Three Neighbors stood near the shade of the apple tree. A dairy farmer cried, “Everything OK?” his large hand waving. “Do we need the fire warden?”
Mom turned. “No. No,” she said smiling. “We’re just getting rid of the clubhouse.” She walked toward the neighbors. “See, Clint’s got the hose. Don’t worry, it’s under control.” As out of control as it was for a young boy to be holding a garden hose before forty-foot flames, for the first time since Penny entered her life Mom felt in control. She walked towards the fire, hips swinging.
Plains of farmland surrounded our west Provo home; the black plume was visible for miles like an SOS, but no one called the fire department. More people collected in our driveway, six dirt farmers mumbled to each other with folded arms and three children smiled. The dry wood, gasoline and newspaper burned quickly. The clubhouse crumpled and the embers shone.
“I can’t believe what Randy did to that woman,” one said.
Mom walked to the smoldering clubhouse built by her ex-husband. Ryan and I followed. Jagged two-by-fours, hissing cedar and nails, worn aluminum colored ashes, sat where the clubhouse once stood. She raised her open palms to feel the heat die.
I don’t know how my parents met; Mom wouldn’t talk about it. She gave vague details referring to her time with Dad as “a trial”. Mom was 32 when my parents divorced. She stood five-two and broad shouldered, with rich brown hair and a round nose, traits passed down by her father, a stocky Welshman described as irritable and thrifty. Mom’s sensitivities caused her to awaken early, bathe quickly, and spend hours running the hair drier. The burnt-hair-smell of a curling iron drifted beneath the bathroom door, and makeup canisters crackled as she opened her eyes, leaning towards the mirror. She used families in our congregation with sloppy homes or odors as warnings of how people might perceive us. “Change that shirt,” she said. “You smell like the Johnson’s.”
After fifteen years, Dad left for another woman taking half of Mom’s identity. People didn’t refer to them as Naomi and Randy, but as the Edwards: the Edwards’ home, the Edwards’ yard, and the Edwards’ clubhouse. Mom’s splintered identity became filled with another woman’s ghost. People drove past and no longer said, “Edwards.” They had an anecdote, a new identity for my family. They said, “Naomi and her kids live there. Her husband ran off.”
The empty seat at the table, the clubhouse, the recliner, all reminded her of Dad. He installed the washing machine and never adjusted the legs; laundry went off balance, causing the machine to slam into the wall. Most appliances reflected neglect: the refrigerator’s burned bulb, the TV’s missing volume knob. Dad rushed his way through projects like fire consuming wood; he trotted quickly from one assignment to another, and perhaps that’s why he left, because his children found no contentment with Saturday tickles between shifts, and Mom felt no satisfaction in a peck on the cheek.
Sometimes Mom packed a suitcase the color of a dirty dryer screen, threw on her coat, and said, “I’m done.” Dad gathered us from bed, pajama bottoms covering our feet. “She’s leaving,” he said. “Do you want Mom to leave?” Mom sat on the suitcase, gray coat tails draping to the floor, and cried as we pleaded. This seemed normal, like a fire drill; something practiced for an unlikely event. Years later, when I was twenty, she gave me some relationship advice. “Pick a fight.” She said. “Act like you’re leaving. See how they react. That’s how you know if someone loves you.” I didn’t know it then, but Mom packed that suitcase to test boundaries.
Mom became the only comfort at night, our only discipline, the only source of candy or help with homework. We expected from Mom the parenting of two. When Dad lived with us he rushed through the day, but he still woke in the night to get me a glass of water and made room in bed when I tapped nervously on his shoulder. He shared his breakfast (if we got up early enough) and he helped us build the clubhouse.
That clubhouse was an act of compensation. A last gift of testosterone, hammer and nails, cedar and two-by-fours, sweat and sawdust. A 6-by-10-foot room with a low ceiling, gaps in the walls letting in sunlight, and a dirt floor. I was 7 and Ryan was 10. Dad had square glasses, thick black hair, and veins dividing his biceps. For the first time he slowed down to show us how to pound a nail, hold a handsaw, grip lumber, and use a tape measure. We constructed the clubhouse and I felt proud to have him as a father.
“Now ya got a place for when your mom gets angry,” he said. “I can’t always be around . . . I got shit to do.”
In six months, Dad informed Mom about Penny, a waitress at a Provo diner known for cheap coffee and easy women. Penny held a gypsy like appeal— curly black hair, plump hips, and shimmering mascara eyes with a look of worldliness. All the things that reminded Mom of Dad, the clubhouse, the banging washing machine, the recliner, also reminded her of Penny. Mom imagined them, eating lunch, holding hands, and sharing a bed. I didn’t think about Penny and Dad sharing a bed, but I imagined they went country dancing. The few times my parents went out I imagined them dancing on a hardwood floor. We lived in the West. Dad was an air-conditioning contractor that dressed like a cowboy and Mom wore long flower print dresses with silver tipped red boots. Country dancing made sense to me. Reminders of Dad produced images of Penny and him on a dance floor in brown boots and polyester. I hated this image and longed to once again imagine Dad dancing with Mom.
