The crack in the foundation was V-shaped and it looked quite a lot like a vampire fang. At least that’s how it looked to Reno the day he first inspected the basement. But that was two weeks and $250,000 ago and now the house was theirs. There was a good roof on top, a new furnace down below and absolutely no vampire teeth in the basement.
“Did the real estate lady say anything about having that crack fixed?” he asked his wife later. “The one in the cellar that looked like a vampire fang?”
His wife went on clawing through a massive box in search of the drinking glasses.
“Her name is Elizabeth. And the vampire fang never came up.”
And so Reno narrowed it down to a couple possibilities. The crack had been an oddly slanted shadow, after all. Or the two-story colonial possessed a capacity for self-repair.
Which was just a ludicrous idea that was gone a half second after it was born.
His first shower in the house was a solo one after an unsuccessful bid to convince Diane that the tub should be christened through an elaborate sexual act.
“Custom dictates it,” he suggested, standing before her in the kitchen, naked but for a towel draped over a shoulder. “It’s commonly known that showering alone in a new house can bring great misfortune upon a family.”
But Diane was sweaty and rummaging through another box, searching for cleaning supplies. She wore yellow dish gloves and repeatedly blew sweaty strands of hair from her face. She didn’t so much decline his offer as dismiss him outright with a flick of yellow, rubbery fingers.
He took his shower and by the end of it, was ankle deep in sudsy water. He slid his toes across the drain but there was nothing there to dislodge. He bent and tried jiggling the drain release but not a single bubble rose to the surface.
A moment later he was in the kitchen again, towel wrapped around his torso.
“Did you find the cleaning supplies? I need the drain cleaner because there’s one hell of a clog in the...”
She turned on him.
“What the hell do you think I’ve been doing for the past hour! I can’t find anything I need, Reno. Do you think I’m ripping all these boxes for good times?”
She was red faced and sweaty and Reno retreated back to the bathroom. Maybe there was a bottle of the goop under the sink. Some tenants left that kind of thing when they moved on, as an oversight or a courtesy.
But there was none. He cursed into the empty cupboard and considered approaching his irritable wife again. There was no need. Before he stepped out of the bathroom, there arose a guttural belching from beyond the shower curtain. Startled, he spun around and poked his head into the shower.
The tub was empty. There was no clot of hair at the drain or any trace of soapy residue on the porcelain around it. Far down in the guts of the house, he could hear the faint sound of water swirling into the dark oblivion of the pipe. Obedient, as tub water should be.
“Well, all right,” he said to the tub. “The big house is two-for-two in the self-maintenance department.”
The situation in the backyard was a little more bizarre.
He went out there on a morning that was cool but sunny. The grass was long and would need its first mow of spring. The woods around the wide backyard were thick and leaves were just budding on the trees.
When they had first come to look at the house, Reno had not seen an empty backyard, but a baseball diamond. It was perfectly laid out. Home plate (he would buy an actual five-sided plate at the sports store) would be lain on the end closest to the woods so that the trees would catch foul backs. That would leave batters (he had some old friends in mind and suspected he would recruit some neighbors) to face 300 feet of yard ahead of them. There was even a fence at the far end, great for dramatic plays at the warning track. Knock a ball over that fence and it would bounce onto a quiet road and into a grassy field on the other side. Running the bases in the event of a homerun would be mandatory, in accordance with the long-held rules of backyard baseball.
There was a deep hole where the pitcher’s mound would be and that was why he was out here today with a shovel and a wheelbarrow stuffed with bags of soil. He would fill the hole and shovel some extra dirt on there to create a genuine mound. He was nothing if not a baseball purist.
He anticipated a fight with Diane, who wanted a small garden somewhere, but first things first.
The hole was no longer there. Stranger still, whomever had dumped dirt here had left plenty behind and created a small hill where there had once been a crater.
Frowning, lifting the Kansas City Royals hat to scratch his head, he stood on that small hill and turned to the place where home plate would lie.
The alignment was perfect.
“If you build it...” he muttered, but never finished the sentence.
