by Charles Nunziato
Originally published in three parts
Volume 1 Issues 5, 6, and 7
Toward the end of this most recent August I made a trip up to the house where I spent most of my summers as a boy. The journey was nearly rendered impossible by a disruptive late summer storm, Hurricane Lisa,1 which residents of the area should certainly recall as being particularly fickle and destructive. Yet I ended up arriving before the worst of things, the train pulling into Hartford Station (as to this day I do not drive) while gusts of rain clicked against the roof and windows of the train car, the fogged glass and roaring wind giving the oddest sensation of being removed from both space and time.
Two weeks prior I had received a letter, whose return address, long forgotten to me, I immediately recognized as originating from that very same house from my youth. How she, this “Ms. Truvine”, had come to find where I lived was unclear, but she explained that she had recently discovered in her home a box of items she believed had once belonged to me. Among these were a small collapsible telescope, an old wooden tennis racket, and a journal, the pages withered and beginning to yellow. Expressing her desire to return these to me, she invited me to visit and reclaim them at my convenience (it struck me as curious that she had not simply sent these initially, but her motives soon became clear to me). And so it was she who was waiting for me in the dreadful weather as I hurried across the platform, thoroughly soaked.
We ventured to the house in a curious silence. I had many questions that I eagerly longed to ask, but I was reluctant to break the quiet we had maintained, and so we drove on without speaking as the rain came down in sheets, the wipers clearing the glass, only to be inundated by water immediately after.
After what seemed like both eternity and mere minutes, we pulled up to the house (I do not know whether to call it “her house” or “my house”, as it seems either sounds somehow unfitting). The exterior had fallen into disrepair, the slanted roof missing tiles and the paint faded from its once glorious red. Yet through the workings of time and the sheets of rain, I saw the house that had once been so close to me. Unable to contain myself, I turned to the Ms. Truvine and stupidly said something about long awaited returns always being so strange. She simply nodded, seemingly in agreement, and urged me out of the car and into the house.
By this time, the storm had elevated to such intensity that the idea of my returning to the city was out of the question, and we somehow came to an unspoken agreement that I would spent the night. She helped me to settle in the room that had once been my own (whether she knew this or not I am unsure), and indeed, sitting at the foot of the bed, was the box in which I had stashed my treasures all those years ago. The night passed uneventfully. I listened to the rain pinging on the windows as I sifted through my things with a sort of melancholic amusement, and in the morning Ms. Truvine set out some tea before driving me to the station.
As we parted, she handed me a letter, clasping it tightly in my hands and looking deeply into my eyes. Sitting on the train next to my box of old reclaimed belongings, I opened and read her letter:
I am immensely pleased that you decided to come. I imagine there must be difficulties in such a return, but nevertheless I am incredibly glad you were able to make it. Ever since discovering your things tucked away in the attic I’ve become increasingly fascinated with their origins. Indeed the colorful notes and drawings I found in that journal of yours fascinated me to no end. As I read and reread them those fragments seemed to come alive, and they now feel no less a part of the house than the old birdbath on the patio or the chaise longue in the study. It only saddens me slightly that I was unable to question you further while I had your company - my impairment can be a nuisance sometimes.2 It pains me to part with those treasures that have fired my imagination so, and I would be overjoyed and much obliged if you were to send a fuller history of your time here. I’ve gotten a sense, but now that I’ve caught a deeper look into the past, I only hope I can learn more about what transpired here before it’s too late. If you choose to respond, I imagine of course that you’ll know where to reach me.
Gena V. Truvine
I thought almost constantly about her letter and all she had said, as those finals days of August drew on and summer rolled into fall. I am not entirely certain why, but I was compelled to give her a most complete summary of what she had gotten mere glimpses of, this compulsion driving me to compile a history of my final summer at that home. These are the fruits of my labors.
From as far back as I can remember our family would spend the summers in the home near Hartford. Every year through the end of middle school I would come home on the final day of class to find the station wagon parked in front of our brownstone, loaded and ready, glowing in the early summer heat. My brother and I crowded into the backseat, our pasty legs knocking together, and our father drove us on past the city limits. I remember watching him with a sort of reverence. He had the face of a boxer, his jawline sharp as glass, and dark eyes that seemed to take in everything and nothing all at once. On these drives he would stop for nothing, his meaty fingers gripping the wheel with a firm tenderness, manipulating it this way and that. He would tap his calloused fingers, a thrumming which drove my mother into a silent fury. I noticed a slight smile on his face as this all transpired.
