Keeping Houses by Tessa Mellas

Honorable Mention, 2017 Ray Ventre Nonfiction Prize

The room is powder blue, the furniture laminate white. The German professor I rent the room from says she wrote her dissertation at this desk. The desk is particle boards held at right angles with screws. A desk you’d purchase at Wal-Mart. She says, Maybe it will bring you luck. I write nothing at this desk. But I start a story tucked in the room’s boxy white bed. The room is small. The bed stretches from wall to wall. I move a mounted vase of plastic violets and hang a paper lantern over the bed. The lantern is the yellow of Tang. Four years ago, it hung at my wedding in a place called Mount Airy Forest. There is a box of twenty-three paper lanterns in our apartment’s basement at home. I am away from home, teaching someplace else.

Under the lantern’s glow, I lie on my stomach, pull blankets up to my ears, huddle in like a cat folded small in a nook that girds its bones. I write in a notebook. I wrote like this in high school, stretching letters between wide blue lines. I haven’t written a story in years though I am a story doctor. I write about a woman who leaves her life. Roaming the city, she nds a street of tiny houses. All in a row. Bright colors. Marmalade. Lavender. Scarlet. Aquamarine. A yellow house is vacant, and the woman moves in though she has nothing but the clothes that cover her skin. It is a hamlet of tiny houses, and in such a place, a person needs only herself.

The woman leaves an apartment and job and fiancé out in the city. She is surprised to find herself in a different place than those things, things that seemed quite nice. When she sets off on her walk, she thinks how nice to have such things to return to. But then she doesn’t return. Well, only once.

She goes back to retrieve her collection of antique petticoats. She goes when no one is home though she shared an apartment with only herself. She hangs her favorite petticoats from the ceiling of her tiny house and they oat like stiff jellyfish. They are eye level when she sleeps. She sleeps in a triangular loft that houses only a mattress, the type with no structural bones, only a dense pillow of striated flesh. The ceiling over her head is cedar boards that are soft and smooth. She touches them from her bed and wonders about the person who sanded the boards. The person is an absence in the house just as she must be an absence in the apartment out in the city where she and her petticoats used to live. Sometimes her fiancé knocks on the door of her old apartment and she senses the ghost of his knock outside the door of her tiny house.

While I live with the German professor, this story is a room I sit in for hours. It has the hush of a library, the solace of light ltering through trees in the woods. I write no more than a page or two in the notebook. It is never a story I tell to other people, but it stays and tells itself to me those nights I need a story, and each telling seems like the original telling and I wonder who the original woman was. Did she live in the apartment by herself or did she live with the man she thought she would marry? Did other people live in the hamlet of tiny houses? I remember an old woman with a red kerchief on her head, tending an arugula bed on her knees. I remember a man with a guitar draped over his lap, the guitar straight and stiff like a child braced for his father to pull a loose tooth. But I also remember this: the row of tiny houses stripped of color, weathered down to the wood, all of them vacant and locked but the one, the city noises distant beyond the tiny house and its cedar smell and the scritch of crinoline catching the movement of long ago bodies that burnished the boards that the woman touched when she woke in the night and needed something soft and smooth at her finger’s ends.

While I live in the powder blue room with this story, I think, How strange to sleep so many nights in a row in a bed that is not my bed. I live in the powder blue room for one semester, for this fancy teaching gig. I have won a book contest. I have published a book, its stories written over the span of nine years. It is hard to believe I have done these things. It seemed that those stories would only ever exist as shadows puppeting the cave of my head. A few of my graduate students seem dubious too. My students are smart and skilled and prodigious. I am a visiting writer. But I write nothing except those two notebook pages.

At the German professor’s house, I huddle under blankets in the boxy white bed and tell myself stories. Of tiny houses. Of gravity-fed showers and compost toilets. Permaculture and passive solar. Root cellars. Greenhouses and gardens. Canning jars. Beeswax candles. Chickens and goats. I do Google searches. I find a picture of a street of tiny houses in the midst of a city. The lot is edged with gardens and a picket fence. I find a picture of a tiny house with a loft housing only a mattress, a loft lined with cedar that glows orange in the sun.

At school, my office is mostly empty except one row of books, an unplugged telephone, and a hanging bin of worms. I brought my worms from Columbus because they are the thing that feels like home. I feed the worms banana peels that my undergraduates bring in little tinfoil hammocks and set on the edge of my desk. After I teach, I watch the worms. I hold them wriggling in my hand. They are so very pink. I drive home every few weeks. I tell my husband, I feel far away. I say this in our bed before we sleep. He has a pile of flashcards on his lap. He is learning Chinese.

