1. Stop being afraid.
Connie Nixon’s house starts talking to her at 9:51 p.m. on a Wednesday.
She has just finished pawing through her heart and examining the long lines of desire that parade through her body like an endless roll of string and tangle in a knot inside her chest. Her left hand is holding the knot, loosened briefly by means of the pen in her right hand that has translated her dreams into the list. The 48th list. Connie Franklin Nixon’s list of dreams.
Connie’s list-making tonight has been assisted by one and then two glasses of red wine–a really nice dry cabernet from Australia–and she is trying to decide if she should have another glass. This would push her way over the halfway mark, as far as her usual alcohol consumption goes, and into a semi-critical “what the hell” state that she associates with the early stages of drunken folly, Saturday nights on her sister’s back porch and the good old days, which did not last long enough.
Three seconds of hesitation is enough and Connie Nixon rolls over, lets the pages of her list fold against each other, drops the pen, grabs the gorgeous dark red bottle off her book-laden nightstand and pours the wine into the rounded, clear glass so close to the top that she has to lean over and sip it before she can actually pick up the glass.
That exact moment is when she hears the house speaking.
“What?” she whispers out loud. As if she is answering the walls that seem to be speaking. “What did you say?”
She pauses. Her top lip is swimming in wine and her bottom lip has wedged itself against the smooth glass, her breath in a holding pattern. Six years alone in this house have left her on more-than-intimate terms with every squeak, roof sway, late-night foundation settling creak, gutter birds, falling limbs, and an assortment of other sounds that are as familiar to Connie as a rushing waterfall might be to someone on an enchanted vacation. Even before those six years, when the girls were still romping through the house, climbing in through unlocked windows after curfew and sliding their tricycles, bicycles, cars and motorcycles into the garage door from dawn to dusk, there was a rhythm to the sounds, a symphony of life, a ballet of movement that signaled a house settling in around its family, the arms of the walls wrapping them close and keeping the rain and snow off the beds and dressers and the kitchen table.
The sound Connie hears now, however, is a distant voice, a faint indistinguishable rumble that tangos itself into a kind of hum. It is highlighted by a hint of music, as if someone has left a radio playing at the far edge of the basement. It echoes and sways as if it is about to snuff itself out and, when Connie pauses, unmoving, not frightened but a bit confused about its origin, the sound does not change or grow or stop or turn into something else. “Maybe,” she speculates. ”Maybe the list has started to speak.”
Connie drinks half the glass in one gulp and swings her legs off the edge of the bed. Accustomed to sleeping in whatever she happens to be wearing at the moment she falls into bed, Connie makes certain that if she has to avert disaster she can do so with at least partial dignity. When she looks down, she sees that she has on an old navy-colored t-shirt that will at the very least come to her knees when she stands up and, peeking out from the left side, where she has her foot raised, a pair of cotton underwear, original color unknown, present color something just this side of an old gray sock, frayed like hell along the edge of the stretched elastic.
Peril, disaster, trauma, the unknown–none of those things totally frighten Connie Nixon. She adores silence, most unexpected events, the way the simple shift of the wind can change everything. Death rolls into her hands on a daily basis at her hospital–she says “her” as if she owns the place and indeed she has worked there as if she has owned it for 33 years, night and day, tirelessly, with passion and compassion. Her real fears, the ones she has acknowledged, have been translated into the list she now holds in her hand.
“Ha,” she thinks, standing quietly at the side of her bed and totally focused on the sound she hears. “What could this be?”
She pauses there, unafraid, hands on hips, listening. The whisper of sound returns. Connie smiles to herself because she thinks the walls may be singing. When she lifts her head, she can see her reflection in the mirror that has hung above the old black dresser for 28 years. “I’m not dead and just imagining this,” she tells herself out loud. Mystified by the now-constant humming, Connie listens hard. She decides to check every corner of the house.
First she leans across her nightstand, missing the lamp and maneuvering past the books, places her hands against the wall, and then turns her head to press her ear flat against it. She listens. Hears nothing.