There was no way the oversized leather couch was going to fit into the second floor room Diane had claimed as her personal office. She had measured the doorway at 30 inches and the narrowest section of the sofa at 34. The sofa was long and bulky and no amount of cajoling would get it through.
“Are you sure you measured right?” Reno asked her, down on his haunches in that slim doorway and running his hands up the frame. “It looks like it will fit.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Numbers don’t lie, Reno. Jesus Christ, do you think I don’t know how to use a tape measure?”
“I was just saying.”
“It won’t fit!”
But it did. He insisted they try and they wrestled the sofa in with very little trouble at all.
It was the only piece of furniture in the room so far and Diane stood over it, frowning. She looked at the sofa, at the door and then back again. She ran downstairs and came back up with the tape measure. She took another look at the doorway and found that it was 30 inches across. She measured the couch again and could not find two points less than 34 inches apart.
“It’s impossible,” she mused. “We didn’t even spin it very much.”
Reno draped an arm across his wife’s shoulders.
“True,” he said. And then after a pause. “It’s like the house sucked in its gut just long enough for us to get the monster couch in here.”
His wife rolled her eyes again.
The doorbell at the front door facing the road didn’t work and Reno decided it should. A doorbell that elicits no sound, he reasoned, is about as useful as a male nipple.
He intended to take the doorbell apart not because he had any special skills with electrical components, but because he thought he might get lucky. Once in a while, a dumbass with no household skills at all could find a glaringly loose wire and make an easy repair. Easy or not, this kind of hapless fix would still entitle the dumbass in question to gloat. Reno was looking forward to it.
The business end of the doorbell was just a simple round button housed in a faux gold casing made to look like swirling ivy leaves. He figured he would remove the casing and take a look inside just in case a tiny obstruction was there to be plucked out. That was the course of least resistance. After that, an examination of the wires behind the button. Find one hanging loose and presto! An easy fix was at hand.
He pressed the tiny button and it squished in without resistance. He pressed it again and found no stickiness or hesitation at all. He pulled a screwdriver from a back pocket and went to work on four screws that held the casing in place.
So much for the easy fix. There really was nothing to the mechanism at all. There was one red wire behind the button and it seemed to be connected just fine. He pressed the button in to see what exactly happened in there when he did so.
What happened was nothing at all.
He pressed it again and squinted into the tiny aperture, hoping to see just one little part moving up and down, or perhaps a small spark. But there was nothing. He pressed again and nothing happened once more.
The door swung open and Diane appeared behind the screen.
“Okay, you fixed it,” she hissed. “I get it! Stop ringing the goddamn bell or I’m going to rip it out of the wall!”
Reno squinted at his wife.
She muttered something obscene and turned away, leaving the door open behind her. Peering inside, Reno pressed the doorbell once more. It went: ding, dong with the emphasis on the ding, just like a respectable doorbell should.
From deep inside the house: “One more time and I swear I’ll take a hammer to you both!”
Reno called it good.
Pleasing flukes, all of them. Things that were cracked, clogged or dug into the earth were mysteriously mended when he went to fix them. To Reno, it was nothing more than the same simple magic that inspires a stalled car to suddenly grind to life when the driver swears at it and pounds his fists upon the steering wheel. A little luck could be coaxed through sheer human will, he had always believed, and so he took it when he could.
Then things got weird.
As he had with the shower, he inaugurated the baseball field by himself. He did so by standing two feet in front of the brand new and gleaming white plate he had set in the proper spot. He tossed a brand new and gleaming white baseball into the air and took a swing at it with a spanking new Louisville Slugger.
A rather spectacular Little League shortstop 30 years ago, Reno pounded the ball on the very first swing. It was no dinky foul or squib just to the edge of the infield, either. The ball met the bat with a delicious crack and then it went up and out at a gorgeous upward slant. If this had been Fenway rather that 312 Jewell St., 36,000 fans would have jumped to their feet to watch this spectacular orb on its flight toward the stratosphere.
Only, this was Jewell Street instead of Fenway and the ball was hooking foul. Instead of heading toward the fence and the clouds above it, it veered off toward what would someday be the third base line.
