We walk toward the bend in the road. It is mid-summer, warm—the heat is receding, rolling back slowly like a tide. The light is amber, the sun nearly gone. The cicadas whine from the shade of a lone oak in the hayfield across the street. In my memory, my grandfather shuffles along with us, but maybe he is back at the house on Morning Drive in his chair watching an old football game. I don’t recall. I do know he has told us about the beaver dam, and we are walking toward where the road turns. Down the embankment there is a pond where the beavers scurry and swim, flop their tails, and cut their teeth on small trees and spare logs they pile together.
We see one. Now, it is gone, swimming into the unseen interior of its wet abode made of logs and grass and sticks and hay. We know nothing more of the beaver than the flat tail that disappears into the mound of sticks sloping above the surface of the dark water.
Early 1990s. Harriman, Tennessee. Carl and Jewel’s house. Morning Drive. This is my grandparents’ place, the house my dad grew up in. Brick, it is one level, with a basement. Two concrete stairs to the front porch, the metal storm door hisses, slams. Inside, a small foyer. To the left lives the bookshelf my dad, Jerry, sanded by hand and my grandfather, Carl, varnished one summer Saturday. It’s the same one that now sits in my bedroom in Colorado, the house with the yellow door.
Across the hall from the bookshelf, a wide archway curves, ushering you into the living room. Further inside, toward the back of the house, a window over the kitchen sink overlooks the mountain my dad climbed as a kid, when the night caught him and his friend unprepared. They made it home in the wee hours, terrified. The living room is light turquoise, the carpet teal. Aqua, my dad calls it. The paint job is meticulous, perfect. The white crown molding is flawless—not a drop of paint strays outside the lines. There are no mistakes.
Down stairs that don’t have backs—wood ones, uncarpeted, without risers—your heart races thinking of the space between each step. It is just enough for a monster’s hand to fit through, grab your ankle. The basement is dark, dank as basements are. Often, black walnuts dry on newspapers between where the car is parked and the cinderblock wall—weird, knobby, green softballs with the shells cracked off to show the meat inside. My grandfather collects the nuts and cures them to make his famous black walnut cake. Even baked into such a confection I can’t get past the taste. The walnuts are too strong, too earthy, slightly bitter. The taste lasts forever, stains my mouth.
There is a clothes wringer down there, from the time before my grandmother, Jewel, had a dryer. I imagine her cranking the clothes through, the water squeezing into the bucket, her hanging them on the sagging clothesline in the backyard to dry. I am a child who fixates on beauty—I picture it, white sheets billowing in the summer sun, light defuse through the fabric.
We visit my grandparents on Sunday afternoons, after church. Usually, we pick up food, something like KFC, on the way, so my grandmother won’t have to cook for us. My brother and I never really want to go, because the grown-ups talk in shadowed voices about who—no one we know—has died, who has another grandkid, whose nephew joined the Marines, or whose aunt is in the hospital. There is a constant litany of memories, a list droning so far back, we can never keep up. My grandmother corrects everyone about what happened when, to whom. She determines herself right, and dares anyone to challenge her, as if the precise way she remembers something is a direct line to how it is.
We spread the food out on the counter, make our plates, and sit to eat at the Formica table in the kitchen. By now it’s so late I’m dizzy with hunger. Mashed potatoes, gravy. Chicken. Later, my brother and I will watch Top Gun on the little TV in the kitchen, a murmur coming from the living room as at the adults worship the past. When the day cools, my dad and I will stroll in the blue hour, down to the honeysuckle vines at the far reach of the backyard, watching for the first fireflies.
There is a picture window at the back of the living room in the house on Morning Drive. From inside the room, the mountain my dad climbed as a boy is framed in the scene. Peering in from outside, though, I feel the same as I do when I am viewing a beaver dam, wishing to understand the interior, where my grandfather sits in his chair, a fixture. His bald head is slightly visible over the top of the chair. A constellation of age spots marks the way to some unknown place, wherever his thoughts go from his leather recliner. I wish there was a picture window into the rooms of his head. I wish I could know where he goes when his silence sucks all the air from the room.
January 24, 1940, 5:20 pm. Harriman, Tennessee. Downtown. The house on Devonia Street. It’s nearly dark when Carl hears the shot. He’s been sitting idle at the kitchen table, wondering what to do next. He considers turning on the light as the house darkens. The winter evening seeps through the blinds. There is soup, simmering on the stove. His mother made it earlier, left it to heat. Said the flavors meld together better the longer it sits. He is still, in the dimness. The sound makes him jump.
