By Leah Tallon
Seven months ago, the house I had been living in with my boyfriend, Dave, and my miniature dachshund, Molly, burned to the ground while we were checking in for dinner reservations in downtown Milwaukee. We’d been gone all day, visiting his grandmother, applying to my dream bookstore, getting haircuts and, somewhere in the middle of all that, 20 minutes away, an electrical wire inside the wall of the office was sparking, the outdated cloth-covered wires catching fire after months, maybe years of luck finally running threadbare. The flames grew quietly in the center of the house and ate their way through family heirloom bookshelves full of paperbacks, an oriental rug, to the coat closet and the connecting wall to the living room, up through the ceiling to the bedrooms, to the roof. It filled the spaces between rafters under the floorboards and ripped through the basement ceiling. In one of my recurring dreams, I still hear Molly, my best friend for 6 years, scared and trapped in her kennel, barking while the smoke puts her to sleep and she dies alone until the firefighters can drag her kennel out into the clean snow. While support beams and walls crumbled, a friend of a friend posted on Facebook about the house closest to the park being a cloud of smoke, “There are fire trucks everywhere, they can’t find the owners, does anyone know who lives there?” A close friend saw the internet S.O.S. and called us, still 20 minutes away.
That’s where this essay that I don’t want to write starts but it’s not the real beginning. It’s not what this is about. There’s no beginning because I can’t find one.
Something, something, something about how this world is so big and we only think about that largeness in relation to people in other towns, cities, states or countries. Geographic space becoming the point. There are always life-altering events happening to someone else, somewhere else. We never leave our own house and then, 3 hours later, wonder what’s occurring inside its empty walls, as if it’s tucked away into some gigantic gap in time and space and simply doesn’t exist when we aren’t around to fill it. We are only going to the grocery store. Nothing to see here. Destruction does not need a witness.
This essay is already becoming uncomfortable. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Maybe this should start with comic relief, some padding. Who finds out their house is burning to the ground via Facebook, anyway? (cue laugh track) Cut to the scene where you’re standing in 2 feet of snow, in front of a broken, black house, while the sky lets loose freezing rain. You bum a cigarette off of an onlooker because, fuck it, the fire has already gotten inside you. You poetic fuck. (cue laugh track) Cut to two hours after you’ve retreated to Dave’s step-father’s house. There’s whisky and peach vodka. You drink too much and dance to Talking Heads “Burning Down the House.” The dog is dead. The house is gone. Your stuff is gone. Wash it out of your head. Dance it away. That’s profound, right? (cue…laugh track?) You toast to the still-cooling ashes one more time before falling asleep in an unfamiliar bed smelling of campfire. But only after you apologize to Molly. For her not being alive. For you not being there. (cue sad music) Cut to the next day, in the local Kohl’s. You stand in front of a mannequin without a head, comparing a v-neck t-shirt on clearance with a v-neck t-shirt not on clearance. Is that enough for a scene? Is that even funny? Cut to another day, any other day. You swell with the irrational fear that the local shelter has thrown Molly’s body away because you aren’t there to explain her importance. Linger on the pen you randomly grab from a cup full of pens in order to write down the essentials you still need to buy, the people you have to call, the amount of money you’re losing by not being at work, the pen with the command “ORGANIZE YOUR LIFE” printed on the side. (cue silence)
For months before the fire took care of the problem itself, I was helping Dave’s mother, Erika, clean out one of the extra bedrooms that had become the new storage room. When I first set foot inside with the intention of organizing, packing and cleaning the layers that had accumulated over the last twenty years, the floor and most of the walls were only visible through cracks of space between boxes. An entire window to the outside was covered with piles of paperwork up to the ceiling. Erika agreed that we should make it a usable room, that, even used as storage, it had gotten out of control. She was overwhelmed. Don’t worry, I said. I’m an organizing machine. And it was true. What was also true was that I had (and have) a hard time making new friends. It had been a difficult transition from the bustling streets of Chicago to the sleepy lanes of a Wisconsin suburb. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t myself. I was buried under the weight of my loneliness. I didn’t even want to hang out with me. But Molly still followed me around the house, still demanded to go out and for her belly to be rubbed. She kept me connected even if it was just barely. So now there was this room that needed me. I grabbed a beer, a roll of paper towels and some multi-purpose spray, boxes and bins and, with Molly not far behind me, I pushed our way into that time capsule room, ready to lose myself in a mindless organization task. Two entire bins devoted to office supplies. Old clothes from 30 pounds ago. A true vintage hair dryer from the 70s, hard case and all. An assortment of original Beatles fandom pieces. Magazines and newspapers from important local, national and international events. An old computer for every stage of the rise of technology. A closet full of hand-sewn children’s costumes. Souvenirs from China to Mexico. Tiny plastic boxes with someone’s first lost teeth. Bins and bags and file folders busting apart with paperwork. And at the very bottom of the stack, the last paper before the wood grain of the desk peeked out, a copy of a family member’s will. I poured through someone else’s history, bending myself into awkward positions between furniture in order to pick loose pieces of whatever off the floor and file them into their appropriate category box.