“Aw, no...” was all that Reno managed. The ball disappeared from his view as it made its final approach toward the far end of the sun porch. There was the high sound of glass shattering followed by the smaller and almost giggling sound of shards raining down.
Reno brought the bat up and tapped his forehead with it. If this was 30 years ago, he would have run into the woods and later denied that he had ever played baseball here. Me? Baseball? No, sir or madam. I have no knowledge of the sport.
But this was 40-year-old Reno LeGee and he had to face the music.
He went inside, hoping to find a pair of gloves and a garbage bag and sneak out with them.
Diane was on him like a diving bird.
“Did I hear something breaking out back? You didn’t break a window, did you?”
He explained sheepishly, like that ten-year-old boy after all, and then went outside in a hail of admonishments.
He found the ball in the tall grass six feet from the sun porch. A curious thing, because he had expected that the ball had sailed into the house when it smashed through the window. He looked up at the long row of windows to see how bad the damage was. It occurred to him that it was an insipid thought: where glass is concerned, the size of the hole is not a factor. All holes are fatal for windows.
But not on the sun porch at the back of 312 Jewell St. All of the windows there were intact and gleaming with noon sun.
Frowning again, he walked the entire length of the house. He looked over the second floor and the first floor and found all glass there intact. He got down on his knees and looked for one of the small windows opening on the basement but there were none, broken or otherwise. He checked the area around the ball and found no evidence of glass.
But I heard it break. It sounded like giggling when it all came down.
He looked up at the house, tall and elegant. White paint, black trim. A stately house. He turned and examined the long yard behind him. A squirrel stood at the peak of the pitcher’s mound, staring back at him with unblinking black eyes. So perfect and serendipitous, that mound where a hole once existed. He thought of the impossibly widening doorway swallowing up the couch and of the vampire fang in the basement. He recalled the belching drain sucking down the greasy, hairy wad that clogged it. He shook his head, picked up the baseball and went inside, saved from a clumsy attempt to replace a window pane.
A Saturday afternoon in the living room after a long morning painting upstairs. In his earlier life, he might have slipped out for golf on a day as glorious as this. But that was back when he was still Reno the Advertising Man, scripting commercials for businesses with teeny budgets. Now he was Reno the Struggling but Optimistic Novelist Who Never Wanted a Real Job Again. His golf pals were still cold to him for leaving the agency and anyway, it was hard to justify the expense of the game when your last advance was less than $5,000.
Damn him for thinking such a thing. Thinking about finances always summonsed the greedy gods of Diane’s financial mind. He heard the exclamations of her heels on hard wood as she stomped into the living room. Her face was tight and she clutched a stack of mail in white knuckles.
“What the hell happened with the Visa bill?” she demanded, towering over him as he slumped on the soft leather couch.
“What do you mean, what happened with it? We spent money, they demanded payment, I sent them an offering. That’s been the ritual of the financial courtship from the start.”
She shook the torn envelope as though it were on fire.
“You sent them seventy five dollars. That’s barely enough to pay the late fees.”
He shrugged up at her. “But it will keep them happy for another month. I thought with the closing costs and all that, we could do just enough to get by for now.”
His wife looked at him as though he had confessed an appetite for the innards of small children.
“That’s your contribution to our financial situation? Do just enough to get by? Jesus, Reno. If you want to bail out of the work force and try to get by writing your little stories, you’re going to have to be smarter about money. Look at this...”
She was flipping through the mail, blowing hair from her eyes and getting increasingly agitated.
“This!” she said almost triumphantly when she found what she was looking for. She waved the envelope at him as though it didn’t look exactly like the last one.
“I give up,” he said. “What is it?”
“Parking tickets from the city. You didn’t pay them within 72 hours so they doubled the cost. We don’t need this kind of expense, Reno. We don’t. Every time the mailman comes I get a chill up my spine.”
He nodded at her like a child accepting blame for something he was told he did but didn’t actively remember doing. He was trying to peer around her legs as she stood scolding him. After a moment, she followed his gaze and considered the television.
“What are you watching? Did you find the box with the movies?”
