The Old House by Frank Kozusko

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I drove by the old house last year; it had less than a week to live.

It was the first and only house my parents ever owned. My father used his WWII GI Bill benefits to buy the Rose Gardens cookie-cutter house in Linton, Arizona. Linton, 20 miles west of Phoenix, was one of the many suburbs that sprang up after the war to house the families being created by the post-war baby boom. Rose Gardens contained 500 identical one-story ranch houses. My 1948-pending arrival prompted my parents to follow the crowds leaving the cities.

The 1000 ft2 house was adequately spacious even after my sister, Lisa, was born two years later. Over the years, several modifications were made to enhance the creature comforts. A covered back porch provided a big indoor play area. A master bathroom, a previously undreamed-of-luxury for my parents, left Lisa and me alone to fight over the original single bathroom.

For most of my seventy-two years, the house was the anchor of my life. The 1950s were my “Leave it to Beaver” years, grade school, and black-and-white TV. High school and girls highlighted the 60s. My college years of living at home and commuting to U Arizona led from the 60s into the 70s when I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. My parents unselfishly endured my years of PTSD until I was able to get a grip on myself in 1981.

When I married, I bought a big house in a luxury development a short traveling distance from the old homestead to ensure many grandkids’ visits with the folks. Lisa and her family were close by too. I once asked my father if he ever thought about getting a newer house.

He answered, “No! I like this house, and it’s good enough for me. It’s where I raised you and Lisa.”

The lure of a more modern house wasn’t going to outweigh his sentimentality, or his depression-era developed frugality. So, the house continued through the decades to host the holidays and family events. The birthday celebrations were first for me, later adding Lisa, then our children and, finally our grandchildren.

In her later years, Mom needed a wheelchair to get around. Dad had a ramp added to the front of the house. It wasn’t much of a ramp; the stoop was only two steps up. A little later, he added another ramp to the back door so he could take Mom out to her garden.

When Mom died in 2009 at the age of 84, Dad refused to leave the house. Lisa and I knew he was still active enough to function on his own, we just didn’t like the idea of him being alone in the house. When I recommended that he might be happier in a seniors’ development with lots of available activities, he strongly protested, “This is my home and I am staying right here.”

Dad lived and cared for himself until he passed in 2019 at 95. I inherited the house, which needed a lot of work. Not able to get passed my emotions and make a reasonable decision about the fate of the house, I let it slide further into disrepair. Over the next year, it was vandalized several times; I had it boarded up, doors and windows. Sadly, it wasn’t the only house in the old development that was succumbing to age.

My dilemma was solved when Windem Homes, a nationwide builder, decided to buy every house in Rose Gardens with plans for building upscale homes. Each new house would occupy four of the Rose Garden lots. When Windem offered to buy the house, I sold it. I didn’t have a choice. The owners who fought the buyout were forced into submission when the city of Linton invoked Eminent Domain.

I drove by the house that day as the last look. I knew Windem had scheduled the razing to begin in a few days. Mom and Dad had been early Rose Gardens buyers. Their house was near the entrance; it would be one of the first to go.

As I drove away, I was overcome by emotion, nostalgia, not quite tearing. I made a U-turn. I needed more than a drive-by. I parked at the strip mall across the road and made my way into the ghostly remains of past dreams.

I approached the house from the front then circled through the tall grass to the back. The area of my mother’s garden was distinguished by the weeds. I walked up my Mom’s ramp; so many times, I had pushed her up that ramp. The plywood covering the back door came off easily as if it had been pried loose and partially reattached.

The inside was dimly lighted by the narrow rays coming through the cracks around the plywood sheets. The one exception: the kitchen where the west-facing, and now open door, let in the late afternoon sun. It had been one of my father’s bragging points that he had been able to get a house where he could sit in his backyard and watch the sunset.

As I walked around from room to room, it struck me how small and simple the house was compared to my own and my kids’ even grander houses. In each room, I stopped to let the memories surface. Sometimes, I tried to force a chronological order to them.