His mother, Elva, 51 years old, is in her bedroom, resting on the upholstered chair by the window. He walks quietly down the hall to check on her first. When he sees her, she is standing on the threshold between the bedroom and the hall, stricken. Neither of them says anything. As they make their way to the back of the house, the windows pose as blue pictures built into the wall of the guest room, the back room, the mud room, as they’ve always called it.
There is a crumpled shadow on the floor, barely visible in the coming night. It looks like a thick blanket left wadded at the foot of the bed. Carl both knows what it is, and he is filled with questions. His mother flips on the light.
It is Creed, his father. The railroad man.
A train whistles from far down the line. Soon, the walls will shake as the locomotive passes, so close to the house. Maybe a little salt, the plaster, will rain down from the ceiling—that weak spot Elva’s been asking Creed to fix.
It is background noise to Carl, who never hears the trains anymore. They are part of the interior landscape, like the heat clicking on or a ticking clock, a creak in the floorboards at night. The chugging of a train is most noticeable in the silence after it has fully passed. Like parade confetti falling to the ground, coming to rest on the road in soft drifts between the curb and the street. Or the bright silence after a gunshot, a single hole in the wall.
Carl will die seven decades later, still able to hear the silence after that sound. It is the silence within silence, the nesting doll of what is to come.
I don’t know until I am well into my thirties that my grandfather was in the house when his father killed himself. I begin to wonder if maybe this is why Carl was so often silent. It’s presumptuous to say, but I often wonder if this is what he was thinking about in his chair, his speckled head peeking over the top. Thinking about the silence after the gun—the sinking feeling—like watching a continent of spring snow slide from a metal roof. I wonder if the silence opened a chasm after the gun went off, a space that could never be closed.
June, 2001. Harriman, Tennessee. Morning Drive. I remember once, seeing my grandfather out of his chair, away from home. It’s early summer. I’m with my high school boyfriend at a picnic honoring the volunteer firefighters in the small town where my grandparents live. My boyfriend is from a town nearby, and he suggests we go to the picnic. It is a surprise to see Carl there, seated in the pavilion, mostly because I’ve forgotten he is a celebrated firefighter. That he is a human man outside the dim of his living room, outside his chair with a spit can for his tobacco nearby. In the picnic pavilion with the cicadas screaming into the heat, he becomes a person to me. His life stretches beyond the man in the recliner in the teal—no, aqua—living room.
I try talking to him that day at the picnic, but we’ve never had any rapport since I was little. I am his only granddaughter. I think back. Once, when I was maybe three or four, he lets me steer his Buick over a one-lane suspension bridge while he works the pedals. Looking back, my mother would’ve hated this, which makes me love this memory more: driving across that muddy water, some tributary controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Smokestacks rise in the distance, the Kingston power plant interrupting the fair sky. By the time I’m in middle school, though, neither of us really knows how to hold a conversation.
Carl is a retired housepainter, renowned for his trade, but his knees are painful after years of vertical travel up and down ladders, always meticulous about both interior and exterior jobs. At the picnic, he is not a fish out of water in his basket-weave lawn chair. It is me who doesn’t know what to make of him in his natural element. He stays put, and friends come to him, laughing and shooting the shit. People talk of him as if he is myth, legend. You’re Carl’s granddaughter? He’s the best. The very best. I’ve never met someone with as quality work as he did. He painted our barn and took as long as it took to get it right. Not just right, but perfect. Or—he painted our dining room. Not one mistake. You can’t find craftsmen like him anymore.
July, 1982. Knoxville, Tennessee. My parents consider naming my brother Creed, after Martin Creed, after Carl’s father, who shot himself in 1940. They wonder, though, if it will cause too much pain. They settle on a different name, Matthew Stuart, with less of an edge. I wonder now if this is how ghosts proliferate. If they linger in the spaces of names unspoken, but not forgotten—closeted names—of ancestors, spirits. The ones who came before.
June, 2019. Knoxville, Tennessee. My dad and I sit at the kitchen table, and he tells me the story of Creed’s suicide. I wonder about the scene, even though writing it makes me ache, my heart race, puts me in my trauma body, and makes me step away from the page. I wonder what color the walls were, the carpet. My dad tells me he remembers the house on Devonia Street well, but he doesn’t know where in the house his grandfather killed himself. I wonder how it happened that Carl found his father with a gunshot to the temple. This was thirteen years before my dad was born. Carl was twenty. His mother fifty-one. His father fifty-six. I wonder if it was Creed’s addiction to alcohol that drove him and drove him and drove him until he made it stop.
