The Shack
    John Michael Cummings
There was a place in town where we felt comfortable being poor, where we were not bothered by outsiders’ gawking, critical eyes. It was on the front porch of an old, wooden house that sat on the uphill side of our family lot, along a steep back street that pudgy tourists could not hike.

My grandparents on my father’s side had lived in it before my father bought an older stone house on the adjacent lower lot fronting the main street. As the wooden house began falling down, my father starting calling it “the shack”. It was no shack, though, but a sturdy, two-story structure with a large dirt-floor basement. The paint had been long gone from the clapboards and heavy, cloudy plastic covered the small windows. Though the electricity had been shut off years ago, somehow the shack kept itself warm, like an old man wearing many layers. My father had placed an oversized padlock on the small windowless front door that faced the narrow back street. What was inside the shack and what happened in there we have kept locked away in our memory.

What I remember most about the shack was the wonder I felt looking at all the odds and ends—from tires to canoes to clock parts, all cluttered under low ceilings and within musty walls. Stored in a second story room with an especially low ceiling and uneven, hand-troweled plaster walls were boxes and boxes of holiday decorations.

My mother was very ceremonious about holidays and she had a sweet tooth for tacky merchandise. Each year she discovered more and more holiday nicknacks to buy at the five-and-ten in town, and the top room in the shack was stuffed with her collection.

Every year, when it turned October, she announced that she would make a trip to the shack that month and that we were to help her carry down the boxes marked “Halloween”. My brothers and I needed no reminding or urging; Halloween was our favorite time of year. On the designated Saturday, we waited at the shack most of the afternoon, as our mother finally made her way up the backyard in her red corduroy jacket, a symbol of autumn in our family. We called for her to hurry up. She wasn’t old she was careful, aware of loose stones on the hillside.

In the dark shack, she followed us like Christopher Robin behind Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Piglet. At the top of the stairs, she poked her flashlight through boxes, murmuring to herself, deciding which one to take, which to leave, which she was unsure about--usually those that contained a mixture or overlap of back-to-back holidays, such as Halloween and Thanksgiving and even beyond: cutouts of fall leaves thrown in with unopened bags of Easter basket grass. I watched her flashlight beam uncover my Casper the Friendly Ghost mask lying deep in a box, under pumpkin-shaped orange candles and various goblin decorations. She cried out when she found it—it was no secret in our family that I was her favorite.

Every year my mask surfaced as is it had been put away, with the thin rubber band that held it on my head broken. No matter how many times my mother refastened to the small staples in the ears of the mask, it broke again and again

On Halloween night, sweaty under the stiff plastic Casper face, the rubber band, tied tighter and tighter each time it broke, I ran with my brothers up and down the long stairs to houses high on the rocky hill that rose up from Harpers Ferry. Standing with my brothers on these high front porches, I felt satisfaction in being concealed from the adults who answered the doors, not revealing myself to them even when they asked.

My mother, waiting down at the curb, was too far away to be recognized. Not that they were friends of hers. Long-time residents of lower Harpers Ferry like my parents and the rich people who lived high on the hill did not visit one another. I remember feeling an irony I could not understand, feeling welcome at their door as Casper the Friendly Ghost, but not as the son of Bill Connors from down in town.

When November came, our mother returned to the shack for Thanksgiving decorations. Having sorted through the boxes just the month before, our mother knew exactly which of the unmarked boxes to take. She wore knit gloves, for there was a deep, dry freeze in the room that made the boxes crisp and brittle. The cloudy winter light shone through the small plastic-covered window, illuminating her as she stood in the little house. Most houses in Harpers Ferry were built with low ceilings and small steps for the short Irish folk who lived in them. Mom would have stood well in a castle.

Down the hillside we went in a procession of brown cardboard boxes, like ants carrying crumbs back to the nest. Thanksgiving was our mother's favorite time of the year. She decorated mantels and sills and shelves with foldout paper turkeys and popout figures of American colonialists welcoming the Indians. She loved to arrange the tableaux and, as I watched her work, I saw her lose herself in the joy.

Christmas was the real bonanza, warranting at least a dozen boxes from the shack. We assembled them into a caravan and slid them one by one down the icy hillside. They held: artificial trees, one for every floor of our house, bags of bulbs, boxes of wreaths, a ton of tinsel—gold and silver, blue and green, sets of nativity figurines—wax, wood, and even pewter, various electrical accessories and homemade knickknacks, including generations of priceless handmade ornaments. A Christmastide coming down the hillside.

The summer I turned 12, my brothers and I often came to the shack to take off our clothes and run around. The air cool against our bodies, we were too young to be afraid of the mustiness against our skin. Matt liked being naked. He pranced around the shack, his big white butt gleaming through the dim light, climbed out on the upper rear porch and stood like a jungle boy on a tree limb growing through the railing.