My last stop was the front room, which my mother called the parlor. I stood at the spot where the old man had his chair for over sixty years, positioned efficiently for a view of the TV, and a look through the picture window across the lawn to his car parked on the street. There was no view for me through the boarded-up window.

I remained there for a while, contemplating my last departure. My head back, staring at the ceiling, I took and held a deep breath. I had the sensation that something external was mingling with my thoughts: a communication, not of words but feelings. It was the spirit of the house. There was loneliness. There was sadness. The best that I could do was to say out loud: “I am sorry old friend,” as I turned to leave. As I was about to step out the back door, I got an idea. I turned briefly to inform the house: “I’ll be back.”

I drove directly home. Luckily, Janice, my wife, wasn’t there to delay or stop me from what I had planned to do. In my study, I searched through digital copies of years of family picture albums, picked and printed the photos I needed.

I drove back, and once again parked at the shopping mall. I hurriedly retraced my steps to the house. It would soon be sunset. Inside the house, I went from room to room taping pictures to the walls. In my bedroom and Lisa’s were pictures scanning the years from infancy to adulthood. In my parents’ room: the picture of them toasting the last payment of the mortgage. In the kitchen: my mother pulling a turkey out of the oven. In the dining room: birthday parties and cakes. In the living room: Christmas trees and Easter baskets, and one picture of the old man in his chair.

I had one more thing to do, and that was the hardest. I gathered, in a pile, all the flammable material left after the last squatters had been evicted. Before I lit the match, with no forethought or reason, I started to sing.

“Goodnight, … Irene.

Goodnight, …Irene.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

It was a song Dad would sometimes sing to Mom, though her name was Margaret.

I threw the lighted match and headed for the back door. Halfway across the threshold, I turned, and over my shoulder made my final farewell, “Goodbye house. Thanks.”

In the twilight, I quickly made my way to the car. I sat and waited for the flames to light the night sky. A crowd gathered to watch, I joined. The firefighters came; they let it burn. The area had a long-time drought, no reason to waste water on a house that was a few days from scheduled destruction. Just a little water was used to wet down the nearby houses.

I watched as the flames engulfed the house. When the walls could no longer support the weight of the roof, the structure collapsed.

Janice must have detected my sullenness at dinner that night. She made no objection when I cocooned myself in my study, where I went through more old photos from my days in the house.

The evening TV news reported the fire, noting the scheduled razing. The blaze was attributed to vandals.

To save it from the wrecking ball, I had destroyed my family home and in doing so killed the spirit of the house. It wasn’t murder; it was euthanasia, a mercy killing.

I never drove down that street again.

The Absolution by Leila Allison

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“Is it fair?”

Those were the last words Eddie said to the man he had thought I was before he drifted back into the only honest sleep of his final days. A smiling sleep caused by my youngest daughter, who did one of the finest things I have ever seen a human being do.

Eddie died yesterday, and his parents have asked me to speak at his Celebration of Life this Sunday. I have plenty of harmless Eddie anecdotes to warm hearts and kill ten minutes with. It may be cynical of me to say it, but even though the most timid human being tends to live an R-rated life, few celebrations of such are anything less than family friendly.

What I Won’t Be Saying Come Sunday

When we were kids, slow was the polite term to describe what had been up with Eddie, while retarded had been the “scientific” word for it. He spent his entire fifty-five year run at the same house in Crestview Drive, two doors down from my childhood home. It’s one of those faux ranch-style houses that had been so popular in the suburbs during the early days of Camelot, NASA and Bonanza. Those homes have always reminded me just how cheerful and prosperous things had been, and how the future, even that for guys like Eddie, glittered with great promise. I catch a permanent sense of Sunday when I look at Eddie’s house nowadays; and his death isn’t the only cause of it.

Eddie was that kid. Everybody gets one of those in life, and everybody is told by their parents to be nice to that kid if you know what’s good for you. For whatever reason, I became the closest thing to a best friend that Eddie ever got (here I must add, except his dad, for they did everything together). And although I eventually went off to college, a career, marriage and family, we still lived close enough to each other as to allow the continuation of our friendship, which had lasted something around fifty years, until the same condition that had held back his mind at last silenced his heart.

