Memory House

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Forty

 

I got a call to come back to work. An outage at the oil refinery. Four weeks, maybe five weeks. I got my welding stuff together. I couldn’t find my work boots and then I remembered they were in the trunk of my car, buried under the beach chairs. 

This call was good. I was out of money. 

I’d been unemployed for three months. I scraped by doing any odd job I could beg. I worked one weekend razing a small bungalow to the ground, clumsily operating a rented bulldozer. And I helped my friend set off some dynamite near his farm, to collapse the entrance to a cavern he worried children would wander into. I recorded some voiceovers for a podcast on sleep in a studio on 9th Avenue. I sold all my old Levis to a woman in Belarus.

The biggest help though, financially (and spiritually) was that I started teaching a writing class out of my apartment. Teaching was the best job I’d ever had. It was joyous work and it’d paid two of my mortgage payments.

Here’s how the writing class happens:

Eight people come to my apartment in Jersey City, Tuesdays, seven pm, ten weeks. Each week, two people get to workshop a short story or a chapter from their novel. The other six people and myself offer feedback. First, there’s a reading of the work by the author and then we go around in a circle, first pass we say the things we really like about the work and then we go around again and offer suggestions for the next draft. The author then asks us questions, and we ask the author questions. The whole time I write a bunch of stuff on a dry erase board. The following week, two different people get their pieces workshopped, and so on. By the end everybody gets to do at least three pieces. 

When I first started teaching the class, I only had one dry erase board, but then I got more serious about it and bought another one. 

Maybe if I run another workshop here, I will get a third board. 

I’d been off a construction site for so long, and was worried I wouldn’t be able to wake up at 5am. But I guess I had a lot of fear, I woke up to the alarm, got dressed and drove my car south, down the turnpike. 

A lot of the same guys that I always work with were there. Everybody except my friend who is 32 and who had a major stroke. He is out of work now too, slowly recovering from that, can’t use one of his hands yet, and his vision is messed up from blood pushing down on his cerebral artery. The other guys ask what I have been doing with my time off and I say that I have been teaching a writing class. They don’t care. Which is cool. There had been a rumor going around that I’d sold a movie to Hollywood and I was on a film set. I said, “No, I was on my couch writing a novel.” 

I heard a couple crazy stories from my coworkers. The best one was that someone we knew had been renting a room of their house out to someone random guy. He went to wake his tenant up for work, and the guy was passed out on their bedroom floor, and when he went to lightly kick the tenant awake, the tenant was hard, rigor mortis. Overdose. The homeowner loaded his kids in the car, took them to school, went and bought a large coffee at a convenience store, drank the coffee, and then called the police to report the dead man. 

“It’s weird as hell standing there in line with the coffee knowing someone’s dead in your house.” 

“Yeah, but I get it, what are you going to brew a whole pot of coffee with someone dead in the other room?”

“Early in the morning like that, just trying to start your day…”

“And you need a need a cup of coffee to talk to—”

“The police. Definitely need a cup of coffee to talk to the police.” 

We load up the pickup truck with wrenches, come alongs, chain falls, hammers, welding lead. We drive the truck across the plant and drop off the equipment at the job. I ask everybody in the truck if any of them are interested in buying a guitar. Nobody is, but they ask what kind of guitar it is. I tell them it’s a Gibson SG. I show them a picture. I tell them I’m getting rid of it cheap, I need some quick cash. “You on the shit?” they ask. I tell them no, I’m not on the shit. I’m on paying my electric bill, and putting gas in my car. I warn them though, the neck of the guitar broke off years ago, and it was repaired. It doesn’t effect the playability of the guitar, but I thought they should know. Nobody wants to buy the guitar. It’s just as well, it was the first big purchase I ever made. I’d mowed lawns for a year to get the money, over a thousand dollars. I’d had that guitar before I’d had my first car, and my first girlfriend.

At coffee break, I text the editor of this piece, “Hey man, I’m really hurting for money.” 