“No,” he said. “It’s HBO. Flick about a physicist who tried to use string theory to bring his daughter back from the dead. Only the physicist dude got chewed to death and now a writer has moved into the house. Creepy as hell. I think the writer is about to go upstairs and open the closet and I’ll bet you anything that the little girl is in there and that she’s...”
Her head whipped back in his direction so quickly, he fancied he heard it slicing through the air like a whip.
“Did you order cable? I can’t believe you ordered cable after we agreed to...”
“I didn’t,” he said petulantly. “I thought you did.”
She looked back at the television, where the bold and colossally stupid writer was climbing dark stairs to the spooky turret room.
“If we don’t have cable, how the hell are you watching this movie?”
Good question, he thought, but didn’t say so.
Two mornings later, he was trying to ignore the increasingly bright sun to stay in bed a little longer, savoring a half sleeping dream that was quite nice.
Diane’s screams from the floor below ripped him out of the dream, out of the half sleep and out of the bed. This was not the I-Can’t-Believe-What-My-Stupid-Husband-Did-This-Time scream or even the Oh-God-It’s-A-Filthy-Red-Eyed-Mouse scream. The sound was higher than that. It rose with the hellish foreboding of a smoke alarm.
He was downstairs fifteen seconds later, bare feet squeaking across the kitchen tile. Diane stood at the open door looking out, hands clutched at her bosom.
“What is it?” he said, pulling one of those arms away. “Is it a mouse?”
A stupid question. He needed only to follow her gaze outside where the mailman lay in a twisted heap on the driveway. He was a portly man afraid of neither wind, nor sleet nor dark of night, but who apparently had a problem with stairs. He had come to rest on his considerable tummy, arms splayed out to his sides as though he died in the act of making a snow angel on pavement. The brown, scuffed mail bag, still strapped to one shoulder, had heaved its contents onto the driveway like paper vomit.
Reno didn’t ask if the mailman was dead. Though he had come to rest chest down in the driveway, the postman’s face was staring up at the sky. His head had twisted a full turn on his neck so that a pair of blank eyes stared up at the clouds.
Guess we won’t be getting any nasty bills for a day or two, Reno thought.
It was a disgusting notion and he was ashamed of himself for thinking it. He also found that the idea provoked in him a tiny chill he did not completely understand.
It took Diane a full week to recover from the shock of it. Mail service resumed the very day after the mailman (whose name, they learned, was Clyde Dingle and who was two weeks from retirement when he went to the great blue box in the sky) expired in their yard. She could not bear to retrieve the mail anymore so it became his responsibility to fetch it each morning. He did so without fuss. He figured his wife would recover from the trauma-induced aversion to postal matter in time and the brutal inspection of bills would resume.
“It’s just so freakish,” Diane said the morning she read mailman Dingle’s obituary at the breakfast table. “A 40-year career and he can’t manage four simple steps?”
Reno petted his wife’s hand. “Don’t torture yourself over it. It could have happened anywhere.”
“Yes, well it didn’t. It happened in our driveway. God, it seems like nothing has gone right since we moved in.”
Reno blinked several times at her. What she had said made no sense to him.
“Don’t dwell on it,” he repeated. “Just an unfortunate fluke.”
She snapped the paper shut and folded it hastily.
“Sure,” she said. “Try telling that to his widow. They were probably looking forward to his retirement.”
He petted her wrist once more.
“Mailmen never die,” he said. “They just lose their zip.”
She looked at him with open revulsion, mouth open in a goldfish O. She snatched her hand away from him and slid back in her chair.
“That’s a horrible thing to say. Jesus, what’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t know,” he said, genuinely repentant. “Shit just pops into my head.”
She stood and bounded out of the kitchen.
He had promised he would inspect the attic before they brought various things up there to be stored. By “inspect the attic,” he mostly meant he would climb up there, jump up and down on the beams and see if he fell through the ceiling.
To access the attic he had to tug a rope to release a pull down staircase above the second floor hall. It came down with a petulant groan and the dry aroma of a long stillness floated down with it. The opening above him was like the dark rectangle of a grave, up above rather than down below.
