Just like that, my romance with the night was over. A wave of adrenalized fear swept me up the steps and past him into the lobby. My teeth clacked and shivers wracked me. Whatever warm fuzziness our drinking binge had afforded me was gone. Nick handed me a beach towel and crossed the room to crouch at the fireplace. We had stacked some of the dry wood from the porch in it earlier, and now he stuffed it with crisped leaves and old newspaper from the litter in the room and set a flame to it. Sweetish smoke rose and infused the air, then the welcome crackle of burning oak. The fire leaped; we stretched our hands out to it.
I emerged into the hot fog of beer, grease, and cheap aftershave that defined Friday night at MeeMaw’s, and for a moment, I was sure the storm had arrived to knock out the electricity. The place was dim, lit by flickering candles, and strings of blinking white and blue Christmas lights festooned along the dirty junction of the walls and acoustic tile ceiling. The juke crooned out a slow country ballad in the requisite twang at full volume, and couples thronged the dance floor, swaying and groping in the summer gloom.
MeeMaw’s Tavern gleamed in the hazy twilight, the flaws in its weather-bitten white paint smoothed away by storm light and the romantic flush of neon beer signs. A low building, it appeared to rise from the depths of a colossal pothole. The dirt lot, jammed with pick-up trucks, funneled toward the crooked concrete slab of its porch where a single caged bulb flickered over the screen door. We parked under the boughs of an elderly oak, far enough away to be beyond the reach of the light, but close enough to feel the tremble in the chassis from the rocking juke inside the tavern. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" spilled out on a buzz of laughter and raucous conversation. We climbed from the Jeep into the electric air. Above us, a growl of thunder competed with the tavern din, a ponderous sound like that of a piano rolling across a marble floor, and heat lightning cracked the indigo sky.
It’s the end of November 2017. I am moving into Sycamore House, an 1896 late-Victorian in a small river town in rural Pennsylvania. I am moving alone, from a beautiful farm where I left the ghosts of the previous 15 years. I’ve lost people. My grandma, who raised me and spent the last 11 years of her life with me, has passed on. I am recently divorced after 25 years of marriage. I’ve lost the future I had planned and worked toward. The losses, and the break with the person I was before they happened, have nearly killed me. In fact, they have. This person walking through the door of this old house is a resurrected me, back from the brink of suicidal despair. Sycamore House has endured years of emptiness. It needs renovation. We are on the same journey, the house and I, together. This is our story.
Inside, the cabin was dim and musty. Crumbling stacks of newspapers covered every surface. The kitchen counter held a collection of dented coffee cans, some bent and shedding rust. An ancient glass coffee pot sat on a stove burner, burbling like a tar pit. I’d seen the propane tank by the side of the house. There was no electricity or running water. A hand pump rose beside the vast enameled sink. Maudie fished two chipped mugs from the depths of the sink and gave each a rub on her apron. She set them beside the stove and turned to wave a long finger at Nick.
“Your husband might want to hear this if he’s doing the driving. Preston’s place ain’t easy to find out there in the woods.”