MAY 2008 – NO. 24
May's LOST fiction, on the house that knows your name
I used to think I lived alone. It's been like that for the last two years, since the divorce, the unraveling of it all.
The house is a bungalow, Arts and Crafts from 1919, a soft gray stucco that calls no attention from the street. It's two bedrooms and beautiful, actually. Chestnut paneling and built-in bookshelves, the window seats, leaded glass in the front door, beadboard in the kitchen, the claw foot tub, even the original oak bumper strips to protect the plaster corners in the small hall, it's all here, still. I'm here, in this town, for the schools, or the potential of the school system, in case my seven-year-old one day moves three miles over from the next town to stay. It could happen. There's been flux.
I am not someone who usually cares about or notices a house. But I felt a pull when I first stood on the front porch and looked up to find the constellation of colored glass embedded in the pale blue ceiling. It surprised me, that someone would think to do that. I came to love this cleanly planned space. I love that you can see from the kitchen, through the dining room, past the dark living room pillars, out the front door, over the porch, down the steps and to the other side of the street, all in one glance. I love the way the alcove juts out on the far side of the living room, across from the tile-fronted fireplace, making that small space feel practically distant. Or the long porch across the front behind the privet hedge I've let grow, where on too-warm nights like this I can sit and smoke, nearly invisible. The sense of space, so examined, I have come to love that. Or perhaps this arrives anyway when one lives alone.
Three days ago I read in the paper that the man I bought this house from had confessed to a murder. His wife, in the late 1990s, not here, but at a cottage on a lake up in New Hampshire. A fight on the dock, the blunt end of a canoe paddle. Her brother, who had both motive and a psychiatric history, conveniently drove up, minutes after the former owner of this house rode off on his motorcycle. The brother pulled her from water, called the police, sat on the dock and waited. He said he knew this would happen. He said he felt better now and they believed him. The man I bought this house from grieved, I suppose, and sold the cottage. Seven years and four months that's how long he kept living here, before selling it to me and moving to an outlying town, on another lake.
Three days. I saw his picture in the paper, rangy, sandy hair, large hands, friendly eyes. Someone you might nod to if you saw him Saturdays at the diner. The same smiling, dark-eyed face that sat across the mahogany table from me at the closing. We shook hands. It's a great house, he said. He gave me his card. He ran a one-man upholstery business in a converted mill that I sometimes passed on the way to work. He asked if I'd ever ridden a Harley? He told me I should.
In the paper it said he told his elderly parents first, then his girlfriend, then he called the police in New Hampshire, who didn't believe him. He told them more until finally they did. He said it wasn't that he felt bad for the brother, who was still institutionalized, or that anything had suddenly changed, only that certain things cannot be kept.
Two nights. I haven't slept. Last night I tried sleeping in the small back bedroom, on my son's sometime bed. Tonight will be the same.
The day I moved in the other owner left a large binder on the counter full of receipts, some even in her name, plus the names of roofing contractors, articles on stucco repair, catalogues with period light fixtures and hardware, the entire list of anyone who had ever worked on the house, so the next owner would have a repair history. I think of him here, oiling the woodwork, saving the furnace efficiency reports, wondering about the wallpaper, finding a pattern to better match the era, taking care.
I remember when I first saw the living room, staring at his huge green chair in the corner across from the vast television, the same spot my chair occupies now. Or the headboard of his bed, their bed, against the same wall as mine, the only logical spot. I think of him imagining the act and dreaming about it. I think of him in the kitchen, turning to see her still at the table and wanting to ask something. Or her hair, fanned out and floating. I think of his bare feet in the morning, tracing the same unconscious paths we all do in every house. Thoughts like dust and old skin, sliding under the baseboards and into the cracks at the hidden ends of the oak floors.
It's past midnight and the air is so humid you can see the occasional passing car move it around. I'm on the curb across the street, looking back at my house, low-browed and dense in the streetlight's orange glow. I can't have it. It needs to go to someone else, someone who will never notice the other names on the deed, who will never figure out who lived here and for how long. Someone who might not guess the thoughts within the walls. Because if you don't know, perhaps they can't hurt you.
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