Burning Leaves, Part I

Deep in the heart of Holmes County, Ohio, there are more cows than people, and school children celebrate their country heritage by driving their father’s tractors to school. Finding piles of horse dung in the parking lot of the grocery store is commonplace due to the large Amish population. GPS and cell reception are spotty when you turn off the main drag, and it’s easy to get lost in the anonymous grid of numbered county roads.

By day, it’s friendly enough. School buses crawl up and down the narrow roads, and neighbors wave to one another from the cabs of their dusty SUVs and minivans. At night, most families are home from work and school and are settling down to suppers of pot roast or chicken stew. There are few street lights, but that doesn’t matter because most everyone can find their way home blindfolded or blind drunk. New people who come to Holmes County find themselves courteously welcomed and summarily dismissed.

Dusk has fallen upon the fields as a silver Prius cuts through the stubble of mown cornstalks. The harvests are in and the flatness of the landscape is no longer concealed by late summer crops, grown as tall as a compact car. There is a bite to the late autumn air. Tomorrow, the naked furrows will be gilded silver-white with frost. It has been more than twenty years since the driver of the Prius left Holmes County as Sara Mast, marrying, at eighteen, the first man who had paid her any attention. The honeymoon had been over before they crossed the state line, but the marriage had continued for many lonely years.

Up until that time, she had taken her punches for fourteen years like a good Catholic house wife, ironically, while employed at a woman’s shelter as a domestic violence advocate. “The cognitive dissonance is strong with this one,” she whispered in the rear-view mirror to her two sleeping children. It was an old joke she told herself, in order to pretend that she was aware of her delusions. The fields turned into trees and she clicks on her high-beams, not worried about blinding anyone on the empty road.

Back in the woods, there is an old clapboard house that is, of course, said to be haunted. The farm kids and Amish whisper to one another that the man who once owned this house killed his wife and kids, and even left the family dog gutted, and hanging from a spike of the wrought iron fence. The truth is, the man’s farm was foreclosed on, and he moved his family to his sister’s place in Michigan.

When the headlights of the battered Prius diffuse through the trees, it is mostly dark. Pine cones and gravel crunch under the tires as the family pulls up to the front entrance. Sara, who is tall and slim, unfolds herself from the seat and stretches luxuriously, her long journey at an end. She pops the hatch of the Prius open and the cold air wakes the sleeping children. Only this morning, they had loaded the last of the boxes from their Chicago apartment and hit the road, ready for adventure. Now that they have arrived, it seems anticlimactic. There are a house and lot to explore, but exhaustion has put a damper on the hyper, exuberant mood of the morning and earlier that day. Ever since crossing into Ohio, the trip had ceased to be a lark and had become the last resort of an unemployed, divorced woman who has spent all the money she has in the world on a rural farmhouse, sight unseen.

Unlike many old Victorians still standing, it is not grand, nor is it particularly well-made. It is a plain box with two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. A scarred wooden staircase follows the east wall, and may once have been the only ornate thing in the house. The details on the carved moldings is softened by the generations of paint that cover it. The floors are carpeted by a damp garnet colored shag that smells of cat piss and mildew. Dusty piles of plaster lie in the corners with crumpled yellow newspaper pages. A round hole in the front-room wall is covered by a metal plate, where a wood-stove must have once heated the home.

The house has been sitting empty for twelve years by this time. Minimal upkeep has been completed by the bank, but the pipes have been insulated and winterized with RV antifreeze. The water and electricity are on, but there is no hot water tank in the terrifying basement. The electrical box uses fuses instead of breakers. There is no evidence of a propane tank. Most of the farm land was sold at auction, and bought by farmers who owned the adjacent fields. The house was not wanted or needed by anybody, and the wooded lot was not tillable, nor was there enough good lumber to bother with. The bank leased it out until it fell into further disrepair and rumors of its being haunted drove down the rent.

Forty thousand dollars for a house on over an acre seems like a great deal when browsing the internet, listening to the crying baby in the apartment below. Visions of hayrides and apple cider and strong, country-type men carrying heavy things around on their shoulders crowded her vision at the expense of common sense considerations. She looked forward to wearing her Tims unironically. People have lots of bake sales in the country. There is sure to be pie.

So, she had called cousin who is a realtor and learned how to bid on a bank foreclosure. It was all fun and games until they accepted her low-ball offer of fifteen thousand dollars, the amount in her 401K. They were clearly not wanting to throw back any fish, no matter how small.

She digs through her bag and withdraws a manila envelope, and slides a single key into her palm. There is a rubberized key chain that advertises Hartzler’s Dairy. It’s yellowed with age, and she finds herself hoping they are still in business and that they have frozen custard. She leaves the kids in the backseat, scrubbing sleep from their eyes as they adjust to their new environment. There is no front porch, just a set of chipped cement steps leading to a front door with large side-lights. There is an ancient brass mailbox with black numbers stickered onto the front. 668. “Neighbor of the beast,” she chuckles to herself.

She coaxes the rusty lock open and is assaulted by the cat-piss smell of the living room rug as she steps directly into the front room. By this time, she is down to her last six dollars in cash, and has another forty left on her Discover card. She has three-quarters of a tank of gas in the Prius, and a gift certificate for a free Turkey from Wal-Mart. She has brought with her the dry goods from her Chicago pantry, and she knows that nobody will starve, but everybody will bitch.

Her children have now groggily made their way inside. She stands at the foot of the staircase surrounded by the flotsam of decay and tries to reclaim some sense of the fun that had accompanied the first leg of their shared adventure. “So, what do you think?” she asks, clapping her hands in the fetid stillness. They are wilting together in a small vestibule under the stairs, for once not bickering. The moving truck is taking their belongings on an amazingly thorough tour of the mid-west, and for now they have only the meager contents of the Prius to content them.

-Anne Weyer

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