The Thing That Isn't There Anymore is Still There

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn't there.
He wasn't there again today.
I wish, I wish, he'd stay away.

-- Hughes Mearns (1875-1965) The Psychoed

My house was built in 1923, and though it had electrical wiring, ordinary household appliances were rare and many had not yet been invented. There was a built-in ironing board in the kitchen--this means there was an iron--and I'll bet that an electric toaster was the standard wedding present. Except for electric lights, that's probably about it for modern conveniences. No radio, no television, no stereo. No blender, no microwave oven, no vacuum cleaner. There is no place in the kitchen to put a refrigerator; instead, there is a cooler built into the wall. The refrigerator now blocks an unused door between the kitchen and the bedroom hallway. There is a laundry room off the kitchen, at that time housing a partitioned stone washtub. The hand-washed, damp clothes were carried outside and hung on a clothesline, and when dry, the crisp, sun-smelling laundry was gathered up, ironed in the kitchen, folded and put away. On rainy days, if my own childhood is any index, wet clothes were hung in the kitchen on wooden racks and got in the way of everything.

The back steps led straight to the laundry line. I imagine that the back steps were in daily use, and may have become the informal entrance to the house. There was a red-painted cement walk leading up to them, and flat cement lily pads dotted the yard.

A previous owner replaced the washtub with a washing machine, and later, a clothes dryer rendered the clothesline redundant. The washer and dryer took up almost all the space in the laundry room, and made opening and closing the back door awkward. When I moved in, the back door was painted shut. The clothesline posts stood unused with fragments of decayed line hanging from crossbeams and pulleys.

One post became the center of a property-line fence. The owner before me used the one nearest the back door--a six-foot, four-by-four piece of redwood--as a gatepost. He also built a length of fence from the post to another, older section of fence, thereby creating a small, private backyard. The kitchen door and back steps were outside his new gate, so he rarely or never used them. He opened up the bedroom wall and installed French doors to the backyard.

When I moved in, I accepted this configuration and did little except to plant flowers, herbs, a lemon tree and a cherry. I laid a small brick patio, and replaced two sides of the old fence with attractive redwood fencing, but left the section attached to the gate untouched.

Twenty-three years after moving in, I found that the kitchen stairs were rotten and dangerous. Even though I did not use them, occasionally a flyer or election pamphlet was stuck in the screen door, and I was afraid that someone might fall through the rotten steps and get hurt. Besides, I knew from experience that where there is one rotten board there are more laying in wait. So I arranged to have the steps replaced. The contractor found that the gate and fence were rotten, and also needed replacing. I thought at first to replace the fence and gate just as they were, but the contractor observed that I could greatly enlarge the yard by extending the fence from the corner of the house through an essentially unused portion of the side lawn, thus incorporating the new back stairs into the yard, as well. The cement lily pads and walk were torn out, and replaced with a brick path leading to a new gate that opened into the yard and led to the new laundry room steps. At no additional expense, he converted unused space into useful space, and doubled the size of my private garden.

The clothes-post was now in the middle of the yard, isolated from everything. For some reason, this post was deeply set into a solid mass of cement. By deeply, I mean the guy I hired to take it out could not reach the bottom of either the cement or the post, and after a half-day of jackhammer and Saws-All, resulting in a four-foot hole, gave up, cut off the post and filled the hole with dirt.

My guess is this: on June 11 of 1943, the man of the house decided to pour a walkway from the sidewalk to the back door. From the look of the walk, he clearly wasn't an expert, and he mixed way more cement than he needed. Hence the cement lily pads. But he still had plenty of cement. The lady of the house needed a new clothesline, since the original, twenty-year-old clothesline post had rotted out. The man dug a hole that would let him dump about a half-yard of excess cement, and set the post up in the middle of it. Proud of his accomplishment, he inscribed the date in the wet cement. I don't have any idea where the ten-foot redwood four-by-four came from, but I can't imagine that it was originally destined to anchor a clothesline. Maybe it was just sitting around; maybe the man of the house had intended it for something else and then needed to put up a clothesline that wouldn't blow down like the old one, spoiling all the clothes and making his wife angry. Who knows.

Since that day, the entire lash-up of backyard and fences and gates and French doors and trees and steps and whatnot has been revolving around a post which had been plunked down where it was because it was right off the laundry room. Even though the clothesline was long gone; even though the memory of the clothesline was gone, everything still echoed it.

We orbit around yesterday's Sun. The chain of actions related to things that aren't there anymore can best be broken by someone who does not know about the original impetus, and in consequence sees only the awkward configuration. This is why we hire interior decorators, gardeners, and psychiatrists: they are not reacting to the thing that isn't there. It was never there for them, so they can identify and eradicate it without effort. Plus, they have a lot of experience at seeing things that aren't there, and can point them out to those of us who, blinded by the thing that isn't there, spin helplessly around the hurts, hungers and losses of things that happened even before we were born.

After the rock has settled to the bottom of the lake, the ripples continue. It's still all about that old piece of clothesline.

July 16, 2004

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