“Me too, man,” he writes back. 

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like I was going to ask to borrow money.” 

“Ha, no worries.” 

“I’m on a job now, and it should bring in a few good paychecks but I need to come up with some money, some good money and I think I thought of a way to do it. It involves this project. Money for both of us.” 

“What is it? Will it be a lot of labor for me? Because I’m really busy. You know I’ve got that new job.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know. You keep telling me about the new job. I get it. Anyway, I was thinking of opening up submissions.”

“For what?”

“For this novel. Open to any of the characters living in my house of memory. That place is huge. There’s over a thousand people there, probably. And we could charge like $10 a submission.”

“Submissions. Hm. To what end?”

“The winning selection gets published in the novel. Short stories. I was thinking, you know, there are some good artists trapped in the project already, and I’m sure they would want to try…”

“I’m not sure about all of this. Published in your novel? I don’t get it. Ever since the new job I’ve been having trouble understanding–”

“Winner gets half the pot, editor gets the other half the pot.” 

“Oh.”

“And we could even raise the price. Make it $20 a submission. People can send as many stories in as they want. No limit. It’d get to be a bunch of money really quickly.”

“Let me think about it.”

“I’m going to the house of memory in a little while and I’ll see how everything is going. Put some feelers out.” 

“Don’t announce anything until I make my decision. I might not want to judge a story contest, man. I barely like being the editor of the website. Too much pressure. You either make someone’s day or you ruin their month. Sometimes all at once. Am I making any sense? I don’t know. I’m okay with copyediting the last few pieces of Good Luck, but don’t want to open up a whole new can of worms. Gonna get really busy soon…” 

“Last few? There’s twenty more pieces.” 

“Twenty? Wow. I didn’t know it was going that long.” 

“You’re broke, I’m broke, let’s do this thing. You don’t want to buy a guitar, do you?”

“Sorry. Gave that kind of thing up a while ago.”

 

It was a hot August day. We were working out in the sun. I was cutting apart a vessel that did something to turn oil into gasoline, who the fuck knows. Do you? Slicing into the shell with a grinder. I’d cut through. The sparks were shooting inside the vessel, but all the product has been drained out of it. No chance of an explosion, I thought. Isolation blanks were in. Nothing to catch fire. The vessel was metal and the sparks that made it out of the bottom nozzle fell like orange snowflakes, landing on gravel. The firewatch doused the ground with a hose.

 

At lunch time, I ate a tuna fish sandwich, drank a few bottles of water. The second I was done chewing, I closed my eyes, leaned against the wall of the trailer, zoned out. 

I crashed across the rivers, scaled the hills, traversed the valleys, walked out of the maze of forest, cut across the forever field of wildflowers and swaying grass. I wore my fireproof jumpsuit, steel toe work boots, but not my hard hat or safety glasses. The sun was in my eyes. In the distance, I saw my house of memory. Half the shingles looked missing. Part of the roof had fallen in. 

I could see someone waving to me. 

As I got closer, I saw it was me. I was just a kid. My face was covered in chicken pox. I was twelve. Tall and goofy. 

Twelve year old me said to me, “You’re dirty.” 

I said, “I was working. What happened to the house? What are you doing out here.” 

“I’m just getting some air. It’s crowded in there now. Where do you work?”

I said, “An oil refinery. You’ll grow up to be a welder at an oil refinery.”

“Is it good?” 

“It’s okay. You’ll also make art, and you’ll be married and your wife will be the funniest and best person you know, and you’ll have a car, and you’ll have a cool guitar, but you’ll drop it and break it when you’re twenty. You’ll be on drugs. But they fix the guitar.” 

“Oh, yeah, I know our wife, I met her. The doors are off all the rooms now.” 

“The what?” 

