It is called a Charleston side yard. I’ve been to Charleston, but I didn’t see a house that looked like mine, however, in Birmingham to label something as a Charleston this or Savannah that is what the architects and designers tend to do to give the buyer that sense of traditional chic that helps them write a bigger check than necessary. We bought the house at the beginning of our second year of marriage.
The house is two stories with a detached garage that has an apartment over it. The color is a kind of muted grass green that blends into the trees and shrubs that encase the house. The side yard is really just a ten foot strip of pea gravel that runs along the side of the house next door. The houses are tucked in real tight next to each other along the street, each with a front porch that faces the street and a side porch facing the side yard that juts up against the windowless first story of the house next door. There is a sleeping porch upstairs that looks out toward the street and there is a tree in the side yard whose branches reach along and around the screening of the porch. In the spring and summer when the leafs are full, it feels a little like being in a tree house, sitting out there in the cool of dawn as the sun lifts over the ridge to the east, a hot cup of coffee on the table where you prop up your feet, the big brown lab stuffed onto the small outdoor sofa with you, his head in your lap.
We didn’t celebrate the fifth anniversary. Instead, we wrestled over a settlement agreement. I think she went to the Dominican Republic with some friends and I got drunk on rum at the bar down the street from my tiny little apartment in Irving, Texas. I wept bitterly that night and many more since then, less now as time has passed. I moved to Dallas for a new job as the marriage crumbled around me. Truthfully, I didn’t have the courage necessary to go through a divorce in the midst of my family and friends, to stand in the middle of a war of words and affairs and the parting and parceling of property. I fought from afar of the field. I chose to fight with artillery, gave ground that was off no value, but lobbed unmerciful hell down for every inch of which I felt was mine. In the end, I got the house. For months, I didn’t return to it, didn’t think of it, and let it sit quietly so that all the noise could dissipate.
After the divorce, I remained in Irving for another year. Occasionally, I’d fly back to Birmingham for a weekend, the first time I came back the bare emptiness of the house shocked me. That hurt that I thought had settled to the bottom of my heart like a slow-falling silt in the deep shelf of the ocean was stirred up by that bareness, all the elements of home stripped away leaving just a house—a bare lonely forgotten house. I slept out in the apartment over the garage that first weekend and then every time I came back to the house afterwards over that fall, winter, and spring. There was some furniture left up in the apartment – my big screen television and a sectional sofa- and it was small and felt full and not empty. My little white dog with the brindle patches that I adopted from the pound would come back with me when I drove home for week long stays. She liked coming back to the house, even in its cold empty state she saw and felt home.
People asked incessantly what I was going to do with the house. Everyone knew it was not practical or financially responsible for me to keep the house. It was just a house. They didn’t understand. I quit my job in Irving in late spring and moved back to the Charleston side yard in Birmingham, staying out in the garage apartment, drinking too much and too late into the night, seeing and hearing things about my friends and neighbors that I just as soon never had known, but we all hear the things we rather not. After three months, I started sleeping in the house again. I was unemployed, divorced, staring down the age of forty, and slowing bleeding out my savings while taking long walks on the wooded trails behind the neighborhood with my sweet little dog, playing video games, watching NCIS marathons, and flirting with the twenty something bartender to the point of danger in the wee hours of the morning. The house became less cold, less empty, again a home.
Sustainability is in a lot of ways a made up word that is less about meaning and more about a direction. That life of leisure and resplendent laziness I was living was not sustainable. At the end of the summer, I started sending out resumes. Soon I was interviewing. I turned down three jobs. I was hoping beyond hope a rich uncle or a winning lottery ticket or maybe just manna from Heaven would fall down from the sky and let me keep playing video games and hanging out with my dog all day. Fortune didn’t fall upon me like a cool morning dew in the dog days of summer. My savings shrank and I accepted a position in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The last three weeks before moving to Tulsa my ex-wife let my big brown lab come and stay with me and my little white brindle patched pound puppy and we explored the woods behind the neighborhood around the lake and up and over the ridge to the east where it was posted “No Trespassing”. We ran at night underneath the bright moon and sometimes in a warm rain, and we sat in the side yard next to a fire in the little fire pit the previous owner had built, the smoke drifting up toward the stars and the blinking lights of planes passing overhead.
It is winter now, and I am in Tulsa. So, too, is the little white dog with the brindle patches. Whenever we can spot three or four days of free time on the calendar we jump in our car and race across Oklahoma and Arkansas, dip into Tennessee and cross the northern quarter section of Mississippi and go home. We miss home.
People ask me what I am going to do with the house. Why I don’t sell the house? The reason is silly and it is simple and will make no sense to anyone but me. In that house dwells my home and the memories of her and of me and a big brown lab and a little white dog with brindle patches and it is the last place on earth where those memories live. If I sell the house then the joy that was will no longer exist and the erosive nature of time will tear away at the memories and it will be as if there never was an us, or a home that was warm by the nature of the love that was within its walls. That will bleed away into a thousand different days of get up and go to work and go home to a drab little apartment in some transient place like Tulsa or Dallas or Denver or Pittsburgh. The knowledge that I was loved by her will bleed away as well. That I was loved will no longer exist. That we were will no longer exist. That I was will drift upward and disappear into the night sky above like smoke toward the bright stars and blinking lights of planes passing overhead.
Brent Tubbs is a graduate of the University of Alabama who now lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is his first published work.