Mom looked at the clubhouse through French doors, her forearm resting against glass, head tilted to the side. She felt the same as I did and hated talking about all the things that reminded her of Randy and Penny.
We tried not to talk about Penny but she was in every room like a ghost, the aftertaste of every conversation, wind made the clubhouse groan in her voice. Mom needed an exorcism, but didn’t know how to perform one. Dad’s adultery caused her to question her Mormon faith. Ryan spilled soda on the carpet and Mom rose her fists, knuckles white-tipped, and said, “Give me strength, Lord.” She never got stronger and outbursts of anger became frequent.
Mom attempted to remove the Ghost of Penny. After work she dressed in black spandex shorts and a black tank top, and crawled around the house on hands and knees vigorously cleaning between crevices. The kitchen smelled of lemon, the bathroom reeked of ammonia, and vacuum lines traced the furniture. With her chin rolled down in layers, she mumbled incantations. The mop bucket like a font of holy water and the toothbrush like a cross, she scrubbed at her husband’s memory. At night, she tossed angrily beneath her blankets feeling no relief.
Christ’s images replaced family photos, eggshell white paint replaced cowboy wallpaper, dad’s old medications moved to the dumpster, and a wood shim balanced the washer. We tore photos from frames and slashed at carpet. Systematically we cleansed each room. “Watch your feet,” Mom said. “The last thing I need is a tack in your foot.” She pointed to the floor, hands in long yellow rubber gloves. The living room was stripped to floorboards and the lavender sheets off Mom and Dad’s bed caught paint dripping. Paint fumes weighted the air, tasting artificial.
As the house changed, so did mom. She took long baths; the walls perspired as she pushed from her pores the demands of motherhood and the regrets of a failed marriage. The poorly hung bathroom door bowed from the moisture and had to be forced shut. She rarely wore makeup. One night I watched from the hallway, she knelt next to her bed, gripped the bedspread, and inhaled deeply. Redness and moisture collected around her eyes. She was wroth with God. I never saw her pray again.
After Ryan and I went to bed, Mom sat alone in the altered living room. I peeked through my door, and she hugged her shins, forearms spackled white with plaster and paint, shoulders trembling. I wondered if she was going mad, and couldn’t tell if this was temporary madness or a long-term change. I would’ve considered her sanity sooner, but Dad’s absence and the altered rooms made me accustomed to change. It was not the exorcism, the cleaning, or the layers of paint that made me wonder; it was the way she cried when alone. I longed for those days when she chased me in the yard instead of using a wallpaper steamer or tickled my feet rather than loading the Blazer with carpet.
Our yellow and red brick home sat on a one-acre lot near Center Street in West Provo. We could see into one neighbors windows; the next closest home sat three acres away. Dad’s heating and air conditioning business covered most of the backyard. The building was square, tan and dark brown, with a lightly pitched roof. After the divorce, Dad’s Ford cooled daily with pops and pings in the back yard. His voice crossed the lawn and through the walls, and mom watched him come and go through the kitchen window as she scrubbed dishes. She hated having him so close. After a two-year divorce, Mom was awarded the house and the shop.
Mom lounged on the porch in a yellow lawn chair the day Dad moved. Ryan was 13 and I was 10. We hid in the clubhouse, using it for the first time in months because it still reminded me of Dad and Penny dancing. I watched Mom through the doorway and Ryan watched Dad through the window. A Twizzlers bag crackled as we passed it between us. We whispered what we saw.
Mom crossed her stout legs and raised a can of Diet Coke in cheers. We saw Penny’s curly black hair through lit windows. Much like the ghost, Dad and Penny’s relationship appeared transparent, I couldn’t comprehend its reality, but watching him load trucks with heating ducts, tin-snips, and a heavy compound press moved with dense chains and the bucket of a tractor made the image of them dancing something I’d witnessed rather than imagined. He’d moved on and would not be coming back.
Penny passed into view, and Mom grumbled obscenities, her large breasts rippling. “You bitch, I’d love to see you burn.” A cool breeze ruffled her bleached curls.
In neighboring fields, farmers often burned ditches or placed fire in steel drums to heat branding irons, so nobody paid much attention to Mom burning Dad’s old junk.
“No one’s going to rent this shit hole if they don’t have room to park,” Mom said.
Dad’s shop reflected his haste. Weeds like small trees, damaged water heaters, and failed heating ducts surrounded the shop. Tumbleweeds rested against the clubhouse. “Your father is a damn slob,” Mom said as she dragged a railroad tie, sweat highlighting the brown roots of her blond hair.