The sun arced lower in the sky as the roads became narrow and curvaceous, and as we pulled into the gravel driveway the house appeared wholly bathed in sunlight, the red exterior beaming in the crepuscular glow. As we approached, the gravel crunching underneath, I always entertained a vague notion that we would round the bend and discover that the house had completely disappeared, only an open plot of land overlooking the river remaining, and that we would simply have to turn around and return home. After working myself into such a frenzy, the appearance of the house always seemed like something fantastic and sublime.
‘Well isn’t that something,’ father would say, stretching his arms and eyeing the lawn as we scrambled to the door. I always flew up the stairs as quickly as my legs would carry me to my room, eager to rediscover all the treasures left the year before. I found my spyglass waiting for me right as I had left it, and I set out the back door in search of a perch from which to watch the light and life fade into the evening.
As these were the general trends of most summers at the house, I feel I ought to describe the one that holds most clearly in my memory, the final one I was to spend there. That time stands so vividly in my mind, like a diamond held up to a bright light.
It is also here that the seeds of my first love were sown. On that first morning I woke as the light was beginning to creep through the latticed shades, and I soon become aware of a wholly unfamiliar voice rising from the patio to my window.
‘Oh it is just so so lovely to have some company!’ exclaimed the voice. You couldn’t have picked a better time to come. Our dear Lisa will be so glad to have some fresh faces around. I do worry about her being awfully bored sometimes…’
I slid to the edge of my mattress to the window that overlooked the entirety of the yard, the trees framing the lawn, the river circumscribing the shore. Standing on the covers I was able to just peak down.
‘At one time our Matches here was all the company our little girl needed,’ said the woman, gesturing to the terrier slumped by her side. ‘But I suppose it’s only natural that a young lady like Lisa should want some friends to keep her company.’
At this she sighed and threw her head back, letting her long silver hair fall over the back of the chair. Much to her surprise, as she looked up, she found my curious eyes watching over the scene from above.
‘And who do we have here!’ she cried with delight, prompting mother to gesture me down to make her acquaintance. I soon found myself face-to-face with this strange woman, our neighbor as it turned out. She had ruddy cheeks, a pronounced brow, and an aquiline nose – yet the quality that stands among the rest after all these years is her deep blue eyes. She shared these eyes, in which there seemed to live an inexpressible tragic element, with her daughter, and to this day I have yet to come across such eyes
‘Matches seems to have found a new toy,’ she said, as the dog I had seen lounging at our neighbor’s swollen feet was now bouncing around me in circles, nipping at my calves and nuzzling me with his wet snout.
So it came about that I found a companion who not only delighted with me in exploring, but also brought me closer to my heart’s first true love. In the mornings we would set out in this or that direction, always bringing my telescope, and rarely returning before dusk. I had recently discovered among my brother Jason’s things a beautifully illustrated edition of Candide, and this too came with me, always in search of an El Dorado of my own.
One particularly fine morning, as we were rustling through the trees, Matches chasing squirrels and robins, we found ourselves by the neighbor’s tennis court, where Jason was engaged in a grueling match against the neighbor’s daughter. I immediately recognized those unmistakable eyes, although here blazing and alive, at that moment locked and squinting as she tossed the ball skyward. In that instant, as the ball hung suspended in a sunbeam and the wind grazed this creature’s white skirt, I too felt my heart suspended, ready to rise forever or fall at her feet. Matches bounded back and forth along the fence as I clung to the metal lattice, and by the time the set was through my chest was thumping so viciously I thought it might burst. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she finally took notice of the two of us.
‘Oh dear now what’s this, you’ve gone and found a new friend have you?’ she spoke, her voice even sweeter than I could have ever imagined. ‘And I thought I was the only one for you my sweet! Who’s this you’ve dragged along?’6
My brother shot me a look that to this day I cannot place. Matches sat panting and wagging with the simple joy only a dog knows, and I introduced myself and explained our circumstances. At this she frowned.
‘Hmm, no I don’t know if that’ll do for me. I’m too jealous to share his love I think.’
She popped the gate, and before I knew what was happening I found myself being pulled away from the fence, Lisa running behind Matches, clutching me in tow. Those hands! Straining to hang on to those ethereal fingers, I hurried without thinking, only once glancing back to find Jason looking on with a knowing smile. The remainder of the afternoon passed in moments, as I was only aware of the immediate garden around me, Lisa lobbing balls with her racket, Matches racing to the bank of the river and back. I only noticed my father when Lisa turned and observed him standing on the patio, rigid as timber, staring into the uncertain middle ground. Knowing that I would soon be called in, I turned every fiber of my attention to the sublime beauty who seemed to hold everything in her orbit. The trees and the evening birds even seemed to organize themselves around her, and in her magnetism I felt something strange and novel rising inside me.
