When I’m at home alone I’m rather careless about where I kick off my shoes. I figure, if I trip over them, it’s my own damn fault. So when the front door eased open a few inches before hitting my little Miami Vice slip-ons, my first thought was, “Oh shit, Chase is trying to come in and I’m an ass.” But instead of barrelling though and pushing them aside, the door suddenly jerked closed and I heard a lady stranger’s voice.
Our building is the result of a particularly unique house reconstruction. In another era our apartment and that of our closest neighbour would be the servant’s quarters, accessible by side stairs and situated above the garage and the expansive two-bedroom flat below. It makes pizza delivery difficult, trying to explain how to find the side door that opens into a narrow, knotty pine panelled stairwell. So I figured this lady, whoever she was, had to be lost.
Trotting over to the door, I kicked aside my shoes and opened it just enough to poke my head out and lean a shoulder against the jam. It’s not so much that I’m paranoid, I just really hate people.
At the sound of the door opening, the woman in our entryway-mudroom spun around, in an off-putting mix of surprise and mild terror.
Her easy-to-care-for short hair was plastered down from the rain, matching her coat, which was so saturated it might as well have been black. She had a little damp scarf peeking from the collar, one of those frizzy, foofy things seen around the necks of middle-aged coffee shop knitters. Quiet clicking nails brought my attention down to a small dog at her feet. The two of them had been out in the rain for a while.
“Can I help you?” I tried out my nice voice. I figured, the lady got turned around or something, no reason to pull out the solicitor sternness, even if she’d attempted to open my door.
I did not expect what she said.
If you’ve ever interacted with a genuinely manic person, you know how difficult it is to properly transcribe their conversation. Part of your brain is just struggling to keep up, worried about causing undue offence. Another part of you is drinking it in, trying to savour those moments of unadulterated brain transmissions. It’s terribly similar to remembering dreams. And like dreams, I’m sure with practice one can learn to hold and preserve such moments so that they can be written down. I’ve only had the occasion to do this a handful of times in my life, so I can only give you the barest frame of what the puddling wet woman at my door told me.
She did not, first and foremost, want to upset me by trying to enter my home. It seemed she’d been caught up in observation. A man she knew (indicated with a hand three feet off the floor the way one might gesture at one’s chin to reference a particularly bearded fellow) had told her about the house and she needed to see it. The history and power of the place appeared mildly intoxicating and she’d apparently wandered the yard before winding up the stairs, just drinking it in.
She asked if I was a student, and I told her no, probably with some force. I am really tired of being asked that. It is entirely possible for someone in their mid-twenties to live in a college town and have nothing to do with the university. The woman nodded.
“Is this your home?” I took her question at full value and instead of answering that “yes, I live here”, or “of course,” I said,
“Yes, it is my home.” Because, more or less, that little apartment is.
I mentioned that I’d wondered if she had been turned around, looking for the other apartment and she took umbrage. Though the woman had to be told about the house, she was at one time familiar with its original owner, who’s wife played the violin (beautifully, it was implied). She was no stranger to the place and knew it well. Mentioning offhand the glitter across the ceiling, she swept her hand in an arc like the milky way. When she said that I had to think for a moment if there actually was glitter up there, we’re sort of plagued by it, but Chase had vacuumed recently and the rental-white expanse was clean. I told her that I was not familiar with that particular glitter and her eyes looked sad for a moment. She told me it was okay that I hadn’t seen it, but to remember that it was there.
Her difficulty expressing the aspects of the place was familiar—anybody at a loss for words trying to explain just exactly why the guitar in Black Sabbath hits you in the ribs, or why a particular book series haunts the back of your brain has experienced it. Stumbling over her words, telling me what a beautiful place we had, she described a tree in the garden. I tried to help her out.
“Yeah, the smoke tree. It really is something.” With an expression of revelation I haven’t seen since I last visited my family’s Pentecostal church, the woman reached out her left hand. I hesitated, almost reaching for it with my right, then changed my mind and met it with my left. She gripped it softly, in a heartfelt social women’s handshake.
“Yes, the Smoke Tree. It is beautiful, I have been in it.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” I replied.
From there the conversation ran down and she took her leave. The woman was on a greater journey, or mission, but had made a point to stop on her way at our home, making a point to tell me that she was so glad the place was being lived in. I asked the name of her dog (Gracie) and waved goodbye to the both of them as she wandered back down the stairwell. Peeking past the edge of the curtain, I watched her solemnly touch the knotty pine panelling at the landing before descending regally out of my view.
I moved to the living room windows, catching her bowing to the house and possibly talking to it. In the rain, with her dog at her heels, the woman walked away.