White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
WHITE WHALE REVIEW
Emily Kiernan
A native of a decaying Pennsylvania steel town (the one from the Billy Joel song), Emily Kiernan writes about islands, vaudeville, implacable but unjustified feelings of abandonment, The West, and places that aren't the way she remembered them. Her work has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. More information can be found at emilykiernan.com.

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The Grand Tour

Emily Kiernan

 

In the attic there was a ghost. We named him Levi. Aunt Sarah named him Levi on the night when she was a teenager and she awoke screaming, feeling that a hand had been touching her, a man’s hand on her hair and her face and her throat. Everyone had come running except my father, who slept through it, who slept through everything. Perhaps she did not name him Levi then, but later, when they learned that this was the name of the man who had built the house, some old man who had once lived in the house, before any of us were born. There was no ghost in the attic, but Levi was the name we gave to the mystery of the place—the timelessness. It was worst in the attic—boxes stacked and never opened, pressed in towards the bed with the quilted cover, out of place and barely holding ground against the dark stone of the walls and the slant of the roof. Across the room was the card table, big and heavy, dark wood, ancient armchairs, and on the walls a row of swords—decorative, ornate, the place like a

meeting room of generals in some old time and place, like a house decorated to remind some old general of the old places he had been. Perhaps it reminded Levi too, or reminded us of him and of the feeling that the place was all a ghostly figure of a place that had been before, and our living in it a kind of seance.

On the card table I laid out the diaries one by one. Leather-bound, gilt-edged, unread. Along with them I placed the pictures of my grandmother, the ones from her wedding where she looked so beautiful and where I can make so little sense of her, can so little imagine her living in the actuality of this place or of any place. I imagine Levi at my shoulder, rustling the pages.

Let’s go down. The bedrooms are below, Mikey’s to the left, and my grandfather’s in front of you, then Sarah’s, if your turn your head, though she does not sleep there now. To the left now please, because in Mikey’s rooms there are strings of number taped to the wall, etched in pencil on long brown strips he cuts from paper bags. Like most people with his condition he is remarkably cheerful, but the room shows something else—an anxiety, a


need to keep track. He changes the strips every few days; it is a running tally, read from left to right, top to bottom. A flowing marker, a progress chart. The stretch of papers obscures the wall behind—a mural in greens and yellows, a train curving over the crest of a sunny hill, the valley beyond. Inside the closet doors are other strips, these with words in place of numbers—the names of actors, a clutter of adjectives, fragments of language carefully copied from the TV Guide. All round are bags of paper, the raw components of the art. Under the desk are the fresh strips, not yet marked, on top the finished work waiting to be mounted. Around the room at intervals you may find the old pieces; their purpose served, they will soon be ushered out to the back field, where they will be burned in an old metal drum kept for that purpose. Before this disposal each piece is carefully dissected, figure by figure, into a kind of dour confetti—he keeps a sharp scissors on his desk for the job. Everything is in its place. If you came into this room you would make a joke (we all have done it) about some secret system, some trick he’s played, some special knowledge he’s been gifted with. But Michael has not been gifted. The thought is ludicrous. It is absurd.

Let’s go down again, another flight—just peak in the other bedrooms as we pass, not much to see, quiet and still, the wood is dark, but there is yellow paint on the windowsills. Come into the kitchen, it’s brighter here. Nothing has come or gone from this room in years, which is true elsewhere too but more of a shock here, where the traffic is heavier, where we sometimes gather. Or rather, much has been brought in and out, but nothing has yet upset the basic geography, the picnic table by the door with its red-checked cloth, and the long butcher block in the center of the room, knotty old wood, anchored with a large cookie jar which once predictably dispensed fudge squares, but doesn’t now (so there, afterall is a change). Behind you on the cupboard is a bowl of fake fruit. This fascinates me.

