Alyssa Ross: What Remains (memoir/essay)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My southern heritage includes being born in Guntersville, AL and currently working/residing in Auburn, AL (since 2011).

What Remains

Home, a space both real and imagined. You can quantify it – measure it in square feet, pace its dimly lit halls, wrap your fingers around its golden doorknobs, open its windows and peer out into the gleaming gardens – but its real value, its psychological toll, is incalculable. 

My idea of home started in Guntersville, Alabama. My hometown is so obscure that most people, even Alabama natives, don’t know it exists. I’ve met people from Birmingham and Montgomery, but when I announce “I’m from Guntersville,” they stare blankly. There’s something rewarding and infuriating about being from a place so remote.

Despite the fact that I lived in Virginia since I was 9, Guntersville still seems like home.  I go back several times a year and spent holidays there until I was 19. As an adult I gave up delusions of moving back, but I was still captivated by the area. It’s a typical Bible-belt town, lined with churches and banks. You can’t travel a mile without seeing one or the other.  Guntersville is separated from the rest of the world by water. It’s considered a peninsular area, enclosed by a man-made lake.

And that, in fact, is the only statistic I can find myself boasting about: “We have the largest man-made lake in Alabama.” Then again I see that blank glossy look. Guntersville is small and close-knit, with less than 2,000 families. The lake is one of its few prominent features, commissioned by the TVA during the Depression to create construction and tourism jobs for the poor rural families by turning Guntersville into a port city. It makes up about 40 percent of the entire town area. In other words, you can’t get in or out without crossing a bridge. To me it seems like the perfect setting for a horror film. If the Zombie Apocalypse ever comes to pass, my plan is to head straight home. Blow the bridges, collect the shot guns, start up the corn crops. All of the residents own guns and know how to shoot; blowing off zombie heads and fortifying the town would be quick work.

The lake circles the town, separating it from most of the world. It feels insulated, safe. Maybe that’s why most people (save my mother) never leave.

Many of the houses in Guntersville, like the two I grew up in, were independently designed and built. There were no suburban sprawl communities to dictate the way everything should look. There were no rows of box-shaped houses, all neatly erected one after the other.  There were no committees to say “That pig-shaped mailbox is a blight on the neighborhood. It has to go.”

Every time I drive through the town, I pay attention to the eclectic architecture. Some houses look like glorified barns, while others look audaciously modern with their geometrically odd roofs. These houses weren’t just living spaces you bought from a real estate agent; they were an extension of the occupant.

Until I was about 5, I lived in a simple, two-level brick house built by my infamously nicknamed Granddaddy Beer. He’d built the house himself: each brick meticulously laid, each piece of wood carefully nailed. Beer died before I was born, but the house and the families it sheltered are his legacy. When he passed away, my grandmother moved closer to town. Wanting to keep the house in the family, she sold it to my mother. The Beer estate was my first memory of home.

The living room had huge windows that faced our driveway and the neighbors fenced-in cattle. I often sat on the couch and stared at the spotted brown cows, wishing I could touch one. During the spring, the magnolia tree bore cotton-colored blooms that obstructed my view.  

The basement of the house was unfinished. It would have scared most children: no windows, the only source of light a tarnished brass fixture. Cobwebs and dust collected along the edges of exposed wooden planks and cinder-blocks. The basement was a mysterious, hidden world full of surprises. I liked to watch the bugs scatter across the floor as I flipped on the light. I chased after them, but they always seemed to find a hole, some safe space to get away.

I could do anything in the basement. I hid trinkets down there – phony buried treasures that I’d amassed. One of my favorites was a gold necklace that my mother gave me. I liked to put it in my mouth, let the ridges slide across my tongue, but made sure to hold the latch tightly between my teeth. I knew I wasn’t supposed to put things in my mouth, but in the basement I felt safe from my parents’ eyes. One day, as I was completing my normal ritual, I heard a shout from upstairs. Startled, my teeth lost their grip and the tiny gold links began to slip away. Before I could stop it, the chain slid down my throat. I tried to cough it up, but there was no use. It was gone. I pinched my cheeks and worked up my best teary-eyed face before I walked up the stairs, into the bright light of the living room. My feigned sadness must have worked because mom gave me a hug and sat me on her lap.