While my husband teaches summer classes in China, I box up our things, put the boxes on a truck, and a man drives the truck away. I meet the truck in Maine. I move the boxes into a house. I say hello to each thing as I take it out and remember the places where it sat in the other places we have lived. I flatten the boxes and stack them in the attic. These boxes have moved us from apartment to apartment as we city-hopped through Ohio. It is nice to have a stack of boxes when it is time to move. But we bought the house in Maine so we wouldn’t have to move again. Still, I keep the boxes.

The house is white clapboard and has gingerbread trim and two chimneys, two windows on each side of the door, and two little trees in two pots on the porch. It is a very symmetrical house. Built around 1830, it sits across the road from a tidal river. Birds beat their wings against the water, and inside the house I wonder, What is that sound?

One of the chimneys stands between the dining room and kitchen, a fireplace on one side, an old wood cook stove on the other. I can move the cast iron burners around with a rod that ts into the rod-shaped holes. I can push a pedal with my foot to open the door if my hands are occupied holding a pot. I can place the pot in the stove, but I cannot cook the food. The stovepipe has been disconnected. The insurance company required a picture of this. They say it is a lovely old cook stove. They say it is ornamental now. And if we use the cook stove and the house burns down, they will not give us money to build a new house. I want to put wood in the stove and light a match and cook the food in my pot.

Steep stairs lead up from the kitchen. At the top is the bathroom. Before toilets lived in houses, the room that is now a bathroom would have housed a bed under the slope of the roof. In its place sits a claw foot tub. It is Anne’s bathtub. Anne owned the house before Geoff owned the house and Geoff sold the house to me. Anne bought the house after her divorce, and the bathtub—standing apart from everything else on its own toed feet—seems like a sacred thing.

My parents help me move in. We take a break from unpacking on my birthday. We tour the Roosevelt’s summer cottage on Campobello Island up in New Brunswick. FDR’s bathtub has the same fixtures as mine. The fixtures look like both man and lady parts. I think of Anne when I take a bath. I lie at on my back with my legs crossed, and tucked up like that, all of me fits in the tub.

My parents head home. The house and I acquaint ourselves with each other. I am in awe that I get to live in this house. Descending the basement stairs, I think, This is my basement. In the kitchen, I think, This is my kitchen. I tap the foot pedal to open my cook stove, and think, This is my ornamental cook stove and I could cook my food with fire if I reconnected the pipe.

In the morning, I sit on the porch and let sun pour over my face. I sit with tea from China. The tea leaves unfold in the throat of a glass mug that really is a tumbler for beer. I wait for the leaves to scuttle down to the bottom and then I sip. I sip tea and write postcards to friends who live far away.

I write: I am 35 years old now. My birthday happened. I saw a bathtub that FDR was naked in. A porcupine almost died in my headlights. I own doorknobs. I live in Machiasport though my mailbox has yet to be erected. I need 4x4s and deck screws. I thought when I moved here that this very old house would have a ghost. I was trepidatious about the prospect. But now that I’m here and no ghost has revealed itself, the house seems less authentic. Would you want to live with a ghost? What if it was a kindly ghost? A doleful ghost? A ghost with some sad Victorian tale? A ghost who appreciated you leaving books open for her and turning the page every hour or so. A very slow reading ghost. A ghost who peered into your bath water to observe the changing architecture of her own eyes. A ghost who turned your radio station to the loveliest songs. Songs with cellos. Or violin bows drawn over saws. Or gentle men singing from the ripped edges of their lungs. Men still in love with boyhood. Unable to cross over into this world. A voice like that would haunt us both, I know.

Then I write like this: A terrible thing happened to my toe. My left index toe. The cuticle turned greenish yellow like some mutant pea. I thought, Well, I must have dropped a heavy thing on that toe to turn it a color like that. Such things happen during moves. Dressers happen. Desks happen. Boxes happen to toes that stick out farther than the rest. At first, I thought it was an underside cuticle bruise. I did an internet search. It might be a fungus. So I am soaking it daily in vinegar and keeping it quarantined from the other digits. As much as is possible with toes. They fraternize when you aren’t looking. Sometimes fingers too. I hope this news does not make you think less of Maine.

Then I write this to someone else: Cat one rakes the wooden planks outside the litter box, thinking that this will cover her poop. But it will not cover her poop because it is inside the litter box and she is outside of it. Cat two does arm circles with his phantom limb. Here, our water is hard with iron. I bought a mirror with beveled glass. 50 lbs! I could have gotten the deluxe smoke detector had I the coupon. I bought blueberries instead. The ocean is millioned with mirrors. The wind a waft of rotting snails. I ate a jar of pickles. I planted a mailbox. And still, the porcupine is dead in the road.

