A Life in a House: A Plan B Essay
In the Plan B essay series, writers discuss their contingency plans, extraliterary passions, and the roads not traveled.
I’ve been pushed from my own rooms by my own things. I now live in the belfry, batty as a spinster aunt, with just a little circle of stained glass as my window out. I pick petals and blooms from my own garden for tea, bind them with leaves, and leave them to dry in the rusted birdcage that the canary escaped. Needles from the heart of the coneflower. Pearls of jasmine. Rosebuds and cloves. In winter, I add ginger and garlic to fend off colds and flus. Sipping hibiscus water lessens the pressure of the blood in the head (which is to say, it files the edges off your headaches).
The attic window’s on a hinge, and that’s how I look out. I oversee a cemetery. I am its only survivor. There is no caretaker, other than me, but I find I like it overrun and overtaken with noxious weeds and prairie grasses. I’m happy to see the limestone crumble and lean. Every morning, I sip tea and take mental note of the cemetery’s latest decline. The Russian thistle is uncivilized.
I’m very careful on the stairs, as each step is stacked with old magazines and newspapers. The hazard is increased by my habit to read on the way down. Yesterday morning, a nineteenth-century
cyclone killed a family of twelve. The day before that, an old woman in 1974 was taken in by thieves who sold her a false bill of goods. I find catastrophe and hoax at every step of my morning descent.
You’re probably wondering: But what is the strangest thing about him? The strangest thing is likely that I live among many broken objects despite the fact that I’m not sure I’ve ever broken anything in my life. Not a dish, not a nose. I’m not in any way addle-fingered, and I’ve never been. If anyone who has ever known me can think of anything I’ve ever broken, I wish you’d tell me, because I have myself convinced that I’m peculiarly (perhaps magically) not-clumsy.
I sell my things to folks who happen by, or I buy the things they want to sell me. I once bought from someone a sign that says We Buy and Sell Antiques, and I set it on my porch, and that was that. If you haven’t gathered as much, I live in the country, but I do have cousins who live in the city. Whenever I go to the city, my cousins have a party, and they insist I dress like an eccentric. They invite different people to each party so that I can tell the same stories over and over. They love to introduce me. Last time, I wore a red silk kimono patterned with cowboys on bucking broncos. I wore a tuxedo shirt with a ruffle and the trousers from a seersucker suit. I wore the type of hat they used to call a trilby, and maybe they still do. My cousins’ friends are all young and sophisticated in that stupid way, and they admire me because I’m nothing they would ever want to be, despite the things they say: Your cousin has the most remarkable life. What a dream that would be. Can you imagine just hiding in the country to hoard? I wish I could be so pleased with such simple pleasure. These boys and girls wear clothes too small for them—trousers that don’t reach to their ankles and dresses that don’t reach their knees. They wear T-shirts that rise up when they laugh and preen, revealing belly buttons that seem so frequently to be outies, as if the outie is infinitely more fashionable than the innie.
I spend my days fixing my broken things, though I don’t have a mind wired for mechanics. I converted a Louis Quatorze–style sideboard into a workbench, and I stand at it until daylight’s gone. I putter. I wear a pair of reading spectacles, and another pair in front of that pair, and another pair in front of that, to magnify. I repair the tinny notes of music boxes. I polish the blind eyes of china dolls. I restring marionettes, patch the tires of toy cars, correct the lenses of complicated cameras, and comb the fleas from the mange of taxidermied lapdogs. I take my lunch in the conservatory, where I’ve parked a candy-apple-red Chevrolet Bel Air. I sit in the car with a thermos of coffee and a sandwich of shaved beef tongue and pickles I pickled myself. I look in the rearview mirror and practice the best way to smoke my French cigarettes.
In the early falls and late springs, I spend many evenings on the stage of the community theater in the little town up the way. The theater is a restored opera house in the upstairs of a hardware store. Sarah Bernhardt once performed there when her train was stalled by a blizzard. With nowhere to go, she and her troupe slapped together a truncated version of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea. In the lobby, under glass, is a boot of pale-blue damask and buttons of pearl believed to have been worn by Bernhardt on stage. I once played Bernhardt in a play I wrote myself: I, the Actress Sarah Bernhardt.
In my play, I play Bernhardt playing Hamlet.
I play many roles, whether men or women. There aren’t many actors or actresses in town, so I have my pick of all the greatest characters. I play demons as effectively as I play angels, slipping beneath the skin of the most skin-crawlingly vicious, or bringing a touch of divinity to cherubs and heroines. My Peter Pan was so honest I made the children cry. I gave everyone the willies with my Blanche DuBois. I played each and every character in a one-man production of Our Town, and won a certificate from the county chapter of Job’s Daughters.
There are probably those who grow weary of seeing me in every play, but our audiences are far too polite to criticize. Even the paper’s critic never judges. She neither raves nor rants. She simply describes. She attends each performance, then returns to her desk after dark, in the locked newspaper offices, to file her review before midnight, a review which is, without fail, a simple outline of plot and listing of the cast members.
We do three plays per season, two weekends per play. We sell more tickets than we have seats. We’ve never not been blessed with a standing ovation. The florist brings me roses. The librarian has me autograph the playbill for the archives.
I go home abuzz, my whole body electric, as if I’d knocked my funny bone and sent a ringing through every inch of my skeleton. I drink brandy from my lucky teacup, a china cup from the set of a woman who sunk with the Lusitania. And my very high high plummets to a very low low, and I’m up all night, restless, running through my mind the details of all the other lives I should be living.
Timothy Schaffert’s novel The Swan Gondola, a story of love and ghosts set among the flimflam men, snake-oil salesmen, occultists, and actresses of the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair, is forthcoming from Riverhead/Penguin. Schaffert is the author of four other novels, all from Unbridled Books: The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, Devils in the Sugar Shop, and The Coffins of Little Hope. His work has been a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers selection, an Indie Next pick, and a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. He teaches in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the director/founder of the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, and is a contributing editor to Fairy Tale Review.