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July 28, 2005

A Short Story for a Summer's Day

The House on the Bank of the River

Of course the river had once been tamer. The house was built then, and the sun porch years later, when still the land must have stretched languidly toward the river bank in a most appropriate fashion. There had been flower beds, and a plot of grass. The road in front would have been amenable. This was the unapproached edge of town until they extended the purlieus, and scores of hours could have been spent at a time without the passage of even a single car. It had been a narrow road, though once it began to grow, it spread quickly from one lane, to two, then four. The land on the riverside began to erode away. When we bought the house, it was wedged onto a narrow rectangular joke of a lot, bordered on either side of notable length by rushes, respectively, of automobiles and water.

We were sufficiently warned. Any house on the water for our budget was already telling. The real estate agent was honest about the problems, and the bank refused the mortgage. The place was referred to as both a death wish and money-pit. But the thing was, the price was so low we wouldn’t need a mortgage after all, and such short term economics have always made sense to me. My husband too. We wanted a house; we had spent 34 months living in a tent in Ghana and were craving walls, walls, walls, walls far more than we cared about the land.

That the walls were strong was never in doubt. It was a beautiful house, white with green shutters that needed painting when I first saw them. Inside was impeccably maintained, with polished wood floors, giant windows, high ceilings, airy rooms with bookshelves built into the walls. The sun porch was defiant, tacked onto the kitchen, standing high on stilts over the river. You could see the water going by through the narrow cracks between the beams in the wooden floor. The sun shone in from all angles. The house had been vacant for over a year, and the agent showed it, embarrassed with provisos. She was apologetic, but it was on the way to somewhere else we were supposed to go to and she thought it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

We moved in three months later. We rented a van, and backed it into the driveway while the lights at the intersection were stopped on red and no cars were passing. The van could not be backed up very far and once the traffic began flowing again, cars were forced to swerve around its front third, which remained jutted awkwardly into the street. There was nothing we could do about that. We carried our boxes and furniture into the house with haste, the sooner we could go about unblocking the road.

It was the river everyone worried about, but really, traffic proved to be the biggest problem. We bought a car and I drove it to work every day, and every morning I sat, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel impatiently, awaiting a hole in the parade. No one ever let me in. If the lights were on my side, and left-hand turners were scarce, and I made it out of our driveway in under four minutes, it was going to be a good day. Once the power was out and the lights weren’t running at all, and I waited twelve minutes before just driving out finally, cutting someone off in the process and coming remarkably close to causing an accident, but avoiding it of course. I am a very good driver.

My husband didn’t have this problem. He rode his bike to work and minded the noise at night instead, which never bothered me because I sleep like I’m dead. We had chosen the bedroom at the back of the house for our own, aware that the din from the street would keep him up at night and also because the river view was the best. We had a row of windows along one entire wall. But the sounds of honking horns and slamming breaks seemed to travel long across the river, bouncing off the opposite bank and echo back right into our room. It sounded like the traffic was right outside the window, only if it really had been, the noise would have been louder.

The traffic was the annoyance but the river was a challenge. We’re the kind of people who fly into action when you tell us something can’t be done. My husband is very technical in an imaginative sort of way, and he drew up all kinds of sketches and plans. I like to build things, and together we were determined. Though we were not the first to embark upon this quest. The riverbank was littered with evidence of schemes that had failed before; broken beams to prop the place up, wire mesh to hold the earth together, concrete blocks now scattered in dead fragments along the riverbed.

My husband had a plan, which I supplemented with regular bursts of brilliance. We were going to construct a steel frame against the shoreline, packed with cement. The inches remaining on the edge of the earth and the perimeter of the house would be seeded to encourage strong and healthy soil. We set about it, and ran into all the problems you’d expect with zoning and practicality. How do you set cement amidst a swirling stream? We spend days in hip waders, the water overflowing into them, as we examined the solid foundations of our house against the fragility of the land on which it sat upon.

That summer, we dared the fierce and frightening storms, when the rain battled the windowpanes and the wind shook us both awake in our bed. It was a particularly brutal summer, each storm coming in on the tail of another, defying all statistical norms and predictions. It was amazing to watch the fury from our windows, the white caps, the lightning, and the sounds of the thunder splitting the night. The waves would slam against the bank again and again just below our bedroom windows and we imagined we felt the loss of each thin slice of land as they slowly washed away. One dark night we sat on the sun porch, though of course then there was no sun. There was only noise surrounding us and water splashing through the mesh screens that kept the bugs out. Eventually the rain and the waves began to soak us, but we couldn’t go inside. It was the best place to be in the middle of the storm, inside but yet not. We were only protected so far, and that risk was thrilling. The sun porch hovered over the water supported by its four wooden stilts and fast the wind blew. That gentle, steady sway amidst such a furious storm was surprising. The limbs of our structure were forced to stretch and flex, extending unnaturally further and further with each movement and we fully expected the entire thing would collapse. But we stayed there, huddled together wet in the middle of the maelstrom and we knew everything would be okay.

We had neighbours. Our house was one of four in a row, all built around the same time when the property they stood on was halfway desirable. Though we didn’t see our neighbours. All were white haired, in their seventies and eighties, and at least one of them had called the police once to complain about some of the work we were doing to prevent further erosion on the bank. No one had been over to say hello or welcome. We didn’t mind the isolation. In some ways, it had been an attractive feature of the place. For the longest time, the existence of our neighbours had failed to even register in our consciousness at all, until the night the place two down from ours took a final breath and then collapsed into the river, just like everyone had been predicting it would and I suppose there were some people puffed up with self-righteousness who met this news with glee.

No one was hurt. I read about it in the paper. The homeowner was a Mr. Braddock, a widower, and he’d been in the hospital during the storm that pulled the house he’d lived in for sixty-four years over the edge and into the river in pieces. This was said to be a blessing, even though Mr. Braddock was dying. The incident brought the rest of the houses on the river bank into a mid sized public spotlight, though comment was concerned primarily with public safety and the issue of erosion was scarcely mentioned. What kind of people insist on living in these places, these shabby little
lots wrought with danger? The other two houses remaining on our bank were torn down before the summer was out, their white-haired residents inevitably committed to some sort of institution or another.

But there was no such place for people like us. We stayed because it was ours and we had no other choice. We remained committed to saving the house, the first solid-walled structure we’d ever lived in together, and that meant something to us. We’ve never been the kind of people who respond well to orders. We stay, because until we’ve been proven wrong about this place we’ve found, we’ve been right all along, and there is security there. And there is , even on our spindly shaking limbs built not so high above tumult and torrent. I don’t know where it’s come from, but it’s here, in each other and the walls of this house we’ve built up together. We brave the storms and mind the daily inconveniences of this life, and other houses might fall off the edge of the earth, but ours just won’t. We’ve got to believe that.

(This story copyright Kerry Clare 2005)

One thought on “A Short Story for a Summer's Day”

  1. Lady CC says:

    i am obsessed with the erosion of the english coast. such an amazing depiction of a gut wrenching fight against nature. i loved it.

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