I mail the postcards. I decide I will write a postcard every week to a friend. They will be like little poems I send into the world. My friends will hang them on their refrigerators. I write seven postcards. A week of postcards. My husband returns from China. We say we will write at the same time together every morning. We say it like we have said it before. And each time we say it, we mean to. The postcard writing stops.

My first semester in Maine, my office is in a building called Kimball Hall. A single staircase in the vestibule splits in two and climbs in different directions. My office is clothed in seventies colors. The top half of the walls wear orange wallpaper that feels like burlap. The bottom half is striped with the same wood paneling my father ripped out of my childhood home and set by the curb with a sign marked FREE. Bulletin boards the size of bread trucks stare at one another across the narrow room. My metal desk has the heft of a diesel machine. A typewriter sits on a shelf in the closet. Even when locked, the window creeps up from its sill.

By winter, our offices will be condemned, Kimball Hall barricaded with metal fences, a bowing of bricks pulled together with rods and bolts until inspectors deem the whole historic thing a ruin. A summer later, excavators will rip it apart with steel teeth, exposing the wood paneling and orange paper to the blue of the sky.

My new office is housed in a cinder block dorm. I move my file folders and books. But before we know that Kimball Hall is irreparably broken, my office is there for one semester. I stay late in my seventies-colored office, trying to catch up on grading and planning and emails. In these months, my office is home when home feels claustrophobic. My husband doesn’t know what to do with himself in Maine. He has tried freelance writing. He has tried home repair. He has tried biking on roads with no shoulder. Now he is sorting his clothes. He pulls them out of the closet and stacks them in piles. One pile goes to the attic. He goes back for a shirt. Tries on a pair of pants. Rearranges the piles again.

His style has changed with his trips to China. Chinese clothes are made to fit lean bodies like his. Shirts bud with delicate patterns. The fabrics are thin and soft and trace the crevices of his body. My husband looks like an ad in a magazine. The clothes he used to wear are vintage, bold patterns and dense polyesters. We collected vintage clothes together at thrift stores across Ohio, chasing a mid-century aesthetic that felt like home. We searched every rack in every Goodwill. It was our hobby. My husband would nd a paisley shirt buried deep in a bin and say, Damn, this shirt is ballin’. A month later, the shirt would lose its luster. Now his whole Ohio wardrobe is in the attic. Upstairs, I visit his banished clothes, and they are like the scarecrow without his straw.

After breakfast, wearing his Chinese clothes and Chinese shoes, my husband records Mandarin messages into his phone for a friend on the other side of the world. When we have conversations, he turns away, looking into another room. He looks into the distance and I cannot hear what he says. I ask, What are saying? over and over. When I talk, the walls absorb the sound.

So I stay late in my office in Kimball Hall. The sun sets and I click on a lamp that gives a warm glow. I sit on the rough carpet with a wool blanket over my lap, my computer propped on my knees. Before I head home, I check Facebook and a poet with a mane of red hair pops up to say, Hey there, friend, hello. A year ago, I sat with him in coffee shops while my husband scraped rust from bicycle parts in the basement, practiced Chinese conversations alone in his office, rode his bike to his Derrida reading club. Now I sit in an office that is starting to fold under its own weight in the glow of a dim bulb and the darkness feels serene.

I type: My pajamas aren’t what I’d want them to be. He types: Already today I have dreamt of a fire I could get within—I would slip my index toe into the fire first. I type: The days are an assortment of quails decked out in dungarees. He types: I am carrying a box of feet to my grandma’s wake. And by grandma, I mean mother. And by mother, I mean sister. I haven’t had a family in days. I type: Grandma Georgette was the breast stroke queen.

And we are off in a frenzy of language, typing fast in a box at the base of the screen: Bohemian earspoon—oh to be young again! The earspoon cheered at the glockety sound of its shoes. Your drum major self kicked by, plume erect, baton beheading the sky. Hubbub, she says. Blub blub, he says. A blub’s a flub in a margarine tub. And all the world’s a soggy loaf. A load. A lexicon. Exoskeleton. X-Acto knife. Exact at night. A knight named Ike. Insect kites. Inside the kilts. An exposé on Scots. Scott on stilts. A trap! The donut’s stacked. Shrink wrapped and pillow packed. Do you ever get tired of chasing your dreams? Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of peas. Merrily, merrily, we yell recipes in a lost Yoruba tongue. Ashes. Smashes. We all fall down.