“Don’ be sad, sweetie,” she cooed, “I have a surprise for you.” She wrapped my hands around her expanding stomach. “You’re going to be a big sister.”

A doctor told me that the chain would come out naturally during a bowel movement, and at first I looked for it every time I went to the bathroom, craning my head between my knees. But with my sister on the way, I got swept up in the excitement and soon forgot. 

I never saw that necklace again.

Although the Beer estate was sturdy and familiar, it was small. Once my baby sister, Kristin, arrived, my dad decided that the house was too small for our growing family. He began planning to build a house for us, just like Beer had done for his wife and daughters. But my family wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the Beer estate. Mom, who always knew what to do, sold Beer’s house to her older sister, Angie, so that it would always remain with the family.

Meanwhile, my parents bought a plot of land in a swampy, heavily forested area of Guntersville where there were no houses. The land looked like a dead jungle, full of rotted tree trunks and dried, yellow bushes. But my parents soon began hacking away the dry grass and dead trees. While dad worked on the house, I tagged along to play in the make-believe jungle. I ran around the rotted plants while he talked to the workers from Preston builders. Dad was in his element. He liked to work with his hands and he got along well with the other rough-necks. Sometimes he helped with the labor to defray the costs, but mostly he just went there to watch their progress.

One day, he laid out the blueprints to show me what the house would look like.

“Alyssa,” he said, calling me over from the rock where I was playing. “Here’s where we’ll put your room,” he pointed.

 I couldn’t make sense of all the dotted lines and boxes, but I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I smiled. “That’s great, dad,” I said. “It looks big.” And I ran back to play in the woods. 

He waved and yelled “You better watch for snakes out there.”

Dad designed a special room in the house, tiled top to bottom, the ceiling nothing but sky filtered through a vast window, underneath it a hot-tub in the center of the floor. We would sit in the water and look right into the sky. On cold Saturday nights, he and I sat in the hot tub and splashed around to his records. He started the bubbles and grabbed a cooler full of Budweiser, because running back and forth to the kitchen would get the carpet wet. I always asked him to play Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or Michael Jackson’s Thriller – those were my favorites – and I spun around in the water, staring at the stars until I got dizzy. Then we would sit there together, both in our own happy delirium. I wonder now, as an adult, what that room must look like. It couldn’t be the same. But would the hot-tub still be there, worn and rotting, reeking of mildew? Or would the occupants have ripped it out, revealing a crater, making the room unusable.

In the new house there were other rooms and obscure places to explore. I mapped the crevices and corridors. One spot that I favored was the hall closet next to my parents’ room. It was full of mismatched shoes, stacks of movies, lost trinkets, and winter clothes. I closed the door and spent the better part of an afternoon sorting through objects that weren’t fit for the living room. Though I was initially enchanted by the surrounding bobbles, my enjoyment no longer stemmed from the things themselves. I put the shoes side by side, organized by color. After alphabetizing the tapes, I arranged them so that the labels were visible. I hung all the jackets and ordered them from small to large. Each week the closet got messy from thrown coats, shoes, and purses. My mother was never home to clean it – always working late nights writing contracts for government agencies and taking week-long trips to attend meetings in DC – so each week I took it upon myself to put the items in their appropriate place. I wanted things to be where they belonged. The work never struck me as pointless, but instead gave me a great sense of relief. And there was an added bonus. No one seemed to notice my absence or my whereabouts. It was like some sort of invisibility cloak. From the closet I could hear my parents talking adult-talk as if I wasn’t there.

There was something hidden in the sound of their voices, not loud, but oddly threatening, unfamiliar and malicious. It crept under the closet door, invading my ears.

