Chapter One, from Part One: September
"Remote," I said. I was at the window, the glass dirty with rain-spattered dust. Just outside the window the forest began, thick with pine and birch and oak and maple. The first trees began not five feet away.
The realtor, behind me, said, "Remote is what you and your husband asked for." She giggled, and I pictured her: gold sport coat, brown polyester skirt, black pumps. Her hands would be folded together in front of her, head cocked to one side, a smile across her face that would show as many teeth as possible. I pictured her in the empty room, the room, house, entire barn and parcel empty, she had told us, for fifteen years.
Still I didn't turn to her, but only looked out the window, the trees heavy with shadow now, the sun already down behind them.
"But not too remote," she went on. "Not too. Twenty-five minutes from Northampton. That's not that bad, considering what you'll be getting: this lovely place with twelve acres and that beautiful barn out there. It's just what the doctor ordered." She laughed again. I heard her step back, heard the soft click of her shoes across the linoleum.
Sounds came from upstairs, footsteps cracking across the floors up there, then slow steps on the stairs behind me. I turned to the sound.
Tom said, "The floors up there seem sturdy enough." He had one hand on the banister and was moving down at an angle, almost sideways. "These stairs'll take some getting used to, though."
He came to a small landing where another set led to the other upstairs room; below the landing were no banisters, and I watched as my husband took each step carefully, his hands out to either side to keep his balance.
The realtor had turned to Tom, too. "A good-morning staircase," she said, her hands clasped at her chest. "The original. The less space a staircase took up, the more living space there was. That shows what intelligent builders they were."
She turned to me, her smile just as I had imagined it would be: all teeth, cinnamon lipstick to match her outfit.
I said, "But remote, I guess, is what we want." I looked from the realtor to Tom. "I guess it's not that far out."
He shrugged, went to the fireplace, squatted to look up the chimney.
"And it's a Cape, a three-quarter Cape," she said. "Just what you wanted, and it needs plenty of work." She moved across the room to the staircase. "You know, we like to call these a Handyman's Dream. That's what we call them." She looked around the room, that smile still there.
I looked around then, too. Cheap plastic paneling had been nailed to the walls, pieces of it cracked and broken back at the corners to show pale, flowered wallpaper. The linoleum, light peach, was dull and worn, gouged down to the black resin where furniture had been scraped along the floor. Banister ribs were missing here and there on the upper half of the staircase.
"And it's a clean place," she said, now moving toward Tom still squatting, still peering up into the flue. "The owner has made sure of that. He's had somebody come up here three times a year since 1973 just to clean the place, clear leaves and what-have-you from the gutters, sweep the place out, clean the windows." She laughed again. "Stuff I probably only do once or twice a year in my own home, if I'm lucky." She stopped in the middle of the room, her hands still clasped, and looked out the window as if she had just seen the world outside. "And the country," she said, and went to the window. "This is the real thing. A Cape. Everyone wants one. There's a waiting list for good ones, not that this isn't a good one. It's just that this is a Handyman's Dream, and it's out here away from everything. And I've been working with you so long. It's just what you wanted."
She was right. It was what we wanted: a three-quarter Cape. There was this room, the largest; on the other side of the staircase was another, smaller room that would be Tom's office if we took the place; leading off that room and in the opposite corner of the house was a small, windowless pantry leading into the kitchen and dining area, which led back into this room. One room led into the next and the next, a circle of rooms, a chain.
Tom had smiled when the realtor had shown us the room that might be his. It was a smile I had not seen before, one that showed nothing beyond simple pleasure, I imagined, at his own room, with a fireplace and windows looking out into trees.
He said, "But why are they selling now? After that many years?"
The realtor was quiet a moment, still looking out the window. She looked down, her face hidden from us. Then she quickly turned, and here was the smile again. "I'm not sure, actually, but I can talk to someone back at the office. I'm sure it's not anything structural. That I can practically guarantee you. This place isn't going to fall down tomorrow."
"Tom," I said. "What's upstairs?"
The room was turning dark now, the brown paneling giving over to black, the worn floor soaking up, it seemed, any failing light that came in through western windows.
He stood up and opened his mouth, and in the premature twilight caused by trees outside and the walls around us, his face began to disappear. I saw his lips move, saw his eyes, his hair, but slowly, slowly I began to lose him.
"A big bedroom," he had said, "with a fireplace, And another room a little smaller. Your room, for whatever you want."
"Unfortunately," the realtor said, "I'm afraid it's getting a little dark now. I'm not sure I want any of us going up and down those stairs. Not now."
I said, "I want to take a look, though. To see what condition it's in."
"Claire," Tom said from somewhere across the room, "it's the same as down here. Needs plenty of work, but nothing we can't handle." He paused. "We can come back Saturday. Just you and me." He stopped, and I thought I could see his head turn, maybe the faint reflection in his glasses of whatever light made it into the room. He said, "If that's all right with you."
"Me?" the realtor said, and she, too, had begun to disappear, disintegrate. "That's fine, so long as I'm positive you're interested. Why, the three of us, we've been looking for the right place for you for so long I feel as if we're family." She laughed again, a hollow, tin laugh that quickly echoed through the empty house. Then the sound disappeared, and there were no voices here, none that would stay. Ours were only dead air in this house.
I woke up, cold. I glanced at the clock on the nightstand. Two twenty-seven.
The cold air had thrown me off, and for a moment I did not know where I was. I thought that perhaps we had already moved into the house, the three-quarter Cape, that there had been some long period of time I had missed between our having seen the place for the first time in that spreading darkness and now -- maybe months later -- waking up already settled in the old house.
