My Back Door Someday
by Stephen Policoff
So, maybe this was a mistake.
Even with wildflowers along the side of the road aflame in early autumn light, even with my Haunted by the Blues compilation CD blasting melodic laments in my battered Subaru, all I can think is, Too many fucking cars. Vans full of children and dogs, BMWs ferrying white-haired couples in jaunty caps, convertibles full of 20-somethings swilling sports drinks. Even after I careen past the Harriman exit, where Columbus Day shoppers are swarming through the Woodbury Commons Mall, traffic barely eases up.
The Thruway is jammed with what Nadia used to call leaf-peepers. Early October still feels like summer this year, so I should have known that anyone who could get out of the city would, and that hundreds might head upstate for a day of gaping at red and orange and yellow leaves.
When I was a boy, cars used to stream through southern New Hampshire this time of year on a similar mission, filled mostly with retirees in search of autumn grandeur, and the occasional parent dragging bored teens on a nature hike. My cousin Hank and I always set up a lemonade stand on the outskirts of town for the Columbus Day throngs. The October I was eleven, we made so much money that Hank (already a snarling 14 year old) declared we should pool our money and go buy some pot, which he had determined was his next big adventure (soon to be followed by a stint with Jews for Jesus, then rolfing at Esalen, and eventually law school).
I was always amazed—am still amazed—that so many people want to travel so many miles to see things that are dying. But then, here I am, heading up to the gloom of the blue house in Phoenicia.
Spring declined to come with me, and I can’t really blame her. It has been only 4 months since we packed up the house on Woodland Valley Road and fled to New York, to escape the dank cloud of grief that hung over that house. And Spring’s new middle school social life has recently blossomed; it seems far more compelling, I am sure, than withering tendrils of the past. So I said, yes, she could have a sleepover with Irina, her new purple-haired friend, instead of accompanying me on this dreary little jaunt.
And the truth is, I want to drive up by myself. Yes, I need to check on the place which I have not yet the heart to consider selling; yes, I need to close the windows, turn off the water, get the house ready for the lonely bitter weather it must soon endure. But I also want to see how I feel up there, if I feel anything at all; if I hear or see anything there except the whisper and shadow of my own sadness.
Because I’ve been hearing and seeing some strange things lately; things which might or might not be what we like to call real.
Near Newburgh, three young deer are idling near the side of the road, and I am pretty sure they are real. “Don’t jump!” I yell at them.
One November, when Spring was about 7, we hit two deer within a month. The first came out of nowhere, near Boiceville; it dashed across Route 28 and the impact snapped the poor creature’s long brown leg, and it screamed—I had never heard a deer scream before—and Spring cried out, “Oh no! Stop Daddy! Stop Daddy!” and we did, but the deer had already limped off into the woods to die, though Nadia tried to assure Spring that the poor creature might survive.
“Sometimes, things look so sad but later they turn out not to be,” she said, wiping tears from Spring’s sweet face.
The second hit was far worse. The damn deer leaped right in front of us a few miles from the New Paltz exit on the Thruway; we were going pretty fast (Nadia was driving; I am a notoriously pokey driver), and the deer went airborne. For one grim moment, it looked as if it would land on our car, shatter the windshield, kill us all. Instead, it thudded to the pavement right beside us. We swerved to the shoulder of the road, and Nadia and Spring sobbed, while I checked out the dented fender, the smashed headlight and tried to still my pounding heart. A State Trooper (Sgt. Masterson—I still remember his name) pulled up right behind us and was all weary business, circling the mangled carcass, gun aimed at the deer’s head
“He’s too beautiful to die!” Spring shouted.
“Beautiful things die, too, sweetheart,” Sgt. Masterson pointed out. “But we even have deer whistles,” Nadia said. “I thought those things kept the deer away.”
“Yeah, I hear voodoo works, too,” Sgt. Masterson said.
But mercifully these deer stay where they are, nodding mutely, as I barrel up the Thruway. My phone makes that swooping sound Spring programmed into it to register the arrival of a text. “I want you to be able to hear me if I’m trying to reach you, Daddy,” she said, quite reasonably, as she fiddled with my phone’s settings. Though I think she just likes the idea that this somewhat alien sound never fails to make me flinch.
I glance down at the phone—oh I know I am not supposed to, and I am among the most cautious of drivers. But I am an even more cautious parent; I need to see if it says HELP DADDY or TROUBLE or IRINA’S MOM CRAZY…
But it does not say anything like that. I can’t quite make out what it does say, though, so I pull into the Plattekill rest stop, just to check the damn thing.
I never even had a cell phone upstate—there is virtually no cell service in much of the Catskills—but when we decamped to our sublet in NYU faculty housing, Spring declared, “If we are going to be real New Yorkers—and I am going to be a real New Yorker, Daddy—we need smart phones.”
CAN I GET MY EARS PIERCED TODAY? PURPLE-HAIRED GIRL’S MOM SAYS SHE WILL BRING ME, her text says.
