?Or would you know,? pursued the Ghost, ?the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this seven Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain.? Marley’s Ghost, Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
It goes without saying that as we get older, we accumulate memories. Births, deaths, graduations, holidays, weddings, every day events lie safely tucked away in our subconscious. Some we call forth in a desire to relive the joy of the moment. Others get shoved into the dark recesses of our mind and covered over in the vain hope that, thus disposed of, they will be forgotten and cease to be. A futile effort. Our memories are ghosts which haunt us in the wee hours, disturbing our sleep. Occasionally, they intrude on our waking hours.
A large pile of junk at the curb in front of a house I drove by pulled an unexpected memory out of hiding.
The family literally lived in the town dump, a dump that once had been a gravel pit. The house was a tar paper shack which did not have a proper foundation nor a proper floor. The floor was beaten earth covered with cast off carpeting. Windows pierced the walls at odd intervals. It had no electricity, no telephone, no running water and, of course, no indoor plumbing. Lighting was by kerosene lamp and heat was provided by an old iron pot-bellied stove. It was home to upwards of a dozen people; the parents and an assortment of children, including twin girls. The oldest boy living at home, a deaf mute, did odd jobs, mainly for the summer people at the lake. Jobs in the winter were fewer and he helped his father with the weekly trash collection. He had attended school at one time and had learned sign language, but because no one could understand him, he was referred to as The Dummy.
He was also a water witch and was in demand whenever a new well was to be drilled. Equipped with a forked branch cut from a fruit tree (usually peach), he would pace the property, holding the stick at waist level. As he walked, you could see the tip of the fork bob occasionally and he might pause for a moment before continuing on. Suddenly the tip of the fork would plunge downward and he would stop. He would then approach the spot from different directions and each time the tip twisted downwards. Finally satisfied, he would mark the spot and convey through gestures and writing in the dirt the depth of the well. I never knew him to be wrong. He let me hold one end of the branch as he searched for water one day and I was suddenly surprised by the force with which the tip of the stick twisted downwards. It was irresistible. I have never doubted the abilities of a water witch since.
The remaining children, except one, are a blur. The twins were the youngest, not yet school age at the time of this remembering. A couple of boys in elementary school, another girl who was married and several boys who had long since dropped out of school and lived in the house intermittently. And there was Roger.
Roger was in my class for most of elementary school. His clothes were worn, not always clean and there was an edge of uncleanliness about him, his neck and hands especially. Not a good student, he was disliked by classmates and teachers alike. He often fell asleep in class. No one bothered to ask why. Not allowed into schoolyard activities, he became a loner and was usually to be seen in some out of the way corner digging in the dirt. This did not help his appearance. I would like to say that I took the high road and treated him differently from my peers. I did not. Although I did not engage in the name calling of some of the others, I was not above shunning him. On occasion, on my Saturday wanderings, I would run across him and we would play. Nothing elaborate; skipping stones across the water or launching makeshift rafts made of twigs in a stream to see how far into the lake they would be carried before breaking up. One such meeting resulted in an invitation to his house. Inside, it was a hopeless jumble of clothes, broken furniture and other odds and ends discarded by the summer people. None of it was particularly clean and I made my excuses as quickly as possible and beat a hasty retreat home. Had she known, my mother would not have approved of my even going near to the house, let alone going into it. Like the others, if I ever thought of Roger at all, it was never in kindness.
At some point, the father moved out of the house into a small wooden shack he had built about 50 feet uphill from the house. He could be seen of an evening sitting on the small porch in front of the shack having a smoke. No one knew the reason for the move and no one asked.
One early spring night, a fire broke out in the family house. The cause was not known, although people later speculated that it was the kerosene lamps. Some hinted darkly that maybe the father had set the blaze. Whatever the reason, it quickly enveloped the structure and only Roger, his two younger brothers, and the older brother made it out. The older brother, realizing that the twins and his mother were still in the house, went rushing back in. He perished with his mother and sisters.
No fire trucks rushed to the fire, no neighbors ran to help, no one knew until the father appeared at a farm down the road asking for help. By then, the house was a smoldering pile of ashes. The firemen and police came in the morning and poked around, the coroner was called and the fire was determined to be an accident. I went there around mid morning with my godmother, not out of concern for the family, but out of morbid curiosity. There was little she could do, but she took the father’s hands in hers and prayed the Lord’s Prayer with him. Roger the his brothers stood to one side crying and my godmother gave each a hug and we left. I remained silent throughout the visit, offering no words or gestures of sympathy. I never saw any of them again.
A few days after the fire, there was no funeral, the father took a tractor with a front loader and leveled the shack, scraped the remains of it and the ashes of the house into a hole, covered everything over, graded the remaining ground, took his boys and disappeared. No one knew where they went and no one asked. Their sudden departure confirmed in the minds of some that the fire had been no accident. His work was so thorough that anyone not familiar with the area, when driving by, would never have known that a house ever stood there.
A largish house stands there now. A house with electricity, telephone, running water and indoor plumbing. A furnace keeps it warm by winter and an air conditioner cools it in summer. The house is nicely landscaped and all vestiges of the land?s former role as gravel pit/junk yard have disappeared. At times, I have been tempted to stop by and ask the residents if they knew the history of the land. The don?t know and probably would not appreciate information volunteered unasked.
I’m sorry, Roger.