By Jefferson Weaver
We were halfway watching the late-night news, trying not to nod off before the weather, when I sat bolt upright.
A house in Wilmington had burned; no one was injured, thankfully, but like so many old houses built of pine, the structure was completely engulfed when firefighters arrived. The home was destroyed.
Normally this would have been just another time to say a prayer for the victims, and keep waiting for the weather. This time was different.
The little house on South Fourth Street was mine for a few months, back in 1989. I was between jobs and stubborn. I’d bounced from place to place for a little while, and found this little place on the outermost edge of downtown. It qualified for me because I could have my dogs, Dixie and Tigger, and it was close to the river.
That was a hard, hot summer when I tried to live by bread and fiction alone; I was more than a little full of myself (even moreso than nowadays) and this struck me as a good place to prove that I could beat the odds and make a living as a writer.
The little house wasn’t unusual in most eyes, but it was special. At the end of a one-way street, it sat higher than some of its neighbors, so the wide porch caught the breezes from the river. There was a big magnolia in the front yard which shaded the whole place. An overgrown lot to the south acted as a buffer for the insanity called Wooster and Dawson Streets. On a good day, you could smell the molasses plant, and hear the tugboats as they began their morning duties.
The fellow across the street had the unlikely name of David Davis; he was a good neighbor, although his wife didn’t trust me. Being the only white man in the neighborhood had its disadvantages, I guess. Still, David and I would share a cup of coffee of a morning when I made it on my grill, or when he could sneak a spare cup past his wife.
My little house had some serious wiring issues, and since I had more serious financial issues, I never had the power turned on. Since the layout of the house hadn’t been mangled, airflow wasn’t a big issue. The river winds in the morning and the sea breeze in the evenings made it pleasant, although those few 100-degree days were amongst the most miserable I can remember.
Every window in the house lined up with another one; the bathroom was a late addition, or the front and back doors would have aligned, too. There was a center hall that started at the end of the fairly new living room wall. I knew that wall was more recent since it was the only one lacking tongue-in-groove chair railings, and the boxing around the doors was different.
There was a poured concrete hearth with the year 1900 clearly written in the cement. The fireplace in the living room was fairly normal, but the smaller one in the dining room was a celebration of Victoriana; different colors of marble and limestone flanked the firebox, and an ornately carved mantelpiece with columns ascended from the mantle itself to the ceiling. Each of the columns had a rosette at the cap, and the whole package made my infrequent visitors stop and stare.
The little house in the hollow of Fourth Street had a glorious porch, one designed for sitting and visiting. The railings showed signs of generations of swinging young’uns, as well as leaned elbows as great thoughts were thought.
The little house had a dark side, too; it was rumored a previous tenant was murdered there. I found signs in the back yard that drug-users once hung out there (before Dixie and Tigger informed them that drop-in visitors were not welcome). Drunks and homeless people loved to take advantage of the open crawlspace as a handy place to sleep, drink, and smoke marijuana, until my country side came out and I began confronting them not just with harsh words, but with a shotgun and a slavering dog.
Tigger and I may have prevented a young girl from a horrible fate one day as three varmints tried to drag her into the next door woods. I will never forget standing there with the girl behind me, Tigger barking furiously beside me, and traffic roaring past on the throughway. If anyone saw what was happening, they didn’t stop, or possibly even care. That was when I knew it was time to head home to small towns and the country, although that was still some months in the future.
Most of the time, the little house was a quiet place to live. In the mornings, I would use the payphone down the street to check the temporary agencies for work, and get a cup of coffee. If there was no work that day, the dogs and I would head for the river. I somehow made sure they were fed, but there more than a few times that if my cast net or fishing rod had no luck, I was hungry that night. Too proud or ashamed to ask for much help, I relied on a few friends who made sure I had a decent meal now and again.
Nights were spent swatting the occasional mosquito, trying to write on a manual typewriter by the light of a kerosene lamp and a few candles. The heat of the day often found me doing the same thing, as the little room I used for a study was the coolest in the house.
That couple of months hardened me up, and made me grow up some more, too. I was to spend but a couple months in the little house in the hollow, and a shorter time back at the beach (but that job and period are a column for another day). Eventually I ended up moving back home to my parents, tail tucked between my legs, a prodigal whose pride took a whipping.
Ironically enough, Missus and I had a brief re-encounter with the little house in the hollow the year we got married and moved to Wilmington. We lived on the other end of the historic district, but someone had heard that we had kittens available for adoption. A fellow called me one night and said he had promised his daughter one for her birthday, and did we have a calico? I said I’d be happy to deliver.
“I’ll tell you how to get here,” he said. “Take South Fourth until you get to…”
It didn’t take me long to realize this fellow and his family were living in my old house. The door had been replaced with a crime-proof steel monstrosity, but it was still my old house. The house was well-lit and warm and snug, and happy with a small family living there. The neighborhood was improving some, too, and my old friend David still lived across the street. I liked seeing a Christmas tree shining brightly through the windows on the southern corner of the house.
That was nearly 30 years ago; the squealing six-year-old girl is now a grown woman. If her kitten still lives, she is an elderly cat by now.
I hope David is still around, as I hope the girl Tigger and I semi-rescued that hot afternoon grew up, took charge of her life and found something better. My old dogs, of course, have long since passed on to their rewards; even the old shotgun I used to run off ne’er-do-wells has been retired for some time.
The little house in the hollow wasn’t a place I would have ever desired to live in again, but it was special.
The TV reporter that night was technically correct when she said no was injured in the house fire—but I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one who hurt, at least just little bit, when to hear about the loss of the little house in the hollow.