Why we felt guilty for finding the murder house is difficult to say. It’s not as if we killed anyone. But there was something so sordid and inexplicable about what we found there that it would have been better never to have discovered it at all. What we saw only raised questions about life in Colinton that I believe are fundamentally impossible to answer. Knowing that such questions, such houses, exist is only to draw attention to a grown man’s habit of picking and eating his scabs. He would do it if he were alone, but the shame is multiplied because of your presence. Your shame is multiplied too.
The murder house (as we immediately started calling it) stood across the road from J’s trailer. We found it for what it was in broad northern daylight, on a walk with the three dogs, on a Thursday afternoon when D and I had driven up from the city to attend Steak Night at the Colinton bar. J had been living in Colinton (population: 410) for months already, but this was our first trip to visit her. I remember feeling guilty that we hadn’t come sooner, and now, almost a year later, I continue to feel guilty with each month that passes without us visiting again.
Steak Night, as J promised, was populated with a cast of country characters I couldn’t have invented for the page if I tried.
There was the live jukebox couple who claimed to know twenty-five hundred songs and took requests all evening. They seemed too young for their work and later D realized he’d gone to highschool with the woman. (J and I smirked and pretended to gasp. D’s old friends from highschool had become one of our minor urban legends. To our disappointment, he had not slept with this one.)
There was the table full of young men, sunburnt and beer-bellied, in John Deere t-shirts and badly fitting jeans, and the astonishingly beautiful young man in their midst—the group of them field hands, and the one a hipster’s dream of a field hand, complete with a denim shirt, sleeves rolled, unbuttoned at the chest, and a bandana around his neck. Perhaps we were most astonished that the other men allowed themselves to be seen with him.
There were the teenaged girls with long, clean, centre-parted hair and rhinestones on their back pockets, sitting with their fathers, suspiciously unrebellious.
There was the woman in the gingham sundress and running shoes which her ankles overflowed. She was as dirty as the farm boys, with a beer belly to match, but laughing loudly, hollering requests for Corb Lund. How she had maneuvered her oxygen tank into the bar was uncertain.
There was T, a trucker and ex-earth-mover who preached an impromptu and unwelcome sermon on the ease of getting “native girls” pregnant and the horrors attendant on the naive man who stuck around after getting them that way. Seeing our faces, he laughed and said he was allowed to say these things, he was a quarter Indian himself.
“Just look at the history. They were born to get slapped around.” It was far too long before he delivered his promised punch line. “They hit right back too.”
. . . . .
Months later, writing this down, it occurs to me that this speech of T’s was the second but probably not the final scene of violence I am a fool to recall from Colinton that day. Though it isn’t as if Colinton has a monopoly on the troubling and perverse. Is it? What have I surely failed to notice (for lack of white-trash-prairie-gothic effect?) in my cute apartment in my city of a million people? Why am I still bearing witness to another town’s dirty laundry? Literally, in the case of the bandages and T’s underwear.
But in fact it would be ridiculous to talk about the prairie gothic effect of the murder house. Its effect lay in its absurdity. It was no George Webber photograph. A scene from rural life, perhaps, but if you asked me, I’d still be at a loss to answer what kind of life.
. . . . .
I got very drunk that night, and made a fool of myself throwing my weight against the door to the ladies bathroom. D and J were already asking for a story about the murder house. A waterstained poster tacked up above the sink detailed the process of ordering the “angel shot”. Here’s how it works: Order an angel shot neat and a bartender will escort you to your car. Ask for it with ice and the bartender will call a taxi or Uber for you. Order it with lime and—I pictured the woman in the gingham dress hollering for an angel shot with lime. I pictured her getting into a black SUV and the look of revulsion on the face of the driver. Eventually, one of the two huge bartenders came to free me, nudging the door in with her hip and explaining with the patience of a nurse doing a bowel movement inquiry that it was a pull door, not a push.
I believe these bartenders also owned the business. Though they suffered abuse that would not have been tolerated at a city bar, they controlled the flow of beer, and patrons berating them for taking so long to return to their table sprinkled handfuls of change on their wet serving trays as if these farmers believed they were making it rain. The bartenders rolled like combines between the inside dining room and the patio. The inside dining room was where a buffet of white rolls and potato salad and caesar salad and bean salad and a pan full of red Jello with a whipped topping had been set up. The patio, about the size of a competition swimming pool, was where we were sitting with T and J and N, J’s housemate and one of her colleagues from the university, 15 kilometres away.
N was a boy of 25 who spoke as if he were 40. That evening, he spoke about how often he liked to eat meat, and the weather. He spoke about wanting to sell his Sunfire, and T spoke about wanting to buy it off him. T liked the red velour interior. J shuddered. N said it got the job done. I made a face and everyone burst out laughing.