I can’t think of the proper response. Nadia would unquestionably have insisted on being there for such an event but I can’t be there, don’t really want to be there, it makes me shudder even to imagine being there. But do I trust the purple-haired girl’s mom—her name is Sara, I think, or Kara—to keep my baby from getting infected earlobes?
I call Spring. But of course I get her goofy, giggling voicemail message. Spring seems not to be entirely aware that telephones were once used primarily to make and receive calls. It is nearly impossible to reach her except through texting. So I text. I GUESS SO. HAVE HER MOM CALL ME AT THE HOUSE. USE ALCOHOL! AND NOT FOR DRINKING, I add. I can picture the wry face she will make at my lame joke. It makes me smile to picture it, and there are so few things that make me smile now, that I go on picturing it, as I veer back onto the road.
Route 28 is almost as slow today as the Thruway. It is yard sale season, and a random assortment of used clothes, gewgaws, broken toys, and rickety furniture is arrayed across several furrowed lawns, as I head up the hill to Phoenicia. The Bike People—a grizzled local family which sells used bicycles—are well represented today; at least a dozen bent bikes teeter on their hilly yard. “Where do they get them, anyway?” Nadia once asked. “Do they steal them? Pick them out of the West Hurley dump? And why? Did they wake up one day and think, I know how we’ll make money, we’ll sell old bikes at yard sales!”
I can hear Nadia’s melodious laugh, and I smile, then the smile tugs downward and I am about to weep again, as I have wept almost every day since she died 8 months ago, but I breathe in, breathe out, listen to the primal wail from the CD: Oh the sun‘s gonna shine/In my back door someday/And a wind is gonna rise up/Blow all my blues away…
“Sure,” I mutter to no one.
But I still hear Nadia’s laugh, hear it like a breeze blowing around my head, as if Nadia were literally rather than metaphorically all around me, hear it as I chug past the Shandaken Eagle, as I turn onto the Woodland Valley Bridge, and only as I pull into the weed-choked driveway of the blue house, does it seem to fade into the placid buzzing of the October air.
The yard is a pale simulacrum of what it was. The bushes sag; a huge fern has grown up against the cellar window, and the jungle-like hedges have almost completely blocked the unused playroom door. It would hurt Nadia to see her beloved gardens all scraggly, and that hurts me, though at least none of the massive pine limbs which routinely fall in summer thunder storms seem to have damaged the roof or the yard or the two empty Adirondack chairs which sit there sullenly.
The forlorn swing set—which Spring once toppled from—is speckled with moss and outcroppings of spectral fungus. I cannot bring myself to go into the house yet, so I sit on the damp seat, swinging back and forth, back and forth. I can picture Spring sitting on the seat next to me, and Nadia behind her, gently pushing her higher and higher, crooning, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of Spring’s adored songs when she was little.
And then, I don’t need to picture Nadia, because she is there, smiling crookedly, pushing the empty swing next to me, which creaks loudly as it goes up down up down, not as if it were drifting in the wind but as if it were being pushed by Nadia, who is clearly there, her face partially turned away from me, for a moment, two moments, and then is not.
And once again, I wonder: am I seeing Nadia’s ghost, for God’s sake? Twice before today—once in front of the NYU Global Spiritual Center on Thompson St., and once just staring out the big living room window in our sublet—I thought I saw, heard, felt her.
“You know, Paul, in many cultures ghosts are understood to be present all the time, watching us, bemused by our mortal stupidity or jealous of the pleasures of the material world they can no longer experience,” Dr. Maire said, pretty much out of nowhere, the day of Nadia’s funeral (about which, I confess, I remember almost nothing). “So when they suddenly appear to us, it is only that they are letting us see them, or that we have in some sense broken the code of their invisible everywhereness.”
“Maybe,” I said. Which is how I tend to react to all of my father-in-law’s puzzling pronouncements.
I wish I had a specific belief—or even the lack of one—about ghosts. Ghosts are not something I ever thought much about, except as a Halloween cliché. When Spring was in Kindergarten at Phoenicia Elementary School, half of her class dressed up as ghosts for the annual Halloween parade down Main Street. I guess every family has an old bed sheet lying around suitable for cutting eyeholes.
And then there’s Casper, and Topper and Hamlet’s father, and A Christmas Carol. Sweet ghosts, jolly ghosts, accusatory ghosts, fearsome ghosts. They may look scary or silly but always the same—a draped apparition or the ghastly shadow of the person you once knew.
But what if a ghost is more like a tangible memory, some kind of extra-sensory hologram we produce with the powerful pent-up energy of grief? Or what if it’s a laugh or a gust of wind?
When my father died, the windows in my Columbia graduate student slum rattled for hours, as if in a hurricane. But there was no storm. Granted, I was tripping on magic mushrooms at the time and may not have been in the best frame of mind for analyzing the activity of released souls.
