My last month, in flashes: the crush of 9400 sweaty, anxious handshakes, and go-getter conversations in the exhibit hall of this year’s Modern Language Association meeting, in San Francisco; the fog draping itself over the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay, with foghorns crying forlornly into the twilight and La Bella warm at my side; floors strewn with glittery wrapping paper on Christmas morning; the glow of candlelight rising onto faces at the eleven o’clock church service the night before; four days spent hurtling from my mom’s house in Mesquite to my dad’s house in Duncanville, with the onrush and honks of Dallas traffic in-between the two suburbs; a boozy, bedraggled, joyous high-school semi-reunion, at a hipster redneck bar (say that three times fast) called the Double Wide; frantically stuffing my past nine years into boxes, and throwing out the rest as—
Enough. You get the idea. I’ve been busy.
It’s that last clause of the first paragraph that’s caught me unprepared. Until a week ago, I’ve been living in the same efficiency apartment since September 1999. My first home away from home—because dorms don’t count—apartment #426 has been storage room, book depository, safe haven, bedquarters, bane of my existence. Two years ago, I decided that enough was enough:
Over the last year, I’ve become disenchanted with apartment living. Oh, there are things I still love—rent is cheap; utilities are cheap; maintenance is free and prompt; and I live ten minutes from my job, my grocery store, my favorite restaurants, and the World’s Greatest Bookstore. But I won’t miss the thin walls, or the bright green carpet, or the people shouting from their balconies down to people in the parking lot at all hours of the night, or the thump-thump-thump of the people walking above me (and, as I pace when I think, I’m sure my downstairs neighbors won’t miss me, either), or the shrieking kids, or the young men who occasionally “hang out” in the parking lot, drinking their dinners from paper sacks.
More than all of that, I won’t miss the strictures against defining my home for my own damn self. It’s not allowed for me to drill holes into the walls, in order to hang art. Mounted tape is A-okay, apparently, but not nails. I’ve broken this stricture, several times, as my art collection has grown. So, I’m sure I won’t be getting back my deposit. No matter. I wish I could just contract a new carpet to be laid down, or paint the walls a new number, without interference. In a house of my own, I could do this. In an apartment that’s not rent-controlled or owned by me, it’s obviously a different story.
La Bella and I had planned on moving in together in early March—La Bella’s lease ended on February 28th; mine ended at the close of January—but the house was too perfect to pass up. The price is right; the size and layout is right; and we’ve been sold on the neighborhood for ages. Belhaven College, a small Christian liberal-arts school, is nestled within the miniature borough, and my alma mater Millsaps is just across a major thoroughfare from Belhaven. The University of Mississippi Medical Center (a teaching hospital) is about a mile down the street. The neighborhood’s population is a diverse mix of young and middle-aged couples, young families, and lots of students of various stripes, young doctors, and new professors. Everyone walks. Joggers and leashed dogs are common sights. There’s a lot of Old Jackson Money floating around, but the neighborhood is mostly middle-class with some pockets of artists and students who are barely making ends meet. Laurel Street Park, site of kids playing and superannuated hippies playing bad acoustic guitar, lies four blocks from home. Its vibe—half Old Money gone to seed, half young bohemian on the make—and physical feel reminds me of the parts of East Dallas in which I grew up, but without the booming lowriders at night.
Belhaven is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Jackson, tree-canopied and hilly. Eudora Welty spent her four-decade writing career in a big house in Belhaven that’s now a museum. Most of the house are at least 60 years old, with foundation problems, and creaking hardwood floors, and in that regard ours is no different.
We don’t own the house but I feel like it belongs to us. I think it chose us.
Josephine Haxton is a Jackson writer—her pen name is Ellen Douglas—whose last book (Witnessing, a collection of her essays) was published by my press in 2004. We worked with Jo extensively on the book, helping her select pieces—she was beginning to suffer from Parkinson’s and memory loss by this point—and put things in sequence. I went over to her house frequently in the summer of 2003, hands full of pencil-marked manuscript pages. After discussing the manuscript and ironing out details, we would chat about books on her couch—she adored W.G. Sebald, and asked pointed questions about a novella on which I was working. She had taught me in a creative writing class in spring 1999, and remained interested in her work. I admired her own output enough to be flattered and thoroughly humbled. Upon the book’s publication in August 2004, I watched her read, with characteristic wit and brio, an essay about Ava Gardner at a well-received reception. I lost track of her after that, though I would see her occasionally around town, always with friends assisting her, always looking a bit more frail than the last time.
Fast forward to mid-December 2008: La Bella noticed a Belhaven house on her street that’s up for rent, and called about it immediately. We arranged a visit for the next day on our lunch break. As soon as we walked in, I knew it was Jo’s old house. The woman showing us the house turned out to be Jo’s daughter-in-law, and we fell into a relaxed conversation about Jo and how she’s handling life. She now lives with her son and daughter-in-law. By then, La Bella had already fallen in love with the house, and appreciated having the creative aura of a well-known writer around us. By the time we had trod on the whining floorboards, we were stealing glances at each other and mouthing that this was our” house.
And that was that. The rental was relatively easy, with a straightforward contract, and we sealed our goodwill by giving the daughter-in-law a luscious black-and-white print of Jo that I found in the press’s depository of old photographs. The insanity of utility deposits, installations, and all the regular crap was compounded by discovering that our water heater needed to be replaced. There are probably mice, though we’re not sure. Our two cats, who haven’t technically met yet though they’re in the house, will probably cure the rodent problem if they don’t kill each other first.
You know, the usual.
Like every ex-dj music aficionado, my shelves are crammed with music, in my case over six formats: compact disc, cassette, digital, vinyl, 8-track, and reel-to-reel. As space is increasingly at a premium, this is my attempt to make sense of all the noise. The goal is to find wonderful music hiding in my own house, stuffed in closets or secreted on hard drives.
The verdicts are: Shelf (meaning you get a spot in the front room by the various music players), Second Listen (verily, I am intrigued), Exile (banished to the back closet, but not forgotten), and Salvation Army (seeya).
I’m applying his mindset to everything—books, music, DVDs, comics, tech stuff, clothes. Both La Bella and I learned how much crap we’ve accumulated over the years without thinking. Though the house is substantially larger than both of our apartments combined, it’s time for a lot of this shit to go, Goodwill-style or eBay. We need the shelf space. And with all the deposits and new household purchases, we need the money.
You won’t hear complaints from me. For the first time in a long time, I honestly feel like I’m at home.