February 12, 2015

The Novel a House Built: a guest post by Christine Benedict, author of "Anonymous"

The Making of Anonymous
by Christine Benedict

The story in my novel Anonymous was inspired by my 100-year old farmhouse where distant neighbors have have said it’s haunted. Of course that was after I moved into the fourteen-room house amid fifty acres of pokeweed and thistle and blackberry barbs. The slightest breeze would moan in a different pitch through each of the four-paned windows. You could hear footsteps when no one was there, scratching from inside the walls. Lights would flicker and then go out. I kept the rifle handy when I first moved in, all alone with a baby and a five-year-old while my husband was working overtime. There was nothing but farmland in every direction, as far as the eye could see. And there were times I thought I was crazy, trying to rationalize how the wind played tricks on her with the house. A south wind would set a shutter to flapping which I could have sworn was bare feet pit-patting on a bare floor. A west wind would stir up mortar pieces that fell into the chimney, unlike anything I’d ever heard. And a north wind would blow the catalpa tree branches against the windows upstairs which bore the resemblance to someone walking up there. That’s how my husband saw it, so I wanted it to be true.

The basement was another story. The quarry-stone walls were pitted blocks of sandstone, circa 1875, looking very much like a dungeon. It irked me that the laundry room was downstairs, a place where spiders beget generations of spiders. No matter how much I’d pleaded to have it anywhere else, that’s where all the wiring was. I made due, broom-scrubbing the quarry stone walls with a bleach solution, vacuuming the unfinished ceiling. Within no time at all spiders came back in full force - hanging from the ceiling, spinning spider sacks between water pipes overhead. There were times I took a broom down there and wound spider webs like cotton candy. I tried spraying spiders one at a time with ant killer spray, but had one spin down its web and land on me. I know it died somewhere in the middle of my tribal dance, a dance that I’d perfected. Bug bombs would work for a while; but every three months a new batch of spiders would migrate back to their old breeding ground.

I’ve been asked why I stayed there, which is pretty much like asking a homeless person why they live in their car. We didn’t have much money. My husband worked for his father who was from the old country. Many Europeans believed their children are their sole support as my father-in-law had. And paid him very little. The overtime my husband worked was for our family - he’d started his own company. I knew there were sacrifices and I was ready to make them for a brighter future.The plan was to rebuild the farmhouse and sell it for a decent house. And we did just that. The kids were grown by then, and still swear the house is haunted. 

The anonymous letters came several years later. I had quit my job as a waitress in an upscale restaurant where a man said I had waited on him. He said we had a connection. I didn’t know I had made a connection with anyone. Anonymous letters came all summer that year, creepy letters from this man who ended up stalking me. He said he had sexual fantasies about me and told me he was watching me, following me.  My husband destroyed most of the letters in anger, but I kept some of them just in case I would need them in a court of law. In case he did something bad to me. Yes it was a frightening time in my life, so frightening that even when the letters stopped it took me ten years to feel safe enough to open the blinds in my house again. To this day he remains anonymous.

There were times I wasn’t sure if I was more afraid of the house or the stalker. Over the years when the house seemed to accept me or I accepted the house, when the stalker seemed to fade into my past, I thought of this story and called it Anonymous. It’s not all true. But then ... some of it is.

I am a lifelong native of Columbia Station, just south of Cleveland Ohio. Growing up there I remember farmland in every direction, rolling acres of wheat and corn, and neat rows of grapevines and peach trees  Every day at noon, from atop a fire station, you could hear the hand-cranked siren that brought the farmers in from the fields. The land here was mostly clay, and wherever you saw a willow tree, water once sat and bred mosquitoes. Because of our soggy land, my father chopped a willow branch from a neighbors yard and set it in the the swamp that divided our five acres. After a while roots sprouted on the very end, and after a while more, it was ready for planting. That tree grew twice the height of a barn in jut a few years, and rid the back yard of stagnant water. But when the sun went down, swarms of mosquitoes were so bad you’d swear they could lift you off the ground – you slapping yourself silly.

We had a two-acre garden near the house. That may not sound very big, but when you’re pulling weeds on ninety-degree days, a row a strawberries looked like a mile. Us girls would hoe, and pick beans and corn and tomatoes and okra, and clean it, and can it, and freeze it. Days on end it seemed. My sister and I would pick blackberries behind our woods on July’s hottest days, long pants, boots and a long sleeved shirt, buttoned up to our necks to fend off  thorns. We sold blackberries for a quarter a quart, and sometimes picked four pecks at times, which made it all worth while.

The roads were gravel mixed with tar and some were just plain slag. Except for Route 82, an asphalt highway that ran though the center of town, right in front of our house.  My sister pulled the wagon down the gravel driveway – me pushing it, sun-burnt nose, bent at the waist, my spindly legs and arms out-stretched. The empty RC Cola bottles rocked and clanged down the driveway to the berm of Route 82. With a highway on one side and a gully of a ditch on the other, the only place for us to walk was a scant bit of gravel. Tar bubbles popped under my flip flops. Semi-trucks whooshed by as if we weren’t even there.  We’d set out to collect empty pop bottles on the side of the road. People thought nothing about throwing them out of their cars. Pop bottle were worth two cents, enough to buy licorice or bubble gum. Candy was scarce back then. But you could buy a Reese’s Cup for a nickel. That’s what I really wanted.  I can’t imagine how my parents let a nine-year old and an eleven-year old walk on a major highway where the speed limit was thoroughly  ignored. The only thing more dangerous was me on a bike. Ten years old. Wobbly to boot. It was pure luck when a tractor trailer swerved into a ditch instead of hitting me. What can I say? Somebody’s junkyard dog set out after me, and my bike crossed the white line smack dab in the road.

These day I live with my husband of forty-one years in a more citified Columbia Station. There’re sewers now. The groundwater flows to the Black River Watershed for the most part, which seemed to have lessened mosquitoes. The roads have been paved for a while, and you see rows of houses where farms used to be. But once in a while, alongside Route 82, milkweed and chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace bring back memories of when willow trees swayed in the wind.

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