The day grew long legs while I was busy frittering away the hours. I was so accustomed to hurling myself from the bed at an early hour that I wasn’t sure my enthusiasm for a long walk would meet me outside so late in the day. I was wrong, though. Even though it was Nov 19, it was warm enough for a brisk walk, even at 4 p.m. The sun was slowly dropping toward the horizon. Its orange glow made me squint as I hurried along the leaf-strewn trail. I felt as if I could walk for ten miles and that the receding sun was being converted directly into propellant for my feet. The recognition of my initial reluctance to take a walk reminded me that once started, few walks fail to yield positive moments.
As I passed the house I had christened “hoarder house,” its yard still seemed like an abandoned junkyard. I’ve written about the hoarder house once before. Its existence had surprised me, so close to the modern new homes and bright recently-built park. I counted no fewer than five boats, eleven vehicles, and at least forty appliances scattered through the unkempt yard. Even the grass seemed to have given up, trading its light brown hue for a dingy, decaying gray. The pile had grown so unmanageable that I couldn’t see much of the front of the house as I approached it from the city limits. Last summer, I could smell the contents of the yard as I strolled past. I used street view maps to look back in time and found myself staring at a mostly empty yard. That the yard became so cluttered so quickly was a surprise.
Reaching the sign that indicated “NO turnaround, private property” a few hundred feet past the hoarder house, I turned and began my trek back. The road dead-ended a little further along, and despite its proximity to the city limits, something primal in the back of my mind stopped me from walking to the end of the gravel road. As I approached the hoarder house on my return, I noticed smoke slowly escaping the dilapidated chimney at the end of the house closest to me. I didn’t see smoke when I had passed the house the first time. At this point, it was just a few minutes shy of sundown, which was going to occur a little after five that afternoon. The orange tint to the air had deepened, and the air’s chill was beginning to feel like the inside of a refrigerator door when first opened. While I prefer the early morning sun’s desolate greeting, some sunsets evoke a deep, peaceful feeling in me. The evening walk felt like a slice of stolen time, and I realized that I hadn’t once thought about how far I had walked.
I approached the cluttered driveway of the house. I saw what I thought was a cat jumping up and down in a bare spot in the grass near the front steps and probably hunting mice in the debris. After a few more seconds, I realized it might be a human arm rising from a prone position. My pulse quickened. As I passed the rusted barrels obstructing a clear view of the house, I could see an elderly lady. She had fallen off the steps, her legs tangled under her, and her messy silver hair scattered around her face like shorn feathers. Her right arm moved up and down while her left arm remained immobile. I ran toward the porch, dodging debris and trash as I neared the fallen woman. I felt a sharp pain in my right forearm as a sliver of metal pierced my skin and cut me deeply. The metal shard was protruding from the edge of a small boat. I knew I was bleeding. For the time being, I ignored it and ran the few steps remaining to the porch.
Kneeling, I put my hand on the woman’s exposed left arm. Her flesh was cold. Had I not seen her moving, I would have been sure that she was dead. I pushed the hair away from her face, expecting some unseen injury. “Ma’am! Are you okay?” I shook her more harshly than I had intended.
I looked up toward the closed door above both me and then the small porch steps. When I looked back, the woman was staring at me, both eyes open. I almost screamed. Her eyes were clouded and silvery. Her lips began to move, although no words escaped her mouth.
“Hold on. I’ll call an ambulance.” I looked directly into the woman’s unsettling silvery eyes as I said it, to comfort her.
Her right arm came up, and her fingers encircled my left wrist. “No,” she croaked, her voice barely discernible. “Please. Help. In the house.”
Lifting her and getting her in the house was momentarily overshadowed by the idea of going inside this house at all. I had thought many times about how terrible it must be inside there. The place seemed to be the embodiment of decay. On previous walks, I could smell the presence of the house and yard from the road. I hesitated and considered calling an ambulance anyway. As I looked at the woman’s face, though, I knew that I wouldn’t call. It seemed like this wasn’t her first serious fall. I wondered what might have happened to her had I not wandered by on an impromptu walk.
Without her telling me, I knew her left arm was almost useless to her. I crouched and put my right arm under hers and pulled. She feebly pushed with one of her legs, and she wobbled up. Oddly, she smelled of vanilla and cinnamon.
