“The Blue House,” an excerpt from The Blue House by Dawn Denham

26 February 2021 on Nonfiction  

Until my first chigger attack, I walked barefoot across my expansive front yard to my mailbox atop a metal post. It takes time before the bites appear; when they do, it’s too late; the insects are dug in and have laid their eggs. 

During dinner at Rice and Spice on Jackson Avenue, I kept dropping my hand below the tablecloth to scratch both my ankles and feet.

“What’s the matter?” Taylor asked.

My old and dear friends Taylor and Nancy migrated to Oxford, Mississippi 20 years ago when Taylor, an Episcopalian priest, joined the clergy at St. Peter’s right off the Square.

“I don’t know,” I said, “probably mosquito bites.”

He said, “Show me,” and when I did, he said, “Yeah, that’s chiggers.”

“What the hell are. . .” and then I remembered and shuddered, thinking of that red swath crossing my son Sam’s belly after a summer of bushwhacking through our New Hampshire woods. I’d never seen anything like it. His pediatrician had to diagnose it.

“The exact same thing happened to us when we moved here!” Taylor was saying, laughing.

“Oh, crap. What do I do?”

“Go home and soak your legs in a tub of water with bleach. It’s the only way. Then keep cortisone on hand for the itching.”

I had a tube of cortisone, but Taylor sent me home with the bleach. I’ve never bathed in bleach, but I did it without a thought.

Chiggers are disgusting like lice or tapeworms or shingles and make me think dirty rather than clean, run-around wild rather than civilized. Figures. I am in Mississippi. The place I thought I’d never live. The place Mom and Dad chose 25 years ago and where Mom died. All those years I’d visited and deliberately tried to separate myself from thick summer heat and humidity, spiders lurking in the bank of Arborvitae along their gravel drive where I squeezed myself out of the half-cocked passenger door. Raw, naked, unfiltered racism, sexism, religious fervor and poverty. All exposed unapologetically under a relentless sun.

And now, I’d chosen it, too.

I swished around my feet for full effect, passing over rust patches and cracked porcelain. I wore yellow latex gloves to bleach a sink; would this soak turn my feet and ankles whiter?  When I was a kid, Mom had warned, don’t swim until at least 30 minutes after eating. Don’t take a shower or answer the phone during a thunderstorm. Why hadn’t she warned me about my husband?

She’d worked for years on her knees, completely transforming the land surrounding their 600-square foot cabin at the mouth of Enid Lake, fifteen miles from where I was hanging over an old tub in a house on a hill, soaking in bleach. Inflamed and hot welts, dark scabs at the center of the bite, told of her work on hard land. Her fingernails cracked and encrusted with a black thin line of grime. When she got sick, I implored her to get tested for Lyme disease, but it wouldn’t be ticks. I grasped at answers. I wanted to fix her.

It took more than three weeks for the clusters of tiny hard scabs at my ankles and shins to disappear. When I walk in the grass now, I pull on Mom’s old genuine cowboy boots Dad found pushed back in her closet. I laugh the whole thing off and wonder where the manual is for how to migrate from the Northeast to the South.

There is no handbook for how to write a divorce agreement. In fact, there is no handbook for any of it. If you've never been married 30 years and built a home, a child, a life, and then suddenly and within minutes decided to end—finally—this marriage, you don't know what it's like to be sitting in your pajamas at your laptop, coffee in hand, sliding down email, CNN, then Facebook where you find a message from a person whose name you don't recognize. It's a woman, and she’s telling you in this long and detailed message about how she loves your husband and how she has loved him for four years and how she can't go on without your knowing. You can't know what it is to be sliding off your swivel desk chair, down your face into your gut, passing your heart, which isn't there because it's shattered and lost but still pumping because you get up and go sit on the back stoop off the kitchen under an impossibly beautiful sky, and say, “OK. OK.” You can't know the second you decide, but you do, and you know you have when you say it out loud to no one but that sky and those white clouds and your rescue mutt Arrow tripping in the grass beside you.

“OK.”

