I've passed the big house a million times in an old rust bucket with holes in the floor that Pop called a pickup. He put boards in the bed to hold the feed. We crossed back roads and down Highway 44. We reached every dairy farmer within sixty miles. When we'd drive by the house, though, he'd stop, slump his burley shoulders over the steering wheel, light up a Camel and say, "That one fine house Robbie. Sure is. You gonna live in that house someday." As a kid, I saw myself up on the balcony, above the front door, waving Pop up. In school, we'd all talk about the big house but I was the only one who rode past it twice a week. It was my house.
Pop made three dollars on every bag of feed delivered, enough for food and clothing. The rest of the time, he did odd jobs. He'd pick up the feed at Jenkins Feed and Grain in The Junction. We called the place The Junction even though it was really Jenkins' Junction, on the map that is. We laughed when outsiders called it Jenkins' Yunction. It wasn't much of a town—one main street, two cross streets, and a train depot. It had a general store besides the Feed and Grain, one boarding house with no boarders, a post office in the general store, one church for everyone and a liquor store that was also a saloon. We lived in dairy country. It got hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Pop sold to about sixty farmers. We knew them, and they knew us. I liked going with Pop, being part of his world. Whenever we drove up, the truck's rusty sides clanking our arrival, the farmers stopped work and came down to chew the fat, man style.
"When you gettin' a new one?" they joked poking the truck.
"When I win the sweepstakes," Pop sassed back, polishing the "Samuels Live Stock Feed" on the door. We all laughed. They went over and hit the fender, or kicked a tire. The old pickup shuddered and deposited a cloud of rust at them. Pop never did get rid of it. He never did win the lottery.
Twice a week we passed the big house. It was snow white on the hill, poised like a queen. Its thirty-foot columns held up the roof over a porch larger than our whole house. It had two chimneys and four stories counting the attic. The red front door had eight panels, a brass knocker in the head of a lion, and doorknobs the size of baseballs. That's what Pop told us after his first trip there. He went up at Christmas time when Mrs. Jenkins needed him for odd jobs.
The Jenkins had several parties a year but Christmas was their grandest. Everyone knew the Jenkins' story. Mr. Jenkins, whom everyone called 'Captain' because he was in World War I, was a short round man of about 50. His bright eyes under bushy white brows had a smile and a good word for everyone. Mrs. Jenkins was tall and thin. "Wiry," Mom said. Captain Jenkins' father started the feed and grain when we were all dairy farms. The Captain added real estate and a railroad to the family holdings when a textile mill moved into the valley. The money got him the fine house, the art works, all the furniture that went with it. He sold the railroad and the real estate when the mill closed. He still held the house.
"The property he sold is good farmland, Robbie," Pop said. "But no one has no money to buy it. The young ones ain't t' staying around no more. Even the old farms are gone."
After the Jenkins' only son had gone to New York City, the two lived in the big house with their army of servants. A monthly motorcade of guests whose cars, all new and shiny, came through the Junction, some times two and three at a time, driving up the hill. I stood on the sidewalk and watched the parade—grownups with their eyes straight-ahead and little kids with their faces pasted to the car windows. No one I knew ever went up to the house, ever, except my Pop, and then only when he was called.
Momma washed his threadbare overalls and pressed his shirt. He'd park his pickup down the road and walk the long driveway. Most times he'd mend fences or repair doors, yard work and outdoor stuff. One year, however, Mrs. Jenkins had him re-nail the carpet on the grand stairs.
"You should see those stairs in the main hall," he told us when he got back. "I could drive my truck up those stairs without touching the wall or the handrail."
He told us about the women washing the hall floor, black and white squares, larger than our kitchen chairs.
"Each one got scrubbed twice, and then polished. When they got done, it looked like a checkerboard for giants. I could see my face in the black ones," he said stretching his face over our worn linoleum kitchen floor. Mom gave him a look. My younger sister just giggled.
"She had men, imported from the city, in black pants and gray vests, polishing the brass lights or puttin' up Christmas decorations," he continued. "The woman had no mind where she wanted things. She'd walk up and down them stairs in a long flowing pink robe and her golden hair following behind her. She'd tell them to put the wreath here and the garland there. Then she'd run to 'nother place and tell them to put it there." Pop gestured as he spoke, flinging his arms in every direction. We all laughed. He also told us how she had people to dress her and to get her clothes out of the closet, and people to drive her around, and one to cook for her.