We took the three steps up the porch one at a time, without any hurry. I grabbed the broken door handle with my left arm even though I knew my right arm, which supported her, was probably leaving a bloody trail across the fallen woman’s back as the cut on my arm continued to pulse in pain.
I couldn’t get the door to open, even as I pushed hard.
“Hard. Push!” croaked the woman. I leaned in and pushed with more force than I intended. The door popped open, and before I could stop us, we both fell inside. I felt the crunch and fold of paper as I tumbled in.
I resisted the urge to scramble upright, hoping our unintentionally gymnastic entrance didn’t further injure the woman. I rolled her over to her back. Her hair looked like a silver mop blown by a malicious wind. I leaned over and pulled her up. As I looked around the room, I was surprised by how few furnishings were in the living room. The floors were covered with newspapers. I shuddered to imagine what was beneath the multiple layers. A couch sat on the far left, and at least six armchairs were on the right. None of them matched one another. I moved toward the chair furthest from the door as I carefully pulled the woman along with me. Cups, saucers, and papers surrounded the chair. I knew from experience that almost all hoarders tend to make a nest in the spot where they spend the most personal time.
I helped the woman turn and let her go a bit too soon. As she fell into the chair, I heard a ‘whoosh,’ followed by a high-pitched squeal which turned out to be a startled tortoise-shell cat fleeing in surprise. It ran through the doorway near the fireplace. I noted no fire in the fireplace but didn’t understand why that seemed to bother me. While I couldn’t see into the next room, I could hear things moving, though, and I wasn’t certain whether the sounds were from mice, cats, or some strange thing better left unbothered.
Not wanting to leave the woman until I knew she was safe, I reached under the lampshade and attempted to turn on the lamp next to her chair. My hand ran across a mass of cobwebs. I quickly snatched my hand back. The old woman cackled as she reached across and brushed her hand on the lamp. It turned on immediately.
“Son, you can call me Dolores.” Her voice sounded like a broken drawl, one accustomed to fatigue.
“Nice to meet you, Dolores, and sorry about the circumstances.” I moved to sit on one of the other five chairs, trying to pose myself as little as possible across its front cushion. As I sat, I could smell the dust and years of neglect rise out of the fabric.
For several minutes we sat in silence. My mind was asking several questions, none of which did I dare utter. I wasn’t sure how much of her condition was chronic and how much might have been exacerbated this afternoon in her latest fall. I remembered the cut on my arm. It was now just bloody and drying across my forearm, although it still throbbed. It didn’t occur to me that I should leave, so I sat, in silence, waiting for some sign of what to do.
“Fetch me that album off the shelf there. The one with the purple tassel,” Delores said. Her voice had substantially cleared up. I stood up and carefully placed one foot in front of the other as I crossed the room. As I pulled it from the edge of the shelf, I realized it was a photo album. A purple tassel dangled from within its pages.
I handed it to her and lowered it slowly so that the weight of it wouldn’t surprise her. She placed it on her lap. Instead of opening it, she asked me to pull a worn stool over from near the door. Though it was well-used, it was dark black and had a faint carving in the top; whether it was a wolf or a dog, I couldn’t tell. Someone had undoubtedly made it with their own hands. I picked it up and placed it near her, and sat on it. It was strange that I didn’t hesitate to sit close to her.
She opened the album. Inside the first page was a large photograph of a mostly smiling family. Across the top, it read, “Fising Family 1922.” She pointed at a young girl in the front, probably five years old. “That’s me, sonny. I was a happy girl.” I did the math. The little girl in the black and white photo was smiling as she gripped the left leg of the man standing next to her. Dolores was somewhere around 100 years old now.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Today is my birthday! Nov 19.” I was finding it hard to believe that she would be alone at that age.
Dolores turned to the next page, reciting names. “My sister Georgie. My brother George. My mom, Georgie Mae Nador. My dad, George Wilson Fising. He was born in Romania but was adopted by someone coming to America. His real family was wealthy and sent him here.” She continued to turn the pages. I found myself looking intently at all the strangers in her album, imagining the one hundred years they documented.
She paused. “My son George. My only child who survived childbirth. He had seventeen kids. Can you believe it?” The next picture was of George, probably taken in the 1970s. Kids were sitting, standing, and crouching in every direction. “He had 47 grandchildren. What a wonderful life.”
“Where does he live now?” I whispered.