I push the blanket away. I am flushed with the intimacy of language. This man taps the part of me that had long forgotten play. He types: You set my writing brain on fire. I type: I feel fires too.

In the months ahead when I tuck myself into the guest room bed in my house on the coast of Maine, these words are my bedtime prayer. In the dark, they stopper the panic. I follow the words and their trail leads to an imagined city apartment: light pours through windows and mobiles hang from the ceiling, dangling bent silverware and tchotchkes found between cobblestones in alleys. The walls are a scribble of stanzas. Clotheslines string poems from room to room. We are sprawled on the floor and our cats look on as we move language around like train cars, pass crayons back and forth, roll over markers that leave purple squiggles wet and smeared on our skin.

My husband reglazes the windows. When he puts the windows back in the house, there are gaps that let in the wind. He says, I wanted to be someone who does handy things with his hands. He says, I am not that person. He says, I am not what you need. He goes to China. He leaves a pile of broken glass from the windows that fell apart in his hands. I will not see him for a year. I will live in the house alone. We decide it is okay to meet other people. I meet an organic farmer who lives in a tiny house at the edge of his farm at the edge of a field.

The farmer seems too tall to live in a tiny house but he lives in a tiny house. It was once a tool shed or garden shed, that kind of thing. He and his ex-girlfriend found the shed on Craigslist, added pine floorboards, windows, a cupboard, a counter, a sink, a tiny wood stove. They turned it into a place where two people flushed and full on each other’s flavors could twine and untwine in the blonde light of a faraway place on an eastern coastline where a tiny house can hide between blueberry barrens and scraggly alder and overgrown grass off a gravel road marked on nobody’s map. Back then, they lived on a different farm, Fortenberry. They undertook farming there together, their tiny house nestled just down the path from an old farmhouse where interns came and went.

I find photographs on Facebook. Twenty-somethings golden with dirt and sunshine. Holding turnips the size of their heads. Making bee boxes with school children. Filling a station wagon with pumpkins and dappled squash. Marigolds crouch under crinkled tongues of kale. Sunflowers oversee zucchini. Tomato plants bow their heads in a tunnel of gauze. Rainbow chard grows out of hay bails in front of the farmhouse. A clothesline sags with shirtsleeves, mostly grays and greens, a lone one cranberry red. A stack of wood by a stove pipe in a room furnished with keyboards. Fog lling gaps between trees. The rust-haired girl at sunset. The golden dog in the midst of a yawn. The farmer—also a music maker—perched on a chair with a tuba cradled in his arms, his lips made round to match the tuba’s mouth, his breath warm on the tuba’s silver, his lips right there but not quite touching yet.

And then it went wrong. The farmer had tried to show the rust-haired girl how to do all the things that had to be done. Tried to time the vegetables to rise and fruit with the markets. Tried to market the goods. He sat at vegetable stands on weekends wearing a blue collared shirt and suspenders, saying, No chemicals, again and again as the lettuces wilted and tomatoes split their skins. Not enough money. And the rust-haired girl with sketches to sketch. A wine glass smashed against floorboards to signal the end. The farmer says, When people ask what happened, I say we started a farm together. I say, When people ask what happened, I say I wrote a book alone.

Now the tiny house lives in a different place. The farmer farms a different farm and wakes at sunrise with a brown-haired girl in his bed. Because sometimes houses come on wheels that move from place to place and filter different light than the light they filtered before. And their one room—because sometimes there only is one—looks on as scraps of seeds drink and drink until water threads out in every direction, blushing into a bloom of crimson lettuce with petals round like a globe.

That summer, we sleep unclothed in the tiny house and I nestle into the loamy scent of his skin and take deep breaths of hair densely curled and rich with the sweetness of carrots. He burrows under my arm where sweat dews up in the night. We don’t brush our teeth for days. We bathe in the river and do yoga in the greenhouse’s warm soil and play flute and clarinet at the farmer’s market on weekends between collecting money for baby kale and Romanesco broccoli and hula hooping with children who the farmer gives fingerling carrots to and sometimes the children crunch the carrots with zest and sometimes they spit them into their mothers’ hands.

