House Of Stepsby Amy Blackmarr
Picking up where she left off in Going to Ground, Amy Blackmarr returns from her granddaddy's old pond-side fishing cabin in rural south Georgia - where "the scents of pine straw on damp mornings and peanuts drying in October fields were deep and warm and familiar" - to a northeast Kansas bluff, where she lives in the "house of steps" with her three dogs. Part… See more details below
Picking up where she left off in Going to Ground, Amy Blackmarr returns from her granddaddy's old pond-side fishing cabin in rural south Georgia - where "the scents of pine straw on damp mornings and peanuts drying in October fields were deep and warm and familiar" - to a northeast Kansas bluff, where she lives in the "house of steps" with her three dogs. Part architectural wonder, part architectural disaster, the quirky house becomes the backdrop for the tapestry of scenes Blackmarr weaves from her recaptured past and her awkward present, plucking from everyday life the bright gems of wonder and meaning in an extraordinary world. In the vibrant midwestern silence, where far-off voices play alarming tricks at night, Blackmarr gets lost in the woods, battles wasps but refuses to step on roaches, takes in another stray dog, frets over the "corruption" of her mother, confronts a blushing postman with her Victoria's Secret catalogue, collects bugs in a bowl, and faces her own perfectionism. Her discoveries teach her the deepest lessons about herself, her community, and her God.
- Mercer University Press
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)
Read an Excerpt
House of Steps
* * *
"Two steps forward, one step back."
Psychologist, to patient
beginning long-term therapy
Good heavens, honey," said my genteel South Georgia mama as we stared up at the house of steps for the first time. "It's a hippie house."
It was August. Hot and steamy. Mom had followed me up from Georgia in my Honda; now she was helping me move in. I was standing next to her in cutoffs and a too-tight sports bra that made my chest feel pressed in, tying a bandanna around my head, getting ready to unload the U-Haul. The landlord, a small, dark-haired woman with a tentative smile, hovered beside her little red car, watching us. Max had trotted off to water things.
Mom cast a worried look back toward the road. "It's awfully remote," she said.
"I like remote," I said.
"You've definitely got remote," she said.
"It's not that remote," offered the landlord.
Remote wasn't what was bothering me. I was wondering how I'd keep that twisted driveway plowed in winter, that great upward stretch of house clean and the yard in shape (there was so much more of everything than I'd imagined), plus do research, write papers, write books, and commute fifteen miles to the university in Lawrence. Somehow, my phone conversations with my Kansas friend Sara, who'd been out to look the place over for me, hadn't quite prepared me for what I was seeing. "It has so muchcharm," she'd told me, "and a garden and lots of trees."
But right now, looking at a yard that seemed to meld with infinity, I was thinking about my humble red bargain of a push mower from Wal-Mart that was not self-propelled.
"Big yard," I said airily to the landlord.
"It's only half an acre," she answered.
"Why is there a bathtub in it?" Mom asked. She was looking at a big bathtub by the porch steps of a cedar shack, near some wild rosebushes.
"Oh, that's an outdoor sauna," said the landlord. "The tub is for ... you know. Cooling off."
"I'll bet," said Mom.
We walked toward the sauna, past a low square of flat rocks that walled off a sizable garden, now overgrown with wild mustard and peppergrass. Rusty tomato cages were stacked in the corners. Wild mint covered the ground by the east wall, near a bird feeder on an eight-foot pole, and sage grew along the north wall among too many iris stalks. Bunches of giant foxtail grass were confined inside circles of fence wire along the west wall.
"What's this in the daisies?" I asked, noticing a small wooden cross near the garden. The name "Jesse," surrounded by flowers, was carved into the cross.
"That's a grave," said the landlord. "It's the former tenants' cat."
"It looks like a shrine," I said.
"To a cat?" said Mom.
"People like cats," I said.
"But it's right in the middle of the yard," said Mom.
"They wanted to know if they could visit it," said the landlord. "I told them it would be all right."
"It's not," I said.
"Amy, honey, if the landlord says"
"Mom, just let me"
"They wouldn't come in the house," explained the landlord.
I kicked a rock by the shrine.
Mom went to examine a square wooden post sunk into the ground. There were four of these, at varying heights. They formed a rough circle and leaned slightly inward, like a midwestern Stonehenge. "What are these things?" she asked.
"Those were part of the stage for the Climax Festival," said the landlord.
"The what?" said Mom.
