It was a run-down house that stood abandoned in the corner of a fallow field of has-been cotton. The road leading to it was dirty, dry and empty but for a cloud of dust left dangling in the air, trapped. Our kitchen was the largest room in the house but it sat catawampus like it was fixing to fall off from the rest.
The misery we would be forced to endure for the next four years began when Daddy moved us from town out to the country. Not only our friends but also everything that had been “our life” immediately became “our used to be.” Unable to find carpentry work in town, Daddy didn’t have two nickels to rub together, so he figured he might as well become a no-count sharecropper. Which he did.
While Mama and my brothers unloaded our few things from Daddy’s truck, my sister Pearl and I, feeling dirt poor and ashamed, stood in the road looking at and hating our next home.
“It’s so shabby.” I muttered the words because talking was just about impossible while tears were stinging the back of my throat. “Looks like a colored house.”
It was the summer of 1930 and we were unlucky enough to be living in the state of Mississippi. I guess having a roof over our heads, whether it was a piece of shit or not, was better than nothing. But we were kids, and didn’t think like that. Even if we did, it wouldn’t have mattered. Once we started crying we didn’t stop for five hours, or maybe ten even.
I swore out loud again and wiped my runny nose with the back of my hand. The tears I’d tried to hold back busted out like a broken levee and ran down my dirty face.
“Damn dust. This is the dirtiest piece of road in the entire state, if you could even call it a road.” I could feel the grit on my teeth. I could even taste it — a mud pie without water.
The day was hot and sticky. There was not another place on earth as hot as the Delta in mid-summer. Maybe hell was, but not by much.
I was only six-years-old the first time I said the word hell out loud and Daddy tried to beat the hell out of me for saying it. “Ain’t no daughter of mine gonna go ‘round cussing like a goddamn slut,” he yelled.
I told him I heard Preacher talking about hell in the pulpit on Sunday and that Preacher said it was in the Bible. I should have kept my mouth shut because his lip curled back and his eyes looked mean as a gator and the next minute I was flying across the room. The last thing I heard was, “You better learn to shut your goddamn sassy mouth, Nora Kathleen, or I’ll keep on shutting it for you.”
So there we stood, my sister Pearl and me, in the middle of the road crying hard on the hottest, stickiest day I had ever known in my twelve years of walking this earth. Pearl was a year older than I was, so all things being equal, she should have been a year smarter. I thought she should say something about us being dragged out to the middle of nowhere and plunked down like a bale of cotton. Something smart. But she was staring at the field like I wasn’t even there, every now and then sucking in a deep breath of air and letting it out slow and jagged-like.
I sat down in the road and waited. Sooner or later something besides tear breath would have to come out of her mouth.
My own tears had started up again, so I licked them as far as my tongue would reach. When I wiggled my toes around in the dry dirt, it made my feet look like dirty windowpanes that hadn’t seen a speck of rain all summer.
When Pearl finally stopped gawking at the stone dead cotton field, she mumbled, “You know what, Nora?”
“What?” I figured she had come up with a happy thought, something to break the gloomy spell sticking to us both. That’s what I hoped anyway. But then I saw the new tears filling up her bottom eyelids so I quit hoping.
“Ain’t nobody ever gonna come down this road. And even if they did, it would be because they were lost.” She sighed. “Ain’t nobody gonna come. I just know it.”
“You don’t know anything,” I argued.
She turned to look me in the eye. “Yes I do. We might as well call this place Seldom Seen.”
Her words came out tired as if her heavy sighs had used up every piece of breath left in her scrawny body.
“You want to name what Seldom Seen? The road?”
Things were bad enough without her carrying on like we were fixing to die out there with nobody else around.
“No, not the road. The house. Look at that awful house, Nora.”
“What makes you say such fool things, Pearl? I swear, you’re getting too miserable for me to be around.” I paused long enough for my words to sink in, and then I blessed her out some more. “We ain’t gonna name this place anything.” I was getting madder by the minute. “It’s a nothing house and it don’t deserve a name. And Pearl, you got to quit staring off at nothing like you do and naming everything you see, like houses. Sane people don’t do stuff like that. You want everybody to think you’re crazy? Just stop doing it.”
She pretended not to hear me. “The house’s name will be Seldom Seen whether you like it or not.” She eked out the words right in the middle of another heavy sigh. “Ain’t nobody ever going to come out here to see us, Nora, and I hope to God they don’t. I’d rather be dead and buried than have people see us living out here like trash.”
I turned away from my sister to look at the old house again, to study it for a minute and maybe see it through her eyes so I could understand why she would bother to give it a name.
Right away, a raw feeling of grief and sorrow and filled with misery began to ooze out of that house. It swept right through me, chilling my bones with a deep, cold ache such as I had never felt before. Every hair on my body stood up straight and rattled.
I turned away fast as I dared, but by then, the nightmare rooted inside that house Pearl named Seldom Seen, had attached itself to my soul, sticky as coal smoke and thick with years of ugliness and doom.