I sat up and turned to Tom. He had the sheet and blanket pulled up to his chin. He was snoring lightly, then stopped and rolled away from me.
I closed my eyes, swallowed, turned to put my feet on the floor.
I knew where I was. In the apartment, where we had lived for eight years. I stood, the floor cold beneath me. I held myself against the cold, and went around the foot of the bed and out into the hall.
I turned on the hall light, shaded my eyes from the fixture above me, and looked at the thermostat. I turned on the heat, set the dial for 72, and turned off the light.
I thought of going back to bed, but I couldn't. For some reason I felt as if I didn't live here anymore, as if that weren't my bed in there, my dresser, my armoire, my closet full of clothes, and so I went into the kitchen.
The apartment was the second floor of a Victorian some 100 years old. One bedroom, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kitchen, I imagined, had been someone's master bedroom at one time, before houses here had been broken into apartments. It was a story a realtor had told us once when we had first begun looking for a house: how during the Depression people needed places to live, and homeowners needed money. Now most all the houses in this part of town had separate entrances for each floor, had stoves and sinks and toilets and tubs rigged up in what had otherwise been bedrooms. Our bathroom, in fact, was the same size as the bedroom, the toilet and clawfoot tub off to one side, the rest of the room only linoleum and paneling.
Realtors, I thought. I leaned against the counter, listened for the radiators to start up. Realtors had shown us homes for over a year now, Tom and I having started looking some nine months after my mother died, when finally the problems accompanying her death seemed almost over -- her house near being sold, the outstanding mortgage ready to be paid off. The cost of the burial itself took a large piece of that home with her, but we saw we would be getting some money, and knew, somehow, that buying a home would be best. By this time we knew we would not have children, or at least had effectively buried our hopes deep enough to where we no longer spoke of children. We needed to move away from town, to start our own lives away from here.
And so, though we thought we made ourselves clear, realtors showed us places that in no way resembled what we wanted and had asked to be shown. Realtors had brought us to ramshackle buildings with ell upon ell, roofs falling in, floors broken out, chimneys crumbling, the realtors always saying all these homes needed was a little TLC. Tom had worked his way through college as a carpenter, putting up barns, taking them down, refurbishing some homes here and there, but nothing as large and detailed as what we were shown. Or we were brought to immaculate homes far beyond what we could afford, homes that needed maybe only a paint job, some wallpaper.
We had been shown Saltboxes, Greek Revivals, log homes, even a tri-level ranch. But we had wanted a Cape. There was something both Tom and I had seen in the design that had satisfied us. We had talked about the shape, the size, and then decided it was the simplicity, the easy symmetry of the house that we liked so much: the central chimney, that heart from which all rooms emanated. Heat from the chimney gave each room enough warmth for sleep through winter nights; each room had its own window to let through spring breezes, fragrant air.
Our apartment had none of that simplicity. It was just a jumble of rooms never meant to house a family other than the one that had built both floors a century ago. The only door into and out of the apartment was in the back, at the far end of the kitchen. One had to go through the kitchen to get to the living room, through the bathroom to get to the bedroom, a chaos of rooms we had wandered through long enough, saving money, believing for eight years that we knew where we were going, but never really knowing. Only waiting.
And I thought then of my mother's house, the house that had been mine when I was growing up, and how it had remained what realtors liked to call a "single family unit," when it was only a house, one that had survived, somehow miraculously, being divided into apartments, and for a moment I wondered if she wouldn't have been less lonely, less turned in to herself if perhaps that old house had been split up, as though her dying as coldly and silently as she had might have been changed somehow by the layout of a house. Of our house, and I thought of how she had lived there for so long -- my father dead these twenty-one years, me, her only child, as good as dead to her, visiting her only twice a week, Sunday afternoons for cookies and coffee, Thursday nights for grocery shopping, our time together each visit more forced, more trying.
I swallowed, and I bowed my head and closed my eyes, and made myself think of something else, move somewhere else, away from my mother's house.
The radiators started up, first the slow whistle of air, then the building rattle of water through pipes for the first time since late April. It was September already, and the weather had finally broken: last night the temperature had been in the high seventies, the air so thick that even the sheet on the bed had felt like heavy wool.
I moved through the kitchen to the door, looked out the window. I still held myself.
The air out there was crystalline, and I could see everything: a tricycle in the yard two houses away, a plastic kiddie pool leaning against the garage of the house directly behind ours, other sets of stairs just like ours leading up the backs of other houses to other second-floor apartments. I looked at all these things, then saw something move in the next-door-neighbor's yard. It was a small movement, nothing measurable. I wasn't even sure I had seen anything, but still I looked at their yard, trying to find that movement, and I saw it again, a spark of light down near the foundation of the house.
I made out the neighbor's Christmas tree against the foundation, where it had been brought from inside last January, left there, forgotten. I had watched it over the months, seen it wither, turn brown, its needles fall. The light I had seen was from the few strands of tinsel someone had missed when taking down the decorations nine months ago, fight reflected from somewhere, perhaps the halfmoon overhead, as the pieces of silver moved in the small, cold wind outside.
I stood at the window, looked again at the kiddie pool, at the faint chrome arc of the tricycle's handlebars. I watched for the tentative light from the Christmas tree down there, and felt the emptiness again that finally made us want to leave the apartment.
I still watched the Christmas tree, and waited for some piece of light. We would take the place, I knew then. There was nothing more for us here. Only dead time, and the ghosts, perhaps, of children that never were, that would never be. Perhaps, too, the ghost of my mother.
I waited for the apartment to warm up before I would go back to bed, move in under covers, and again wait, this time for the light of morning.
Copyright © 1988 by Bret Lott