Dispatches from Abandoned Architecture
by Shena McAuliffe
There used to be many singing cowboys. This was before my time, and I tend to mix them up, especially Roy and Will Rogers, though they’re separated by years, and one’s vaudeville and the other radio. When I rocked in a chair on the porch of the Will Rogers Ranch, it was Roy I was thinking of. His Pops built a houseboat of salvage wood and floated the family up the river. But the river flooded and they scooted the boat to shore, where it dried like horse bones in the sun. The boy that would be Roy Rogers lined up the rocks, smallest to largest, in the dirt and yodeled at them. In the grass, the grazing cows were thin and milkless.
In his most attractive years, Will Rogers had hair like yours: dark and glossy with an unruly part. And like you, he looked smashing in black with pearl snaps. He, too, was narrow-waisted, and his charm became goofy with age. The songs you sing to the cat, to the coffee, to my hair, mashed and electric from the pillow. On a January morning, when we went out early to sled on the hill beside the cemetery, you rode a snow horse we found, a snow horse that someone else had built, a sweatshirt for your saddle. When you leaned into your ride, it did not matter that the horse was made of snow, that the sky was slate gray, that the city down the hill, in the wide valley, seemed suspended in toxic smog. It mattered only that we had a sled and a wild horse on which to ride.
Once, I wiped the lipstick from my teeth with a tissue, and you snapped your pearl snaps all the way up. But now, if I stand to the east, I can see the blue of the ocean through the plastic and scaffolding. When the workers hung the tarps, they meant only to scrape paint without getting wet. I sit in a rocker under the limbs of the old trees—the same trees—and watch the sun through the bones and skin of their setup. On the other side, the blurred cliff becomes a chorus of cowboys riding.
In the night, a train whistle sometimes sounds like a harmonica, and the shaking windows murmur. Sometimes, it is a brass chord swelling warm in the dark. Sometimes, it is butterscotch pudding. But other nights, it is pots and pans hurried into the low cabinet, a winter night that falls too soon. Sometimes, it is headlights through the trees, casting shadows through the tent. The Doppler yaw, the rattling windows, empty bottles flung against the rocks.
The horse bones in the dry grass were not much like the arced scaffolding of Jonah’s whale, but I thought of Jonah, nonetheless, resting in his quiet cavern in the sea. Spoon of the collarbone, piano-key spine. Locusts hurdling their airy hotel. I held a rib against the sky, the ocean its wet opposite.
When I stop wearing a pair of shoes, their holes stretch. The stitches come loose more quickly. The soles curl. I find them in the closet full of dust and dead boxelder bugs. This happens to houses, too. As if the warmth of human bodies was the mortar between the bricks, that which kept the pigeons out of the rafters. In the empty house, pages blow one to the next, unturned by human hands. Something always burns. Look carefully. Dig next to the splintered rocking chairs and chipped flower pots. You might find the dried collarbone of a horse, a spice jar buried with a plastic army man inside, a bit of satin fringe, a pearl snap from a cuff.
The western U.S., trains and railways, Tom Waits, empty or abandoned homes: I might call them influences. But more directly, in 2014, I participated in a project devised by A Bad Penny Review/Opo Books and Objects, titled as this piece is titled, Dispatches from Abandoned Architecture. The Bad Pennies sent me a vintage postcard of The Will Rogers’ Ranch House in the Santa Monica Mountains—one of those pastel-colored drawings that were the going thing on postcards before photography took over. My assignment was to do something, anything, to the postcard and return it, so it could join 21 other vintage postcards altered by other writers. Before I set my pen to my postcard, my mind drifted around the house depicted on my card, a place I had never been, and I wrote a bunch of tiny pieces, far too much to fit on the postcard. Because my many dispatches were informed by the same prompt, the imagery between them was harmonious, sometimes echoing like refrains in a villanelle, and when I arranged and combined some of them, a fragmented narrative began to emerge. (Many thanks to A Bad Penny Review for the productive prompt. Their postcard set, quite a separate animal from this piece, is delightful, and you can find it here.)
Shena McAuliffe’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in Southern Humanities Review, Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and is at work on a novel.