All right, before I allow the current to sweep this thing off to the Purple Sea of Sentimentality (where it seems determined to go), it’s dishonest to fit the dead (even the special dead) with a harp and halo, and speak of them as though they were saints. Eddie could be hell, annoying, a petulant little asshole when he didn’t get his own way, and there were times when his handicap made being with, and looking out for him as burdensome as dragging around a wrecked Buick.

And there had been that terrible time when his in no way diminished sexual awakening had almost got him “sent away.” At twelve or so, he’d fallen into the habit of pulling down his pants and underwear around the girls and hoped (I guess), they’d do the same. Although Eddie had never touched anybody, and although his dad had somehow finally set him straight on the subject, there is no doubt in my mind if the trouser dropping had happened now and not in 1970-whatever, he would have been sent away. My opinion here is mixed: I cared for and perhaps loved Eddie, but was this part of himself that he (nor any other child about him─or herself, for that matter) could never possibly understand harmless? For the record I’m the father of three girls whom I never allowed Eddie to do more than shake hands with, even after they had grown up.

Still, Eddie was what he was. The older kids used to call that sort of a statement a “cop out.” Whatever. It really doesn’t matter anymore. Eddie was. He did the best he could with what little he had.

The Stuff I Should Say Come Sunday

Eddie’s parents had been told that their only child might live thirty, maybe thirty-five years, and never on his own. His parents are, I think, what Christians are supposed to be. They have a gentle and loving faith, and humor and kindness. His parents are the only lucky break Eddie ever got; thus he didn’t need a second. And I guess that this part might sound hard, but I’m glad he died first. His folks are “getting on,” as the old saying goes. I have a pretty good idea what happens to guys like Eddie after their parents die.

Eddie had nearly doubled his life-expectancy when his wheezy heart finally found itself no longer up to the routine of its master’s small life. He was abed in his room the last time I saw him. It had been three months or so since our last meeting, and he had lost a huge amount of weight and nearly all his hair.

Our youngest daughter, Trina, had been home from college when I got the call from Eddie’s mom. Although Trina had had the scantest relationship with Eddie─save for what I had told her over the years─she asked if she could come along.

We visited him for awhile in that same room where we had played trucks and drank Kool Aid all those thousands of years ago. We spoke of those times, and Trina listened. There were Seahawks and Mariners and UW Husky posters on the wall, as well as the various trophies and medals Eddie had earned in all the Special Olympics he had participated in. A little kid’s room; sweet and nostalgic.

After his mom (who at nearly eighty was still cheerfully caring for her little boy) came in and gave him a blue pill and said something about five minutes and left the room, we made as to say our goodbyes. Eddie had been shifting between the now and a fuzzy delirium for a bit by then, and he had confused me with the church deacon who had recently come by to visit every day. In Eddie’s mind everybody associated with the church was “father.” And toward the end, Eddie uncharacteristically complained about the fact that he had never gotten married. He called me father, and asked “Is it fair?”

This is when Trina drew close to where he lay and gently kissed him on the lips and said, “No, it isn’t. But it soon will be.”  

The sun came out in his face. He knew he had been kissed; first and last. He settled into a deeper and healthier sleep than what I guessed he had had in days. Maybe that kiss caused secret dreams to go on in there until the end. If so, it’s all right.

Surrounded By Lilies by Jacob Schornak

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“I’m saying it happens, mi hijo. It happens more than people talk about. The news certainly isn’t. What about those planes that crashed after taking off and then they grounded all of them? You don’t hear about them anymore, do you?”

I pinch at the bridge of my nose as my father rattles on, trying to keep a headache─that is turning from a yelp to a bark to a roar─at bay.

My dad perks up and glanced around the cabin of the plane. Flight attendants wander up and down the center aisle, closing the overhead bins as they fill with passengers’ overstuffed carry-ons. They tell the same passengers to fasten their seatbelts and ensure their tray tables and seats are in the secure and upright position. A woman two rows in front of me pushes the call button and demands a bottle of seltzer water. The flight attendant acknowledges her request, but continues her process of preparing the cabin for takeoff.

