Plastic Meeko glass, Pocahontas Burger King promo

We entered through the kitchen, a grime-coated galley with crust-chunked plates stacked in the sink and flaking white cupboards with half-hanging doors and a Formica table squeezed against the wall and I curled up my toes in my sandals, involuntarily. The effluvia of decades in the house, the damp, hanging gloom of humidity because there was no central air conditioning and the painted-over windows couldn’t open. Down the hall was a small faded-paper bedroom, and crammed between the dresser-tops heaped with Looney Tunes beefy tees was the bed. That was where her mother and Chip lived. There was a deadbolt on their bedroom door, the front door uselessly skeleton-keyholed, and the back screen door flapping, the hook-and-eye unlatched.

Three-inch-thick phone book

Two years earlier, I had been befriended by a girl who also lived in Club Pines, my neighborhood. When her mother remarried, the girl received a stepsister whose cleverness and willingness to engage in make-believe worlds as a pre-teen drew me to her. I ignored the original girl and only came over on weekends to see her stepsister. She and I invented sister cities named Tylacia and Lovers Lane, populating them with the families we fantasized about: Tazz and Scarlett Claiborne, a movie producer and his stay-at-home wife; Kevin and Mona Farice, a paramedic and Tylacia’s first female mayor; Jennilyn Janswood, the new fourth grade teacher. We assigned our citizens pen pals in their neighboring towns, and we would perch on the slipper chairs in the front sitting room of her stepmother’s house, scribbling their get-to-know-you letters, throwing the folded papers across the carpet to each other, waiting for someone to write back.

Videocassette in a padded manila envelope

We were new builds, my friend and I. My parents had upgraded from a flat 1950s ranch in Oregon to the two-story splendor of eastern North Carolina, and her parents had come south from New York, though they splintered shortly after. Her mother was now living in an old white clapboard out near Ayden with Chip, the son of the tobacco farming family who owned the fields behind my neighborhood. My friend lived with her mother during the week. As she neared the end of eighth grade, my friend became fixated on attending boarding school. She sent away for promotional materials and I followed suit, confusing my parents as I received videocassettes from The Madeira School with girls rappelling through forests in their green plaid skirts, gorgeous ivy-covered brick buildings revealing classrooms of students earnestly discussing science and math in their dormitories and dining halls. I felt I needed to purchase a history for my descendants if we were ever going to belong in the South, but I didn’t want to leave my family. I wanted the rabbit warren, the crumbledown tunnels, the unseen movement, nine tenths of the law.

Matted green shag carpet

Across from her mother and Chip’s bedroom was a living room, dark and murky because there was no overhanging light fixture, just a single lamp near the doorway. The windows looked out at the shin-brushing weeds of the front yard, but the ratty blinds stayed pulled; too much light would heat up the room too quickly. A long, worn velvet couch, an old television, and more furniture and boxes girding the perimeter. I slept somewhere in that room, once, and I assume my friend slept on the couch because it was where she slept five times a week, but I fuzzed that night from my memory.

Roach husks

Up the stairs were the two bedrooms no one lived in any more. The roof needed patching, and after a good rain, streams would drip-drop into the bedrooms my friend and her brother had abandoned, though their stuff was still spread everywhere. Clothes my friend didn’t wear, old school projects and books and the ephemera of life that she left in place, didn’t pack in her weekend knapsack but also didn’t throw away. There was a large, “lawyer-looking” desk with a broad leatherette ink-blotter tabletop and a cunning, thin brass fence standing along the back that I was instantly drawn toward. I admired the desk loudly, and my friend said I could just have it. Chip and her mother muscled the desk down the stairs, banging into the walls, and heaved it into Chip’s truckbed, where my friend and I held the legs in place as they drove me back to Club Pines, the wind greasing my long hair.

Elsa Peretti for Halston silver bean-shaped locket with solid perfume wax

My friend’s mother and Chip had found ten one-hundred-dollar bills from the 1920s buried in the wall of their bedroom, a stash they assumed was from Depression days, when the Nobles had owned the house. It was never clear how or why they went hammering in the walls, but the discovery convinced my friend and me that there was money squirreled away in other corners; we had elaborate plans to jackhammer the stairs apart once her mother bought the double-wide she was angling to slide into the tired-out tobacco fields alongside the house. We were going to demo the place like the Bobbsey Twins, surely finding a secret not meant for us to discover.

Moon pie wrappers

We did not go to boarding school, did not carry out our plans to marry my cousin and his friend in Alabama, where it was legal if you were thirteen. Wednesday Utah wrote a letter to Jennilyn Janswood, informing her that Lovers Lane had burned to the ground, leaving my Tylacians stranded. My friend’s mother and Chip moved into the mobile home and it was clean and fresh, a 1995 model with a small vaulted ceiling and beige carpeting, well-lit, nothing like the dark, cluttered, wet history I’d wanted to burrow into. I could find aspiration anywhere. What I couldn’t find was the collapsed core of a home, broken into parts I could steal.

Kristine Langley Mahler is a memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska. Her work received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review and has been recently published in The Normal School, Waxwing, New Delta Review, The Collagist, Superstition Review, and The Rumpus. You can find more at or @suburbanprairie.

© 2019 Kristine Langley Mahler. Published by LITTLE FICTION | BIG TRUTHS, August 2019.

Images from The Noun Project (credits: Arthur Shlain).




by Kristine Langley Mahler
In The Burnpile behind 
the old nobles house