The waking is maybe my favorite part. I am not accustomed to mornings. My husband and I stayed up late reading and writing and grading. The farmer wakes when the sky is just shrugging off night. He cannot be still with morning coming and coming. He slips out of bed and heads out the door with his dog at his heels. He is out the door without any clothes on. Through the window, I see him standing naked against the day, taking stock of his fields to see what has grown in the night. My head sinks into a pillow of buckwheat kernels. The tiny house glows and I think how summer is a home we return to year after year. I touch the ceiling’s cedar planks with my fingers and toes. The bed is an arm’s length from the ceiling. The cedar is soft and smooth. There is a gap at the edge of the slope where molding is meant to be. In the corner over the bed is a small wooden box where I keep my glasses. I wonder what the rust-haired girl squirreled away in the box at night. My husband would have kept a palm-sized notebook there.

One afternoon, I read the farmer stories in bed. Wee-sized stories. Apocalyptic things. Scorched world. Scarce food. A gang of kids on a motel roof, hungry and waiting for Uncle Ten. Their uncle who isn’t really an uncle taste tests the food to ensure it is safe to eat.

I wrote these stories the summer I moved to Maine. Five little stories, one for each finger. I meant there to be more. I meant them to fill a book. I wrote them in Columbus where the poet with the mane of red hair marked them up on a barstool while I moved words around in his poems. A summer later, they fall on the farmer’s ears, and he is transfixed. When I finish the story about the food-testing uncle, he leaps up and dances the story around the house.

He sings: We need ten Uncle Tens. An Uncle Ten for every town. His tongue the finest feature of his flesh. He knows if food is safe or deadly pox. Either way, he eats it all. Every bat-swollen can slopped onto his plate. Then we wait. His organs quake. Blood rises through his skin. Fever sweats his brain to jelly cake. We howl Ten Ten on the streets. Uncle Ten. Uncle Ten. He’ll eat anything they send. In those flat ribbed cans. Paid in the spoils of his trade. He wins cans of food for tasting food. ’Cause who the fuck knows what’s gotten into the food supply. Rats! Acid! Dung! Someone’s gotta take one for the team. Uncle Ten takes them all.

The farmer circles back to his favorite lines. We need ten Uncle Tens. An Uncle Ten for every town. He is giddy. He dances my story into the fields. Nobody has ever sung my words. Now there is magic in me as there is magic in the rust-haired girl.

But this summer, I cannot create. I am making nothing, and he is making the most beautiful vegetables I’ve ever seen. I marvel over the vegetables. I turn them into meals. But that is not the kind of making that makes me. The farmer says, Bring your notebook. Write in the house while I farm. He looks at me, a maker who cannot make, who seems not to be even trying.

I can’t get my writing feet under me. I don’t know how to inhabit a story. I go home and watch the river move back and forth, in and out, in front of my house. I try to live in the space between inhale and exhale but my brain is in so many places at once. Days pass and I see the farmer again. He asks if I got writing done, and I say no.

He is anxious about the farm. The vegetables wilt at his roadside stand. The farmer’s market is sparse. Cucumber beetles have devoured his cucumber crop. The summer squash have grown too big to sell. He is not sure Maine is the best place to be a farmer. Maybe he will get out of town for a bit. Go to Cuba. Or stay with an aunt in California. Or take up urban farming in Detroit. The rust-haired girl is making murals there. She has a new beau.

We cook vegetables on a fire. We run through the woods. We put instruments to our lips and echo each other’s rhythms and live a few days more in the midst of sounds that fit together like our bodies fit together and we wonder if music might be enough. But there is the ghost of a knock at his door. I bring my notebook. I take notes about this man and his dog and his tiny house on the farm. I take notes and they are a breadcrumb trail to find my way back when the tiny house is no longer a place where I can live.

I am sitting on my deck in the sun when a truck pulls up in front of my house. The man’s last name is Stanhope. He is doing house repairs for the neighbors. He says, Your house. I grew up in that house. He tells me about his mother who lived here until she got old. He tells me about a room that was filled with her dolls. In the end, she lived in two rooms and closed up the rest. I too have closed off rooms. The white cat pees on beds that my husband has slept on. I close doors, leaving fewer places to pee.

I never met Mr. Stanhope’s mother or Anne whose bathtub I lie in weekly. But I know Geoff who owned the house for a few years just before me. Geoff is always buying and selling houses. He owns a red one around the corner, another down in Buck’s Harbor. Both are for sale though he knows the market is slow. Washington County is not a place where a person flips houses for profit. On any road, it seems like half the homes are for sale. But Geoff loves bringing old houses back from the brink. He loves the possibility in crumbling plaster and boarded up stairways and wide plank floors buried under musty shag. He brings back a house and moves on to another.