Stepping over stacks of books, a pile of magazines, three empty water glasses and last week’s wine bottle, Connie manages to get to the door of her own bedroom without falling over a box or impaling herself on a coat hanger, one of her ex-husband’s leftover baseball trophies, or what she has decided to call “the endless stacks of shit.”
“It’s a lifetime of shit,” her best friend Frannie O’Brien has told her 16 times since Connie started making huge donations to the local Goodwill store six months ago. “This purging isn’t going to happen overnight. Get used to it.”
Connie counts on Frannie, or O’Brien, as she prefers to be called, to say it like it is no matter where they are, who is in the room, or whose feelings might get hurt. A psychiatric nurse who refuses to quit smoking even as she passes Connie’s intensive care unit and its coughing patients numerous times each week, O’Brien has worked with Nurse Nixon, as she loves to call Connie, for 26 years, swears like a Hells Angel or a high school junior, and plays poker with her nephews, the neighbor boys and six guys at the senior center three times a month. “Remember,” O’Brien is always quick to add, “even if it’s a lifetime of shit, it’s still shit and you need to get rid of it.” This from a six-foot-tall Afro-American woman who married a short Irishman named Daniel, throwing the entire redheaded Catholic Irish family and the entire blackheaded Catholic Afro-American family into parallel cultural comas; who attends church herself more religiously than her rosary-saying mother-in-law; who produced two strapping Afro-Irish sons, and who has definitely not thrown away so much as a toothpick or plastic bag in the last 15 years. “Shit,” O’Brien is quick to say in her own defense, “is shit only if you don’t think you will ever use it again.”
The baseball trophies are obviously shit, Connie decides, as she pushes one over with her toe and turns into the hall at the end of her now trendy 1960s ranch house. “Go figure,” her real estate broker told her when she dropped off the papers five weeks ago. “Young couples love these houses. They turn them into art deco retro masterpieces and they want to live just like you did–you know, the June Cleaver kind of deal–when you first moved in here. They add a bathroom in the basement, get a Weber grill, and have another baby.”
“June Cleaver, my ass,” is what Connie wanted to say. “June Cleaver didn’t put herself through nursing school by working full-time and trying constantly not to get pregnant. She didn’t suffer through the night shift for five years so someone would always be there with the kids, probably never mowed a lawn or shoveled the driveway in her life, and never realized until the mid-’70s that the Beaver was destined to be gay. My God, the kid wore patent leather shoes, parted his hair on the side and carried his books to school in his arms. Today the Beav would be on ‘Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.’ ”
The house murmured her out of the 1960s and into the short hall–nothing unusual there–past the two smaller bedrooms where more boxes of shit sat waiting for transportation to their new destinations, into the living room that was still untouched so Connie could make believe one part of her life was still intact. Connie went through the dining room, which she’d enlarged herself one rare afternoon off when, sick of the tiny kitchen, she had walked into the garage to find a sledgehammer, knocked a hole through the plaster and announced to her then-husband Roger, “Now will you knock out the wall like I’ve asked you to for the past three years?” Connie laughed whenever she stood in the spot where the wall used to divide the kitchen and the dining room. Sometimes she stood in that spot eight times a day and she laughed every single time. Sometimes, when she just needed to laugh, she stood there, too, and it always seemed to work.
It wasn’t long after the wall-bashing incident that Connie realized she could have set up a couple of strengthening beams and knocked out the wall without asking for help from a single person, especially her husband. It was less than a year later, when she ripped out the old carpeting one Saturday night while Roger was fishing, as she was kneeling on the bare floor with carpet nails jammed between her lips and pounding in the new padding, that she counted up the hours she spent with her husband and without him. Something that felt like the size and weight of a bowling ball moved through her heart and lodged in her stomach. “Sex,” she told herself, spitting out the nails into her hand, “is the one thing left I thought I needed a husband for these past few years, but I can probably figure out how to do that myself too. He’s never even here, for crying out loud.” The rest of that afternoon, pounding, ripping, and working as a mother-referee to three teenaged daughters, she thought of nothing but her marriage and how it seemed as if she had suddenly passed through some kind of narrow tunnel that only had room for one person–just her.
From the Trade Paperback edition.