Now I wonder if it is possible to be young in a place like Colinton, where the whole bar was expected to drive home along dark township roads, where D and I felt unexpectedly naive, unable to open doors, unable to speculate on the reality or unreality of rideshare programs in communities of 410 people, unable to drink more than two beers without beginning to feel as if the floorboards were rotting under us.
T’s and N’s inarticulateness (though I doubt they would have called it that) was that of extreme and inglorious age, of men deprived of something. What? What does the beauty of nature fail to make up for? When does the green and gold prairie, the expanded universe, the elevating vista, become the empty page, large as a field, on which the child drops without a pen?
Though not without weapons, or tools that could become weapons. Is it better to be deprived of words for the murder house, as T was? Just look at the frequency of farm accidents, limbs mangled in harvesters, carloads of teenagers flipped in the ditch on graduation night, neighbours mistaken for coyotes. I know that equally terrible things happen in the city. But does the city so easily take them for granted and move on? Do city people pass around the funeral photos at the next wedding, pulling them out of their glove compartments with some clucked nothing?
. . . . .
We approached the murder house through a field of tansy, chest-high. We were going to look at it because J thought D and I should buy it. Large, wood-shingled, clearly (or so we thought) abandoned, built into a generous rise, it had a bank of windows across the front, which rose over the tansy like the prow of a ship. As we waded toward it, the dogs got more and more excited and we unclipped their tangled leashes. They ran off, and we stopped to survey our charmingly hypothetical new abode. J, who once lived for a year in our building, who was familiar with our apartment and with our past apartments, told us exactly where our desks would sit in relation to the windows. She pictured me hemming curtains for them and suggested that we would have an excuse to expand our collection of houseplants. She had pothos, coleus, and wandering jew cuttings for us.
“And you’d always be making rhubarb crisp and high bush cranberry jam in the kitchen,” she said. It was true. I have a persistent nostalgia for the rhubarb that grows beside every house and trailer in this part of the country, and a persistent nostalgia for a vaguely pioneering lifestyle that I have never had practical reason to resort to. I love buying big bags of sugar and flour. I love having opinions about jar seals and pectin. I love canning things, drying things, baking things, cutting up and freezing things. In this one arena, I love to be in the thick of the action. I love making something out of what is there.
In the end, the only reason we peered into the basement at all was that J had a hunch that’s where the kitchen was.
Perhaps it was a kind of kitchen. There was a table and chairs, though they were not kitchen chairs. There was a stove, though it looked more like an ancient furnace with a scattered pile of kindling in front of it. There were knives with black plastic handles and a wooden block to slot into, possibly a Sears set. There was a Raggedy Ann doll in the style of grey plastic booster seat you might find in the dining room of any McDonald’s. There was the right kind of blue sprigged linoleum. There was a box full of milkglass tea cups with a pattern of brown diamonds on them. There was a smell of cold earth and old grease and tansy. There was a smell of rot that could have been coming from any nearby pile of compost or day-old roadkill left in the sun. There was a great deal of blood.
We assumed at first that deer hunters had set up a butchering station, though why they would do this in the basement of an abandoned house was an unanswerable question. We soon had a whole collection of unanswerable questions. We still have nowhere to put them.
One question: Why was the blood still red in July, eight months after the end of the last hunting season?
To follow up: Why was there so much of it?
None of us knew much about butchering practices, J being a vegetarian, myself a lapsed vegetarian. D had once participated in a turkey kill organized by an ex-girlfriend’s aunts, but that was the sum of our collective experience with killing animals and taking them apart. Nevertheless, we were all quite sure that it was a controlled, somewhat technical process that was not meant to result in sprays of blood on a white Ikea armchair, or what appeared to be a pile of blood-crusted bandages on the end of the deeply stained wooden table. True, the chains hanging from the ceiling and heaped like dropped snakes on the floor suggested butchery. So did the drain cut jaggedly into the linoleum. The fact that the armchair was a specimen of Ikea’s POÄNG model, once ubiquitous in urban lofts, currently ubiquitous in the home furnishings section on kijiji.com, suggested nothing that made sense to us.
It seemed that somehow we had showed up too early.
For a few seconds we stared at the scene before us looking for the familiar ingredients of a mocking hilarity. Surely the doll in the highchair was a candidate for some quip about the viciousness of children, about tea parties on the dark side. Surely we could discuss whether the milkglass was beautiful or tacky, then drop a casual caveat about having to wash off the blood before we could decide. Surely the broken television in the corner had provided the soundtrack for many otherwise painfully silent dinners presided over by a worn out wife in front of the patriarch’s hockey game. Surely the cheap knives were inadequate for any task more nefarious than carving a canned ham. Surely there was too much blood to laugh about.