She started small, burning a few desiccated weeds with half-a-dozen broken pallets on weekend nights. Camping size fires gradually grew, soothing her anger. Flames reached higher, stretching to twenty feet. With amber fumes and the spark of a match, gasoline delivered her from the Ghost of Penny. Gray engulfed the house, and our clothing smelled of sweet burning branches.
Ryan and I stood before flames, holding charred hot dogs on sticks, our backs facing the clubhouse, arms singed red and hairless. Casting a circle with her eyes, Mom straightened her red tank top and rubbed ash-coated hands through curled blackened bangs. The gravel yard was clear, metal items were hauled to the dump, and anything that burned made ash piles like scattered crop circles.
Mom walked closer, her eyes dry; veins crossed beneath her sclera like wild train tracks. As it creaked in the desert wind, the clubhouse reminded us of Penny’s Ghost. “We can’t have that,” she said, pointing. “We just can’t.” Ryan and I turned and Mom trotted past. Two years of weathering changed the clubhouse cedar to a dry peeling gray. The wood slouched, prying out the nails, and our forearms bore white scars from playing next to the walls.
“You kids don’t play there anymore,” she said. “Look at this dump. Your father built it like he did everything . . . half-assed.” Mom placed her hands on her hips. “We should burn it down.” She raised and dropped her palm with force. “Right to the ground.”
Before the divorce, the changes to the house, and the fires, Mom would have never burned a building, but she also never would have gone without makeup. Her dry face made burning the clubhouse seem natural. We followed Mom to several boxes of newspaper that sat in the garage. She dropped a heavy box into my arms. “Take all the newspaper to the clubhouse. Take it there and crumple it up.” She mashed her hands in a clapping motion. “Throw the balls of paper into the clubhouse. I’m going to get gas.” Ryan and I hauled newspaper and Mom loaded the Blazer with two empty five-gallon gas cans, then drove away.
Crumpling and tossing the newspaper through the clubhouse door turned our fingers black. Ashes floated in the desert wind and I felt relief with each wad. We stuffed paper in like breadcrumbs into a turkey: movie listings, ads for camping, and family life sections. Newspaper in the windows of the clubhouse looked peculiar but necessary, like the last item on a to-do list. Penny’s Ghost struggled beneath the crinkled balls and I was hopeful that this would be the last change.
Mom returned, full gas can in each hand, legs wobbling. She set the cans next to the trampoline. “Come help,” Mom said.
Ryan snatched a can and carried it to the clubhouse, his left arm extended for balance. Hobbling and bow-legged, I held the other can with both hands below my crotch. “Stand back,” Mom said. “I don’t want this on your clothes.”
Through the can’s slender funnel, Mom poured gas on the clubhouse; crooked lines turned the wood yellow, as though a drunk urinated on the walls. She set the can down, exhaled, and rolled her shoulders.
“Take off the lid,” Ryan said. “It’ll pour faster.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
She threw the lids to the gravel and splashed gas on the clubhouse, round arms tensed, swinging back and forth, dousing the wood. The cans emptied quickly and Mom turned to us, patting splattered gas from her face. She inhaled. Fumes distorted light above the clubhouse and sat deep in my lungs.
Mom looked at me and said, “Get the hose.”
Water on high, I dragged the hose to the end of the yard. “What do you want me to do?” I asked, water poured at my side.
Mom rolled her eyes and directed a tense hand at the clubhouse. “If this gets outta hand . . . spray it with water.”
I nodded, realizing the importance of my duties. Mom left and returned with a long-nosed barbeque lighter.
“Stand back,” she said. “I don’t want you kids up in flames.”
Mom clicked the lighter at the base of the clubhouse and flames inhaled, coating the building. Fire crackled and grew as air advanced the flames. Mom sprang back and sat in the gravel. She rolled to her hands and knees, hopped to her feet, and ran toward the house. Heat grew severe; fire stretched higher, licking power lines. Chubby orange flames reached out the windows like arms. Blocking my face, I stepped back. Fire grew; heat penetrated my clothing. The orange arms flapped excitedly, extended higher, and teetered front to back. Mom chuckled. A plume of smoke bifurcated the sun. Heat rolled over her body, and the clubhouse burned. Her shoulders relaxed as fire ate the walls. Flames screamed like Mom wanted to scream, they released her rage.
Fire grew and my heart beat faster. I wanted to run towards the fire, or away from it. I wanted to be in motion but I stood there, limp, shoulders down, the hose running at my side. The clubhouse fire should have bothered me; it was one of Dad’s last gifts. But it didn’t. I wanted it to burn and for years I blamed the pyromania of youth, but it was more. Like Mom, the clubhouse fire reflected the destruction of my old life. Was I crazy for holding a hose but doing nothing? The fire’s hypnotic power captured me, the flames swayed, and I stood transfixed, taken in by my mother’s madness.
Clint Edwards is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is also the co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU. “The Clubhouse” is an excerpt from his memoir and originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of The Baltimore Review.