Correspondences

There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

The last person to live there was a poet who worked at a small community newspaper in West Strawberry. When he disappeared he had no friends, no acquaintances and no living family. He’d grown up in Southport, and he’d lived there all his life. After he finished school he felt he needed to move someplace that would nurture his poetic vision. He traveled to West Strawberry one afternoon on a lark. He fell in love with the old houses, the small town feel, and the local community. But what he loved most of all was this large old house that was for sale way on the outskirts.

He worked and saved for two years living in Southport. When he had enough money to strike out on his own he was happy to find the house was still for sale. It was a fixer-upper, but that didn’t bother him. He could get it at a great price, and he could set it up where all day he’d look out the window and write verse.

It didn’t take him long to find work with West Strawberry Press. They were happy to have someone with his talent, youth and energy. He started as assistant editor. Every now and then they even let him slip one of his poems into the paper. Folks around town started to know his name. After work he and his coworkers would go out for a beer and a bite to eat. After that it was the long walk home back to his quiet old house.

He liked to sit upstairs and watch the bats flap against the windows with the moon large, and the stars aglow, and the quiet chirping of the evening. He’d light candles and write. He drank bottles of red wine and wrote late into the night, going back over and back over again the same verses, writing and rewriting until they felt perfect. Then to bed, and then back to the same verses the next night. When he was feeling too tired to write, he’d stay up late reading. Usually poetry. He didn’t have hopes of being well known. He didn’t care. He was known in West Strawberry and that was enough. All it was ever about was improving the poetry. He wasn’t prolific, because nothing was ever finished. Every night he’d edit a poem to his satisfaction, and the next night he’d go back to it. He’d revise it and revise it until his verse turned into terse, tight, compact experiments with language, sound and sensation. In the morning he’d get up with the red and auburn dawn to watch the birds plummet from his roof, dive down and swing back up. His evenings at home were his poetry, and these mornings were his poetry. He loved them both, and they inspired him. But something was missing.

What was missing from his poetry was what was missing from his life, and that was love. He didn’t know this. One night while he was out with the folks from the paper, he met a girl with hair like autumn. Auburn-gold Wendy.

“So you’re him,” she said. “I wondered what you looked like, what with all your creepy little poems.” They talked late into the night. The folks from the newspaper went home. “See you tomorrow, fella. Don’t stay out too late. We’ll talk to you in the morning.” Wendy was a poetess. She wrote much different verse than he did. Her verse was light, airy and confessional. She showed him a couple things she wrote. He was impressed. He didn’t like confessional poetry, but he was impressed. He said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner sometime Wendy.” She said she’d like that. They exchanged numbers. He kissed her quick on her little lips. He walked home. In his small orange room where the candlelight weaved to and fro he sat at his desk and watched the bats crash against the window. He couldn’t write, and he couldn’t read any of his own work. He couldn’t edit it, because it wasn’t good anymore. He couldn’t go to sleep either. All he could do was think about Wendy and that wonderful kiss. He sat in bed with a bottle of red wine and talked to the walls. He put phrases together. Rhymes and words and tried to say what he was thinking in poetry. Or even in prose. Wendy resisted poetry. He didn’t sleep that night.

Folks around the office gave him a hard time about his “new girlfriend.” It made him feel pretty good. All that day at work he smiled. He couldn’t stop thinking about Wendy. He wanted to write a poem about her, but he didn’t know how. He went home and forced himself to write. He went through sheet after sheet in his notebook. It was all too romantic. He didn’t write romantic poetry. He would write a verse and edit and re-edit. Reduce it to its most essential language. Wendy resisted poetry. He tried to write his usual stuff, but he couldn’t do that either. He forced himself to read. He needed to get to know Wendy better. His life was changing. Things like this happened to poets. In the end it would make his work stronger.

