Someone Else's Dream House

Kate Lebo

To friends I call this place ‘‘Walden Pond meets trailer park.’’ To family it is the Cabin: a single-wide trailer with attached sunroom and deck, situated in a co-op community of trailers in various states of splendor and rot. During the week, my only neighbors are empty windows, the security crew, and two retired couples who feed me fried oysters and offer whiskey sodas if I pass by during the right time of midday.
    Across the road, someone has retrofitted a school bus into a cabin. All summer the bus sits silent and dark, its yellow flanks greening with moss. This is within camp rules. Living here full time is not, which is why my family owns this place again after repossessing it from a couple who stopped paying their mortgage after the campground caught them. I can stay for free and write my first cookbook if I sell the place by September.
    In preparation for my retreat, I buy a copy of Walden that I do not read. It costs $15.99, sits soberly on the trailer’s shelf, indifferent to being here. Berryman’s Dream Songs are easier on me. They are texture, like the quarter inch of air between planks in the deck my father built, like spider webs on the futon’s cover. ‘‘All the world like a woolen lover’’: a line I understand in the morning, before the light gets pushy and hot and it’s time to get to work. When I find a grapefruit-sized hole in the trailer’s west wall, I plug the breach with a hand towel and go back to my book. Beyond the window above my desk, Mount Saint Helens squats on the horizon thirty-some years after killing Harry Randall Truman and fifty-six other people in an eruption I’m reminded of whenever I look up.


In the spring of 1980, while earthquakes seized the mountain but before a lateral eruption buried Spirit Lake with superheated mud and ash, Harry Randall Truman refused to evacuate Mount Saint Helens Lodge. He’d rarely rented boats since his wife’s death and had mostly closed the place, which by then smelled like his sixteen cats, but he couldn’t imagine himself in an apartment in Longview, safe and warm and miserable. After a steel gate on the highway barred loggers and tourists and Harry’s potential escape, he told a reporter from National Geographic, ‘‘I said block the _______ road, and don’t let anyone through till Christmas ten years ago. I’m havin’ a hell of a time livin’ my life alone. I’m king of all I survey, I got _______ plenty whiskey, I got food enough for 15 years, and I’m settin’ big.’’
    Later, an unidentified young man who checked on Harry the day before the eruption reported that he had been in pretty good spirits. ‘‘Had his place all cleaned up, ready to go,’’ he said.

    Once upon a time, my dream house was a plain white duplex where I lived alone. When I moved in, scratches in the hardwood traced the path of someone else’s kitchen chairs. The walls were avocado, as if the previous tenant had known my favorite color. In the shotgun kitchen, my dishware and tools and art were an altar of ephemera arranged to make this borrowed house mine.
    It was spring when my landlord raised the rent 50 percent, a price I couldn’t pay. An old story, a common one, and harder to bear because I didn’t know where to go next. Eviction is an existential crisis. Where would I live? How would I pay for it? Would any place ever be mine?
    The trailer with the view of Mount Saint Helens is my temporary shelter from these questions. I imagine the shelves, which divided my old kitchen from the dining room, stacked with the new owner’s books. I imagine the rectangle of black marble glued to the shelf that’s adjacent to the stove, its purpose unclear unless it was intended to dull knives. When my turn to shelve things ended, my books came away dusted with flour and spattered with oil. But their bindings were clean, the rituals of my life in that house mapped by my possessions and made evident by the chore of moving out.
    A few months after losing my lease, during deep summer, I sneak into my old yard and pull all the garlic and onions, cut the sunflowers I staked in May. The landlord owns the plum trees and lavender, but not the alliums. They are annuals. They are mine. I give myself a bouquet of the flowers. I braid the garlic and hang it in the trailer’s window to dry.


