This small, wooden house where I live was once built for love, by my 80-year-old landlady and her husband in the 1950s. Now fallen into disrepair, my partner and I affectionately dubbed it “the shack with the million-dollar view,” for the unobstructed panorama of snow-covered mountains that greets us in the east. Never mind the rows of rusting auto carcasses next door, or the boxcar-size storage container. In the mornings we squint as light spills over the peaks and onto the diorama before us: rows of overlapping mesas, peach, terra-cotta, rust, then purple, snow and sky.
Details like embossed doorknobs and lace curtains hint at the English charm this house might have had before its gray-blue exterior paint peeled and chipped, and ivy swallowed the north-facing wall with its voracious appetite. Grasshoppers the size of small hummingbirds now live in the disheveled Franch tarragon that once fit neatly in its planter.
Early each morning the old lady comes outside in her long, cotton nightgown, turns on the creaky faucet that waters her roses. Her old, fat dog follows her, with a slight limp, to the chicken coop to gather eggs. I wonder if she and her husband planted the roses together; if his memory is the reason the small white Virgin Mary statue is always immaculately weeded.
Sometimes it feels strange to inhabit someone else’s house. Before we moved in, this kitchen had long forgotten what it was like to cook for a family. An air of disappointment lingers on the upholstered chair and lamp in the corner of the living room. Someone used to read the paper there. The back sewing room has a tiny window that looks out on the mountains.
When I go hiking in the desert and stumble onto the ruins of an ancient dwelling in some tucked-away cave, it reminds me of our role as transient tenants here in Utah. Living among the remnants of another culture’s heyday, long before the words “town” or “neighborhood” described places. Petroglyphs and pottery sherds provide pieces for our imaginations to build on, creating a picture of the past as vivid as the one I see in my little house.
The eerie feeling of presence is the same though: on a quiet evening in the canyons, a raven’s throaty croak sounds like, “we’re still here.”