At 17, a budding poet, I declaimed to anyone who would listen (and there were not many) a sestina I had written about how I did not believe in God but believed in the soul. The poetics were pretty bad but the theme still rings faintly true to me. I even blurted out this spiritual mishmash to Spring as we sat by her beautiful dead mom’s hospital bed, panting with the pain of losing her.
“No!” Spring screeched, when the hospital chaplain told us Nadia was now with God. “Because no God I want to know would take her from us!” She turned furiously to me “Do you believe in God, Daddy, do you?” she demanded.
I said what I said, muffled and uncertain. “I don’t care about her soul,” she whispered. “I want her, I want her back, I want her with us.”
OK, wispy abstractions are not much help really when all you feel is lacerating loss. Still, if her soul was still hanging around, wanting…I don’t know…something…wouldn’t that be better than the nothing we have now?
Maybe the soul is like a file you think has been erased from your computer yet remains on the hard drive, and shows up sometimes when you hit the wrong key combination. A long and tedious Word attachment about Jung’s Anima archetype, which Dr. Maire sent me last March—and which I thought I had deleted at least three times—appears mysteriously on my laptop sometimes when I open a document. Maybe the soul does that too, reappears like phantom pain, a sound, a breeze, a smile, a figure pushing no one on the swing?
“Sure,” I say, shoving open the swollen front door.
The house is damp and musty. I open as many windows as I can, though some are stuck—sort of like me—unable to move up or down. There is a distant mysterious beeping coming from somewhere in the house, though I cannot detect the source until I stumble down the cellar stairs in utter blackness—the ancient fluorescent fixture has finally gone out—and perceive a little red light pulsating on the defunct smoke alarm.
I play back dozens of messages, mostly robot calls about overdue bills, a few belated condolences from far away friends, or Spring’s old school mates wondering why she is not attending Onteora Middle School as planned.
I sit on the lumpy white couch. There is an empty glass on the coffee table, an open book of fairytales on the floor, a stuffed reindeer on the big blue chair. The last time we all sat here together, I read “The Juniper Tree” to Spring. Then, Spring clutched that reindeer, trying not to cry as Nadia—shaky and pale—sipped from that glass, explained to her that she might have to go into the hospital so the doctors could determine why her head felt like it was exploding.
Two days later, she was dead from a brain tumor.
A stray breeze whaps at the window, and the rusty wind chimes, which have hung by the garage for a decade, jingle and jangle. Is it Nadia’s ghost? Am I simply the saddest, most pathetic person on earth, dreaming dark, wishful dreams?
I do not wish to cry again; I am bored with my own pain. I get an old Whole Foods bag from the kitchen and start placing a few beloved objects we left behind into it. Would Spring want the reindeer? Do I want the book of fairytales? The carved wooden lizard Nadia bought me for Father’s Day last year? Do I want anything at all?
In the kitchen, the sun shines through the little crystal that dangles by the window; it makes tiny, beautiful rainbows on the floor. And for some reason, that does it. I sink into the white wooden chair and sob. I bite my lip in fear that I will give in again to some huge eruption of unceasing sobs. Instead, I am interrupted by the piercing ring of the phone.
Yet another creditor?
“What?” I say.
“Oh.” It is a not quite familiar woman’s voice. “Tara. Irina’s mom? Spring is with us?”
“Oh,” I say. “How did you get this number?”
“Spring is with us?” she repeats.
“Hi Daddy!” I hear Spring’s voice in the background. “Ears. Pierced. Remember?”
“Spring said I should call you?” Tara says.
“Oh…of course…sorry…You’ll make sure she’s OK?…I’m…a little distracted up here…my wife…I…haven’t been up here since…I…..”
I can’t go on. There is what feels like an eons-long silence.
“I know,” Tara says. “Spring told me. Are you OK?”
I try to laugh but it sticks in my throat. I am so transparently not OK but cannot bring myself to say that, and a loud unintended sigh escapes from my mouth.
“I think I know how you feel. Sort of. I don’t, really. But sort of,” she says. Her voice sounds thick with her own sorrow, whatever that may be, the ghost of her own loss. Someday, I will remember that I am not the only one on earth in pain.
On the kitchen floor, the tiny rainbows are still dancing. “The sun’s going to shine in my back door someday,” I say. “Or so I’ve heard.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes. I’ve heard that too.”
Stephen Policoff’s second novel, Come Away, won the Mid-Career Author Award and was published by Dzanc Books in November 2014. His memoir, Sixteen Scenes From A Film I Never Wanted To See, was published by Monkey Puzzle Press, in January 2014. His essay, “Music Today?” about his disabled daughter’s experience in music therapy, won the Fish Short Memoir Prize and was published in Fish Anthology 2012 (West Cork University Press, Ireland). His first novel, Beautiful Somewhere Else, won the James Jones Award and was published by Carrol & Graf in 2004. His fiction and essays have recently appeared in THE RUMPUS, NECESAARY FICTION, KINDLING QUARTERLY, PROVINCETOWN ARTS, and many other publications. He teaches writing in Global Liberal Studies at NYU.