Thirty years after the Mount Saint Helens eruption, two years before my family owned the trailer again, two little girls slept here. Their daybed had once been my daybed. Our trundle bed still slides from beneath the wood frame and springs open to a respectable bed height, but now the plastic-covered mattress is cloudy with mold.
    When this place was theirs, their mother stripped the stingy brown carpet from the bedroom. She installed fake wood flooring that lightens the room but snags socks and stubs toes. She painted the walls candy pink, draped the windows with Hello Kitty curtains, screwed plastic purple knobs into the built-in drawers. She left a lavender rug my mother will use for years after to catch litter from the cat box.
    We dismantle the curtains. Their cheap goldish rods bend easily over my knee. We paint the princess-colored walls cream and sage, like winter soup, because we hope those hues will help us sell the place. The toilet looks like it’s been scoured with acetone, but it still does the job it’s supposed to do. My father takes the daybed to the dump. We sweep pine needles off the deck and open all the windows. We get the dank out. We get only so much of the dank out. When I go back to Seattle to work for a few days, mice and mildew return.
    One morning I find a woodpecker on the wooden boards of the deck, still and whole except for the top of its head, which is bashed in just enough to show the bash. A spray of blood arcs on the wood where its crown rests. The bird is beautiful like raw paint is beautiful. I take photos that have no clear purpose, will not make good Instagramming, and will not be blogged or Facebooked or otherwise used as evidence of my brush with nature. This is not a landscape or a baby deer or a tale of my relationship with animals. This blood is not social.
    I frame the loose curls of black claws, the wings trapped under the body. It’s so perfect, it looks stuffed. I tell myself I’ll clean up the bird later, before it rots to the wood. When I return with a dustpan the next morning, the bird is gone.


On May 14, 1980, while Mount Saint Helens spit steam and quaked and threatened, Harry Randall Truman took a helicopter courtesy of the local TV station from Spirit Lake to an elementary school near Salem, Oregon, to reassure an anxious grade school class that he would be all right. They’d written him fan letters. They asked what he would do if the mountain erupted. ‘‘Run fast,’’ he said. In 1979, before any of this drama with the volcano started, KATU Channel 2 called him a ‘‘rosy-cheeked, cupid-faced curmudgeon’’ who ‘‘always has something to say, and it’s frequently a warning to those who think they’d like to take his land.’’ The name of these would-be usurpers is unclear and unreported on, except vaguely by Harry, who says, ‘‘I’m not leaving and I’m not going to take my name off that _________ [Mount Saint Helens Lodge] sign. . . . It’s going to sit there until it rots down.’’


In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes, ‘‘Even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic. We return to them in our night dreams.’’
    ‘‘Who needs a house this big?’’ my mother wants to know, embarrassed by our family home, the spaces within it we never figured out how to decorate or use. It too has a view of the mountain. Construction began before Mount Saint Helens erupted and finished after, so the catwalk and window at the top of the house—the thing that makes it a little more dreamy than the average suburban home—framed a lost landscape before we even moved in.
    After living at the cabin, I have a recurring dream of a house with many rooms that connect directly to each other, no hallways. To walk through the house, I have to walk through the private spaces of the occupants. It could be my house. It was my house. Due to some act of neglect I can no longer remember but am responsible for, the house is now occupied by acquaintances and strangers. I spend the dream walking from room to room, looking for an empty one to claim, remembering rooms that were mine before I left them—the walls, windows, floors, and roof, all the same familiar shell—filled now by the belongings of others. I walk like a ghost, lightly, without a word of argument.


I’m on the way to camp headquarters to poach Wi-Fi from the parking lot when I find a doe in the road. Her head and shoulders are cocked downhill on the gravel, her hindquarters splayed in the ditch. I drive closer. Her hind leg kicks. She is not car-hit or shot. Flies disperse and reform in anxious clouds around her eyes and anus. I park my car in the road and get out for a better look. The eye I can see is rolled back toward me. She is breathing. A fawn hangs halfway out her vagina. I can see spots in its coat that will brighten after she licks them clean.
    I have given deer like her salt and apples. I have petted their necks and frozen as they approached so that they wouldn’t run away from my affection. You can make eye contact with deer, but you shouldn’t get too close, shouldn’t accustom them to human touch. That’s all I know. I can’t help her. I decide to take notes.
    The deer is breathing. I write that down. A dog barks in the trailer across the street. I write that down too. She’s giving birth uphill, I write.
    I return to my car, drive to camp headquarters, and tell the camp manager the news. He says he knows what the trouble is. He says he’ll see what he can do.
    When I return, the fawn is born, lying in the gravel, dead. The mother lies a little downhill, her head resting on the road, dead. Just before sunset I go back to check on them and find their bodies gone.


