Katherine L. Hester
Martin has started dreaming of the Other Woman again. She visits him only rarely. The night before his wedding. The month after he graduated from college.
This woman is specific and particular, and in his dreams looks much as she did the last time he saw her: ten years older than him, efficient in the amount of time she’ll allot him, achingly married.
Her tongue is in his mouth. His first thought, coming even before the recognition that this tongue, conjured up, no longer seems quite human, is that she will be able to tell that he just smoked a cigarette.
Which she hates, or, twelve years ago, hated. It had been something she tolerated only because—well, even in a dream, he has no idea why she tolerated it. His smoking had been only one number in a long string of figures the two of them carefully tallied, a complicated accounting he no longer keeps track of when he is awake. He would smoke; she would be married. A photograph of the husband she was separated from would remain tacked to her refrigerator door; the sex would be good, so he would ignore it. She would not spend the night in his dorm room.
Awake, he has not put Bic lighter to cigarette since he graduated from college. Now I’ married, he says proudly to the woman in his dream.
The realization that his subconscious just convinced him to kiss a woman he hasn’t seen since his sophomore year of college is enough to wake him up. He lies in the dark next to Sheila, his calculations becoming sleepy, more familiar ones involving the spreadsheets he spends his days with at work. Beside him, Sheila is grinding her teeth.
He rolls over and reaches out a finger to trace the line of her jawbone. Lately, she has started sleeping as if sleep were something you could deposit in the bank and then withdraw when you need it. She applies herself to it, as if her body has explained to her that seven months from now, she’ll never again be allowed to sleep uninterrupted.
She has starting stockpiling the supplies that might be required to survive a long siege and suggests that he join her, but the future she’s planning for seems almost unimaginable in its magnitude.
She jerks her face away from his fingertips. The only supplies he can think of to store in her make-believe larder are childish. He always wanted to take a train across Europe and now understands he’ll probably never do so. In seven months, he’ll be too exhausted to fritter away time playing video games on his computer. He’ll never again spend an entire Saturday watching TV.
He eases himself out of the bed and walks down the hall to the spare room where she has started stacking the books and catalogs his mother and hers both send her, dog-eared to indicate mysterious equipments she ought to purchase.
He sits down at the desk in the corner. Back when he was in college, computer spell-check programs still occasionally turned the word Internet into the word interment. Even all these years later, the mouse under his right hand is like a spade turning over the earth in a particular plot of land he doesn’t visit often but likes to keep track of.
It can uncover the address of the woman in his dream. He’ll never get in touch with her; he just wants to figure out where she might be living. He’d probably even tell Sheila what he was doing if she were to walk into the room, although he hopes she doesn’t. He’s not some voyeur loitering at a door that was left ajar. He’s not even peeking.
Consider this: a city, a street, a house, a parlor. A parlor game to be played inside it that requires no more than willing hands that are slim-fingered, young, unworked.
Inside the parlor, the hands rest lightly against the surface of the questing planchette. Four sets of skirts settle into place, caressing the floor. Eight ladylike feet, tucked into embroidered slippers, are pointed like even smaller planchettes toward the carved flora that holds up the footed table.
The parlor is the heart of everything. Its floor, beneath the brightly woven red and golden turkey rug, is waxed, planed boards of heart pine. One slippered foot taps impatiently against the rug. Four pairs of eyes are cast down toward the tabletop or closed in concentration. The coal burning in the fireplace dreams of being plants within the confines of its metal grate. The gas jet on the wall hisses to itself, hungry for the dusty velvet cushions, for the panes of glass it knows just how to press against and shatter, for the rosy limbs of careless, unwise girls who should not be playing a parlor game like this, inside this ornate, paneled room.
The prettiest of the four girls takes a breath. “What—” She looks around the table. “What will be the future?” Her words come out in a rush.
“You can’t ask that!” The girl beside her tosses her head. She is sharp-nosed, the bluestocking of the bunch. “It’s just a game. It could never spell out all that.”
But the Ouija Board in front of them does what it has been asked to do. It converses with the house and reaches out to touch the hands of those, invisible, unseen, who long to be invited in. It calls to it the owners of brass buttons and shards of bone buried in the red clay dirt outside, who bitterly regret the things that, at the end, were lost to them.
Beneath their fingers, the little three-legged wooden platform trembles, shyly; slyly.
The prettiest girl’s eyes flick upward, her gaze moves around the table. The silence is voluptuous.
U-N-K-N-O-W-N, the planchette spells out.
