When my editor at the CACTUS SUN TIMES suggested I cover the demolition of the old Carson house, I jumped at the chance to escape the office. I called my friend Margaret to join me and grabbed a camera on my way out the door.
“Jake,” the boss called. “See if you can come up with an angle out there, something like Last House on the Monte Devoured by Aliens.” The boss loved talking in headlines, the more theatrical the better.
As we drove, history-buff Margaret provided me with background notes. “The Carson is the last of a breed of ranch houses built in this area in the early 1930’s. Joe Carson and his wife, Betsy, ran about 200 head of cattle on 800 acres, a relatively small spread, but the ranching business was booming back then and they did well. They occupied the house and worked the ranch well into the late 60’s.”
“I had a dust-up with that old house back when I was in high school,” I said. “Me and a couple of the guys went out there one night to celebrate a big football win. Going up on the porch, I tripped on one of the steps and damned-near broke my fool neck. Weird thing is we all heard a loud bang come from inside the house at the exact instant I fell. We hauled ass back to town to finish our partying.”
“Boys just being boys, huh, Jake?”
“Bunch of scaredy-cats, more like.”
Pewter skies and a seeping drizzle dampened any picnic-on-the-prairie fantasies Margaret and I might have entertained about the outing. Our sense of gloom deepened as we drove further into a ruined landscape of broken mesquite trees, mangled cactus plants and scorched prairie grass. The once vast, open land lay smothered under rows of houses packed together like fields of giant mushrooms.
The old Carson House finally came into view, floating on its tiny island of yesterday. Outside the yard, a Caterpillar bulldozer squatted on a flatbed truck surrounded by workmen, battered pickups, and mountains of equipment. I parked the car out of harm’s way at the far end of the caliche driveway, and we headed for the house.
“Mind that second step,” a voice shouted. Margaret and I stopped and looked around the porch and yard but saw no one.
“I’m sorry to startle you.” The voice was deep and raspy, like a rusty gate that hadn’t been opened in a long time. “Several years back some teenage hooligans came out here bent on mischief. When the first kid started up onto the porch, I pulled a board loose from that step and gave him a hearty thwack to his backside. Scared the bejeesus out of those boys, and I never had a lick of trouble after that.”
Margaret covered her laugh with her hand, and I pulled my jacket collar up over my neck. “Who – where are you?”
“I am right here, Mr. Avery. Welcome back. Please come on up. I trust you remember which step to avoid?”
Margaret’s laugh broke loose as she took my arm to guide her over the vigilante step. I busied myself taking pictures of the front of the house, the porch and the yard.
“Before my executioner over there on that flatbed truck carries out its commission, I would like to tell you a bit about myself. I am particularly proud of this porch Joe and I designed. It wraps fully around me to allow access from all of my rooms, a 360° panoramic view of the monte. Now, please step inside.”
The front door swung open with a creak, and we entered a spacious living room.
“What a magnificent room,” Margaret said. She ran her hand over polished wainscoting and petted the mesquite mantle over the fireplace. “Jake, come look at this workmanship. It’s exquisite.”
“Thank you,” the house said. “Joe was a crackerjack carpenter but depended on me for artistic imagination.”
I shot some close-ups of the mantle then zeroed in on the carved frames enclosing the eight-foot windows. That’s where I found the faded black and white photograph of a smiling young man and woman with two small children sitting on the front porch.
“That’s Joe and Betsy and me with the two kids taken the day they moved in. Would you mind putting it here on my mantle?”
I showed the picture to Margaret then did as the house asked.
“Thank you, now I can see it better.”
A burst of shouting came from outside as a workman drove the bulldozer off the truck. It crouched growling and belching gouts of black smoke at the far end of the yard.
The house raised its voice several decibels. “I’m afraid my firing squad grows restless.”
At the house’s suggestion, we toured the spacious kitchen then stepped out onto the back porch where I took pictures of a large yard of giant mesquite trees marked with orange spray paint X’s. A tire swing dangled from one of the condemned trees.
“I spent many comfortable years with Joe and Betsy Carson and their two children, save for the usual calamities of a broken arm or two, dislocated collarbone, droughts, floods, and teenage angst. After Joe passed away and Betsy moved into town, I stood empty for many years until an elderly woman came by, and I nudged my front door open for her. That was all the invitation she needed.”
The house had to shout to be heard above the cacophony of slamming truck doors, bellowing men, and whining machinery as more workers and equipment arrived. Margaret looked out the window. “Things are heating up out there, Jake. Maybe we ought to…”
The house spoke more urgently. “The old lady and I enjoyed two quiet decades taking care of each other and savoring the soft lights and changing colors on the monte. Sitting on my porch one evening at sunset, she passed away with a soft smile teasing her lips and the breeze gently ruffling her hair. I’ve missed her…”
A platoon of workmen fell into formation at the edge of the yard and advanced toward us, the bulldozer lumbering behind them.
“Jake,” Margaret said, “I think we should go – now.”
“Yes, I fear you must leave and do so quickly. Thank you for coming and listening to my senile meanderings.”
We started down the steps, but turned back when the house spoke again.
“Look. The sun tore a hole in the clouds and uses its light to paint the tips of the grasses that soft yellow I love. The mesquites wave at me, and the breeze whispers in my eaves. Adiós mis amigos.”
Margaret gently touched the porch railing and looked up at the house. “Your story will be told, I promise,” she said.
We hurried down the driveway, dodging workmen, equipment and snarling machinery as the horde swarmed the house and yard. When the first bite was torn from the house’s side, it screamed once then fell silent.
Neither Margaret nor I spoke as we drove back to town through the weeping rain.
The boss wasn’t crazy about my headline, but he ran it anyway — “Old Carson House Dies with Dignity.”