“May I go outside in the yard?” I asked, interrupting the conversation.
“Sure,” said the man. “Make yourself at home.”
It’s been nearly forty years, I thought. Is this really the place I called “home”? He eyed my camera as I rushed through the kitchen onto the enclosed back porch. I stopped to look around.
There were doors at both ends of the porch. The door to my right led to the side of the house where Mom’s flower garden had been. I was glad to get out of the house. It was too much for me to take in all at once.
Straight ahead of me was a concrete building we called the cellar. It had a thick wooden plank door with rather large strap hinges. Adjoining the cellar was the coal house: a smaller concrete building with a high wooden door at the back. In autumn a coal truck would come up the back alley, cross a bridge, and dump coal in the yard.
Coal was our life force. We relied on it for warmth, and as fuel to cook the food prepared on the stove in the corner of the kitchen.
Standing there, staring at the coal house door, my mind flashed an image of Dad shoveling coal. I saw him so clearly, dressed in his work clothes. His hands were large and rugged. And yet, they still looked delicate. The thumb on his left hand was missing.
Further up in the backyard from the coal house was a wooden building covered in brown tarpaper, mainly used for storage. All sorts of things were kept in that building, tools, trunks full of quilts; boxes of “stuff.” The building became a secret meeting place. I arranged a hiding site behind one stack of boxes. I had sex there, with several boys in the town. A window faced the back of the house, so we always knew if someone was approaching. Later I would come to realize that for most of those boys, the secret meetings were fun. For me it was, in part, the reality of who I was becoming.
Years went by, and those stacks of boxes became the only witnesses to what had gone on in that building. So when they were discarded, along with them went a part of my identity.
Realizing I shouldn’t go inside, I turned and walked around in the yard. Why am I so nervous? I asked myself. I turned back to the storage building. Focusing in on the door, I took a picture. Ghosts of boys seemed to enter and exit. I stared at the door long enough to make a mental list of all the boys’ names and their faces. I felt like I was floating between two worlds. “I’M STILL HERE! WHERE ARE YOU?” I shouted. My voice seemed to echo off the empty space surrounding me. I felt the hollowness and the sting of my words bouncing back. The yard started feeling rather bleak. I looked across the road beyond the house. The sun was setting behind green mountains whose skeletal interiors had been robbed of the meaty blackness that had kept me alive, drove me away, and had now brought me back.
I took one last look at those surroundings. I could swear I saw the eight-year-old me running out the back gate. I had to stop myself from following him. It was as if he had been waiting for my return. Taking a deep breath, I walked back into the house.
“Thank you,” I said as I entered the kitchen.
“Is it like you thought it would be?” asked the man.
“Not really,” I replied. “It all seems so small and so long ago.”
The eight-year-old was jumping up and down inside me.
“Ain’t life strange,” said the man.
I looked at his hands. All at once, I didn’t want to be there anymore. Crossing the road, I watched the front door close, locking all that had occurred safely inside. When I got into the car, my companion could sense something had happened.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“That man was a miner,” I said. “What’s more, he’s missing his left thumb.” I waited for his response. He just sat there staring straight ahead.
“Let’s go.” he said. “Let’s go home.”