"We had kind of a miniature Woodstock out here in the seventies," said the landlord.
"Ha," I said.
"Oh, my Lord," said my mother.
"Remember, I warned you," said the landlord as she let us in the bottom level of the house. "It's really neat inside, but it's rustic." She gave out a nervous laugh.
We stepped into the kitchen. I felt on my bare legs the current of drafts circulating over the brick floor and around the uninsulated rock walls. "It's like a cave in here," said Mom, running her hand over a wide window ledge, a gouged and stained wooden shelf that reminded me of an old cutting board I cleaned fish on at the cabin. She wrinkled her nose. "I wouldn't use this for anything that has to do with food," she said.
"It just needs washing, Mom."
"Oh, the house is clean," said the landlord quickly.
Mom turned on the water in the sink. A wolf spider darted out of the drain. "It's rustic, all right," she said.
"Mom, it's the country."
"Well, I can see what you like about it," she said, opening cabinets and peering inside. "It's like going to camp."
"I've been living in a tarpaper shack for five years without hot water," I bragged. "I can handle it."
"But that was South Georgia, honey. It snows in Kansas."
"We don't get that much snow," said the landlord.
"Snow is not a problem, Mother," I said. I fiddled with the knobs on the gas stove and looked in the oven. Out wafted a faint smell of rotten eggs. "Propane stove," I said.
Mom sniffed. "I wonder how old it is."
"I've never had any trouble with it," said the landlord.
Up a step off the kitchen was the only bathroom, barely wide enough for a tiny sink and, up another step, a toilet and an old tub. Air soughed in where the wall met the window. Mom ran her fingers around the window frame.
"The house has a few ... quirks," said the landlord.
We walked around a corner past a pantry and up a steep, narrow staircase to the second floor. The stairs ended in a small room with a vaulted ceiling that dropped to three feet on the north side. A chapel window, facing an upward slope crowded with oaks and black walnut trees, covered most of the east wall. On the south side of the room, a stone hearth had once supported a woodstove. The exposed plywood subfloor, like the stairs, was painted with green porch paint.
Mom walked into the next room and came back. "There aren't any doors in this house," she said.
"That's one of the quirks," said the landlord.
"I like open spaces," I said.
Mom pulled at a hinged piece of plywood, looked behind it, and closed it again. "This looks like a crawl space," she said. "Where's the closet?"
"That's another one of the quirks," said the landlord.
"No closets?" asked Mom.
The landlord shrugged.
"Why would anybody build a house without closets?"
"Mom, I can live without closets."
"I'm glad," said Mom. "What is this?" She was looking at a triangle-shaped hole high up in one wall.
"Some kind of ventilation system, I think," said the landlord. "The guy who built this place left some things unfinished."
Mom shook her head. "This is the strangest house I've ever seen." She paused, then added, "He must have been an architecture student."
I decided to make this room my study.
The next room, which I called the den, was rounded, with wide windows, knotty pine ceilings, green floors, and either six or eight walls, depending on how we counted. No two walls were the same width. I opened the sliding glass door, which led onto a deck with built-in benches and eleven steps down to the yard. The bird feeder was nearby. An ancient redbud tree grew up through a hole in the deck.
"This is nice, Mom," I said, looking out. Max lay on his stomach in a patch of shade under a basswood tree. The wooded bluff was to my left, which was south, the driveway to my right. West, beyond the garden, the yard merged with a grassy meadow dotted with red cedars and knots of sumac. This property was only a few acres, I knew, but it seemed to link up on every side with vacant land. The landlord had said there were neighbors, but they must be a long way from here.
From the den we climbed a steep spiral of open steps with no railing, which presented a breathtaking view when we looked down from the top landing.
"Whoooo," said Mom. "Vertigo."
"Oh, look, Amos. Here's the other end of the triangle." It was at the top of the stairs. She put her head into the opening. "Hellooooo," she said. "Anybody in there?"
"Mother," I said. "Good grief."
The third floor was a single small room shaped like a long octagon, a kind of lookout tower that seemed to float among the treetops. Windows went all the way around, facing every approach. There were clear views across the yard to the meadow and down the driveway. South- and eastward was a sea of waving green, the tops of sycamores, cottonwoods, hickories, and locusts. The ground was forty feet down.
"This'll be a great place to sleep," I said.
"It's an awfully long way to the bathroom," said Mom.