Sheila says she can’t shake the feeling that off somewhere else there’s a course everyone has enrolled in but them. It’s a feeling at the same time both dissimilar from and kin to dreams she used to have for years after college: that at the beginning of the semester she signed up for a class she never remembered to attend until now—the day of the final.
And in this imaginary course, an important manual was handed out on the first day.
“What kind of manual?” Martin asks patiently, even though he can tell her three a.m. certainty has already become unshakeable. The two of them are proceeding without the proper instructions. “What kind of class?” His patience is new, was born the morning they stood in the bathroom together and watched their future emerge on a pregnancy test-strip. “Do you want me to turn on the light?”
“I don’t know,” she says in a low voice. “Maybe one that tells how you do this?”
He turns on the lamp on the nightstand and she blinks. Her face is creased on one side by the sheets. It occurs to him that sometimes he no longer sees her. She gets little more scrutiny than his own reflection in the bathroom mirror each morning.
He can never again be the person he was before—before he met Sheila. They started at a particular point, and it’s one they can’t travel back to. Every single thing that happens takes them farther from that original place—it may soon recede to a pinprick, a memory, something only to be seen from a distance. But the person he used to be, who didn’t know of her existence, as well as the next one, born of the fever pitch that locked them together, still seem to inhabit the space where he lives now.
Maybe this crazy manual she’s come up with, the one everybody else seems to have, would be able to explain how to keep what still has value sealed away from what should be sloughed off, how to ruthlessly throw out what’s no longer useful.
“Are you scared?” she asks.
“Everything’s going to change.”
“Things’ll change no matter what we do.” He reaches to turn off the light. “Can we go back to sleep now?”
Magnolia trees continue to throw their oiled green light against the sidewalk out front, but by now the house needs paint. Its shingles are making plans to slide from the roof onto the pavement. Vandals are making plans to carry off the curlicues of its front door lock. The gleaming hallway is making plans to be covered by linoleum tiles, dark gray. The pretty parlor has become a rented room.
Because by now a good address is no longer a place you can reach on foot or travel to by streetcar. The sons of the men who built this city have seen the way the wind blows, and they have moved on, to better-appointed rooms redolent of cigar smoke. The past is past, and they prefer their houses to be modern.
Inside the room that used to be the parlor, the old man slowly lowers himself to his knees. He runs his hands along the base of the right-hand column that holds up the mantel.
Outside, there is the sound of feet, running, along the dark tongue of the street. The old man tilts his head, listening. He resumes his inspection of wooden molding and base. He fumbles in one pocket, slips a pen knife’s blade into the seam between two panels and worries it gently.
Outside, there’s still the sound of feet, running.
The empty hollow revealed at the base of the column when he pulls away the square panel is just big enough for the pocket watch tugged from one vest pocket. For twelve Walking Liberty half-dollars, for the signet ring slipped from a finger. For the bullet that put out his eye during the Battle of Atlanta seventy years ago; the same bullet that just a week ago he miraculously coughed up.
He places them into the opening at the bottom of the column and with slow trembling fingers tamps the wooden molding back into place.
Because even a boarder in a rooming house needs a safe place to keep things.
Sitting cross-legged in the dunes of their unmade bed, licking jam from the side of her knife and laying it across her plate, Sheila lists places they have lived. The studio apartment she had when she met him. The first place they rented together. “Remember those pictures cut out of Playgirl magazines?” she asks. He’d been the one who discovered them, scotch-taped to the undersides of the cabinets hung on the wall in the bathroom.
The noisy duplex, he continues the list to himself. The apartment building where silverfish scattered whenever the lights were turned on. The place they could only tolerate for six months. Even this—a one-bedroom in a complex where the phone in the apartment downstairs rings incessantly; is, in fact, ringing right now.
“Maybe it’s just the idea of actually picking someplace to live that makes this so different,” Sheila says thoughtfully, looking down at the real estate section of the paper. “Wanting it, instead of taking it because it’s the only thing that happens to be at hand.” The rest of the paper is strewn across the bed, anchored by plates holding rinds of toast.
Their ritual has become an addiction. He checks listings at work, and not always just during lunchtime. She monitors prices, calls to tell him that the house they looked at that sold in September for eighty was listed again in November for one-forty-five. Every weekend, they walk neighborhoods and study the map.
“Here’s one,” she says now, looking up from the paper she thinks makes the whole enterprise seem more real. “Up and coming,” she reads.
He looks up from the Business section. The pads of her fingers are darkened with newsprint. “Bring your checkbook?” he asks.
