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The Restoration

His childhood home, a place of so many unhappy memories, was falling into ruin. Could he redeem it?

By Wells Tower
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page W18

Several years ago, while I was walking through my father's kitchen, I noticed a beetle dying on the countertop. "Hey," I said to my father, who was sitting a few feet away at the kitchen table, doing something on his computer. "There's a beetle dying here."

"Mm-hmm," he said, without taking his eyes off the screen.


A bedroom light shines on the house's side yard. (Jimmy Fountain)

I walked by again later and noticed that ants were streaming out of a dark little groove in the windowsill above the kitchen sink.

"It looks like you've got some ants living in your windowsill," I said. "Might want to caulk that up or something."

"Mm-hmm," he said again.

A few hours passed, and then I noticed that the ants were trooping down past the sink and over the Formica to where the dead beetle lay. Before long, the ants had dismantled it entirely and were carrying the beetle piecemeal back into the windowsill. "Okay, Dad," I said, "now the ants have chopped up the beetle, and they're toting it into your wall."

"See?" he said without looking up. "The system works."

EVER SINCE MY FATHER BOUGHT THIS HOUSE, a small brick ranch in central North Carolina, entropy has been his handyman and groundskeeper. When my family first moved here 30 years ago, the surrounding acres held a horse pasture, a flourishing orchard, a scuppernong arbor, a vegetable garden and a large, healthy lawn. The average person would have been pleased to luck into a piece of land so well tended, but, according to my father's philosophy, the garden and the rest of it were troublesome. They required mowing, pruning, fertilizing. So my father worked his "system" on these difficulties, and, in time, vines strangled the fruit trees, the grape arbor rotted and collapsed, and the pasture became a forest of scrub saplings. The burden of their maintenance was unshouldered for good.

The house itself was a dark place, with small, sepulchral rooms. The first owner, the man for whom the house was built, was supposedly a paranoid sheriff who hated windows. The house's architect seemed to have felt about light the way a submarine designer feels about water: Keep it out, and if any gets in, keep it quarantined. No natural light fell on the narrow hallway that ran through the house's center. The bathroom was windowless. At high noon, not enough sunlight pierced the living room's pervasive gloom to power a solar calculator.

My father's campaign of deliberate neglect got into full swing after my parents divorced, when I was 6 years old. The garage filled up with bald tires, crates of magazines, broken bed frames, spent appliances, a derelict rototiller, rusted tools, firearms, a brace of discarded iron swords from a trip to Africa, cans of dehydrated paint, birds' nests. Tidying the garage became a mythical task, a chore Hercules would have needed many rivers to accomplish. During copperhead season, it was wise to stamp and yell before setting foot in there. All landscaping efforts were abandoned, and every year, the surrounding forest grew closer to the house.

In the years after the divorce, my brother Dan and I split our time between the old house and our mother's new house across town, and felt at home in neither place. Our mother had remarried quickly, and my brother and I did not understand our place in the new family she was trying to build. We treated both her and my stepfather with open contempt. My father, who is an economics professor, coped with the split by throwing himself into his work. He began a small publishing company and traveled frequently, often for months at a time. During our stints at his house, he was usually at his office, and we were mostly left to ourselves.

Like the house, Dan and I began to grow feral. We looked rough and forsaken. We wore our hair in wild mats, unwashed and usually untrimmed, except for ragged divots where wads of gum or peanut butter had had to be snipped out. Our disastrous hair situations clearly identified us as members of an exile class. We seemed to always have more than the ordinary number of scabs and rashes. I remember a grade-school teacher once stopped us on the schoolyard and said, "I wouldn't know you two were brothers, except you both always have food smeared all over your faces."

Dan and I spent so much time alone together that we became a rough little family unto ourselves. We were always at each other's throats. Our brawls were so incessant and impossible to quell that my mother had a sort of a shack built in her yard for us to live in during our weeks with her, so that we wouldn't terrorize her home. But we preferred our father's house, where a kind of bachelors' anarchy prevailed, and where we were free to misbehave and assault each other as we pleased.

Though my brother was bigger than I was, and a year and a half older, I could marshal great reservoirs of fury in a fight, and whenever we came to blows, Dan almost always got the worst of it. One summer afternoon, when I was 16, I remember going out to the driveway to depart for my first actual date, only to find that my brother and some friends of his had driven off in my tubercular little Mazda, and had left their own cars crowding the driveway. When my brother finally returned, I was an hour late for my date, and red with anger. I hauled him out of the driver's seat, grabbed his hair with both fists and slammed his face against the trunk until his forehead bled. His friends stood in a wide semicircle and watched. The house accumulated memories of incidents like this one the same way it accumulated newspapers and spiders' eggs. In subsequent years, I could not visit the house without those old ghosts of violence, decay and misrule storming back into my mind.

ON SUMMERS HOME FROM COLLEGE, my brother and I would try living in the house, usually with girlfriends, in the hope of making the place feel like a home. We would concoct great visions of reforming it. We would paint, pull weeds and shift furniture, but women, as a rule, hated it there -- the darkness, the clutter and the sulfurous aroma wafting up from the clay basement (which was often flooded), the mildew, the overwhelming quantities of insects. Our relationships usually ended soon after these little experiments in cohabitation, and Dan and I learned that it was fruitless to hope too grandly about transforming the place, and also that it was best to be careful about whom we exposed to the house.

Every now and again, my brother and I would try to convince our father that with a bit of judicious demolition -- knocking down a few walls, punching some skylights into the low ceilings -- the house could be a pleasant place to live. But Dad would get a persecuted look when we said these things and explain that, compared with the large, expensive homes being built in the neighborhood, his was an unattractive, worthless place, and that there was little sense in renovating it when the next owner would probably hire a wrecking crew to renovate the house off the face of the Earth.

After Dan and I left home for good, the house decayed speedily. The brush grew denser. The furnace broke, and my father declined to repair it for the better part of a decade. Year round, a stack of pine logs stood in the center of the living room floor, shedding bark and teeming with insect life. Once I stopped by the place and saw what appeared to be a family of minnows swimming in the toilet.


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