“He died in a fire on Christmas night many years ago. A good life, no regrets. He was the spitting image of my husband. My husband ran off the day George was born. He couldn’t take watching another child die. We lost nine kids before George was born and survived. I know how he felt, so I never begrudged him leaving like that. It was a relief, actually.” She sighed, undoubtedly picturing her husband in her thoughts.
We sat, slowly looking at every picture. Dolores occasionally commented. As she turned to the last picture, I could see that it was a snapshot of a very old man. He had a high hat in one hand and a cane in the other. He was smiling outrageously at the camera. Underneath the picture, someone had scribbled, “Yikes!”
“That’s my dad, George. That’s the day he died. He died on his 100th birthday, as spry as someone forty years younger. All his life, he joked that the Fising family in Romania was so wealthy because they all lived to be over 100 years old. He loved saying “Yikes” every time we turned around. We would often tell each other “Yikes” instead of “I love you.” It was a way of reminding us that life was just as many sparks and dismay as having a good time. But lord, we lived extraordinary lives.” Dolores wiped at her eyes with her right arm. It struck me that Dolores had, indeed, lived a proud life.
We sat and let the light diminish around us. As Dolores shared stories, I felt as if history itself were sitting in the room with us, cleverly hiding its presence. I pulled my cellphone out and was surprised to see that it was 7:30 and that we had been looking at pictures for over 2 hours. I didn’t want to pry, so I asked her if there was anything she needed. “No, I’m going to sit here a spell, sonny, and let the dark catch my thoughts.” The way she said it told me that she learned the phrase decades ago.
“Dolores,” I said, “Would it be okay with you if I come back tomorrow afternoon and look at another photo album with you?”
“Oh yes, that would be divine.” Dolores crookedly smiled. “Can you bring snack cakes,” she asked, her voice trailing.
I reached out and touched her hand as I stood, grabbing the stool to move it back where I had found it.
“Tomorrow it is, and yes, for the treats,” I said, trying to get outside before I started crying.
As soon as I opened the door, I realized it was dark. Pulling out my phone, I used its glow to slowly step around the obstacles in the yard and make my way back to the road. Once I reached it, I looked back and could see no lights on inside. Whether Delores used the time it took me to traverse the obstacles of her yard to cover the crevices or her windows or turned off all the lights, the idea of her seated in the living room alone bothered me.
The next afternoon, I finished work, and instead of parking at the park nearby to walk over, I drove and left my car a few hundred feet from Dolores’ hoarder house. I brought out a package of snack cakes and walked up to the house. After navigating the yard, I knocked loudly on the door several times. Finally, I heard a voice say, “Come on in.” I pushed the door hard to knock it loose, and it popped open.
“Sonny!” Delores said with energy. “I didn’t think you’d make it back.” Delores was wearing the same thin floral dress she had on the day before. She was seated in the same chair. Had I not know it was impossible, I would have believed she had remained in the same position since last night.
I handed her the bag of desserts, and as she clumsily looked inside, she laughed. “For some reason, I thought you’d bring me a fruitcake.” She looked up at me.
“I love fruitcakes, Dolores,” I said.
“I had a thought you might, sonny. I haven’t had one in what seems like a long spell.” I made a mental note to bring her a fruitcake. Or five. She placed the bag of cakes on the floor next to her.
Dolores asked me to bring her over another photo album, so I fumbled with the shelf’s contents until I pulled down an album with a green tassel. “My grandkids,” Dolores commented.
I pulled up the stool and sat. Delores once again began flipping the pages carefully, adding an anecdote or story about each one. Time stood still in that hoarded living room. Unlike yesterday, Delores seemed energetic and intensely created a whispered narrative of dozens of unfamiliar faces. I envied her life, though, the one cataloged in that album.
Her voice seemed to mimic a minor-key melody played on only black keys of an old piano. When she spoke of some of her family and the memories, I could discern a lilting pattern and uplift to her voice.
After she finished and closed the album, she told me some of the stories her father shared with her, many of them from Romania. Her love of fruitcake and minciunele were born from inside jokes she and her father had shared. “Never eat minciunele or fruitcake when you’re sad!” he would tell me.” For a moment, I could smell baking pastry dough pulled from a hot oven.
We both sat, staring into the past. As was the case yesterday, I was unaware of how much time had passed. I looked at my cellphone. Four hours had passed.