I imagine ghosts looking on as rooms become places where people can live again. But not Geoff. He says he realized that once he fixed up a house, he didn’t have to live there. I admire his lack of attachment. Geoff gets to walk through a different set of rooms every few years. A type of travel. A type of play. I have always wanted to get a place exactly right so I could stay as long as I wanted. Maybe forever. The Buddhists say Westerners have an obsession with permanence. Marriage. White picket fences. Books. They are all a lashing out at an impermanent world. And so it is I got married and wrote a book and purchased a home.

In my house, Geoff only put one coat of paint in the rooms, and Anne’s colors show through deep in the plaster’s ripples. I pull paint cans out of the basement and spread olive green paint over the hallways where I see blue. As I paint, my mind wanders. At first it stages a sit-in in the tiny house on the farm. It will not budge. It lives in conversations with the farmer. I write and rewrite the scenes in my head.

The white cat climbs the ladder I am using to paint. She sits at the top and sniffs the ceiling. She did this once in our Columbus apartment. What was the point of the ladder then? To stop the chirp of an alarm as it sucked batteries to their end? She got up the ladder but had trouble coming down and when I reached up, she grasped hold with two paws around my neck. Our whole Columbus apartment takes shape around our white cat clutching me tight in Ohio. She is up on the ladder and my husband is on our orange mid-century couch with a book and pencil, our three-legged tabby in the crook of his arm. There’s a fireplace with marbled green tile. Horse head bookends hold J.D. Salinger and Richard Wright and Katherine Anne Porter. There’s an oriental rug from his parents’ attic. His father’s record player in one corner and my parents’ deep brown chair in the other. A metal mail slot clacks as envelopes drop to the oor. Our bikes are strapped to cinder blocks on the porch. The kitchen radio is tuned to NPR and Ira Glass is telling a story. Philodendrons hang in front of lace curtains. There is piano music upstairs. This isn’t completely right because no one lived above us in Columbus. The concert pianist lived on the second floor of the house in Cincinnati, but sometimes I could still hear her in our Columbus apartment because the same crewel work was framed on the walls.

In our Columbus apartment, we gathered all the embroidered frames together. The wall behind the couch was claustrophobic with this thing we called yarn art. Puffy flowers and covered bridges and willow trees bending. A wall of embroidery made sense in a hipster neighborhood like Victorian Village. Once in awhile we’d have to explain. We’d say, They’re supposed to be ironic and shrug. We found them at garage sales and thrift stores. Sometimes we saw the same scene twice, interpreted with a different sewer’s hand. I often wondered about those women. They would have stayed married to the same man in the same house all their lives. They would have cooked meals and in the evenings held crewel work on their laps and they wouldn’t have worried about the books they thought they could write.

I use up the paint in the cans but still there are speckles of blue. Deer eat the beans in my garden. I juice the last of the farmer’s carrots. I run out of food and go to the store. I stand in Hannaford’s, unsure of how to proceed. The organic broccoli is under plastic. The beets have been trucked from Chile. The spinach is limp. I go home and make popcorn and pull a book of poems off my husband’s shelf. I study his annotations: Postmodern chaos via pastiche. A new urban pastoral. The failure of language. He became the poet he was supposed to be in his very last book of poems.

There is a meteor shower at the end of the summer and the farmer texts to tell me where it is in the sky. I lie on my hammock and stare at the darkness over the water. It is cold outside. I have never seen a shooting star, and even if they are streaking like mad tonight, I doubt I will see one. I don’t see ghosts or four-leaf clovers or other magical things. I am still. My eyes take in the whole of the sky. I watch and I watch. The stars stay in place. The moon stays in place. I lie in the dark in the cold and I need a sweater but I stay where I am with my arms wrapped over my ribs. And then I see one. A paint stroke the darkness erases. I stay out in the dark with my heels in the holes between diamonds of rope that float me over the grass which has grown too long and I watch this ephemeral thing.

I ask the arborist I am dating if he has a cord of wood I can buy to make a fire in my cook stove to cook the food in my pot. He shows me his woodlot on our first date after we swim across a pond and stand in the silky muck on the other side. On his land behind his house, he has made a road out of woodchips. The road springs under our steps and I want to do cartwheels. The road smells like pine. At the apex of the road’s arc is the arborist’s woodlot, a dump truck he calls the crunchy toad, a grapple trailer with red pinchers that lift the torsos of severed trees. Slabs of wood wait to be split. Thick logs ooze sap from their outer ring. Tucked between stacks of seasoned wood is a little red and white trailer with a green shingled roof.

