Down the familiar stretch of Wisconsin 43
Kaleidescoping the glaring taillights of
Semi-trucks and four door sedans
The ache growing in the small of my back
Is like the ache for cobalt expanse of
I ruminate on cascading autumn days,
Petite Nuage with
Sweet lavender honey and wild raspberries,
And fussing with the stubborn typewriter
My grandfather gifted me on his father’s passing
I imagine the soundtrack of my drive
With ambient growls of synthesizer tones
And simmering notes, cool and clear:
The howl of the misty wind through the tiny-cracked window
And the buzz of the refrigerator unit on the roof,
The oscillating thump of heavy wheels passing
Over patches of cracked asphalt.
The sun peeks through at intervals,
Reaching down like fingers in a murky pond,
Trying to reach for a slipped-off ring at the bottom.
Cathedrals, smokestacks, and bell towers strain
Upward across Milwaukee, green fronds of
Seaweed, and I am a slithering catfish,
Sliding through the mud, inexorably onward.
// J Rutzen
// A Sutherland
The key slid into the lock as it always had, yet somehow it sounded more hollow. As I opened the front door to my family home, a cold gust hit my face. The place was empty and dark, having sat uninhabited for months. After dropping me off for college, my parents had packed up and left for another country, leaving me to spend long weekends, vacations, and breaks alone in the five-bedroom home we once all shared. For as long as possible I avoided coming back, tagging along with friends or staying in my dorm room. All of this to not confront what now lay before me.
As I stepped into the cold home, my footsteps echoed. The house was now a cavern, emptied of all but a few possessions. Wandering down the dark hallway, the silence seemed to lay heavy upon the rooms. It enveloped them, like a large dust cover, holding the shape of what I remembered, but devoid of any character.
When my family was here it was always filled to the brim with noise and sound. I would wake on Saturday mornings to the cacophony of siblings echoing off the walls. My brother and sisters arguing over the bathroom, racing up and down the stairs, knocking pictures off the wall and blaming each other for the damage. They were younger then, and the house felt small and cramped with bodies. Slowly, though, the place began to expand and quiet descended. My siblings left, one after the other, and with their departure a piece of the house went with them. A room would be empty, a table would be less crowded, and the noise of the house would fade little. It hit my mother the hardest. She would stand in the doorways, looking at the abandoned beds. “It’s so quiet” she would say, though I paid her sorrow no mind back then.
All was silent and unfamiliar, suspicious and discomforting. I churned in the bed trying to make peace with it, but couldn’t get comfortable. I rose and paced the halls, the darkness following me like a specter, crushing me with its emptiness. I couldn’t shake it. I grabbed my keys and left.
It was midnight then, so I drove to the only place that was still open. The gas station attendant looked genuinely surprised to see me. Entering the shop, I reveled in this unlikely oasis. The shop was brightly lit and full of color. There were rows of sodas bursting with color, puffed up packages of chips, and bags of candy that made a satisfying crinkling sound when touched. Fleeing the silence, I embraced this space and felt at ease. Strolling through aisles, I felt the attendant’s eyes following me. He seemed uneasy. Stalling, I pretended to read the backs of labels and judge their contents. I only wanted to buy time, to soak up the way fluorescent lights gleamed off the packages and listen to the constant hum of the ice cream cooler. These little luxuries I had never noticed were so dear to me now. I could tell the attendant was growing impatient. I placed my selection on his counter: wasabi almonds, snowballs, and white wine. He grimaced and handed me a thin plastic bag, holding the things I neither wanted nor needed. Suddenly a dread came over me when I realized I was supposed to leave. With no other place open I had to return.
Arriving at the house, I took a deep breath and pushed the door in. I glide across the floor, not letting emptiness seize me, and perched myself on the arm of the couch with my gas station haul. I sat there stoic, looking out over the empty room. Downing mouthfuls of sugary wine, I threw snowball and almond wrappers to the ground like bait, daring the emptiness to meet me. As my stomach began to churn, I began to feel dizzy. Slowly slipping into intoxication, I became more resolute than ever. I sat there waiting, alert, aware—forcing myself to remember what the place was, what I wished it to be again.
Staring into the darkness, I thought of many things in this strange, altered state. I thought of how my mother and I cried as she walked me to my freshman dorm, my throat choking on all I wanted to say to her. I thought of the conversation around the dinner table, when it became known that I wasn’t the only one to be leaving in the fall. Straining, I tried to recall the placement of all our things—chairs, sofas, tables—what pictures were hung near them, what dents they had, how many meals were eaten around them. I wanted to conjure the smell of my mother’s cooking and the sound of her low humming as she stirred a boiling pot. Staring into the emptiness, I tried to revive what was lost and to reclaim what had been. I thought if I were resolved enough, my eyes would pierce through the darkness and my memories would fill the house once more. Pushing to resurrect it all, I saw the dark begin to change.
The early light of dawn began to creep through the house. It moved across the floor and onto the wall. As the sun started to fill the house, an ease came over me. With the space now illuminated, I could see the house for what it was. The foreignness gave way to a sad familiarity. The house was as it had always been, just lonely now. Without its occupants it was left a cold empty husk. Not a menace, but a mourner lamenting the loss of its family. Succumbing to the wine and fatigue, I sank to the floor. Lying amongst the discarded wrappers, I felt the old wood floor with my hands. It was cool and smooth, well worn by the steps of others.
As I traced over the wood grain, I felt new sympathy for the house. We were both missing the same people and longed for the same time. The oppressive emptiness was nothing but longing, the same longing I held within myself. In the dust, I traced a heart with my finger and slowly wrote the names of each family member. Moving back up to the bed I looked at my small shrine to what had been. I realized then how much we had lost, how our family may never be together as it once was. My heart sank, but there was nothing to be done. Staring at my work, my eyes grew heavy and closed. The morning light to stretch across my bed. Feeling its warmth, I lay my head down on the pillow and rested.