I stood and took the green tassel photo album from Dolores, and I placed it back on the shelf.
“Dolores, Thanksgiving is a couple of days away, the 23rd. I can’t come by tomorrow, but I’d love to come to see you on the holiday if you don’t mind. I’ll bring you a fruitcake and some fixings, if you’d like.” I couldn’t imagine her not being with family, but I was committed to avoid the sin of prying.
“Ooh, I’d love that, sonny.” She smiled.
An overwhelming urge to hug her possessed me, so I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her. She smelled like cinnamon again.
“I forgot what it feels like to be hugged,” she said as I squeezed.
I managed to get outside before my eyes filled with tears. Over one hundred years of life under her belt and dozens of family members in the world, and yet I was the one connecting with her. I stopped at the market on the way home and bought two small fruitcakes for my Thanksgiving visit. One for her and one for me. Or both for her, if she insisted.
Three days later, I again parked on the roadside a distance away. As I came up to the infamously cluttered driveway, I noted a newer Escalade was parked with its bumper up against the debris littering the front of the yard.
“Family is here after all,” I thought to myself. Though I was glad to know she had company, I felt a little put off by their presence.
I walked through the yard, and as I was about to knock on the door, it opened in front of me.
An older lady stood at the door, a mask hanging at her neck. Beneath it, I noted an ornate cross with a diamond inset.
“Yes. Can I help you?” She asked.
“I’m here to see Delores. We made arrangements to have fruitcake today.” I smiled.
“When might you have made those arrangements, sir?” She looked angry.
“Two days ago. Is she here? Is she okay?” I was getting an uneasy feeling.
“No, she’s not okay – and neither are you. I don’t know what game you’re playing. I’m Dolores’ granddaughter. She died a year ago on Nov 19.” Suddenly, I felt dizzy.
The next thing I was aware of, someone was shaking me and shouting.
“Hey, are you okay? What the hell? You passed out.” The lady who had answered the door was leaning over me. I felt the cold ground under me.
I rolled to prop myself up and sit upright on the ground. There were pieces of tools scattered all around me, all rusted. I had narrowly missed hitting a pile of pipes when I fell off the porch. It occurred to me that I had fallen almost in the very spot where Dolores had dropped a few days ago.
After a minute, I shakily stood up.
Delores’ granddaughter must have felt responsible for my fainting as she motioned for me to wobble my way up the stairs and inside. Without thinking, I grabbed the wolf stool by the door and sat on it.
The woman handed me a bottle of water. I opened it and drank almost all of it in one continuous gulp.
“I’m Georgie. Who are you?” Her voice was softer now, although I could tell she was a little concerned that I might be crazy.
“My name is X. I live a couple of miles away.” Realizing that my name probably didn’t help, I added, “And I met Dolores for the first time a couple of evenings ago. She told me a lot of stories.” I didn’t know what to say, in part because I had never fainted as an adult.
“I’m sorry. Dolores died Nov 19, 2016… X. There’s no way you saw her a couple of days ago.”
Before she could continue, I interrupted. “Delores Fising, born Nov 19, 1917, to Georgie Mae Nador and George Wilson Fising, born in Romania. Dolores was married and had nine miscarriages until her only child, George, was born. He had seventeen kids and forty-seven grandchildren, of which you are one.”
Georgie’s face slowly took on a shocked and confused look.
“I don’t know how you know all of that, X, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s been dead over a year. I’m here to hand the place over to someone who wants the property. Today was the only day I could drive here.” She waited for me to reply.
“Get the purple tassel photo album off the shelf, and I’ll tell you a few stories.” I was floating in a cloud of confused bewilderment.
As Georgie retrieved the album, she handed it to me and sat on one of the chairs nearby. I opened the book and pointed. “This is Dolores, a happy child. Her father, mother, and family. I turned the page and loosely shared the same anecdotes Delores told me. Before turning the last page, I looked at Georgie and said, “Yikes!” “and then turned the page. This pictured is your grandfather George on his 100th birthday, the day he passed away. He taught the entire family to say “Yikes!” as an endearment.”
Georgie’s face blanched as I finished, and she stood up and retrieved the green tassel photo album and handed it to me. I opened it and recited a dozen family stories.
