, like an official government stamp, which I'd obviously obeyed. Most of it I'd meticulously dated and labeled myself (“first drawing of a smile,” “first drawing of a smile with cheek marks,” etc., etc.). It took a long time. But I savored my tunneling journey into the time-capsule, the little “treasures” I kept finding, like my daughter's black and shriveled pacifier at the back of a kitchen cupboard, or a dusty dog-chew that had rolled under my dresser out of a snout's reach.

I should have done it as my brother had with his own house several years ago – toss it all into a pod, some storage lockers, and call it a day. But I had time, at least a month, until closing. Each day, I'd leave my boyfriend's house around 10 a.m. and linger at my own house until 4 p.m. I'd eat lunch at my house, take my dog, Groucho, for a walk on our usual routes, wander through the widening rooms and gaze out the windows, sit and write my melancholy poems.

I'd bring things to my boyfriend's house gradually – some knick-knacks one day, all of my coats the next, the phone and its table (yes, I still have a landline!), the cat. I used almost a whole day to have my cable TV disconnected and return my equipment (then part of the next day desperately trying to find a digital converter to give me TV again). I did it slowly, leisurely. I absorbed my house, trying to stall both the future's claim on it and the impending vacuum of the past.

Closing arrived, of course – a few papers to sign, and that was it. And I'm getting used to life here at my boyfriend's house, though I'm still reaching in the wrong drawer for a fork. But once a week, on my way home from the store, I still drive through my old neighborhood with Groucho, hoping not to be seen by my neighbors. Not much has changed yet. Still no door on the back porch, and that big construction dumpster still hunkered in my driveway. (How long will it take the new owners to dispose of my nonchalance – the stained carpeting, the cabinets with hanging handles, the 70s popcorn ceiling, with its glittering gold “stars” we lived just fine beneath for 17 years?) And the whole house still a dingy pale-yellow. I'm actually hoping, on one of my secret drive-bys, I'll see that the house has been painted red or blue or brown. Maybe a different color will finally activate some switch, telling me the house is no longer mine, releasing me from its spell….

Until that happens, my old neighbors will report to each other weekly sightings of a strange hooded woman crouched at the wheel of a silver Pontiac Vibe, a black-and-white dog snout jutting from the back-seat window, as she drifts past the cul-de-sac yet again.