Monday, April 2, 2012

Day 2: Pobject's house key

On one side, in capitals, it reads "NATIONAL KEY / USA," and on the other, "COLE." Below this there is a line or two of indecipherable characters, smudged down to the level of the key itself. This key's turned aside tumblers several thousand times, but I’ve not used it now for several years.

I take it with me to Montana whenever I visit home. It works the back door of my parents' house (I've finally gotten used to calling it 'my parents' house' and not my own) and leads you to the cramped back foyer that stands at the top of a steep narrow staircase. On the walls there my dad's posters of Larry Bird and Mike Schmidt used to greet any visitors to his basement office. The stairs don’t seem so high now, but they seemed both broader and taller when my brother and I, maybe eight and ten, piled our blocks and Legos and any other stackable things we could find on every step before we sent a single block off the top stair, triggering a catastrophic landslide that demolished the quaint mountainside town we’d built below. Who knows how many Sunday afternoons we wasted playing "Avalanche."

Beyond, above, would be the dining room, small already and made more crowded by the insistent blockish bodies of the washer and dryer. If you turned left here, and then left again, you'd enter the room my brother and I shared, but you'd have to pause at the place (hidden by a generic piece of art) where a meaner teenaged me stabbed his fist through the drywall. ("Um…" "Charles Patrick Bahls, what are you doing in there?!")

My brother had the top bunk, and this suited me well: I preferred the sense of seclusion and retreat the bottom bunk gave me. It was easy to block off light by hanging a couple of blankets from above. I could pretend I slept in a cave. It also made it easier to hide whatever contraband (bootlegged liquor, purloined fire extinguishers, etc.) I didn’t want my parents to find. Only once did I regret having the bottom bunk, the once my brother was so ill that he was unable to make it to the bathroom before he got sick: his high-up perch gave him incredible range.

If you stayed your course and instead went straight past the washer and dryer, you'd see our walk-in pantry on the right as you made your way into the kitchen, really an outgrowth of the dining room (if not the other way around). It sported a matching set of Kenmore appliances, cozily colored a dull grease-spattered chartreuse. On Sunday mornings in midwinter my dad would pull the cutting board from its built-in slot in the countertop and set to work on the bucketfuls of perch he'd caught at Canyon Ferry Lake, listening to Garrison Keillor as the trash bin filled with fish guts and the pile of pink flesh (ohhhh so good steamed and dipped in butter) grew higher and higher in front of him.

Keep going and you'd reach the living room, a den dominated for years by a Curtis Mathes console TV that must have stood taller than I did until I was ten years old. We worked its channels by running our fingers along a column of touch-sensitive strips at the console's right. One weekend afternoon my brother and I discovered that we received two channels that showed Hee Haw in the same time slot, one channel on a slightly longer delay than the other. This discovery was the source of indescribable hilarity as we tortured our mother for the next half-hour by flipping back and forth quickly to make Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff stutter like Max Headroom.

Onward. You'd take a right (unless you left through the front door, straight ahead) and come upon our mother's den, a room piled high with comic books and baseball cards, and filing cabinets filled with everything from old academic records to unused clothing patterns. Of all the rooms in that house, I spent the least time here, but it was a pleasant place, offering a vantage on the front yard, and a west-facing view that caught the summer sun on its way down, reflecting warmly on the hardwood floor.

At last you'd take a right, steering clear of the closet where my mother kept unsorted piles of god-knows-what, and entering the small bathroom that served us four. It had no shower until long after I'd moved away, so a quick hair-washing was impossible unless you used the kitchen sink or (as I did in high school when my hair grew nearly to my waist) the institutional trough-like beast in the basement below. Baths were enjoyable, though, and when I reached a certain age I'd bring in my boom box and listen to Queen or Pink Floyd while lounging in the warm water. I felt safe there, ensconced at the center of the house's spiral.

There's a single small window in the bathroom, high up in the wall, looking out over the back yard and the steps we’d climbed to take us to the back door where we began. Beyond you can see the scrub-covered hills at the city’s north. Sometimes after bathing I would stand, dripping, at the edge of the tub, gazing absentmindedly at those hills, wondering what lay beyond.

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