"Just like a little baby," he said.
Then one year, when I was just starting high school, Captain Jenkins died.
"Heart attack," everyone said.
"Dropped dead right in his own back field, hunting grouse."
"Didn't find him 'til nightfall."
T'was the talk of the town for nearly two weeks.
"She's no money after all the bills got paid."
"Had to let the help go."
"She's selling off the furniture," everyone said.
Pop never went back up the hill. First, everyone said, it was because of the mourning period. It wasn't. The parties stopped. The parade of cars stopped. Less and less people worked in the house until only the gardener was left. Then, in December, his cottage got dark. Pop and I still passed the house twice a week even though we had fewer farmers to see and I was more into sports. We'd just stop for a moment and then move on.
On a dare, my two best buddies and I snuck up to the house one Halloween night.
"She's a real witch, I tell ya," Jamie, the oldest said. "My big brother told me all about her. She killed her husband. Went mad!"
We took the back route, through the woods beyond the swamp. The frogs and crickets hid our approach. When we got to the back of the house, the smell of rotting cabbage made us sick. We snuck to the front, under the windows, crawling on our bellies commando style. We saw no one. We moved onto the porch and then under the first window. A board creaked. The smell of rotting wood made me gag.
"Everyone down," Jamie whispered.
I fell onto the spongy floor and heard scurrying underneath. "Rats," I whispered.
I held my breath as I peered over the sill of the first window. Every light was on in the front hall and Mrs. Jenkins was walking up and down the great stairs. Her hair was all white and sticking out like a scarecrow's. She wore a long pink robe that trailed after her. It was torn in a few places but still held the appearance of water flowing off her back. She was shouting, pointing with her long thin fingers to people who weren't there. She'd move to one part then fly back to another so all we saw was a white ball of hair and a pink cloud behind it.
"She's crazy," Jamie whispered. "She's freaking crazy!"
I nodded, afraid to blink, afraid I'd miss something.
"Move that over here. No! Not that one, the other one. No, I think it would look better over there, or maybe over..." She turned quickly and stared at our window.
"Let's get out of here," Jamie said and we all slid back into the darkness. I can still hear her scratchy voice and smell the rotting windowsill.
Just before Christmas, her son came to live in the house. Mr. Samuels, our part time taxi driver, drove his fine leather luggage and him from the bus depot. Some said he divorced and came to take care of his mother. Others said he had failed in business and had no place to go. Mama said, "He's come to take her away. Poor thing."
Everyone waited for the light to shine again in the great hall, but it didn't. Sam Buchnell, the town's semi-retired lawyer, told Pop that Mrs. Jenkins had sold the house and property to her son for one dollar. The only time we ever saw the young Mr. Jenkins was in the saloon buying a bottle of Jim Crow. The house became gray and the fields moved in. Vines wrapped themselves around the posts as if to pull them down. A young sumac stuck its head through the porch floor guarding the front door. The front windows shared their space with weeds and mulberry bushes. No one went up to the house except Jamie's brother from the general store, now an A&P market. Every week he brought 'provisions', as Mrs. Jenkins called groceries, and left them at the front door. One time he told us he heard the two of them shouting at each other. Most of the time, he said, it was as quiet as a graveyard.
One day, Mrs. Jenkins missed her appointment at the clinic. Dr. Hoskins asked Sheriff Stillwell to check in on her. Though nobody said nothing, what the sheriff found surprised everyone.
"The old woman was walking up and down the main stairs in her pink robe."
"Stained with blood and her son lying in the middle of the great hall, a meat cleaver in his head."
"And a bottle of Jim Crow by his side."
"He should've took her away when he came."
"A pool of blood had dried and he lay stiff with his hands reaching to his head."
"Maggots had made a home in his body."
Mrs. Jenkins left the old house.
"Good riddance," they all said.
"Gone off to the crazy house over in Lexington."
"The house is in probate. The lawyers got it now."