That weekend he met Wendy for dinner. He was completely himself with her. He told her about how she’d made an impression on him. He told her he’d tried to write about her and couldn’t. She was charmed. She’d written about him too, but only as an aside to a larger idea in one of her confessional poems. They went out and saw a play at a small theater. It was a beautiful summer night. They walked down the main strip. He pointed out constellations to her. They admired the small town with the people and the shops and the sparse lights running down the block. He told her how the bats beating against his window in the evening, and the swooping birds in the morning, inspired him. She told him how her childhood, her old friends and the people she loved inspired her. They stopped and had a few glasses of wine. Somewhere into the evening she flushed red and giggled and said she liked him a lot. When they parted for the evening, they kissed for a long time, like he had never done before. He walked home glowing. When he got home that night he went straight to bed. He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

The relationship blossomed. At first he only saw Wendy on the weekends, but after a while he saw her all the time. They never ran out of things to say. Her poetry blossomed and so did his. Things at the office were going well. Wendy got along well with everyone. She would come along for afterwork drinks. Everybody liked her. When will you marry that girl? they asked. He said he didn’t know. He would marry her. He didn’t know when. It would make itself known in time. He told Wendy she should move in with him. She was paying too much for her apartment. His house was already paid off.

The first day she moved in, Wendy turned into a ghost. She was consumed by the presence of the house. The giant face, with its rectangular mouth swallowed her up and her presence disappeared. He was drinking red wine every night. They stopped going out as much. Sometimes at work he said he didn’t believe Wendy existed; when he went home every night she was there.

Wendy stopped working when she moved in because he asked her to. She’d sit at the downstairs table and write confessional poetry that became more and more about the house. Her long sprawling lines shortened, like his. They became terse and focused. Always about the house. Never about herself, the confessional poet. The birds swooped down in the day and the bats flapped at night and the sun never broke through the windows. She lost weight and turned pale.

His poetry was getting stronger. The folks at the office were impressed. He compressed language into vital blocks of words, like music. The tones were dark, but they were effective. In the evenings he sat up all night drinking red wine and writing poetry. She would sit with him. They would write together. Neither of them could remember being more in love, or being more fulfilled by the presence of another person. When they made love, they made love all night, the sweetest, strangest lovemaking ever made. He would stand up from his desk, where his wine and poetry sat orange in the candlelight. Pale auburn Wendy would look up, and she would smile. “Wendy.” Her hand in his. Silent, violent sex where the bed groaned and the house glowed and the bats flapped crashing against the window with the night chirping silent on and on and on.

All around the house a deep quiet grew nightly. It grew within Wendy’s disappearing voice and in the strange wonderful lovemaking and in the isolation from the rest of the world. He loved Wendy and Wendy loved him with an intensity that made it more and more difficult to speak to each other. They couldn’t bear to be out of each other’s company. He was withdrawn at work. He didn’t have anything to say to anyone. He was less friendly. He never went for an afterwork drink. He hurried up the long worn path to the house where Wendy sat waiting, writing poetry sinking in on itself. He unlocked the door and she stood up. They didn’t speak. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

They spent evenings outside where the bats circled overhead and the stars blinked bright and the moon grew red and the clouds dark. Seasons passed and each season transformed the setting. Beneath the full weeping summer trees, and the brisk ghastly autumn color and the skeletal, white murdered winter, and the always too precious spring, he did not change and Wendy did not change and their love did not change, not for each other and not for nature. His poetry continued to improve, but it mattered less, because Wendy was the only thing that mattered. Her poetry disappeared. In the end she stopped writing, maybe because somewhere in all this silence she’d finally found just the voice she’d been looking for. The silence droned its own romantic tune. The stars went out and so did the moon.

He woke up one morning, and something had changed. Wendy slept dead ghostly poetess on the unmade bed and the birds swooped down from the roof in the orange dawn. These were facts. He opened the window and the fall came cool through the window, and the little road ran quaint off where before he used to sometimes smile in the mornings. These were facts. Morning coffee brought him little to no joy. Once outside the trees were banal. Inane red and gold testaments to their own mortality. He went upstairs to where Wendy lay sleeping. She was beautiful maybe, but dead like the trees. He drank a glass of red wine hoping to recapture the past, but the transformation was stronger. Back outside the day sank black bright orange morning blue skies nothing. Work was worse. He went out for afterwork drinks, but he ended up regretting it. Why stay? There was nothing to say.

He came home listless. Wendy stood up from the table where before all her old notebooks used to be. He didn’t say anything. The house whispered, “Wendy.”

He kept walking. The sun was going down like it does everyday. Wendy said, “let’s watch the sunset.”

Outside the sun went down like it does everyday. Wendy didn’t speak and neither did he. He couldn’t stand how she sat there and felt when it was just everything the same as always as everything else. He said to her: “I need to go inside and write.”