An irrational fear for the dogs hit all three of us at once, as if we’d telepathically shared a brave-sounding excuse to hurry away. The fear was tailored to our desired reaction. We weren’t sure if we were afraid of the dogs lapping at the blood, stepping into the steel teeth of a trap which abruptly conjured the possibility of itself, or being hacked to pieces and splattered across the furniture, but we were sure that it was imperative to get them all back on leash and up through the tripping, strangling sea of tansy to the road.
. . . . .
J spoke publicly about the murder house not that night, but a month later when we drove out for Steak Night for the last time.
Again, though I wasn’t sure how it had happened, we were sitting and drinking with T and N. Another Colinton-area man who never told me his name had scooted his chair around to our table and had twice slapped at mosquitos on my thigh. It was August. The night was warm, smelling of dry grass and manure, and since it was darker than it had been at ten o’clock a month before, the strings of patio lights were on and making us feel like we’d just attended a dance at a community hall.
Had T (J took a sip of her beer and looked at him expectantly, her pink bangs lifting with her eyebrows over her glass), heard anything about the murder house?
I felt J was asking for trouble. We called it “the murder house” mainly in our already-endless discussions about how I should write about it. It wasn’t as if there were a sign blazoned above the bank of unseeing windows: MURDER HOUSE. It wasn’t as if the town took it for an institution or a landmark, as it almost certainly took, for example, both T’s newly-acquired bowling alley and the Colinton bar.
“Which one?” T lifted himself in his chair and dug around in his back pocket. He deposited a pile of quarters on the table in front of him. “Oh, the big one right over by your place.” As far as T knew, it had recently been boarded up. “Boarded up again, if I remember right.”
So there had been no police, no rumours about someone, perhaps a poacher, perhaps kids,
breaking into the basement? No one had gone missing? No one but the three of us had seen anything?
T smiled widely. “Well, you never know.” Then he suggested that if J felt unsafe, she should knock on his door.
. . . . .
D has suggested that I am writing this in retaliation to the famous moral ambivalence of impoverished hamlets on the Canadian prairies. To the fact that country people can name and locate pedophiles, meth labs, potential murderers in their community; they can speculate on various horrible goings-on, all the while remaining so focused on the protection of their own land and family that no one is willing to get anyone in trouble. To life-or-death stakes in an utterly conversational tone, one hand or the other. To the special principal of rural uncertainty, the dead cat in the cardboard box that everyone tosses around in the parking lot after the dance and no one needs to open.
Having grown up in one of these hamlets, I can testify that all this is true. Is it my scab that I’m picking, then? Here, almost everyone who lives in the city comes in, or their parents come in, from some small, unseen place or another. What happens when a person comes back? What happens when the long-estranged city woman is the only one who can reach into her purse one August night and retrieve a pen?
. . . . .
“I’m just a hop-skip-and-a-jump away from you,” T continued. “Any time of the day or night. Unless I’m working on my truck, I’ll hear ya. Just kick the dog if she starts making a racket. She’s loud but she don’t attack unless I say so.”
He offered to host a kind of Steak Night afterparty, starting in ten minutes. “I’ll head over there right now. Just gotta pick up my underwear off of the floor. I got beer, better than here, as long as you’re not looking for that fancy stuff.”
. . . . .
What does it mean if I can envision the inside of T’s trailer just as clearly as I will always be able to notice, again and in turn, each incongruous feature of the murder house in my mind? If I uncharitably furnish T with a yellowing mini fridge, what does that say about my, the narrator’s, belief in the redeemability of these people? If I go on to add filthy, blue sprigged linoleum, a life-size stuffed panda bear, an assortment of filmy pint glasses bearing the Pabst crest, a homemade ashtray, perhaps moulded by T himself, for his mother, in fourth grade, do these details make T seem more or less humane? Kitchen scenes will tell you everything and nothing about who a person is. A man’s home is not his castle, but it is a panelled hall of flaking 70s mirrors, and many of us find that we only discover humanity on public transit, in anonymous bustle and loud, crowded streets.
. . . . .
Of course, I’ve never seen it, T’s house. I never planned to put myself in a position to see it. In my mind, there was no question about the correct response to his offer; I almost forgot to murmur my declination. So it was to my deep surprise that J turned and whispered that T was one of the few neighbours who knew her dogs’ names or talked to her, and then turned back and said she would head over for an hour.
Looking back, I think D would have gone too, had I not been there. But I was there, observing everything, altering the natural flow of things, endlessly resisting being goaded into participation.
D and I drove back to the city that night, and I returned to my desk by the window.
Lizzie Derksen is a writer and filmmaker from Treaty Six Territory. Her writing has appeared in PRISM International, Room, Funicular Magazine, Poetry Is Dead, With/out Pretend's The Vault, and on CBC Television. Find more on her website lizziederksen.com
Image: Teardown, 2016, Joe Linker