Inside, we enter a different decade. A Formica table dotted with gold stars and held on hairpin legs. Brass lights affixed to pine panels. A boxy couch. A kitchen with red counters. A metal toaster. A Bakelite hand mixer still in the drawer. The trailer was pulled from a camp. And though the paneling is warped, the ceiling stained, it feels like it is 1965 and its residents have just headed home at summer’s end.

The arborist has plans to patch the trailer’s holes and camp out mid-century style while he opens up walls in his house, rebricks the chimney, sands down wide plank oors. A few weeks ago, he took a break from splitting wood and stepped into the trailer. He sat on the couch and imagined he lived there. His line of sight passed through the kitchen and bathroom and bedroom, where a flash of fur under the bed caught his eye. He flew out the door with his heart thudding. He stood on the step. His ex-girlfriend once said that the trailer had bad energy. He believes in ghosts. He took a breath and went back in. He expected an animal and found a woman: bare-footed, gray-haired, thirsty. He asked her questions and went to the house for water. When he came back, she was behind the wheel of his rig. He jumped on his truck as it stuttered away. He pulled out the keys and sent her back down the woodchip road.

A vintage trailer with a bare footed gypsy. He tells a good story. I hadn’t expected much from this man. He was quiet the first time we met. This time, alone, our talk unspools. We circle around to divorce. My divorce is pending. He’s already worn his in. He says he got over the end of his marriage by meditating every morning before the sun came up. He experienced sublimity. It changed the shape of his cells.

He tells me about climbing trees with ropes and a harness. He describes what it is like to stand on a bare stalk a hundred feet up after the limbs have been stripped. Or over power lines when an electric surge rushes an errant bough and shoots through the trunk and he senses its buzz in his hands and drops away fast from the tree. He tells me about race walking and marathons that ended with a third surgery to a knee that rst came apart in a sledding accident when he was ten. He says his family in Wisconsin asks when he is moving back. He says he didn’t mean to make this place his home. He talks about starting life over from scratch. I am intrigued. But I keep my distance. I don’t hug him at the end of our date. I have learned a lesson. A man is not a home.

We move between our houses. One date here. One date there. An art gallery. A lecture on salmon. He measures my cook stove and cuts wood to fit my wood box. His business partner drops off a cord in my yard. She doesn’t know we are dating. We talk of impending rain. The stack of wood is immense. I carry it inside in armfuls for hours in the dark. It is a restless night and the process of stacking log after log against my chest and lifting the load with my legs burns just the right kind of heat.

Autumn in Maine is brisk. And when we enter my house at night, the arborist offers to start a fire. I plan to switch insurance companies soon. I am in Maine and I have a cord of wood and I want to sit by a fire inside my house. The three-legged orange cat peers into the stove as the arborist sets kindling and lights a match. We cook food and pour wine and have long conversations in front of the fire. We sit on a rug and lean against pillows. We picnic on the floor. We trade stories about our marriages in hushed voices.

The arborist met his wife in college. She was a race walker too. She could have made the Olympics. They married after graduation and came back to his wife’s hometown in the backwoods of Maine. They lived on her parents’ land. The arborist built a house. It had a brandy-wine metal roof and screened-in porch. The bedroom was lofted over narrow winding stairs. Below, the kitchen was pine green. The bathroom had a compost toilet. They lived off grid. He collected rain water in barrels, built a chicken house and root cellar, butchered chickens with his hands. He did everything from scratch. But money was tight. He scrambled to make a living caring for trees. One day, on a job, a woman stopped by. She had done tree work before. She needed a partner. They started collaborating on jobs. The business grew, but his wife didn’t believe he was coming home late because there were downed trees on rooftops all over the county. Their little homestead tensed.

But that’s not what it was, the thing that unraveled the marriage. Nothing so obvious as another woman. He doesn’t know what it was. But here is a story. It is months before he will meet this other woman who will work with him for six years. It is winter. It is afternoon on the homestead. The arborist’s wife is at work and there’s a fresh layer of snow on the pond. The house feels small and tight and dark so he goes outside to the place where the cool gray of the land dips to a body of water hardened to ice under the snow. In snow shoes, he takes slow steps and circles the pond. The snow says oof oof oof under the netting. His body leans into the pond’s irregular oval. His circle spirals. His breath chalks the air. Ice burrs cling to his jeans. When he gets to the center, he falls back in the snow. The ice holds him up and water holds the ice, and at the bottom of all that water, frogs sleep on top of the mud, their blood the same kind of cold as the water, their heartbeats the same kind of slow as the rotating moon.