The pages of poetry in the notebook were competent music. He read them over a couple times and wondered why he’d bothered. He wrote a few more verses. Tight, terse, enigmatic words strung together, phrases rephrased in strange music, neither harmonic nor discordant; indifferent. Outside the twilight gave in and it was night. The bats flapped idiotically against the windows. He drank wine until the stars came out and Wendy came trembling up the stairs. She said, “there’s something changed about you.”

“Yes.”

The next morning was the same or worse. The stupidity of everything even more annoying. The birds in the morning made him angry. The trees made him angry. The colorfully fallen fall leaves made him angry. Work was okay. The enthusiasm of his coworkers made him angry, but work was okay. He avoided everyone. There was nothing to say.

Going home was worse. Wendy loved him. She felt compelled to say so. He didn’t say anything. He went upstairs and tried to write poetry, but what was the point of writing poetry if there’s nothing worth saying? He went downstairs and opened a bottle of wine without saying anything. He poured a glass and drank it, but it was foul. He left the glass on the table and went back upstairs. The twilight was setting in and the last orange blue rays of sun were running back up behind the clouds. He went back downstairs and outside. He walked a few feet down the path, turned around and looked at the house he’d loved so much. It looked like a face, looking right back at him, and looking right back just as angry, detached, and indifferent. How come he hadn’t seen it like this before? The house was disturbed, but everyone needs a face.

When he went back inside Wendy was sobbing.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” he said. “Maybe it will just be a matter of time and everything will be the same again. For now I don’t know if you should stay here. You can always go back to your mother’s house.”

After Wendy left her ghost remained. He worked all day and paced all night. He walked from the front door, to the upstairs bedroom, downstairs to the kitchen, through the hallway, back upstairs, downstairs to the kitchen over and over again while Wendy’s ghost followed him and kissed him and they made love and he’d wake up sweating in his bed in the middle of the night. He didn’t drink and he didn’t write. The stairs and the floorboards creaked with his pacing while the bats clattered up against the window where the moonlight fell just short of the floor, always outside. The candle spat orange, weaving the same spells, scents and memories of Wendy where she followed him, dressed white, ghost white in a wedding dress, sometimes stopping on the stairs he’d kiss her where her hair, red-brown like autumn leaves fell auburn from the meaningless trees.

Work was work and the evenings were ballets with spirits. Every object transformed into every object. Doorknobs shook his hand going from room to room. Wendy’s ghost followed him, kissed him, they had silent, violent sex and he was always pacing from room to room. Up the staircase and back down again. The candle and the house and the bats and the birds and Wendy’s ghost and the house and himself silent, everything the same. He looked for answers in his old notebooks of poetry. The words ran together like one, like how everything was one. Wendy stopped him on the staircase.

The house whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. He turned and hurried down the stairs into the kitchen where he poured himself a glass of wine, which was Wendy. Wendy followed him through the kitchen, into the foyer, out of the foyer where the doorknob was Wendy’s hand. He went back up the stairs, where her ghost still followed. In the bedroom the bats crashed against the window, and the little orange candle weaved Wendy on the walls.

The walls whispered, “Wendy,” over and over. The din of whispering ran together like lines of poetry, like how everything was one. He walked over to the windows, and pulled them open, one by one. The moon came crashing through in a crescendo where the bats blackened the glow and blew out the candles and circled into the bedroom. He stood in the middle of the room, and listened to the house. The house sank dark music in on itself like lines of poetry, like how everything was one, like how he stood in the middle of the black bedroom with a glass of wine in his hand and hordes of bats circling him and the walls whispering “Wendy,” and Wendy in her wedding dress, ghostly dead poetess.

&

There is an old house out on the fringes of West Strawberry. It sits by itself and has sat there for as long as anyone can remember. These days nobody lives there. The windows are boarded up and the front door is barricaded. Sometimes children go by and dare each other to break inside and spend the night. Nobody even gets up the front steps to the porch. The house looks like a face, with two wide windows on the top floor looking out over the little dirt path that folks call Wendy Lane. The door in front, rectangular and lopsided looks like a crooked mouth. The house bulges out, pale blue chipping paint like overblown cheeks, and in certain moonlight, the rust against the chipped pale blue paint makes the whole place glow.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, October 2003)

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