I felt it was time to go downstairs. I mean at night, or more correctly, in the early morning like I used to. I had been dodging the issue, pretending that everything was just fine, that I needed to research my town, study the era of my house, figure out when the central core was dragged up the road onto my lot, attend to all the fussy little details I didn’t know and thought I could learn if I just looked hard enough. And if I did this, the mysteries would go away, or at least leave me alone. Or at least not kill me. I do not want my house to fall on me.
I woke up around three AM. Actually, it was 3:10. Now that I’ve had my cataract surgery I can easily see the numbers on my clock radio. I tiptoed into the bathroom (didn’t want to wake Sherry) and slipped on my summer robe. I missed my fabulous blue winter robe, but I didn’t miss the cold weather. For those of you who are keeping score, this robe is a flat dark blue with mid-century-modern depictions of rowing sculls and oars, depicting my years on the Yale rowing team. Oh yeah, sure.
I went downstairs, avoiding the seventh stair, the one that creaks. Looking outside through the windows in Sherry’s office I found one of those nights like we have in the middle of winter, so bright from the full moon that it seems almost a dream, a flat layer of light that paints everything silver, so bright it casts shadows outside and in. I sat in my easy chair in the living room where I usually fall asleep. Sherry has put down a rug in her office, blocking any light from below and muffling any sounds of digging. I waited awhile, but no spirits called to me. I closed my eyes. Time passed. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was soon bored. I decided to go outside, something I generally don’t do. In the winter it’s too cold, and now that the weather is warm enough I’m dressed in a bathrobe. I thought about who would see me outside at this time of night. No one. Who would care? No one.
I opened the front door into the silvery night and went down the wide block steps. That was the first clue. It took me a moment to realize that there was no extended wrap-around front porch, no brick steps. I stood in the yard, surrounded by the bright moonlight. I turned around and looked back at the house, which was now not my house, now two large rooms, log cabin rooms with heavy stone steps leading down from the door to the yard. On my left as I’m twisted around facing the house was a free-standing structure that I’ve never seen before, one small room with a flat roof. Separated five feet from the house.
I try to clear my head. My house is… the house I know is…
Gone. There is only this crude cabin with the small structure off to the side. This yard is the same size as my yard, but there are no trees, no bushes, no garden, no mailbox. The yard is rough scrubland, red Carolina clay, cool beneath my bare feet, not exactly wilderness but certainly nothing that might be called a lawn.
There is a narrow, dirt track in front of my property. Orange Street. Where Orange Street is supposed to be. To my right is an even rougher track that is simply a path. Straight ahead of me, across the dirt track, I made out a faint glow and when I looked harder I made out the dark outline of a structure almost lost in foliage, a house, I suppose.
It was warm, pleasant, and I took a deep breath; it smelled of woods and freshly turned earth. There was a light breeze. I knew I wasn’t in Hillsborough, or at least the Hillsborough that I knew. But neither did it feel unfamiliar. I thought to myself, I’m dreaming. I wasn’t frightened. In the distance I could hear a brass band, faintly, playing a tune that I didn’t recognize. I tried to remember where I’ve heard this band before. I was reminded of my childhood, sitting on the front porch of our house back in Parkersburg with my mom and dad, hearing a band playing faintly, just like this, in the nearby city park.
Jesus Christ, I almost wet myself.
“Rafe? What are you doing here?” I asked. “I’ve been looking for you.” I sounded like I was greeting a casual acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in a couple of days. Like this was normal. Me in my robe. In the middle of the night.
Rafe smiled. I could see him clearly. He was dressed in a blousy white shirt and butternut-colored canvas pants. Rough boots. Workmen’s clothes.
“I think,” Rafe said, mildly, “the question is, what are you doing here?”
“I live here. This is my house.” I looked around. “We’re in my yard. You know that.”
Still the same faint smile. As if he were humoring a man who was in the throes of dementia, a man who was feebleminded, or a little child. He took my elbow.
“Why don’t you go back inside?” he said. He moved me toward the stone steps. I walked up the first two steps and put my hand on the door handle.
I opened the door and turned to him. Before I could say anything he shook his head.
“You’re not ready to be here,” he said. “Not yet.”
I looked down at him. He turned and walked away down the yard to the street. Orange Street. Maybe.
I went inside, walked up the stairs, avoiding the step that squeaked, hung my robe in the bathroom and climbed into bed.
In the morning I woke up and went to the bathroom. I remembered, and I didn’t remember.
When my son Charlie was a little boy and he wanted to know something he would always say, “I have a question. Just one question.” Then he would ask several questions.
I have a question, just one question.
Why are my feet so dirty? And…
Where have I been?
I wrote this down this morning, before I have forgotten everything. Even now there’s less in my memory than there was. Silver light. Rafe.
Just one question.
Where was I?