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My grandmother told me she once watched an abandoned house fold inside itself. The roof had caved in, leaving a hollow shell.
“A house needs people, Rylee,” she claimed, “or it will die.”
Every time I passed Miss Myrtie Mae’s home, I watched for signs of the roof giving way or the walls collapsing. But even though ivory paint flakes covered the ground like snow and the roof had shed a few shingles, the old house looked as if it were holding its breath, waiting for someone to claim it.
When Miss Myrtie Mae was alive, her home used to be the grandest in town. Antler held their annual Easter egg hunt on her lawn. Every girl, including me, would wear her Sunday dress and white Mary Janes. The year Twig moved here was the last celebration. I’d always dreamed of finding the golden egg, but never did. Twig discovered it. Someone had hidden it in a hollow trunk at the property line.
After she died, Miss Myrtie Mae’s house got the most attention on Halloween. Trick-or-treaters rushed past the place, believing it was haunted. And around midnight the Jerks—Vernon Clifton and his buddy Boone from my junior high—threw rocks at the windows. Dad said he once dreamed he saw Miss Myrtie Mae emerge from behind the lopsided screen door that hung from a single hinge. She was carrying a silver tray with her famous lime gelatin and turkey salad.
Four years after Miss Myrtie Mae died at the ripe old age of 101, Dad still mowed her lawn.
On a blistering hot day last summer, Mom told him, “Toby, you’re crazy to keep doing that.”
“I’ve mowed it since I was thirteen, Tara,” he said. “Can’t see a reason to stop now.”
Later Mom told me it was those kinds of things Dad did that made her fall in love with him.
After last winter’s snowstorm, icicles clung to Miss Myrtie Mae’s house long after the sun had melted the snow everywhere else in town. Once on the way home from school, Twig and I watched the icicles drip and listened to the plopping sounds as they landed in puddles. I swear it looked like the house was crying.
By summer 2001, Miss Earline had posted a FOR SALE sign on the lawn. The lawyers in charge of Miss Myrtie Mae’s estate had finally solved the new owner mystery. She surprised the whole town by leaving her home to a man who proposed to her many years ago. He’d broken it off after she wanted to postpone the wedding because her much older bachelor brother pretended to be on his deathbed.
Almost everyone in Antler thought she must have been crazy to have left the house to him, but my grandmother Opa said, “Miss Myrtie Mae was a wise woman. I think she was telling the world that she once had a great love. Maybe I’ll write a song about it.”
Turned out, the man had never married and he died a week after Miss Myrtie Mae, which Opa said made the whole thing even more tragically romantic.
The man’s oldest great-grandniece from Brooklyn inherited the house. Since she’d never heard of Antler and had no plans to leave New York, she decided to sell it. She might have to wait a long time. There weren’t many people calling Miss Earline to say they wanted to buy an old mansion in Antler.
* * *
Every summer I worked regular shifts at our family’s snow cone stand. Since Mom and Dad were teachers, it was the perfect business. We always opened the week of spring break. Then it was weekends only until summer break, when we opened every day except Sunday.
Mom and Dad had good childhood memories of eating Bahama Mamas at Wylie Womack’s stand, and they named our business Wylie’s Snow Cones in honor of him. If you asked me, it was kind of the same as mowing a dead woman’s lawn. How would Wylie Womack know? He was buried six feet under. Plus it was confusing when people from out of town stopped at the stand. They always asked if Wylie was my dad.
Even though I worked daily shifts all summer, I still had time to hang out with Twig. Most days we rode our bikes from the west side of town to the east side. Then we pedaled all the way back again.
The first round we spent half our time making tracks at Gossimer Pit. On our second lap we turned at the square that surrounded the courthouse, getting off our bikes to say hello to Ferris. He was always sitting on an old bread box out front of his Bowl-a-Rama Café. Ferris claimed he still ran the place, but really Samuel Pham did. Mr. Pham came to Texas from Vietnam almost thirty years ago. He worked in a lot of Amarillo restaurant kitchens before moving to Antler and living in a room at the back of the café. Now we could order pho and shrimp along with chicken-fried steak.
Ferris usually had a story or two to tell us. Twig and I had heard them before, including the scriptures he managed to slip in. We sat and listened anyway. I was just relieved Ferris was the forgiving type and wasn’t sore at us for dropping out of the Tumbleweeds, a bowling league he’d started up for young people. I’d enjoyed being in the league, but when Twig quit because she thought ninepin bowling was pointless, I followed. Then the other kids started dropping out.
Text Copyright © 2021 by Kimberly Willis Holt
Illustrations Copyright © 2021 by Ashley Halsey