Somehow, 5801 South Blackstone courts transients and not transience. It is warm, bright, and usually unlocked, and its tender sprawl tends to suck you in as though you had nowhere else to be, ever. Objects and people, both of them by turns logical and inexplicable, come and go at a brisk hum; nothing stays untouched by the creeping forces of disappearance and disarray for long. The disarray itself is constant and thus comforting, though, an assurance of stubborn steadfastness written right into the walls. This is not to undermine the overpowering hospitalities of the family that lives there, but to say that, after you’ve come and gone yourself, you can tell it’s less the way they keep the house than the way the house keeps them.
The house has kept me too, on occasions too many to number. The first time I lived there, a rainy April before I was old enough to drive when my parents were abroad and my own house was prohibitively far away, I settled in the basement office and was nearly scared away by a box in the closet labeled ‘hunting clothes.’ Later it was the study opposite the second floor landing, then the dim bedroom at the top of the back staircase. Each time I made myself meekly at home amidst small mountains of clutter, and each time I got less meek about it. By now I have slept, deliberately and accidentally, in so many chairs and couches and corners that the phrase “my room” has lost all meaning, and this pleases me. I like the feeling that I have known the house, in an almost biblical sense, in ways not even its permanent residents have.
The Sieglers are one of those families for whom the word institutional keeps a basically pleasant connotation. They are honest-to-god community figures, beautifully socialized and barbarically gregarious, and have been so for thirty years at least. They are eccentrics too, because they’ve earned it. There are parents: Mark, so much the paterfamilias that the University of Chicago, the illuminati of the southern Illinois mafia, and the field of clinical ethics at large all treat him like a father, and Anna, the sharp but saintly yin to his yang. There are children, four, furious autodidacts all of them: twins Dillan and Alison, now in their thirties and toying with successful adulthood; Richard, who had an early stint as a heartless capitalist (just after high school) and is now atoning in the Peace Corps somewhere in Benin; and Jessica, the youngest, the one on whose floors I will curl up forever, and vice versa.
Their house is less than three blocks from the University complex, the gothic wonderland where most of the community’s kids spend nursery school through high school, and some continue to college. In bygone days 5801 was periodically overrun by friends and well-wishers, on holidays and vacations and idle weeknights when Mark and Anna were away or at least asleep. It kept its share of temporary residents besides me: displaced suburbanites who couldn’t make it home and back for school in the morning, local kids too stoned to make it to their own doors two blocks away. I guard my claim to it jealously, though, like a too-doting mother. I remember you when you were two houses further north, I think sometimes when I walk in. My key is rustier than the others’, and I will keep it with me always, no matter how far away from you I wind up.
That’s part of the covenant, I suppose: my generation, the youngest, has scattered from Hyde Park like the others before us, but we stay faithful to 5801. In return it remains. But I wonder whether it really has a choice in the matter, whether it could do anything but remain: there is a sort of permanence there, based on the hopeless impracticality of trying to undo anything at all. Books, which are everywhere, regenerate at prodigious speed. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve skulked off with a copy of Legs or The Fan Man and come back a few months later to find two more regarding me impassively. The kitchen is always somehow in the exact same state of abundance: two loaves of challah and an eighth of a stick of butter (no, no, margarine: Mark is morbidly afraid of butter), some raspberry jam and no good cereal. The dog, a hulking black mass named Clio, stays by the radiator in the front hall year-round, though you hear tales of her terrorizing the neighbor kids in the backyard. There is a Scrabble set in the downstairs bathroom and cardboard plaques above various doorframes propounding the treacheries of aviation; how they got there or when is irrelevant. You just trust them. “My house is possessed of a sleek magic,” Jessica wrote in a college essay once. I don’t remember what came after that, but I am positive that the aging Macintosh on which she wrote it is exactly where we both left it, perched atop the white desk in the study next to a dog-eared Wheelock’s Latin and a half-empty pack of Parliaments.
Her sleek magic doesn’t seem so sleek or magical to me, really, but then we each see things the other never will. To me it’s more like an elegant lingering, a set of benevolent ghosts that belong equally to the family and the house. Someone will probably replace the marble kitchen counter one day, but there will be no getting rid of the evenings when Jessica (at 20, mind you) lay along it so Anna could wash her hair in the sink, or the mid-afternoon mornings when we wondered aloud whether it was worth going in for calculus. I am convinced that long after I have disappeared, 5801’s secrets will hover in the air and its walls will talk, and that sometimes they will mention me.
My house, a sublimely unassuming affair and the only house for blocks around (and Metropolitan Home home of the year in 1987, before anybody I knew lived there), has been on the market for three or four months now. It is too big for my parents, too much space and time with nobody but them left. There are just as many children to come home to it as to 5801, and by decades of grumbling extension even more, but it simply doesn’t hold the same kind of permanence. Our bookshelves used to teem with curiosities too, and the kitchen hummed with our own sounds and stories, but we were too tasteful with it, too respectful and reticent, to root in and make it our own. The covenant of mutual belonging was never consummated: it never made us its own either. The walls talk, but sometimes we don’t understand what they’re saying.
I will miss that house when we leave it, more than the rest of the family will and more than I will miss the other houses I’ve left, but I will not be destroyed. My parents will wind up in a tasteful apartment not far from the lake, and I will begin to grow up by making myself at home in strange rooms in other cities. Yet I trust that the warm chaos and weary constancy of 5801 will comfort me, even from afar, because I will always have its key, and for as long as it matters to me I will probably never need it; because I will always know every room and no room in it, and for as long as it matters both will be mine.