by Claire Hopple
She waited for the other car to pull up.
Municipal workers had cut into the tree’s canopy to avoid branches hitting the power lines. But they cut so far into it that it now looked like the tree had a kind of bedhead.
They parked behind me and got out. An older couple with rankled expressions, pendulous body parts. I had chosen to forget their names for the day.
The husband was the kind of man who said “knock-knock” rather than simply knocking on the door. The wife was the kind of woman who looked at acquaintances and squinted, insisting she could dispense more accurate names than the ones given to them at birth. But then turn around and give her actual children the names of luxurious European cities that she’s never been to.
My breath was beyond help, extending past the minty mask of gum. I managed to exit my vehicle, greet them once again, lead them up the leafy sidewalk to the front door.
The woman rubbed at the murky panes of the double doors. They took off their shoes though I did not.
The dining room had a low-slung light fixture fit for a table. I hunched beneath it spouting numbers in the form of square footage, bedrooms, bathrooms, ratios, heights.
“I hear a plunk,” he said.
“Yes, a plunk. Water dripping somewhere. Any water damage? Mold problems?” he asked.
“Any mold is a mold problem,” she chimed in while staring at the spindly lines emanating from the ceiling corners.
“No, of course not.”
I continued my spiel in the hunched position, incredibly uncomfortable but not wanting to move in case they saw it as a shifting, a backing down of sorts.
He studied the electrical panel in the walk-in closet.
“We’d be ungrounded. We’d blow a fuse.”
The tinny panel door slammed shut and swung back, refusing to click into place.
Another no for them. Another no for this house. There’s always one of them: a problem house. Suppressing the urge to peel off the postage stamp-patterned wallpaper in the small study was as challenging as not pressing the buttons and levers in the jet bridge when boarding an airplane.
Sadie noticed her neighbor’s trash piled up in the hallway by her door.
“HOT DELICIOUS PIZZA” was stamped on the top and sides of the pizza box, as if they were trying to sell you on it after you bought it. Just in case you wanted to return it? Who would do something like that?
The pizza box and the rest of the garbage was teetering outside Nancy’s door. Her son was probably visiting. I didn’t know his real name. Nancy always called him Scout. He was over all the time but I really only knew three things about him:
- He had a metal plate in his head.
- He collected ficuses. Or is it ficii? I’m not sure.
- He drove a decommissioned school bus, one of the really short ones. Homemade, crocheted afghans were draped over each window.
Number three was the most important to me. Scout seemed so dull. He was average-looking and did something ordinary for work like accounting. But that school bus set him apart. I had to know why he owned it, what he did with it. What was in there, what was worth covering the windows for. I had to know.
Trash was spilling out of the bag and onto the floor. I went over to smush things down so everything could fit since it didn’t look like anything gross was inside, mostly paper towels covered in pizza grease. The door opened while I was mid-smush.
“Your mother said you were always finding new ways to be destructive,” said Nancy.
“Who doesn’t like being destructive?”
Scout was behind her holding her bag.
“Need anything at the Wal-Mart? Scout’s getting me stocked up. Lord knows I need to get out of this place for a few minutes.”
“I’m good, thank you. Have fun.”
Earlier that day, Sadie’s largest concern was that her underwear was hitched up too high and her pants sagged too low, and she wondered how she could resolve the discomfort without counteracting her efforts. Concerns don’t adhere to perspective. They fill the shapes of their containers. So this garment issue had seemed just as pressing to her as quitting the medical field earlier that year.
I really needed to stop this mental narration. It’s just that ever since Mom died I had this childish superstition that she perched above me with total omniscience. That she liked to narrate my life as she watched it unfold. How self-absorbed. What a backwards way to grieve.
I was back at the bad luck house. A jet’s contrails looked like the cast off strings of a banana. They made an X shape in the sky right over the house.
New construction homes were popping up all over the neighborhood. They appeared in such vivid colors and with such sharp lines that they looked like film props. You had to walk around the sides of them just to make sure they weren’t only fronts. A new one was going in right across the street and the old shotgun house was being torn down to make room. Papers from the torn-down house kept blowing into the yard of my bad luck house. They were mostly magazine ads and newspaper clippings from about 40 years ago. I was always in a hurry to tidy up this place and shoved the scraps in my pockets, finding them later, making them out to be messages from myself, to myself. Ascribing meaning to discarded objects is probably what I’m best at.
The “4” in the house number lineup was becoming unmoored from the plywood. I nailed it back in and threw the hammer in my backseat for a quick getaway.
It was very easy for her to disappear. To not come back at night. To dress up in New Year’s Eve attire and wander the halls of the resort only a few minutes away from her apartment. Pretend to be a guest and investigate the lives of others.
It was also very easy for me to close off the clinical side of my brain when I made the switch from doctor to real estate agent. People kept looking at me too expectantly. I didn’t know what was wrong with anyone, really. There were always lots of things wrong. There was always nothing wrong. People don’t look at real estate agents that way. They don’t assume that we’ll really be very honest with them at all.
I was filled with inconsistencies. I was convinced that adulthood could be described as a series of inconsistencies. A real estate agent who rented an apartment. It was a high rise filled with mostly old people and it gave me the relaxed sense of retirement I needed. One resident got up early every morning to swim in the complex pool. My apartment was up high enough to make her look like a toy frog seamlessly flowing through the water, never coming up for air. She couldn’t have looked that graceful up close.
I was worried a client would ask me where I lived and rehearsed what I would say. Something about a cozy bungalow in the next borough. But no one ever asked.
Maybe I’ll switch to a different career in a few years, though I like it fine. Not as much as I enjoy the flicker of consternation, the downward turning of one side of the mouth, that I receive when distant relatives who are lifers at the plant try to keep up with my work history.
When I returned, Scout’s bus was parked in the lot. No one was around so I snuck over to peek in the windows. There was a space between one of the blankets and the edge of the window, just enough to look through. Postal crates sat in every vinyl upholstered seat, filled to the brim with boxes of crackers. Some clear bags of crackers without their boxes, too.
I had so many questions. Was he part-owner in a cracker company? Did he give away the discards to various homeless shelters and orphanages in the tri-county area? Was I going to have to flirt with him to figure this whole thing out? Perhaps.
She was getting nervy about the house not selling. It felt like a rumbling clothes dryer in the caverns of her synapses, ever present and ever requiring attention.
The house did have a lot of character, as they say, which also meant a lot of issues. Nobody wanted to own a house with a spiral staircase. Everyone wanted to be a spiral staircase. Beautiful and a little dangerous.
I knew this anxiety was misdirected.
But still, I took a company pen from my bag and sauntered over to a large crack in the kitchen wall. Poor foundation probably. Definitely. I chipped at the crack with the pen until it devolved into a crater. A different type of crumb now littered the kitchen counters. This turned into multiple craters. The wallpaper was next. The paper and old glue lay crumpled in the corner after much tearing and toiling. I opened all the window treatments, swung wide the doors. This house was finally ready to be shown.
Claire Hopple is the author of TOO MUCH OF THE WRONG THING (Truth Serum Press, 2017). Her fiction has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Wohe, X-R-A-Y, Heavy Feather Review, and others. More at clairehopple.com.