The house with mismatched roof tiles sits back from the road and is indistinct from its neighbors. Illinois Street is a busy one, and I doubt that many of the drivers take time to notice this one house in a row of similar Sears mail-order kit homes from an earlier age. But I do. I notice it every day.
Twenty years ago, 1999, the love-of-my-life-and-soon-to-be-ex were driving past that house, the car charged with the tension of some argument (about what, I don’t remember) when the driver in front of us hit the brakes and swerved to the side, parking half-on and half off the postage stamp lawn. He flung the door open, and bolted to the house, left the engine rumbling, stereo on, Tom Petty, Free Fallin’. I was slow to understand the situation, but the love-of-my-life-soon-to-be-ex—can we call her LOML for short?—was quicker to see the emergency . She yanked the truck hard to the right, scraping the wheels on the gutter, and jumped out.
“Fire!” She yelled, to no one in particular.
Fat billows of black smoke mushroomed out of the upstairs windows on either side. The man ran for the garden hose, and LOML ran for the street, flagging down the next car, yelling for them to call 911 from the nearby grocery store. I ran nowhere, but emerged from the car as I always do in a crisis, blinking, slow to grasp what’s happening, a hissing static in my ears. As the man kept the feeble stream from the garden hose trained on the smoke, the three of us argued the options. He wanted to open the door, break a downstairs window, see if anyone inside needed help. I said that the oxygen can sometimes cause the whole thing to explode into flames. LOML thought we should find another hose. Maybe we should try the door? We tossed the same ideas around like a game of hot potato. In my memory, this went on forever, the three of us circling from one option to the other in helpless ignorance, while the house burned. In my memory, too, there was a tumble of blooming purple petunias, old-fashioned flower boxes in the windows, and Christmas lights—a tree visible in the living room, and I know that those things aren’t possible together, but that’s how the memory recorded over time, so that’s the way it plays. At some point (likely almost immediately, as the station is only blocks away) the Fire Department arrived and shooed us from the scene, sirens and yellow suits and chaos. Flames shot from the roof. LOML and I drove away in a somber silence, our earlier disagreement dwarfed by the tragedy and the flames.
We later learned that an elderly woman had died in the fire, that she was found on the ground floor, overcome with smoke inhalation. We should have opened a door. We should have broken a window. She might have survived but for our inaction. She might have been sizzled to death, had we acted. I thought of how she, like me, had had plans for that day, ideas different from what ultimately happened. I thought of her grandchildren, of their first Christmas without her.
Shortly after this LOML—can we call her LOML v2.0?—left me (with good reason, I might add). I curled tight into an ego-bending depression, so dark and scrambled it might as well have been a cocoon. Years passed. Wounds healed. The roof was patched. New people live in that house now. Cars whisk by, oblivious to all that came before.
But not me.
That house with the mismatched shingles is on my way to or from just about anywhere I want to go. I drove past it every single day. For twenty years, I have replayed the scenes: the stumbling of a relationship crumbling under my feet, the dead woman, her weeping grandchildren, the wondering if she might have been saved but for my indecision.
Every. Single. Day.
And I’m tired.
The replay footage might be bearable if it were attached to just this house, this one incident. But there are too many. I have lived in Bellingham for thirty-two years—my entire adulthood—and the town is festooned with tattered memories just like this one, transparent gray overlays of the past, so thickly clogged in some places I can no longer see the colors of the present.
Haggen’s, the store just a block down from the house that burned, is so crowded with ghosts I can hardly push my shopping cart through the density of them. I just want to buy some damn wine, but no. Here I am, underaged trying to buy alcohol after hours, hoping swagger might pass for ID. The clerk denies me, and I’d be embarrassed if I weren’t three sheets already, stumbling. That clerk still works there, and I still buy there. We’re both thirty-some years older now than the ghost scenes that overlays us when—now—we spout our middle-aged banter at the checkout stand.
Here I am in the garden department where my friend Jodi was once the manager, and then another friend after that, where a sign painted “Herbarium” hangs on a plant display, the letters like green flowing vines. The first professional design job I ever had, back in 1991, when I worked for an herb farm. Feeling beyond fortunate for an hour or two to work indoors instead of courting frostbite in the February cold. Those original hand-painted signs have been copied and screen-printed poorly, distributed throughout the county, and mostly faded away, but I still see them here and there. That herb farm job comes with its own chorus of singing ghosts, hurtling at me out of the sky like some of Wagner’s Valkyries.
Here in the meat section, I am buying a chicken to make soup, like I did for months when my friend Annie was stupidly dying of cancer because she knew she had a lump for fucking months but couldn’t afford a doctor when she had kids and a mortgage and only earned the wages of an herb farmer. (Valkyrie spear to the chest.) Chicken soup like I made just last year for the previously mentioned LOMLv2.0 who—after some years of strangeness—is now the dearest of friends.
Here is the seafood department. I once dated the Haggen’s fish girl. (And yes, I can call her a “girl” because I was one too, at the time.) But I can’t think of that without recalling my one-and-only boyfriend Steve, who was kind and deserved better than dating a lesbian, and who also smelled of fish, from the Arrowac dock where he drove a forklift before running home to me, night after fishy night. But they’re all gone now, Steve, and the dock, and the fish…
I’ve become one of those tiresome old people who says things like, “Well back in my day, we…” or “you know the place I mean, the Whatsit that used to be Speedy O’Tubbs.” Here’s the shop that was once a café that was also a Korean restaurant that was once the Beach House Pub, where I spent a year dancing and carrying on with the 90’s hippie boys, entertaining their drunken professions of love—very occasionally for me, but mostly for the lead guitar rocker chick. They didn’t know, of course, that she was mine. For a while. And so it goes, like this, in this town. The trees, the shops, the houses, the ‘hoods, in all their vibrant colors and scents, obscured by tatters of memory, sometimes fluttering in the corner of my eye, sometimes a gray, strangling fog.
There is a concept, in Zen Buddhism, called “Beginner’s Mind,” wherein one maintains an openness to experience without pre (or past) conceptions. A skilled practitioner sees everything as if new—its color and texture, all its sensory detail, the nowness, the itness of it. Try as I might, I can achieve this state for just a few fragmented seconds, breathing deeply the scents of crisp Autumn air, the shock of fiery maple leaves, just a flash only before they begin to settle on me in layers, the transparent gray leaves of ‘87, ’95. But I won’t take you down those particular rabbit holes of memory. You get the idea.
And so, we are moving.
My wife Janna and I (I did learn to stop the versioning) have packed all that we want, sold the rest, and hauled a truckload of crap halfway across the country to a home on a creek in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin—a place about which I know absolutely nothing. We unpacked in front of a lovely house tucked into the woods, filled with the songs of birds we’ve never heard before. In these few short weeks, I’m learning to sort the difference between the scent of impending rain and the scent of rain with thunder on the way. We’ve found our way to the local grocery store. We can’t find anything there, because we don’t know the layout. The store is largely free of anything organic, but it’s entirely free of ghosts. As I write this, J is cursing in the kitchen because, goddamnit where did we decide to put the wine opener? We are disoriented, and it’s good, because we are scraped free of the gray preconceptions, we experience the world as it is. Because it’s good to struggle to find the silverware.
The woods at night are filled with the winking of fireflies. I could not have imagined. They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, a dusting of fairy magic from a Disney film. I miss my friends. I miss community. I miss the easy flow of the familiar. But fireflies spark in the woods at night, and I stand outside every evening, alive, and stunned by the miracle.