Look out the front door now. Stand on the porch for a moment. We appear quite classical from this vantage—quite pastoral. In front of you is the dinner bell, but don’t bother trying—it doesn’t make the sound you want. Out beyond is the wishing well, and across the road a fence with horses behind it. They are wary, though, and do not often come to dangle their thin necks over the boards, to grasp at


the uncut weeds beyond. Mostly you will just hear them now and again—snorts and squeals, sparring noises—or catch the swishing of their tails off by the treeline. The house across the road belongs to Charlie Butz, and I’ve heard the horses are his daughter’s. It’s a more beautiful house than ours, richer, softer, less matched to the history of the land. Brick not stone, long not tall, cellarless. I’ve always admired the grapevines out front, the wisteria climbing the walls. I am a grown woman when Charlie Butz dies, and only then do I realize that I’ve never met him, never seen him, never sensed even a shadow of movement behind the bubbled glass windows or caught a body shading beneath the cherry trees. I’d never until then imagined I might—he struck me as no different than the horses, a kind of ornament, or like Levi, a clever insinuation of something nearly but not entirely past.

But come back in, there’s more to see this way. There are a few paths I could take you out from here, but let’s zag through the living room, holiday dinners, the old recliner in the corner much fought over, and through the breezeway, which was fixed up after my grandfather died, but let’s think of it

now as it was, a tangle of rakes and tools and things he thought might be useful someday, odd cuts of wood and cans of paint dried shut. Now into the summer kitchen, which has been a spare bedroom all my life, but we’ve let it keep the name out of a sense of history—detached to keep the main house cool, something about the likelihood of fires. I may as well tell you this is where he died.

Alright, step outside, it’s gotten close in here. Set down on the step, look out across the lawn. The barn is ahead of you, the garden to the right. We’re losing the sun; it’s getting cooler. But here’s the thing about houses: they’re really no different from maps, and you use them just the same. Houses are images of the things that have happened, they point you. For instance: we found his car right there, in the lawn above the garden, and the wash-line was knocked down. It happened while he was driving; he tried to get back to the house, but missed the driveway by an eighth of a mile. He held the car steady around the tricky turn down past the barn before the reasonless plunge into the yard. The dissolution was coming fast then, the wash-line tells me that—so small an obstacle in so wide a field. Later we talked to the cashiers at the market (just


down the street, they’d remember him, the groceries abandoned in the back seat), but they had nothing to add. The details, such as we’ve ever learned them, come from the trail he left us, the one he tracked into the dirt and left spread on the floor. From the car into the house, doors left open, lights on. The basement steps, precarious and dark as always, the latch lifted—Mikey says he fell. It could have been before the drive or after, or might not have happened at all. There were bruises, but where from? Bad mood, Mikey says. He couldn’t make the stairs up to his own, quieter room, and whatever had become of his mind—drenched by then, drowning—he knew it. He came to it as a final limit, and so we found him in the summer kitchen instead, on the bed, asleep (not dead, not actually, that came later, elsewhere, and I won’t tell it to you yet), but sleeping so that my mother turned back to my father behind her and said “oh god, Charlie, you can’t go in there.” That kind of sleep. He was carried out but the house remained; there were few changes, it bore the marks. Months later I slept in that bed (the mattress even, unchanged), and had nightmares, but what else should we have done? What alteration would reach so deep as to shift the

lines of the map? The map of his dying here which we could not erase from the other notations, their geographies now intertwined.

Let’s walk a little now; it’s a pretty time of day. We’ve got time before the sun sets—just enough. We’ll go out past the Weller’s fields, then down across the road. There is a lake along there, but a different one than the one we always swam in. My father remembers it. Farther along is the old school building, and a place where the pavement turns to gravel, then to dirt. There is a stream, but not a big one; once we found a turtle there, fed him hamburger and grapes and let him go again. Let’s keep walking until the evening turns us back, and if we are too cold then I’ll make us tea to get us warm, and we’ll drink it in the kitchen, the warmest, brightest spot. But now let’s walk a bit, because for all I know, I do not know the ends of these roads.

 

 

Copyright© Emily Kiernan. White Whale Review, issue 5.1


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