Most of the time I liked being invisible to adults. But not always. One night, while I was lying in bed, I heard a rustling noise from outside my room. I panicked and my imagination flared. What if our house was built on Indian burial grounds? Okay, I tried to rationalize, lots of Cherokee lived in Guntersville, but they wouldn’t have buried their dead in a swamp, would they? I forced myself to sit up and look around – nothing. I got on my belly and crawled, G.I. style, to my sister’s room. She was snoring and the room was empty – no dead Cherokee. I heard the noises again, but this time they came from downstairs. Oh no, I thought, what if the Indian ghosts hurt mom or dad? (I wouldn’t learn to use the term “Native American” until years later after we’d left the South).

My chest heaved in fear. I rolled over and shimmied quietly down the stairs. Once I reached the bend in the staircase, I peered over. There were no dead Indians, just mom and dad sitting on the couch in the dark. I could see the glint from Dad’s beer can in the moonlight. The sad expression on his face made me stop, but I was too late. I saw mom’s profile turn as she spotted me. I hoped that she would come and lie in bed with me so I could forget about the Cherokee. Maybe she would scratch my back until I fell asleep. She did that, sometimes. But this time she looked at me without recognition and turned to my father instead. I heard her say, in a frustrated whisper, “We woke up one of them.”

The word “them” smacked me in the gut like a kick from one of the boys on my co-ed soccer team. I was suddenly aware that I was not special or unique in this world, that I was just one among many. That lesson has stayed with me. 

I ran back upstairs with this new knowledge and slithered under the covers like an amorphous urchin. The tense whispers continued and no one walked upstairs to make sure I hadn’t been scalped by Cherokee ghosts. I burrowed deeper under the covers.

Hiding became my status quo. The closet, my favorite hiding place, made me imperceptible. And while I was in there, I learned words that adults didn’t want me to know, words which I found fascinating (and still do).

I trained my ear to hear the strained, whispered words: fuck, lawyer, divorce, adultery, Dennis. I’d heard bad kids at school saying “fuck you” or “fuck this.” I knew a lawyer was someone you went to for advice. I knew divorce meant not being married anymore. But I had no idea what adultery was. And I’d never heard of Dennis. At first I assumed adultery was some kind of game for grown-ups. But the more I listened, the less sure I became. Then there was my dad asking mom, “So did you fuck him or what?” And my certainty again failing.

Listening in on my parents’ conversations, I realized that the closet wasn’t protecting me anymore, nor was the house, nor the town. I was only eight then, but I had a distinct feeling that I was on my own.

I came out of the closet and carefully turned the knob to their bedroom door.

“Why are you fighting?” I said, looking at them both. I asked it with a nervous giggle, almost bursting into full-on laughter. I know now that it wasn’t the right reaction. It was just the first of many inappropriate emotional responses that I’d stumble through as I got older.

 They sat quietly for a few minutes – my father crouched on the bed with his hands in his pockets, my mother looking away from him, into the large mirror above their dresser – but I was prepared to wait. “Are you fighting because of Dennis?” Dad lowered his eyes and clasped his hands together, but he remained silent, while mom’s eyes moved down the hall like she was searching for an answer or maybe an escape. I stood erect in the thick of their silence, waiting.

Mom finally spoke up, “No honey, it’s not Dennis. Things just aren’t working out right now.”

That answer was not good enough. “Things aren’t working because of Dennis.”  I said the name deliberately, with relish. “I can hear everything you say from that closet and you’re so dumb that you didn’t even know I was in there.”  

As a child, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t a matter of intelligence. My parents could have easily found where I was hidden; they were just too busy to look. 

Less than a year later I would leave the house, the hot-tub, and the closet behind. Without a choice, I would leave my father behind. Everything I’d known would be gone. But the words – and the knowledge they brought –  remained with me. They lingered in my mouth, leaving behind an acrid taste. The words I learned at that house, inside that closet, would stay with me in the years to come and they would remind me of my lost home.

Even with the house gone and the family split up, the town would remain a place that I could return to, a reminder of my separation. At least that I could still claim as my own. And each time I cross that grey bridge – looking past its green, rusted edges onto the warm, black water – I know that I’m home.