After this verbal agreement, you can't know how to pack your Felt bike, your clothes and meds and toiletries, how to head north toward friends, toward the home in New Hampshire you bought and built, where you built a child and a life. You can't know this house will be respite. Layover. And that you will take to the road for a long time, and that that road, that full car, this leaving, is you running toward freedom. There is no handbook for knowing what this freedom is.

*

I did not move to Mississippi to fix people.

Once, I moved from coastal Connecticut to the Arizona desert, and in a conversation with my mother about the American Southwest, proclaimed, “Maybe I’ll teach English on a reservation.” A trained anthropologist, she responded dryly, saying, “They don’t want your help.”

I moved to Mississippi first to help my ailing 86-year-old father, who 25 years ago had migrated across the Tennessee border to a small town 40 miles outside of Oxford, Mississippi and second, to help myself. 

I left my marriage and then spent nine months driving across the country, finishing my research for a book I’d been writing and grieving. I was 55, jobless and had walked away from our family home of 20 years. One year after I left, I was in Belize with Sam over his spring break when my dad called asking me to come help with some medical tests. I bought a plane ticket and planned for a week’s stay. One week turned into five; dad faced a cancer diagnosis, then surgery and recovery, and by the time I flew back to Boston, I’d found and accepted a job teaching writing at the local high school and had rented this beautiful old house in Water Valley.

*

Two weeks after I move into the sky-blue house, I read his lawyer’s one-page letter. I’m sitting at the white distressed dining room table my sister gifted me and loaded into my POD the day I left New Hampshire. My breath quickens and I sweat. I don’t understand what I’m reading. It sounds aggressive. It sounds combative. It sounds like a defense. I don’t want to go to court, to break down thirty years of stories I still don’t understand. My accountant and financial planner both tell me New Hampshire is the easiest state to get divorced in, that no one cares about emotional duress or even abuse. It’s a numbers game. I stand to lose more than I could gain if I take this to court.

My husband’s email reads: you’ve just changed everything for the rest of our lives—No greeting. No signature. No punctuation.

Wait. But,

Wait.

My stomach lurches as I reach for my cell. I call him because it sounds like I am being sued or counter-sued and this doesn’t make sense. I figure he’s been served. That’s what prompted his email, not a threat, really, but a death knell. As in there’s no coming back from this.

“My cousin told me that writing an agreement together is off the table now that you’ve filed,” he says.

My hands shake. That’s not how I understood this.

“I don’t want to go to court,” I whisper.

“I don’t either.”

My house is quiet. I look at the exposed chimney and the kitchen behind it. The ceiling at ten feet above, its original shiplap painted white and traveling the length of this double room. The tiled counters and the electric stove set on two thick beams that come to above my belly button. My landlord Kagan is 6’ 6” and I need to buy a footstool.

The entire room is bathed in light. The entire house is bathed in light. White walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, light bluish-gray pickled floors, turquoise doors in each bedroom opening onto the wide Royal blue wraparound porch. I’d taken all the art I’d wanted, including my sister’s oil painting of a copper kettle against an aqua background and framed in gold. Mom’s large print of Mississippi artist Walter Anderson’s two white birds taking flight. Watercolors she’d painted and framed for me. The large Chagall framed in gold leaf given to us a few years after we married.

It’s getting hot, and I run the air all the time now—blessed central air—and mostly stay inside. But in the early morning, for however briefly, I get up and go out to one of the wicker chairs we’d bought together, sit, close my eyes, and breathe. Then I notice the dainty, pink rose blossoms tumbling down long-thorned vines reaching over and through the railing at the far end of the porch. Like the ones I once dug up from a friend’s garden back in New Hampshire and planted next to our front porch there. I don’t know about Mississippi’s blooming seasons or the fig trees that flank my cement steps and the third one in the backyard. I only know figs to be hard and course and tan like rawhide, no matter their origin, and bought in stores. I don’t know that soon my figs will drop from thin arms between dark green leaves the size of my hands, their skins soft and yellow- and purple-hued, their bodies giving as I gently tug them from each branch. I’ll research recipes for preserves and make a batch with half my harvest. The thick dark brown goo will burn to the bottom of the pan, and even though I jar and refrigerate it, every time I hope a taste, char lingers.