He climbed up like a boy to a tree house, flashlight tucked into one armpit. The attic was wide and empty. Long boards had been set between beams to accommodate walking. There was a bit of sunlight coming through a vent and he didn’t really need the flashlight to make a cursory inspection of the space. He switched it on anyway, wary of rotted boards or dangling spiders.
Instead, he got bats.
They swooped down with shrill, startled cries the moment the flashlight beam invaded the darkness. They came in the form of inky shadows in the corners of his eyes. They flew in crazy dips and rises, squeaking in that horror movie way all the while.
Reno squealed before he could stop himself. He brought his hands instinctively to his face, slammed the flashlight into the bridge of his nose and saw stars. At the same moment the first of those stars flared up like fireworks, he felt hot, slick flesh against his forehead as a low swooping bat flew into him.
He screamed and brought his arms up like a football referee signaling an extra point. The flashlight went sailing. The bats continued their Kamikaze dives, speaking in angry bat screams as they did. Another of them struck his ear and seemed to claw at it a moment. The feeling of moist bat feet penetrating him bordered on the terror of a delirium dream.
He cried out, swung his arms again and stepped back. His lead foot slipped off a board and into the shallow gully between beams. He felt his foot stomping down into darkness, tried to fling it back toward the solid certainty of one of those beams, lost his balance utterly, instead.
He went over backwards. His arms batted at the air but in the slow motion thinking of imminent doom, his mind had already determined that it would do no good at all. In the geography of short term memory, he knew that he had been standing just a few feet above that rectangular grave that opened on the floor below. He knew that he was falling directly into that rectangle and that it would be a long fall indeed. He would likely bust his spine when he crashed down into the hallway beneath him. He would lie there twitching like a fish flung onto the floor of a boat, dying in wretched spasms. Diane would find him there and the screaming would start again.
But it didn’t happen. Reno had resigned himself to this embarrassing fate when there rose from beneath him the sound of a rifle shot. A sharp explosion of wood on wood and then his fall was interrupted by a solid surface. A mighty “oomph!” heaved out of him.
It was a rough landing but not a fatal one. He was still in the attic and for a moment, the fact disoriented him. He twisted and sat up, grateful that all of his moving parts seemed to be in working order. He looked this way and that way and after a moment, recognized his position.
He had come to rest upon the top of the attic door and its folding ladder. It had somehow slammed up and closed beneath him even as he descended. In this moment of supreme relief and new appreciation for life and ambulation, he didn’t initially recognize the improbability of it. He got to his feet and stepped cautiously off the door.
He stepped carefully onto a board and his foot found something soft. It squished beneath his shoe before he could halt the step and he grimaced in the darkness. He stepped back, squinted at the spot vacated by his foot, and spied the dark, pulpy remains of a bat. It was one of several. When his eyes adjusted again, he saw that the attic was strewn with their tiny corpses. They had fallen onto the boards and into the spaces between beams. Not a single shadow darted through the air around him.
Light dawned. An idea born when he first beheld the smooth foundation in the basement suddenly achieved a growth spurt. Windows that repaired themselves, holes that filled themselves in, attic doors that swung closed just in the nick of time.
“You love me, don’t you,” he said to the dark skeleton of the house around him. “You take care of me because you love me.”
It was surely the result of an imagination cranked up by the near calamity of the fall. But for just a moment, he fancied he felt the entire frame of the colonial thrumming warmly around him, buzzing softly like the purr of a happy cat.
He had gone it alone in the shower and backyard but the bedroom was a different matter. Diane’s sexual appetite was always ferocious independent of her mood and this night’s love making would mark the seventh such romp in the new bed.
They were in the midst of it, thrashing under sheets in the dark, when the house began to tremble. Window panes rattled within their frames. Knick knacks and picture frames throughout the house clinked, clanked and fell to floors. In the kitchen, far beneath them and on the other side of the house, dishes tumbled from cupboards and shattered on linoleum.
Diane dug her nails into his back and for a moment, they lay together sweaty and still.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I thought it was you.”
They lay there panting as aftershocks rolled through the house, ripples of agitation within the walls.
“Get off me,” she said.
“What? Why? It’s over.”
She heaved him aside and rolled out from beneath him.
