A horse chestnut tree aged in the front yard of my grandparents’ house on Maltby Road, just beyond the border of the tiny town of Oakfield, New York. With slight pressure, the tree’s shabby bark flaked off in palm-sized pieces, revealing bright orange below dull gray. The tree matched the asphalt siding of the house, gloomy and coarse. Gone now are both tree and house, their spaces taken over by a field in which a farmer rotates cash crops of corn, soybeans, and wheat. My father says each fall the bedroom where he grew up now sprouts in rows of corn. I picture the soil stubbled like a great unshaven face. My father envisions his bed among the crops.
This spring, I looked up the address to see a current Google street view. On the computer screen appeared a space of field and sky, an unrecognizable place where so many times I ran under that horse chestnut, gathered its seeds and hulls, touched its sticky growing buds in spring.
“Will these turn me into a horse?” my brother once asked me, bringing the nut close to his mouth.
“Don’t you eat that, dummy. You’ll be sick for days.” I only knew because my father once told me something similar.
In stiff autumn winds, the nuts fell like coins from a change purse. When we got together, my brother, cousins, and I loaded the pockets of our sweatshirts with seeds and chased each other around the tree and off into the sprawling front yard. I threw the seeds at their backs, listening for the dull whump of a connecting hit. They returned throws in my direction. The exchange ended with each of us bent in half, hands gripping our knees. We panted and laughed into the developing dusk. The next day our shoulders burned. But that night we wiped the sweat from our faces and ate baked beans with bacon and onions on top.
Most of the outer shells of the horse chestnut seeds remained attached to the tree, blackening in that space above us, decaying in the branches. From below, the thousands of open casings looked like regurgitating birds feeding their young. We boys regarded the rare seed that fell from the tree with the outer hull intact as a special and powerful weapon. We never threw those during our battles with each other. Instead, we kept these unusual chestnuts on dresser tops or closet shelves until the outer layer turned black and fell away, revealing the glossy dark seeds under the husks. The seeds themselves became desiccated, shriveling from the inside without the requirements for growth: light, water, desire.
A seed stores life. One of my farmer friends says a seed is, metaphorically, the promise of a future. In Southern folklore, opening the seed of a native persimmon predicts the winter to come; finding the shape of a spoon tells of a heavy wet snow, the spoon representing a shovel. A knife predicts icy winds, the knife symbolizing the wind cutting into you. A fork is the most desirable shape. The fork tells of a mild winter and the possibility of a small trace of snow. I can’t remember what the fork represents. I found that it doesn’t matter what the folklore says: after splitting dozens of persimmon seeds over several years, I never found a shape that was anything other than a spoon.
That horse chestnut tree died in an ice storm in 1991. That was the same year my grandfather died alone in a nursing home just north of Attica. I was a high-school junior working nights at one of the two grocery stores in town. My boss sent flowers. We boys—brothers and cousins—sat in the back of the funeral home and told each other dirty jokes.
* * * * *
My father taught me how to swim by lobbing me into the middle of the pool behind our trailer. I left his arms and dropped in deep, returning to the surface by thrashing and jerking. Between gasps for air, I reached for the side of the pool. I learned to stay above the water’s surface by lunging to the nearest solid surface. Each of my four limbs acted against the others’ progress, my torso helpless as its attachments forgot that they were inseparable. My hands clapping into the water became something resembling a swimming stroke. My legs moved in frantic downward kicks, straining for the bottom. I struggled, making movements that imitated a fish expelling a hook caught deep in its gills.
“I can’t… I can’t swim…” The salt from tears and snot made it into my mouth. My nose and throat burned from the chlorine in the water. I swallowed and spit and coughed into the air when I could get to the surface.
When I reached the pool edge, my father lifted me from the water by my forearms. My smooth torso brushed against the hair of his shirtless chest. He looked me in the face, his mouth molded into a grin. He held me as the water slipped from my hair and along the edges and curves of my reddening face. I got a whiff of his breath—a punch of pilsner, a pinch of bourbon—just before he threw me, crying, back into the water.
His method continued. He hurled me in and pulled me out, on and on as other children played in the water and their mothers lay on the pool deck on their bellies, their bikini tops untied, cheap canned beers sweating beside their browning shoulders. No matter which side of the pool I grasped, my father was there to pluck me from the water and toss me back out to the middle.
Adults and older children surrounded me, giggling yet protecting me in a way. They knew of the lesson I was receiving and understood that nothing awful would happen. I did not have the same understanding until well after we put the pool toys away and threw the towels into the wash. This is the way my father learned, my grandfather throwing him into a pond from the edge of a boat dock.
