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The Things We Leave Behind

Issue 120, Spring 2023

Isabel (Pyrite), 2020, a photograph by Lex Thompson. Courtesy the artist

When we first moved in, we called it “The Rectory.”

The house had a quiet, still, almost reverent feel to it. The floors were covered in an indistinguishable wood that had once been black and now, faded with the decades, was a well-worn gray-brown. The backyard was overgrown and deep in dead leaves and tangled vines. A half dozen soccer balls rotted around the edges near the fence. In the living room—the room that stretched almost the entire length of the rowhouse—stood an overpowering piece of furniture that we couldn’t quite make sense of. Something between a bar, a buffet, and an altarpiece, it was several times the height and width of the front door, making it very unclear how it had come to be there in the first place, and more unclear how it would ever get out. It was almost as if this behemoth had grown from the dark floorboards, coloring the room with a dour sternness, as if it were there expressly to check us, to remind us not to have too much fun, not to enjoy life too much. It had been through a thing or two, its frayed wooden corners and spotted mirror inset reminded us. It was neither centered along the wall nor against the fireplace opposite it. The room’s baseboard heaters—splitting at their old metal seams—were built around it, telling us it had, this inanimate object had, pre-existed both us and widespread central heating. Maybe it would outlive us too.

My husband and I knew nothing of who had lived in the house in the 140 or so years of its history. Who owned it, or why it had been preserved when so many around it were knocked into open floor plans, expanded with glass walls, adorned with stainless steel, digital doorbells, and intercom systems? This was all elusive to us, mere renters, the lowest subset of the real estate market. But that, of course, didn’t stop us wondering: Whose rooms were we sleeping in? What had the monstrous piece of furniture seen? The building itself seemed to want to tell us.

The house, its past, and us were in a part of D.C. that had sprung up in the aftermath of the Civil War. It was the neighborhood that Frederick Douglass had once called home and where John Philip Sousa had been born; where the Capitol had been erected by enslaved labor and where the first senators walked to work on dirt streets. We’d come from New York City, and the gas-lit lamps, front porches, and gardens with magnolia trees, ancient oak, crepe myrtle, and early blooming jasmine were as exotic to us as if we had been transported from another country. The heat—the relentless, repressive, sticky heat, the heat of the beginning of the South, the heat of a literal swamp—was as overpowering as our inherited piece of furniture.

Our home evoked more Rosa Coldfield than Miss Havisham. The dark, closed living room and its permanent piece of furniture drew to mind the opening pages of Absalom! Absalom!, where the smell of the tangled garden flowers mix with the dust and damp of inside, everything dark and wooden, tightly closed to the outside world that moved on with time. The floors excessively creaked, sometimes seemingly on their own. The doors never quite shut; the windows never stayed open. The only thing that never moved, never swayed in motion, was the giant piece of furniture.

What people before us had placed their hands on its surface, pulled open a drawer with a tug of the brass handle, or caught themselves in the mirror, I couldn’t know. But I half expected to see other faces there with mine, almost anticipated catching the wisp of someone’s hair, a curve of a nose, an image imbedded in the glass that had stood there through the house’s history. We imagined the house new, first built with four fireplaces and exactly zero insulation. Maybe Walt Whitman had walked by on the way to his work at the army paymaster’s office, or Mathew Brady had strolled past in the evenings after leaving his photography studio along Pennsylvania Avenue. We mused about who had first lived here, about where they stored their firewood and if they would have kept a horse.

Yet still the first inhabitants remained out of reach to us. Too much time had gone by and they had left nothing except their piece of furniture. It felt more plausible to imagine the more recent tenants, those who rented right before us even though the home seemed to have been shuttered long before we arrived. (Shuttered like Rosa Coldfield’s house had been.) They had been old, we imagined. Rosa Coldfield old. Maybe it was the stillness throughout the house, but we could see them, slightly hunched, climbing the curved, slanted staircase at night, gripping the not completely stable railing. I couldn’t picture them ever lighting a fire, but I could imagine them walking to church, praying in the evenings beside their beds. They most certainly never tried to haul the giant piece of furniture out to the curb.

We settled in, unpacked, painted (yes, even though we were renters), cleared the yard, planted flowers (again, yes, even though renters). We made ourselves at home. I alphabetized the books and then rearranged them by theme, by country, by genre. We added a shelf to the built-in bookcase where one had long been missing. I placed Welty, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers centerstage. They were in their element here, maybe, in a house slightly in the South, a house slightly haunted.

Life seemed to be coming back into the bones of the shuttered house, returning through the pictures we hung on the wall and furniture we were slowly accumulating to fill our new, much-larger-than-anything-we-had-lived-in-before space. Everything of ours, no matter how antique—or, more likely, how passed down—was new compared to the house. Our belongings couldn’t help but stand in contrast to the living room monstrosity that we had come to use as storage, a bar, and a catchall for keys and mail. And we needed a place to put the mail.

From the first day we lived in the house, the previous tenants’ mail was entangled in ours. A pile of it had waited for us when we moved in, as if there had been no end, or beginning to it too. The mail came daily, arriving for the former renters who, with each envelope, were feeling more and more like ghostly roommates, faces I might catch in the mirror in the living room.