I wonder what it was like for Carl to pull himself out of this hole and move forward, on with his life.
March, 1943. Harriman, Tennessee. Three years after his father dies, Carl signs up to go to war. His is the 94th Construction Battalion. CB, for short. He is a “Seabee.” He goes to training in Virginia where he paints houses in Colonial Williamsburg. This is where he learns precision, how to be perfect with paint. How to fix holes in the walls and cover them.
Sometime before he joins up, he marries Jewel Taylor. She is nineteen and he is twenty-two at their wedding. When his battalion goes to Rhode Island, awaiting deployment to the Pacific, she stays with him until he ships out. Then, she returns to Tennessee, to Oak Ridge, where she works at the K-25 plant, on some top-secret project even she cannot identify.
Carl’s battalion is part of a convoy of ships heading south to the Panama Canal. As they disembark, his boat accidentally rams into another, and his ship detours to Charleston, South Carolina for repairs. This diversion staves off the inevitable. Eventually, though, they sail to Pearl Harbor and ultimately Guam. The Pacific Theater.
As a painter in the Seabees, Carl never sees combat. But, on Oahu, he helps paint the headquarters for Admiral Halsey, a big name-drop for the WWII era, and at some point, either in Hawaii or Guam, he collects a sword from the corpse of a dead Japanese soldier.
In 1945, he is sent home from the Pacific. It is perhaps the only time Carl is in an airplane. His flight lands on the west coast, and he rides a train from San Francisco to Nashville, where he is discharged from the Navy and reenters his life.
Back in Harriman, with Jewel, he starts his painting business. Soon, he has established himself as one of the most hardworking artisans in town.
Some time later, Carl becomes a firefighter, and I wonder too if this was the same impulse as painting, wanting to save a house from ruin. Wanting to paint over the tragic loss, put out the flame of pain. These are the questions I never knew to ask until recently. There is no picture window into his soul to tell me what he was like, what he found important. In my memory, he is simply there, in his chair. His silence indicating he is somewhere else entirely. I can only guess where that place was.
All this time, as he is working and marrying and defending his nation, his mother still lives in the house on Devonia Street, where his father shot himself in the head.
The house on Devonia Street is in downtown Harriman, walking distance to a grocery store, which becomes an important detail, but one that seems insignificant at first, as my dad spins the story out over several conversations. It is a single story, wood frame. Two concrete steps to the covered front porch. White columns hold up the pitched roof. Two swings dangle from either end of the porch, like earrings, balancing the scene. I follow my dad’s memory through the house, entering as I would a beaver dam through the window of his mind, and making my way through the wet interior.
The front door opens into the living room, and there is a bedroom with no door across the hall. His mind travels into another bedroom off the common space—this is Elva’s room. Then, a sitting room opposite her bedroom. She keeps boarders, I find out. The sitting room is the room my dad remembers best. He remembers one boarder vividly—a Cherokee named Big Witch who worked for the railroad. As a child, he watches the boarders play dominoes while his grandmother makes food for those who stay with her. There are three bedrooms in the back of the house, and a kitchen downstairs where Elva cooks three meals a day for those who stay with her. In the backyard, there is an old garage, a shed, next to the kitchen on the lower floor.
Independence Day, 1959. Downtown Harriman, Tennessee. Morning. Carl and his son, Jerry, age eight, enter the hospital to see Carl’s mother, Elva. Visiting hours have just begun, but the nurse raises her eyebrows at Jerry. This is not done; children are unwelcome—but, it is important to Carl. It is his mother lying there. He feels he is preparing his own son for something, letting Jerry see Elva in a bad way. She is convalescing from a fall she took walking home from the grocery store. She has broken a hip.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Creed, Carl’s father, shot himself in the house on Devonia Street, and Elva still lives there. Life goes on the way it does, until it doesn’t. On the day she falls, she walks to the grocery store before the day warms uncomfortably. The cicadas have not yet started to hum, but the dew on the grass has evaporated. She shops quickly, just a few ingredients for the boardinghouse dinner, and makes small talk with the young cashier. A shopping bag in each hand, she makes her way out of the store and crosses the street, where she tries to step onto the curb, but the shopping bags block her view, and she misses the step entirely, stumbling and landing on her side. There is a crack, an audible pop. A tomato rolls down the sidewalk and comes to rest at its edge, where the concrete meets the grass. The emergency is reported, and when the ambulance arrives, she is sprawled half on the road half on the sidewalk, a guttural moan issuing from the back of her throat.
