180 Sumac

I stand in my brother’s childhood room, looking for a place to hide his seventh-grade class portrait. It’s wallet-size, taken in 1978. In it David wears a lime-green turtleneck with short sleeves and thick black athletic glasses. His dark-brown eyes are bright, his smile unguarded. He looks amused by something the photographer did or said. An eleven-year-old boy, hungry for the world, that’s what this image portrays. And on this haunted winter day, that’s precisely how I want to remember him.

My plan was to tuck the photo into the ceiling. But the drop tiles have been replaced by smaller panels that won’t budge, even when I climb a chair to press on them. There’s the empty closet; I could slip the photo onto the high shelf there. But the thought of leaving him alone in the dark distresses me. Eventually a stranger will find him and, after a brief flare of curiosity, most certainly throw him into the trash.

We moved into this house, at 180 Sumac Drive in West Lafayette, Indiana, when we were five and moved out when we were fourteen. We were the same age, but not twins. My white family adopted David, who was black, when we were three. From my earliest consciousness, he is there: my goofy, fierce, fragile brother. He died in a car crash not six miles from this room when we were twenty, and my life was ripped in two: before and after.

When I heard 180 Sumac was for sale, I flew from California to Indiana, eager to see if I could scrape a few more memories of David from the house before it closed again, maybe forever.

Now I stand in the spot where David and I once sat cross-legged on the floor, baking polymer scorpions and tarantulas in Mattel’s Thingmaker. The gold frieze carpet has been swapped out for beige Berber, the walls repainted a crisp white, the polyester curtains replaced with vertical metal blinds.

I glance around his small, still room, filled with a stranger’s furniture. What, if anything, is left of us here? What mark did we leave? What proof is there that we once sat here, impatiently fingering the hot metal molds, eager to pry free our monsters? Scientists say we shed eight pounds of skin cells each year, which collect as dust motes on windowsills, picture frames, and baseboards. We live surrounded by these bits of ourselves, we breathe them in, we swallow them. Are there any bits of David still here? I wonder as I run my hand over the cool wall. Are there any traces of the person I was, before grief defined me?

Upstairs, the present-day owners, a middle-aged Indian couple affiliated with Purdue University, are waiting for me to leave. My older sister, who still lives in our hometown, and I have already lingered here for three hours. They’ve served us tea and allowed us to freely roam the three-story house—two strangers opening drawers and peering into closets, stalking ghosts down narrow hallways.

As we pull on our coats, I panic. I haven’t done the one thing I’ve come to do.

“May I please see David’s room one more time?” I ask the wife, a graceful woman with high, penciled-in eyebrows. She smiles and nods. I leave my sister to revive the flagging small talk, and plunge down the familiar slate steps to the walk-out basement.

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