We went back inside the house and it was true. Every door in my house of memory was gone. Every living memory walked free, intermingled. My grandfather was sitting on the living room couch next to himself when he was hooked up to IVs and dying, and in a chair next to them was Jane, my second girlfriend from the year 2003, seated, talking to Rae from 2005, who was wearing a green dress I hadn’t thought about in a long time. They were talking about Austin Powers, saying quotes from the movie, wondering when the Criterion Collection was going to get over itself and put out an Austin Powers boxed set. I think Rae’s dress had gotten washed away by the tide while we were messing around on a dark beach in 2008.

William was sitting in the kitchen talking to William and William and William. He was 22 and 27 and 30 and 19. 

“What happened to the doors?” I said. 

All the Williams just looked at me like I was an asshole. 

“I don’t know, maybe we just got tired of them.” 

“Well fuck.” 

I saw memories of my mother and father walk out of a different room, they were 48 and 51 instead of what they were in reality, 62 and 62. They were memories who’d left the room for the memories they belonged in and were now just drifting in conversation, no apparent stakes. I looked up and saw the sky. There were people on the roof. Kids. I recognized me and William and some of our friends from the campground. I was 10 and William was 8. The kids, I couldn’t remember their names. I couldn’t even remember what memories I knew them from. 

I looked down the hallway and saw Willie Nelson was sitting on a bed, gently strumming a guitar. He began to sing, “Blue skies, nothing but blue skies, do I see, blue skies, smiling at me, blue skies from now on….” 

Chicken Pox Bud followed me down the hallway and I thought back to what had happened when I was him. I’d been in my bedroom, sweating to death and itching to death. There was no air conditioning. I was reading a book called Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon about the end of the world. It was kind of a ripoff of The Stand, but McCammon was a cooler writer. He had a book about an American spy who infiltrated the Third Reich but he was also a werewolf. He had another book about vampires in Los Angeles who went to coke parties. My mom had walked in my room to tell me that I’d won a poster contest from the school and the next day we’d go to the mall to attend a ceremony and to pick up the award. I told her I didn’t want to go. The next day, my father came in my room and told me to put the book down and come out in the yard. He thought I needed some fresh air. We stood on the lawn. I told him I didn’t want to go and get the award for the poster contest. He said I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to, but he thought I should go. 

So we went. In the middle of the mall, there was a giant sandcastle sculpture. We walked toward it. Some teenagers saw me, and they made fun of my face, thinking it was acne. I didn’t say anything. I was really embarrassed. I didn’t want to be out in public. They said something else to me. Something cruel. I’ve blocked it out. My father heard what they said. A gang of six kids, he walked right up to them and they got scared and kept backing away. He followed them past the sand castle. He followed them past the hot pretzel stand, and past the bookstore, and past the music store, and past the candle store, and past the fountain, and the teenagers were real nervous. He walked them right out of the mall. They didn’t come back. I went and got my award. My mom and dad told me they were proud of me. They always did love me, they were nuts like that. 

I looked into another doorway and I saw myself, floating in a boat on the middle of a lake, just staring straight ahead. I said, “Are you okay?” and from the boat, I said, “I lost my glasses.” I looked like I had been weeping. I said, “I know. I remember. You’re not going to find them. You’ll have to row in. You’ll have to call mom and dad and tell them.” “I don’t want to.” “Then you’ll stay on the lake and it’ll get dark. You won’t find your glasses, believe me. I was there. I remember.” “I’ll come in.” He picked up the oars and slowly rowed the boat toward the doorway. When he was closer, I stuck my foot out so the boat spun sideways and then  helped him out of the boat and out into the hallway. I said, “How old are you?” ”Thirteen,” he said. I said “Alright, let’s see if we can find the bedroom of us when we’re fifteen. Probably can get you the spare glasses from that memory.” And on we walked. 