“It doesn’t actually say that, but – yeah. It’s open 2:00 – 5:00.”
Most of Martin’s co-workers already have families and mortgages. They hand out advice. What is the desire he and Sheila feel but a genetic imperative? Why on earth drag their heels? Martin needs to get on the stick. The sky’s the limit.
“Call an agent!” insists Lynnia, in the next cubicle over.
He and Sheila have gone to Open Houses for over a year now. To houses where potpourri has been arranged in bowls on the advice of a real estate agent, and ones so ugly that statuettes of saints have probably been buried upside down in their front yards to effect a quick sale. To neighborhoods where the occasional shopping cart has been run into a tree and toppled onto its side, where idle walkers turn when he and Sheila pass in their shiny Hyundai, the expression on their faces no expression at all, but still indicating you do not belong here.
He looks over at her. Every Sunday afternoon when they pull up in front of a house, it might be their future blooming along with the azalea bushes in its front yard. Life is luscious and edible: so much is possible. Why make a decision that will change that?
There may be a disassembled motorcycle lying in the house’s front yard, but even now there are roses, rioting over the trellis fallen over onto its side.
But inside, in what’s left of the dark-paneled parlor, a renter has just put her baby to bed in an oak dresser drawer. The nail file she now holds in one hand scrapes through layers of paint with precision. Past grimy fingerprints, through white paint turned yellow; it gouges the bottom-most layer of light pink until the dark, stained heart of the wood underneath is revealed.
I was here.
It’s no less urgent a message than the one taped to the door of the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Use shower — NO! — Don’t work pipe bad.
Outside the house, the leaves of the hulking magnolia tree cup the light that spills from the bowl of the streetlamp. The dirty children who live in the house next door, who play ball in the street at midnight in their underpants, have gone wherever it is that they go when they’re finally sleeping.
And across the street, the last homeowner holdout on the block grasps the wide floral arms of a chair he wrestled through his front door and positioned on his porch. He raises his head to peer out at the darkness. There are bars on the windows behind him: each room is a small, compact oven, holding in the summer heat. He eyes the cast-off mattress that rests against the curb, spectacularly burned, and the house on the other side of the street, clad in asbestos siding. The pay phone that recently sprouted on its wide wrap-around porch requires dimes. The boarders who use it require a roof over their heads.
Every night, the quiet is broken by the sound of feet, running. The neighbor eases himself to his feet. He cocks his head, listening. He would leave if he could, but with an eyesore like that right across the street, who’d dream of buying his house? His mouth works thoughtfully as he looks at it. He spits toward the sidewalk. If someone were brave enough to set a match to that place, it would go up like tinder.
Sheila tilts her head toward the map spread out over her knees. Martin looks over, his hand on the gearshift. For now, she is still his slim co-conspirator, his partner in crime, with dyed-black hair falling in her face and a faded youthful-mistake of a Tinkerbell tattoo on one ankle. The directions she just gave him are so complex that they’re almost meaningless.
“It runs parallel with the street where there was that house with the living room walls painted to look like leather.”
“The one on the same block as the house that needed a new roof?”
“I don’t remember that one.”
The empty warehouse facing the street is scrawled with exhortations. MAY 1st: DOWNCASTS, OUTCASTS, REBELS, SLAVES RISE UP.
It’s sprayed on a wall above a car lacking its tires. Despite its smashed state, the car is still a recognizably Volvo-ish color, the wine-dark of blood clots. The buildings behind it look as fragile as stage sets. They seem to be visited only by Ghetto Booty and Beefy-T, who have left tags everywhere and could be anyone. On the side of one building, Beefy-T’s tag trails off into pastel incoherence. Martin pulls over to the curb.
“We could walk over here, if we bought in this neighborhood,” Sheila says, looking out the window.
“We could. But why on earth would we want to?”
“There’ll be a coffee shop here after a while. A couple of restaurants.”
Her optimism touches him. “Maybe.” He reaches for the map. “Left,” he says, looking down. “Then right. We’re close.”
What they’re doing strikes him as oddly like shopping. It is shopping, of course, but sometimes it seems like a particular kind of purchase, one he’s more used to. It’s almost as if the two of them are pushing a shopping cart together down broad, well-stocked aisles. They’re searching for particular brands promising certain things.
Sheila won’t ever find a shampoo that makes her hair as shiny as the hair of the TV models who tout it, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to stop hunting. The house they are looking for is just up the road. When they find it, it’ll be perfect.
“There’s a For Sale sign,” she says. “Up there. Do you see it?”