“You have it easy. Grampa learned by falling into an old well,” he told me with a smirk as I shivered and spit on the warm deck of the pool. I didn’t know it was a joke then.
I imagine that the fear my father once clenched in his stomach had aged and become nostalgia, a flowered then withered then decomposed bit of experience with no current equivalent in his life. His father is dead. He no longer sees the weaknesses in their relationship or thinks his swimming education was much more than playful fun. And this presents the problem, at least in a philosophical way—my father is very much alive, our relationship loving and solid regardless of a physical separation of hundreds of miles. He had a rough teaching method bordering on the
cruel, yet I forgot his process as I became confident in the water.
* * * * *
My father and his twin brother made a trek to see the Maltby Road house before the volunteer fire department used it as a practice burn. It had been vacant for years. When my father tells me and my partner Kristin the story, I envision the brothers walking around the edges of the house, pointing out where they used to camp out all summer because the house was too hot, talking about where they used to park and what grew best in the small garden.
“You remember when we chased that skunk under the house?” My father laughs as he asks, knowing an incident like that is not something you forget.
“Brother”—my uncle calls my father Brother exclusively—“that was something.”
I see them there on the porch, stepping so as not to crack the boards that rise above the bare soil below the rotten wood. In front of the door lays a moldy phone book in a clear plastic bag, a reminder to my father about how long the house did not have a phone, how long they went without many things.
He tells us about going without necessities. “Alcohol and cigarettes kept us poor, coming before all else, before food, before rent. Hell, we didn’t even have a car until I was a teenager.”
My uncle has on ill-fitting sweat pants, his gut pressed against the fabric of the shirt on top. He is doing the talking while my father pushes the door open and steps into the thinly carpeted living room. My uncle is the one who brings guns to those rare get-togethers at my father’s house, not to shoot but to show off his newest purchase.
“You ever see one of these?” he’d ask, pulling a rifle from its immaculate, dark case, holding it up so that the afternoon light sparkled in the lens of the scope and along the grain of the stock.
“Yeah, I sold one like that a few months ago,” one of my brothers would say. My uncle would give the gun another quick appraisal, this time with less pride, and slide it back into case, back into his truck, back out of our way.
Looking at the ceiling, my father pushes his glasses up a few times—a tick he doesn’t realize he has—and wipes the sweat from his forehead before replacing the Buffalo Bills hat over his baldness. My uncle joins his gaze, looking at whatever each of them think they see, the same mist we all glimpse when we search our incredible depths of memory. These two men are twins, anyone can see that in their faces. But my uncle is heavy and does not appear to be well. He needs a new kidney, is on the top of the list of recipients. Dialysis will do that to a person, make them look as ill as they are, turn their skin a slight yellow tone like a bruise that has almost healed. My father has the paunch of a man in late middle-age, but keeps busy in his retirement, still working every day installing new electrical service to homes and barns or plowing fields for several farmers in the area.
During their visit, they felt the need to touch the dusty countertops and peer beyond bedroom doors. They opened closed drawers, checked old newspapers for the date. They touched everything familiar, but they didn’t recognize themselves in that space. My father told me he never felt so distant from himself, so removed from his own history even as it confronted him in physical form. “It was like looking at a magazine,” he said.
As kids, we visited the house often. My father’s house and the Maltby Road house were in two different towns but connected by one other road and one right-hand turn. My brother and I sometimes biked the distance. Even with all those visits, the house exists in fragile memory for me. Since I never lived in the house, I borrowed my connection to it, focusing on the fun, not knowing or understanding the pain. It exists otherwise for my father, in very distinct ways. When he was five, he suffered through rheumatic fever in his tiny bedroom, which ruined his heart forever. On the front porch, he listened as his twin brother read a draft notice. In the family room he watched daily as his mother sat and drank a gallon of wine, becoming glossy-eyed and abusive.
Now that my father has read a few of the pieces I have written about him, I am wary he is stretching things, inserting flourishes into his stories of childhood to see if they make it into one of my essays. It is hard to know, for example, if his mother had a piano in that house that only she played and that my grandfather smashed apart. It fits, this tale of destruction in a house held together with empty wine jugs and cigarette smoke and what seems to be a genuine hatred for one another.
I was three years old, the same age as my daughter Tennessee, when I last saw my grandmother. She lay flat on a rented hospital bed parked edge-long between the couch and the television in the front room of the house. The windows caught markings of sunlight splitting through the empty branches of the horse chestnut tree. I viewed my grandmother’s body in curiosity and apathy. She had spoken and carried on loudly in life, the cough of her cigarette ruined lungs rattling throughout the massive house even in her last days. In death, her dormant frame hushed the room. In the silence, I stood looking through the screen door watching the cars and tractors pass by, their transience a convenient assurance of the fundamentals: we are never alone and everyone dies.