He traces his steps back out of the circle. The circling takes hours. When he comes to the end of the circles, he knows. He hasn’t decided a thing but his bones have learned something. They keep it to themselves. He imagines his father-in-law watching him from the shed where he holes away. He thinks his father-in-law must know.

Months later, the woman who will become his business partner spots him up in a tree and stops her car, says she has experience doing tree work. Then they are booked and business is booming. They buy a chipper, a grapple trailer, a chip truck. Nights run late as they pull down trees that have gone dead in the middle. They need a place to keep the machines. A place to chop and season wood. The arborist buys a few acres with an old farmhouse and a barn and blueberry elds overgrown with saplings. He doesn’t know he is leaving his marriage. But then there he is in the farmhouse, ripping out carpet soaked with cat urine, cutting a hole in the wall for a stovepipe, collecting cast-off furniture and dishes from friends.

The first night in the house he doesn’t have heat. He boils water in a coffee pot and pours it into the bathtub. The walls around him are pink and peeling, the ceiling dappled with mold. He lies in the tub in just a few inches of lukewarm water with a whole house looming around him and only his one body to tear it apart and ll the gaps to stopper the wind. And his body convulses from the disorientation of walls that are not his walls, and he cries until the water is cold.

We are quiet with his story thick in the air between us. He leans into me, and I cradle his head. He works his body hard and falls asleep in front of the fire. I stroke the sharp angles of his jaw, trace the boyish wisps of blond over his eyes, smooth the deep runnels of his forehead, and put my lips to his lips.

We are cautious in conversation. We say things like, If we’re still hanging around in a month. We brace ourselves for absence. But sometimes we tell each other stories of a homesteading life. We wonder what animals would live on our land. Chickens and goats. And pigs because they are thinkers. Maybe we’d live in a yurt. With a tree house back in the woods where I could write. And a barn with ropes and a trapeze bar. We are not so foolish to think that marriage would suit us again. We are happy going from house to house for now.

That fall, the trees explode with apples. A bumper crop, the arborist says. We stop the car when a ash of red catches our eyes. We scramble up tree trunks and ll canvas bags with fruit. We bake pies and place slivers of pink apple esh on each other’s tongues. We read a book of essays and there is a tree in every essay. We pass the book back and forth, reading out loud. One essay is about a man who spent a lifetime bending saplings into forms and watching them grow into trees shaped like letters and hearts and keys. One morning, the arborist stands in front of me with Watership Down in his hand. He has been reading about rabbits. He says, I have this idea to write Watership Down but with trees. I smile. We invent a tale about an oak and an elm whose lattice of roots entwine under a compost pile and share the minutiae of their separate corners of the farm.

Another morning, he tilts his laptop screen my way. He’s logged onto Facebook. That’s the house I built, he says. His ex-wife has posted pictures. She and her new husband are gutting the house. Her husband wears a green ball cap over white hair and swings a crowbar at the staircase the arborist built. His ex-wife crouches over a pile of boards in front of the green kitchen wall. The stove is gone. The counter is gone. An outline is left where cupboards held a barrel of water over the sink. He shows me another picture from his computer. He is hanging upside down from the loft with his legs straddled out and his head thrown back in a smile. And I wonder if a person gets to choose which ghost of himself stays behind in the place that he built.

We make it to summer. We tend gardens at both our houses. We swim across the pond and stand in the silky muck on the other side. The arborist gives me an apple tree and rhubarb and lilacs, and we plant them in my yard. I bring him a cutting board made of bird’s eye maple and strawberry plants for the patch under the eaves of his barn. We see each other Wednesdays and weekends. He has tree work lined up across the country, windfall to lift off roofs and trunks that are splitting apart that he will cinch back together with magical strings. And in the days between, I work my way back to writing.

I write an essay about all the houses that live in the space of my brain. And in that way, I keep all the houses I’ve made and unmade. I wander from house to house. I live in one of them. I live in all of them. I splinter into dozens of ghosts who all get to live each of their various lives. I won- der about the original woman I was. Before Maine. Before marriage. But there is no original woman. I am all of them. I tell myself all their stories. I haunt all the houses. And I hope that whoever lives there now will tune the radio to a cello’s deep-bellied song and leave a book by the bed open and spilling out words and return every hour or so to turn the page.

Tessa Mellas received the 2013 Iowa Short Fiction Award for her collection Lungs Full of Noise. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She teaches writing at the University of Maine at Machias, a college so far east it is the first in the nation each morning to see the sun. Figure skater, vermicomposter, vegan, and tender of a fierce feline twosome, she relates to soil and snow.

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