On the days she came to help, Erika picked through boxes with a smile on her face. She had stories for every single object. Where it came from, who gave it to her, where she bought it, what she thought she’d use it for. I don’t know why I kept this, she’d say, embarrassed. Once, she emerged from the room wearing a floor-length ombre fur coat with the matching pill box cap. Molly stood at her feet sniffing the bottom hem and wagging her tail. This was my mother’s, Erika said. I imagined the now 91-year old woman, frail and confused, sitting in her nursing home recliner, staring at CNN on mute. Well, you look like a movie star in it, I told her. But I don’t think she heard. The coat draped her in memories. She stroked the soft past for a moment before taking it off and gently pushing it back into its plastic bag.
Maybe there should be a paragraph that lists what is gone. A tribute or In Memory Of section. It’s so often that my mind becomes flooded with everything that doesn’t exist now. I teeter between apathy for materialism and devastation at the sentiments lost with the physical objects. The things we own are so imbued with stories. In so many ways, they help tell who we are. yellow mosaic art light, gift, $30?, 2 years old. After the house burns down but long before the shock is given a chance to fade to a bruise, there is insurance to navigate. They ask for a list of contents that resided in the house, with approximate costs and ages. Prove their existence, if you can, with receipts and photos. foldable black metal dog kennel, $50, 6 years old. Even if you hire public adjusters to do a majority of the work, give them the keys to the garage and the storage unit, you’re still the only people who can, with authority, scroll through the list of the last twenty years of your life and confirm ages and costs so that you can convince an insurance stranger in another state that all you owned is worth enough to get you a check big enough to rebuild an empty house. floor-length mink coat w/ matching cap, $300?, 50+ years old. This isn’t just about me. Molly and I lived there for five months. The house was a first major purchase by a warrior single mother, trying to provide a stable life for her kids. It stood as a visible reminder of what a person could do for themselves even when the odds were staring them down into the dirt. Metaphorically. Literally, it was a building that housed a family, like all the others you’ve seen. People grew inside its walls. Lives were lived. Children evolved into teenagers evolved into adults. Erika and Dave lived there for twenty years and this year, in the dead of Wisconsin winter, we layered up on clothing and I helped them sort through that lifetime, loading and reloading a trailer with pieces of their house. This world is so big that even three people experiencing the same event, don’t experience the same event. I’ve never felt so incapable of telling another person’s story.
Stop. I need to stop here because I’m making connections and still don’t have a beginning. I have to go back to before I knew all of this. On our way out that day, Dave slammed on the brakes to avoid running a stop sign he’d grown up around and the coffee I was drinking sloshed out of the cup and down the front of my jacket, soaking into the freshly printed resume in my lap. The resume that was going to my dream bookstore, the bookstore that would hire me on the spot, reconnecting me to literature and people who loved books. Reconnecting me to me. Or so I hoped.
Shit. I only have one copy of this. Fuck. It’s all over my white scarf.
Ugh. I’m sorry. Want to turn around and go print out another one? He turns the car back toward the house, circling the block.
No. Fuck it. Let’s just go.
Alright then. Sorry. He steers the car onto the highway, taking the wrong exit, the car going back north instead of south.
Goddamn it! We’re going the wrong way. We need to turn around again.
But that beginning makes it seem as though the world has blueprints for life, that even chaos is organized and that idea is too uncomfortable for me to consider and too cliché to write down. Even months later when I’m finally sorting through damaged photo albums, I’ll pull up the plastic film to salvage what I can. The heat, water, freezing temperatures and thawing has mixed the colors of my past. They bleed together, sometimes creating a tie-dye effect, sometimes revealing a pattern of flames. Something, something, something about how there are messages that only make sense after the fact because, too bad, that’s just how perspective works. There are no do-overs. Start with that. The beginning isn’t that day anyway. I’m sure of it. Go back further.
I’d tell you that I left Chicago for the suburbs of Wisconsin for love at 26 years old but I’d be lying. There was a man, yes, and I moved in with him, but the truth is that I was burnt out working three jobs, two of which I adored, the other I actually got paid for. I was (still am) choking on student loan debt and wondering if my education was worth the 110k I spent on it, wondering if I’d ever have time to finish the work I wanted to magically turn into my first book, wondering if I should just quit everything, move back to my hometown where it’s easier to get knocked up and married quickly. I paid more than I had for a tiny apartment that I never got to see. Molly was depressed. I forgot what the beach looked like even though it was four blocks from home. There was always whiskey and ice cream somewhere in my apartment. But I was living and I was doing it on my own, which was the only real expectation I’d had of myself once I graduated. And I was doing it in Chicago, my Land of Oz since the minute I was old enough to see it on a map.
