The Unmade House


When I think about the origins of the universe, I think about a hard line between yes and no. A line not just between light and dark, absence and presence, but also between absence and the absence of absence.

Nonbeing. We talk about this at breakfast, but we do not understand it.

On Father’s Day, I called my dad, and he described the process of gutting and remodeling my childhood home, a project which has been underway for weeks. One of the first things that had to be done was the testing of a patch of land out back, where, he worried, a faulty oil tank may have leaked into the ground. The soil tests returned clean results, however, and the tank was pulled out with a backhoe, no trouble. Leaving only negative space, to be masked with earth and a layer of concrete. With any luck the house will soon be sold to a new family.

I haven’t set foot inside that house for two years, nor have any of my three siblings, though it remained in place and full of our things until a crew went in and threw armful upon armful of broken mishmash into a dumpster. My mother (who owns the house) never kept the place up, and decamped several months ago, back to her own childhood home across town. Because he is closer to it, my father is watching over the remodel, calling my mother occasionally to get her signature on the papers. Her departure came a few years after we all stopped staying with her on visits because there was too much dust in our bedrooms. No working plumbing in the upstairs bath.

We never moved. We just faded out of the house. Let me clarify what I mean when I say “we”: our family as a whole. Our family as an idea.

My childhood took place entirely in one house. Although no, that makes us sound like shut-ins, when I just mean I never had to start over at a new school (except when they re-zoned us, which actually happened a lot), never packed our whole world into boxes and drove it into a new city, new state. The closest we came to relocation was during my eighth-grade year, when my father moved out, precipitating my parents’ divorce. And even then he just went two doors down, to a house we’d been renting out (and where he still lives).

A friend of mine came to visit during a college break, and stayed over at my dad’s house because we had bunk beds there, with clean sheets and everything. Let me clarify again: I was staying at my dad’s house, so there was never any other option offered. But one evening he—my friend—looked around and said to me, This isn’t where you grew up, is it?

It was a knowing question. Knowing-me. My dad’s house is perfectly nice, but bachelor-decorated, with white walls and a lot of hunting trophies, an odd mix of functionality and testosterone. Over the years, it has gained a more lived-in feel, more memories—it’s where I want to go, now, for Christmas. But it isn’t bonkers with ephemera, collections, piles. If you know the inside of my mind, you know I have piles there. Old VCR tapes and stones from the beach and ticket stubs and comic books and scarves.

No, I told my friend. This isn’t where I grew up. We went back to the first house on the driveway, which has (had) a picture of my mom taped up to the front, one where she is making a face and my sister drew on devil’s horns. That same sister taped the picture up in revenge (for what? Some small slight) because she knew my mom wouldn’t ever take it down. It’s not in her nature to tidy, to remove. (And we’ve said so now so many times that I wonder if, in part, her refusal to tidy is itself a keepsake of us, her children.)

This is where I grew up, I told my friend. I got a bottle of wine from the basement and we chose mismatched stemware from the overflowing cabinets. An unfinished itemization of the cabinets turned up faceted glass, a pile of those white plates with pictures we drew fastened to them through some unknown craft alchemy, beer steins stained by tea, matching brown plates and bowls embellished with wheat stalks, plastic cups in seemingly every color and shade.

This makes so much more sense, he said. We sat by the upright piano in the dining room. The piano: untuned and covered with books and mail and tapes and an ill-or-unused feather duster and a mug full of inkless pens. The table: always a repository for our everything, only cleaned for birthdays and other special occasions (like the decoration days in early December when we’d wash the windows and stick on plastic ornaments and snowflakes). Covered with a now-dirty, now-ruined lace tablecloth. Two weeks of newspapers. More mail, old photos, a wooden fruit bowl now empty of fruit that once contained the fifteen thousand (rough estimate) satsumas I ate every holiday season.clutter

We walked through the house, where we found things lying askew as if placed by childish hands no more than ten minutes before. Stuffed animals in a pile with picture books, a stack of board games with boxes taped at the corners and half the pieces missing. A blanket behind the couch where I might have left it after falling asleep by the heater vent. I could have just been there, I could have just set it down. This is how our house is. (Was.) Things move in the shape of memories, not actions. (Moved.) They arrange themselves by feel.

I don’t think my friend and I went out in the yard, but it would have been overgrown. The plum trees bare, maybe a few late apples on the ground. In the back, by the garage and the oil tank, there was a cherry tree, grafted to produce three different kinds of cherry: the first I ever heard that such a Frankensteinian process could, well, bear fruit. I still wonder why it works with wood but not with flesh: if you cut clean into my arm, why couldn’t you attach another? The tree was near-dormant for years, but by the time I graduated high school it was possible to go out back and pick a whole bowl: Rainiers, Bings, and Vans, I think. A bowl of cherries and snap peas and raspberries that I would rinse off with the hose (though why? It’s not like we used pesticides) and eat while sitting in the grass and reading.

So that’s where you grew up, my friend said. Yes, I said. Yes it is.

The strangest thing for me to think about is that, as a part of the remodel, the outside of the house was stripped of its white vinyl siding and painted. That underneath, they found wood. I do not yet know what it looks like, though I’m told that the lilac bush that always bloomed around my birthday is still across the driveway, by the chain-link fence we climbed to cut through the neighbor’s yard.

The inside of the house is now empty. It had been decaying for years, so much disrepair. Those toys and pillows and pieces of paper that my friend and I found way back when, still there, melting into one another. The basement flooding periodically and damaging everything we stored there.

The emptiness is like a balm for the house. It’s like rest. Like Shavasana. Like baptism. A cool palmful of water over the forehead that brings you away clean and refreshed. Maybe soon I’ll be sad about it—I am prone to nostalgia. But not yet. Not so far.

I remember some of the things I left in my room, which I didn’t ask to have saved. A book of middle-grade fiction where a girl finds a silver crown under her pillow. A glass orb. A picture frame. A ceramic bust I made in tenth grade. A rock shaped like a dragon’s egg that I kept in a drawer with my tarot cards. All unredeemed. Things I no longer wanted to sort or carry.

Apparently I carry them anyway. Nothingness, nonbeing, doesn’t come when it’s called. It’s there before you know it, and then it’s gone.

Adrienne Celt is the author of two novels—Invitation to a Bonfire, which was a June 2018 Indie Next Pick, and The Daughters, which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award—as well as a collection of comics, Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary. Her work has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, Zyzzyva, Esquire, Prairie Schooner, Strange Horizons, and many other places. She lives in Tucson and publishes a webcomic at</a.. Find her online in way too many places, including, @celtadri on Twitter, or by subscribing to her Tinyletter. More from this author →