At the end of the hallway I found the doorway into the year I wanted. We walked together though a wake for my grandfather, and a hospital room for my mother after a car crash, and a fight after school that had happened—my friend Abe and a different kid from the block, John Wooly, fighting in the dirt. Neither Abe or John knew how to fight, so John Wooly had his brother be some kind of a boxing coach or something and Abe had me in his corner and I was a boxing coach or something too. Abe had John in a headlock. A lot of other kids were watching. This was a big after school rumble. Someone yelled, “Time!” and that was the round. The fighters came back to their coaches. I said to Abe, “The next time you get him in a headlock like that, you should just knee him in the face.” And then a minute later, when the fight resumed, Abe had John in the headlock and he looked over to me and I gave him the thumbs up and smiled and then Abe kneed John in the face and blood burst out of John’s nose and mouth and that was the end of the fight. That was a lot of blood. It kept coming and coming. We were all so surprised. 

Chicken Pox and Bad Vision Bud followed me through the woods, went into my old house inside the memory. Mary Oliver was watching TV on the couch. The grim reaper was pouring a bowl of cereal. My first girlfriend, Melissa, was talking on my parent’s phone. I said, “Hi, how are you? Sorry to interrupt.” She smiled at me. I said, “Do you know who took all the doors down?” She shook her head. She said she was making a local call, she hoped it was all right. I said of course. I took Chicken Pox Bud and Bad Vision Bud into the bedroom I had in 1994. I opened my top dresser drawer next to my bed and there were the glasses. I gave them to myself. Myself put them on. He said, “I’m getting a little headache I think.” I said, “Alright, well I’m sorry, it’s the best I can do. Sucks you lost your glasses. I had to rake a lot of leaves to pay mom and dad back. See if the glasses adjust in a day or so, and if not, then I guess I’ll come back with scuba gear and we’ll go into the lake and look.” “That’d rule.” “Right now though I have to go back to work. My lunch break is almost over.” 

I shook both of their hands and then I walked back into the main room of the house of memory. My whole family was there, all different versions of themselves, variable years, and variable health. And Jack Lemmon was there, and so were lots of people I couldn’t remember or didn’t care to remember. They saw me looking at them and hushed. I said, “How is everybody doing?” 

There was a murmur. I said, “This place is falling apart, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is.”

I said, “Does anybody here want to at least fix the roof.” 

“You’re the landlord,” a version of William said, maybe 32, maybe 33 years old. 

“That’s true,” I said, “I guess it’s on me to fix the roof. And what about the doors?”

Nobody said anything. 

I said, “I think the doors are important, but something tells me you like it better without the doors? Right?” 

They all nodded their heads. “Okay,” I said, “I won’t put them back up. But please, let’s stay busy, let’s stay positive. I know we probably have some artists here. I know it for a fact. I have some good news. There’s going to be a contest.” 

“What kind of contest?” my grandfather said, through the oxygen mask. “Contests are always rigged.”

“There will be an announcement soon,” I said. “Just think of the best story you would ever want to tell the world. You might have the chance soon.” 

I waved goodbye and walked out the door and across the field and through the woods, and over the rivers, and across the valley and over the hills, and back to the oil refinery. I stood up straight, rubbed Purell on my hands, put my hard hat back on, walked out to the work truck. 

I welded in the hot sun until quitting time. I punched out and drove home. When I got home, Rae was there in the apartment, greeting me at the door. She looked so happy to see me. I was so happy to see her. I forgot all about how I needed $425 to pay the car insurance, the phone bill, and get groceries for the week.

I took a shower, put on clean clothes. I printed out the pieces that were to be workshopped the next night. The students were all coming over. We’d drink beer, and I’d write the truest things I could think of on the dry-erase boards.

Some things in life are abstract and confounding, but never stories. Stories I could always understand. Stories were rain when you needed it. Stories were gravity. Stories were full moons and high tides. Stories began and stories came to an end. Stories were objects with unlimited sides, some shiny, some rotten, some glowing, some made of stone. Stories were the lock and stories were the key. Every memory was a story, and each story had a door that led into it, and a door that let you out of it—or at least it used to. Stories were life or death but they were also the medicine you took so you never died. 

 


photo credit: Devin Kelly
 
BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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