And then I lost my (paying) job.
In fiction writing classes, they always told us a story worth telling began with conflict. The bigger the conflict, the more layered and complicated, the more engaging the story. Put your character in contact with someone opposite of them. Put your character in a situation they’ve never been in before. Apply the pressure. Take her rent-paying job away, replace it with a crap economy, an impossible job market, too much debt and an expensive city. Push a new love interest on stage. Make him generous and eager to help even though they’ve only just met three months before. Just stay here, he says. Sublet your place. Save money on rent and utilities. You can find a temporary job here til you get back on your feet. What seems like an escape route, a saving grace, is always just an alternate path into the same thick forest.
Before this, I had always considered myself a city person. I loved the steel sky, the congested traffic, the masses of people every which way. I felt rubbed into a community, anonymous and able to do whatever I wanted without scrutiny, but still a part of something special. You don’t have to live in a way that your neighbors approve of. Hell, you don’t even have to wave to your neighbors in Chicago. It might be a better idea to not. You don’t have to do or be one specific thing. Success is yours to define and everyone else is too busy constructing their own definition to grill you on yours. Everyone is an artist, in their own way. Creativity is in the water (among other things). Before this, I was an artist. I was in love with the editing work I did for indie publishing companies. Every weekend was full of readings and book fairs and literature discussions with friends. My eyes and fingers and opinions were all over a few books that were then pushed off into the world like tiny sailboats of hope, spreading the message that you can do whatever you want to do. You can build worlds for people to live inside of. You can do this and enjoy it even while eating three square meals of ramen and halved peanut butter sandwiches every single day. Or you could get lucky (like I was for a little while) and find a substantial job with a faint career path that paid you enough money to use two pieces of bread for that sandwich.
Before this, nature was just a vacation for me, a spot you camp three days out of the year. Wisconsin has a lot of hills and trees. In the summer, everywhere you go is green. Even ethically. Recycling is a big deal. Eating locally grown, organic food picked by someone’s plant-loving hands is a big deal. Keeping communities, towns and cities litter-free is a big deal. Coming from Chicago, life here was easy. It was slow and swelled peacefully and I tried to relax into the setting, which, for a little while, created a whole other form of anxiety. I just kept telling myself, maybe this is a good thing, exactly what I need. I was entranced during the first few months. In the Fall, all that green slid into a watercolor painting. The hills were blended reds and golds and yellows and browns. I had trouble driving anywhere. I wanted to park on the side of the road and sit in a ditch. I wanted to watch the shifting colors. I could feel the city draining from my muscles. Molly was able to roam outdoors without worry. I witnessed her experience a happy dog life and was excited to be able to do that for her. She rolled and rolled in the grass, rubbing the sun into her skin. Her facial expressions changed. A sparkle had been returned. Connected as we were, I felt it with her. Molly had been my consolation prize from an early adulthood relationship gone wrong. He had grown up with dachshunds. He loved their awkward bodies and the way they waddled and the sweetness in their eyes. He wanted a purebred with perfect, historical blood, something to brag about. I wanted a doberman or a retriever or a pit bull or a great dane or a bull mastiff or a combination of all of those things and I wanted to rescue them. A big, muscular dog, all sharp edges and gleaming teeth. Someone I could walk around Chicago with at 3am and feel safe. Someone to take care of me too. But he had the money and the car, so we got a dachshund. When he got back, prize in hand, he told me of how he chose Molly. He had met the breeder in the parking lot of a gas station and when she opened the back hatch of her car to give him his choice of puppies, a tiny ball of red hair, all nose and ears and elongated spine, rolled off the edge and onto the ground. I watched our new puppy settle on the living room carpet, staring all around, seeing things I knew I couldn’t see. She looked straight at me. This is my home now. Here I am. Make room for me. I loved her immediately and when the boyfriend left, Molly stayed. Six years later, she came to Wisconsin with me, my little adventurer. I felt safe having her with me, like I’d taken everything I knew and had been through inside of this stubborn, sweet little dog. She knew everything about me and still trusted me. I didn’t know how this would work, if I was making the right decision, if I’d wind up in a tighter spot than before or if I’d ended up finding our happiness. But having Molly around curbed the anxiety. I’d always have her. Through all of my direction-switching and general confusion in life, I’d managed to keep another living being healthy and happy and alive. Through all of my flailing, I still held onto that success.