“An earthquake,” she said, padding naked across the room.
“In Maine? I don’t think so.”
There was no sign of carnage outside. No dogs barked in the distance to voice their displeasure over the tumult. Lights did not flick on in the windows up and down the street.
“Maybe a truck,” she said, staring out into the darkness.
“Maybe. Come back to bed.”
She did, but the fire of sexual hunger had died. They slept back-to-back in the double bed and the house was silent.
In the morning, he found her in the bathroom, staring bug-eyed into the steamy mirror, curling her lashes. Off to the grocery store and who wanted to look like a troll at a place like the A&P? He stepped up behind her and kissed her neck.
The fluorescent light over the mirror crackled and then popped. Blue, miniature lightning blazed. The light exploded and a debris field of fragments sprayed out on them. Diane screamed and covered her face, simultaneously trying to duck to safety. Her shoulder caught Reno in the chin and he went tumbling back toward the tub, arms out. Once again, the doomsayer voice in his head prognosticated a dire future as he fell. He might snap his back on the edge of the tub and come to rest half in, half out, and hinged in the middle. Probably bash his skull on the porcelain, too. Blood and bits of brain would wash neatly into the shower drain.
And then he landed in a way that was not only harmless, but quite comfortable. The shower curtain pulled taut and caught him like a hammock. For a moment, he even swayed back and forth a little as though he were perched between palm trees on a beach at Marina del Rey.
Diane was not so lucky. After crashing into her husband, she bounced into the open area of the bathroom, stumbled, and fell in such a way that her arms landed on either side of the toilet. The top of her head slammed into the tank with a dull gong and she was knocked unconscious. By the time Reno reached her, she was out cold with her head down on the toilet lid.
Two days and several painkillers later, Diane spent a long afternoon in the basement after the door became inexplicably locked behind her. She tried to escape to the yard above by squeezing through one of the small windows and for a moment, it seemed she would be liberated.
But then, with her hands on the grass outside, her boobs became lodged all at once as though the maw of the window had shrunk around her. She twisted and kicked and swore for a full five minutes before she managed to drop back down into the basement prison. The chair beneath her had somehow overturned and so the drop was a long one and she landed on her ass.
Reno returned from the sporting goods store (a bucket of baseballs, a batting glove and some pine tar) two hours later and found her battering on the other side of the basement door.
“Hi, honey,” he said. “Why did you lock the door on your way down?”
Screeching profanities, she chased him through the house until he escaped to the back yard.
The dryer jolted her like a snapping dog while she was retrieving a load from it. A long shower turned into a concentration camp horror when the water turned suddenly scalding. She took a spill down the stairs between the first and second floors when one of the steps seemed to go gushy beneath her foot.
A ceiling lamp shield escaped its moorings and fell improbably upon her head as she walked through the dining room. A window came crashing down onto her fingers as she was setting up boxes of plants at the front of the house. She fell tailbone first to the floor when a kitchen chair slid out from beneath her as she was sitting down. She banged her still-sore head into a grandfather clock when a footstool slid into her path and tripped her up.
She had splinters from every wood surface she touched and an eccentric pattern of bruises along her legs after an ugly incident with the ironing board. All of her fingernails were broken or chewed ragged and when they went out in public, strangers gave them the kind of fast glances reserved for suspected victims of spousal abuse. In just under two weeks, Diane made three trips to the emergency room and the staff there was growing wary as well.
After the garbage disposal began spitting chicken bones in the vicinity of her eyes, she called it quits.
“I swear this house is out to get me,” she announced. “I’m going to stay with Mona for a few days.”
Mona was her best friend back in the city and a true man hater. Mona’s was the place to go if you were fighting with your husband and wanted affirmation that he truly was a bad person. Reno suspected Mona was a lesbian who had the screaming thigh sweats for his wife.
“Don’t go,” he implored her. “We can take a trip and stay somewhere nice until your bad luck streak is over.”
“No,” she said, flinging clothes into a suitcase. “We can’t afford it. I just need to clear my mind and heal my body.”
He implored some more, even as she loaded her bags into the trunk of her car and drove away.
