Deep in the Heart

The Inner Above

A place to read and daydream and be alone

By Dennis Covington | October 27, 2017
Jason Barnes/Flickr
Jason Barnes/Flickr

In theatrical set design, the inner above is “an area above the inner below.”

Think of the upstairs bedroom in Death of a Salesman, where brothers Biff and Happy lie in twin beds and laugh about girls or ways to make money, while their father talks nonsense to himself in the kitchen below.

I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and when I was six, we moved into a different house. My oldest brother had married. My other brother had joined the Army. My sister was 14 and slept in a bedroom on the inner below.

My own bedroom was at the top of the stairs, in the inner above.

This room was pine-paneled and spare, with twin beds, a nightstand, and windows that I could open at night so as to listen to the wind and rain in the trees.

This was the room where my mother and I would kneel to pray, and where I would sing myself to sleep. It was the place where I would read and daydream and be alone.

But that ended when my brother came home from the Army.

He rarely slept. He tossed and turned, chain-smoked, muttered obscenities, and bit his arms until they bled and scabbed over. He had been stationed in San Antonio. He did not go to a war.

One night my father heard the commotion, and came upstairs to accompany me down.

He made a bed for me on the sofa in the den, but the noises only got louder over time. In addition to cursing, my brother started pounding the walls.

So my father moved me to my sister’s room at the front of the house. She and I would go to sleep there to the sound of crickets and summer thunderstorms.

That September, when my sister got married, my brother was sent to the state mental hospital. The diagnoses were vague, and when he came home, he refused to take his medications.

Later, before I went off to college and joined the Army, my father retired. He and my mother sold the house with the inner above and bought a much smaller one where they and my brother lived together until the end.

My father died first. My oldest brother died second. My sister died third, and my mother died fourth. So I brought the brother who’d pounded the walls and shouted obscenities out here to Texas, where I’d moved a decade before.

When he died, I took his ashes back to Birmingham. A woman who’d loved me there, and whom I still loved, helped me scatter his ashes behind the house in which he and I had shared that bedroom at the top of the stairs.

Then I flew back to Texas, where my dog and I live in a small rental house in the middle of cotton and milo fields that stretch as far as you can see.

The sky is our inner above.

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