That August we had a lot of rain, and the long hilly path leading from our house to the shack became especially overgrown. We had buried two of our dogs in the hillside and, out of reverence, did not cut the wild growth over their graves. Limbs, growing wildly in every direction, reached up through the sagging porch of the shack, hoisting it up like a tree house. This uplift rocked the foundation and the cinderblock basement wall tumbled outward. Soon, the wood columns of the porch dangled like the legs of hanged men. When the shoulder of the back street eroded and slid a mass of dirt, wire, and junk that blocked the path, Dad leaned a ladder up to the back porch for access.

Because of all the rain, Dad had us dig a drainage ditch so the lowest part of the hillside would not wash down into our kitchen. Mom climbed the ladder along with the rest of us. Hand over hand up the ladder, she grumbled that her backyard was becoming an obstacle course.

We didn’t want her in the shack anymore. It was our place now. If we wanted to break up a chair in it, we could. If we wanted to gouge a wall with a screwdriver, if we wanted break a window, if we wanted to piss in the corner, the old house let us. Besides, she was always poking around, her rummaging made us nervous — we had hidden cigarettes, wine bottles, and dirty magazines throughout the rooms. We were sure she didn’t suspect a thing.

One day, I became aware I was alone in the lower house and my brothers had not been around for a while. I hurried up the obstacle course, climbed the ladder, and found Matt in the doorway, naked, his thick thing a-bob. He looked down the ladder at me as if I were an enemy climbing up a fort wall.

"Is Mom coming up with you?" he demanded, standing in the shadow of the door and not letting me up.

Andy was nearby, nude, too, smoking a cigarette and looking at an issue of Oui. I was furious that they had been fooling around without me. At the same time, an undirected excitement was overcoming me — magazine pictures of naked women were not especially exciting, what was exciting was the absence of all appropriateness, our baser nature in full swing.

When we were in high school, there was only one place our father would allow us to lift weights, one place where we could destroy nothing but the dirt floor: the basement of the shack. So we moved our weights up the hillside. In the basement of the shack, stout old beams stood around us like jail bars, not keeping us in, keeping the world out. This was our wasteland, beautiful and satisfying in its ugliness. The first thing we did was to heave cinderblocks against the walls, smashing them like bottles. Then we pissed on the dirt floor, punched each other in the shoulder, and roared like apes to make the place ours.

Months earlier, our father had run an industrial-length extension cord from the house to the shack. It must have been a hundred yards long. He had intended to shore up the side of the shack and would have needed a power saw to cut braces. But, characteristic of our father, he did not do the work; uncharacteristic of him, he left the cord out in the weather and forgot about it. Much of it was soon under leaves. So we had electricity for a while —a boom box that never went weak from playing it at full volume and a bare bulb for light. When he unexpectedly took away the cord, we lit candles we found in an ordinary cardboard box in the basement. We made an altar of our bench press and, in keeping with being Catholic, persecuted ourselves under the heavy weights.

There was a basic, measurable growth in weightlifting that we needed to experience. In school, we were angry boys, polka-dotted with shyness. But in the basement, we were all black with determination, roasted-black by our focus to beat the enemy: This enemy, plain gravity, tested us, tried to dominate us. When we slid the weights onto the bar, they massed into one aggressor that froze our hands around it, but our muscles, to our fascination, withstood the strain. The sight of our veins, the feel of our expanding muscles — this gave us power, we thought. The thought itself was enough.

Every day we returned for the battle. There was no society down there in the basement of the inhabitable old house, no laws, no school counselors wanting to talk about our anger--just this one silent, invisible enemy to battle with, exactly as we wanted: force against force. Within months, stretch marks streaked my chest, and Andy was squatting with all the weights we could tie on, strap on, or otherwise hang on the bar.

Matt, though, was not finished upstairs. Sometimes, as our workouts were ending, he sneaked up the ladder. I could hear the sound of his footsteps creaking the floor above me. Once, I climbed up and found him in a dark, shaped-laden room with his shirt off. He looked at me with a thin, mischievous smile, but I was not interested. I had no desire to be naked with him again. That long, hot summer of our curiosity had passed.

We were growing older fast. The bikes we had ridden up and down the back street now lay busted up in the backyard. New neighbors from the city were all around us, with their disapproving eyes. The town was changing. I felt heavy-hearted, aware of myself in a new way. Loneliness was a constant feeling. Growing up, they called it.

I cannot recall where in the world I was when the shack fell down. Maybe Florida. I was moving around a lot in those days and had come through Harpers Ferry on a visit to find only the stone foundation and a few beams of the shack still there. I stopped my car on the back street and stood staring into the sunken ground that had been the basement. The sun had made weeds of the dirt floor. By this time, my family was gone from the town. My parents had sold the property and had moved up to Bolivar, into my grandmother’s old place. The hillside was now thoroughly overgrown, and the new owners had let the rest of the shack fall down, the wood rot away, in its own good time, into memory.

John Michael Cummings has appeared in North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Kansas Quarterly Review.


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