With the house in probate, we kids moved in. First, the younger ones used it for target practice, knocking out the windowpanes. After dark, we older ones moved in with our beer parties and other goings-on. The fact that there wasn't much furniture left didn't bother us. Whatever we did, though, we didn't do in the main hall.
The probate went on for three years and during that time the house was ours, us teens, our place. We entered and exited puberty in it; we celebrated our football victories and buried our losses against the same teams our pops had played. We talked about our plans and how we were going to escape Jenkins' Junction. The house creaked and shuttered around us. We paid it no mind.
One autumn, three men from an investment group in New York City came to look at the property.
"They're here to set up a gambling casino," Sam Bushnell told a group of us outside church. The town hired him, part time, to represent its interests.
"We don't need no gambling casino here, no sir!"
"The property is not zoned for commercial and we ain't gonna change that."
"They should take their gambling back to New York City."
"What do bankers from New York City know about us?"
Mr. Samuels, the taxi driver, was the only one who spoke in favor. "Maybe they'll bring more people into town, maybe the cars will start comin' back again."
"You just want more business. We don't need more people coming through town," someone said. In the end, we all just watched the house grow darker.
First the roof caved in. It happened during a Nor'easter. Whether it was the rain pushing down on it, or the wind pushing up through the open windows, or just the timbers not needing to shelter anybody any more, it just gave up and crashed down on a clear night like a clap of thunder.
With the roof gone, a sycamore pushed through a window into the great hall, and reached up to fill the space above. The front porch sumac towered over the columns. Vines, poplars and mulberries sprouted from a seedbed of decaying rafters. The north wall was the next to go, leaving only the main chimney standing. Within the year, the west wall fell bringing down the great staircase. The front faćade with its thirty-foot columns over the veranda and the south wall supporting it was all that remained of the great house. The porch became a web of wood and holes. Black mildew marked the once white paint. The house, with its giant windows vacant and its front door gone, sat as a ghost, its mouth wide open and eyes empty.
After high school, I left for the army. I saw a world of big houses in other places with more farms and bigger factories. I returned to pack my bags and finally leave Jenkins' Junction for good. Pop met me at the station standing in front of his pickup proudly pointing to a newly painted sign – "Samuels and Son." I would give him another year, just one to soften the blow before I cut loose. Then he got sick; then Mom got sick. I took over Pop's feed delivery and, when he died, there were only nine farms left. My dreams of leaving Jenkins' Junction had stopped. The smell of seed had dulled my senses.
I stare now up at the house from inside my own rust bucket of a pickup I bought at auction when the old Stillwell farm went down. I also deliver wood, do odd jobs and drive school bus. I force my pickup slowly up the long driveway to the house. There is not much of a drive left; the rains have rutted it, exposing rocks. It's been twenty years since I was last in this house, partying in the back kitchen. Now I walk up to the front porch, step over the holes, make sure the wood can still support me. I can hear scurrying beneath. I push aside a briar bush and enter the main hall.
The floor is solid. The front wall reaches up to the sky. The balcony on the south side is standing with gaping holes in its floor. The beginning of the grand staircase is there, its first post erect as a sentry, and the rest lying in a heap behind it. The black and white tiled floor is full of leaves and rotting wood. I clear a spot four-foot square, and expose the old tiles beneath.
They seem to me as brilliant as the days when Mrs. Jenkins had them polished. The grouting is still white except for a faded circle of gray-red. I squat in the cleared off area, and try to imagine old Mrs. Jenkins standing on the balcony directing a small army of butlers and maids. I see a glimmer, a shadow, a figure waving me up. Then it's gone. I sit for a while, waiting, hoping to see it again, to see myself standing there directing an army of butlers and maids. This is my house. The wind sends leaves around the north wall to the chimney and then down to the floor. The old balcony creaks and the banister shifts. I look down at the black and white tiles, in my square, in the house my Pop promised me.
L.J. Chizak is a new writer who has been published in The Foliate Oak Literary Magazine from the University of Arkansas-Monticello—March, 2012 issue, There Are No Dahlias In Detroit. It went on to win second place in magazine fiction writing from the Arkansas College Media Association. He was also invited to present at a Literary Reading by "From Our Hands to Your Ears" in Danbury CT. He enjoys writing about family matters and the dynamics that let us live together.