Hours after Carl and Jerry leave her with a wildflower bouquet on the table by the bed, the nurse wheels in a chair, informing Elva the doctor has requested another x-ray of her hip. Elva groans. She knows this will hurt. The nurse first helps her sit up. They pause, taking a moment. Then the nurse, acting as a crutch, helps Elva get to her feet, tells her all her weight must go on her good leg. As she tries to lower into the wheelchair, however, she realizes it is too narrow. She won’t fit. The nurse begins to fuss, pushing her lightly at first, then harder, until Elva is forcefully wedged into the chair, her bad leg propped out on the metal footrest.
Then, suddenly, Elva is doubled over. A searing, electric pain rips through her head. The world goes black. She has died of a stroke on the 4th of July.
It could have happened this way. Only, a couple of weeks after my dad tells me Elva died on the 4th of July, he looks up the date and finds his own memory smeared. He texts me the date of her death: July 13, 1959. Perhaps the hospital visit was on the holiday, and it has merged with his memory of the day of her death.
Either way, my dad tells me he remembers the emotional climate just after his grandmother Elva passes. How he is sent to stay with his other grandparents, the Taylors, and he gets so upset at being left to deal with the upheaval on the night of her funeral, that he throws a fit in the middle of the night and Carl has to come get him.
May 7, 2021. Estes Park, Colorado. My dad texts me a photo of the Devonia Street house as it is now. It is in remarkably good shape for its age. The lawn is well manicured. It has great bones, as they say. But, seeing the exterior makes me wonder about the rooms inside. I wonder if there is any evidence of what transpired there.
This house has seen death, maybe evoked it. It is witness. Elva makes sure of it. It bears witness to the before, yes. But she makes sure it is there for the after. That she is in it. That her family comes over, visits her there. That she welcomes boarders into the space. There’s something transgressive, subversive about this. How she won’t let Creed’s suicide have the last word. It’s either mental strength or her need to punish herself. As if anything about what he did could be her fault.
The Devonia Street house marks the point of the arrow, the ‘you are here’ in Carl’s life. And then it becomes the sealed image in his rearview. It is background noise, receding as he goes to war, marries, has children, makes a life of his own. Yet, there is the Devonia Street house. The mark of tragedy, atrocity. The place his mother chooses to stay. But it is also where Carl’s children watch a satellite pass over, mesmerized, and dream of one day going into space. Where boarders each year rest their weary heads after working long and hard at the railroad. It is where Elva is just before she dies. She walks over the threshold to the grocery store and never returns. It is as though this house is the point a pendulum is attached to—central to our family story.
It is Carl’s house on Morning Drive, though, where I learn about slowness, how the time passes on a Sunday drive to visit my grandparents. How once inside, time no longer moves. I think of myself, my brother, my parents, my grandparents as statues. Outside looking in, we are the subject of the picture window at the back of the living room. A tableau vivant.
I think of the hayfield across the street, with the oak at its edge. The way, when the hay has been harvested, the field is a brown that turns shimmering gold on an autumn afternoon as the sun sinks low. How none of this is important, none of this is the story. The story is the beaver dam a little further down, at the bend in the road. The story started long ago at a different house. The house that has followed my grandfather every day of his life. The house where his father died.
I remember on one visit, walking through the empty rooms of the house on Morning Drive, snooping through drawers, trying to find something interesting, some keepsake or ancient love letter that would implicate my family in some kind of sordid story or crazy affair. There was nothing there. Nothing that I found, anyway. I was looking in the wrong place, barking up the wrong tree. I needed to ask my grandfather.
I see myself now, my child self, watching him there, drawing near to his chair, then flitting away like a moth, scared. He is so quiet with chewing tobacco and a spit-can by his side, and I decide it is too scary to ask. To ask what the silence means, the palpable mood in the house. I decide, like my dad before me, it is too scary to ask Carl who he is.
But sometimes I feel my own silence the same way I feel his. I feel myself wondering what to say in a way that makes me wonder if he too was always just there wondering what to say. I wonder if his silence is generational, if it has lodged in our bodies, in our souls. If this one, damn thing—Creed’s suicide—is the curb my family trips on, again and again.
Spring 2021. Lily Lake. Estes Park, Colorado. I can’t help but think of my grandfather here, now, when the lake has melted, cracked apart in giant slabs under the spring sun, and we have walked the dirt path in the golden light, around a curve in the trail. A beaver swims all the way across the lake, splashes its wide, flat tail, then disappears into the murky deep. Gone, into the rooms we can only imagine, but will never know.