The first night alone was miserable. He missed the sound of her heels driving against the floor boards as she stomped from room to room. He missed the darkening of her eyes when it was time for sex whether he wanted it or not. He missed the feeling of another presence in the big house with its many rooms. He tried to fill his time writing in the little den on the second floor. The walls were decorated with baseball memorabilia which was appropriate since his new novel was supposed to be about the game.
But the writing was slow going. He discovered that writing about baseball in the distant future wasn’t as exciting as he’d anticipated. There simply wasn’t much to change about the game. Robotic umpires? Bats made of metals harvested from Venus? Pitchers with bionic arms?
He gave up in the late afternoon and walked down to the Ditmeyer house. He had met Arnold Ditmeyer only twice but Reno thought he might like the old dude. Arnold was a 68-year-old widower who built his own boat and who still ran in marathons.
They sat on the front porch and drank beer.
“Was my house built on an Indian burial ground?” he asked, summonsing the courage in his third can of Pabst. “Anything like that?”
Arnold Ditmeyer had wild gray hair like lightning bolts, a long gray mustache and bushy gray eyebrows. One of those brows greeted the question by rising like a caterpillar.
“My wife,” Reno explained. “Lots of mishaps. Lots and lots of them. Thought we might have a curse.”
Arnold Ditmeyer stroked his mustache thoughtfully.
“Is the house picking on you, too?”
“Nope. House likes me just fine. Does all my work for me and makes sure I don’t break my back.”
Arnold Ditmeyer stroked his mustache a bit longer and then went inside for more beer. When he came back out, he handed a can to Reno and sat down again.
“You know, the man who built that house of yours did it with his own hands. Took him about a year to get her done and then he died his very first night there.”
Reno tried to raise an eyebrow and then recalled that he did not have that ability. He raised them both, instead.
“Yup,” Arnold said. “Harold Bean. Retired railroad man. Nice fella. Got her built just the way he wanted it, slapped on some shingles and paint, and fetched his wife up from New Jersey. First time she seen it, you know. It was supposed to be their retirement home.
“But his wife – Gloria, I believe her name was – had a stick so far up her ass it turned her nose up, if you get my meaning. She despised the house, told Harold so, and suggested that if he loved the place so much, he could just live there on his own. She had suitors, that one. Richer men with bluer blood and she went to them. Just like that, after Harold Bean spent a year building their home, she bailed out and left him on his own. She went back to New Jersey, he moved into the house and hung himself that very night.”
Reno did not care for the story. He found it immeasurably sad for both Harold Bean and for the house itself.
“Uh huh,” said Arnold Ditmeyer, reading his thoughts. “If you’re the type who believes that buildings have souls, I guess you can understand why that place of yours ain’t so crazy about women.”
He went home buzzed and lonely, ambitious enough only to fiddle with the book he suspected he would never finish.
He climbed to the second floor, turned on the light in the den, sat down to the computer. He squinted at the words there, trying to recall where he had left off. He read a line he did not recognize, grew mildly excited over the jauntiness of that line, read another.
And then another. And then the next paragraph and the one after that. Not a single word of this crisp narrative did he recognize but he liked it quite a lot.
Cheaters! Corrupt ball players in the year 2086 with bold new ways to cheat at the game. It was brilliant. It transformed the narrative from a bland story that tried too hard into one that portended a new era of athletic ugliness. It was scientifically intriguing with a nicely developing plot and a rich mix of characters. It was tightly written and engrossing. He read for nearly an hour before realizing with an odd sort of tingle that it was near novel length already.
He sat back in the leather chair, rubbed the words and letters from his eyes, and glanced up at the ceiling.
“You did this?” he said. “You did this for me?”
No sound and no movement within the house answered him. He fancied he felt a nod of shy admission nonetheless.
Diane tried to come home after three months away.
She made it to the front of the house when the picture window facing the street blew out and sent dagger-shaped shards of glass whistling through the air at her. None struck her mortally, though one shard sheared through the sleeve of her blouse, leaving a clean tear through the fabric that looked like it might have been inflicted by a master swordsman.