The next day, and the following, and again the following I began each morning in the same way. As if greeting the new day, the word “Lisa, Lisa, Lisa” echoed quietly from my lips. Each fresh sighting of her, my delightful love, seemed wholly wonderful and surreal. Whether watching her from the window, focusing my telescope as she walked by the river with Jason (did he know what sort of beauty he was in the presence of ?), or bouncing by her as she teased Matches, I never ceased to feel that I had gotten away with some great trick. I knew she viewed me as younger, a mere boy even, but I resolved to prove to her that I was the only one worthy of her love. I began formulating a plan in my mind, determined as I was to win her over completely. This plan involved my going out to the country club, (which incidentally brought me even close to Lisa), toting my wooden racket and practicing for a hours and hours against other boys, or otherwise volleying against walls, so firmly bent toward my goal.
These days were rewarding and filled me with joy. Yet on a few occasions I was met with incidents I could not easily shake. My father, avid golfer that he was, would too spend his days at the club, joining the other men for a round or two. Between matches and rallies I would often spot him striding along the fairway or standing at the tee. His body wound and released like a coil, unleashing a graceful force. One day, however, as I was jogging off the courts, I noticed not only his face, but also the unmistakable visage of Lisa. She was holding one of his clubs (a wood if I remember correctly) and rocking her hips delicately. What grace! The whole world seemed to stand still as she raised her club before giving the ball a good solid whack. I was too far to see or hear much of consequence, but following her shot I witnessed my father step towards her and take her wrist in his hands. Adjusting her position, he placed himself behind her, mimicking her stance as she rocked back and forth in time with him. She seemed to let slip a smile. Not knowing what to make of this, I tried to turn my mind back to my tennis game. The sun was beginning to set, but by the time I had walked back home I had still been unable to shake the image of my father and Lisa locked together on the green. To turn my thoughts away from the whole strange incident I flipped through the pages of Candide, wishing for a Pangloss of my own to guide me. Finding only some solace, I eventually posted myself at the window, taking in the evening air, watching the birds chasing each other in endless circles, only to disappear into a bush sooner or later.
Yet I soon forgot my troubles, and July was upon us like a carnival. Everything was so alive and full of the most splendid color! Even the grass seemed greener, the robins redder, their songs so full of delicate harmony. They spoke a language of love that I longed to learn. I would awake from the most wonderful dreams of castles and princesses, so enthralled with the magical escapes that I was able to conjure in my sleep. The only peculiar thing about these dreams was that I myself never seemed to be the heroic knight or the swart prince. I instead found myself in the role of a page or lowly servant, or in one case even a horse! However, I still managed to look upon our little house in the country as a castle of sorts, and was content beyond all reason.
The long sunny days always grew more exciting as the 4th of July approached. The daylight allowed me the time to improve my racket skills, and I began quickly transforming into a wholly new creature. My hands were growing strong and calloused and dark, and I was on my way to certain success. On those rare days when the fair summer rain kept me indoors, I would burrow in some crevice, often with Matches at my side, and chronicle all that I could, hoping to capture those passing sparks. The terms with which I sought to express the rapture inside me always seemed to fall short of their mark, but nonetheless I searched for words that might hold some sort of truth.
All this excitement came to a head in the form an Independence Day celebration in our very own yard. I remember watching as neighbors came from this way and that, a portly man and his son hoisting a grill, a redhead mother stringing lights along the fence, all transforming our little plot of land into a world of its own. This was the first year we were to host the party, and I was unwound in anticipation of not only getting to be at the center of the action, but also knowing that Lisa would be there to see me in my finest hour. She would surely be wearing the most beautiful and delicate sundress, and I would ask her to dance, taking her by the hand and waltzing under the starlit sky. The thought of being so close to her, holding her soft hands - it was almost too much to bear!
On the day of the party I woke in such a frenzy that I had to make myself scarce, so as to avoid being a nuisance. I crept out with my racket and decided I would spend the whole day playing tennis against as many boys as possible, so as to build my confidence. I won every match I played that day, every game elevating me further, every swing taken with my dear Lisa not far from my mind.
When the time came, I raced home, planning my arrival so as to find everything just springing into action. I walked through the front door, down the hall, through the kitchen, and to the back door. Admittedly, as I was pushing through the entryway, I was gripped with the terrible thought that the party had been cancelled, that there would be no festivities, no fireworks, no music – no last dance! This thought built so quickly that by the time I found myself reaching for the doorknob I was almost certain I would find an empty garden, devoid of all the preparations that had sprouted over the week. Yet, swallowing my nerve, I pushed through the door.