“Your father George died in a fire on Christmas day. Dolores said those sad times will always be held in check because your family was afflicted with happiness. I think that’s how she put it.” I closed the second photo album and sat in silence. “Afflicted with happiness.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. You don’t sound crazy. But there’s no way your story is true, X.” She shook her head, trying to escape the feeling of underlying magic in that dirty living room.
“I’m going to need to think about this. Is that okay?” Before letting me answer, she stood up and found a short pencil and a scrap of paper. “This is where Dolores is buried. Go see her.” She handed me another scrap of paper and said, “Write down your phone number for me, and if I can bring myself to do it, I’ll call you.”
I noted my phone number. As I handed it to Georgie, she grabbed my hand and clasped it between hers. She was looking intently into my eyes. “They passed down stories about how superstitious the family in Romania was. Strange goings-on, probably just stories to spook us. It’s working. I’m spooked. Dolores had a knack of knowing things and always told everyone that life never ended, at least not the invisible part.”
The next morning, I called in sick at work. I had resisted using my ancestry skills to look for Dolores digitally. As I’m an early riser, by 6 a.m. I was driving, following the unknown roads east of town. Several missed and wrong turns later, I found myself going down an uncertain dirt path around 7 a.m. The sun was just peeking above the distant horizon. Next to me in the passenger’s seat sat Dolores’ fruitcake. I couldn’t drive any further as the dried grass and weeds made it impossible to see what might be found underneath. The wind had subsided, and the cold enveloped me as I exited my car, fruitcake in hand.
I crossed through the sparse trees and dead foliage, dodging stray limbs as I walked. Ahead, I saw the broken teeth of graying tombstones rising from dead grass. The cemetery wasn’t plotted like most rectangular gravesites. There was no uniformity between rows, nor interval space between the stones. Limbs and piles of blown leaves littered everything. Guessing, I’d say there were only thirty marked graves.
As I approached, I could see the name “Fising” engraved or marked in haphazard fonts along the stones. It seemed as if all the stones were marked with that surname. I walked along the first row, searching for signs of a recent grave. The newest one I found was already fifteen years old. Fearing I had missed the resting place of Dolores, I turned to look back, and that’s when her spot caught my eye.
Stepping hastily across the cemetery, I made a straight line to the most massive tree in the rear of the grave area. Someone had piled sandstones in a rough circle around a tombstone, extending seven or so feet from the headstone.
Her stone was a large native rock, carefully inscribed with the following: “Dolores. Lived 100 years and several lifetimes.”
Despite its primitive construction, it was a beautiful spot in an unspoiled area. I tentatively stepped on the sandstones to reach the tombstone. I opened the fruitcake and unwrapped it, placing it along one of the headstone’s smoother top sections.
As I stood up, the wind picked up, dragging rustling leaves from the fields and trees across the cemetery. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I turned to look behind me, instinctively. I felt foolish. The sun was just peeking over the distant trees, illuminating this magical place.
Just as suddenly, I felt as if someone were standing behind me, behind the headstone. I turned back and saw that no one had approached. The fruitcake, however, was gone. Only a couple of crumbs stuck to the stone.
“Yikes,” I whispered, knowing that I’d never see the explanation for what I’d just witnessed.
“Dear Dolores, yikes,” I whispered again as the swirl of leaves covered my feet in oak leaves. I waited for a reply I knew would never come.
Dolores’ granddaughter never called me. I like to think that she recognized that I was telling the truth about Dolores. In such a family, magic would undoubtedly survive.
From time to time, I’ll catch myself uttering the word “Yikes” to those around me, especially those times which evoke a feeling of connection with them. They look at me quizically, and I just smile. I’m cautious about using Delores’ magic too often.
I remember all of Dolores’ stories, each one of them. The faces in her family pictures talk to me sometimes, telling me the stories in soft voices. I think she infected me with her memory and of her life so that it might survive. Some nights, I wake up with the odd smell of Romanian forests in my nose.
Yikes, to each of you.
I have not walked past the hoarder house since. While I am not superstitious, I’m uncertain what lesson was given to me three years ago.
I wrote this story in November 2017. Though imperfections found in it are genuinely mine, this story came to me in one balloon, wrapped in a single moment, as I stared at the house that inspired it. It is strange how people who never existed can haunt my imagination. I put the story out of my mind and went to bed that night. To say that the fall night stretched into a swirl of years in my sleeping mind would be an understatement. I woke up the next morning as if I’d been unwillingly snatched from another person’s life.