An Old Cottage That Sang Like a Wind Chime

ONCE we lived in a clapboard cottage in the old part of town. The neighborhood, as realtors say, offered location, location, location! Towering pines and sycamores shaded tranquil streets. Shopping, parks, church, and the public library were close at hand. There was even a drug store with a lunch counter, and customers were permitted to leaf through unpurchased magazines while gobbling huge bacon cheeseburgers.

A realtor would also have called our rented dwelling a handyman's special, a fixer-upper. To anyone else, it was a shack. Vines, rather than the powdery masonry, bound the brick chimney together. Mildew blackened the high-pitched roof, where the asphalt sealant was dry and crusty as burnt toast. The paint on the siding and window screens, wishing to be elsewhere, jutted out in numberless flakes like thumbs begging a lift from a passing breeze.

Inside, all was ground-in grime and water-stained ceilings, corroded plumbing and single-strand wiring wrapped in peeling paper insulation. Subsidence cracks jagged upward from the corners of frames whose doors would not close when the clay soil was too wet or too dry. Floors bulged and dipped. The bathroom walls were pink behind the toilet tank, where some previous tenant's roller of white paint couldn't reach. Bare bulbs in rusty fixtures glared at Formica countertops, blistered by decades of hot saucepans.

But the price was right. And when we could look past the dilapidation, the house was comfortable enough, charming even. The ceilings floated higher than a tall man's reach. Abundant windows breathed in sunshine. Generous rooms were grouped into a sensible, flowing floor plan, crowned by an enormous kitchen.

Visitors from abroad loved how the thump of our boots on the lustrous red and yellow pine planks sounded just like gunfighters entering a saloon in the Westerns they'd seen. Actually, there was much to hear in that house. And because every surface was wood or wood-backed, whatever was happening in one room was telegraphed to all the others. Far from annoying, it gave a cozy, secure feeling.

As we moved about, each glass doorknob uttered its signature creak, followed by the decisive snap of an old-fashioned light switch. When the swinging door from dining room to kitchen was pushed open, its spring stretched and complained. After meals, dishes clanked ominously in the porcelain sink. During showers, loosened mineral deposits banged the water heater's innards like hail on a six-horse trailer.

Before dropping off to sleep at night, we'd smile at hearing the rubbery vibration of a racquetball bouncing against the baseboard -- a telltale sign that the cat was playing nocturnal games.

Sometimes the weather really did join the noisemaking. Storms would rip deadwood from the century-old pecan tree out back and drop it on the roof. Thunder rattled already-loose window panes.

But mostly, it was our own doings that created a symphony of household sounds. Yes, our lives there were set to a kind of music not possible in the padded, modern home where we live now. The old cottage was a wind chime, and we were the wind.

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