It was all more perfect than I could have imagined! The yard was filled with circling neighbors, so many new faces and bodies, all so extravagantly adorned. I soon spotted Matches bolting around in ecstasy, racing to all corners of the party, enthralled at the panoply around him. As I traced his path I came across faces both familiar and strange, family and neighbors alike. However, I could not find that face I had spent my day envisioning with such vigor. Where was Lisa?
I tried to my maintain my rapture, and convinced myself that she would simply be along shortly, that of course she was just choosing for herself the most perfect dress to wear. The evening was mostly clear, and as the sun set the stars began to shine bright as candles. A band was playing in the twilight as the crowds of couples, young and old, danced in the joint light of the evening sky and the bulbs strung along the fence. This continued for some while until the sky began to light up with color. As we watched the brilliant fireworks fanning out across that beautiful canvas, the lights too caught their reflection in the flow of the river. The speckled mirror image of the stars and the flaming colors of the fireworks bounced off the shining dark surface, giving the effect of a feverish Impressionist painting. I watched both the sky and the water, forgetting myself completely for the better half of an hour. I was only brought back to the world when the show ended and, looking back up toward the crowd, I spotted the unmistakable figure of Lisa walking toward the patio. I ran to meet her, eager to catch her as the band struck up again and the party burst back to life. Yet she seemed intent on some unknown goal, and I watched her from several paces behind as she ascended the steps and crossed the porch.
What follows grows increasingly blurred in my mind, but I do recall trailing her in earnest, as if possessed, crossing through the door into that dark house. Every limb of mine was on fire; I was indeed surely in a strange dream. Yet I followed the sounds of her footsteps, which soon transformed into a voice, and that into two. I immediately recognized my father’s unmistakable speech in the darkness, and I crept closer and closer to the sound. The words had become something other than words, and as I rounded the corner of the hall and my eyes adjusted to moonlit interior, everything revealed itself. Lisa’s hair draped over the lip of the chaise longue…
The rest of what remains is mostly sound and color, but from what I understand I must have run a considerable distance, only to collapse on a rocky shoal a ways off from the edge of the road. It wasn’t until the morning that I was discovered by Matches, tugging away at my ruined pants from the night before.
I came down with a nasty case of pneumonia, and so passed the rest of the summer with my mother at our brownstone in New York. My father and brothers remained in the country for the rest of the summer, occasionally venturing down to check on me. I don’t remember much of this at all, as for the first few weeks I was constantly passing in and out of a feverish state, but I seem to recall these visits as being only antagonistic to my health.
My summer had ended almost as soon as it began, and the remainder of July and August dragged along in a haze. I did eventually recover, but the prospect of returning to the country seemed no longer to hold any appeal. At the very end of August I did in fact return briefly, but only to collect some last belongings and join my brothers for the journey home. Saving very few possessions, I decided to stow away the majority of my things, packing them away in a musty corner of the attic where I imagined they might never again see the light of day.
I did, as it happens, catch one last glimpse of Lisa as I was packing away my belongings. It was only for a moment, as she stood with her arms crossed in the afternoon sun. She was watching my father load the last of our things into the car, and for a brief instant it appeared as if she were preparing to approach him. But, as he proceeded to swiftly shut the trunk, she caught herself and slowly turned away toward her own drive.
Throughout the year my father occasionally returned to the house, tending the grounds or, weather permitting, joining old acquaintances for a round of golf. Yet, early in the spring of the following year, on his way from one of these trips, he found himself in a crash that left him fighting a losing battle with death, and soon after he gave up the ghost. Various accounts of the crash itself suggest the presence of a second passenger, mysteriously vanished from the scene, but, as the accounts were in conflict, they soon faded into obscurity.
Many years later, an orderly from the hospital where he passed sent me a note that had apparently been discovered on his bedside table. Perhaps once comprehensible, the incontinent words he scrawled in his last moments seem less clear with each reading. Death renders everything both painfully vivid and hopelessly obscure. I suspect that one day his words might reveal some hidden meaning to me, but until then it is through distance that I hope to preserve a shade of his former image in the recesses of my memory.
1 The irony of which, I assure you, is not lost on me dear reader. At the time of my trip I was ignorant of both the coming storm and its unfortunate title.
2 I admit with extreme embarrassment that it was not until several weeks later that I realized Ms. Truvine was completely deaf, a fact that I had forgotten she had mentioned in that very first letter.