That was plenty for Diane. She had come back reluctantly and this rude household greeting was more than enough to change her mind utterly. She got gone and stayed gone and never entered the house again. Reno had her stuff shipped to her new apartment in the city. Details of the divorce were handled at a lawyer’s office.
Despondent, he tried to set fire to the house in the middle of autumn. He splashed gasoline on the sun porch in the backyard, raked a pile of leaves up close to it, and dropped a match.
The leaves went up fast. Reno stood watching in near hypnosis as the flames gorged on the heap. He listened to the crackling and popping of the flames as they jumped higher and began licking at the house. He stepped back and watched, waiting for the yellow fire to crawl up the side of the colonial, devouring it.
But the house wouldn’t burn. He stared in wonder but not outright disappointment as the flames themselves seemed to melt as they made contact with the wooden shingles. The flames didn’t hiss or sizzle, they just disappeared, blazing ghosts that were there one moment, gone the next.
After several minutes, he produced the rake again and gathered the black ashes into a much smaller pile. He dumped the remainder of his beer on it, peed on it for good measure, and went inside.
That night, seventy new pages of fresh copy were waiting on his computer. All, apparently, was forgiven.
Spring again, two years later. Another glorious spring on Jewell Street, with birds chattering appropriately in trees and buds opening to the seventh straight day of sun after a long and rainy April.
There were white painted lines already on the ball field in back of the house. No matter how many neighbors stomped through here during drunken backyard ball games, those lines were invariably straight and vividly white.
“For a man who can’t pound a nail to save his life,” Arnold Ditmeyer remarked one day after a particularly vigorous nine innings, “you keep a damn fine house and one hell of a ball field.”
But there were no middle-aged baseball stars in the backyard today. The street was quiet as was the house. Reno pulled into the driveway in a gleaming new car, the top down, the stereo blasting. He climbed out of it almost reluctantly. He plucked mail from the box on the way inside and tossed it onto the kitchen table. There were no stresses in that heap. He was an extremely wealthy author and bills did not trouble him.
He flung his coat over the back of a chair, pulled a beer from the refrigerator and stood drinking it in the sunny kitchen. When the beer was half gone, he set the bottle on the table and shrugged at the walls around him.
“You were right, I was wrong,” he said, picking up the mail again. “Doctor said he’s never seen anything like it. A tumor that size just doesn’t go away, he said. You could just tell he wanted to use the word ‘miracle’ but couldn’t bring himself to do it.”
Reno laughed across the empty kitchen.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I should never doubt you. House knows best and all of that. I’m learning, I really am.”
Spring again many years later still.
The man and woman stood on Jewell Street. He wore a suit with the tie loosened just a smidge as a nod to the warmth of the season. She wore a white blouse and a clingy black skirt. Each of them carried a briefcase. A ten year old child would have been wise enough to see that they were from the government.
“What’s the story again?” the woman asked her older colleague. “Eccentric novelist refuses to bow before the county wrecking ball?”
The man nodded. “We don’t know that he’ll refuse to budge,” he said. “We just assume as much.”
They stood staring at the tidy house with its fresh paint and neatly mowed yard. The driveway looked as though it had just been resealed. The trees around the house had been recently trimmed. The roof looked new.
“How old is he?” the woman asked.
Her colleague sighed. “One hundred and twelve. At least that’s what it says in the country records. Lived here for seventy two years now.”
“A hundred and twelve! Something wrong with your records, I’d say.”
The man shrugged. “That’s what we have on him.”
She shook her head and rolled her eyes, a pretty woman with a terrific figure.
The man grinned. He switched his briefcase from one hand to another.
“Why don’t you try taking a run at him,” he said. “Guy like that might be swayed by a pretty lady in a skirt.”
She thought about it, found no reason to be humble, nodded agreeably.
“There’s something to be said about female charm,” she agreed.
The man looked up at the big house again. He imagined it would take less than an hour for a bulldozer to reduce it to rubble, one more obstacle cleared for the new airport. The smoother this worked out, the better for all.
“Have at it,” he said to her. “I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?”
© Copyright Mark LaFlamme.com. All Rights Reserved.