Before this, I described myself as an “animal person.” I still do. The need for that connection is something inherent in me. Like most scrawny coke-bottle bespectacled kids with big, curly hair, I was a target in elementary school. This is not unique to only my life, I know. We all have the same story. It would start on the bus, crumpled up paper, pencils, erasers, even rolled up balls of chewed gum coming from nowhere and everywhere, directed at me and my empty seat. They’d attack in groups and take turns coming up with names that had been used by generations of asshole bullies before them to make quiet, shy kids terrified of everyone. After a 45 minute parade of humiliation, I’d arrive at school shaking and down on myself for everything I’ve since then grown to love about me. Around every corner was a new opportunity to cry in public, another piece of a child’s already fragile self-esteem flushed down the toilet. By the time I made it back home to my grandparent’s farm in the afternoon, I was exhausted and puffy from crying but happy to have survived. In my branch of this well-known story, this resulted in a deep love and respect of animals and a lot of solitary time. I’d rush down the long gravel driveway, picking lilacs from the bushes as I went. Skipping the house, I’d push my way into my happy place, the old two-stall barn where the stray cats had litters of kittens and our ancient, tumor-ridden blue heeler, Trudy, escaped the heat. The stall doors leading to the pasture would be left open, allowing the two horses to roam in and out as they pleased. I sat in the haystacks, naming the newest kittens, singing or reading to the dog and watching for mice in the farthest corners. I was happy with that. It made the days seem worth it.
There’s no beginning in that either, though. So try this one. When I was even younger, too young to understand what death meant, I stared the afterlife right in its milky, vague eyes. I was obsessed with ghosts. I’d pretend to fall asleep on the living room floor while my mom watched movies I wasn’t supposed to see. I’d give myself headaches from squinting my eyes so I could appear to be sleeping in case she checked. Any movie where the dead came back, whether to haunt or to torture or to relay messages of love. Always there has been this connection with being on the outside looking in and the possibility that someone was farther out than I was, looking in on me, that there was a loneliness greater than the one I felt, was terrifying. But no matter the intention of the spirits in those movies, they always made contact. They saw them pass behind while brushing their teeth in the mirror, saw them travel through a wall, unaware of physical boundaries, heard them rattle around in another room, felt them sit down at the end of their bed when they understood themselves to be completely alone. This obsession, as I got older, transformed into a fear. Having seen enough movies to begin building my own library of “scary,” I’d become so paralyzed in the dark, surrounded by my imagination’s inventions, that I’d slide out of bed and crawl down the hallway to my mom’s room, as though I’d find safety and light down in the carpet. I’d close my eyes to reach up for her door knob because I didn’t want to know what was on my heels, slinking around in the dark behind me. I always felt stupid. Even though I was old enough to fully believe myself, there was always a separation between me and other people, my mind and theirs. I was a cut out in the world and I understood no one would think this was cute. No one would understand. I’d quietly slide alongside the platform base of my mom’s water bed and press my back against the cool wood, shrinking myself into the fibers of the carpet, making room for the monsters of the night. I’d make myself so small not even they could find me and I’d fall asleep like that.
It’s been seven months since her death and Molly hasn’t rubbed against my ankles. She hasn’t shown up in the corner of my eye. I haven’t sensed her walk into a room or heard her bark or smelled her breath or felt the end of the bed sink as her ghost jumped up to burrow in the blankets like she did while alive. None of that has happened. Molly was the last “thing I carried.” Molly was me. She was six of the most important years of my life stored inside of another life. She was a keepsake box, my love in physical form, the very last of my definition erased by timing and chance. I am the core of me now, exposed and unlabeled and wandering. How do you write about what you can’t see in the present tense without feeling like a liar? How do you move forward when the past is sitting on your feet? Something, something, something about how we’re afraid of ghosts until someone we love has died and then we wait for them.
On Wednesday, August 20th, after months of plans and negotiations and absent-minded insurance agents with zero interest in aiding in the process, the burnt through house was finally leveled. Dave and I climbed the six concrete stairs up the hill in the backyard to stand just outside of the waist-high orange plastic construction fence to look at the dirt hole. To anyone passing by on the road in front of or behind the house, that’s exactly what it is. A hole. I don’t know what Dave or his mother see in that hole, but what I see is the basement area where musician friends held late night jams and recording sessions; the rug in front of the backdoor where I stomped my boots clean after Molly and I came in from playing in the snow; the kitchen on the first floor, hazy with jazz music and the sizzle of veggies and chicken on the stove; the movie nights cuddled up with Dave and Molly on the old red reclining love seat in the living room while the snowy Wisconsin winter raged outside the bay windows; the plant nook that became Molly’s kennel spot, overrun with green potted plants like an indoor jungle; the time capsule storage room above, bursting at the windowsills with the history of an entire family still new to me; the office walls lined in bookshelves and the worn-out reading chair just big enough for girl and dog on another adventure together. While we stood there, not talking, I noticed a small green leaf in the midst of a mostly brown construction site. I saw my first ghost.
And just like that, I found the beginning. It’s here, with a seedling pushing through scorched ground.