The last time he stepped through the front door of this house there was no pain in his knees and hips at all, but now he could feel the very landscape inside his joints as he stooped down to peer through a front window, cupping his hands around his eyes to block the sunlight. Gettin’ old’s not for sissies, his mama tells him every time he visits. Truer words were never spoken, he thought as he straightened up, now leaning back a little and spying a tiny white owl nudged up into a protected spot in the porch eaves. The owl had quietly observed his every move. Well I’ll be damned, he thought. “Hey, little feller. Or gal.” If his daughter were here she’d chide him for first assuming the owl was a boy.
He tried the front door and it surrendered easily at his touch. There were the familiar pine floors in the front hallway, still more or less intact and as he remembered them, by some miracle. But the living room to the left—‘parlor’ some would call it—and its identical twin on the right had not fared so well. The house smelled musty, and he caught the unmisakable stench of a rotting carcus, probably a mouse, maybe something bigger. Now he stepped through trash, strewn about on the floor so that you couldn’t see the wood beneath it at all. A filthy mattress lay on the floor just under the south-facing window, and everywhere else, Christmas wrap and empty boxes. “Squatters,” he muttered as he nudged some bits aside to get a better look at the pine planks. And then he wondered whether those gifts had been stolen—one down-on-its luck family paying forward its hardship and suffering to another. Somebody’d had a little fun peeling back layers of paper from the walls, he could see, the bottom-most as old as the Civil War, and older, he mused. Could the squatters hear the echoes of history in this house? And somebody—maybe the same somebody, maybe not—had spray painted obscenities on one wall, lewd captions for the images a naughty fifth-grader might scrawl in the school toilet. People who would do such a thing were too wrapped up in their own misery to care about something as trivial as history, he concluded.
He’d meant to come back here much sooner, secure the house, lock it up tight, keep out the weather before it could do any more damage. Surveying water stains on the ceiling, overlapping asymmetrical rings with dry, darkened edges suggesting multiple episodes of leakage, he dreaded what he’d find upstairs, and only hoped the roof was still intact. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, he thought, as he turned the corner and started climbing. Later on his mama would remind him of this truth, too.