Once upon a time, watching her select shampoo was the most intimacy he could imagine.
In front of the vacant house, the broken streetlamp creates an extravagant absence of light. “Hang on,” a voice whispers under the trees. “Have you got it?”
The Husband pushes the wheelbarrow up the sidewalk. The Neighbor holds the flashlight. The Wife walks in front of them, her white sneakers a pale blur in the darkness.
The Husband pushes the wheelbarrow past houses that are no longer there, past granite steps that lead nowhere. The flashlight’s beam sketches out a foundation, veers upward. Broken glass panes reflect back momentary, dazzling starbursts. As The Neighbor trains the flashlight’s beam on the ground, The Husband lets the wheelbarrow drop with a clang and heads uneasily back to the curb. The Wife hugs her arms to her chest for a moment and then sets to work.
“You’re right,”The Husband says in a low voice, looking over his shoulder. “Who’ll be the wiser? A month from now this house probably won’t even be here.” The turned posts of the porch will rot slowly beneath the weight of all those roses. The ornate bathtubs inside will end up at the dump. The ornate oak mantels would be a prize—but getting to them would mean breaking a window.
But Belgian blocks once brought to Savannah as ballast in ships still line the drive. There for the taking. Perfect for lining their own flowerbeds.
There is also the sound of footsteps coming down the sidewalk toward them.
“You gonna pull this house down?” The words suddenly come out of the darkness. The wheelbarrow is already heaped high with bricks. “You gonna build it back up?”
The voice adds: “Twenty bucks and I’ll help, man.” The Husband relaxes; The Neighbor lowers his flashlight. The speaker is no one with authority, no one who cares.
The Wife takes a step forward.
“Salvage,” she says.
Take me, the house calls as soon as they climb out of the car and stand on the cracked sidewalk in front of it. Martin looks over at Sheila. Surely she hears it. But she’s just propping one foot against the broken carriage block at the curb. She stoops over to tie her shoelace.
I was built upon buttons and shards of bone, the house whispers to him. But in the summer these thorny vines will bear roses.
Vines creep over the lip of its porch. In a month or so, there might—or might not—be roses. The front yard is a tangle of brown stalks. Bushes have swallowed the chain-link fence that surrounds it. Sheila steps up onto the porch, stopping to shield her eyes and press her cheek against the dirty glass set into the front door.
“How does it look?” he asks.
“Empty. Come see.”
He follows her footprints along the wide boards of the porch, carpeted not with dust, but by pollen, a pale vegetable powder. It clings to his fingers when he stands beside her, wiping at the glass.
The hallway inside is a worn length of linoleum. Sheila turns away and walks down the steps. Standing out in the yard, she looks up, ticking off the number of chimneys on her fingers.
“Plus, there’s room for a garden,” she says neutrally.
“Plenty of room inside,” he agrees. “Though we can’t really see much.”
“We won’t be able to afford it.”
He reaches out to try the doorknob, to see if it turns. “We might.”
But she has wandered away. “Can you come here?” she calls from the side of the house. “I can’t quite see in.”
He jumps off the porch and goes to stand beside her. “If you climb up on my back, you’ll be able to see in, too,” he says as he stoops in front of the window.
Her scramble is ungraceful. He straightens until his head is level with the bottom pane of glass. Inside the empty room, an iron cover embossed with the figure of a woman — flowing Victorian hair, flowing Victorian garments—stops up the mouth of the fireplace.
Since she never existed, it’s stupid—how much he suddenly wants her.
“I can’t believe that’s still there,” Sheila whispers, her breath tickling his ear. The fireplace that faces them is a confection of carved wood and mottled tile, with a mirror above it that reflects back their own faces, as if they were already occupants of the house, as if it already possessed them. “Think how gorgeous it would be, if you took the time to strip all the woodwork on that mantel. I bet we could do that!”
He looks through the window at their reflection.
“It could be so beautiful,” his wife whispers. She shifts, her arms tight around him, the smell of her hair comforting and familiar.
The greed he feels is so strong it momentarily becomes something more; hunger or longing—who can tell?
The moment’s already slipping through their fingers.
Katherine L. Hester’s collection of short stories, Eggs for Young America, was awarded the inaugural Bakeless Prize by Francine Prose and named a New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction has appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Best American Mystery Stories, American Short Fiction, The Yale Review, Crazy Horse and elsewhere. She has been a Michener Fellow (at the University of Texas) and a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Hambidge Center, and Bread Loaf. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and two daughters.