In the weeks before the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, Harry Randall Truman spoke with a voice most of us only dream of owning, a voice that anticipates the threat to his home by threatening back, a voice that won’t believe any emergency he doesn’t himself declare and calls home a place that can’t be re-placed. ‘‘No damn way does the mountain have enough stuff to come my way,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s part of me,’’ he said, ‘‘and I’m part of that _______ mountain. And if it took my place, and I got out of here, I wouldn’t live a week anyway; I wouldn’t live a day, not a _______ day. By God, my wife went down that _______ road feet first, and that’s the way I’m gonna go.’’
    Around 8:30 a.m. on May 18, 1980, a geologist flying over Mount Saint Helens saw ‘‘the whole top of the north side [begin] to ripple and kind of churn up. Everything north of that just slid away. Just completely slid away.’’
    Seconds after that, a huge blast shot ash twelve miles into the atmosphere while the largest landslide in recorded history buried twenty-two square miles of the North Fork Toutle River Valley. Five hundred and forty million tons of ash formed a cloud that darkened windows from Portland to Spokane and rained pieces of the mountain in drifts as deep as five inches in Ritzville, Washington, less as it traveled eastward, eventually emptying itself as it spanned the globe. Some reports say the landslide and lahar fell thickest around Harry’s place: at least 150 feet of volcanic debris over Spirit Lake. Forests of the 150-foot Douglas Firs Harry said would protect him were blasted sideways over his house, and Harry was somewhere inside, at the bottom of it all.


By September, the trailer starts to smell like the carpet of a beached boat, so I bake pies in the propane stove before potential buyers arrive. There are holes in the walls; we show them this. Cedars have grown into the mountain view, so we must lean over the deck and crane our necks to gaze unobstructed. But it is cheap, priced to sell, and I’ve kept things tidy.
    One morning I flip up the edge of my comforter to change the sheets beneath and find a spider as big as a silver dollar clinging to the fabric. With no one around to watch me perform my disgust, I get a glass and magazine, do the catch-and- release dance quietly. Before the end of the summer, I’ll find three more scream- worthy bugs hiding in this spot. In the fall it will only get worse, insects and rodents drawn to the warmth of the trailer, their entry aided by its unsoundness.
    But by then this place will be someone else’s, either patched up or hauled to the dump and replaced by a new trailer with rooms the new owner won’t have to share with any of us—these spiders, my family’s memory or the little girls’, the cream-over-pink-over-fake-wood walls we all once lived in.


A condition of making a nest is the delusion we’ll get to keep it. Harry Randall Truman was, to those who cared to watch, admirable and ridiculous, possessed of the sort of death wish whose mediagenic appearance relieves it of the stigma of suicide. In researching his final days, I wanted to find a sign that Harry regretted his stubbornness, that he wanted to come down to safety but couldn’t, not with the fuss he’d made. I wanted his story to show me that a house is not worth dying for, that losing a home is a major blow, but it does not require us to lose ourselves. I wanted Harry to hint that home is replaceable.
     He didn’t. As far as I can tell, he was ready to go down with the ship, and his age and irascibility made people pretty much okay with that. The Oregonian’s retrospective coverage describes the mood before and after his death well: ‘‘He was 83 years old and alive. Why would he want to be 84 and anywhere else?’’
     I too am stubborn. That Harry’s home became his tomb is, I’ve decided, a reason to believe in what I was looking for and did not find. After the pain and chore of dismantling my houses, I want them to be just houses, just a shelter anyone can take and make theirs. I will leave more houses in my life, hopefully by choice. And someday I will die. I want to accept this as natural. I want to be able to gather myself and move on.


When a buyer comes to tour the cabin at the end of the summer, I’m reading Dream Songs on the deck and sitting in the plastic Adirondack chair from my old Seattle yard, the surviving member of a pair whose other half shattered without explanation or blame in the middle of a winter night, as if God’s hand absently brushed it or a drunk attempted to rest there before finishing the walk home. I will look so right reading in the chair (‘‘thirstless: without a think in his head: / back from wherever, with it said’’) that the buyer will be able to imagine himself sitting there, reading there, and after thirty-three tours of cheap places with mountain views, he will choose ours. I will pack the pots and pans and clothes, clean the shelves and counters and cupboards. When I am alone for the last time in the empty trailer, I will thank each room, a ritual I hope will let me leave them without being haunted by them. Exorcism by gratitude, you could say. When I finally go, I’ll leave the Adirondack on the deck, angled to enjoy what the new owner will soon memorize like an address: the southwest side of Mount Saint Helens, the part that stayed put.

Kate Lebo is the author of The Book of Difficult Fruit, a collection of nonfiction forthcoming from FSG in spring 2021. Her essays have appeared in Best American Essays, New England Review, and The Inlander. She lives in Spokane, Washington.

"Someone Else's Dream House" appears in our Summer 2017 issue.