Tennessee can listen to the stories of these people she will never meet, but the house and its former inhabitants remain non-existent memories for her, simple myths. No physical evidence connects her to the place; she has no reason to care about or hear of its existence. Without thinking, my family removes the house from its generational memory, extinguishing any importance it may have held by taking a path of forgetting.
The brothers left the place as it had existed for years—blank, stale, purged of the warm blood that used to cycle through it. Vines grew through broken windows. The floors had damp spots and stains from countless leaks in the roof. The walls were wild with a mixture of unfurling wallpaper and black mold. Beetles and crickets multiplied behind the walls. Then the Oakfield volunteer fire department burned it.
Most of the people who had ever lived in the house were dead. My father and uncle had moved away healthy and single, ready to live. Now my father’s body carries a pacemaker and forty-five years’ worth of daily alcohol use; his twin brother—ears ruined in Vietnam, knees crumbling from decades of driving an Agway feed truck—awaits that new kidney. Just like the house, they can’t escape age and disrepair for too much longer. As for the others—the parents who raised them, the brothers and sisters who shared the supper tables and the arguments and the four walls of the house—they are buried in Oakfield and Pittsburgh and Rochester and Elba. Simple shovels buried the people; a backhoe buried the house.
* * * * *
A few years after my swimming instruction, it was time for my brother to learn. By this time, I could take part in the instruction. I laughed at how foolish he looked, how his small, bright hands slapped the surrounding water. Gone were my own thoughts of how much pain I felt from gulping water, how embarrassed I felt for crying and screaming, how much revenge I craved. My brother was as helpless as I had been, his face contorted into a weird crying smirk.
At twenty-one years old, my brother jumped from the roof of a building, breaking most of the breakable parts of his body. His bones shattered into multiple pieces; nerve endings and memories erased. As the ambulance approached, the blood whined in his ears, the sound as unpredictable as a screaming child. He held his eyelids closed with pain and spite, his whole-body rigid, traveled, abused. He found out you can’t learn how to fly the same way you learn how to swim.
When he jumped from the roof, he wasn’t reflecting on how the uncertainty principle states how we cannot recognize, at the same instant, both where in space a particle exists, and how fast it moves. He wasn’t thinking about how shooting stars are not stars, just forgotten satellites entering and disintegrating within the atmosphere. He wasn’t questioning which Axiom was more important, Euclid’s Axiom of Parallels or the more modern Axiom of Choice. Instead, he was full up with methamphetamine and thinking no one loved him.
As he fell, he may have understood that humans have the power to discard a known present for an uncertain future. What he might not have known was that he would survive his fall, that he would be immobile for a time as his skeleton healed around permanent steel rods, that he would face months of boredom and painful therapy, that, when sitting at a computer for hours and typing detailed messages into Internet chat rooms, he would meet his future wife. His violent meeting with a dark and impervious surface became the seed from which a family of five and his own small business would emerge.
* * * * *
“Do you mind if we take the long way?” I asked, even though Kristin wouldn’t know the long way from the short way. We were driving to Buffalo for my sister’s wedding rehearsal. There was plenty of time, no reason to rush. I made sure we left early just so I could drive around roads I had not traveled in a long time.
“There’s something I want to drive by and see.” My father told me what had happened to my grandparents’ house on Maltby Road, but I needed to see it for myself. I spent so much time at that house that I did not believe it was gone. I found the story of the house disappearing interesting, a fire department setting it ablaze on purpose so that people could practice what to do when it mattered, could crawl low through the smoke in full gear and work in that heavy heat.
Kristin never saw the Maltby Road house even though it still stood during the early part of our relationship. We enclosed ourselves in learning how the two of us fit together. I didn’t think to mention a remote Ramsey family home located five states away. She never knew the road’s name or how it might have any importance to me or herself or Tennessee. She hadn’t met my father’s father and couldn’t guess his name, but she could select him from a lineup of old white men. My father shares his father’s features—the jawline, the forehead, the ears, the brown eyes. Even with my green eyes, my face is following the same course. The only thing that makes me stand out is my full head of hair; both my father and grandfather went bald well before forty.