"I'll get used to it," I said. "Hey." I noticed a set of folding stairs in the ceiling. "There's another floor up here."
"That's the attic," said the landlord.
I grabbed the cord to pull down the stairs.
"You might not want to do that," said the landlord, backing up a step.
"I want to see what's up there."
"Amy, honey, if the landlord says not to"
"Stand back, Mom." I yanked the cord.
"Look out!" Mom shouted, waving her arms at the contingent of wasps that dive-bombed us from the attic.
I let the cord go and the staircase slammed shut.
"I was going to say," said the landlord, "that you might want to be holding a can of hornet spray when you open that."
After the landlord left with my rent money in her pocket, Mom disappeared into the kitchen, and I backed the U-Haul up to the deck steps and lay the ramp on the third step from the bottom. This meant I only had to carry my truckload of belongings up the eight steps left to the den, or down the hill and around the corner to the kitchen. At the moment, I was glad I'd been doing my Buns of Steel workout with hand weights.
I opened the trailer doors and sighed at the crammed accumulation of my adult yearsmostly books, a few chairs, the coffee mugs and kitchen appliances that seemed to proliferate on their own. My bike. My computer. A TV and some lamps. Where would I put it all? This place seemed so complicated, with its mazy turns and stairs and drafts and driveway that needed shoveling in winter. Life at Pop's cabin had been so simple. One huge room, a handful of spiders and lizards, a few snakes and some mice. An old boat against a pine tree, and a straight line of sight from Monday to Sunday.
What flashed through my memory was my first wedding in MaRe's yard when I was seventeen, how I had a chance to back out as I stood on the patio in my wedding dress looking doubtfully at the ivy-garlanded gazebo, the groom in his morning coat and ascot, the bridesmaids in their green velvet chokers and ivory gowns, the gladiolus sprays tied with white satin, the murmuring onlookers in their Sunday clothes. When I took my dad's arm to start down the aisle, I burst into tears. Daddy, alarmed, patted my hand. "Is everything all right, Sweetie Pie?" he said. But determination having never been a quality I lacked, I just sighed and began our procession. It seemed the only thing to do at the time.
"Just wait till you see this place! It's like a storybook house!" I'd told my friends down South, flashing my three photos of the house of steps. "It's got birds and a creek and all these trees!"
"Is Kansas got trees, Amy?" my neighbor Gene asked. "That don't look like Kansas to me."
Next day, as the afternoon crept toward sunset, my books towered in unsteady stacks along the den walls, next to the boxes of steel shelves I was avoiding. I'd spent the morning putting one together in the pantry, clutching the frame between my feet while I balanced a shelf above my head with one hand and screwed down bolts with the other. At critical moments I'd call for help, and Mom would come in and hold things. With both of us jammed into that airless inner room that still reeked of, I presume, Him to whom the shrine was erected in the yard, we found ourselves twisting around each other in shapes I'd forgotten bodies could make. All that was missing was the big colored dots on the floor. "Right foot, blue! Left hand, yellow!" It might have been a parody of my adolescence, except then we weren't laughing.
Now a mizzling rain was making the paint bubble on the bookcases that Mom had painted the color of eggshells and left on the deck to dry, and the heat was torpid. She was in the kitchen, organizing my too many pots and pans, and I was traipsing across the deck, down the steps, over the ramp, and into the U-Haul, shouldering the last of my stuff. I dropped a final armload of computer cables onto the pile in the middle of the den and dug through the boxes to find a light bulb for the lamp.
The bulb found, and the lamp, shadeless, turned on to light the deepening dusk inside, I went back out to lock the U-Haul for the night. The drizzle was letting up. The wind was warm. Fireflies drifted over the yard along the line of trees to the south, and I leaned against the truck cab and watched them, and listened to the cicadas, and breathed in the fragrance of rich earth beneath damp grass. You can grow anything in this soil, somebody had told me.
After a while, Mom called me in for supper, and for a moment I heard an old lullaby sound in her voice and felt an extraordinary tenderness for her, and it made me a child again, as if all the difficult years of getting from one part of my life to the next, and the difficult days of moving from one place to the next, had rolled back, leaving before me only a friendly, unwritten space.
Well, at least, I thought, at least there's that.
I whistled for Max, and he came rustling through the underbrush from some far point in the woods. When I turned back to the house, the single lamplight was glowing yellow behind the many curtainless windows, casting into the yard pale paths like stories that stretched outward at every angle until they faded into the distance.
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