Monday, June 17, 2013

Dust That Burns (part 1 of a longer coma dream)


When I moved into my new house, I knew that it needed some work. It was painfully apparent that it would need a new paintjob. From the street the house had good bones, but the paint more closely resembled an albino sunburn. The white paint was peeling in sheets and there was obvious water damage everywhere the paint had failed. My guess was that it would need some basic refinishing inside too. I never expected the house would renovate us.

Nancy and I moved in during the first weeks of fall when students return to college. The last few days of summer made a sudden appearance driving the thermometer higher than any of us expected. After spending the day in the moving truck, the last thing I expected was to walk into our new home and find it too hot to sleep. It was like a furnace inside. The windows had been painted shut, god only knows when... and with the storm windows still in place, the house was a stagnant crypt. The scent of mothballs and dust hung in the air, waiting for a breeze to stir. How they managed to keep a house free of mice with no cats living here was a complete mystery to me.

We had bought the house, sight unseen. We paid next to nothing for it, reasoning that as an older home, it would need some major renovation. Most well cared-for New England homes were usually at least 150 years old. This one was considerably older. Over two hundred years old and had the old-wood-smell to prove it. The doorways were much narrower and shorter than I was used to. The doors were solid plank wood, made with real mortise and tenons. There wasn't a single matching doorknob in the entire home.

Most of the house had been emptied before our arrival, though we had been told to expect to find some belongings left behind by the previous tenants. We were told by the realtor that someone would be by sometime in the next week to pickup the trunks and would arrange for shipping. It was hardly adequate preparation for what we found when we walked upstairs.

The bedrooms at the top of the stairs formed a nearly perfect-T, with one room on either side of the stairs, a bathroom directly ahead, and if you walked past either room the hall led to the only large upstairs window, complete with a window seat, framed on both sides by bookcases. The shelves were empty and the cushions were threadbare and nearly opaque grey with dust. There was an old pencil that had been left on the window seat. When I picked it up, the dust powdered off like fine confectioner's sugar. I set it back in place, afraid that someone might notice we had been here.

Mind you, we bought this house. We weren't invading someone's home.... but it didn't feel like our house.

The upstairs room's doors were all closed. Given the stifling heat, our goal was to get some air moving through the house, crack some windows and try to clear a place to lay down for the night. The big moving in could wait till the following morning. We started with the bathroom. Nancy reached for the small ivory porcelain door knob and turned. The knob spun freely, never engaging the pawl... instead the door swung inward with not a single creak.

The bathroom was unremarkable except for its complete lack of period furnishing. It was obviously a retrofit that had been added in the early 1950's. The tile floor was a dusky harsh green, somewhere between an acid green and chartreuse... but with enough wear to feel more than ready for replacement. The toilet, and tiles along the lower section of the wall matched the putrid green color scheme. As if to confuse matters, the tile on the upper-half of the wall was a pale pink. This covered everything except the mirrored medicine cabinet that hung over the sink. The sink basin was painfully pink. My only hope was that whoever had decorated this bathroom had died, painfully, before they ruined another home. This was awful.

What was odd (odder than the colors at least), was that everything was clean. Spotless really. As though the cleaning crew had been through a day or so earlier, and yet there was none of the chemical smells one would associate with a sparkling clean bathroom. There was even a roll of toilet paper sitting on the side of the tub. I am not sure what I expected, but I had to check inside the medicine cabinet. Maybe I was assuming there would be something more left behind by the previous tenants. Maybe I thought there would be old medicines and toiletries. Perhaps an old razor. It was empty. The glass shelves were dry, a touch dusty, and the enamel on the inside of the medicine cabinet was showing bits of rust in places. The chrome around the frame had definitely seen its share of unvented, lingering showers.

I figured that the other doors into the upstairs bedrooms would likely be like our introduction to the bathroom. I found instead, that the doors wouldn't budge. No amount of muscle would convince the worn cut glass knobs to turn. I walked back to the large window intent on opening the window as much as I could. The old sash windows had been painted closed, years ago most likely. We were prepared for some move-in cleanup, but this was frustrating.

I hustled down the stairs and rummaged through our travelling boxes in hopes of finding a box cutter or a pocket knife. I found our tape measure and a bunch of kitchen supplies; forks, spoons, ladles and such. Lacking an appropriate tool to cut through the paint, I made do with a butter knife. Once the window sash had been cut free of its overzealous paintjob, I raised the window. There were no screens in the window. As I knelt on the cushions of the window seat, I realized that there had to be a prop to hold this window open somewhere. Sure enough, on the lower shelf of the righthand bookcase, there was a wooden prop. I jammed that into the open window and immediately felt a rush of hot, dry, still air move up the stairs and out through the window. Certain that the prop would hold, I abruptly sat down on the cushioned bench, exhausted from the heat. The choking cloud of dust enveloped me for a few moments.

I heard Nancy giggle and realized that she was still near the bathroom and was watching this whole event unfold. Apparently seeing my form disappear into this opaque cloud of dust, and then reappear again, except this time I was dusty grey in form, seemingly struck a humorous chord in her. Crossing the hall towards me, Nancy let me know that it was obvious that the heat was getting to me. Afraid to touch me because of my sudden all-enveloping dust coating, she held me at arm's length and suggested I head into town to see about picking up an air conditioner for the bedroom window. At least then we would be able to sleep through the night.

As I shuffled down the stairs and out of the house, I looked back over my shoulder and felt a shadow move past me. The stairway darkened like a cloud passing in front of the sun, and then returned to its normal brightness. I closed the door behind me and ambled out to our bright yellow rental truck. We may have been new to town, but I was pretty sure we had passed a Lowe's hardware store on the way into town. A quick look in my side mirror, a glance upstairs across the open yard, and I pulled away from the curb.

To be continued....

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