The Red Rows

by Amy Bernstein



From the back of the houses called The Red Rows, one can look out at the ocean.  It is not close. One can only hear it right after very stormy days, when the wind has died down but not yet the surf. At least a quarter mile of small company houses and then the low dunes, which cover the old coalmines sit between you and the ocean.  But it is there, out there all the time just the same.  There are no windows on the seaward sides of the Red Rows.  Bad weather comes from the ocean side and so, in a more practical and less beauty conscious time such as the one in which these houses were built, there were no seaside windows.  Pretty much, if you want to look at the view of the ocean, and it is an exceptionally beautiful view, you have to go outside in back, say to have a smoke, or to hang up the wash.  Or even just to stand in your yard with your hands on your hips and a bottle in your pocket looking at it.  

They were built in 1893, to house the higher ups at Inverness Coal Mine Number 1, the bosses and their families. The fronts of these old company houses still face the main street of the little town of Inverness. Each house is really two houses connected in the middle. They were originally exactly symmetrical, each a mirror reflection of the other. They were once all painted red with grey roofs.  They ranged all down the street and behind them were more identical rows sloping down toward the sea.  They each had the same flat roofed dormer in the front, centered, with two windows, one for each home.  They had another flat roofed dormer on the side of the roof, to left and right, with two windows each, the same narrow black front doors next to each other below the center dormer, and the same side doors with a mud porch to the left and right of the house. In the ensuing hundred and 18 years the  owners of each side of each house have adapted them to their individual needs. Some have been repaired and improved, while others have been neglected and worn down.   Now, no two opposite numbers are identical, and each double house is entirely different from all the others. Now they look like a row of fraternal twins at best, more like a family group actually, not even seeming to be the same age anymore. 

There are 14 of them left on the main street now.  There were once over thirty. The last mine closed down in the 1950s, after a long decline.  A few of the houses along the main street have been demolished over the years, which leaves gaps in the row like missing teeth.  Last spring one half of an end one of them burned to the ground. The owner had to tear the other half down.  It couldn’t stand on its own.  The owners put up a trailer.  Some in town said that ruined the appearance of the street and tried to pass an ordinance about it.  But they were outvoted.  Many felt that it was their land, it had been in the family for four generations and they had been burned out to boot.  Who should be able to tell them what to do with it?  

There was once an identical row across the street from these, in the days when the coal mine was in operation and the main street was dirt. But these were torn down in the 1920s. Now the shops of the town face the Red Rows, and the highway that takes a tourist all around Cape Breton Island passes down the middle.

In one house near the center of the row live Ann and Steve. Ann has lived there all her life. She grew up in the house with 4 sisters and three brothers as well as her mother and dad and dad’s father who lived there most of her growing up years.  The girls shared one of the three bedrooms upstairs, the boys one of the others, their parents the last.  The old man slept on a cot in the alcove in the upstairs hall.   Anne’s brother Johnny now lives in another of the houses, two down the row, and her sister Eve is in town between the times when she is too ill to be home and stays at the hospital. Eve stays with their mother at those intervals in the senior assisted living apartments up the street.  Everyone else is either dead or moved away to somewhere where they can make a reasonable living, which they certainly can’t do here, she has to acknowledge. Anne herself moved away for many years for the same reason.  She had a husband, and a daughter out in the Western provinces.  They both stayed out there when she moved back home but the daughter visits sometimes in the summer with the grandchildren.   She and Steve are not married.  They are “living in sin.”  Though they are not able to manage nearly as much sin as they used to these days. Ann is 77 years old and she has macular degeneration and glaucoma.  She is, for all extents and purposes blind, but she can still see shapes and colors and she watches TV now, since she can’t read.  Steve is 80 and has lost a leg to diabetes.  He still get around though, on his little tractor and has the truck fixed up so that he can drive them places. He also has an oxygen tank that he periodically sits next to while taking deep breaths.  In between, he smokes, to Ann’s fury, and still drinks too, occasionally, which he is not supposed to do. That, Ann doesn’t know about because she can’t see him do it.

As Ann puts it, “We are both just a total mess at this point.” Ann rarely bothers with her false teeth and Steve rarely wears his prosthesis, so her description is pretty accurate, but that is also in part of her view of life.  Ann is like her father.  He spent the last five or six years of his life sitting in the back corner in an old armchair by the wood stove chewing tobacco and glaring at the world. He thought the world had done him wrong by letting him get old and be poor and he was never going to forgive it for doing so.