I sit on the white wooden porch swing near the gigantic Sawtooth Oak my landlord planted a decade ago; when his wife was pregnant with their first child, she walked the land, gathering its shiny nuts in her pockets to set in bowls all over the house. Two versions of blue hydrangeas drape their robust blossoms along the front. An Autumn Clematis wraps its tiny white blossoms around the railing.  Hollys and their Christmas berries.

Birds endlessly twitter. I watch black-winged and dark red-bodied wasp-like dirt daubers fly high and gather in the eaves at my front door. Large black and gold bumble bees. Thin and fast yellow jackets. Cobwebs hang from the rafters, underneath the wicker chairs, and in the corners along the brick chimney.

I thought it was Cardinals I heard last night, what sounded like scraping and a thousand tiny feet clattering above me, but it was only the wind dragging tree branches across my tin roof.

Cardinals breed in abundance here. They stood guard on my parents’ porch railings as my mother lay inside dying and have visited me many times thereafter. Fifteen miles. I’ve never lived anywhere near my father since I was twelve years old.  I’m fifty-five and Dad is eighty-six, and we make the only family we have here.

The west side of the blue house is built into the middle of the hill’s slow rise. Kagan built the porch high and wide. Standing outside my bedroom door, it’s as if I were on deck, out to sea. I cannot believe the peace and beauty here. Nothing about Mississippi was beautiful to me before.

Mom loved her azalea bushes that have grown into trees. In New Hampshire, I’d planted mine too close to the lilacs and a bridal veil, and they never took. The ones along my porch here are large and unwieldy and appear to sprout vines, tenacious and fibrous when I try to pull one. They climb through all the other bushes and attach to whatever else is sturdy there. Here and there, a leafy shoot pops up between the porch boards and makes me think of Tucson and the desert where Sam was born. People always think when you say desert you mean mountains and miles of sand, but the Sonoran Desert is the greenest, and there, between the slimmest of margins—rock against rock, pavement cracks—something always reaches up from the pebbly, dusty desert floor and grows.

But we died there. I know that now. Even if we did have twenty years to go, Tucson was the beginning of the end.

*

He’s on speaker, and I’m talking calmly, kindly. He does, too. We don’t say all the words we will never say. We don’t say the words we did say weeks ago, the ones that changed everything. That broke me open, making me finally understand that my confusion and anguish would not end until I ended it.

The parallelism of this conversation is making my head spin. How are we sitting politely talking through these details when…?

It’s like when I was a girl and my family fought. All of us giving our worst until someone left, but the next morning, it was all smiles and sunshine, and everything’s fine. In my turbulent, depressed teens, I told people that living in my house was like walking on eggshells. How can we be this way when we were just like that?

I have to call my lawyer who clarifies it’s not too late for us to write the divorce agreement together. I call my husband back to explain this, and we make a date for a few days later to write the document. He mentions something about how the house I’m living in looks cool as shit. He probably saw photos on my blog.

I let these two things be true at once: I have a cool-as-shit life on the horizon, and he is not going to be in it.

***

Dawn Denham is a writer, editor and manuscript consultant, and teacher living in north central Mississippi. Her work appears in Solstice, Zone 3, Brevity, Literary Mama, Past-Ten, and Poets & Writers. “Aleatorik” won the 2012 Solstice Magazine essay contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is co-author of Writing Together: How to Transform Your Writing in a Writing Group, She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, a BM from Eastman School of Music, and has been in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. The Stream and the Broken Pottery is a blog about the life, art, and legacy of American mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, the subject of Dawn’s hybrid memoir-in-progress titled Close to Water. She is currently completing her first memoir, The Blue House. You can find her at Dawndenham.com or on Twitter @dawndenham23.

Photo by Sam Cumming on Unsplash

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