Some days the mail was nothing more than clip-out coupon flyers and advertisement postcards. Other afternoons it was letters, stiff envelopes that looked to contain thin books or journals. I fell into the rhythm of expecting a substantial thud each afternoon as the stack of correspondence shot through the mail slot. The mail was rarely for us, the current residents.

From the names on the mail, I knew they were two men. From the titles before their names, I knew they were men of the cloth. From the power adapter screwed to a wall in the laundry room, I knew at least one of them was British.

And did I need to know anything else? Of course not. Yet I wanted to know everything. Were they friends? Mere roommates—real roommates—in the two-bedroom house? Were they lovers? Like the giant piece of furniture, their presence lingered in the house.

The mail kept coming. Every few weeks a catalogue of Catholic accoutrements would arrive—a litany of communion wafers, vestments, and chalices, each catalogue thicker than the last. Some weeks I tossed it aside; some weeks I looked through it carefully. The statues of Jesus with notes saying “rosary not included,” the customizable clergy travel case, and the pocket holy water sprinkler with a snap case felt more real to me than the intended recipients. I eyed the TRUST IN THE LORD scarves and the models who were more handsome than any priest I had ever seen. Maybe these catalogues were as much for me as for the men.

A year into living in the house and I still couldn’t stop wondering about the men I started referring to as “the priests.” I imagined them moving away from the house in the night—maybe fleeing—too fast to change their mail or leave a forwarding address. Were they in love and didn’t want anyone to know? Were they also bothered by the noise-averse neighbor to our left or the nosy neighbors to the right? Where did they put their furniture in the strangely laid out living room? What did they think of the giant piece of furniture? Which bedroom did they use? (How many bedrooms did they use?)

The world and the postal system had failed these men, I concluded. Forced to buy their own communion wafers and robes and pay rent on a two-bedroom home in an expensive city. The cost of Catholicism was high.

I let my imagination run deeper with each COVID month. These men weren’t ghosts of the house; they were real people. Real people with mail. They were definitely lovers, I concluded. Persecuted. They were elderly. They were gentle and kind. I imagined them coming and going in dog collars, walking to the church down the street, lounging at home in the morning in flannel robes, drinking tea, never coffee. Having no real interest in gardening or the children whose soccer balls wound up among the fallen leaves and were left to languish. From their mail I knew they cared about historic preservation and the effects of climate change. They had an interest in saccharine tchotchke catalogues that sold HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS needlepoint pillows and a variety of colorful faux Christmas trees. I wondered if they were happy and what they made of this strange time, and if the pandemic isolation was welcome or lonely, or perhaps a little bit of both.

I felt their presence everywhere. I felt it while I did laundry or worked at the kitchen table or at my desk upstairs. I felt it at night, pouring a second glass of wine, listening to music. They were watching us, like the furniture, reminding us to be good.

One day our noise-averse neighbor mentioned they had once seen one of the priests marching in a pro-life rally not far away. They locked eyes, but the priest pretended he didn’t see them, they said. And they pretended too.

It had happened long ago when the priests still lived in the house that I now called home. I felt betrayed by these men, nevertheless. I had never known them, yet I had been haunted by them, imagining them, somehow, maybe strangely, as my friends. I had felt a lingering open-mindedness, a love, a sympathy formed only through the bones of the house, through our mail slot, through the piece of furniture that watched over everything. I had given them a story, a past. It was a mythology.

I tried to kill the idea of them. Vanish them again as ghosts. I tried to forget about their mail and catalogues of baptismal bibs and chalices. I tried to tuck their history on my bookshelf, close the shutters on their dusty legacy, hide them away in the piece of furniture. I drew a line between them and me, a line between their house and my house, one that was shuttered like Rosa Coldfield’s and one that was kept open.

In my mind they were supporters of my rights, of all women’s rights, and decisions about one’s own body. But of who they were really and what they truly believed, I knew nothing. Piecing together a story—a life—through envelopes was never going to summon the real thing. They had simply once lived in the house I had come to love, and that was all. Our common denominator was that we were both renters, mere renters. We would stay for a while in the house and then move on, becoming ghosts along with the sagging floorboards and furniture too large to move.

Months later—still months deeper into the pandemic—I tore through a small pile of mail while listening in half-heartedly on a phone meeting, opening each envelope and dropping its contents onto the piece of furniture in the living room. The spring heat was already starting to mount and we had cracked the windows open, welcoming the sunshine after a cold winter in the uninsulated house. The first sign of spring was so new and fresh, so devoid of ghosts. I tore through a cardboard envelope that wasn’t addressed to me but to one of the priests. Their pieces of mail had become fewer and farther between. It had been easy to think about them less and less. It had become second nature to forget about the catalogue models’ good looks and the price of vestments.

Yet here, among my phone bill and a New Yorker renewal postcard and a letter from my husband’s grandmother, lay a packet of pills with eleven refills. One of the priest’s Viagra was in my hand. He was real again, naked, so it seemed, and I had undressed him. I put the pills back in the envelope and then into the trash. I threw the rest of the mail on the piece of furniture in the living room. I looked in the mirror and saw no ghosts. Only myself and the house, present and surrounded by the past.

Madeline Weinfield

Madeline Weinfield is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and other publications.