“Do you know what kind of plane this is? Do you think this is the kind that will crash?”

“Dad, you can’t say stuff like that. Not here.”

I look at the man sitting in the aisle seat across from me. He glances up from his phone. I flash him a meek smile, hoping he will not be alarmed by my father’s comments, but he smiles, then returns to scrolling through the feed on his phone.

“Do you smell lilies?” my father asks as a wave of relief washes over me.

“It’s probably just someone’s perfume.” I sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

“I’ve always loved lilies. When I’m buried, that’s what I want around me. Lilies.”

“Okay, Dad. That won’t be for a while, though.”

My father rummages through the side pockets of his tweet jacket. He does this often now. Random moments of urgency causing searches through his jacket. I wonder if he’s looking for something that might save his life in a moment of need, like a parachute.

Within a flourish, like a knight drawing his sword from its sheath, my father lifts a medical mask from his side jacket pocket. I have seen the same kind mask worn by vulnerable patients in hospitals.

“What are you doing, Dad?”

My father pulls the looped straps of the mask behind his ears. “You know that the air on airplanes cause cancer. See, there’s another thing no one is talking about, but we all know it’s true.” He points at the mask now covering his nose and mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I whisper. I scan the people in earshot of us. “None of that is true.”

My father raises his eyebrows followed by a glare I know well. Without warning─though I know it is coming─my father thwaps me in the back of the head with the palm of his broad hand.

“Miguel, no uses el nombre del Señor en vano.” My dad brings his hands together, allowing only a molecule to keep them apart. He turns his gaze to the ceiling of the airplane, though I know his attention is pressing beyond the confines of the metal tube with wings.

“Por favor, perdona a mi hijo, todavía tengo mucho que enseñarle.” He speaks to God as though he is talking with an old friend.

I feel my stomach twist at the sight. I have come to resent God in recent months, seeing him as a vile and vindictive being. My father, on the other hand, worships him daily. Each morning and night, he will kneel before his bed and give thanks, even the days when it was difficult for him to get out of bed.

My father finishes his prayer, then turns his attention back to me. A look of calm stretches across his face, like he knows that God has already forgiven me, and he has nothing to worry about.

“When are you and Julie giving your mother and I grandbabies, Miguel?” My father’s voice is muffled under his medical mask.

“Probably when God tells us to.” I wonder if he will get the sarcasm in my tone. My guess is no.

“I feel like I am going to die of old age before I become an abuelo.”

I sigh. “Honestly, dad, I don’t even know if I want any.”

“No digas eso.”

Don’t say that.

My phone vibrates against my leg. I might be saved from answering more of the questions both of my parents have been pressing since Julie and I started dating three years ago. I rummage through my pockets, struggling to free my phone trapped between the denim fabric and my thigh. I pull my phone free.

The round face of my mother, radiating with joy illuminates the screen.

I draw in a deep breath before answering. “Hi mom…No, I’m on the plane…No, it hasn’t left yet, but we’re getting ready to take off.”

A flight attendant scans one row of passengers and then the other. I lift my gaze from the back of the seat in front of me and our eyes connect.

“Sir, you need to turn off the phone or switch it to airplane mode,” she says.

I nod. “Mom, I really have to go…No, the flight is only three and a half hours…No, I’m flying out of Philly. They don’t have any flights out of Pittsburg today, I have to go…The funeral isn’t until tomorrow, right?…Okay, so why are you worried about me missing it?…No, mom, I’m sorry, I know you have a lot going on. I—What?…Yeah, I think that would be nice. Dad said he always talked about being surrounded by lilies at his funeral.”

Jacob Schornak is a writer from St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended the University of Minnesota Duluth for his undergraduate program, receiving a degree in Professional Writing Studies. Most recently, he earned his Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Augsburg University. He is kept sane thanks to his wife, Morgan, and dog, Tolkien. When he is not writing, Jacob enjoys traveling the world with his wife, seeing the sites and drinking all the beer.