As we drove, unfamiliar new homes marked the way on each side. I knew we were close, but the unfamiliar made me question whether we had passed the place where the house used to stand. I only recognized the home’s former position after topping an easy-sloped hill with a small bridge at the bottom. Orange and black warning signs on each corner marked where the pavement narrowed at the bridge. When I saw the bridge, I knew where we were. I found a rough, stony pull-in where the driveway used to be, now a bare patch of ground used as a place to turn tractors around and attach implements. I recognized nothing; there was nothing to look at, anyhow. Years of plowing and disking pulverized any remains of the charred house.
“This is it?”
“Yeah, the house used to be right here.”
We didn’t stay long and didn’t get out of the car. In explaining what it used to look like, I tried to convey an image of boys playing in a massive yard and sliding through weeds of the creek bank to hear our echoes under the bridge and catching crayfish with little glass jars. I thought to myself of how the creek below the bridge was shallow and full of massive flattened rocks that came up out the water, how the tops of the rocks were dry and bright like the exposed skulls of poorly buried giants.
* * * * *
Across from my father’s house, three crows fought off a hawk in the remnants of a hedgerow. What used to be several small fields separated by trees, rocks, and brambles is now one merged and wind-bothered chunk of land. What were once tractor and foot trails inside the hedgerow are now just other parts of this ground, this monotonous field of whatever.
The hawk held on to a volume of sky. I saw the crows’ wings flapping, imagining how the bones clicked in the sockets, hollow and brittle and built only for flight. Their low scolding caws traveled the air toward us as we sat on the front porch, the soil below the birds still dark orange and shiny from a recent deep plowing. Kristin asked me what I was thinking.
“I’m trying to just watch and think about nothing, but the names of the birds in the crow family keep streaming into my head.”
“Bird nerd.” She laughed as she watched me stare past the sparrows clinging to the sagging powerlines along the road.
“Corvidae,” I pronounced. “Crows, jays, ravens, and magpies. Scavengers and obligate opportunists.”
“I love you.” She looked toward the crows. It was late May and the grass in the front yard was greening. Leaf buds and Japanese beetles multiplied in the trees. Along the road’s edge, milkweed came up thin and pale green like asparagus. Later that evening we talked about having another child while Tennessee slept between us.
* * * * *
The blood dripping into the toilet changed to bright red from dull brown. Kristin thought she might miscarry, and I thought I could have known how that felt. But I couldn’t know. I didn’t have an equal basis to experience it. I had never lost a part of my physical being. What Kristin felt was the biological cleaving of a potential human being, our potential child.
Kristin called the birth center to speak with a midwife.
“I’m eleven weeks pregnant and think I might be miscarrying. I want to find out what I should do, what my options are.” She hung up, said they would call back.
She looked over at me. “It could be worse. I could be dying.”
You are dying, I thought. I am dying. This new child was dying or dead already. Kristin arched her back with a strong exhale. “Ok, it’s officially cramps. I can’t deny it anymore.”
The fetus was the size of a bumblebee, gray and sticky with small, black eyes like poppy seeds. We could see the ribs, the limbs, the skull in early formation. It all happened fast; Kristin’s water broke and there it was on her pad. Still in shock, we looked at it and expressed our amazement at its features, its appearance.
The viewing of the fetus in our hands was otherworldly, fake, absurd. We moved from pure wonder to a recognition of loss. We knew this child was never coming back and—even worse— had to tell Tennessee that this child was never coming back. She understood the concept of yesterday but not the concept of loss. For her, time is still something that ravels instead of unravels, an accumulation. Everything, no matter how insignificant, is something to remember.
“Should we bury it?”
“Of course, we should bury it.”
We grabbed shovels from our shed and walked in silence to the front yard. From cuttings and saved seed, we later planted wild peppermint and sunchokes above the burial site. Both plants continue to grow with abandon.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of Maltby Road originally appeared in Profane Journal.
Trace Ramsey is a recipient of the 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship Award in Prose, the 2017 Profane Journal Nonfiction Prize, the 2016 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize from the North Carolina Literary Review, the 2015 Ella Fountain Pratt Emerging Artists Award in Literature, and was a 2015 contributor in non-fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Trace’s recent publications include essays and poetry in Profane Journal, At Length Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, concīs, North Carolina Literary Review, Anatolios Magazine and I Don’t Know How to Help You, a compilation zine from Pioneers Press. In 2014, Trace’s first book—an anthology of the zine Quitter (Quitter: Good Luck Not Dying)—was published by Pioneers Press. This was followed in 2017 by All I Want to Do is Live, also from Pioneers Press. In December 2014, Trace received a certificate in documentary arts in nonfiction writing from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Trace is currently writing a memoir-in-essays,Carrying Capacity, and a novel, The Ornithologists. Trace lives in Durham, NC with his partner and two children.